So you want to sleep under the stars. Well, you want to sleep with a piece of mesh (and probably nylon) between you and the stars, and you’re excited to see them away from all that city light. Me too.
Camping, whether it’s deep in the backcountry or nestled around a car-filled cozy campground with a roaring fire and endless bags of s’mores, is one of the best ways to spend a long weekend. And while sleeping au natural certainly has its time and place (warm summer nights with no bugs), a tent is usually required.
But the tent market is rather crowded. There are endless models, colors, add-ons, material thicknesses, pack sizes, and brands to consider. Then there’s the type of tent — are you going backpacking, car camping, or something in between? What season tent do you need? These are the questions we are here to answer.
Best Camping Tents of 2023
Best Extra-Large Car Camping Tent: The North Face Wawona 6
Best All-Weather Car Camping Tent: REI Base Camp 4
Best Budget Car Camping Tent: Coleman Sundome 6
Best Hybrid Backpacking Tent: NEMO Aurora 3P
Best Backpacking Tent: NEMO Dagger OSMO 2P
Best Budget Backpacking Tent: Kelty Wireless 2P
Best Extra-Large Car Camping Tent
Weight: 20 lbs 15 oz
Peak Height: 76″
Floor Area: 86.1 sq. ft.
Dimensions: 120″ x 96″
Packed Size: 10″ x 32″
Pros: Really big, weather resistant
Cons: Need more than one person to set up
The North Face Wawona 6 is an absolutely giant camping tent. It’s got a massive 6.3-foot peak height and walls that are almost as tall, despite the dome design. Multiple people can stand or set up chairs inside the tent. It’s made with thick, durable materials, has two full doors, and a bag full of extra-large, extra-thick aluminum poles. You’ll be surprised when setting it up that poles that thick do bend that much — but they do! And they are color-coded to match the sleeves for a relatively easy setup. That said, you will need two people to set it up due to the height and the bend of the poles.
Beyond the extra-large interior and quality components, the real kicker of The North Face Wawona 6 is the huge vestibule. It’s more than a vestibule — it’s an entire room. The North Face decided to turn the obligatory “extra space” feature into a connected tunnel of sorts, which has to be staked separately and offers two extra-large side doors. This means you can have a private room, a spacious place to eat lunch in the shade or simply throw all your dirty sandals after a full day of river-rock-hopping.
The Wawona 6 is really, really big. It’ll fit six adults, which is impressive, but it was likely built more for families. Due to its size, setup does require two people and a bit of know-how. The North Face thought ahead with color-coded poles, though we’re never a fan of pole sleeves, and there are lots on this tent. However, the backpacking-style clips allow for a quick pitch despite the size, and the included guy-out lines are excellent. The extra vestibule takes some finagling to get used to, but for the trade-off in space, it’s definitely worth it.
The Wawona 6 has ample interior space for chilling and a heap of storage. There are multiple pocket styles for different types of gear and different family members, and the extra vestibule space allows you to throw a wide variety of gear in storage.
The typical issue with large car camping tents like this is weather resistance. The vertical nature of these tents means a strong wind can knock them sideways, but we wouldn’t worry about the Wawona. It retains a dome shape despite the height, is built with thick nylon and even thicker poles, and has plenty of guylines that, when staked properly, will secure it. The extra-large vestibule allows cooking, reading, and even playing games in the rain, so you don’t have to leave if you don’t want to. This tent is well made and is built to last.
Best All-Weather Car Camping Tent
Weight: 16 lbs 14 oz
Peak Height: 60″
Floor Area: 59.7 sq. ft.
Dimensions: 100″ x 86″
Packed Size: 10″ x 20″
Other Versions: 6P
Pros: Can be set up alone, weather resistant
Cons: Tight fit for four adults
The Base Camp 4 is REI’s classic weather-resistant domed car camping tent. It can hold four adults, though with that group it’ll be pretty tight, so we’d recommend a smaller family or sizing up if you need more. The benefit of a slightly smaller tent is that you can set it up with a single person, and it’s more weather resistant with a true dome design. There are two extra-large doors, and the stakeout style of the vestibules gives it ample exterior space, and the extended front vestibule makes for a great all-weather area.
For a car camping tent, it’s quite comfortable, though not quite as large as some might like it, and it has a more dome design than a standing-height design, which some people won’t love. It’s almost like an oversized backpacking tent but with car camping credo and weight. If space isn’t your main concern, it’s very comfortable. This sizeable tent can be set up with a single person, and REI has locked in the pole structure. That said, the extra pole to extend the front is a little tricky, so you’ll need to try it a few times before you feel comfortable.
REI is known for ample pockets, and the Base Camp 4 does not disappoint. Pockets along the ground, at head height, and clips for lights make this an easy storing experience. Add the extended vestibule up front, which doesn’t always come with car camping tents, and you’ve got yourself some storage.
