Tent Shopping, Or: Rokusan and Family Brave The Outside World
May 18, 2017 5:20 AM   Subscribe

Camping Filter: Making the jump from all-day hiking to overnights, but clueless about modern tent technology. Help.

Looking for a compact, easy to handle tent that can sleep three (packed snugly, so a biggish two person model would work, I guess?) in warm summerish climates. (Splitting time between Hokkaido, NZ's North Island, and the Pacific Northwest, if that matters. Foresty. Flat. Often damp.)

I read this previous AskMe but it's five years old and has different concerns. I'm also hoping for more specific recommendations/brands/experiences.

(1) My primary concern is minimal size/weight (since these are short trips, not weeklong excursions), even if that means sacrificing some possible comfort. I don't want the tent to be someone's entire pack, or to take up half a closet at home when stored.

(2) My secondary concern is ease of setup/breakdown. I am the tool user of the house, and reasonably skilled generally, but not very coordinated without adequate coffee. Slow is okay, but if I need nine different tools and patience at 7am, it's not gonna be a good time for anyone within earshot.

I have no preference on style/shape, nor the experience to judge which is best for this application, so tips on selection are also welcome. I haven't overnighted in like a decade, and never with my own tent and gear.

I would rather not have to replace a cheap/broken tent very much, so if a good one costs money I will pay money.

Bonus points for sleeping bag(s?) with the same criteria (summerish, light, small). We're good for all the other gear, probably, from the all the day hiking.
posted by rokusan to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you are regularly in the Pacific North West, your best bet is to hit up an REI and ask the majority of your questions there. Additionally if you are a member ($20 lifetime membership) you can rent gear and get used to using it (and what you like/don't like) before committing to something.

For internet research, I lean heavily on Outdoor Gear Lab, which has fantastic comparisons each year of gear. However, I would caveat that you still need to see stuff in person; particularly if you are on the tall, big or very petite side- gear will fit differently.

Lightweight gear is the most expensive, and there's a whole wormhole of "ultralight" philosophy that is very appealing, but also very intimidating.

A very important thing you will learn very early on is that a 2 person tent fits 2 bodies. NOT 2 people + gear. I and the people I camp with are taller than average, and we actually carry a 3 person tent for 2 people as our extra tall sleeping pads DIDN"T FIT into most of the 2 person tents we tried.
posted by larthegreat at 5:49 AM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've had good luck with the REI tents. My 2 person Quarter Dome backpacking tent has been serving me for 20 years. They are also reasonably affordable. I think there is a sale on right now and you get 10% back as a dividend at the end of the year. Often they will try to sell you on getting a footprint to go under the tent. I've never needed one and it's just extra weight. That said I'm mostly camping in more desert and alpine environments. So if you're areas are very wet, it might be worthwhile to get a footprint as an extra moisture barrier under you.
posted by trbrts at 6:12 AM on May 18, 2017

Good info, links saved. So for one regular size human (just under 6') and two miniature-size humans (5'-ish), with a couple of daypacks, I should be looking for (gulp) a "4-person" tent?

My experience with REI is generally that nine workers are dying to sell me a membership, but few care to help me with anything once that's done... but I understand it's the go-to place in PNW, so it's a likely stop for sure.
posted by rokusan at 6:20 AM on May 18, 2017

A tent guide from Wirecutter.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:35 AM on May 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

I totally agree that the person sizing of lightweight tents is always on the extra cozy side with no room for other stuff. So you either want a 3+ or a 4 person tent. I love stores that let you set them up and climb in. Here in Minneapolis, I go to Midwest Mountaineering. REI used to be good about this, but in recent years has become... less so.

