Tent Buyer’s Guide: Camping Life Reviews 21 Tent Designers

May 1, 2003
Filed under Camping Gear, Tents

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When I was a kid, I counted backyard tent design among my favorite hobbies. My creations often featured paths of cabbage leaves and carrots that led to an entryway, a move to entice any bunnies that happened by to drop in for a slice of mud-and-grass pie. But sometimes these tents served as forts, providing cover for such covert activities as spying on annoying siblings. Through my experiments I learned that tents had to be inviting and comfortable, but at the same time had to be sturdy and offer privacy.

I generally considered my most elegant construction to be some variation of the two-chairs-and-a-blanket model. This design was cozy, fairly easy to erect, let in more light than the cardboard box model, and was drafty enough to be breathable. But, of course, there were numerous design flaws.

Present-day designers have worked through many of the kinks I had encountered, and many of today’s tents might indeed be considered elegant in a real sense. Some are designed purely with the family car camper in mind, while others offer the extra light weight and compactness sought after by backpackers. In the mix that follows, there should be something for everyone. Of course, most don’t featur cabbage-leaves-and-carrots welcome mats (probably considered an accessory), but all of the tents featured in this buyer’s guide are more than a few cuts above two chairs and a blanket.


The Taurus 2 Outfitter ($199.99) is just one of the tent offerings from ALPS Mountaineering (800/344-2577; alpsmountaineering.com). An enhancement of the standard Taurus 2 AL, the main upgrades include oversized #10 door zippers for smooth operation and a heavy-duty nylon oxford floor. With a base size of 5 feet by 7 feet, 6 inches and a center height of 46 inches, two can sleep comfortably. You’ll find the usual ALPS quality in aircraft-grade aluminum poles and weatherproof construction. Two doors, each with a vestibule, help eliminate stumbling over your tentmate when entering and exiting at night. The polyester, urethane-coated fly features factory-sealed seams to keep you and your stuff dry. And mesh roof vents keep the air circulating inside while doubling as stargazing portals.


Sounds crazy but the Mad House ($299), new from Big Agnes (877/554-8975; bigagnes.com), might just keep you sane on your next outing for two. In keeping with Big Agnes tradition, this tent is named after a feature of the Colorado wilderness. In this case a national forest cabin. The lightweight (less than 8 pounds) tent, measuring 90 by 58 inches and offering 38 inches of interior headroom, is a great choice for backpacking. It features a double door/vestibule, which helps lend a roomy feel. In fact, the vestibule offers 22 square feet of cover. Good ventilation and decent lighting via two windows are standards. Also available from Big Agnes this year is the Seedhouse ($199), weighing 4 pounds, 7 ounces.


There are scores of tents available through Cabela’s (800/237-4444; cabelas.com) designed with the camping family in mind. Available in two sizes (12 by 7 feet, with 66-inch height or 16 by 8 feet, with 73-inch height) the Trekker Family Cabin Tent ($99.99 to $129.99) is among the newest fare. This affordable model offers heavy-duty Weather Armor polyester construction and weatherproof-coated flies, featuring factory-taped seams. Even with the whole family inside, air circulation is no problem with mesh roof vents. The tent can be separated into two rooms via a zippered divider. Clear PVC windows let in plenty of light but keep weather out. A hooped awning protects the front door and windows. Shock-corded fiberglass poles make setup a snap. And check out the Extend-a-Dome concept ($179.99 to $279.99). It’s a way to customize the size of your tent. Available in two, three, and four-room models.


The 14- by 7-foot Montana Big Sky tent ($136) from Coleman (800/835-3278; coleman.com) is designed to sleep six comfortably. Its weather-resistant nylon construction features protected seams, waterproof floors, leak-free rainfly seams and zipper protection that will stand up to a good rainstorm. And should the wind kick up, don’t worry: The fiberglass, shock-corded poles have been redesigned after thorough testing in a wind machine as well as the real world. The graceful design features an oversized rounded door for easy access, weather protection and comfort. Three windows allow plenty of light and ventilation is courtesy two vents. This Coleman tent, with 75 inches of center height, comes decorated in a combination of dark sage, fog gray and deep sea green colors.