The Base Camp 4 takes its design queues from mountaineering tents, and while it’s not quite that weatherproof, it’s close. The materials are burly, but it’s really the dome design and excellent extra-pole feature that, when combined with guylines, can survive strong weather. REI has a winner with this design when it comes to durable materials. That said, there are reports of an occasional aluminum pole that bends in high winds. Make sure to stake out your tent properly.
Best Budget Car Camping Tent
Weight: 14 lbs
Peak Height: 72″
Floor Area: 100 sq. ft.
Dimensions: 10′ x 10′
Packed Size: Not Listed
Other Versions: 2P, 3P, 4P,
Pros: Affordable, large, sturdy floor
Cons: Bare bones rainfly, fiberglass poles
Does a tent that costs more than $300 less than its competitor stand up? Yes. Listen, Coleman has been doing this for nearly a century, and the Sundome 6 is a solid tent, price notwithstanding.
The Coleman Sundome has been the classic budget tent line for many years. The Coleman Sundome 6P is the largest version and is very large. You can stand up if you’re under six feet, it’s a full 100 square feet (larger than some New York apartments), and has one door for easy entry and exit. It’s definitely a budget model with fiberglass poles and a bare-bones rainfly with no vestibules. That said, the floor is built of a heavy, tough material that’s basically a footprint for protection, and there are pockets and acceptable ventilation. If you want a smaller version that fits three people comfortably, the 4P is great as well.
Shockingly, the Sundome 6 has the most square footage out of any tent on this list. It’s massive and will actually fit the number of people implied by the name. The dome-style tent doesn’t slope very well, though, so while you can stand in it, it’s only in the middle of the tent. A great board-game tent.
Setup is not particularly difficult, but Coleman doesn’t provide the same niceties as the other brands, like color-coded poles and special grommets. But then there are no extra poles, so it’s a pretty quick process. Pockets are wanting on the Sundome 6, especially compared to the competition. They exist but won’t blow you away.
The lack of a real vestibule means rain will definitely hit the front of your tent, and you don’t have an “outside” that’s safe from the weather. It gets decent marks due to the tarp-like floor, which is very rugged and will keep water out. Thinner materials and fiberglass poles equal a tent that may break sooner than you want. That said, if you’re a fair-weather camper only, it’ll survive many seasons.
Best Hybrid Backpacking Tent
Other Versions: 2P
Pros: Easy to set up, reliable rainfly, upright wall design
Cons: Not as roomy as traditional camping tents
NEMO is known for its engineering prowess applied to outdoor gear, and they have done it again with the Aurora line. The Aurora 3P tent is an excellent shelter for those who want a slightly larger backpacking tent that works quite well for any small-group camping experience. While you won’t get the high heights of an extra large camping tent or the ultralight experience of a smaller backpacking tent, you get a decent amount of space, thoughtful design, and a relatively light package.
The NEMO Aurora 3P boasts decent interior space, is very easy to set up with the aluminum pole hub, and includes a very large secure rainfly for inclement weather. The main feature that makes it work for both experiences is the upright wall design, which increases the usability of the overall interior space. Then, it has NEMO’s key tent features, like light pockets and snaps for dogproof floors. Footprint inclusion is a nice touch, especially for a family tent.
For a hybrid tent, living comfort is impressive. There is plenty of room for a backpacking tent and low but usable room for car camping. There are lots of pockets, two doors, and large vestibules for stashing gear. The pole hub could not be easier to set up, and the rainfly snaps on in a few minutes. NEMO has nailed tent setup.
The storage space available is well thought out, and there are large vestibules and pockets everywhere. However, for a larger group, there may not be enough pockets to house each individual’s items. The Aurora 3P is low, stable, has an extra-large rainfly, and a bathtub floor. We can’t see this tent moving or leaking except in the most extreme circumstances. NEMO is known for premium materials, and the Aurora 3P uses slightly thicker versions of their usually-ultralight fabrics. This tent will last.
If you like the design but want something with even more features and space for car camping more specifically, check out the Aurora Highrise.
Best Backpacking Tent
Weight: 4 lbs 2 oz
Peak Height: 42″
Floor Area: 31.3 sq. ft.
Dimensions: 90″ x 50″
Packed Size: 19.5″ x 6.5″
Other Versions: 3P
Pros: Made from recycled materials, lightweight
The Dagger OSMO 2P is the update to what has been regarded for some time as one of the top-choice premium backpacking tents on the market. The “OSMO” indicates the new features: the look is “recycled” and uses bluesign materials and the OSMO poly nylon ripstop fabric is made from 100% recycled yarns that are PFAS-free. It contains all the clutch NEMO features we love, including the Divy Cube stuff sack, nightlight pockets, strut vents at entries to keep your pitch taut, and an included Landing Zone for inclement weather.
