Selecting a Tent for Family Camping
Whether you grew up spending summers camping with family or friends, or you're just looking for a family getaway without the mouse ears, long lines, and crowds, tent camping is a wonderful way to to spend quality time with your family and get a little closer to nature, too. It's something that kids may not do in their everyday activities, and camping is a great recreational activity for the entire family!
Choosing the right home-away-from-home is essential to your camping adventure. There are a lot of family tents on the market in all different sizes and with varying features. Which one is right for you? A tent for one family may not be the best one for another family. The guide below will help you select the right tent for your family.
Types of Family Tents
There are several different types of tents that can easily accommodate a family. Since most families will be carrying the tent from the car to the campsite and back, weight on these types of tents is not as much of an issue as it would be if you were carrying your tent in a pack. For the typical camping family, the following tent types are recommended:
- Single Dome Style Tents
- Multiple Room Dome Style Tents
- Hoop Tents
- Geodesic Tents
- Cabin Style Tents
While there are other types of tents including ridge tents, also known as a-frame tents, the ones below are most suited for families.
Single Dome Tents
Single Dome style tents are easy to put up. They are supported with lightweight flexible poles, usually two, that thread through pockets on the outer walls of the tent and criss-cross in the top center of the tent. The pole sections are usually bungeed together, also known as shock cord poles, to allow for easy assembly and dis-assembly and help to prevent sections of poles from being separated from each other. These types of tents can be easily picked up and moved before staking it down if you need to relocate the tent due to rocks, leveling, etc. Just remember, the taller the dome is, the more vulnerable it is in windy conditions. If you choose a single dome tent, you may need to have two to accommodate your family and gear comfortably.
Multiple Room Dome Tent
Multiple Room Dome style tents are much roomier than the single dome tents but have a similar support structure as their single room cousin. The primary support of the multiple room dome is also usually two shock cord poles, but additional smaller flexible poles are usually used to support the additional "rooms". Some multiple room tents may include a screened-in area that can act as a vestibule or a screened-in porch. Room dividers are usually included and can be used to partition off inside sections of the tent allowing for privacy or to separate gear from sleeping area. These partitions simply clip to loops sew into the inside of the tent. This is the type of tent that my family uses, although we don't put up the partitions.
Hoop / Tunnel Tents
Hoop or Tunnel tents are usually quite roomy as they use a different support configuration than the dome tents. Depending on its size, two or three flexible poles formed in arches supports the tent and forms something like a hoop house or tunnel. They won't do so well, however, when heavy winds approach from the side because of their sides. They can consist of a single room or multiple room.
Geodesic tents are a type of dome tent, but have a more complex pole system making them stronger in windier conditions. This type of tent usually uses four or five flexible poles that cross each other in varying locations to reinforce the structure of the tent. They are quite stable, but because of the additional poles, can be heavier.
Cabin Style Tents
Cabin Style tents offer a lot of room inside.Their walls are nearly vertical, giving these types of tents their cabin-like appearance and can usually hold more items inside as compared to their dome-shaped cousins. They have abundant headroom allowing most people to stand fully upright making this type of tent the most comfortable to move around inside. Many cabin style tents have a pole system that is similar to the old-fashioned pole systems. These types of tents are usually best suited for areas that have some protection from the elements, as they themselves have limited protection in bad weather conditions. Their high tops and boxy shape make them especially vulnerable in windy conditions. Some of the newer style cabin tents have an "instant up" built-in pole system that is easily put up by even one person.
Season Ratings for Tents
Not all tents are created equally! When considering a tent, be sure to look at the label to determine if it's a 3-Season or 4-Season tent. Most labels will indicate this.
Will you be camping mostly in the spring, summer, or fall? Or will your family venture out on some winter camping excursions, too? Depending on what times of year your family plans to camp and what the climate is in your area, you will need to select the correct season rating for your tent.
3-Season tents are manufactured with lightweight materials that are best for spring, summer, and fall temperatures because they tend to stay cooler than their 4-Season cousin. Most 3-Season tents come with a lot of mesh and a rain fly to help with ventilation in the warmer months, resulting in cooler conditions inside.
