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Family Camping | How to Choose a Tent That is Right for Your Family

Too many people in a crowded tent. here's hw to Choose a Tent That is Right for Your Family

Camping in the great outdoors with your family is one of the most fun, bonding and natural experiences.  CampingSage is all about Comfortable Family Camping in Tents. Choosing the right tent is an essential part of a great camping vacation.

So, how to choose a tent that is right for your family? We are going to take you through a process of thinking about you, your troop, and your planned mode of camping, and the degree of comfort you expect.

We are assuming you are looking for a comfortable, family tent that will be predominantly used in spring, summer or fall. If you are looking for a tent for backpacking or mountaineering, or you plan on lots of camping in snow, your requirements will be vastly different.

We are going to take a look at the range of family camping tents available and the pros and cons of each.

We will finish by putting it all together to help you choose the right tent.

Be warned, this is a long post. You might like to grab a coffee or, better yet, a beer or a wine, before getting started.

You and Your Camping Troop

There are a few obvious things to consider about your camping troop:

  • How many people will there be in your party?
  • Will you all share a tent?
  • How much comfort do you want? Ranges from: We just want a place to throw our sleeping bags on the ground, to; We want to sleep in comfort, have enough space to move around and we will use our tent throughout out vacation
  • How are you going to get to your campsite? If you just have a car you could find packing for a comfortable, family camping trip a bit of a challenge. If you have a truck you probably have all the space you need to pack the very best kit.

There are more things you may want to consider. This should get you thinking.

Deciding on Your Mode of Camping

We touched on this subject in the introduction. The types of tent you need differ enormously depending on the sort of camping you plan on doing. Camping sage is all about family camping. While we might buy a small backpacking tent for an overnight hiking camp-out, we would never buy such a tent as our main tent.

Happy family camping in tent with camping chairs and table
Family Camping in Tent

Most of the advice and guidance your are going to find on this website is going to be about larger, multi-room, family tents. As you will see, there is a lot of choice in this camping niche.

If you have a large family you will pack up your car with all your camping gear – including your tent. You are going to park your car pretty near to your campsite. Moving or carrying a bigger tent is never going to be much of a problem.

If you are going to be hiking and need to carry your tent on your back, you are going to want the smallest, lightest model possible.

Will you be camping in all types of weather or just during the summer and fall months?  This matters because there are tents that are considered all-weather tents or four-season tents.  These tents can stand up to any type of weather but are a little on the pricey side, so if you won’t be out in extreme weather, you may consider just sticking with the 3 season tent.

For a true family camping experience you will want a type of tent that is spacious but light and easy to put up.

A Brief Look at Tent Features and Terminology

Before we get on to looking at the types of tents we thought it would be useful to have a section on Tent Terminology. If you are new to camping some of the terms and jargon can be confusing. We are going to try to demystify the experience.

Parts of a Tent

Parts of a simple dome tent
Parts of a simple dome tent

Tent Body

The tent body is the main part of the tent. It provides the main structure with living and sleeping provision.

For most family tents you can pitch the tent body alone. In very mild and benign conditions, you can get away with just using the tent body and not bothering with a rain fly. Some people don’t even bother staking the tent if the conditions are very good.

Rain Fly (Fly)

The rain fly is usually a separate sheet that goes over the whole of the inner tent body. On cheaper tents the fly may only cover the top of the tent. Avoid these if you ever intend camping anywhere where wind and rain are common.

The rain fly should not touch the inner tent. The air gap between fly and tent provides an extra level of waterproofing should you rain fly fail. Addition of a fly also provides additional insulation to help keep the tent warm at night. It will also work as an extra sun shade helping to keep the tent a little cooler in mid-summer.

Poles

Poles provide the structure and strength of the tent. They work with the fabric of the tent to provide the shape and living area.

There are many different types and materials of poles. The best and lightest are made from carbon fibre. More commonly they are made from fiberglass. For larger tents and for specialist uses on some smaller tents, aluminum is used.