We’re in premium territory. This is a very expensive, very lightweight tent. Part of the reason people love it, and part of why I put it on this list, is the overhead design. NEMO has figured out how to push headroom into a small, lightweight shelter. Two people can sit up at once, play a game of cards in this tent, and do so comfortably. It is very expensive for a two-person tent, but if you’re thinking about purchasing one, you probably already know that.
For a two-person tent, you can’t “live” more comfortably. The Dagger 2P doesn’t taper — it’s 50 inches wide throughout, which means you can put two 25-inch sleeping pads side by side, which is a luxury (standard sleeping-pad size is about 20 inches). Or you can have an extra 10 inches (five on either side) to lay your stuff around. NEMO invented the “shaded pocket,” in which you put your headlamp to create a tent-wide glow, making the tent a nice place to hang at night.
Premium backpacking tents were designed to be set up in the dark with icy hands and hungry bellies. The off-end pole is color coded, the fly goes on quickly, and you’ll be snug as a bug just minutes after you unroll it. For a two-person lightweight backpacking tent, there is a lot of storage. Overhead pockets, side pockets, and extra-large vestibules make for more than enough room when backpacking.
The Dagger OSMO 2P has a fly that’s way larger than the main tent. In fact, it feels a bit like the tent is mostly fly. This is because NEMO doesn’t want you to get wet or wind-blown. If you stake this tent out properly, which is very doable given the freestanding design, ample guylines, and included stakes, you should have no problem.
However, there are some reports of condensation being an issue. In our experience, condensation occurs when an extra-large fly is not fully taut, and all vent points are not fully open. Our suggestion: practice setup at home a few times to get that fully-taut pride going so that when you do it after a long backpack, you’ll have it down pat and sleep dry.
The materials used on the NEMO OSMO are top-notch. That said, they are very light and very thin. Try not to totally abuse your super-expensive backpacking tent, okay? Taking rain and wind is one thing, but being rough overall with this tent may show bruises after a while. Many people have concerns about the Jake’s Feet — they are what NEMO uses to secure the fly to the main tent. They are plastic, and while they rarely break, they do seem fragile at times. Our advice: be gentle.
Best Budget Backpacking Tent
Weight: 7 lbs 5 oz
Peak Height: 43″
Floor Area: 29 sq. ft.
Dimensions: 86″ x 49.5″
Packed Size: 22″ x 6″ x 7″
Pros: Private and durable, sets up/packs down easily
Cons: Slide-in pole sleeves
A simple, well-built offering from Kelty that checks the box of capable tent while not breaking the bank. The Kelty Wireless 2P has two doors, two vestibules, and high-covered walls make for a private and durable tent all around. Some features are notably budget, like the slide-in pole sleeves on each corner and fiberglass poles, but the design is well thought out, it sets up and packs down very easily, and it’s comfortable. Homey, in a way.
We have included this in the Hybrid category because the Wireless is offered in 2P, 4P, and 6P varieties. We looked at the two-person version, and it’s a solid budget backpacking tent. You could certainly car camp with it, but don’t expect there to be any extra space. The four-person version is an excellent middle ground, and the six-person is a true car camping tent.
This tent is as bare bones as you’re going to get for the weight. But it still managed to feel homey. The extra-high opaque sides added privacy, which a lot of backpacking tents forego for weight. The setup was seamless.
The Wireless 2P had reasonable storage space. It’s a smaller tent overall, so we weren’t blown away, and the vestibules were on the smaller side as well, but you have the basics. Despite the budget build, the Wireless 2P was surprisingly well-ensconced. We didn’t have inclement weather during our testing, but the build of the floor, rainfly, and compact dome all mean a tent that will resist storms.
It’s not always true that budget materials mean budget performance. Part of the reason the Wireless is on this list is build quality. The tent weighs a decent chunk for the size, which means the fabric and poles are thick, which does add up to durability. And at this point, we can feel it when we set up a tent — this one is solid.
Best of the Rest
Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent
Weight: 3 lbs 2 oz
Peak Height: 40″
Floor Area: 29 sq. ft.
Dimensions: 88″ x 52″ at head, 88″ x 42″ at foot
Packed Size: 19.5″ x 6″
Pros: Lightweight and packable but has all the bells and whistles
We believe this is the best ultralight backpacking tent around. For years now, the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL line has been the standard for freestanding ultralight backpacking. And the latest version (seen here) continues the trend. It’s nearly three pounds, set up is a breeze, it has excellent storage and use of space, and simply screams fast, light movement for long treks. The updated model includes new TipLok Tent Buckles, which are a very simple snap-in for the rainfly, as well as double ripstop nylon and prebent DAC Featherlite pole hub.
