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January 25, 2021

How to Choose Your Family Tent

Identifying the best tent for family camping trips can be difficult, especially if you are new to camping. The wide choice available in all shapes and sizes as well as the many accessories can be confusing.


Whether your preference is for a smaller, light weight and easy set up tent, or a larger multi-room one with living room space, when doing your research and making your choice for that very important component of your camping setup:

  • Look at the accessories available for the particular model
  • Do searches on the internet for reviews and forum comments
  • Look for YouTube videos that show the layout and setup process
  • Ask questions in store or online
  • Try to visualise how you would configure the tent and its accessories for sleeping, cooking and indoor / outdoor shelter

You will find a range of great products out there in all price brackets, and plenty of bargains can be found if you are patient and regularly search stores for their sales.


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Thing to consider when choosing your family tent

1. Style and design

There are a lot of different types of tents for families in varying designs, styles and sizes, and the type of tent you choose will depend on a number of factors.

Touring or frame tents

These are typically very quick to pitch and pack up and come with the frame permanently built into the tent.

Dome tents

These dome shaped tents are popular amongst kids, backpackers and hikers. Families would typically use two or more tents as well as a separate shelter.

Large multi-room tents

There are numerous different styles that have multiple rooms and offer plenty of space to suite larger families

Air-tents

Similar to multi-room tents, these are supported by inflated beams rather than standard poles. They are simply pumped up using a pump generally provided.

Cabin tents

These have the frame built into the tent and usually have side walls that are more vertical, and a large awning.

Rooftop tents

These are fitted to the roof of your vehicle, and are usually used for touring. Some of the larger models would accommodate a family of 4. 

Bell tents

These are typically canvas and have a central pole to provide a lot of internal space. They are often considered more luxurious than other those listed above.

2. Fabric – Polycotton canvas or polyester / nylon

The lighter and more compact material is either a type of polyester or a mixture of polyester and cotton, or as it is generally called, poly-cotton canvas


In summary, by comparison to polyester, polycotton canvas tents are generally more durable, breathable and they provide better insulation, but they are more expensive and will be heavier than the those made out of polyester. They are also quieter in windy conditions and allow in less light but will take longer to dry and will generally require seasoning before the first use.

Below is a more detailed comparison between the polyester and poly-cotton canvas fabrics:

Header

Polyester

Poly-cotton canvas

Strength and durability

Less durable lighter weight material and flooring

Stronger material and flooring ✔

Weight

Lighter ✔

Heavier

Cost

Less expensive ✔

More expensive

Breathability

Less breathable and more prone to condensation

More breathable and less prone to condensation ✔

Insulation

Not so good – stays cooler in cold weather and non-dark room tents will be warmer in hot weather

Better – stays warmer in cold and cooler in hot weather ✔

Light

Allows more light in, although dark room tents are available which can block out up to 95% of the light

Allows less light in ✔

Noise

Lighter weight material noisier in windy conditions

Heavier material quieter in windy conditions ✔

Floor space

Larger floor space relative to weight ✔

Smaller floor space relative to weight

Lifespan

Shorter – UV rays break down material faster

Longer – material less susceptible to UV rays ✔

Drying time

Faster ✔

Slower

Seasoning

Not required ✔

Generally required before first use

3. Number of rooms – 2 to 3 rooms or single room with annex accessories?

Tents containing two or three-rooms, being 'all in one', will generally be much quicker to pitch compared to those that come with a single-room and additional annex room and awning accessories, as these can take some time to construct. 

These larger tents are more difficult to dry out at home and are heavier to carry, but the weight can be reduced if necessary by transporting the loose items separately, such as the pegs / stakes, fly and poles.

Single-room tents give you flexibility to avoid constructing the separate accessories when not needed for your stay, such as during touring holidays or quick breaks. 