Instant tents use steel, telescopic poles. Pop up tents don’t have poles as such. They use tensioned plastic hoops to give the tent its shape

Footprint

The tent footprint is essentially a tarp or ground sheet over which the tent is pitched.

Many people argue that footprints are not needed for summer camping – pitching on a level grass surface is fine. For most family tents the decision has been made for you as they are constructed with a built in tub floor (see below)

We would always use a footprint or, more likely, use a tent with a tub floor. Keeping a few extra creepy crawlies out of the tent makes it worth the effort.

Tent Pegs (Stakes) and Guy Lines

Tent pegs are used to anchor the tent to the ground. In windy conditions you will want to get the footprint or tub floor staked out before you start pitching.

There is a wide variety of tent pegs/stakes available. All tents will have some basic pegs included. These are likely to be simple, round wire pegs. They are fine if you are pitching on a soft ground and you don’t expect strong winds. If so, you might like to consider alternatives.

Tub Floor (Integrated Footprint)

Tub floors can be thought as a tent footprint which is permanently attached to your tent. The floor is made of a heavy duty, waterproof membrane.

They are called tub floors (or bathtub floors) as they are shaped to come 3-4inches up the wall of the tent.

The huge advantage of tub floors is that they provide a high degree of ground waterproofing. You can pitch a tub floor tent directly onto a wet site and the inside of your tent will stay dry. In fact, you will stay dry in even very heavy rainfall – conditions that will see those with just a footprint seeing water running through the bottom of their tent.

As we are into comfortable family camping, we heartily recommend buying a tent with a tub floor.

Freestanding vs Non-Freestanding

You will often see tents listed as freestanding or non-freestanding. As far as the marketers are concerned it seems that a freestanding tent is better. For family tents this is nonsense. No campingsage tent review will ever use freestanding vs non freestanding as a ranking factor.

CampingSage – Family Camping Tent Requirements

Before looking at types of tent we thought it would be worthwhile spending a time looking at just what you should expect from a family tent.

Rather than put that all in this post – which is already very long – we have a post that is dedicated to CampingSage’s view on the baseline for Family Camping – Tent Criteria.

We suggest you go take a look at that post, think about your own minimum set of requirements, and then come back here and read through the rest of this article.

Types of Tent

Before we move onto actually choosing a tent, we thought it would be good to have a brief review of the major styles of tent available. In this review we are going to cover:

It’s quite a list. If you don’t have time to read through them all – most family camping tents will be Dome or Tunnel Tents. For added comfort, we strongly advocate multi-rooms models.

Dome Tent

Range of dome tents in different styles, sizes and colours
Range of dome tents in different styles, sizes and colours

Dome tents are probably the most common and recognizable tent on the market.  They are relatively inexpensive and easy to find.  They have an admirable amount of headroom while still being small and light. 

You do lose a little space and height around the sides due to the shape of the tent.

In our experience – most families start with a dome tent.

Pros of Dome Tents

  • Inexpensive- Dome tents are a commodity in the commercial market. This drives their price down and makes them the second cheapest option for tents.
  • Headroom- Unlike ridge tents, dome tents are designed to have some walking room in them. They are used for camping, not just sleeping.

Cons of Dome Tent

  • Shape of tent can limit head room
  • Sloping walls cut off some of the useful floor area.
  • Rainfly Issues- Depending on the model you choose, some dome tents have a detachable rainfly. Although it’s great for watching the stars, it does open the possibility of rain leaking into your tent.

Tunnel Tent

Typical tunnel tent
Typical tunnel tent

A tunnel tent gets its name from its shape – it is a tunnel.  For some reason, tunnel tents seem much more popular in Europe. We see less of them in the US.

Tunnel Tents have enviable interior space with plenty of headroom.  They come in different sizes, are good is most kinds of weather, and are an excellent family tent.

It is not, however, known for ease of pitching but it makes up for that by being a powerhouse in unpredictable weather.

Pros of Tunnel Tents

  • Lots of usable tent space for the footprint size
  • Good headroom
  • Can handle rain and strong winds well

Cons of Tunnel Tents

  • More difficult to erect than dome tents
  • Can be heavy
  • Pretty bulky when packed

Cabin Tent

Cabin tents are so-called because they look like…

Cabins – sort of.

