Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

With the right tent your wildest camping dreams can come true With the right tent your wildest camping dreams can come true
Tent in strong winds Tent in strong winds
Tent technology has come a long way since this Tent technology has come a long way since this
Even a toddler can help with the pegs Even a toddler can help with the pegs
Most kids love helping put the tent up Most kids love helping put the tent up
Wild Camping New Zealand Wild Camping New Zealand
Tents on Big Coast Ride Wellington New Zealand Tents on Big Coast Ride Wellington New Zealand
Kids in a Tent Kids in a Tent
View from Tent Western Fjords Iceland View from Tent Western Fjords Iceland
Pitching a tent in Iceland Pitching a tent in Iceland
Camping at Landmannalaugar Camping at Landmannalaugar
Tent wild camping in forest Tent wild camping in forest
Family tent Family tent
Putting bedding into tent Putting bedding into tent
Two person tent Two person tent
Blue Small Family Tent Blue Small Family Tent
Green Tunnel Tent Green Tunnel Tent

IMG 1618 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

So you want to buy a family tent? How do you choose the right one?

Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

Stuart Profile Small Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

In this occasional series of posts, “Gearing Up”, we share tips, lessons and practical advice on different aspects of planning, organising or carrying out different indie style family adventures.  Camping has been a big part of our travel style. It’s simple, fun, outdoors and helps keeps costs down.

But what if you want to go family camping but haven’t got a tent?  How do you choose from the hundreds of models on offer?  Spending a bit of time thinking about what you want from your tent will help you choose one that suits you, your family and your camping aspirations. Here are a few things to bear in mind when choosing a tent for family camping.

How much should I spend?

First things first, what’s your budget? Prices for family sized tents vary wildly. You can pick up a budget tent for under £100. If you get technical it’s easy to splash out £300-£500. And if you start looking at expedition kit you could end up investing up to £1000 or more. So, think about what you want to use it for and invest in a tent suited to your needs and aspirations.

If you’re only planning to go occasional summer weekend camping, or maybe just visiting a festival, you’ll probably be fine with a budget model.

IMG 1665 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

For a festival or occasional use a budget tent is probably fine
Photo: At the Big Coast Ride, New Zealand

If you’re thinking of a longer camping trip, planning to camp out of season or where the weather may be worse, are heading off the beaten track or thinking of camping as a key part of your travel style then consider paying more to get something more robust, weatherproof and durable.

If you’re heading off for a season, out into the wilderness or anticipate severe weather, then don’t be shy about investing in expedition grade kit.  You may question whether the expense is justified, but believe me when you’re all warm and dry sitting out a storm in your tent while others are flapping about wondering whether theirs will last the night, you’ll be glad of it. We thought long and hard about investing £1000+ in a tent but ten years, 10,000 miles of touring and three kids later it’s still serving us reliably. Money well spent.

IMG 0686 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

If you are going wild, remote and self supported you need gear you can rely on
Photo: Camping wild near Queenstown, New Zealand

If you’re serious about camping, go for the most expensive kit you can afford. The quality of materials, construction, zips, poles, pegs, ventilation and insect mesh will be better, which means fewer problems in the field and a better night’s sleep.

What size should I get?

Tents come in many shapes and sizes and are generally advertised according to the number of people they accommodate.  But even so they can vary wildly in size (volume) and footprint (the amount of space it takes up on the ground).  What size to buy depends upon what you want to do in it (sleep? cook? eat? have parties?), how many people and how much gear you want to get in, and how intimate (squashed) you are prepared to get.

DSC00692 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

A two person tent can be a very intimate experience
Photo: Wild Camp in Cumbria

Tents designed for backpacking and touring tend to be smaller and generally of a one compartment design. This may suit you if you want to minimise the weight you carry, camp on small pitches or remain inconspicuous when stealth camping. However be prepared for a squeeze when everyone gets in, don’t expect to be able to stand up and pray there are no arguments. With this kind of tent you might consider going up a size for more comfortable family camping, especially if you’ve a lot of gear. For example you may find a six person tent more comfortable for a family of four.

