Coleman 6-Person Instant Tent

First thing I think about when I hear family is bickering, arguing, crying, yelling, etc. Not a pleasant thought. But family tents need not be this way, if you are careful about what you buy.

Decide your needs

The first thing you need to decide on is how many people need to sleep in the tent and what type of beds are you going to use. If you are just using a simple air mattress then you just need 2 feet by 6 feet per person plus 2 feet by 2 feet for gear (if you are not using a vestibule). This changes if you are using one of those queen/king size Coleman mattresses. In that case you need a lot more space. In my Base camp 6 I can only fit my queen size mattress, a crib, one air mattress and a couple of bags for clothes/diapers/etc.

After you decide how much spare gear you need, then you need to consider options like multiple rooms, a screen room, ability to walk in the tent, room for a card table, weather resistance, overall quality, size when packed, size when assembled, etc. Having an attached screen room is a nice option if you are camping in an area known for having a lot of insects. But I feel a better option is to buy a separate screen room.

You also need to decide what environments you will be camping in. If rain, wind, and space is not a concern then all you need is a cheap shelter and a way to monitor the weather. Just remember that you will need to get a hotel room if the weather goes south fast, and that happens a lot during August in the mid-west.

Classification of Tents

All tents can be classified into two categories, 3-season tents and 4-season tents. 3-season tents are the most common tent you can buy and chances are your tent is a 3-season tent. It is designed for camping in locations where snow and high winds are not a major factor. 3-season tents usually have a flatter roof, separate rain fly, are lighter, and cheaper. If you think you will enjoy camping in the snow then get a true 4-season tent or build a snow cave. To accommodate a large family you will have to have two tents instead of one big tent. 4-season tents do not have a separate rain fly, they are heavier, and their roof is sloped so that snow will easily slide off instead of collapsing the tent. Most 4-season tents are shaped like a dome because of this and they can survive high winds fairly well with guy wires.

There are also convertible 3-season tents. My REI Base camp 6 and REI Clipper are two examples of good quality convertible tents. The rain fly allows both of these tents to act like 4-season tents. You can give both of these tents a pounding but they will not survive heavy snowfall or high winds as well as a 4-season dome style tent will.

Expensive vs. cheap

Most tents are mass-produced. This means the quality is not there and durability will be an issue. But if you don’t mind buying a new tent every few years then this is an option. But if you buy a quality tent like the ones I mentioned above, you will have a more enjoyable time camping and less chance of bad weather ruining your trip. In the long run you will save money by having a tent for 10 years instead of 3 in the same time period.

If you need proof then check out my review on the Coleman Weather master. Even after writing that review I got two more people that confirmed that they ripped their tent. Avoid this tent like the plague.

Clips versus tent sleeves

There are two ways to secure a pole to a tent. The first method is to just put a pole through a sleeve. The second method is to set up the poles and clip the tent body to the poles themselves. Most manufacturers of 3-season tents use a combination of both of these methods.

Basically poles that are in tent sleeves are much sturdier. They take a little longer to set up. But what you spend in time and effort pays off in less shaking from the wind and the force of the tent is more evenly distributed along the poles. This is the way to go if you camp in windy areas.

Clips are a wonderful design on 3-season tents. It makes them easier to set up and the poles usually are not as tight. As long as you do not encounter high winds then this is the primary choice for the average camper. Just be prepared for the tent to move a little more in some weather conditions.

There is a third option that is brand new to the market (about a year?). You can actually pump up the tent instead of sliding poles in the sleeves. I have only seen it on a small tent so don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for this design to be implemented in a larger tent.

What to look for in a rainfly

-It should not touch the tent body (most rest on the poles.)

-The rain fly should extend beyond the body of the tent so that the rain never contacts the tent body (this is not a necessity in light rain but is in heavy rain.)

-It should have a waterproof coating. (you still may need to apply a seam sealer). A water-repellent material will only protect you from the light rain.

-The tent floor needs to be water proof.

The advantage of having a separate rain fly is it making for a lighter load. The tents that do not need a rainfly are a little heavier and a little more expensive.

What about the stakes?

Most stakes that come with the tent are pretty cheap so first unpack the stakes. Take one and see if you can bend it like a paperclip or will it bend if you hammer it lightly? If that is the case then go out and buy some new stakes. For car camping I recommend generic stakes like the ones made by Coleman, Coghlans, or Ozark trail that you can buy at any major store. These stakes are a little more difficult to damage and even if you do you won’t care.