4. Quality – Is it well made, reliable and waterproof?

It might seem obvious, but it must be said that the quality of you purchase is the most important factor and importantly needs to be able to withstand bad weather conditions, in particular strong winds and heavy rain. You don't want to discover in the middle of a storm or after an all-day downpour that your cheap tent is… (well, we like to stay positive, so we won't say ruining your holiday)… definitely character building.

It may be difficult to assess from personal inspection whether a tent will be durable and reliable and give you adequate weather protection. Usually the main things to look for are the quality of the poles, frame and seams and the floor, and whether it comes with heavy duty pegs. Online reviews of the product can be particularly useful, especially those referencing quality and reliability.

5. Price – Does it fit within your budget?

Quality doesn't have to cost a lot – some of the lower-priced tents on the market do receive favourable reviews and comments. From our experience, however, if you want peace of mind when you are out in the elements, you should choose the best quality that you can afford. You'll definitely wish you paid those extra dollars if it fails you at the most inopportune time.

If you are on a tight budget, buying brand new isn't necessary. Some good-quality buys can be found second hand, such as on eBay or Gumtree. In fact, our current tent and accessories were purchased second hand on eBay at a 40% saving.

Finding the budget to buy your entire setup, including all of the accessories, up front isn't absolutely necessary either. Having any annex panels will be helpful to start with, but other accessories can be added on when your budget permits.

You may also elect to start with a cheaper tent, or borrow one until you are confident you have decided on the best setup for you, or if you are new to camping, whether you’re going to enjoy it. Once your decision is made, you can reduce your bill shock by gradually adding accessories to your setup and/or asking for a combined family Christmas present instead of individual ones.

Loved ones are often looking for good gift ideas, especially for the kids. They may welcome some ideas for Christmas and birthday gifts, including making a cash contribution towards a larger tent – and to your future camping holidays.

6. Ease of setup – Can it be easily or quickly pitched and packed up?

We all want a quick setup time, and so an important factor is the speed and ease with which everything, including accessories, can be pitched, especially during touring holidays and short breaks. While there are many options on the market, your choice will be narrowed down to the pop-up or touring style of tent.

While some manufacturers claim to have set-up times of less than a minute, be aware that some of these claims are overly simplistic. A tent that is conveniently lying on the ground ready for pitching might take a minute to setup if it doesn't need pegging down, but it will only be a matter of time before a gust of wind will send it into the bushes, possibly with you in it!

Realistically, if you follow our advice for setting up camp in our member portal, The Campus, our basic setup without the annex and awning accessories should take two or three people around 10 to 15 minutes, after a few practice runs. Our full setup for longer stays, including additional annex rooms and awnings and setting up the rest of your campsite, should take a further 20 to 30 minutes. That's not bad if your regular campsite setup stretches out to a couple of hours … or more.

7. Accessories and features 

Many of the tent models that can be quick to pitch in their basic form have accessories for adding annex rooms and additional vestibules and awning shelters. These accessories provide a lot of flexibility to your setup, particularly when your trips include both long and short stays, and should be considered over those without these types of accessories. So, do your research not only on the tent, but also on the accessories it offers, and try to visualise if and how you would use them.

Tents will also have different features that may or may not in the end be useful. More useful features include:

  • Plenty of ventilation, including roof vents
  • Storage pockets
  • Pockets to store guy ropes

8. Size – Does it provide adequate space for your requirements?

The tent size is usually rated according to the number of adults it can sleep, based on how many average-sized people can physically lie on the floor at the same time. This can be misleading when you also want extra liveable space for the meal preparation, dining and living areas and for storage of your clothes and camping gear. So if you see a 6 person tent advertised, unless you have a separate living area setup, you may find only 3-4 adults or a family of 4-5 could be comfortably accommodated.

Some tents also have a higher height clearance than others, which will be important to those of you needing additional head height. While you might be happy with the generous headroom once you are in it, some entrance ways can be quite low and can be a strain on your back (and just plan annoying) if you need to crouch down to enter and leave many multiple times a day.

