Tents Buying Guide

Tips on Choosing the Best Camping Tent for Your Needs

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Looks like you're almost ready for an amazing camping trip. But what about your tent? Are you supposed to use a dome tent, a cabin tent or a screen house? How much does the style of camping tent you choose really matter, and what are all the other factors you should consider?

Learn how to choose the best tent for your family's next excursion from the camping enthusiasts here at Academy Sports + Outdoors. Our tent guide covers everything you need to know about tents – from the different sizes and shapes to the extra features and accessories that can help make every trip epic.

Your Home Away From Home: How to Choose Your Tent

making coffee while camping

A night in the backyard is usually miles away (literally and figuratively) from a week in the woods. While any old camping tent can keep the rain from seeping into your sleeping bag and sending your family up the proverbial creek, your next big outdoor adventure calls for more than just shelter from rain and protection from pests. You need a comfortable haven where you can rest, recharge and enjoy yourself – and you have to get it right.

Things to Consider Before Buying a Camping Tent

Camping is a blast … until it's not. The tent you choose can make or break your trip, and picking the right one includes figuring out the ideal shape and size for your needs, as well as zeroing in on your camping style.

Are you backpacking? Driving in and camping? How you'll pack and haul your tent to your destination can – and should – impact your decision, because your gear will take up a finite amount of space and weight (and that’s usually non-negotiable).

The Shape of a Great Camping Trip: Dome Tents vs. Cabin Tents

dome tents vs cabin tents

Dome Tents

Generally more aerodynamic, dome tents are the perfect place to hunker down if you're liable to encounter windy conditions. There's a trade-off, though: the walls on a dome tent are sloped, which cuts into your living and sleeping space. Consider a quality dome tent from popular brands including Magellan Outdoors, Columbia and more.

Cabin Tents

Cabin tents have almost-vertical walls that lend a little extra space for interior square footage. Some cabin tents have room dividers, awnings and "mud rooms," too, as well as higher peak ceilings than you'll find in most dome tents. Cabin tents by Magellan Outdoors, Slumberjack and Coleman offer high-capacity comfort in a variety of configurations.

What You Need to Know About Tent Sizes

tent sizes

Tents are typically measured in two ways: dome height and floor length.

Dome height is important if you're going to change clothes frequently (nobody wants to battle a wet swimsuit while hunched beneath a low ceiling), or if you plan to socialize inside the tent instead of in a separate screen house or under a pop-up canopy.

For some campers, floor length is far more important than dome height. Your tent's floor length provides prime bedtime real estate, plus plenty of space to put down bags and other gear. Also consider the slope of the tent's walls at your head and feet, which can vary quite a bit between dome tents and cabin tents.

Sleeping Capacity

Sleeping capacity matters when you're camping with a fixed number of people, but manufacturers generally consider backpackers when they're figuring out how many people can fit into a tent. Backpackers tend to keep most of their gear outside the tent – families usually don't (unless you're a family of backpackers, of course)!

PRO TIP: To determine whether your whole family can comfortably move and sleep inside a tent, we recommend subtracting two people from the rated sleeping capacity. For example, you should put a family of four in a six-person tent or a family of six in an eight-person tent. (You’ll want about 17.5 square feet of space for each child and at least 25 square feet for each adult.)

Check out our Sleeping Gear Guide for more ideas on how to create the perfect sleeping setup for your camping trip.

Height Matters

If you want a tent full of happy campers, you'll need to account for everybody's height, whether they're horizontal or vertical. People over 6-feet tall are generally more comfortable in a tent with a floor length of 90 inches – and so is everyone else, because that means nobody has to sleep diagonally across the tent floor.

Choosing a Tent That Matches Your Camping Style

camping style

Are you a rugged, off-the-grid adventurer who doesn't mind staking your claim (or your tent) to your own corner of the woods? Do you prefer glamping in a posh pop-up tent near the beach? You'll want a tent that matches your camping style, so consider:

1- Setup level

The majority of family-style tents are freestanding and don't require stakes during setup, but they may have varying sizes of tent poles that you'll have to sort and connect. Bear in mind that aluminum poles are generally tougher than fiberglass poles are, and some tents have sewn-in pole sleeves for extra stability, which you'll have to learn how to navigate in order to earn your "Expert Tent Assembler" badge.

2- Materials

If you camp on uneven, wet or rocky terrain, the floor of your tent will take a beating. For these environments, look for high-denier fabrics that have seam tape along the floors, and think about adding a footprint for extra protection.

3- Ventilation

Some tents are built to withstand serious winds and heaps of snow, but those are not the tents you're looking for if you're a summer camper. For warm weather excursions, choose a tent that has adequate ventilation and won't trap heat so you can sleep comfortably. Keep in mind, however, that some areas cool off significantly when the sun goes down, even in the summer, so choose your level of insulation needs accordingly.

Three-season tents tend to be the lightest weight, have less insulation, and include more mesh pockets for improved ventilation. Tents labelled 3-4 season increase the amount of cold you can take to accommodate early spring and late fall trips, while 4-season tents provide the maximum amount of protection from exposed, windy and wet or freezing conditions.

PRO TIP: Tents that come with two doors – one in the front and one in the back – can offer better air circulation and ventilation. More access points can also help prevent stumbling over people and disrupting everyone's sleep should you or someone in your party have to leave the tent in the middle of the night.

