Camping for Beginners: Choosing the right tent

Choosing a tent can be tricky – especially if you’re a first-time camper. We’ve put together a tent-buying guide to help you through the process…

So, you’ve decided you want to go camping for the first time and now you just need a tent. Sounds simple enough but a quick search on the internet or poke about in an outdoor shop can leave you completely baffled. There are so many options that choosing a tent can seem really tricky. It doesn’t need to be that way. You just need to start with an idea of what you want and to understand the difference between domes and tunnels, family tents and backpacker ones. That’s where this camping for beginners guide to choosing a tent might come in handy.

Questions to consider when choosing a tent

Which tent you choose will depend on when and where you are going to be using it and how many people are going to be sharing it with you. Questions you may want to consider when choosing a tent are:

  • How important is warmth and waterproofing?
  • How much space do you need?
  • How many people are going to sleep in the tent?
  • How much are you willing to spend and how are you going to be transporting it?

That final question is perhaps the logical starting place. If you are going to be carrying the tent as you travel the world or walk a long-distance trail, you need to be considering backpacker tents which pack down small and weigh as little as possible. At the other end of the scale, if you’re taking your whole family on a camping trip, and you’re travelling by car, the pack-down weight will not be the key issue. You will need to consider how much space you need inside the tent; whether you want to sleep in the same room as your kids or whether you want your own bedrooms. Could you survive in the space without argument if rain forced you inside for an evening or two?

Crucially, a family tent is usually one you can stand up in, so if that’s important to you, these are the tents you need to be looking for. Solo campers and couples might look for something in between backpacker and family-sized tents. While size and weight constrain backpacker tents, if it’s a festival, holiday or family tent you’re looking for – there are several styles to consider.

Family tent illustration

Tent styles

Ask someone to draw a tent and they will probably draw a ridge tent. These are the kind of triangular A-frame tents that you might have kipped in as a cub scout. They usually have two upright poles and one horizontal one, holding them together, with a canvas cover (this is called the fly sheet) pegged-out to the sides making them pretty easy to pitch. It’s a classic design with vintage appeal but has limited head space, especially at the edges. These days it’s perhaps not the most practical of tents and for that reason you won’t find many of these for sale. Next up, is the dome tent. The basic dome tent is a simple construction, that uses two crossed poles to make a dome which gives more evenly-spaced height to a tent. Equally as popular, is the tunnel tent. These use a series of arched poles to create, you guessed it, a tunnel like shape. These can be low, for backpacker-style tents or huge for family-sized ones. Family tents tend to have slightly more complex architecture which involves several domes or tunnels (or even a combination of both) to create different rooms and spaces at head height.

You may also be tempted by the range of stylish glamping tents that you see on glamping sites. There are many different types and many are simply too expensive and too bulky when packed down to be practical. Bell tents and some less-traditional tipis are the exceptions to the rule. These classic tents are usually made in canvas rather than the man-made, lightweight fabrics of other modern tents. The natural fabric is breathable and becomes naturally waterproof after an initial soaking. They can take longer to dry out and can be more susceptible to mould than man-made fabrics but have the advantage of being warmer in cool weather because the material is thicker and cooler in warm weather, because it’s also breathable.

Poles, pop-up or air beam

The traditional way to pitch your tent is with poles, ropes and pegs but, of course, innovation has brought us alternatives. Trailer tents were an early adaptation and offer a mid-way point between a caravan and a tent. Many years later, some clever innovator came up with the pop-up tent. The tent fabric already has flexible poles already in place so you simply can’t mess up the pitching process. In fact, pitching a pop up is usually as simple as pulling it out of its bag and giving it a gentle shake to initiate the popping up. All you have to do is peg it down. Understandably, with the complicated engineering that goes in to a pop-up tent, there’s a limit to how big these can be. They tend to be better for individuals, couples and small families who do not need a huge amount of space. They are also not the most compact of tents as while these structures are impressively flexible, there’s a limit to how far they can pack down.

Air beam tents are one of the latest innovations and are pretty popular on the family-camping scene. These usually come in a tunnel-tent style and have no poles at all. Instead they use rigid inflatable tubing for the tent skeleton. Like pop-up tents, there’ no threading and zipping; the tent is already a whole. You just have to get the pump out and start inflating it. Once the tubes are firm, you peg it down and hang any internal rooms and dividers. The size of airbeam tents are also limited by engineering, but they certainly come in larger sizes than pop-ups. Despite having no poles, airbeam tents do not have a tiny pack-down size or weight. The materials used in their construction is heavy duty and they can be more bulky than a traditional tent.

Small Tent illustration

Try before you buy

If you are thinking about making a big investment in a tent, it can be a good idea to try before you buy. We would certainly advise having a look at the tent in real life – in other words; don’t just look at photographs on the internet. Nothing beats stepping inside a tent for getting an idea of if the space will work for you and/or your family. Head for a large outdoor retailer with a tent showroom, or even to a camping show, to see the tents set-up and in action. Better still, one of the best ways to try before you buy is to borrow a tent from a generous outdoorsy friend or to hire one for your very first trip. If that’s not possible, how about a glamping trip? You don’t get the experience of pitching the tent and taking it down again so a lot of the hassle (or fun – depending on your point of view) is taken out of the camping experience. What you do get, is the chance to see if the type of tent you’re staying in works well for you and your family over the duration of your stay. Of course, as glamping sites tend to have some of the best tents around, there’s every chance you might get hooked on glamping and decide not to choose a tent to invest in at all!

There’s more advice on buying a family tent in our family tent buying guide, written for us by outdoor retailer Blacks.

The comprehensive list of tent brands

Prepare for your mind to be boggled. Yes, there are heaps of tent brands out there and here we have outlined all of the major known brands. If you read the advice above, go into shops and talk to the experts, you'll find it's a lot easier to make a descion than you realise, but this gives you a good idea of all the options out there. Plus, if there is a brand you know and love, you'll be able to jump directly to it from the list...