The Copper Spur HV UL2 also has clutch ultralight nods, like the awning capability of the vestibule with trekking poles, creating a porch-like experience for lay days, an easy, fast pitch if you get the included footprint (recommended), and excellent ventilation for long, drippy nights.
For those constantly on the move, the Copper Spur HV UL2 is perfect. It has tons of room at the “head” part of the tent because it narrows at the feet, which gives two people the general feeling of expansiveness when waking up to that out-the-door view. It’s less of a hang spot, though, which suits many ultralight thru-hikers. Much like the Dagger OSMO, the Copper Spur was built to be set up with freezing fingers in the dead of night. It’s dead simple with a freestanding design, a hub pole set that practically snaps together on its own, and an oversized rainfly.
The Copper Spur series is known for clutch pockets to all the thru-hikers. This means sunglasses pockets, journal pockets, headlight pockets, and more. It is engineered to place everything every night, then pack up and go the next morning, and it does this well. The vestibules aren’t gigantic, but there are two of them and two doors, which is plenty for that sub-three-pound base weight you’ve got.
The Copper Spur HV UL2 has simply excellent weather resistance. The tapered design provides even less of a wind block than a dome, and you will not get wet when staked properly. The high bathtub floor walls also do great at keeping water out. Much like the Dagger, this is an ultralight backpacking tent. Do not get drunk and throw a football tackle into this tent because you’ll probably bend the poles. That said, with proper use, it can last years of normal trail abuse.
Finally, Big Agnes makes the Copper Spur in one-to-five person versions. The feature set is relatively the same but gets roomier and more thoughtful. This is great for the individual or family wanting to go big on an ultralight tent to fit their needs.
Best Hybrid Camping Tent
Weight: 8 lbs 1.6 oz
Peak Height: 48″
Floor Area: 55 sq. ft.
Dimensions: 90″ x 88″
Packed Size: 3.8″ x 28.5″
Other Versions: 2P
Pros: Good hybrid option, two D-style doors, two vestibules
Cons: Tight for four people, not the most durable
It’s hard to make a true hybrid tent at a reasonable cost that will equally please a backpacker and a car camper. The REI Trail Hut 4 mostly hits the mark. It’s large enough for a dedicated car camper to shrug with acceptance and light enough (when split up between the group) to please a backpacker. It’s definitely not a master of any scenario, but if you want a group-sized one-and-done tent, the Trail Hut 4 is great.
It features a four-foot ceiling, which is great kneeling room, and a decent dome that will both protect against most wind and allow some headroom. The included rainfly and footprint are excellent protection against weather, and two D-style doors mean your group won’t have to clamber over each other in the night. Two decent vestibules provide protection for gear, and the tent poles are made with solid aluminum.
There is decent room for a backpacking tent in the Trail Hut 4, but “4” is slightly overselling. You could fit three adults in this tent, but it’d be tight. It’s more like a small family could all fit in this tent. There is decent headroom, though, and the doors can be pitched with a trekking pole to create some shade, which is a nice feature. Setup is straightforward with the included poles and easy clip style, and it can be done by one person.
While there are pockets and decent vestibules, the “four-person” moniker is definitely overshot. You’d be hard-pressed to fit four full backpacking backpacks under these vestibules. Keep that in mind, and know that it has good if basic, storage space.
The rainfly and included footprint make for great weather protection, as does the dome shape for wind resistance. We removed a point because the design of the fly leaves a bit of a gap, which could let in water at the wrong angle. While the Trail Hut 4 does boast decent materials on spec, many reviews show that pieces may fail. This comes down to the plastic, the style and quality of the tent stakes, and grommets. Keep your warranty in mind when using this tent, and baby it.
Best Oversized Backpacking Tent
Peak Height: 44″
Floor Area: 48.75 sq. ft.
Dimensions: 90″ x 78″
Packed Size: 23″ x 7″
Vestibule Area: 22.5 sq. ft.
Other Versions: 2P+
Pros: Simple design, easy setup, spacious
Cons: Doesn’t perform great in super heavy winds
The REI Half Dome line is one of the most popular backpacking camping tents in the U.S. REI hit a sweet spot on space, ease of setup, well-thought-out features, and price, though the price has crept up over the years. Generally, if someone is asking what backpacking tent to buy, and we know they don’t have any idea about weight, material types, and the overall tent market (and would balk at a $500 tent), and we know their idea of a backpacking trip is a five-mile hike and hang for three days, we recommend the Half Dome SL 3+. It’s simple, excellent, spacious, and quite light.
The main feature is space. REI now has a “plus” in their Half Dome line, and it’s because these are actually spacious tents. You will be impressed with either the two-person or three-person model, as well as the vestibules, which allow even more luxuriating. The Half Dome has all your premium features, minus ultralight DAC poles, yet plenty of space.
