Choosing a tent

How to choose a tent

If you’re going camping or backpacking, then you’ll need a tent to sleep in after your full day outside. There are lots of tent options to choose from, including ones from brands like MSR, Big Agnes, Sierra Designs and MEC, but how do you know which tent is best for your camping style?

Here are some factors to consider when you’re shopping for a tent:

  • Type of camping you’re doing: Are you driving to a provincial park campsite or are you hiking deep into the backcountry?
  • Number of people: Do you need extra room in your tent or are you okay with a snug fit?
  • Weather and time of year: Pick a tent suited to the conditions you expect.
  • Features to look for: Tents come in bare bones minimalist, super deluxe versions, and everything in between – see what features are important to you.
  • Tent accessories and add-ons: Find out what other gear can enhance your camping experience.

Tents for your type of camping

The type of camping you’re planning to do will help determine which type of tent you should get. Will you be camping at a provincial park site next to your vehicle or carrying your tent way in the backcountry via backpack or canoe? If you’re new to the world of camping or backpacking, you can also rent a tent from MEC to see what features you like.

Camping with a car or vehicle

Family car camping next to a campfire

If you’re planning to drive to your campsite, then you have lots of options. Since you’ll only have to carry your camping gear a few metres from your trunk to your campsite (instead of carrying it in your backpack, bike or canoe), weight and size aren’t major concerns. Most frontcountry campers choose car camping tents, which are:

  • Large and spacious with tons of headroom (most people can usually stand up in them).
  • Designed with lots of windows.
  • Often the biggest tents available – if you’re looking for a tent to fit a family of 8, it’s usually going to be a tent designed for car camping.
  • Not designed to be ultra lightweight or compact.

“When you’re packing up your car for camping, pack your tent and sleeping stuff last. That way you can easily find it to set it up first when you arrive at the campsite.” – Murray H., MEC staffer

Backpacking, hiking, canoeing or bike touring

If you’re planning a camping trip that involves carrying your tent on your back or through muddy portages, weight and size suddenly become way more important. Remember: you won’t just be transporting your tent, you’ll also be carrying other supplies, like cooking gear, clothing, food and water. Choose a tent designed for backpacking, since they’re:

  • Lightweight.
  • Compact to save space in your pack.
  • Small to fit into small wilderness campsites.
  • Note: with lighter weights comes lower durability and less interior space, so you’ll have to balance these factors when making your selection.

“The MEC Volt, Spark, Wanderer and Expedition tents all use top-end tent poles from DAC. Along with being incredibly strong and lightweight, they’re also anodized to prevent rusting – and DAC has created a green anodizing process that’s better for the environment by cutting out nitric and phosphoric acids.” – James B., MEC tent designer

Number of people

Each tent on mec.ca has a capacity rating that shows how many people can fit into the tent.

However, just because a tent is rated for 6 people doesn’t always mean you’ll want to cram in there with 5 of your closest friends. There’s no industry standard for tent capacity ratings, but in general the capacity means the number of sleeping bags you can fit in the tent with a few centimetres of space in between.

If you’re an ultralight backpacker or mountaineer and want to save weight in your pack, you probably want to buy a tent rated for a capacity that matches the number of people in your group. But most other campers likely prefer a little more wiggle room or space to store extra gear. For car camping, a good rule of thumb is to buy a tent that’s rated to fit one or two more people than you plan to sleep. If you’re bringing your dog camping or a growing family, that’s something to keep in mind as well.

Weather and seasons

All tents sold at MEC are made of quality fabrics with waterproof coatings, fully sealed seams and durable poles. Even if you buy a quality tent, the type of weather you plan to camp in can still influence what kind of tent you buy.

Camping in spring, summer and fall: Most tents are designed for 3-season use (which means all the seasons except winter). 3-season tents keep out rain and wind, but they can’t withstand loads of heavy snow on the roof or wind gusts of Himalayan proportions.

If you plan to camp in warmer weather, look for a tent with lots of mesh panels for ventilation. Rain-or-shine campers should choose a tent with a full-coverage rain fly that reaches all the way down to the ground rather than one that stops part way down.

Camping in winter: If your camping plans extend into winter, you’ll need a 4-season tent to protect you in bad weather. They offer secure shelter when you’re ski touring, winter camping or on a mountaineering expedition, and they’re designed to shed heavy snow and stay standing in brutal winds. Tip: if you only plan to go winter camping once or twice, look into 4-season tent rentals from your local MEC store.

Features to look for

Woman reading in a tent with two open doors

Doors

If you’re sharing your tent, having more than one door means its less likely you’ll have to step over someone on a nighttime bathroom mission. But adding extra doors means extra weight and bulk, so some backpackers prefer to make do with only one.

Vestibules

Vestibules are the garages, mudrooms and front porches of the camping world. You can use them as a place to store your backpack, take off your shoes or even hang out away from rain or bugs. They come in lots of different sizes and shapes. Most tents come standard with a vestibule (or at least an awning) but some tents have optional add-on vestibules if you want to supersize your space.

Easy Set up

Most modern tents are easy to set up. For the fastest pitch times, look for tents with colour coded poles and attachments. Some tents even have the set-up instructions printed right on the bag so you can never lose them. And it might go without saying, but bigger tents with more poles will take a bit more work to set up than smaller ones.

“Before your first camping trip, practice setting up your new tent in your backyard or a nearby park. You don’t want to be fumbling around with an unfamiliar tent in the rain or the dark once you get to the campsite.” – Taryn E., MEC Product Information Team

Pockets and Organization

It can be hard to keep track of your gear in a tent. (Where did I put my car keys again?!) That’s where pockets and organizers come in handy. Some tents will have one or two small pockets, but more luxurious car camping models may have many more.

Tent accessories

Footprint

A footprint (also known as a ground cloth) is a custom-sized piece of durable material that goes under your tent. It protects from abrasion and ensures that the waterproof coating on the tent floor will last a long time. It’s also cut to the exact dimensions of the tent, since any material that sticks out could channel rain under the tent. If you’re camping on rocky ground or using a delicate lightweight backpacking tent, a footprint is highly recommended.

Gear Loft

If your tent didn’t come with enough pockets to store all your stuff, consider adding on a gear loft. These fabric shelves or hammocks are perfect for holding lightweight gear like extra socks or flashlights. Check to make sure your tent has loops on the ceiling or walls that let you install a gear loft.

Lights

You can buy a tent that comes with built-in lights (like the ones in the Big Agnes mtnGLO series) or you can add your own. Many tents have a loop at the top to hang a lightweight battery powered lantern.

Tent rentals

New to camping? Not quite ready to buy a tent? Look into tent rentals from your local MEC store. Renting a tent is also a good option if you have a trip planned with a lot more people than usual, or if you’re trying a different type of camping (your first backpacking trip, for example).