In the early days we used a four person tent for two adults, a baby and a mountain of nappies and were very glad we did. Going large also helps future proof you, providing something to grow into as a family; today we’re squeezing five into that same tent for four.

IMG 7457 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

Remember, once you’ve got everyone in, and they’ve all grown a bit,
you won’t have as much room as you started with!

On the other hand some large family tents are monstrous spaceships with multiple bedrooms, communal areas, awnings and a space for camping furniture and the kitchen sink. These are great if you want a home from home or if you like to stand up in your tent, but they’re also heavy, bulky, require a large pitch and can be difficult and time consuming to put up and take down. But at least after arguing about putting it up you’ve all got your own space to retreat to!  If you’re not moving on every day and want a tent that’s a comfortable base for a few days or weeks then something like this may suit you well.

IMG 3621 2 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

Whatever size you get, make sure it’s big enough to get your gear in
Photo: In the National Parks, West Coast USA

Weight and pack size

Aside from the size when pitched, it’s worth checking out the packed down size. A tent’s good for nothing if you can’t carry it or store it back at home. For some types of travel, your tent’s weight and pack-down size are critical factors. If you’re backpacking, riding, canoe or cycle touring you’ll want something with that packs down small and lightweight to ensure you can get it in your rucksack or panniers and carry it easily.

IMG 9748 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

Get the wrong size tent and you might need one of these to carry it
Photo: En route to Iceland

An extra kilo or two may not sound like a lot but believe me it feels like a lot if you’re carrying it on your back day after day. And while an extra litre of space may sound hardly worth worrying about, you may change your mind when you have to leave your spare chocolate bars, socks and fleece behind. Even when travelling by car pack size can make the difference between being able to get the rest of your gear in the boot or not. Back at home a small tent will be easier to store too.

Strength and durability

A good family tent needs to be strong and durable, not just to withstand the worst weather you are likely to face but also the stresses and strains of energetic kids. Cheaper tents tend to use cheaper zips, poles, pegs and tent material which may fail more easily when kids are bouncing around inside, zipping and unzipping, or over enthusiastically assembling and disassembling the tent.  And of course if these things are going to fail, it will be in the middle of the night, during a storm when you’re miles from anywhere and your torch is dead.

If you’re looking for something that will last it may be worth paying a little extra  for a more durable design or higher quality components. Look for rip stop materials, strong alloy pegs and poles, zips that run smoothly and don’t snag, fine but strong insect netting and strong guy ropes. And if you’re thinking of camping in snowy winter conditions make sure your tent is designed to withstand snowfall. I’m not being funny, while rain runs off a tent, snow settles and a few inches of snowpack can seriously collapse your tent if it’s not designed to withstand it.

IMG 6700 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

Make sure your tent is designed to cope with the worst conditions you anticipate
Photo: Completing Lands End to John O Groats

Waterproofing and ventilation

Do you want to stay dry? Well if you do, make sure your tent is waterproof, not just water resistant or shower proof. You may be surprised to learn that not all tents are built with this in mind; some are little more than sunshades.

There are technical single skin tent designs on the market these days, some using sophisticated materials technology to keep rain a materials width away from you. You’ll get best results and least condensation from materials that are ‘breathable’ but these are often expensive and perhaps not best suited to family camping where the risk of inadvertent toddler induced damage can be high!

IMG 6465 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

Tent technology has come a long way since this,  basic but probably toddler proof.

For family camping you’ll probably get best results from a design with a separate inner and outer (or flysheet). And that way you won’t have to spend every cloudburst shouting at the kids not to touch the sides or worrying whether their pencil is about to pierce your Gore-Tex skin.

If you go for a two layer design, look for one where inner and outer pitch together as it will be quicker to put up and dismantle. Detachable or removable inners can be helpful for cleaning or separating things out if you have to dismantle on a wet day. Likewise you’ll really appreciate a design where you can pitch the outer first and then insert the inner if you find yourself pitching in the pouring rain.