Large and in charge, the Half Dome SL 3+ will feel glamorous in the backcountry. You may have trouble finding enough space to pitch it, honestly. That, plus the roll-back fly which allows for easy star-gazing, makes for a lovely shelter. Like all the backpacking tents on this list, setup is a breeze. The Half Dome SL 3+ has a pre-bent pole hub and color coding to aid your setup.
There is plenty of storage in the Half Dome. From pockets to extra tent room to vestibule space, unless you’re a group of three large adults, we don’t think you’ll be hard-pressed to store your goods. Excellent design equals excellent weather resistance. That said, it is quite a bit larger than other backpacking tents, which means it might not resist the toughest of winds.
Best Heavy-Duty/Semi-Permanent Tent
Weight: 68 lb
Peak Height: 78″
Floor Area: 100 sq. ft.
Dimensions: 90″ x 78″
Packed Size: 30″ x 13″ (tent) 50″ x 5.5″ (poles)
Pros: Holds up well in all weather, massive, durable
Cons: Takes some muscle to stake in, heavy, pricey
This tent is in a class all its own compared to the others. This is the one you want to go live out in the wilderness part-time or simply want to post up somewhere for longer than a weekend. It’s well-made, built to last, and relatively easy to set up, considering how big it really is. If you are looking for something that will withstand any type of weather that comes its way, whether the hot desert or the Alaskan tundra, the Kodiak Flex-Bow VX is what you seek.
Made of extremely durable duck canvas, these tents are made for extreme weather. Their only disclaimer is to watch out for heavy snow loads in the winter. But everything else, including 80 mph winds that our lead tester endured, don’t stand a chance in this home-away-from-home. The secret is in the flex-bow design. Using the power of tension, it creates a remarkably solid tent that can be set up in around 10 minutes. A word of caution that it does take a bit of muscle to stake the tension in, but it’s well worth it. Inside, the high ceiling of six and a half feet feels roomy and divine. Our tester had a double bed and even a clothes rack with extra gear inside, with no worries.
The Flex-Bow VX 10×10 is big, and the model we reviewed isn’t even the biggest. At 100 square feet, it feels palatial compared to other tents, especially with the high ceiling. Lowering the side windows gives an even more spacious feel, especially with a light sea breeze coming through for those oceanside stays.
It takes some muscle to get it under tension. That said, once you get the hang of it, the rest of the setup is remarkably quick and easy, harnessing the power of tension to hold everything up. But it won’t be for everyone, which is why we had to dock a few points here.
If you feel cramped in this thing, you probably have too many people or too much stuff. There’s plenty of room to keep things inside if needed. But as we are trying to compare vestibule space, we had to dock some points here. But if you’re lugging a 68-pound tent, chances are you have some extra storage space outside the tent somewhere.
Thick canvas means the elements aren’t going to be an issue here. The flex-bow tension design will keep the wind out. This tent is built to be out in the elements and do it all over again and again. The one-inch-think galvanized steel poles aren’t the easiest things to lug around, but when the wind is howling outside, you’ll be happy they are there. This tent is pricey and weighs over three times the next-heaviest model in the review, but it makes up for it in long-lasting comfort that will have you setting roots wherever you drive stakes into the ground.
|Type of Tent
|The North Face Wawona 6
|20 lb 15 oz
|10″ x 32″
|44.7 sq. ft.
|4P, 6P, 8P
|REI Base Camp 4
|16 lb 14 oz
|10″ x 20″
|27 + 17 sq. ft.
|Coleman Sundome 6
|2P, 3P, 4P, 6P
|NEMO Aurora 3P
|6 lb 8 oz
|23″ x 7.5″
|23″ x 7.5″
|REI Trail Hut 4
|8 lb 2 oz
|3.8″ x 28.5″
|15.5 sq. ft.
|Kelty Wireless 2P
|7 lb 5 oz
|22″ x 6″ x 7″
|2P, 4P, 6P
|NEMO Dagger OSMO 2P
|4 lb 2 oz
|19.5″ x 6.5″
|11.4 sq. ft. x 2
|Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2
|3 lb 2 oz
|19.5″ x 6″
|9 sq. ft. x 2
|1P, 2P, 3P, 4P, 5P
|REI Half Dome SL 3+
|5 lb 12 oz
|23″ x 7″
|22.5 sq. ft.
|Kodiak Canvas Flex-Bow VX 10×10
|30″ x 13″ (tent) 50″ x 5.5″ (poles)
|2P, 4P, 6P, 8P
How We Tested
When it comes to a guide this large and which covers so much tent-based ground, it’s important to understand how these products fit into their respective use categories and how they were evaluated.
We describe the categories in detail below, but here’s the short and sweet of it. We split the tents up three ways: tents specific to car camping, tents built for true backpacking, and tents that can handle either category but inevitably won’t master either.
