When I was a kid, my family camped with a monster. Its name was Big Blue. A sail-sized swath of azure fabric, this beast of a tent demanded serious attention. Upon arriving at camp, we meticulously assembled dozens of separate pole sections that had to be attached in a very particular (and never remembered) order. The tent inevitably rose like some lopsided Frankenstein, brought slowly to life by sweat and curses of frustration. An eternity later, we stepped inside—and hoped that neither wind nor rain would strike our floppy colossus. By contrast, today’s family tents don’t require engineering degrees or future sessions of counseling, just a modicum of knowledge to stay happy and dry.
Mother of all Tents
Family tents vary widely in size, from compact four-person designs to mammoth multi-room shelters with room for six or more. They also span a broad price range, from less than $100 for an entry-level tent to well over $300 for a more advanced model. They all have one thing in common, however. Family tents stand tall, rising much higher than their low-lying backpacking brethren. Most feature a peak height between 4 and 6 feet (some mega-tents tower beyond even that). Their lofty size creates challenges of structural stability, especially when it comes to breezy conditions.
|DID YOU KNOW?|
|According to the Outdoor Industry Association, 11.7 million kids (ages 6-17) went camping in 2007, about a quarter of the nation’s population in this age group.|
In order for a large tent to stand strong in windy conditions, it needs multiple poles that cross multiple times. And when it comes to strength, more poles and more pole intersections equal increased stability. Beware inexpensive two-pole models that intersect only once, or giant house-like tents with poles that don’t cross at all. Most will crumble in a stiff breeze. Many such tents also use fiberglass poles, which fracture when placed under enough (wind-induced) stress. Aluminum poles drive up a tent’s price, but will usually bend before breaking and are more easily repaired in the field. Also look for thicker diameter poles, which help increase overall strength.
In the Northeast, a super-strong tent is often unnecessary. Most campgrounds are located within sheltering woods that block the wind from directly affecting your tent. The trees can’t stop the rain, however, and few things dampen the fun like a flood in your tent. Therefore the single most important feature to look for in a family tent is a rainfly that extends all the way to the ground. This can be surprisingly hard to find, especially on models under $250. Below this price point, rainflies vary from placemat-sized squares that barely cover anything to larger versions that extend the length of the roof. Most fail to cover the sides, however, leaving them vulnerable to drips, wind-blown rain, and leakage. Even with a to-the-ground fly, you must prevent it from sagging into the tent body, a prime cause of condensation and leaks. To avoid this, tension the fly regularly and guy it out where necessary. You should also seam seal everything carefully, particularly where the tentwalls meet the tentfloor.
Most family tents are designed for drive-up camping, where weight and bulk are seldom issues. They are usually very heavy, easily tipping the scales at 15-20 pounds or more. You can obtain lighter, but still spacious, four-person models that would work well for backpacking, but, as is often the case in outdoor gear, you pay more ($400-$500) to get less (8-12 pounds). Beyond structure, rainfly, and weight, also consider other less crucial features. Doors that stow easily to the side will not be trampled or torn during entry and exit. If it’s raining, a large vestibule makes it easy to change out of wet or muddy clothing before entering the tent. A divider separating the tent into two sections can provide young campers their own “room,” increasing their enjoyment and camping comfort level.