Selection of cabin tents
Selection of cabin tents

Family sized cabin tents tend to be bigger and heavier than either dome or tunnel tents. With modern materials – there is not much in it.

Where cabin-tents win is in there space to area ratio. You can stand up pretty much anywhere. Because the walls are almost vertical you have very little ‘lost-space’ due to sloping walls.

On the downside – cabin tents are probably the lease robust of all the tent types mentioned here. If there is ever an unexpected strong wind blowing across a campsite – the cabin tents are the first to be blown away.

Pros of Cabin Tents

  • Size – Cabin tents tend to be bigger
  • Shape – The more square shape and the upright walls make the space in the tent more usable
  • Comfort – As you can stand in many cabin tents they tend to be more comfortable (don’t underestimate how much better it feels to be able to stand upright in your tent). They also tend to come with electric hook up access (see our article on camping generators) which makes it easy to include more of the comforts of home.

Cons of Cabin Tents

  • Packed weight and size – Cabin tents are quite a bit bigger and heavier than an equivalent dome tent when packed. If you are already short on space in your car when you are fully packed up, swapping your dome tent for a cabin tent may be a stretch.
  • Unstable – cabin tents will most likely be the first to blow down in a stiff breeze (they don’t even need a wind)
  • Pitching – not the easiest tents to pitch.

A-Frame

Classic A-Frame Tent
Classic A-Frame Tent – Loved by Scout Troops all over the world

I think of this tent when I remember old boy scout publications.  Just because the design is old doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of A-Frame tents for sale now.

While dome, cabin and tunnel tents are now much more common – there are lots of 4-season a-frame tents. When made from canvas they are tough, can put up with all sorts of weather, and can be very warm.

Larger A-Frame tents may also have space for a chimney vent so you can burn a wood burning stove inside.

Large 4-season, A-Frame Tent with woodburning stove, chimney vent and chimney stack
Large 4-season, A-Frame Tent with woodburning stove, chimney vent and chimney stack

Pros of the A-Frame Tent

  • Cost- Because they are the classic design of tents, they are among the cheapest options. However, their price can quickly go up depending on how many add-ons they come with.
  • Dry Inside- There’s a reason these tents have withstood the test of time! Their simple design is perfect for rerouting water away from the tent (and your stuff inside).
  • Easy setup- If you have the patience for connecting poles, ridge tents can be set up in as little as ten minutes.
  • Build Your Own – the simplicity of the A-Frame design means that it is easy to build you own. It can be a great camping activitity to keep the kids occupied

Cons of A-frame Tents:

  • Low Ceiling- If you can even call it a “ceiling.” Their primary purpose is to shield you from the rain while you sleep, and that’s about it! A-frame tents don’t leave much room for moving around inside.
  • Heavy- Depending on the material of the poles and cover, A-frame tents can quickly become heavy to lug around.
  • Must be Set up Correctly- If ridge tents aren’t set up exactly as instructed, they can become incredibly frustrating. One pole will go correctly into the sleeve as another side pops up like an outdoor fitted sheet! Be sure to read the instructions thoroughly and have some patience to make sure you’re getting the most out of your ridge tent.

Multi-Room Tent

Multi-room tents are not really a type of tent. You can get multi-room tents that follow the Dome, Tunnel, Cabin or even the A-Frame model. As the name suggests – they are just tents with more than one room.

This fortunershop Family Cabin Tent 14 Person Base Camp has 4 Rooms

When camping with a big family or even a moderately sized family, a multi-room tent can be the best thing that ever happened to camping.  Many tents have a separated screen or mud room – thats great for getting the muddy boots off before going into the main tent or sitting inside protected from bugs.

Where multi-room tents really score is in separate bedrooms. The extra privacy of each part of the family sleeping in their own bedrooms is an absolute boon.

These tents have multiple rooms and tend to be very spacious.  There are drawbacks, however, that will be addressed later in this article.

