Tips for buying and setting up a tent: It’s easier than you think


My wife and I received a tent as a wedding present in 1999, so until last year I’d never purchased one. I suddenly needed something smaller than our family-sized tent for a trip into the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness. 

Like many people these days, I spent a couple weeks researching tents on the web. I looked at a few in stores but never talked to an expert. I eventually decided on a Big Agnes Tumble 2 mtnGLO.  

In the end, I bought the right tent for me. But after spending some quality time with REI’s David Johnson last week, I wish I had just gone to the store and started quizzing an expert. Johnson has been selling tents since 1978, when he worked at Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum. He’s now the sales lead for camping, climbing and snow sports at REI in Boise.  

Here’s what I learned about shopping for, and setting up, modern tents.  

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Know your needs  

The first question Johnson asks customers: “How many people do you want your tent for?” Tents are marketed as two-person, three-person, etc., but there’s no standard for what that actually means. Pay attention to the dimensions, which will tell you whether you’ll have enough room to place a bag at your feet or sit up and change clothes.  

“There’s two-person tents that are cozy, there’s two-person tents that are comfortable and then there’s two-person tents that are roomy,” Johnson said.  

Johnson’s second question is about price. If you want an ultra-light tent for backpacking or extra space for comfort, you’ll pay more. Aluminum poles are stronger and more expensive than fiberglass poles.  

In my case, I wanted a tent that could be carried in a backpack on occasion. I also wanted enough room to maneuver comfortably. That’s how I settled on the Tumble 2, which is outside the ideal backpacking weight.  

“Anybody who does a lot of camping is going to have a backpacking tent and a car-camping tent,” Johnson said. “If you can’t do that, basically get a backpacking tent that’s a little larger, a little roomier, more comfortable.” Give it a try, REI will let you try the smaller tents in the store, if you don’t mind crawling around in front of others. For larger tents, you can buy a tent, set it up in your yard and make a final decision.  

My final debate came down to the Tumble 2 and the REI Half Dome 2. A hands-on comparison would have helped.  

“A lot of people will buy two tents,” Johnson said. “They’ll take them home and play with them side by side. And then they’ll bring back the one they don’t like.”  

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Add the footprint 

 Many tents have footprints you can buy separately to add an extra layer of protection underneath your tent. I decided against buying the footprint for mine, figuring it wasn’t worth the extra $40. Most of what I read about the footprint focused on its ability to keep the base of the tent clean and protect it from rocks and other sharp objects.  

What I didn’t realize was the role the footprint plays in keeping water out of the tent. At least I didn’t break a key rule — never use a tarp that’s larger than your tent in lieu of a footprint. That’s a common mistake.  

“The water goes off the fly, onto their tarp and then goes underneath the tent,” Johnson said, noting that even a waterproof floor isn’t 100 percent waterproof. “Defeats the whole purpose of having the footprint. The footprint is designed to go underneath that tent perfectly, maybe about an inch or two under it. Then when you stake out that tent, it’s taut. … If the rain goes off the fly, it’s going to go underneath the footprint, not underneath the tent. Double protection.”  

———  

Setup is a cinch  

My 18-year-old tent is awkward to set up. My new one is so easy that my 9-year-old can do most of the work in a matter of minutes — with color-coded pieces to make sure he gets it right. And mine isn’t even one of the models where the pole structure is all one piece.  

Don’t fret when you have to bend your poles to set up the tent. Most don’t come pre-bent.  

“They have enough flexibility in them to do that,” Johnson said.  

A couple tips from Johnson: Take apart the shock-corded poles from the middle out to retain the tension in the cords longer and try upgrading to three-sided, lightweight, after-market stakes. And if you’re worried about water, you can build a moat around your tent to funnel water from the high side, around the edges and away from your tent.  

Johnson also recommends setting up your tent at home before your first trip. Every once in a while, a piece is missing. And the directions aren’t always clear. I set up mine for the first time in the dark at Warm Lake — a silly mistake.  

“The biggest point of confusion would be, ‘Is it easy to set up?’ ” Johnson said. “They’re all concerned about that. And nowadays, it’s so easy to do it’s ridiculous. The first time is always the most difficult because you haven’t done it yet.”


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