The perfect tent means many things to many people. There is immense variety in the tents manufactured for sale, from price to design to size.
So what makes a perfect tent then?
It depends on your needs!
We car camp these days, as disabilities restrict how far or fast we can go anywhere. That means we don’t need an ultra-lightweight tent to stuff into a backpack as we trek for miles through unspoiled wilderness. With that said, we do camp primarily in fall, winter, and spring in the South, when insects and summer’s heat & humidity give us a much needed break. While four season tents are rated to manage a snow load, withstand winds, ventilate condensation, and keep in as much heat as possible, a four season tent doesn’t work well for camping in the South. Even in the “cooler” seasons, we need more ventilation and greater flexibility with ventilation to keep a tent comfortable. We also invariably deal with one or more downpours of rain during each camping trip, which means waterproofing and storm resistance are critical factors in whether we’re going to like a tent or not. (It also means we always carry at least one spare tarp for going over a tent!)
For six or seven years, we’ve been using an instant tent, one of the first ones to hit the market. I bought it as a clearance item in a big box discount store, paying about $30 for the tent. I’m not sure how many people it was originally rated for, but we all know that those ratings are counting very slender, petite people who really truly like each other and don’t mind sleeping up close and personal. Since most of us don’t have families like that, we seek out tents that are rated higher than what our families really measure.
In our case, it’s a couple with three dogs who often camp in what most people would call utterly miserable camping weather. Sometimes we camp in campgrounds with amenities such as electricity, and other times, we’re camping primitive. This tent holds the equivalent of a queen size bed and a four foot table, although we have to fold the bed back to make room for chairs inside. We can put two dog crates under the table, and the third dog sleeps where ever she finds a comfy spot (she’s old and a big girl.) We’ve actually used it in sub-freezing temperatures both in campgrounds and primitive environments, and find that it is drafty with its mesh roof if there is a breeze at all. In summer, it’s unbearably hot and stuffy even at night inside. The absolutely worst feature is the tiny eyebrow pole that is supposed to keep the rain fly suspended outward from the outwardly sloping door. It never does, resulting in water pooling over the door on the fly, and that invariably dumps as someone goes in or out of the tent door, flooding into the tent, along with whatever rain is coming down. It’s a dreadful door design for a tent in a rainy climate.
In addition, it does not have a full coverage fly, which means that the outwardly sloping walls are the victims of the falling rain, as well as any rain running off of the rain fly, and believe me, in the South, there is plenty. We’ve repeatedly treated the tent with sprays to waterproof the lower half of the walls, but we usually have some leakage despite that.
Decades of camping in a wide variety of climates, weather, and terrains has taught me a lot about tents and what I don’t like. Unfortunately, tent designers & manufacturers don’t come flocking to my door asking my opinion. So if I was actually going to design my own tent, what features would I include?
- Instant set up Yes, I know that this means that it is going to be a heavy tent. However, for car camping, instant set up means more time to have fun and less time spent getting the tent pitched correctly. We’re also not as young or as able as we once were, and instant means we can do it without any help, a very important feature and one which is likely to have immense appeal with an aging American population.
- Bathtub floor I know some people hate these, but camping in the rain means that a downpour can leave water standing because it is coming down too fast to drain away. In those situations, if you don’t have a bathtub floor, you will have a leaking seam. The bathtub floor is essential.
- Replaceable parts/repair kits Tent poles and even the joints on instant tents can have accidents. There should be an easy way to replace damaged joints or poles, even if the damage happens due to operator error. We had ours damaged when friends were helping take it down and forced a joint. We’ve also had to patch a tent wall where the pole had rubbed during transport, causing a hole. If you read reviews on instant tents, the lack of repair/replacement parts is one source of many complaints.
- Close-able windows Windows that can be opened or closed, depending on the weather, from the inside. Whoever thought that making windows operable from the outside was a good idea is an idiot or has never gone camping and had a rainstorm blow in at 3 a.m. Windows make it possible to get better airflow through a tent when the weather is warm. It also allows for ventilating during cooler weather as needed.
- No mesh roof I know that the mesh roofs are used to reduce weight and cost on tents, as well as automatically vent condensation. However, if the weather is cool, I don’t like feeling like I’m standing outside with a continual cool breeze. These roof vents need to have close-able panels to adjust ventilation as needed, using a breathable fabric.
- 2 doors Having a tent with two doors is immensely useful, especially if it is somewhat cramped inside due to more gear or bad weather. It makes it easier to exit/enter without disturbing your partner. However, whichever idiot thought two doors, side by side on the same side was a great idea is also not too bright. One front door, one back or side door, and it would be a better design.
