It is a time-honored tradition for American families to at some point pile into a car and drive to some great expanse of nature for a summer camping vacation. And despite your children’s pleas to go someplace “cool” (like an island resort or Disney World), it's ultimately an enriching family experience.
So, if the numerous films in which hilarious / calamitous / horrific things happen while camping (see: The Great Outdoors, Friday the 13th, The Parent Trap) haven’t scared you away from the activity, then you’re probably prepared to make the financial leap into purchasing the essential tent. Here are some pointers that can aid you in making the right purchase:
Anticipate your Use
Most family tents are rated as 3-season, meaning they aren’t appropriate for winter camping (a cold, dark activity anyway, which your children would probably loathe enduring). Most 3-season tents, like the REI Hobitat 6-Person Tent ($230 with free shipping, $69 off), are made with lighter materials perfect for dealing with heat and some rain.
These tents are made for car camping, not backpacking, so weight is irrelevant to some degree. What you should look out for, however, is the size when packed: You only have so much storage in your car, so make sure you have room for the tent.
Anticipate the conditions you will face. Two enemies of tent camping are wind and rain, and if you plan to camp where these are frequent visitors you would be well advised to look to higher quality (i.e., more expensive) tents to safeguard your vacation. Most people, however, choose to camp where winds are light and rain are infrequent, so no need then to break the bank on a model that runs up a bill with high-end features.
You should also anticipate your family dynamics. Does Dad snore loud enough to wake the dead? Will the teens fidget and keep the rest of the family awake? If you can’t image all of them coexisting peacefully under one roof, you might want to buy two or three smaller tents instead.
Most family tents claim to hold a certain number of campers; a six-person tent, for example, is not unusual. However, these ratings are often unrealistically tight. A tent like the Northwest Territory Chippewa Family 8-Person Dome Tent (listed at $75 last week, since expired) is 180 square feet, or 22.5 square feet per person. One sleeping bag and air mattress alone will take up at least 12 square feet, allowing little room for personal possessions. With a more reasonable 30-square feet per person, this tent would hold six people comfortably.
Also, beware of odd-shaped tents that may have a lot of floor area but little that would allow people to stretch out on their sleeping bags to full length.
Consider the Style of Tent
Family tents come in a couple of basic shapes; the cabin style, exemplified by the Wenzel Kodiak 9-Person Tent ($132 with free shipping, a low by $50), has nearly vertical walls that will afford you the maximum headroom. The dome style, found on the aforementioned REI Hobitat tent, has less headroom but will shed wind better. If you anticipate foul weather, a dome might be the preferred choice. If you don’t, the cabin style will give you more room to maneuver — a feature that can be invaluable when it comes to camping in large groups.
Consider the Materials
Nylon is a good choice for the sides of the tent, as it breathes and allows moisture (exhaled by its inhabitants) to dissipate. (The REI tent above features nylon walls, for example.) And the heavier the nylon, the greater its durability. For the rain fly (a separate piece of fabric that goes over the tent and holds off the rain), polyester is the best option. A fly that covers the whole tent will repel rain better than one that merely covers the roof. This High Sierra Mesa Family Dome Tent ($150 with shipping, $30 off), for example, features a fly that covers the tent’s windows, while this ALPS style doesn't.
For poles, aluminum is stronger and more durable than fiberglass. Taped floor seams are stronger than those simply sewn together. A bathtub design, where the floor wraps up onto the wall for a few inches, is more water resistant than one where the seams between wall and floor meet at ground-level.
Check out the zippers, too; brand name ones such as YKK will work better and last longer.
Consider the Tent Design
There are several design features that can make your experience better. More than one door is good for traffic flow, and large screened windows will better ventilate the tent. An awning or vestibule — like the one on thisOutbound Explorer 6 Tent ($217 with free shipping, a low by $69) — will give you a place to wipe your feet and shake off the rain before entering. Interior pockets, lockers, and shelves help with storage, and some family tents even come with an interior fabric wall to separate the tent into rooms, a nice feature for modesty.
Consider Ease of Construction
With tents of this size, it usually takes at least two people working together, not in opposition, to successful erect. But how many arguments have been instigated by the confusion and frustration surrounding tent instructions? Ease of construction is thus an important factor to consider.
Some tents are designed so that the poles are held in sleeves. On others, the tent clips to the pole skeleton. The sleeve design makes for a stronger tent, but the clip design is easier to assemble. Either way, don’t wait until vacation to put the tent up for the first time. Erect it in your yard beforehand, when the weather is dry and calm — and so are you.
While your tent is up in your yard, this would be a good time to apply seam sealer, which serves as a second line of defense against leaks. This is a step that, taken annually, will prolong the life of your tent, and this Coleman Seam Sealer ($5 with free shipping, a low by $4) should do the trick.
Consider what’s included. You’ll need good stakes to hold the tent firm in a strong wind; the larger the tent, the more surface area there is for the wind to grasp. You’ll also need a ground cloth — a piece of plastic that will cover the entire bottom of your tent, like these Cabela’s brand floor savers — to keep ground moisture from percolating up into the interior.
A good tent can also serve as a guest room, a hangout for your kids in the summer in the backyard, and a fun place for an impromptu sleep-out. Choose the right tent and your family can have a ball this summer.
Photo credit: Ex_Magician Flickr