For those really big family outings, try Eureka’s (800/572-8822; eurekatent.com) brand new three-room Tetragon 1610 ($340), which sleeps nine. With all those people, one of the best features has to be the fact that the tent has three side-opening doors — this makes ingress and egress a breeze with less potential for midnight mishaps. Other standards include roof-top windows, built-in mud mat, a hinged gearloft, and a 75D Storm Shield polyester cloth fly, said to stand up to UV rays and even acid rain. Another nifty feature is the zippered divider concept, which gives you the option of having three separate rooms or one big cavern. Hooded flies at the front and rear allow all-weather ventilation. Check out the two-room Tetragon 1210 ($290), also new this year, which can accommodate six.


New offerings from Exped (888/609-7187; exped.com) include several choices designed for camping couples. Auriga ($239) is a freestanding two-person dome tent that features aircraft-grade aluminum poles with continuous pole sleeves that make for easy setup. Its polyurethane-coated ripstop polyester rain fly, constructed with double-taped seams, is UV-resistant, flame-retardant and is made to shed water like a duck. This, along with a bathtub floor will help keep water at bay. Adjustable vent windows over dual entrances provide just the right amount of fresh air. Also take a look at the Sirius ($319), Sirius Extreme ($349), Andromeda ($409) and Andromeda Extreme ($449), all lightweight tunnel-style tents.


For a different spin on tents (in fact you could take this one for a spin) try the Hannibal Rooftop 1.2 or 1.4 Tent ($1365 to $1499) from Hannibal Safari Equipment USA (866/4X4-RACK; hannibalusa.com). Developed in South Africa for safari-type outings and designed for safety and viewing advantage, this durable tent, which sits atop a Hannibal roof rack, features U-zipped windows that open fully for excellent venting and photography. Other standards include a 70 mm high-density foam mattress with removable cover, front and back entrances, zipped mosquito netting on every opening, an extended rainfly, detachable aluminum ladder and travel cover tie down straps. Setup is said to be a snap. Remove the travel cover and flip over the floor panel, which causes the tent to pop up instantly. Attach the ladder and you’ve set up camp.


With tents named the Nirvana and the Valhalla how can you go wrong? Both lightweight dome tents offer typical Kelty (800/423-2320; kelty.com) class bolstered by durable construction. Kelty has brought backpacking-tech features to some of its family tents. They feature DA17 aluminum poles, color-coded clip and/or sleeve technology, UV-resistant polyester flies, noiseless zipper pulls and plenty of venting. The two-pole Nirvana 6 ($325) promises simple setup and comes with huge mesh wall and ceiling panels for ultimate ventilation. The 100-square-foot tent, with 72-inch peak stuffs down to 12 by 30 inches. The three-pole Valhalla ($350 to $400) comes in five- and seven-person configurations (81.6 square feet and 105 square feet respectively) and offers excellent stability as well as giant mesh panels and a full-coverage, awning-style fly.


If you have a large family, like to take along Grandma and Grandpa, or just have lots of friends, L.L. Bean’s (800/809-7057; llbean.com) new 8 Dome ($279) might be just what you’re looking for. This brand new model, which sleeps eight, offers a 126-square-foot rectangular floor that maximizes space. With a peak height of 6 feet, 8 inches, no one should suffer from poor posture. Setup with three shock-corded fiberglass poles is said to take less than 10 minutes, thanks to a color-coded system. No-see-um mesh panels provide ventilation and the waterproof rainfly features a WeatherWatch window so you can stay cozy in a well-lit interior, but still keep an eye on things beyond the 46 square feet of vestibule.


