Tent camping is a great family activity that provides you with many benefits. It's affordable, it's accessible, it's good for your health and it can be lots of fun.
But camping with a tent gets a bad wrap sometimes by people eager to upgrade to some kind of trailer or RV. Often times though, the problem isn't with the actual tent, but with the lack of tent camping knowhow and being new to camping altogether.
Here are our basic do's and don't and other tips for tent camping:
1: How to put together your ideal tent camping setup
Unlike caravans and RVs, when you buy the tent, you just get the tent, and nothing else. Which means you need to get everything else as well yourself. Cost-wise, that can add up, especially if you are drawn to the latest gadgets on offer.
As we cover in our tent camping setup for families article, while you won't need everything for every trip, here are some tent camping tips on the types of things you will need to include in your setup:
- Tents and accessories, including any additional shelters like tarpaulins or marquees
- Camping tools
- Power related items such as portable power banks and batteries, solar panels, battery chargers and other devices
- Lighting, including head and hand torches as well as tent lights
- The camp kitchen and its various components, including camp and stove-top cookware and utensils, dinnerware, food and a camping stove
- Your camp fridge or icebox and related gear
- Bathroom and laundry items as well as a portable camping shower and toilet (for those self-sufficient campers)
- First aid kit as well as health, safety and survival equipment
- Furniture, including tables and chairs
- Sleeping bags, sleeping mats and other bedding
- Clothing and footwear
- Sports, entertainment and related games and equipment
So as you can see, this is a long camping checklist, but you can download it as a PDF or alternatively print and edit it as you wish.
2: How to buy and prepare a tent for camping
Plan and research
Many of your tent camping woes can be the result of simply buying the wrong tent. In fact, that is exactly the thing that cut our first family camping experience short. You can read more about it here, but in short, it involved the wrong tent and a week of solid rain with a 5-month-old baby.
So, especially if you haven't been camping, before you make probably the most expensive camping purchase, put a lot of thought into the type you want and check out our article on how to choose a family tent.
Use a groundcover
While most tent floors are durable, especially the good quality ones, it still can easily be pierced by sharp objects in the ground. To avoid an expensive repair job and flooding, protect the flooring with a groundcover sheet.
We also suggest buying a piece large enough to also cover the base of the awning area to keep the dust and dirt at bay and for a layer of protection from the cold ground.
While ground sheets are available to purchase, and also come as accessories to fit some tents, any kind of porous shade cloth material would suit. This allows the grass beneath to breathe somewhat and to prevent water from collecting between the groundcover and the flooring.
Season and rain test
Canvas or poly-cotton canvas tents should typically be "seasoned", which is a process by which the seams are soaked to avoid any leakage through seam holes punched into the fabric in the manufacturing process.
Whether or not it is recommended, we suggest you pitch any new tents and soak them with a hose it down to check for leaks.
Practice the pitch
Tents can be a nightmare to set up for the first time, especially if you think you know what you are doing and don't need the instructions. Not only that, it's not unheard of that a new tent will be missing a key component - it's not common but it does happen.
Before you embark on a camping adventure into the wild blue yonder, make sure you pitch it beforehand to test it out. You can check over the tent for any faults or omissions and to see if any pegs need to be replaced with heavier duty ones to support high-stress points.
More importantly though, you can have a pitching practice run. It's much easier to pitch a tent for the first time at your leisure rather than when you are rushed, have arrived late, are trying to pitch in the dark or in less desirable weather conditions, and when it feels like the whole campground is watching you and having a giggle.
3: How to set up and pack up a campsite
How to Choose and configure your campsite
While positioning of trailers, caravans and RVs on the campsite is somewhat restricted, tents can generally be pitched anywhere on the site. You have more options and can configure the setup to take advantage of the nice views and the positioning of the sun and/or shade throughout the day.
There are a number of things you can do when setting up your tent which you can read in more detail in our choosing a campsite article. Some key tent camping tips to remember however include:
- Looking up and checking for unhealthy trees or loose limbs.