If the soil you commonly camp in is loose soil like sand then check out the MSR Ground Hog stake.

What is your opinion on the best 4-season family tent?

I got this question a few weeks ago while I was in the process of writing this advice article. After carefully research the current crop of family tents I came to the realization that there was no such thing as a 4-season family tent. But there are 3-season convertible family tents. A 3-season convertible tent usually has a rainfly that will allow the tent to withstand more severe weather. Here are the 3 tents that I would consider if I was in the market today. Keep in mind that I would not take any of these into heavy snow because they are a 3-season convertible tent, not a 4-season tent.

-REI Base camp 6- I know I already reviewed this tent but I still think it is the best family tent out there with all things considered. Some people might have an issue with the fact that you cannot walk in it and you only have one room. It will sleep 6, but 6 people that are very comfortable sleeping that close to each other.

-North face trail head 8- I do not consider this a 3-season convertible but I still like the tent. This a much better tent than the Coleman Weather master and it will serve the same purpose. It may cost more but it will be money well spent.

-Kelty mantra- Kelty is a good brand but not the first brand I look for. But when I saw this tent I was instantly hooked. The design should withstand most weather conditions of the average camper. And it just looks cool.

-The cheap alternative- buy two large tarps, stakes, thickness string that cannot be easily broken, and two poles (two walking sticks will work.) Now just make an A frame out of it using the poles to support the top tarp and the string to add tension to the poles. The other tarp is on the floor. This is actually one of the oldest styles of tent and it still works. It can be set up in minutes and should cost less than 20 dollars (less if you scrounge around)

-The expensive alternative- If you have 5000 to blow then check out the North Face 2 Meter Dome. I’ll review this tent after I win the lottery…since I don’t play that may take a while.

My philosophy on the tents

I view tents as a place to sleep, that is it. If you are out in the wilderness then you need to be in a location where you can truly enjoy it, outside. So I do not need a tent that I can walk in, play card, etc. All I need to do is sleep in it. This is why I think my REI 2 man is perfect because you just slide in and go to sleep. Some people think I take this to the extreme because I would rather sleep on a tarp under the stars than the most luxurious bearskin lined tent that money can buy.

Some of my experiences

When you buy a good tent you are buying security and insurance. On my trip to Florida in, we were caught in a bad rainstorm in Mississippi and my brother woke up in 1/2 an inch of water. Well the wind was so severe that is ended up tearing a large hole in the side where the bottom and side wall was sewn together. This hole happened to be facing uphill and let the water run down into the tent. We took it in stride, went to the Laundromat and cleaned off the damage. I learned from that experience to not do what my mom did and buy a cheap tent.

Another time I was camping with my wife at Arches N.P. and there was a brief but intense rainstorm. I wasn’t sure what to expect back at camp but I was a little worried because of the unpredictable nature of desert storms. Well we got back and saw our tent in a foot of water and it had been there for several hours. I was worried and thought we were going to spend the night at the Laundromat and some sleazy motel. Well after we un-staked the tent and moved it, we opened up the tent to find all our gear perfectly dry. Had there been just one defect in the stitching, we would have had a flood in our tent. Just another reason why you should buy good quality tents.

Dimensions guide

This is a rough estimation. You can take off 4 square feet per person is you can deal with a tight fit. If you have a lot of extra gear, a crib, or a large mattress then you will obviously need more room than what I have listed.

4 people- 64 sq. Ft. Or 8 feet by 8 feet.

6 people- 96 sq. Ft. Or 8 feet by 12 feet.

8 people- 128 sq. Ft. Or 8 feet by 16 feet.

Summary:

If you are going to be serious about camping then get a good tent. Do not go cheaply, buy the most expensive you can afford from a trusted brand. Both you and your family will be better off in the long run.

If every time you think it is going to rain you get a hotel room then you do not need a nice tent. You are merely buying a tent for privacy. My suggestion to you is to just get a cheap tent from Costco and replace it every 3-5 years.

And whatever you do always setup and test the tent before you buy. If the shop doesn’t let you do this then go elsewhere. You don’t buy a car without a test drive do you? After you tested out the tent you want, go and find the best price.

But you get what you buy. If you spend the money you will get a good quality tent. In the long run it will be cheaper, just ask my brother-in-law.