Identifying the right tent for your family can be difficult, especially if you are new to camping and sleeping in tents. The wide choice of tents available in all shapes and sizes as well as the many accessories can be confusing.
Whatever your preferred style of family camping tent, when doing your research and making your choice:
- Look at the accessories available for the particular tent model
- Do searches on the internet for reviews and forum comments
- Look for YouTube videos that show the tent 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 for your camping trips in all price brackets, and plenty of bargains can be found if you are patient and regularly search stores for their sales.
Outlined below are the things we think you should consider when choosing your perfect family tent:
1. Style and design of tent
There are a lot of different tent designs and styles on the market coming in all shapes and sizes - each with their own pros and cons depending on your preferences, circumstances and camping style.
Touring or frame tents
These are typically very quick to pitch and pack up and come with the tent frame permanently built into the tent.
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 styles of tents on the market that have multiple rooms and are suited to larger families and people who like more internal space.
Similar to multi-room tents, air-tents are supported by inflated beams rather than standard poles. They are simply pumped up using a pump generally provided with the tent.
Generally cabin style tents have the frame built into the tent in the same way that touring tents do. They usually have side walls that are more vertical and a large awning.
Roof top tents 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 are typically canvas and have a central pole provide a lot of internal space. They are often considered more luxurious than other tents.
2. Fabric – Polycotton canvas or polyester / nylon tents
The lighter and more compact tent 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 tents, polycotton canvas tents are generally more durable, breathable and they provide better insulation but they are more expensive and will be heavier than the equivalent sized polyester tent. Polycotton canvas tents are also quieter in windy conditions and allow less light into the tent 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 tent fabrics:
Poly-cotton canvas tents
Strength and durability
Less durable lighter weight material and flooring
Stronger material and flooring ✔
Less expensive ✔
Less breathable and more prone to condensation
More breathable and less prone to condensation ✔
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 ✔
Allows more light in, although dark room tents are available which can block out up to 95% of the light
Allows less light in ✔
Lighter weight material noisier in windy conditions
Heavier material quieter in windy conditions ✔
Larger floor space relative to weight ✔
Smaller floor space relative to weight
Shorter – UV rays break down material faster
Longer – material less susceptible to UV rays ✔
Not required ✔
Generally required before first use
3. Number of rooms – 2 to 3 rooms or single room with annex accessories?
Two or three-room tents, being 'all in one', will generally be much quicker to pitch compared to single-room tents with annex room and vestibule accessories as the accessories can take some time to construct. These tents are, however, much heavier than the basic single-room tent.
The weight of the main tent can, however be reduced by transporting the loose items separately, such as the pegs / stakes, fly and poles. Larger tents are also more difficult to dry out at home if you have limited space.
Single-room tents give you the option to just pitch the main tent when that is all you need for your stay, such as during touring holidays or quick breaks.
4. Quality – Is it well made and reliable?
It might seem obvious, but it must be said that the quality of the tent 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 tent poles, frame and seams and tent 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 tent that you can afford. You'll definitely wish you paid those extra dollars if the tent fails you (and your family) at the most inopportune time.
If you are on a tight budget, buying brand new isn't necessary. Some good-quality tents can be purchased 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 the tent as well as all of it's available 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.
Family and friends 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 family camping 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 the tent and its accessories can be pitched, especially during touring holidays and short breaks. While there are many tents on the market, your quick pitch tent choice is narrowed down to the pop-up or touring style of tent.
While some manufacturers claim their tents 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 tent vestibules and awning shelters. These accessories provide a lot of flexibility to your camping setup, particularly when your trips include both long and short stays, and should be considered over tents 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. Tent 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 tent advertised as a 6 person tent, unless you have a separate living area setup you may find such a tent would only comfortably accommodate 3-4 adults or a family of 4-5.
Some tents also have a higher height clearance than others, which will be important to those of you needing additional head height. While your tent of choice might have 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 on a new tent down the track, we suggest you choose a tent that is big enough to accommodate your family (or planned family) 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. Tent season - Do you want to camp all year round?
Tents rated for four season would be recommended if you plan to regularly camp in winter and cold conditions. You will also find certain tents are more suited to tropical and humid weather.
10. Transportation issues – How will it be transported?
If you are a family camping trailer free, our member portal, The Campus is exactly were you need to be to camp comfortably and and travel safely. We have much more information on helping you put together the right kind of camping setup, including your tent, without the need for a trailer or an excessively large car.
11. Weight – Can you physically lift the tent?
If you are transporting your tent on your roof racks, you should consider whether you can physically lift the tent 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 the entire tent or if you will exceed your roof load limit, we suggest that 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 come as a basic tent suitable for overnight stays, but have a range of accessories available for added rooms and external awnings for longer stays. Some of the tents 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 a good but basic tent 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?
Camping tents should always be bone dry when in storage, and unfortunately you will at times be returning home with a wet tent 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 single-room tents with separate annex panels will be easier to dry than the larger two and three-room tents. The flat panels can also be more easily dried on clotheslines and over balconies and furniture.
14. Tent structure – Pole versus inflatable tents
Traditionally, tents have been supported by poles, made of either steel, fibreglass or aluminium. However, inflatable tents 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 with the tent.
Cost wise, inflatable tents are on a par with a good quality touring tent. Without the added weight of poles, they are lighter than the equivalent pole tent – meaning for the same weight you can have a roomier tent. They are also reported to 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 a tent for the kids
Children will inevitably get to the day when they want more independence – and for camping that generally includes vacating the main family 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.
Do you want to keep reading?
Our members only area, The Campus, is absolutely packed with information on buying and maintaining tents and accessories, including:
- Choosing your tent
- Our ideal tent
- Your existing tent
- Additional tent for the kids
- Flooring and extra shelter
- Packing and transporting
- How to season a tent
- Ways to reduce tent condensation
- Buying guide - touring tents
For over 150 in-depth camping resources as well as our Kickstart to Camping program, become a member now.