Pros of Multi-Room Tents

  • Privacy Don’t underestimate how being able to get away from the family can be – no matter how much you love them. Separate bedrooms is great so the kids can go to bed that bit earlier.
  • Multiple Entrances- Along with having enough rooms for a family of ten, these types of tents also have numerous entrances for even more privacy.
  • Room Dividers- If having a separate entrance wasn’t enough, most multi-room tents come with room dividers that hang from the inside roof of the tent. This allows for the customization of room sizes!
  • Ceiling Room- In most cases, multi-room tents have a ceiling raised high enough for a ceiling fan!

Cons of Multi-Room Tents

  • Slightly more difficult to Set Up- Because of their larger size, these types of tents can be more difficult to set up. To be fair, you soon get used to the extra poles in multi-room tents.
  • Cost- With so many rooms in one tent, these multi-room tents can quickly run up a bill.

Geodesic and Semi-Geodesic Tent

Range-of-geodesic-tents
Range-of-geodesic-tents

Geodesic tents are fun and eye-catching in their design.  Don’t let the fun design fool you – geodesic tents fulfill a very clear role.

Geodesic structures are, be definition, very robust and strong. For this reason, Geodesic tents are often carried into challenging, inhospital places. You can see that all of the tents in the photograph above, are pitched on mountainsides.

Geodesic tents excel in challenging climates. They are particularly good in storms and areas where there are sudden, unexpected gusts of wind. Hence their use on mountains.

One of these types of tents would be great if you and your family expect to camp in high winds.  These are similar to a dome tent but are more stable.

While they are more stable than a dome tent, they are harder to put up and bulkier to pack.  If you are a novice family camper, this tent may not be for you. 

I guarantee you, your teenage son would love one for his overnight camp-outs though.

Pros of Geodesic Tents

  • Sturdy- Since the poles overlap one another and there are more anchor points, the geodesic tent is incredibly sturdy! They are so sturdy that most models are rated for winter camping and can withstand snowfall up to six inches.
  • Headroom- Geodesic tents are designed to be walked in. They offer plenty of headroom with their dome-like roof structure.
  • Lightweight- Surprisingly, these tents are relatively lightweight. They utilize aluminum poles and lightweight material to keep weight low.

Cons of Geodesic Tents

  • Price- Although geodesic tents are of high quality, they are higher in price. A general breakdown of cost is the bigger the tent, the bigger the price tag.
  • Can’t Fit Many People- Ironically, geodesic tents aren’t big enough for multiple people. They are rated only to fit a maximum of four people before the tent ends up being stretched. This stretching could cause tears, rendering the tent useless (especially for winter camping).

Pop Up Tent

The pop up tent is exactly what it sounds like.  Take it out of its bag, undo the clasp, and throw it on the ground. Within a second or 2 you have a fully erected, ready to use tent.

You just need to take a few seconds to stake the tent to the ground. Apply any guy ropes and stake these down too. Within a minute you have a tent ready to take your gear and for you to sleep in.

We adore pop up tents. You can get variants for anything between 2-person on up to 8-person tents. Take a look at the video below if you have never seen these tents in use.

Pros of Pop Up Tents

  • Set up in seconds. You can have your gear or yourselves under cover and ready to sleep in minutes
  • They are fun.

Cons of Pop Up Tents

The Coleman tent in the video is, in our opinion, one of the best Pop-Up tents you can buy. If you have watched the video you will have seen a few problems

  • Lightweight – pop-up tents are not made for any kind of weather extremes. 
    • Rain fly is insubstantial – there is a tendency to leak in any sort of rain
    • Seams of the tent are quite weak
  • Pretty small – you might get 4 people into a 4 person pop up tent. You are not going to get your kit in too
  • No luxury or comfort features – No hooks. No internal storage pockets

We think pop up tents are great for those who are going to be camping in very benign conditions. They work well for people who want to pitch a tent for a night and who are going to pack up and move on the next morning.

They are not great for people who are on a family camping vacation.