I too tend towards lightweight gear, but tents are where I have my standards.
  • I need free standing tents. I often camp on rocky ground where stakes may not happen. I also find them easier to set up in the dark or under caffeinated.
  • I think footprints are required. Rocky ground and bare tent floors are asking for tears or punctures.
  • If it even looks like it might think about rain, I need a good rain fly. My anxiety won't let me sleep if I don't have it on and am constantly worrying about rain. (Bonus, these often give me a place to stash my boots and pack out of the rain without having them in my too small tent.)
My main backpacking tent is a Mountain Hardware and I like it a lot. It's almost 20 years old, so you'll want to check out newer ones.
posted by advicepig at 6:48 AM on May 18, 2017

Nthing that a proper 2 person tent gives you just enough room for two people and that's it. Ask me how we also fit two backpacks in there as well as a dog? Poorly.
posted by ancient star at 6:51 AM on May 18, 2017

I agree with everyone saying that you probably need a 3+ or 4 person tent for three people plus bags. Tent sizing definitely tends on the small side. If you're going to buy new, I've been happy with the REI Half Dome series of tents and I think they have a 4 person option. Also, look for options to get used gear. Secondhand camping gear is often a great deal.
posted by mjcon at 7:28 AM on May 18, 2017

Your description and your destinations don't match - you definitely need something I would classify as all-weather or winter camping because both places you mention are prone to unexpected rain even if it is not cold, plus they are more humid so there is also the condensation that builds up in your tent in the morning. And wet or moist ground. You want something with good seams that is waterproof. Some tents are designed better than others, even though most tents can withstand light rain.

Tents are notoriously easy to set up these days, usually you just thread the loops and slap on the fly - and you're done unless you want to stake it down. REI is just fine for this. Because you will not be in extreme cold, you can go with carbon fiber or fiberglass tent pole - I can't remember which is lighter - you can save a lot of weight there!

I don't have any rec's but there are websites, shops, and youtube videos dedicated to wilderness backpacking, the basics of what to look for are all covered. In person research is the best. I think REI rents equipment? So that's a possibility to try stuff out first.

You also might consider individual hammocks, it's A Thing. Check Youtube. The hammocks are lightweight, each person carries their own. Gosh, are they inexpensive, too! Use carabiners and these canvas ties with loops so set up is SUPER easy. You put some kind of sleeping dome on them to protect you from bugs and rain. There is probably not great protection from rain? Maybe read reviews? But this is a lightweight solution and the stuff you need is on Amazon dirt cheap. Read reviews and be discerning.

Seriously, tho, check out a serious store like REI and talk to people there. Other customers will also be thrilled to tell you what they use in the area, what works. The folks who work there also use the gear. It's the best way to learn.
posted by jbenben at 7:29 AM on May 18, 2017

I would rather not have to replace a cheap/broken tent very much, so if a good one costs money I will pay money.

I get this. Don't get a cheap tent. But -- don't get a super-duper one yet, either. Go for a mid-range one which will last you a couple of years, and might even surprise you. Once you have a bit of experience with a mid-range tent, and you know what works and doesn't work for you, you're in a much better position to by a super-duper one down the road.

I've had good experience with my Coleman Sundome.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:54 AM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

As others have said, REI tents are absolutely the sweetspot for your needs-not too cheap but not too crappy. I think there are more expensive picks and heavier picks, but having spent a fair amount of time as a outdoor professional camper, most of my colleagues stick with REI as a good balance.
One thing no-one's mentioned: Tents are super easily split up between a group. There is no reason it has to be someone's whole pack.
posted by piedmont at 7:56 AM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am assuming you are backpacking, not car-camping. Instead of a 4-person tent, would you consider two 2-person tents? The two small people could sleep in one, and the one big person could sleep in the other with all the gear. Although the overall weight of this would be higher, it might make it easier to distribute the load across the people, although I recommend that you do not split the tent parts from each other (what I mean is, one person should carry all the parts of one whole tent). It would also be a bit safer if one of you accidentally got separated from the others.

I am a big person, and I once shared this 2-person tent with a small person. Our gear was hung outside on a tree. We had personal stuff (lights, extra socks, etc.) with us in it. It was cramped, but ok. It was really nice to have 2 doors and 2 vestibules REI Passage 2. The weight is high though, especially if you decide to go with two of them. Whatever you decide, don't buy the ground cloth for it. Make one yourself from tyvek or a plastic sheet (the kind you can buy for painting). Much lighter.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:56 AM on May 18, 2017

We recently bought a 3-person Big Agnes Copper Spur UL tent. It is shockingly small and light (~4 pounds pack weight, doesn't take up much more space than a sleeping bag) and incredibly easy to put up. It's an expensive tent (like $500?) but we got ours used at the REI Garage Sale for about 1/3 retail. I think it's going to be about the right size for me (5'5" woman) and my fiance (6'4" man) for weekends (so far we've only tried it out in the yard).