You should also consider your needs into the future, such as when the kids are old enough to sleep in their own tent, which they will inevitably want to do before you know it. If you want to avoid an additional outlay down the track, we suggest you choose something that is big enough to accommodate your family (or planned) comfortably, but is not so big that you will be looking to downsize when the kids have either moved into their own tent or are doing their own thing.

9. season - Do you want to camp all year round?

Tents are typically rated according to the seasons, with three seasons being the most commonly available for use during summer, autumn and spring. These not typically designed for winter and in extremely cold temperatures. 


You will also find tents rated for winter and cold conditions as well as tropical and humid weather.


10. Transportation issues – How will it be transported?

Often something not considered when buying a tent is how it will be transported. If you have plenty of room, such as a trailer or a particularly large car, then your options are much wider. If not, you will need to consider transportation issues.


If you are a family and you want to go camping trailer free, our member portal, The Campus is exactly were you need to be to camp comfortably and travel safely. We have much more information on helping you put together the right kind of setup, including your tent, without the need for a trailer or an excessively large car.

11. Weight – Can you physically lift it?

If you are transporting your tent on your roof racks, you should consider whether you can physically lift it up to that height, especially if you aren't particularly tall and/or you have a high-set car. If you are struggling to lift it in its entireity, we suggest loose items, such as flys, loose panels, poles and pegs, be packed separately and transported either on the roof or in the rear cargo area, where appropriate.

12. Functionality – Can it be configured for our camping needs?

While camping is all about being in the great outdoors, your tent doesn't just serve as a place to sleep. To function as a home away from home, you also need to provide enough space for dining, cooking and food preparation, general living, gear storage and an open-air shelter.

Most of the touring tents on the market have a range of accessories available for added rooms and external awnings for longer stays. Some will already provide adequate internal and external undercover space, negating the need for accessories to provide extra living space. You may also choose to purchase something more basic for sleeping and gear storage only, and use a separate marquee or gazebo for everything else.

Regarding the all important kitchen setup, just as the various elements of your kitchen at home need to work together, so should your camp kitchen. Whichever configuration you choose, you should ensure your kitchen components, including your camp fridge / icebox, food, water, bench top, stove and sink, are situated in the same area and are in close proximity to one another. You should also be able to move between each element unimpeded, and ensure the stove is situated in a well ventilated area.

13. Drying – How will you dry your tent on your return home?

Tents should always be bone dry when in storage, and unfortunately you will at times be returning home with one that needs to be dried out. If you have limited space at home to actually erect your tent, for example if you live in an apartment, then the smaller the better. Separate annex panels will also be easier to dry.

14. structure – Pole versus inflatable tents

Traditionally, tents have been supported by poles, made of either steel, fibreglass or aluminium. However, inflatable versions supported by inflated beams are now making their mark. They are simply pumped up in a very short amount of time using a pump generally provided.

Cost wise, inflatable tents are in the middle to higher price brackets. Without the added weight of poles, they are lighter in weight – meaning for the same weight you can have more room. They are also reported to be able to resist fairly strong winds, as long as all of the guy ropes are pegged out.

And as for the inevitable question of how easily they could spring a leak, the suppliers say they are very durable, and on the rare occasion they develop a leak, they are easy to repair.

15. How about One for the kids

Children will inevitably get to the day when they want more independence – and for camping that generally includes vacating the main tent in favor of their own personal space.

Smaller overnight hiking or backpacking tents are perfect for our requirements. They are extremely compact and lightweight at around 2-3kgs (and less) and can fold down to the size of a small sleeping bag. If so inclined, you are also equipped for overnight hiking, especially if also equipped with hiking suitable bedding, clothing, cookware etc.

Swags and smaller pop up style tents are also a great option and are becoming much more popular with the young and old, especially the swags.

Related article: Tips for camping with a tent


Do you want to keep reading?

Our members only area, The Campus, is absolutely packed with information on buying and maintaining tents and accessories.

For over 150 in-depth camping resources as well as our Kickstart to Camping program, become a member now.

For further reading


Trailer-Free Camping Setup Inspirations

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