How to Pick the Right Tent
by Thai Le
When I thought of different aspect of tents to write about for this article, I didn't want it to be another rehash of what type of tents available for purchase on the market or a litany of pros and cons. Those types of information are readily available with a simple Google search. I then realized what I want to share are my experiences I've learn from my use of several tents I have owned, and knowledge acquired during my research for the ever elusive better, lighter tents. These were the nuggets of insights I often asked more seasoned backpackers and are not as easily found in print or in the ether.
As with all gear, each type of tent has their purpose and place. For this article we will mainly look at criterions that will help us select a suitable tent for those multiday backpacking trips, but these same criterions are also valid when applied to more specialized tents. Some of the factors I weight when I decide on which tent to take are: capacity, weight, ease of use, and moisture management.
Capacity ratings are often generous. Don't take the manufacturer's capacity ratings at face value. I, on the other hand, look at the area - starting at 16 sq. ft. per person for when I feel Spartan; to 20+ sq. ft. per person for when I want my decadent luxury.
Another thing to remember is to factor capacity and weight together. The square footage is inversely proportional to the comfort of carrying. On trips with severe elevation changes, it's better to go spartan and lighter because those ounces do add up, but when you have a second, a third or a fourth to divvy up the shouldering duties, you can take a larger tent (sq. ft. per person) because the weight increase for a multi capacity tent is not proportional to the number of person increased.
When you look at a tent design, be very critical of the ease of use. How easy is it to setup? Try to imagine having to set it up in the dark, exhausted, hungry and wet during a driving rainstorm via a headlamp. Can the parts or orientation easily determined? Differentiating between a dark grey and black tip of a pole or its length by head lamp is not fun in the above condition. Can the tent be set up in another configuration or sequence? Being able to set up the tent without the rainfly, or the "fast and light" method of just the footprint and rainfly gives you flexibility. Also being able to quickly erect the "fast and light" method allows you to get your gear and yourself out of increment weather. You can then erect the tent body underneath the rainfly at your leisure. Practice erecting your tent. Also, learn how to erect it in high wind.
Another aspect of tent design I learned is how good will the tent be able to manage moisture – keep out the precipitation, but still allow the evaporative moisture to escape. All the hi tech fabrics will fail under the right conditions, so look at design features like adjustable vents high up on the rainfly and tent body, and 3-way zippers on the rainfly that allow you to open and close for ventilation. Also, can your tent design give you any leeway in height adjustment of the rainfly to the ground? This allows you to control airflow between the rainfly and tent. Thus cool air coming in the bottom to push the hotter, moister laden air out the top vents. With the right design, you can ventilate your tent even during a heavy rainstorm.
Lastly, look at how you can modify your tent to make it better. Use colored tape to help you identify parts easily at night. Replace the cords with lighter Spectra glow in the dark cords. This sounds really esoteric but not face-planting and ripping the tent while answering nature's call at night is worth the money. Also, add extra rigidity to the tent by adding loops for extra tie-downs higher up in the rainfly. On the bottom side location of tie-downs, sew in Velcro loops to the seams to fasten them to the pole structure. Now the rainfly is locked to the pole structure and when you pull the rainfly taunt via the tie-downs, you have a stronger structure capable of handling severe wind.
No tent is perfect. That is why, for the avid outdoor person, you eventually own several tents. Each will have their pros and cons. It is the experiences you acquire that allow you to choose and use the correct tent for adventure you have planned.