So, if you can afford it or can find one in good used condition, Big Agnes tents are pretty cool (the Copper Spur comes in a 4-person size). I'm not sure paying more gets you more durability or ease of use; mostly it just gets you lighter weight.
posted by mskyle at 7:59 AM on May 18, 2017

(On preview: some of this got covered while I was typing it...)

I've been around a lot of expert backpackers teaching beginning backpackers (including myself) over the last 3-4 years, and here's what I've gleaned:

Yes, backpacking tents are small. But many come with vestibules for gear, so a 3 person tent would be cozy but doable if you leave your packs in the vestibule. Make sure you have a footprint that covers the vestibule space too. You don't need to buy the footprint that matches your tent though -- you can easily make do with some Tyvek or a plastic drop cloth cut to size/shape. Just make sure it's a inch or two smaller than the tent/fly, or it'll collect any rain and pool under the tent. You'll definitely want a tent with a separate rain fly, and you'll probably want one where you can setup the fly first and then then tent underneath it (good when it's raining).

The REI Dome tents are pretty good for their lower price point. I like my MSR Hubba (the 3 person version is the Mutha Hubba), and I know a lot of people who really love their Big Agnes Copper Spurs. Actually, you can get a storage attachment for the MSR tents if your really need the space, but that might end up being overkill for you.

We should be coming up to the REI garage sales pretty soon, definitely check those out for quality gear at rock bottom prices. If you go that route, be sure to setup a tent before you buy it. People return them for all kinds of reasons, from "the wind snapped a pole and blew it into some cactus so it's ripped to shreds" to "it was too short for me" (which is how I got a practically brand new Quarter Dome with footprint for $50 when I first got into backpacking).

My understanding is that a decent hammock setup is about the same cost/weight as an equivalent tent setup, but I tend to get my info from the enthusiast forums, so you can probably go cheaper. Your site selection for hammock camping is also more limited, because you need properly spaced trees (probably not an issue for your locations though).

How big are your daypacks? When I carry all my own food and gear, a long weekend pretty much fills my 60L pack. You'll gain some space by splitting the load over 2-3 people, so you may not need bigger packs for everyone, but don't be surprised if you find you need a backpacking pack.

I don't have any specific recommendations for sleeping bags but in general:
* You're in wet areas, so look for synthetic (bulkier) or waterproof down (pricier). Regular down doesn't insulate when wet, so you're setting yourself up for some miserable nights otherwise.
* Look into quilts as well as sleeping bags, especially if you sleep warm or toss around/spread out. When I replaced my mummy bag with a quilt, I slept a hundred times better.
* Don't underestimate how much difference a pillow can make. You can get blow up pillows or fleece lined stuff sacks to save on space.
* You may be tempted to go without a sleeping bad, but please, at least get some cheap foam ones. You NEED insulation from the ground.

REI (and probably many other outdoor stores) will rent you everything you need, so that's an excellent way to try out different gear to learn what you like and don't like before dropping the cash. REI at least is pretty cheap too. Don't be afraid of the membership -- it's not that expensive, it's a one-time fee for a lifetime membership, and if you're at all outdoorsy, you'll definitely make it back many times over with the rebates.
posted by natabat at 8:04 AM on May 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have experience with two REI tents -- the Half Dome from a few years back and the Dash (now the Quarter Dome). I am a small person and my boyfriend is slim. The Half Dome (regular size) is pretty roomy for us but the Dash is tight. I wouldn't want to hang out in the Dash other than sleeping, or reading by myself. The Quarter Dome is bigger than the Dash but I think I'd still feel the same. On the other hand, the Dash is way lighter. I've done overnights with the Half Dome before I met my boyfriend and it was definitely still doable (took up 1/3-1/2 of my relatively small pack). Now those are all older models than what you'd look at today, but I've found the REI tents to be super easy to put together, to address one of your questions. The modern tent material feels crazy thin and flimsy, but our Dash has held up in pretty bad weather (wind and rain).