We also specifically chose only freestanding tents for this guide. When you get into ultralight backpacking with pole-less tents that expect you to use your own trekking poles or rooftop car camping, you end up with models that don’t really fit the standard mold. A freestanding tent is standard and can be set up anywhere. Our team of experienced gear testers prefer them in all scenarios for ease of use, except the rare occasion.
To write this guide, we leaned upon the institutional knowledge of lead tester Daniel Zweier, an accomplished hiker, camper and backpacker, as well as the former editor-in-chief of a backpacking website, to compile a list of tents worth testing. We then got our hands on product and tested the tents over multiple camping trips, as well as a long weekend where we brought out all the tents and set them up together for accurate comparisons. We also carried the ones that required (the backpacking ones) into the Sespe Wilderness on extended day hikes to get a feel for their weight while hiking.
|The North Face Wawona 6
|The Base Camp 4
|NEMO Aurora 3P
|REI Trail Hut 4
|Kelty Wireless 2P
|Dagger OSMO 2P
|Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL
|Half Dome SL 3+
Which Tent Should I Buy?
The first and most important question to ask is: what style of tent do I need? This guide covers a wide swath of campsite styles: from large-scale family camping that includes bringing your own BBQ (BYOBBQ) to finding a flat nook next to a river in a quiet corner of the backcountry.
You don’t need the same tent for those scenarios. One requires a portable palace, the other a thin strip of fabric between you and the wilderness. There are tents built for each, and then tents that reside somewhere in the middle. We have split these categories into three main areas: Family Car Camping Tents, Backpacking Tents, and Couples Car Camping/Large Backpacking Tents (Hybrid).
Family Car Camping
Family car camping tents don’t require a family; they’re just built for large groups. It could be six college kids heading out on their first under-the-stars party weekend or the annual family campout. Family car camping tents are usually made in four, six and sometimes eight-person models (written as 4P, 6P, 8P when you buy them), have much higher ceilings, often times topping six feet, and will take up a large chunk of the campground.
The benefit of a family car camping tent is that everyone can sleep in one shelter: you can play games in a protected, well-lit space well into the night, you don’t have to try to find the gear that has been spread across a messy campsite, and you have ample room to roll around.
The downsides of such a large tent are that you won’t be alone if you’re with a group, it’s heavy and often requires two-plus people to set up, and the high ceiling can make for a less stable structure in high winds. Most large family car camping tents also don’t have much in the way of rain shelters or vestibules, so all your gear will need to be kept safely inside. There is room for this, but it’s a different style of camping.
Backpacking tents are the opposite of a family car camping tent in every way. They prioritize weight above all else because you will need to carry them for miles on your back. You’ll also need to set them up quickly, sometimes at night, and break them down the next morning as you continue on your way. Backpacking tents are made in one-to-four-people versions, though the two-person and three-person is the most popular. Weight is the most important factor in a backpacking tent, but there are some close seconds:
Vestibules: A vestibule is a small protected space that a rainfly creates outside of your zippered tent. Because you’ll likely use the entire square footage of your backpacking tent for your body and sleeping pad, the vestibule becomes critical for storing your backpack and other goods, especially when it’s raining. A spacious and well-protected vestibule space is very important to a comfortable trip.
Interior storage: Much like a tiny home, the layout of the scant interior storage is critical to a comfortable night’s sleep and potentially a day’s existence if you’re just hanging around camp. Smart pockets are key to a great backpacking tent, as they allow you to store and find a headlamp, water, your book, socks, hat, sunglasses, and any other small at-hand object quickly and easily, even at night. If there aren’t enough pockets for you and your tent-mate, you’ll get a messy tent and step all over everything.
Quick setup and takedown: The last thing a backpacker wants to do after a grueling (or even mellow) hike to camp is spend a long time trying to set up a tent. The efficiency of unrolling, staking, and setting up poles on your tent is an almost pride-based experience that allows you to create your home-away-from-home. When that process is quick and easy, it’s a joy that lets you dip into the lake quickly. When it’s complicated, you may end up yelling at your tent-mate and getting a bad pitch, which will bring excess moisture in at night, which will certainly cramp your next day.
Depending on the backpacking trip, some of these things matter more. If you’re going away for a night or two and just a couple miles from civilization, you just need enough space to survive a couple of days. If you’re thru-hiking for days or weeks at a time, these small things become a very real joy or problem.
Finally, there are the hybrid tents, which we have further labeled as couples car camping tents or extra-large backpacking tents for this guide. As someone who has car camped with large groups, ultralight backpacked, and yearly family backpacking trips with all ranges of ages, it’s the hybrid tents that you see most often for casual campers. And the majority of people are actually casual campers.
This category takes the extremes of the other two and mellows them. You get a tent that is moderately heavy but never too heavy to be carried by two or three people when you split it up. There is enough space to sleep comfortably for the recommended size, and often a bit more than necessary. These tents also usually have a decent rainfly and lower height so that they can survive any serious storms, but they can also be set up without any rainfly on a beautiful evening so you can see the stars.