Another tent tailor-made for the smaller family is the Swallow 3 ($399). This nifty little number from Marmot Mountain (888/627-6680; marmot.com) is a three-pole, freestanding tent that can comfortably sleep three. With a 50-square-foot floor and 25-square-foot vestibule, the Swallow 3 weighs just over 10 pounds. Its main attractions include two large, D-shaped doors for easy access, bathtub floors to keep water out, plenty of inner storage pockets, and a UV-resistant tent fly window that allows light in even on gloomy days. Adjustable fly vents aid moisture control.


The three-season Hammerhead 2 and 3 ($255 and $315 respectively) from Mountain Hardwear (800/330-6800; mountainhardwear.com) are part of the company’s All Mountain Collection. This means they are blessed with techy items such as nonwicking peg loops, UV-resistant windows, off-ground perimeter seams, soft anodized poles and generally tough construction that can stand up to the elements. But you don’t have to be an extreme mountain climber to reap the benefits of such quality found in these three-pole models. Both versions offer two doors, generous headroom, large overhead mesh panels, privacy panels, as well as sky windows overhead on the flies. Colors for this 70-denier nylon- and 75-denier polyester-constructed tent are purple and sage.


The MSR (800/531-9531; msrcorp.com) SideWinder 3 ($379.95) could be just the thing for your small family or three close friends. Lightweight and freestanding, this three-person, three-season tent, measuring 5 feet, 9 inches by 7 feet, 8 inches, with a 4-foot, 2-inch interior height, gives you two large, full-length side doors and two vestibules. Other features include rainproof entry, vestibule mud mat and easy, three-pole setup with DAC Featherlite extruded aluminum poles, said to be 16 percent lighter than others. The polyester rainfly and Micromesh reportedly do not absorb water or sag with exposure, and another feature called Zipgate is said to be the world’s first field repairable zipper. Inside treasures include a gear loft and interior pockets.


Hard ground? No problem. The Airfloor 33 ($499) from The North Face (800/447-2333; thenorthface.com) will keep you sleeping on air, even without a mattress. The 33 translates as 3-person, 3-poles, but the cool thing about the tent is the fact that it features a self-inflating wall-to-wall floor. No more dragging along mattresses. And the 15-pound tent comes with its own duffel bag for easy stowing and carrying. The canopy is nylon taffeta, the fly is made of polyurethane-coated polyester taffeta, and the floor, which inflates to 1 inch, features a polyester top and bottom coated with polyurethane. DAC 7001-T6 aluminum poles and dual doors with a front vestibule help round out the package.


There is no shortage of tents available from Paha Que (888/700-TENT; pahaque.com). But just one of them, the Pamo Valley tent ($499), should keep family adventurers happy. With a 9-foot by 10-foot footprint and interior heights ranging from 72 inches to 93 inches, even the home basketball team will feel at home. Standards include an adjustable awning, large front door, no-see-um mesh roof and heavy-duty rainfly, and 100 percent aluminum poles. A bathtub floor that extends upward 3 inches helps keep things dry, and mesh windows provide ventilation while keeping the bugs out. Features of special interest are the mesh gear attic that suspends from the roof and the air matress slip covers that are incorporated into the tent.


The Safari tent ($139.99) from QuickDraw (800/448-TENT; quickdrawcamping.com) sleeps four but the company claims that it will only take one person three seconds to set up and 30 seconds to fold and store when it’s time to go home. The design, patented as a self-erecting tent, features an oil-tempered steel frame, a door and window fitted with no-see-um netting, an open mesh top, bathtub floor, and durable waterproof construction. Setup is said to involve removing the tent from its bag, laying it flat on the ground with the floor facing up, pulling two circular ring sections up and releasing. Stand back. The tent springs up on its own. After that you merely walk around the tent, inserting shock rods into sleeves and corner pins. Sounds great doesn’t it? Kind of like those shades you put on your car windshield.


