Buying a tent is a little like buying a home: You can spend sleepless nights worrying about, well, sleepless nights. Or, you can assuage your tent-buying angst by considering the most versatile variety of backpacking tent on the market — namely, the three-season type. Such tents are sturdy enough to shrug off all but a foot of snow or a minor hurricane; light enough to lug comfortably; and roomy enough for me, thou, and a couple of damp parkas.
You can’t go far wrong within the three-season category because tent-makers have the basics down so well. You’ll find strong, light poles; ventilation flexible enough to keep you comfortable from March to November; and spacious floor plans that don’t add a lot of extra weight. You’ll also find great bargains: For less than $200 you can buy a sturdy shelter that will serve you well. The ten tents I’ve reviewed start at $200 and top off at $435. Bigger price tags usually beget more interior space, durability, and features.
Narrowing the field
Calling a tent three-season means different things in different places: Appalachian Trail through-hikers will conjure one image; campers in the North Cascades, something else. When buying a three-season tent, consider carefully what conditions you’ll be camping in and how much room you’ll need, because the tents vary in size, ventilation, and sturdiness.
Check the climate controls. No one structure can be both bombproof and breezy, so make a choice based on your particular needs. A summer night in the Rockies can feel a lot like winter, so there you’ll need one of the more heavy-duty three-season tents, with zip-up panels over the mesh windows and a large vestibule for storing extra gear or for cooking in foul weather. Milder weather calls for abundant mesh in the tent body so you get some cooling breezes on warm, humid August nights.
How big should it be? Three-season tent designs make some assumptions — that you won’t, for instance, be dragging packs, boots, and other baggage inside, or holing up for long sessions during an expedition. They’re configured for people sleeping side-by-side and not much else. There are differences, though, so check the square footage, floor dimensions, and peak height before buying. Consider the slope of the walls, too: the steeper the angle, the more usable space inside the tent.
With the exception of single-wall designs, backpacking tents consist of three components: rain fly, canopy (the two are combined in single-wall tents), and poles.
Shelter your shelter. The rain fly is your tent’s foul-weather parka. Most flies are made of nylon taffeta with a polyurethane coating for waterproofness. Some come with tougher ripstop material, or polyester that helps resist the sun’s tent-eating ultraviolet rays.
Check the escape hatches. Beneath the fly, the nylon canopy lets warm, moist air escape rather than condense and drip on the inhabitants. Mesh doors and windows banish bugs and let fresh air flow through. Zip-out nylon panels are like storm shutters, but they also add weight and expense.
Attached to the canopy, the floor is typically made of rugged, waterproof material similar to that used for the fly. Just make sure it also has a heavy polyurethane coating to resist moisture and wear.
Two walls better than one? Condensation, more than leakage, is the eternal bugaboo with tents. Mesh helps, as does plenty of air space between canopy and fly. But what if there is no fly? A number of tents employ single-wall construction: one layer of fabric that either breathes, or wicks moisture to the outside. Such tents are billed as lighter (they’re definitely more expensive), but the weight savings is negligible for the size and style of tents reviewed here. As for condensation, in my experience single-wall tents bead up inside slightly more than double-wall types, particularly in cold weather or very still conditions. In warm weather, they usually lack mesh ventilation, and in cool weather you miss the insulating air space between the canopy and fly. Still, many campers love their elegant spareness.
Poles: Go with aluminum. Because aluminum alloy poles are strong, light, and non-corrosive, I consider only tents that use them. Premium tents have poles made with Easton 7075 T9. Strength aside, the Easton poles also have a better finish, which lets them fit together more smoothly. The more poles, the stronger (and heavier) the tent.
Fit and finish
Easy setup is among the beauties of three-season tents compared with their more elaborate, multi-pole, expedition-style brethren. You won’t need an engineering degree to pop up any of these models, but still, some designs are more complicated than others.
Fewer poles means easier setup. Many three-season tents use only two or three poles, yet they’ll keep a tent steady in all but strong gusts. All of the tents in our lineup use either plastic clips, fabric sleeves, or a combination of the two for attaching the poles. Clips are easier and faster and create better ventilation between the tent body and fly, while pole sleeves are slightly sturdier.