- Looking down and checking for sharp objects and ant nests and other things you might not like to share the campsite with.
- Looking around and checking where the facilities are, where the water source is, and being considerate to the neighbours in the hope they will show yo the same curtesy.
- Positioning the narrow side of the tent to face the direction of the prevailing wind to improve aerodynamics.
- Pitching the tent on the high side of the site to avoid flooding.
- Choosing the flat spot on the site for the sleeping area.
- Being storm and lightning safe by avoiding hilltops, open areas and isolated trees.
How too pitch the tent correctly
One of our most important tips for tent camping is to pitch it properly. The difference between a tent standing firm and collapsing around you in a storm is often down to how well it has been pitched, and indeed whether the manufacturers instructions have been followed.
Now, you often find some manufacturers suggesting their quick pitch tents can be erected in one minute or less, but that assumes you aren't going to peg it down. Which is ironic given they invalidate warrantees if any damage is caused because instructions weren't followed.
Anyway, enough venting. Here are our tips for properly pitching and maintaining your tent:
- No surprises, our first tip is to follow the manufacturers instructions, and look for any instructional videos they might have published as well. When the weather goes wild, you'll be pleased you made the effort.
- For added strength, hammer your pegs at a 45-degree angle away from the tent rather than vertically for extra strength.
- Angle your guy ropes at a 45-degree angle (or more) away from the pole for added strength.
- If windy conditions are expected, or if you are long-stay camping, use a separate peg for each guy rope rather than pegging multiple guy ropes to a single point.
- Peg out two guy ropes at vulnerable awning corners to provide additional strength.
- Use heavy duty pegs at vulnerable points.
How to set up and pack up in the rain
Unlike caravans, trailers and RV's that allow you to leave most of you gear inside them when you on the road, tents need to be emptied completely before being packed up. This is not a problem in fine weather but not if it rains.
Wet tents will also typically be accompanied by mud and can easily be damaged by mould if not completely dried out after use.
Avoid if possible
Actually avoid the rain if possible by waiting until it subsides or even delay the trip slightly if the weather forecast is particularly inclement.
When setting up in the rain
When setting up camp, pitch the tent first before removing any other items. Once pitched, reverse the car up to the awning and remove items under the shelter to prevent you and your gear from getting completely wet. We aren't saying you will be completely dry at the end of it, but it will help.
When packing up in the rain
When packing up camp, there are a number of things you can do to minimise the inconvenience of rain:
- Firstly, try to avoid packing up in the rain and returning home with wet gear if possible by leaving the night before, or later in the day if the site is available.
- Before packing up, wipe down your tent on the inside and out with an absorbent cloth.
- Move your tent to a sunny position if possible to accelerate the rate of drying
- Pack up your campsite in reverse order to setting it up by reversing your car to the edge of the shelter, packing up everything in your campsite except your tent or shelter, loading the car and then finally packing up and loading your tent / shelter.
How to reduce tent condensation
One of the more important tips for tent camping relates to how you deal with condensation. This can often form on the inside of tents as a result of moisture contained in the air collecting on the walls and ceiling. You might not notice it on warm nights, but once the temperatures drop and you experience much cooler outside temperatures, condensation can be a problem.
You can read more about reducing condensation in your tent here, but in summary:
- Keep well ventilated, especially at night
- Don't store wet gear inside your tent
- Wipe down the walls when condensation does occur
- Don't push gear up against the walls
- Choose a tent with a separate fly that will reduce the rate of condensation
- Properly peg out your fly so it isn't touching the inner walls
- Avoid consuming hot food and drinks inside your tent
Check out our suggestions for reducing tent condensation.
4: Tips for camping with a tent
How to camp comfortably in a tent
There are a lot of positives to camping with a tent (cost, flexibility, no need to tow a big trailer or RV etc) but compared to a caravan or motorhome, we can't really compete in the comfort stakes (ie: inner-spring mattresses, toilet and hot showers, air-conditioning, protection from the elements).
