Choosing a Tent

The funniest thing for us gearacholics: is brainstorming criteria we seek in selecting gears. Recently I have been engaged in an online discussion with a group of veteran backpackers with combined experience well north of 100 years, maybe 200. It was so fascinating learning how everyone is different (it not new to me but bear with me here) when it comes to needs. I used to think tents were universal. What I mean is that I thought you would select your tent base on statistic involving its weight, price, and size. (Not in any particular order.) Of course the company’s reputation played into the decision making.

The criteria has now evolved. With more companies making a wide range of tents loaded with features that cannot be accounted for with numbers, the decision making has became more in-depth and personal. My criteria does start out with numbers.  My next non-mountaineering tent will not weigh over two pounds. The next step is to look at the price and see if it friendly for my budget. Once I have found several tents in the weight and price range that I can live with, I start comparing its size using square footage, vestibule size, and height as the primary data. Here where the complication comes into play, or you could call it insanity: all the data in the world can be irrelevant if you do not account for your primary backpacking locations and tent features you can live with or without. I think locations and the seasons you do most of your backpacking can be self-explanatory for the most part. I will focus on features in this post rather than climate and location.

Ventilation is every veteran backpackers first observation. Certain tents cannot breath very well. You could have two tents that meet your weight, price, and size requirements, but one of them does not vent as well as the other. If you live somewhere in the south or on the east coast where humidity is rough you’re going have major condensation problem if your tent vent poorly. Single wall tents are notorious for condensation, and winter months can be just as bad or worse in regard to condensation. I’m currently using a Big Agnes Seedhouse and I have more condensation problem in the winter than summer months. My condensation is very minimal in the Seedhouse in the winter; this is not big enough of an issue to completely change tent for winter use. You could be very hot in the summer months if the tent doesn’t have ways to allow fresh air to flow through.

A popular feature I have found among veterans is the door. This may seem odd, but a door can make or break a tent. My Seedhouse has a door that you would call an end entry. When I backpack in the Smokies, I hang up my backpack on the steel bear cable. I quickly learned at places like Linville Gorge and Grayson Highland why I now dislike end entry door. I was at Linville in the dead of the winter so I kept my backpack in the vestibule, and I only hung up my food sack to keep small critters from attempting to gnaw into my tent. At Grayson Highland, heh, I kept everything in the vestibule. (Not a smart move, but I had no ropes and it was storming hard.)  The same storm system that destroyed Tuscaloosa in April of 2011, I was at Grayson Highland when Tuscaloosa was about to be destroyed.So, I kept my craps in the vestibule to stay dry. It was a pain in the butt, getting in and out of my tent with stuff in my vestibule. It’s also kind of awkward trying to cook with a end entry vestibule. One way is to sit with your legs crossed while facing the opening of the door, but I cannot do this anymore with a plate in my leg. These are the primary reasons why I want my next tent to have a side entry. Dual side entries would be even better! One side you can put excess gears, and you get in and out on the other side. If you have to cook a meal in the vestibule due to bad weather I find it easier to sit and cook with a vestibule that has side entry.

The next popular feature is about take down and set-up. You want a tent that easy to set-up in the rain without getting the interior wet. Tarptent (This is not an endorsement, just an observation.) took this feature to the heart. A feature for one of his tent, you can set up the rain fly first then climb into it to clip the bug net and tent floor on the inside. He has another one where the bug net and tent floor are connected to the inside of the rain fly; the loop for the poles are on the outside of the rain fly. This design makes it easier to set up a tent in the rain without getting the interior wet. My Big Agnes tent the pole goes between the rain fly and the tent body. This makes it very difficult to set-up in a down pour without getting interior wet. I have a trick to getting around this and it requires another piece of equipment, but it unrelated to this post.

Lastly, is how it’s set-up. For example, is it a freestanding tent (meaning it can be set up without stakes.), can you use trek poles, how many stakes require, etc. Some people hate tents that has too many stakes. Some minimalist like to carry tent or tarp using only their trek poles as support and stakes to set up. Some may consider the wind at certain elevation and see where all the anchor points are on the tent to be confidence it will not blow away due to design. (Human mistake(s) causes tent to blow away as well.) My personal thought is that I love the idea of having a tent where I use trek poles, but I plan to use tent more in the winter months where I’m expecting snow at any time. While I have no personal experience using trek poles as the primary support, people have said poles crossing over the entire tent is better suited for heavy snow. I trust their advice and this is one of the criteria I will use for my next tent. I’m using my hammock more often, but I will use a tent for snowy conditions or places where there are no trees.

Bottom line is, you need to understand every features. There is NO product designed for backpacking that is perfect for every locations in the U.S., or for every individuals. EVERY piece of equipments has a tradeoff. Accepting this and being able to live without the tradeoff(s) is how you choose to buy your gears. If you don’t believe me, try me. I can find tradeoff(s) in every products known to the backpacking community by comparing it to similar products.

Thanks for reading and happy trails.



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