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Outdoors: The tenets of tent camping

by Keith Sutton | April 11, 2010 at 6:49 a.m.

— When it comes to buying a tent, you can trust my advice. I have learned important lessons after years spent field-testing every variety imaginable, from teeny floorless pup tents to extravagant luxury models larger and better outfitted than some homes I have owned.

Lesson 1: Buy a tent with a floor. If you don’t, unexpected guests could ruin your campout. I’ve awakened to find everything from copperheads to fire ants to skunks sharing my sleeping space.

Lesson 2: Buy a tent with a door and screened windows that can be zipped up. Refer to lesson 1.

Lesson 3: Buy a tent that doesn’t leak. For some reason, this lesson was exceptionally hard for me to learn. I have spent literally hundreds of nights swimming in tents I should have been sleeping in.

Lesson 4: Buy a tent appropriate for the season in which you’ll be camping. This was another lesson difficult for me to grasp. I have gotten frostbite in tents made for summer camping and been nearly asphyxiated by heat and lack of circulation in tents manufactured for polar explorers.

Lesson 5: Read what follows before buying a tent. Benefit from my broad range of experience. Buying a tent isn’t rocket science, but as I’ve proven time and time again, it’s not a purchase one should take lightly.

What size?

Choosing a perfectly sized tent can be tricky because people vary in their comfort levels and in the amount of stuff theycarry around. Experts recommend a minimum of 12 square feet of floor space per person, which is barely enough room to stretch out and sleep. To accommodate camping supplies, clothing and such, figure 20 to 25 square feet per person, if your activities (backpacking, car camping, etc.) are suited to a tent that size. If you’re a multifaceted camper, you may require different tents of different sizes for different activities.

Floor diagrams provided by manufacturers can be misleading. These usually indicate nothing more than how many average-sized campers can wedge themselves inside and sleep in a human puppy-pile. For a sure fit, have the seller set up the tent and allow you to get inside to check it out. Is there room to sit up, stand up and move around in a manner you’ll be comfortable with? Is the interior space adequate for your needs? Do the tent’s shape (dome, A-frame, etc.) and interior configuration(high walls, slanted walls, etc.) allow maximum use of living space? Be sure before buying.

Seasonal considerations

Three-season tents are most common on today’s market. These are designed for use in spring, summer and fall. They have good ventilation for camping during warmer months and usually have mesh windows with covers that can be zipped closed when the weather is cooler. The design of these tents allows them to withstand strong winds and rain. Backpackers and car campers generally choose a three-season tent.

If you plan to camp often in winter, consider a four-season, or mountaineering, tent. These are designed to withstand extreme conditions year-round. Extra poles, zip-down windows and extended rain flies allow adjustments for added summer ventilation and greater warmth and stability in winter weather. These tents tend to be more expensive, however, and often heavier than three-season alternatives.

Lightweight, highly ventilated summer tents are great for hot, dry nights, but they aren’t very versatile when temperatures drop or rain hits. Avoid these unless your camping is restricted to desert realms.

Be sure the tent’s fabric is flame-retardant. Some states have laws requiring all tents sold to be thus treated. In other areas, however, the tent you purchase may not be flame-retardant unless you check. I have learned the desirability of this feature on no less than five occasions, when sparks or flames from campfires - and in one case, a flaming marshmallow - ignited my tent fabric. Theresulting conflagrations were frightening, dangerous and embarrassing.

Further define your needs

The carrying weight and packed size of a tent also are of prime importance to most outdoor enthusiasts. Three-season tents that accommodate two to three people usually weigh 4 to 9 pounds. (The weight is given by the manufacturer on the tent’s hang tag and should include tent body, rain fly, poles and stuff sack.) Small, ultralight solo shelters (often called bivy sacks) have bare essentials andweigh as little as 1 or 2 pounds. Family and expedition tents often weigh more than 20 pounds.

Choose a model proper for your needs. Will you be trekking solo when the weather is likely to be fair? Then a bivy sack and tarp may suffice. Will you be backpacking? If so, weight and ease of setup are important. Fair-weather hikers won’t want to lug a heavy, blizzard-bearing mountain tent, and in rugged alpine country, you don’t want a light-duty shelter that can get trashed in short order. Family campers may want to trade packability for more floor space.

Generally, lighter is better, but don’t sacrifice important features to save a few ounces. Manufacturers often reduce tentweight by using fewer zippers (hence fewer openings), fewer and lighter poles, and smaller rain flies and storage vestibules. That can cause problems in situations where these accessories are beneficial.

Tent poles

Unless you can work a jigsaw puzzle in the dark, be sure the tent you purchase has poles that are shock-corded for easy assembly. These have an elastic cord or chain running through the individual sections of each pole, allowing them to be put together in a snap, even in the dark. Tents with poles that don’t have this feature can be frustratingly difficult to assemble.

Remember, too, that cheap tents often come with flimsy poles that may bend or break when stressed during a rainstorm, snowfall or windy conditions. You’ll be better servedif you invest more money in a quality tent with quality poles, which usually are made of lighter, stronger carbon fiber or aluminum, not fiberglass. Being awakened in the middle of a stormy night by a collapsed tent is no fun, as I can fully testify.

You also should check to make sure the pole sleeves in the tent fabric are easy to thread (continuous sleeves are the easiest). Tents with clips that fasten the poles to the tent body are faster to set up than those with sleeved poles, but you’ll sacrifice strength in bad weather.

Keep it simple

To wrap things up, I offer one final suggest. Be sure you can set up your new tent for the first time, in the dark, with no instructions. If you can, it’s a good design. If not, you may want tolook for a more fussless model.

An average camper can erect the average tent in five to 10 minutes, but there are exceptions, like the sultry August night a friend and I went river camping. The air was dead still, and the mosquitoes were horrible. We tried our darnedest to set up my friend’s tent before being eaten alive, but our accumulated experience and advanced degrees were no match for the designer’s convoluted fantasy.

“It can’t be that hard,” my friend said. “My wife set it up by herself the last time we went camping.”

Bottom line: If the skeeters are swarming or it’s threatening a deluge, head-scratching is the last thing you want to be doing.

Good luck, and may your tent always keep you cozy.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 144 on 04/11/2010

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