Beginners Guide To Buying Tents



So, you want to get into camping but don't know where to start. A good place would be your bedroom. You're going to need a place to sleep out in the wilderness, and it doesn't have to break the bank. It's way more likely that you'll stick to "car camping" (driving right up to a campsite) than backpacking (hiking into the wilderness carrying all your gear on your shoulders), so you don't need a super small or ultralight tent when starting out. In fact, I would suggest getting a bigger tent just so you have plenty of room and are comfortable starting out. However, if you really want to take the plunge and invest in this new camping hobby of yours, you'll have much more versatility with an ultralight backpacking tent.

SIZE: If you're buying a tent primarily for car camping, buy a size up for space and comfort. A 2-person (2p) tent will certainly fit 2-people, but space will be extremely tight, especially if you have a dog or prefer to keep your backpacks or other gear in the tent with you. We always use a 3-person tent when we car camp so we have plenty of space for an air mattress , which you'll be thanking yourself for if it rains and you're bunkered down in it for hours on end.

SEASON: You'll notice pretty much all tents are either advertised as 3-season or 4-season tents (the 4th season being winter). Unless you plan on mountaineering and sleeping on the tops of mountains or camping in the winter a lot, stick with a 3-season tent. The main differences you get with a 4-season tent are stability and insulation from the thicker walls. And as long as you're not expecting heavy winds or heavy snow, a 3-season tent can be used all year long. 

FOOTPRINTS: Not all tents will come with footprints (the vinyl tarp that lies under your tent to protect it from rain, dirt, and rocks), but you definitely need one. Marmot and Coleman tents typically include the footprint, most other companies sell one separately that is specific to the tent and will clip in to securely attach it to the frame. You can use a generic tarp, but it will be heavier, clunkier, and not nearly as secure.  

Best Beginner Tents


I bought my first tent on Amazon in September 2013 when it was on sale for $34. Seriously, just $34 got me my first tent--the Coleman Sundome 2-Person Tent. Must be a piece of junk, right? That's where you'd be wrong! This thing is thick, it's heavy, and because of that, it's pretty damn bombproof and get's the job done, especially for a beginner camper! The rain-fly looks worrisome because it seemingly barely covers up the mesh walls, but I can tell you that I've been in a complete downpour all night long and stayed completely dry. If there was a lot of wind, we may not have been as lucky, but who knows. This tent has already exceeded my expectations, and for just $34 I can tolerate A LOT!

My first out-of-state camping trip with my Coleman Sundome 2 in Moab, Utah.

My first out-of-state camping trip with my Coleman Sundome 2 in Moab, Utah.

So for a beginner tent, I fully endorse these Coleman Sundome tents. I think they're at a perfect price point for beginner campers and provide tremendous value. If you'd like to spend a little bit more for a beginner tent, look at all the tents by ALPS Mountaineering. The ALPS 2-person Taurus, Meramac, and Lynx tents all come in under $100. And if you want to spend a little bit more, definitely check out the REI Half Dome 2 Plus tent.

Best Car-Camping Tents


This thing is a beast. This has quickly become my favorite tent ever! The pre-bend frame pole design allows for an insane amount of headroom. The entire top half of the tent is mesh, which is a priority for me to have for stargazing on nice nights without the rain fly. Plenty of interior pockets and loops for hanging lights and storing gear. As usual it comes with the rainfly that creates a large vestibule on both side. One thing Marmot also does is include the much needed footprint, so make sure you factor that in when shopping around.

One side of the tent has a standard D-shaped door, but the other side has an absolutely massive double-door--easily my favorite feature of the tent. I mean just look at the view you can get with the door fully open!

The Marmot Limelight 3P's massive double-door is ideal for scenic views.

Best Backpacking Tents

The main differences with backpacking tents are weight and versatility. The lightest 2-person backpacking tents will come in between 2 and 3 pounds. Many of them also have an ultralight option, meaning that you can set up just the footprint and rainfly (yes, without actual the tent) for an ultralight backcountry shelter. 


I didn't realize that REI manufactured some of their own in-house gear until I found their highly reviewed tents on their website. After some research and price comparisons, I settled on the REI Quarter Dome 1 that weighs in at just 2lbs 2oz with the rain-fly and footprint. It's been a great minimalist option for me in the backcountry and you can even use it just as the rain-fly and footprint (yes, without the tent!) if you want a real minimalist and lightweight option.

I liked the REI Quarter Dome 1 so much that I picked up a Quarter Dome 2 at one of REI's Garage Sale events (where they sell their returned products) so I would have a bigger backpacking tent to use if I was expecting rain and wanted more shelter or if I wanted to share a tent (snugly) with someone else. 

The REI Quarter Dome 1 is narrow and tight, but it's light as hell and perfect for backpacking.

I don't personally have experience with them, but the MSR Hubba Hubba NX is a favorite of backpacking tent used by at least four of my friends. I hear nothing but good things about many of the Big Agnes and Nemo backpacking tents as well. When backpacking, your number one priority should be weight. As long as you can fit yourself in the tent and your pack in the vestibule, that's really all you need for minimalist tent camping in the backcountry.

Happy trails!