I also agree with others that your locations of interest all have gorgeous places that may need more than a summer tent. You can easily avoid camping on snow, but even on normal ground it will get brisk many nights once you get above 5000 ft. Same goes for the sleeping bags. A high quality sleeping bag is generally both light and warm. If you get too warm one night, just open it up. Target around $150 on sale or up to $300 regular price to not overspend...

Sleeping pads are necessary if you don't have one. I love my classic foam pad much more than the inflatable one, but most people seem to prefer the inflatables other than cost.

It's now the REI anniversary sale. If you pay $20 for a lifetime membership, you immediately get a 20% coupon to make back all $20 you paid and more. REI membership is pretty nice... there's really no reason not to get it in when you can immediately recoup the expense.
posted by bread-eater at 8:31 AM on May 18, 2017

I will also agree that an REI-brand backpacking tent is a good deal for you, and that you might want to go up a "person" in size (so get a 4-person tent). You can split the tent among multiple packs (poles in one, body in one, fly in one.

Generally speaking a 3-season tent has a fly that will keep out rainfall; a 4-season tent will have solid panels that zip shut over the mesh panels to retain a little heat. A sleeping pad (like a Thermarest) does two things: it provides padding for your back, and it provides insulation so that your body heat isn't sucked into the ground. Air mattresses only do the former (if you sleep on one in cold weather, you wind up trying to heat the volume of air in the mattress).

I haven't used the REI Half Dome mentioned upthread (which looks like a good option for you), but I have used other REI tents that have similar details, and I can pitch one in less than 10 minutes by myself while drinking a beer. They're well-made.
posted by adamrice at 9:08 AM on May 18, 2017

Based on the concerns you outline in your question, I'm guessing it's been quite a while since you've bought a tent. If so, I think you're going to be quite pleasantly surprised by the options available from REI, Mountain Drifter, or any of the other brands that folks in this thread are recommending. They require essentially no tools for setup (except sometimes a mallet to drive in stakes), they clip and snap together very easily in minutes, and they're quite roomy and light -- my 3-person tent (including a footprint and rainfly) takes up, at most, a quarter of my backpack space.

I've used REI tents and really liked them. However, when I bought my tent, I ended up getting a Mountain Hardware Drifter 3 because it had great reviews and it was on sale. It's a 3-season tent , not really suitable for winter camping, but that's fine for me. I've had it for 4-5 years now and I love it.

Just one note: a tent footprint is absolutely necessary if you're going to be pitching on damp ground. You can use a tarp in a pinch, but if so, make sure you fold it in such a way that it exactly matches the size of your tent. If there's a little bit of tarp sticking out from under your tent, it can collect water pools (which then seep into your tent), and if there's a little bit of your tent touching damp ground, it will eventually seep into your tent (and get your sleeping stuff all damp).

One more tip: the Therm-A-Rest self-inflating sleeping pads are AMAZING -- lighter, more insulating, more compact, and so, so, so much more comfortable that the bulky foam mats that I used to carry around. You can find them in several different sizes/shapes/weights/price points, so look around for the one that suits you best.
posted by ourobouros at 9:08 AM on May 18, 2017

Warm summerish climates. I've seen tents that are all or mostly screen, with a regular-large fly in case of rain. I hate skeeters but love seeing the stars. I may even add a plastic window to my current tent. Seal the seams of any tent fly or tent.
posted by theora55 at 9:46 AM on May 18, 2017

Since it looks as though you'll be going the REI route, I hesitate to mention this, but:
ALWAYS get a full-fly for the tent! The little ones that sit like a cap are worthless in a "real" rainstorm, especially one with wind. Also a full-fly will stop condensation inside the tent.
And yes to vestibules - you can take off your shoes and leave them out there - it will save the floor of the tent, and keep the inside way cleaner.
Bring a small whisk broom and pan to sweep up before you pack up - grit is the enemy of modern tent materials, so the cleaner it is before you pack up, the longer it will last!
posted by dbmcd at 10:51 AM on May 18, 2017

Dome tents (2-person) -- Pros -- free-standing, sets up in minutes, almost vertical walls, good sitting room for several campers, pick it up and shake out the dirt before packing up. Cons -- longer tent poles make this the heavier option. Avoid "moon roofs" with tiny rainflies. Go for double wall tents and lots of noseeum (not mosquito) netting.

