Do you need a two-person or four-person tent? Dome or tunnel design? Three-season or four? These are just some of the questions you'll need to ask when shopping for shelter. As with sleeping bags, the choices in tents seem endless. But as with the bags, answering these and a few other questions will narrow your selection and make it easier to pick one.
First, how big of a tent do you need? Tents are generally sized for sleeping capacities ranging from one person to two, three, four, six, eight, or more (in the case of base-camp or cabin-style tents). Sometimes tent makers can be generous when estimating the capacities of their tents, so if you and your camping partner are XXL types, you may want to consider super-sizing that tent. One way to figure out how large of a tent you need is to compare the size of your sleeping pad(s) with the tent's floor dimensions.
A tent's season rating has to do with how well it will stand up to weather extremes. As with sleeping bags, choose a tent that'll withstand weather that's harsher than you expect to encounter. A three-season tent is good for camping during the non-winter months, but if you plan to use your tent in the snow, it's best to step up to a four-season model. Four-season tents generally have more poles than a three-season, to help the tent's walls withstand blustery weather and a covering of snow. Four-season tents are also typically dome shaped, so snow can't build up on top of them. In between the two are what are called convertible tents. These usually have a set of poles whose use is optional, depending on whether or not the tent will have to stand up to heavy wind or snowfall.
Speaking of poles, they fall into two types: fiberglass and aluminum. What should you choose? Aluminum poles are lighter and stronger, but fiberglass is typically less expensive. For example, the Cabela's Alaskan Guide Model tent pictured here is offered with both aluminum and fiberglass poles. The four-person tent with fiberglass poles retails for $249.99, while the aluminum poles bump the cost to $349.99.
Other factors to consider: Be sure your tent has a rain fly to protect you and your gear from wet weather; check that all windows or vents are covered with screens to keep the bugs out; pick up a tube of seam sealer (and use it before you hit the trail) if your tent didn't come with factory-sealed seams, as the areas where tent fabric is stitched together can leak; and look for convenience items inside the tent, like pockets for glasses and valuables, or a gear loft to hang items and get them off the floor.