If you’re the type of person who sleeps in nature once or twice a year and wants a tent that could be taken on that random backpacking trip but also can pop up easily in most camping scenarios, this is what you want. And since most people only want to buy a single tent, this is probably your best bet.
High-End Tents vs. Budget Tents
Once you figure out what kind of tent you need, you’ll look primarily at your budget. The unfortunate reality is that a “nice tent” these days means an expensive tent — even exorbitant. The quality of materials, design, and feature set is better than it has ever been, but we’d argue that the cost is higher, too.
A high-end tent for any of the categories above will start around $250, going up to $600. If those numbers make you squirm, look for a budget tent. If you’re thinking, well, my puffy jacket cost about that much, then high-end may be perfectly fine for you.
A budget tent will range from $100-$250. Anything less than $100 will be used, heavily discounted, or come from a no-name Amazon manufacturer or Ali Express. And while those tents may work, we tend to question their durability and don’t really recommend them.
The big question is: do you get what you pay for? Kind of. A high-end tent will absolutely have more durable and lightweight materials, better thought-out storage and features, and more usable space than their budget counterparts. However, a budget tent will have the same basic things and will serve you decently in most of the same scenarios.
The truth is that you don’t need a high-end tent for a beautiful sunny weekend with no weather. You may prefer the brand bump for your trail neighbors, and you may love storing your sunglasses in a super special pocket right near the front, and you may exult in the lightness of your backpacking pack or the obscene space of your tent palace, but those things aren’t necessary for outdoor life: to sleep under the stars and enjoy the wild.
The place that we find a high-end tent to matter is when the going gets tough. Part of interacting with the wild is that it may sometimes get downright, truly wild. Hail may find its way to you; the sky may deluge; perhaps it’ll get so swampy hot that you can barely move, or your body will fail you in some way.
For any of those reasons, having a shelter that is more durable, easier to set up, more lightweight, and has more space will make things much easier. There are plenty of stories of a heavy rain leading to a soaked tent floor and therefore soaked clothing and sleeping pad, and if you couple that with near-freezing weather, you could be in trouble. If the tent had properly held out water, you might not be in that situation.
For this, high-end tents were made. We believe that purpose has been overshadowed lately in favor of bells and whistles and brand recognition. But it’s an important purpose to remember. That’s why, when a guide or person recommends a $500-plus tent for thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (a 2,650-mile journey), we tend to agree. You never know what you’ll get, and you will probably get some terrible, life-threatening weather or event. Make sure your shelter can handle what it was built for.
That said, if you’re the casual camper (who wanted the hybrid tent to begin with), budget will almost always suit you fine. That doesn’t mean you won’t go for the more expensive one, but we believe it’ll do the job.
Tent Size and Weight
We covered the philosophy of this concept when deciding what type of tent to buy, so we’re going to give some general parameters here. They are our tester’s own opinions, but are taken from years of industry research and testing.
In general, size and weight are the most important aspects of any tent. The size determines how many people can sleep in a tent, and weight is critical, specifically for backpacking. Weight is not critical for car camping, though you do need to be able to fit the tent in your car. And if you ever plan to backpack (or walk a ways) with your car camping tent, weight does matter.
Large car camping tents weigh 10-25 pounds and come in four-person, six-person, and eight-person models, with four and six being the most common.
Hybrid tents, or tents that can work for car camping as well as backpacking, weigh between 6-10 pounds and come in two-person, three-person, and four-person models.
Backpacking tents weigh between 3-8 pounds and come in 1P, 2P, 3P, and 4P models. There are some gnarly ultralight tents that squeeze under that weight limit, but they are as bare bones as you can get and won’t work for most people.
How Many People Fit in a Tent?
Now, a word of warning: all tents list their size based on the number of “people” they can fit, but that number is a white lie. As in, it’s sort of true, but not all the way true. As marketers have honed in on the best way to sell a tent, it’s clear that the lowest weight and greatest space is the ideal buzzword.
A two-person backpacking tent these days will technically fit two moderately fit people 6 feet or under, while storing all gear in the vestibules, but they won’t fit an elbow more. Our tester takes a 2P tent for himself and his 40-pound dog, as he prefers more space. If he’s traveling with a partner or a child, he’s looking at a 3P tent minimum, and it would have to be a spacious one at that.
You’ll notice that REI did a funny thing by adding a “+” to their Half Dome and Quarter Dome series. To the uninitiated, this might seem like it’s a tent on steroids. To those in the know, it’s REI’s way of saying, “we built this tent to fit the number of people listed on the specs.”
