When you buy a tent for the back country you are going to be concerned with weight. One of the heavier components of your tent is the poles. All high end tents use aluminum poles. They are about the thickness of a pencil and surprising light. The poles are made up of short, packable sections that are held together with a length of shock cord. They are anodized to protect them from corrosion.
An alternative to aluminum are fiberglass poles. They tend to be heavier. I have never had a problem with an aluminum pole, but I have had a fiberglass pole spit. The pole was easy enough to repair with good old duct tape, but it had split over night in the wind. Because it splits lengthwise a split fiberglass pole does not look split while it is at rest. While I was taking down the tent it flexed in my hand and I got a finger full of fiberglass splinters. They were surprisingly painful and festered a little, which is always a concern when you are in the back country. I like to stick to good aluminum poles, but if you need to be budget minded, and can handle the extra bit of weight, then go with the fiberglass.
When weight is a concern you would think that the fewer the number of poles the better, but that is not necessarily so. Poles are, for the most part, what gives your tent it's structural integrity. A tent with too few poles will be flimsy.
Years ago I went camping with some rock climbers. We set up a tent in a meadow that seemed perfect at the time. During the night a storm came up and it was nice to lie there listening to the rain patter on the tent. However, as the night went on the wind stronger stronger, and we soon had the tent bent right over on top of us. Finally a pole snapped and the whole thing just came down on top of us. We pondered for about two seconds the idea of getting up, fixing the pole and setting up the tent again in the dark, pouring rain and wind, but decided, to heck with it! We slept the reminder of the night with the tent on top of us, warm and dry and reasonably comfortable.
A tent needs enough poles to make it sturdy. The way the poles are laid out in the design is important too. Too many poles parallel to each other, and not enough bisecting them makes for a tent that is vulnerable to strong winds from certain angles.
As I have said before, never buy a tent for the back country until you have seen it set up and can examine it closely. One thing you want to do, while the tent is firmly planted to the ground, is give it a push about half way up the wall or higher. Does it still collapse under your hand? If it does, it is too flimsy. Try this test on all sides of the tent, and look for any weak angles.
If a tent is a little flimsy but a) you want the compromise because the tent is light and, b) you do not expect to be in windy country where sheltered camping spots are hard to find, then make sure the tent has good exterior anchor points. You can give a tent a lot more strength by tying off to trees or even using big rocks or logs as literal anchors in the wind.
Many good high end tents have interior tie off points. If you really have to weather out a severe storm you can create a lattice work of diagonal cords within the tent. They are a big hassle, because it makes it impossible to move in the tent, but in a really big storm they could save you from having to deal with bent poles or even a ripped tent. High altitude mountaineers have to do this all the time.
The other part of a tent that you need to pay attention to is the floor. The floor is referred to as the floor basin, because, if it is designed properly it goes up the walls a number of inches to form a basin. Stay away from the tents that have the floor sewn to the wall right along the ground. That seam is going to absorb water. Also stay away from tents that have flooring material made out of that polypropylene tarp (polytarp) material. That stuff is not that strong as the weaves get separated and it is annoying noisy. It crackles every time you move. It is also a little heavy. You do not want a floor that is too heavy because, once again you have to carry the tent.
A good floor material is waterproof nylon that is sealed at the seams with tape. In fact every seam in your tent should be taped.
The floor is one of the most vulnerable parts of your tent. You walk and crawl around on it, and it will ever get worn and abraded. Moisture, which is the big enemy when you are in the wilderness, can see into your tent. This is not a big problem if you are setting up your tent on soft pine needles all the time, but if you are like me and set up on The Canadian Shield, which is bare granite bedrock, then your tent should have a “footprint” .
To protect the tent floor most high end tents have a footprint. A footprint is an optional waterproof ground cloth that you can lay out under the tent to protect your floor. It is easier to toss away the footprint as it gets worn than to replace or repair the floor. If your particular tent does not offer that option you can probably find one for another tent that will suite your tent.
Ideally the footprint should be a touch smaller than the tent floor. The reason it is smaller than the floor is, if moisture ran down the side of the tent or the fly and dripped onto the footprint it would then easily flow under the tent. You could end up with water right under your floor. You do not want water getting on top of the footprint. Water flowing off your tent needs to flow to the ground where it is absorbed or away from the tent if it is rock. Never set your tent up in a bowel or dip in the ground. Make sure the flow lines are away from the tent as much as possible when you pick a camp site.
If you have an older tent and the floor is starting to allow moisture through the floor or the seams, or you want to make due with what you have, get a ground sheet that is larger than the tent. Put it on the inside of your tent and have it big enough to go up the walls a little on all sides. That is your basin. In a pinch even a vinyl shower curtain can be used this way. It also protects your floor from further wear.
I often read articles that tell you to dig a trench around your tent. Please do not go digging up the ground. Have you heard the saying, “Leave nothing behind but your feet.” That not only goes for garbage but for environmental damage too. When you dig a trough that the water can flow down you have started an erosion pattern that can destroy an area by starting a huge chain reaction. On The Shield the thin soil can wash away easily leaving expanses of bare bed rock. Places with sparse vegetation can end up rutted and streams can get choked with silt destroying fish egg beds and aquatic life. Even when you are at a commercial campsite, do not dig up the tent pad rutting and ruining it for everyone else. You do not need to go digging up the planet if you have a properly designed tent and it is set up properly.
Another vulnerable part of your tent is the mesh windows. Every time you are headed out you should set up the tent well ahead of time and check everything. Make sure the seams are all sturdy and the zippers are working well. I do this before putting a tent away, just because I do not like to be scrambling just before a trip to get repairs done. But I also check it again just before leaving. I have found holes in the screen mesh that I swear were not there when I put the tent away. It is just a theory, but I believe that if an insect was swatted against the mesh, or a bug was crushed in the tent when it was rolled up the crushed insect is caustic and eats away the mesh. For this and other reasons I try to keep the mesh in particular and the walls in general clean on a tent. To facilitate this, good tents have a pockets which the mesh door can be rolled into and another one for the solid fabric door. The pockets can be zipped closed. This keeps you from stepping on them when you are going in and out of the tent.
While we are talking about the door of a tent, here is a little tip. Make sure you and your tent mates agree where to park the pull tabs of the zipper on the door, especially at night. There is nothing worse than fumbling around, climbing over your tent mates, looking for the pull tabs when you are desperate to get out to take a leak. Most good tents have two sliders on the door. We park them both at the peak of the door. They are easy to find even in total darkness.
A good tent can make all the difference between a great trip and a disaster. I do not sell tents but, I do facilitate people's wilderness trips by providing many online services, resources and information. I want my customers to have a great time while they are on their camping adventure. If your tent leaks, does not breath, because there is not enough ventilation, if the zippers fail or the seams burst, you are not going to have a good time. If you have a good tent, it can be the coziest place in the world, no matter what it is doing outside.