The Camp Dome 6 ($249) is one of REI’s (800/426-4840; rei.com) tents available for the 2003 season. This three-season tent offers easy setup with color-coded pole paths, locking pole tips and pole clips. You’ll stay dry thanks to the bathtub-style floor and full-coverage rainfly, which offers an eave to shelter the door. Air circulation is plentiful, courtesy wall and peak mesh vents and a mesh door with large window. The tent weighs 14 pounds, 2 ounces, and has a footprint measuring 138 by 120 inches, and a peak height of 74 inches. Other features include aluminum poles, coated nylon storm panels with track zippers on the door and window, and lots of interior pocket organizers. Also take a look at the Camp Dome 4 ($199) and the Mesh Dome 4 ($189).


Here’s a clever concept. Sierra Designs’ (800/635-0461; sierradesigns.com) new Super Nova ($369) is a convertible tent that can go from being a two-person tent to a one-person tent or from a three-person tent to a two-person one — and back again. This is all possible due to the company’s patent-pending Shok-Certs system of zippers. You simply remove DAC Featherlite SL pole segments and canopy and fly sections. Weighing just 7 pounds, 7 ounces, the Super Nova 3-person features a 51-square-foot floor, while the 4-pound, 14-ounce 2-person version measures 31 square feet on the floor. This is a great choice for backpackers who enjoy a little company now and then.


The Shasta 4-person tent ($110) and Shasta III 6-person, three-room tent ($190) are among Stansport’s (323/269-0510; stansport.com) 2003 debutantes. These four-pole dome tents feature nearly vertical walls, which allow more usable floor space. The fiberglass poles are shock-corded for easy assembly. Standard is a full-coverage rainfly and no-see-um mesh roof panels for ventilation and stargazing sans rainfly. D-style doors offer easy entry and all windows are fitted with mesh. The Shasta is a single-room tent, measuring 9 feet by 7 feet, and 50 inches high, and the 15-foot by 8-foot Shasta III, which has a 74-inch interior height, has the added luxury of two removable divider walls.


Claiming to have designed “the most comfortable sleep in the great outdoors” Ventura Camp Systems (973/509-3159; venturacampsystems.com) offers its new Cabin-Cot Tent ($99 to $150). The two-person tent is a spin-off of the original one-person version. Created by Scott Ventura, these tents attach onto military-style cots to form a dry, comfortable, bug-free enclosure. Featuring windows and a rainfly equipped with zippers and Velcro, the tents are said to be easy to set up via a pull-pin system. The lightweight tents (8 pounds) measure 84 inches long by 42 inches wide when set up, along with and extra 8 inches on either side of the cot for ease in mobility.


Offered for 2003 by Wenzel (800/325-4121; wenzelco.com), the Highlander 3-room family dome tent ($159) has much to offer the larger family. With a 14- by 14-foot L-shaped base and a 74-inch center height, the tent handily sleeps seven. The Highlander’s unique design offers plenty of room for family members, while fitting into most campsites. Standard features include WeatherArmor fabric, shock-corded fiberglass frames with pins and rings that make setup a piece of cake, mesh roof vents for superb ventilation and large D-style doors for easy exit and entry.


From Woods Canada (866/872-3584; woodscanada.com) comes the four-person Valley View ($259.99), listed among the company’s family series of tents. The Valley View’s features include three large doors for stellar accessibility, a large mesh window with privacy flap, and pre-bent fiberglass poles. The fly is made of polyester and the floor is oxford nylon. The 13-pound, 5-ounce tent measures 8 by 8 feet and offers a center peak height of 6 feet, 3 inches. Woods Canada also sells the Valley View Canopy, perfect for huge get-togethers, as you can group up to three tents under it. Also check out the Galaxy 2, 4 and 6 ($239.99, $279.99 and $309.99 respectively), and the Great Divide ($499.99), a combination tent and floorless screen room.


There you have it: a healthy sampling of great tents for 2003. Contact these companies or visit their websites for more details. Then find the tent that’s right for you, and go outside and play.

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