Tube-style or pup tents (2-person) -- Pros -- lighter weight. Cons -- lighter weight. Coffin-shaped, no sitting up room, crawling through mud and pouring rain to enter or exit (depending on door location), variable wind directions hitting long exposed side, no way to reposition in strong winds without taking the whole thing down. Really needs a door mat (do not put under tent!) and a small vestibule tarp -- wasn't this the lighter-weight option?

Learn to add cordage to walls for storm-proofing. All tents need seam-sealing before use.

Stuff sacks -- I use a separate sack for the wet rainfly, the one that comes with the tent for the tent body, the tent poles sack, and a sturdy sack for the tent stakes, cordage and mallet. Keep tent stakes separate from fabrics.

Tent sizing -- number of occupants (3 sleepers in 3-person tent) OR number of occupants plus gear / dog (2 sleepers & stuff in 3-person tent). Are you okay with wrapping your backpack in a trash compactor bag? What about a small tarp suspended over the door as a vestibule?

Tyvek ground cloth -- cut several inches smaller than tent floor. Do not allow edges to extend from tent, or it will funnel condensation beneath the tent. Or cut several inches larger and use inside the tent as a second bathtub floor. The tent floor is going to get holes no matter what you do. Do yo want it to be muddy, or do you want to deal with a muddy ground cloth?

Sleeping bags -- Do you sleep cold or warm? Can you add more thermal clothing (Smartwool socks, Cuddle Duds long underwear, a Buff) to increase the warmth factor? I deal with cold wet springs and hot humid summers, so I take a weight and size penalty and use a synthetic fill bag.

Foam pads -- good. Thermarest Z-rest foam pad -- better! Thermarest or Big Agnes self-inflating pad -- nirvana!
posted by TrishaU at 3:45 AM on May 19, 2017

Also -- seconding two small dome tents (checking the pack weight of tents at rei.com -- ooof!)

If a one-person tent is your game and you want to save weight, the non-freestanding single wall Eureka Solitaire is available at most nationwide stores (Academy, Bass Pro, Cabela's, Dicks) for under $95.00. I have not used it, but it's been around for many years and it's the lightest weight good option I've seen. No sitting up in it, though. Maybe the Eureka Spitfire?

Do keep all the components of a tent in one backpack. That way one camper can set it up while the others are elsewhere. Perhaps someone else will carry the kitchen gear and offer to do the initial set up for meals.
posted by TrishaU at 4:26 AM on May 19, 2017

If you don't have good Thermarests/ ground pads, they can make a huge different in comfort, particularly in chilly or damp weather. You can frequently get away with a more lightweight sleeping bag, if you're not getting chilled from the ground. They have been absolutely worth it for us.

Also, definitely a full rain fly. I have been soooo cold in three season tests with a little summer rain.

I've had the Hubba Hubba for years (the two-person tent in that series). Last year, the rain fly started to go, I send it to MSR for repair, and they sent me a brand-new tent. It looks like the price of the whole Hubba series has gone up quite a bit since I purchased, but sales happen.
posted by oryelle at 11:12 AM on May 19, 2017

What you need to look for is a three season backpacking tent. Tents these days are incredibly easy to set up- insert tent poles, stake rainfly. Get a footprint to match the tent. I always like Sierra Designs tents, the Flash 3 is a good one for all sorts of weather from hot to cool to rainy. The whole thing weighs seven pounds, but you can divide it up by tent-poles-fly.

I also highly highly recommend good sleeping pads. You may try to scrimp on weight but you will be sad when you don't sleep at night. The Therm-a-Rest Neo air X-light gets high marks from many review sites.

If you can share a bed, a duo sleeping bag can save space and weight. This one saves weight by coordinating with two 20 inch wide mattresses.

ps: you really can't lose by being an REI member.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:23 PM on May 20, 2017

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