Tents for Dummies (A Highly Opinionated Guide)

Oh what the heck, I’ll write this while the subject’s on my mind…

Here are some highly incomplete and opinionated pointers on how to choose and use your tent. Note that I am talking about general-purpose tents here, suitable for family campouts, three-season camping, and light backpacking. I’m no expert on this subject, but I’m especially not an expert when it comes to serious backcountry or winter camping.

  • Tents are for sleeping, and possibly for changing. They are not for eating, socializing, or gear storage. Accordingly, look for one that will comfortably fit as many people as you expect will be sleeping in it lying down with a little elbow room, and no more. You do not need a portable house. If you want something to take shelter under while waiting out rain, get a freestanding fly, possibly the kind with built-in mosquito netting. This has the added bonus that you can cook under a fly, something you can’t safely do in a tent. If you need somewhere to store your gear, either get a tent with a vestibule (a little floorless extension outside the tent door that’s just big enough to shelter a few packs) or bring a tarp and some extra tent pegs.

    This isn’t just orneriness on my part. If you get in the habit of storing gear in your tent, you’re just asking for tent damage; plus as counter-intuitive as it might seem it’s easier to keep gear dry outside a tent than inside. Eating in a tent should be an obvious no-no; but if I have to spell it out, I can do it in one word: critters. And if you hang out in your tent while you’re waiting for rain to abate you are, again, risking putting undue wear-and-tear on it. Tent floors are not made to stand a lot of movement, and definitely not camp chair legs. Not to mention it’s gonna get awfully humid in there.

  • The fly should come all the way to the ground, and at no point should it contact the tent wall.
  • Look for guy lines (lines which stretch out from the fly with a loop on the end for a tent stake).
  • Make sure it has plenty of ventilation, including “windows” which can be left open without rain entering the tent. Things can get awfully damp in a tent which is all zipped up. I’ve heard of campers waking up to wet sleeping bags because of condensation from their breath dripping down from the roof of the tent.
  • Set it up before you go camping. If you can’t set it up single-handed in ten minutes, return it and get a different one. You WILL have to set it up shorthanded in adverse conditions; optimally you want a tent which you can learn to erect blindfolded.
  • Make sure the seams between the tent floor and the tent walls are a few inches off the ground when the tent is erected.
  • Cut a groundsheet for it out of heavy-grade plastic sheeting. The sheet should be slightly smaller than the tent floor. Yes, you need to do this even if the tent has a “waterproofed” floor.
  • Get a lightweight sleeping pad or a cot. Besides being more comfortable, it will keep you out of the water that will inevitably collect during heavy rain. Few things are more miserable than waking up to a soaked sleeping bag. If you get an air mattress, make sure it fits with room to spare inside the tent.
  • Buy a set of large plastic tent stakes to replace the stakes the tent came with, and a rubber mallet. Laugh as your tent stays firmly anchored even in mud and high winds, and others go sailing away. Big yellow stakes are also a lot harder to lose.
  • You know that nice flat spot you found? Skip it. Set up on a slight incline. Water pools on flat grassy spots.
  • Once you’ve chosen a spot, police it carefully for sticks and sharp ricks before setting up.
  • Make sure that the edges of your groundsheet are not exposed outside the bottom of the tent.
  • Take your shoes off before entering your tent. You can store them inside, but don’t walk around inside the tent unless you’re barefoot. It’ll lengthen the life of your floor, and you won’t be traking mud everywhere.
  • Do not spray bug repellent on your tent. Most bug repellents will break down the water-repellent coatings given to tent fabric.
  • Do not touch the walls of your tent if you can help it, and keep objects inside the tent a few inches away from the walls. Water can seep through wherever the tent wall is contacting an object inside.
  • Keep your doors completely closed at all times except when you are entering or leaving. Mosquitos are clever little buggers.
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  1. I have a large canopy that I carry when camping that’s about 8×6 that compacts down into a 6 inch by 8 inch by 2.5 foot tote bag. I love it. It’s great for waiting out the rain, comfy in a chair, and can be set up to shelter the entrance to your tent.

    I don’t recomend cooking under it, though, it is nylon tarping.

  2. Cut a groundsheet for it out of heavy-grade plastic sheeting. The sheet should be slightly smaller than the tent floor. Yes, you need to do this even if the tent has a “waterproofed” floor.
    Make sure that the edges of your groundsheet are not exposed outside the bottom of the tent.

    Very good point, I know a couple fellas who had fun with that in boy scouts back in the day (using a sheet larger than the tent, which collected rainwater from outside and let it run down underneath the tent, soaking the “waterproof” floor)

    Also, when choosing a spot to lay the tent, consider the terrain around it–specifically, where copious amounts of water may run if you get a REALLY badass downpour.
    I remember being in a tent up at the Lehigh river which had a nice stream going through it thanks to a torrential downpour, turns out our choice of location became an impromptu stream. (that, combined with the upper umbra not keeping water out from above, produced 100% soaked sleeping bags and VERY MISERABLE CAMPERS)

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