Ventilation is a big part of keeping dry too. In poorly ventilated tents condensation inside the tent can be as much of a problem as rain penetrating from the outside so look for designs that are well ventilated or with ventilation you can adjust. It also comes in handy if someone inadvertently drops one in a confined space.

Ease of assembly

How quick and easy is it to put up? Do not underestimate how important this is. It’s not a good start to a trip if it takes three unhappy hours to put up the tent. And it can be an absolute disaster if the weather’s bad and you need to pitch quickly. On longer trips or where you are moving on every day pitching and dismantling can become a real grind and waste of time if it takes you 30 minutes to an hour each time.

IMG 3062 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

Look for something quick and easy to pitch and the kids can do it for you
Photo: Camping Wild in Eastern Iceland

Some ‘pop-up’ tents literally take seconds to pitch. Most simple dome and tunnel tents can be pitched in five to ten minutes, once you’re familiar with the technique. But beware the monsters that involve hours of family arguments over poles, awnings, guy ropes and tent pegs.

IMG 1099 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

Most kids love to help put the tent up. Not that it’s always that helpful.

Look for something with good instructions, that’s quick and intuitive to pitch. On larger tents with more complex designs, colour coded poles and pockets can help save a few arguments. A lot of tent manufacturers now provide short videos online showing how to erect their tents, so take some time to look at these and decide whether it looks achievable for you or not. And don’t be shy about asking to have a go before you buy. But try not to argue in public.

IMG 6113 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

If you find the right job for them even a toddler can help

Entrances, compartments and layout

Even with small tents it’s worth considering what sort of layout suits you best.  Even in one compartment tents you’ll find endless options in terms of entrance configurations, bell ends (the end spaces outside the inner tent) and porches. Again, much depends upon your intended use and personal preferences. If sleeping’s all you want to do a simple design will suffice. If on the other hand you also want to cook, have a family meal, play cards and have some privacy you’re going to want something with multiple compartments.

With simple designs a canopy, porch or bell end can be useful, providing extra sitting space with a bit of shelter, a place to store muddy boots, kids or footballs, or somewhere to cook or eat if the weather is bad.  Multiple entrances are handy too, helping you organise things, and making access easier when there’s a group of you, reducing the need for all that clambering over each other to go to the toilet in the middle of the night.  With two entrances you can designate one for kids, leaving the other child free for grown-ups, cooking and for storing things you don’t want them messing with. And with entrances at opposite ends you can also pitch (wind permitting) so you have one facing sunrise and the other for watching sunset.

IMG 3439 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

With the right entrances and pitched the right way you may get great views
Photo: The Dream Road, Western Fjords, Iceland

If you want to be able to divide and rule or set up a home from home then look for a design with separate sleeping and living areas.  If you’re really into comfort and thinking of taking air beds then make sure the compartments are big enough to accommodate them. Some designs have removable bedrooms which can be useful if you want more flexible space, allowing you to reconfigure for extra visitors or create a larger living space when that’s what’s needed.

Think about what sort of layout you like. With young children, you might want the bedrooms to be next to each other so you can easily check on them during the night. If your children are a bit older you might be happier with the ‘vis-à-vis’ style, where the bedrooms are at either end of the tent with the living area in the middle. One of our favourite compartment tents involved a mummy tent, daddy tent and baby tent which could be zipped together or pitched separately for maximum flexibility.

CRW 3267 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

This three connecting tent design was a hit with the kids with its 3 separate bedrooms

What colour?

For some tent colour is simply a fashion statement or expression of personal preference but in some situations colour can be a matter of blending in, standing out, possibly even of life and death.

If you’re only thinking of camping at campsites or festivals, your tent colour is probably just a question of fashion, standing out or fitting in. In a large festival field or campsite a standout colour can making finding your home much easier.