4-Season tents are made to withstand snow, high winds, and extreme cold because their material is heavier and they use more poles to safely secure them in place. They don't have very much mesh and unlike the 3-Season tents, their rainflys extend to ground level, both resulting in warmer conditions inside.
For most families who casually camp, a 3-Season tent should be sufficient. If you live in colder climates and plan to camp throughout the year, you may consider purchasing a 3-Season tent for most of your camping outings and a 4-Season tent for the winter camping adventures.
Pay Close Attention to Tent Floor Dimensions!
To help you determine how best your family will fit in a tent, pay close attention to the floor dimensions provided by the manufacturer, and using the information below to figure space required, you can determine the ideal required floor space that your family will need.
How Much Room Will You Need?
There are a few important things to consider when trying to select the appropriate tent size for your family, and the tent manufacturers don't necessarily make it easy for you.
Ask yourself these questions to help calculate the room you and your family might need:
- How many people will sleep in the tent?
- Will you use air mattresses or cots? (they take up more room)
- Do you want separate sleeping area from the kids?
- Will gear be kept in your tent?
- If it rains, is there enough room inside to not feel on top of one another?
- What about headroom?
- Is the family dog camping, too?
- How important is a screened porch or vestibule in case of bugs or rain?
Tent manufacturers label their tents as 4-person, 6-person, 8-person, 10-person, etc., but this can be very misleading. If you were sleeping touching the person next to you and no gear was kept in the tent, then these size suggestions would be more accurate. However, that doesn't describe the typical family, unless you want to be extremely cramped! Nothing can spoil a camping trip than everyone fussing with each other over space.
How Much Space Per Person?
You should plan on at least 25-30 square feet of floor space per person. This equates to approximately a 4-foot by 7-foot space per person. Any less can make family members feel claustrophobic. If you're tall, you'll of course need to adjust for a few extra feet in length. If your family is going to sleep on air mattresses or cots, you should plan for a little more room giving each person some space to maneuver on either side.
Having some of your gear or clothing bags inside will take up more space, but will be more convenient to access and to keep dry from the morning dew or rains.
So, why are the person classifications misleading?
Instead of telling you, let's just look at some basic tent floor configurations.
The first tent is a dome tent that measures 12 feet in length by 10 feet in width. The manufacturer labels the tent as sleeping 6.
The graphic on the left demonstrates the manufacturer's interpretation of sleeps 6. The only way six would fit in this is if each person had just over 2 feet wide and 6 feet long of space in sleeping bags only alternating positions and the remaining person slept perpendicular to the rest. If you have small kids, it may be possible, but everyone else would be on top of one another.
Now, look to the same tent on the right. It is still 12 feet x 10 feet, but given the appropriate space per person (about 28 square feet), you can comfortably sleep 3 and each person has some gear.
Let's look at another layout. This layout and floor size is much like my tent. It's for a 3-room family tent measuring 18 feet in length and 10 feet in width. The manufacturer indicates it sleeps 9.
The graphic on the left is an example that a manufacturer may use to interpret "sleeps 9". Note that, again, there is very little space between individuals and two individuals must sleep perpendicular at either end to still allow doorway access.
The graphic on the right is the way that our family utilizes the space. We very comfortably sleep 4 and could, of course, fit more, but we love the room inside. The diagram shows our air mattresses and where we and the kids sleep and where we keep our gear, clothes, etc. And, as you can see, we still have plenty of room. It's a 3-room tent, but we don't use the partitions. We do get picked on about having a Taj Mahal, but we love the space we have. Is it overkill? Probably, but we've had the tent for over 10 years and we'll use it until we can't any longer!
Note: In both of the example layouts above, the tent does have sloped sides. So, while it may appear that there is extra room, it isn't as usable for things other than small bags, etc.
Now You Know How to Select a Family Tent
Once you have considered the type of tent, the size of tent, the durability of tent during different seasons, there are only a few things left to consider: Color and Price!
I hope this summary of how to select a camping tent for your family has helped you on your way to fun family adventures in the great outdoors!