4- Built-in conveniences

Interior lantern loops and ceilings that provide space for gear lofts that can stash your tent accessories can be incredibly convenient for families who want easy access to all their supplies. Some tents are outfitted with built-in interior pockets, which are great for saving space and keeping bug spray, solar phone chargers and other essentials off the floor, too.

PRO TIP: Interior loops are different from guy out loops, which attach to special guy lines that are staked tightly away from your tent to stop noisy, flapping fabric from keeping you awake when it's windy outside.

You Want Me to Lug This Tent Where?

Big tents are usually heavy tents, and that means you need to consider your mode of transportation to the campground when you're picking the perfect outdoor accommodations. Here’s a rundown of the different kinds of tents that are best-suited for specific purposes:

Tents for Backpacking

Lightweight, nylon fabric is the way to go if you're the type of camper who tosses your essentials in a bag and takes off into the mountains for a few days or weeks. Fiberglass poles are light, though generally not as sturdy as aluminum, so you'll have to balance your ability to carry your load comfortably against your eventual campground's environment to choose the right shelter.

Tents for Drive-in Campsites

Setting up a heavy-duty tent is easier when you didn't have to carry it on your back, so buying a large, spacious tent makes more sense if you'll be driving to your campsite in the great outdoors. Depending on how you plan it, driving can also speed arrival and afford you more time to establish camp on your first day. That means you'll have more room in your schedule to set up a more complicated – but ultimately more comfortable – tent.

Have Truck, Will Travel

You can camp wherever your pickup will take you if you're the proud owner of a truck tent. It's one of the newest iterations of simple, rugged camping gear, designed for setup in the bed of your truck. These handy designs come in various sizes, and they're measured and rated the same way traditional camping tents are. Explore all the truck tents from Rightline Gear and Napier Outdoors to find variations that are compatible with SUVs, minivans, crossovers and wagons, too.

Kids' Tents

If your little adventurer has a series of campouts planned, you might prefer looking for a kids' tent that's designed to combine lightweight comfort, durability and easy assembly all in one neat, little package. Children's tents are typically built to house one or two small explorers comfortably so they can feel secure and independent, whether they're camped out in the backyard, asleep right next door to mom and dad's tent in the woods, or off on an adventure by themselves with a school club or community organization.

Find kids' tents from trusted brands like Magellan Outdoors and Discovery Adventures that offer many of the same great features our adult tents have, or kick the fun-factor up a notch with designs that feature your little ones’ favorite movie characters and superheroes.

Life Outside the Tent: Screen Houses and Pop-Up Canopies

A family campsite won't feel complete if there's no shady spot to relax outside your tent, truck, RV or trailer. This is where screen houses and pop-up canopies come into play.

Screen Houses

You can use a zip-up screen house to create a sheltered, bug-free zone at your campsite that the entire expedition can enjoy. They're great for protecting your food supply from pests and keeping your other gear bug-free, too, leaving you with more sleeping room inside the tent.

Many screen houses feature clip-on awnings and ground covers so you can set up a comfortable, shady spot anywhere, even if you're miles from civilization. These add-ons are typically designed for easy setup and tear-down, and most are portable enough to take on family camping trips. Step into a roomy screen house from Magellan Outdoors, Coleman or Wenzel, and you'll wonder how your family ever camped without one.

Pop-Up Canopies

Pop-up canopies offer less protection from the elements and pests than screen houses do, but there's a great trade-off: They're even easier to set up and take down, and they're generally more portable. Ideal for sunny days on the beach or quick escapes from a surprise rain shower, a pop-up canopy may be all you need to enjoy some extra comfort outside of your camper or tent.

Check out our large variety of pop-up canopies in different sizes to find the right one for your campsite. Try a spacious, 10-by-20 foot canopy to create a complete longue and dining area, or choose a smaller version to comfortably shade a few people, your food and any heat-sensitive items you have with you. Simply choose your size and preferred color, and then pop up your canopy and enjoy the shade!

PRO TIP: To create a shadier space in your tent, place a pop-up canopy over it. This expert-level camping hack requires a canopy with dimensions large enough that they won't cut into your tent's walls or ceiling.

Tent Accessories to Consider

You’ve picked out the perfect tent, and you're almost ready to go – but the last thing you want is to get out into the middle of nature, only to lose or break a critical piece of equipment or rip open that brand-new tent with a wayward swing of your pocket knife.

Before you pack things up, grab a few essential tent accessories for good measure, such as spare stakes, poles and patches. If there's a chance of rain, consider pre-treating your tent with spray-on water repellent to help ensure that you, your family and your gear stay dry all trip long.

Our Top Tent Tips to Keep in Mind

  • Tent style matters. Choose the style of tent that's going to let everyone in your party sleep, socialize and relax comfortably.
  • Family campers have different needs than backpackers, especially when it comes to tent size – so choose wisely.
  • Keep the season in mind. The level of insulation you need will vary based on where you're camping and what the weather will be like.
  • Create a shady spot outside of your tent. Screen houses and pop-up canopies can enhance your entire trip by providing pest protection, shade, storage and socializing space beyond the tent. That way, your tent can stay free and clear for sleeping.

Choosing the right tent can help turn an ordinary camping trip into an unforgettable experience. Besides your destination and the right pair of hiking boots this is one thing you definitely have to get right before you even back out of the driveway. With just a little planning and the right gear, you'll be able to create the perfect home away from home wherever your next camping adventure takes you.

Shop our full range of tents and tent accessories to find the right fit for your family.

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