Car camping tent numbers are more honest, but then again, you’ll likely have more stuff, larger sleeping pads, and want more elbow room. Our general rule of thumb is to buy a tent one size bigger than you’ll most commonly need unless you’re fine with the squeeze.
Finally, a note on trail weight vs. packed weight: You will see manufacturers list these two weights, with trail being less and being sold as the real “weight” of the tent. That’s misleading, as trail weight usually refers to only the tent body, rain fly, and poles. It doesn’t include the stakes, the bags that they are carried in, any extra guylines, or a footprint. All those things, plus the main tent, rainfly, and poles, total up to the “packed” weight.
We think most people want to wrap their tent in a bag and will bring the stakes it comes with and a footprint if it’s there, so we find the packed weight to be much more accurate. Trail weight is the bare minimum and also serves as a great advertisement for an even lighter tent!
Tent Floor Area, Height, and Doors
Weight and size of a tent will be somewhat indicative of how big the tent is, but when you get into the details of your home-away-from-home, there are three things you’ll notice immediately: the floor area of your tent, how high the highest point is (and how steep the slope is), and how many doors your house has.
In the U.S., floor area is listed in square footage, just like your Zillow rental app, and you’ll want to look for overall size and ample width for the size of the sleeping pad/air mattress you have. The other critical factor in your overall tent area is the slope of your tent; if the square footage is large, but the sidewalls slope heavily immediately, you won’t be able to use much of that space unless you’re sleeping. This is fine for backpackers who only sleep in their tent, but if your idea of a campout is card games and Heads Up until the stars are bright, you will want steeper walls.
Peak height is a clear metric for any tent, and it means the tallest point of the tent, right in the middle. Backpacking tents hover around 40 inches, and camping tents range from 45 inches to six and a half feet (fully standing).
Again, the dome’s structure is important; a backpacking tent could have a decent single peak height but a very slopey design so that you don’t have much headroom overall. The best backpacking tents are those that have a decent peak height and maintain much of that height through the rest of the tent. Camping tents allow a full stand for almost any individual, but remember that taller tents tend to be more vulnerable to whipping winds.
Then there are doors; those portals of perception that lead, in this case, to the wild. And to your middle-of-the-night pee spot. Two doors are ideal, and most tents have two doors. Some car camping tents only have one door, and truly budget backpacking tents have one. This matters more for your group size and comfort level — if you’re OK with someone stepping over you in the night to pee, then maybe one door is fine.
But for most people, two doors are convenient. It better stakes out the tent against weather, gives two vestibules instead of one, and provides better airflow.
Camping Tent Poles
Back in the day, tent poles were a real liability. They weighed more than those cans of baked beans you hauled into the wild, threatened to snap if you pushed too hard, and could quickly become impossible to rethread if you weren’t careful.
These days, tent poles, especially the nice ones, are a dream. Most of the tents on this list use aluminum poles, which is the preferred middle-range material when it comes to pole construction. Aluminum allows for low weight, solid strength, excellent flexibility, and structural integrity. Sometimes aluminum can bend easily in the wrong situation, so you want to be sure to stake your tent correctly and use tension to protect against winds rather than the pole alone.
Some budget tent poles still use fiberglass, which is the material of old, but they are better made than they used to be. Still, fiberglass poles do sometimes bend and splinter in heavy winds and still weigh a good chunk more than aluminum.
Then there are DAC Featherlite poles, used primarily in ultralight backpacking tents. Yes, this is a specific company, and no, they aren’t the only manufacturers of excellent ultralight tent poles, but they’re the gold standard, sort of like GORE-TEX, for waterproofing. These are made with a proprietary high-strength alloy and are now in pre-bent pole hub configurations, creating optimal headroom and ease of setup.
NEMO and Big Agnes are probably the best brands to do this and make tents that can be set up in a couple of minutes by one person.
Camping Tent Storage
We’ve touched on storage elements throughout, so we’ll be brief. You’re looking for vestibules with enough room to keep your extras dry and pockets with enough room to store all your little valuables that will otherwise get lost at night.
Two vestibules are ideal, and for backpacking tents, you need them to protect your backpack and shoes at night and maybe allow a quick boil if it’s raining during the day. We can’t stress how nice a good vestibule is: our tester has backpacked in tents that provide shallow, ill-fitting vestibules and woken up to damp shoes and soaked-through backpack lids, which is annoying. A tent with a large vestibule that provides solid, real coverage for your gear is great.
For car camping, vestibules are less common because you can store all your important goods in your car or a bear box, but they are still nice, especially if it’s raining. And some tents, like the Wawona, have decided to upgrade the entire vestibule experience into a full-on room. You’ll see large tents do this, and it makes for a weatherproof changing, cooking, and hanging station that’s out of the wind, rain, bugs, and any other odd weather. Great for those who don’t want to experience that much of nature.
Editor’s Note: For more gear reviews and features on The Inertia, click here.