- 2 zipper pulls on each door It may seem silly, but I vastly prefer a D-door with a continuous zipper and 2 zipper pulls. That leaves me options as to how to zip/unzip to make it easier for us to enter/exit. They also close with fewer entry points for the biting insects that plague us.
- Vestibules Even though we’re not backpacking, we still appreciate a usable vestibule. That translates to big enough to come in out of the rain, take off rain gear/muddy shoes, and then step into the tent without bringing the outdoors in with us. Nobody makes a tent that has a vestibule of this size with anything resembling “instant” either. The vestibule should also open on the side, remaining a wind & weather break for the door even when the vestibule door is open. There should be equal sized vestibules for both doors on a tent as well, allowing for dry-ish storage of gear. The vestibule also means that the door does not need the weather seal that so easily ends up caught in the zipper, causing frustration and aggravation as we work to clear it again.
- E-port that zips or velcros closed This may seem like an idiotic thing for a die-hard camper, but sometimes, we all enjoy a bit of “luxury”. Being able to bring in a power cord conveniently without inviting in the creepy-crawlies is a great thing then. It’s also a great idea for it to be close-able to the point that insects, snakes, & rodents don’t see it as an open invitation when primitive camping and it is unneeded too.
- Ground vent/air conditioning port Okay, I’ll confess, this is something that I would have once scoffed at the idea of adding. However, I can no longer tolerate heat at all, which is why we are no longer camping at all during the warmer season. I have to have a place to cool off during the day, as well as a cool place to sleep. In the South, that is not going to happen from May through September. That would normally force me to either choose an RV or travel trailer or to stay home. With the ability to add a small window air conditioner easily and affordably, I could still opt for campground camping in the summer when family and friends are enjoying the Great Outdoors too. At this point, I have only found one manufacturer that makes a couple of tents with this feature. If the ground port also has a mesh to zip closed, it would work well in the shoulder season to help with ventilation without air conditioning as well.
- Size Granted, we’re just one couple but we do have a lot of stuff that goes along camping, including three dogs. We also have a knack of camping in foul weather, which means we end up confined inside for meals and leisure too. (We have rain gear so we do go do stuff even in the rain.) Whether we are sleeping on a pallet on the floor, using cots, or one of us is off on our own adventure, we still need some space. In foul weather, we’re also going to have a couple of dog crates, a 4′ table, 2 chairs, our bed(s), a cooler, and some assorted gear. Sloping sides reduces the actual amount of floor space, but experience has taught us that 8×12′ is a good size, and 10×15′ is a better size with vertical walls. For sloped walls, we add a foot typically. Anything less than 8′ means that it may be too narrow to accommodate our bed without someone hitting a wall with foot or head. We also like about 6’2″ for headroom, as we are getting old enough that standing or dressing in a crouched position is asking for grief.
- Hang loops Every tent ceiling should have at least one and preferably two loops for hanging a lightweight battery operated lantern for illumination. Adding one in each vestibule is also a great idea. It makes everything easier if you aren’t trying to do things with a flashlight in one hand or via a headlamp. This is also a very cheap little add-on for a tent, but few manufacturers include it.
- Gear pockets If I can only have one, can I please have it alongside the main entrance? That would be the ideal location for essentials such as keys, flashlight, glasses, etc., not at the furthest point from the door. Ideally, there would be one by each door. Other locations such as under windows would be nice, but the door…that’s where the one-and-only should be located!
- Attic While it can’t hold much weight, the attic is a fantastic place to put small, lightweight items that you want dry, safe, and where you can find them, such as your medication, cell phone or spare glasses. It also moves them up out of reach of small hands (we do have a grandchild.)
- Rain fly Single wall tents in rainy climates don’t fly–they are apt to leak. That makes the rain fly essential, and it becomes important to have a full coverage fly in cold weather too. Make the fly adjustable and then the tent is actually 4 season, by allowing a section on each side, like over a window, to be unzipped or rolled up, for better ventilation. Just ensure that the fly rolls under rather than over, to remain a waterproof barrier that sheds water during a thunderstorm. When fully expanded and staked down, a good full coverage fly minimizes breezes entering at the edge of the fly by staking down near the base of the tent and/or tightly to the ground.
- Sturdy and reliable Nobody likes a tent that fails them at a critical time, and nobody carries a spare tent just-in-case either. I also expect my tents to last a minimum of five years with regular use and proper care. That means UV resistant fabrics, strong seams, good workmanship, and high quality components such as zippers and poles.
Obviously, nobody makes such a tent. So what can I do? Actually, there are an amazing number of options if I’m willing to modify a more standard (or should we say sub-standard) tent to meet my requirements. I guess that would be another post though!
Stay tuned and I’ll get back to that!