That said, there are many people, including me, who enjoy going back to the basics of a tent and are perfectly happy there (although my 8 cm inflatable mat does look a bit sad against the inner spring mattress of my sister's camper trailer).
Probably the biggest disadvantage to camping in a tent is the weather! You can be perfectly comfortable on still mild sunny days, but that's often not the case. Rain, wind, heat and storms all add to the challenges of tent camping.
So, here are our top tent camping tips for staying comfortable:
- For me and many campers, the sleeping arrangements are a top priority. Invest in good quality gear.
- If there are other non-negotiable items and you have limited packing space, think about how you might make compromises elsewhere to help in the comfort stakes.
- Ensure you have a well equipped camp kitchen and a range of compatible and delicious recipes that everyone enjoys. If you need some inspiration, check out our camp kitchen setup article.
- Establish a regular routine to check that all is in order with the tent, including pegs, guy ropes and awnings. Even though you have pitched your tent properly, it doesn't mean it will stay that way. Things shift - pegs and guy ropes become loose as well as awnings, which can flap around in the wind or worst still can be damaged by the weight of pooling water.
- The weather of course is usually top of mind when it comes to camping - it is going to be hot, cold, windy, wet or an all out storm. For lots of weather related tips to help you camp more comfortably, check out the following articles:
Tips for camping in the rain (coming soon)
Tips for camping in a storm (coming soon)
How to avoid pooling water
As plumbers will agree, water can collect in the most unexpected places, and even if you think you have pitched your tent / marquees correctly, pooling water can really damage the fabric or even the frame.
During periods of rain, keep an eye out for the tell-tail bulge of water on the underside of your awning or marquee roof. If you aren't able to correct the problem buy tightening up the frame and guy ropes, there are various hacks around to draw the water away. We typically prop up the awning using a spare tent pole.
How to secure your gear
The security of your camping valuables is always a consideration when camping with a tent, especially when we leave the campsite for any length of time. A lot of our gear is on show and tents aren't the most secure places to store valuables.
In my experience, campsites are pretty safe places and apart from some alcohol once, we've been pretty lucky, but some haven't been so lucky.
So, how can you improve the security of your camping gear (without taking it to the extreme) when you have to leave your tent unattended:
- Use the security of your car, but just remember cars can get extremely hot and may not be suitable for certain devices
- Don't leave valuables lying around, like wallets, phones, chargers, tablets and other devices
- Pack valuables away in the tent when you are not using them of they are easy to relocate
- Camp where you are visible to other campers - most thieves are opportunists and won't go to extremes to steal your gear if other people are around
- Secure immovable valuables such as expensive fridges and solar panels with lockable chains
- Ask your fellow campers to keep an eye on your campsite if you will be away for a longer period of time
5: What to do when you return home
Dry out your tent
After such a wonderful camping experience, an important camping tip for beginners who may not have learnt from experience, is to dry your tent out completely before storing it for future use. Because no-one wants to sleep in a mouldy tent. I have once and that was once too often!
As soon as possible on your return home, not only dry out the tent fabric but also the poles and pegs to avoid rusting. Actually pitching the tent if you have room is the most effective option, but if not, lay it out over a flat surface and rearrange it several times until you are certain it is completely dry.
Storing your tent
The final piece to the car tent camping puzzle is about storage. Essentially, no surprises that it should be stored bone dry and in an area that is dry and free of any dampness.
Dampness can creep up on you without warning and can really ruin not only your tent but other items as well. Ensure your storage area is free of damp and if in doubt use moisture absorbing products available from hardware stores to remove excess moisture from the air.
When storing items susceptible to moisture such as a tent resting on concrete, be warned. Concrete can be porous and can wick moisture up into your camping gear. If storing your gear directly onto concrete, we recommend elevating above ground any items that are susceptible to moisture, such as tents. Loose bricks or pieces of timber work well as a base for your gear.
So there you have it, our top tips for tent camping. Who needs to upgrade.