How to Choose a Backcountry Tent

I grow up camping. That is what our family did. During my college years I got away from camping, but as soon as I graduated I ran out and bought a pile of camping gear. At the time my wife and I were poor as the proverbial church mice, having just graduated, and being strapped…

I grow up camping. That is what our family did. During my college years I got away from camping, but as soon as I graduated I ran out and bought a pile of camping gear. At the time my wife and I were poor as the proverbial church mice, having just graduated, and being strapped with student loans. In spite of that I dumped three thousand dollars worth of gear on the living room floor and said, “Look what I got honey!” Now if it was a cheap $ 300 guitar or even a kitchen appliance she would have freaked out. “We can not afford that !!” Instead she said, “Cool! Where are we going?” I knew I had married the right woman.

When I bought that gear a lot of things in the camping world had changed since I had last looked. I went to this well known camping gear store and hooked up with a young salesperson. Piece by piece we selected each item, and I leaned heavily on his advice. He was the pro. When we had pretty well finished selecting everything I needed we took a moment to we ponder if anything was missing. I realized I needed a knife. He ran off, and came back all excited about a knife that was about two feet long and weighed about four pounds. It had a big chrome blade, spikes sticking out of the guard and a hollow handle. He unscrewed the cap off the handle to reveal a cheap compass on the underside of the cap, and inside the handle was a little sewing kit complete with needles, thread and a few buttons along with some fishing hooks and other useless paraphernalia. Right away I knew that this monstrosity, that was designed to fight a war, that my “expert” consultant thought I had to have, was the last thing in the world that I needed to slice my freezed dried food packages open, and perhaps trim a few lengths of rope. After all, that is about all you use a knife for in the bush now days. Suddenly I was filled with anxiety and apprehension as I eyed the great pile of gear that he had recommended.

Today I know my way around gear. When I wander around the big stores, the ones that sell dish washers, ceiling fans and garden tools, and make it to the camping section, I tend to shudder. I am sure that the people selling the gear think it is wonderful. They would be just like my friend with the knife, but far worse. I had reason to believe that he had some camping experience. I have no reason to believe that the people in the car tire, plumbing and paint store have ever been outside of a city.

I admit I am a bit of a snob when it comes to camping gear. I do not just buy a tent. I buy a tent that is custom designed for the circumstances I expect to find myself in. Over the years I have had many tastes. For awhile it seemed like I always had a tent for sale. One friend said, “What is it? You do not like the smell of mildew?” No, the tents I sold were pristine. People who answered my ads would be amazed when they saw what I had to offer. They would say, “So you bought it and never went camping, so you want to sell it?” No, I had probably lived in the thing for a couple of months in total. However, the pack size may not have been quite right. The walls did not breath quite well enough for the warm, humid nights that we expected to experience. The walls breathed too well, so the tent was not enough of a heat trap for the cold, late season nights we were going to experience – whatever. And of course the family grows and I am loath to carry more than I have to. If it is just two of us then a two person tent it is, not an inch larger. It may help to understand that my wife and I go into wilderness regions for as much as a month at a time, and then we do lots of short outings, so our tent is our home for a good piece of each year. We like to be comfortable.

When I look at the tents in the power tools, roofing material and soccer balls store I am appalled at the designs. They are almost universally flawed and flawed badly. It is sad when you realize that so many people who are new to camping go to these stores for their gear. They are going to have a less than stellar experience and probably be turned off the joys of camping forever. No repeat customers there.

I suppose that many people are smart enough to know that the sales people can not be relied on for guidance, so they turn to the internet for some insight. I've noticed there are a lot articles on how to pick a tent. However, they so rarely warn against selecting a tent with these common flaws. They tell you to pay attention to the ease it takes to put up and take down the tent. They discuss the size of tents and which size would be right for you, but there are fundamental features that a tent has to have to be worth anything. I know why those people do not mention these features. Inevitably they have a link to a store that sells the same tents that the kitchen appliance and patio furniture stores have in stock.

I do not sell tents, but I do facilitate people who are going into the wilderness, and I would hate it if they had a lousy experience because they were burdened with poorly designed equipment, so I am going to give you the straight goods on tents. I want happy, repeat customers.

Dome tents are the status quo today. Not all are perfectly dome shaped. There are lots of variations on a theme. They tend to be easy to set up, light and fit nicely in a backpack. The flexible poles create an arch on the outside, so they do not use any internal space or create an obstacle. The tents do not need to be pegged to the ground, although watch out if a wind comes up. Anchor your tent to at least one solid thing. They make excellent kites.

Tents typically have a few parts. There is the dome that is held in place by the flexible poles. This gives shape to the inner walls and stretches out the floor. The walls can be a fine gauze, for camping when summer nights are hot and muggy, or they can be thick denier, tough nylon that can withstand razor sharp ice crystals lashing the fabric driven by a 90 km / h winds on the side of Everest . Most tents are not so specialized and are something in between. Fundamentally, the dome, held up by the flexible arching poles, is your tent. It is perfectly fine to use it like this. However, there is supposed to be at least one other part to your tent.

You are out in the back country on one of those hot muggy nights in your nice, airy, gauzy tent, and you hear the distant thunder boom. An hour later you wake, because the thunder is louder and you see lightening flicking as the storm grows closer. You know you are in for one heck of a summer downpour, but you are all nice and snug in your tent, right? Hold it – it is made out of thin gauzy mesh. Even if it is not made of mesh, most tents are made of fabric that is light enough to breath, otherwise condensation in the tent can be a big problem. Most fabrics that breath are not waterproof. You have little or no protection from the rain.

The other important part of the tent, that you need, is a good fly. The fly is supposed to be good, sturdy, water proof material, and when you hear that storm coming you better get that fly on your tent.

And this is where I see the design flaws everywhere. I do not know why so many tents are designed this way, but I suspect the main reason is to save money and keep the price point down. The fly is supposed to cover the whole tent. Not only does it cover the whole tent but it should be big enough to come down to inches from the ground and reach well away from the sides of the tent. That way, as the rain pours off the fly it drips to the ground well beyond the tent. I do not work for the Mountain Equipment Co-op , although I am a member. Have a look at the well designed tents that they sell to see what I mean.

What I see at the paint and wallpaper, swimming pool and office supply stores are flys that only make it half way down the side of the tent at best, or even silly little things that look like a kid's umbrella perched on the peak of the dome .

Where the water flows off the fly and falls to the ground is your drip line. The water flowing off these absurd, little flys does not fall to the ground. It pours directly onto the tent wall. Not only does it pour out the tent but there is a heavy concentration of water at the drip line. The tent walls get drenched and leak. On a good tent with a good fly the walls will always stay dry right down to the ground.

I would never buy at tent until I have seen it set up. Where the drip line is on a tent is one of the most fundamental issues that has to have been well thought out when the tent was design. If you see that the rain is going to be pouring off the fly onto the tent walls, do not buy it. Get a real tent. And remember, rain rarely falls straight down. Large openings in the fly, to accommodate windows, are just as bad. “But the tents at the vacuum cleaners, big screen television and pet supplies store are so much cheaper.”, You say. Think about that as you lay in a soggy sleeping bag in the dark not realizing that there is a pool of water forming in the corner where you put all your clothes.

Those cheap tents with the ridiculous flies on them are kid's, back yard tents. When they are having a back yard sleep over, and the storm comes, they can come screaming and giggling into the house. That is all those tents are good for. When you go into the back country you want to be well protected and comfortable. Get a real tent.

Now do not get me started on sleeping bags.