Instant Tents

The term ‘Instant Tent’ is often used interchangeably with ‘pop up tent’. In our view, they are different beasts.

Pop up tents do not have poles. Their shape and structure comes about via a clever use of plastics and tensioned steel wires. When you take them out of the bag and release any clasps or straps, they literally pop up as a fully erected tent.

Instant tents do have poles. These are telescopic poles that retract into themselves for storage. See the video below for an example.

Ozark Trial – Instant Tent Set up

Inflatable Tent

When you read the words “inflatable tent,” I bet you immediately thought “bounce house.”  In fact, the only thing that gets inflated are the poles. The video below gives a great example.

This tent is just like traditional tents save for one big difference.  There are no metal poles to assemble, slide through slots, and stick into the ground.  Lay out the tent, use the air pump to inflate it, and then anchor it to the ground.

How to Choose A Tent That is Right For Your Family

Wow, we have covered a lot of ground. Hopefully you now have a very good idea about your party, the type of camping and camping vacation you want, the level of comfort you expect, and any other considerations that you have gained from this article. You are now ready to choose the tent that is right for your family.

There are still several factors that will go into picking the perfect tent for your family:

  • Type of tent
  • Size
  • Features
  • Comfort
  • Ease of pitching
  • Weight
  • Robustness.

Knowing what you need from each category will help your camping trip go smoothly no matter how big your family.

Size

To determine the size you will need for your family there are a few things to consider.

  1. How many people will be sleeping in the tent?  How many people could possibly go camping with you on any given trip? It’s usually a good idea to get a larger tent for the times when the whole family goes camping. 
  2. What sort of camping and campsite? If you plan on always using national camp sites you are likely to always be able to park next to you tent. In this case, taking a large tent with you is not a problem. If you plan on doing more dispersed or wild camping, you may not be able to get the car to the campsite. Carrying a family tent is OK for short distances. It can get to be a problem if you have further to walk before you can camp.
  3. Ages of your children?  When your children are very small you will be able to camp comfortably in a smaller tent. The exception tends to be babies. When our kids were babies we used camping cribs which we found took up quite a lot of space. As children get older you need to allow for more space. Thinking about this now, we would suggest that you just count people and don’t consider their ages.
  4. Tent space per person The way in which tents are sized for marketing is notoriously bad. We have often mentioned that you should always look for a tent that is rated for 2-4 people more that there are in your party. So, if there are 4 in your family you will need a tent rated as at least a 6-person and preferably, an 8-person tent.

Weight

The weight of a tent is tied to the size, material and features required. For the most part you want to look for the lightest tent that also delivers the best match for you requirements.

The lightest tents for a given feature set can be quite expensive. If you are never planning on camping too far from where you can park your car, weight may not be too important.

Features

Manufacturers now pack a lot of features into tents. The minimum features we expect to see in a family tent include:

  • Floor tub and rain fly
  • Storage pockets
  • Lantern hooks
  • Screen and mud rooms
  • Doors and windows with fly screens and waterproof closable flaps.

Waterproof

Every modern tent is, when new, waterproof. Coleman’s provide this explanation:

A fabric’s waterproof properties are measured using a rating called its hydrostatic head. If a tent has a hydrostatic head of 3000mm it means that a 3 metre column of water can be placed on its surface before any drops will show through the underside of the fabric. (The Ministry of Defence in the UK classifies fabric with a hydrostatic head of 800mm+ as waterproof).

https://www.coleman.eu/IN/p-26681-sundome-4-tent.aspx

So, if your tent leaks, it is almost certainly down to damage or a human mistake.

While I firmly believe that you haven’t been on a family camping trip until you have had water dripping on you at 3 am, there are ways to prevent that happening.  Buying a tent made from a quality, water-resistant fabric is a good start. 

When the tent is properly pitched, rain will run off. If your fabric is slack rain water can gather – even in a very light shower. This is where the waterproofing of the fabric can work against you. Water is heavy. A cubic foot of water weighs 62 pounds.

It is easy to gather several cubic feet of water in a saggy tent. That is more than enough weight to break the poles or rip the fabric. When that happens you are going to get wet.