Remember the anteroom. Almost all the tents reviewed here have a vestibule — a small, sheltered area outside the canopy door created by an extension of the fly. A vestibule should be large enough to cover your backpacks; seven or eight square feet usually will do. Two vestibules are even better: one for packs, another for boots and ingress. Pole-supported, or hooped, vestibules are roomier and more stable than the staked-out variety, though they add weight and cost. You’ll have door options, too: Dual side doors provide easy access and extra ventilation, but the zippers add weight. One end door is best for easy access and low weight.
Look for built-in interior pockets to hold flashlights and other small items. Gear hammocks, which suspend from the walls or the ceiling, offer alternate storage, though at the expense of headroom. If a tent’s fly attaches to the canopy with nylon buckles, it’s an easier setup than the old hook or grommet systems. For harsh conditions, a tent with sturdy guy-out points sewn to the fly lets you secure it further with guy lines and stakes. Nice touches to look for polewise: plastic balls on pole tips that help them slide snag-free through sleeves, and color-coding or uniform pole-sizing so you never have to ponder which pole goes where. Now pile in with a partner — there in the shop — and check out some tents. When you’ve found the right home away from home, you’ll thank your lucky stars you won’t have to go into escrow for this one.
|Budget at least $200 for a three-season tent; additional money buys more rugged construction and features like a roomy vestibule, premium poles, and extra floor space.Consider the climate: you need sturdy shelter to stand up to storms, lots of mesh for sultry summer camping.
Don’t base your choice on weight alone. More important are how easily it sets up (try it in the store) and suits your needs.
What to look for
- Canopies that hang by plastic clips are quickest to pitch; sleeve construction is strong, but look for ball-tipped poles for threading ease.
- Mesh windows and doors let fresh air in and prevent sweaty-tent syndrome. Zip-up panels let you seal them like storm windows.
- Check inside for the little touches, such as a gear loft and pockets for small-item storage.
- The sturdiest poles are made of Easton 7075 T9 aluminum. Three- or four-pole setups fare best in the wind, but weigh more.
- A rain fly is your tent’s shield against UV rays as well as raindrops. It also lets the canopy breathe, to prevent condensation.
- Guy-out points on the fly let you really cinch it down against a driving wind or rain.
- Don’t give rain any kind of break; make sure the fly extends nearly to the ground.
- A roomy vestibule is a wet-weather kitchen and gives you a place to stash things you don’t want inside — such as wet boots and hairy dogs.
Your tent, fortunately, needs nothing like the maintenance your real home requires, but pamper it a bit before and after your camping trips, and your nylon home will return the favor. Here’s a quick guide to tent upkeep.
Put it away clean. A tent that’s dirty and damp is a mildew factory; store it that way and it’ll smell worse than a locker room and lose its water-shedding coating. After your trip, wash out the tent with warm water and a little mild soap. Hang it to dry and store in a cool, dry place.
Keep the zippers zippy. Zippers should be kept free of debris, so don’t use spray lubricants or any kind of oil to ease the zipping action — they’ll trap dirt and may weaken the surrounding material. If the zipper sticks or jams frequently, try smoothing the action with lip balm, bar soap, or candle wax.
Think SPF 30. The sun’s UV rays can cause your canopy to deteriorate, and like its effect on your own skin, the damage is cumulative. It isn’t practical to take your tent down every day on a weeklong camping trip, so leave the fly on: It’s designed to take ultraviolet abuse. And whenever possible, pick a shaded campsite.
Poles need your support. Avoid putting your poles together with a snap of the shock cord — it could bend the tips. Also take care not to scratch the anodized coatings, since that promotes corrosion. Lightly lubricate the pole joints to minimize wear, and break poles down from the middle to reduce strain on the cords.
Protect the floor. Let a ground cover, not your tent floor, suffer from abrasion. You can make one for next to nothing. Buy a roll of clear polyethylene sheeting at the hardware store and trim it until it’s slightly smaller than the footprint of your tent. If you make it too big, it’ll catch rain — and the outdoors is no place for a water bed.