If you’re camping wild or heading off the beaten track you may have other colour considerations. If you’re stealth camping and want to disappear you may want to look for something that will blend in and camouflage you in the kind of environments you will be camping in.

IMG 7703 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

If you’re camping wild you may want a colour that blends in

On the other hand if you’re on an expedition and may need to make sure you can be seen to be safe, you may want a colour that stands out.

Look, see, and try before you buy

With so many models on the market it’s a good idea to look around before you buy. While the internet is great for research and price comparison we recommend visiting a large retailer or camping show to look at and compare different models before you buy.

You could make a family day out to a camping show where you can see different models of tents erected, crawl inside and imagine what it’s like in the sun, in the rain, in a storm.  There’s nothing quite like looking, seeing, touching, feeling and comparing for yourself to find out what suits you best.

Large outdoor retailers are great for advice  and guidance. Staff are usually knowledgeable and happy to share experience, answer questions and suggest models that will suit your needs.  Outdoor retailers like www.blacks.co.uk have extensive online catalogues, and in store stock a wide range of tents to suit all budgets and requirements. They are as good a place as any to start the search for your perfect family tent.

IMG 1114 Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping

With the right tent your wildest camping dreams can come true

Disclosure note: Our thanks to Blacks whose support enabled us to bring you this post. 

 

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Stuart's the adventure addict half of the team, always trying to persuade the family to get out, do more, go further. As co-founder and co-director he handles the business, creative, design, technical and publishing aspects of the project and is our chief photographer. With training as a professional learning and development consultant. an engineer and musician, his contribution is eclectic and unpredictable!

8 Responses to “Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping” Subscribe

  1. Single With Kids December 11, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

    A very comprehensive post !

    We run a number of camping trips throughout the year and tempt along many first time campers. I always recommend to either buy second hand or borrow for their first visit, I’ve lost count of the number of people who head to Tesco and end up with a cheap tent that simply isn’t up to the job…..and if the weather’s bad, can end up putting them off for life.

    I’ve had a number of tents over the years and have now graduated to a campervan, but still can’t help to get ‘tent-envy’ when I wander around a campsite.

    Roll on camping season!

    Chrissie x

  2. no time for ironing December 15, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    Some of those campsites look fantastic! We went a bit fancy and bought ourselves a huge polycotton tent last year, not cheap, but worth the money.

  3. Jessica March 8, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    A great post with perfect timing. Some ladies on a forum I moderate are talking about buying a first tent. I will pass this along to them!

  4. Lali May 7, 2013 at 12:31 am #

    Hi guys, thanks a lot for our brilliant post!!! You perfectly describe what we were thinking at: budget, dimension, stay dry…. actually we can’t wait to buy and start to camp!! Italy is summer 2013 destination…but still have to decide where!
    Let’s keep in touch
    Alessandra & the Toads Family

  5. Luke June 18, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

    Many thanks for a really informative post. I’m in the market for a first-time family tent and your post has made me think about a couple of things I hadn’t previously considered.

    Thank you!

    Luke

  6. Kevin July 29, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

    Hi,
    Glad I found this as I was searching the net about tents and wild camping and found this :)

    Our family started camping for the first time this year and we love it. The weathers turning abit now, but the summer we’ve had has made it well worth while and perfect for camping.

    We started off with a Quecha pop-up tent (we’re a family of 4) but recently had to change it due to some issues we had with it.

    We’ve now changed it for a Vango Icarus 500 and I just wondered if anyone else has one of these tents and what they thought of it?

    We’d also love to try wildcamping but are clueless as to where best to go and also if the tent we’ve now got is any good for the job.

    If anyone has used this tent I’d love to hear your views.

    Thanks :)

  7. Tonya March 23, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

    Can you please tell me what brand that 3 connecting tent design is? Thank you.

    • Stuart March 23, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

      That was an Ozark Trail tent we bought from Walmart while in USA. Don’t know if they still make that model but there look to be similar designs from them. It was VERY heavy but very cheap.

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