Rain Fly

We mentioned rain flies earlier. Even if your tent is not perfectly set-up a rain fly will still protect you from most conditions.

We reckon it’s worth the effort to always put up the rain fly. As we mentioned earlier, it can also protect your tent from the sun during the day. At night it provides that little extra insulation that can make your tent that much more comfortable in those late spring/early-fall nights.

Fabric

The fabric of the tent matters.  Most tents that you find on the market today are made out of nylon or polyester with a polyethelene floor tub.  These materials are great for the combination of strength, lightweight and waterproofing.

Nylon and Polyester fail miserably when it comes to insulation or heat retention. This is where Canvas has a large part to play.

You can find canvas tents very easily. If you intend doing some winter camping, Canvas is still a great choice. As mentioned in our discussion of the A-Frame tent, Canvas is thicker, heavier and a better insulator than nylon.

The downside is that canvas tents are much heavier than their nylon counterparts. If you want to move you tent any distance away from you truck (people who use canvas tents almost always arrive in a truck), you had better have some muscular guys in your party.

Poles

The poles are an essential part of the tent. They provide all of the shape, structure and rigidity. Amazingly, we have seen quite a few people who have tested pitching the tent in the park or the yard, only to forget to repack the poles.

Look for tents with poles that are lightweight and easy to assemble. Poles that come connected by shock cord can help with both of these.  The two most common materials for poles are fiberglass and carbon fiber. Entrance flaps and any additional vestibules or awnings will probably also have aluminum poles too.

Insect Protection

Camping with your family can be so much fun unless you are assaulted by mosquitoes the whole time.  If they get in the tent, just go ahead and pack up because you will all be covered in bites. There is a netting called no see um.  You can buy it by the roll and cover the doors and windows with this to keep the pests away.  This is a feature you will need to add but you won’t regret it.

Durability

Buying a tent for family camping is an investment so make sure you choose a durable option.  Take into consideration the quality of the zippers, if the tent comes with seam sealant and the quality of the material.  If it looks like it won’t last, then it probably won’t.  If you are planning to make regular camping trips, then go ahead and splurge on the more expensive tent. 

Otherwise, you might find yourself replacing tents often.

Warranty

Any quality tent will come with a warranty.  If something goes wrong with the tent, you want to be able to replace it and not be out the money.  This ties in with the feature of durability.  Pay for quality and get the perks that go with it.   I have never regretted getting a warranty and I bet you won’t either.

Ease of Pitching

Camping is a really enjoyable experience and introducing your family to tent camping will build a lifetime of memories that you can all reminisce about as the children grow up.  But nothing can ruin the beauty and ease of camping than a tent that is hard to pitch.  There are memories that rattle around my brain of my dad struggling with pitching an overly complicated tent back in the ’80s.

Ease of pitching a family dome tent
Ease of pitching a family dome tent

It may take a little more time and effort to find a tent with all of the features you want that is also easy to pitch.  It will be worth it, trust me.  You will be grateful you did and so will your family.

The easiest tents to pitch are the pop up tents and the inflatable tents.  Keep in mind that you shouldn’t sacrifice other important features for the sake of the easiest set up on the market.  

Couple failing to pitch the tent
Failing to Pitch a Tent Well is Frustrating

Conclusion

While this is a long article, choosing the right tent for your family boils down to just 3 considerations:

  • Who and how many people are going to be camping
  • Where and when will you be camping
  • What features and levels of comfort do you expect from your tent

Of course, there are an enormous number of variables for each consideration based on your personal needs.

If you are still stuck, we reckon that dome tents provide the best combination of space, comfort and ease of use to get you out camping quickly.

You can take a look at our review of the best 6-person tents (the minimum size we would recommend for a 4-person family) for more ideas.

Had enough reading? The Coleman Elite Montana would be great place to start your search.

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Keith Longmire

Keith Longmire

I’m the guy that loves camping, insists on family camping trips, and the editor and owner of Campingsage.com

I love camping and the outdoors. Through this site I hope to help you enjoy it too.