Troy, Alec and Becky in large, roomy camping tent

How to Choose a Family Camping Tent

Family camping tents are the more spacious relatives of the familiar backpacking tent. People often expect greater comfort in a campground than on the trail and this means that factors like weight and packability are less of a concern while living space and organizational options become more important.

How can you find the best camping tent for your family and friends? Here are some features to think about:

Living Space

Capacity vs. Reality

Camping tents are often classified in two ways: by the number of people for which it has been designed, and by the dimensions of the floor. Buyers tend to use the number of people — usually included in the name of the tent — as their guide. While it’s necessary to consider the number of people, it’s also important to consider other factors, such as :

  • Space preferences — do certain family members need more space than others?
  • Pets and kids — kids and dogs often require more room than their size might suggest.
  • Potential weather — will the family spend a lot of time in the tent together?

These factors may inspire you to size up. If you’re planning for two people, consider a larger tent to get the space you need.

Make sure the packed size of your tent is compatible with the size of your vehicle’s storage compartment. And if you do plan on splitting up the weight and carrying the tent in your backpacks, make sure you can divvy up the weight to your liking. 

Shape

Family tents come in two basic configurations — cabin and dome — and your choice presents both benefits and trade-offs.

Cabin tents excel in livability because their walls are more vertical, providing higher ceilings and better headroom throughout. Cabin tents also easily accommodate homey features such as room dividers, awnings and vestibules.

Dome tents are more structurally sound as their sloping walls better resist the wind. But those same sloping walls reduce your ceiling space significantly.

Multiple Doors

You may consider more than one tent door a luxury — until you need to find your way across four sleeping bodies at three in the morning. Multiple doors can also enhance ventilation. But they’re not for everyone. Multiple entrances sometimes mean multiple muddy messes on the floor, multiple tripping hazards and multiple floor-to-ceiling zippers to maintain.

Organizational Features

Vestibules — these are outside storage areas protected by the rainfly. They range from small gear stowaways to large covered areas that protect you from the elements without going inside the tent. Some tent configurations include complete screened-in rooms — with and without floors — that act as living areas when weather or bugs aren’t cooperating with your outdoor experience. These large extra rooms can add cost and can reduce the size of your sleeping quarters, however.

Gear lofts — these can described as mesh or nylon hammocks in the roof or sides of the tent that allow you to store gear or valuables. You can use them to choose what you don’t want to get lost in the shuffle of sleeping bags, shoes, and pillows on the floor of your tent.

Tent dividers — these nylon panels zip into the interior walls and divide the space. They provide a minimal level of privacy for changing clothes but offer no barrier to sound.

Rainfly

A rain fly is the waterproof cover for your tent. Most backpacking tents have coverings reach all the way to the ground to offer full protection while others are designed to cover only the top of the tent. When a fly covers only the top of the tent, the exposed portion of your tent will be made of waterproof material.

A partial rainfly allows a little more light inside the tent, which can create a more welcoming interior, but they don’t protect you quite as well as a full-coverage fly. A full coverage rainfly usually costs more.

Ventilation

Tents can become stuffy, especially when you have a full house, so you should look for mesh panels and windows that help to cross ventilate.

Ease of Setup

An expansive, full-featured family tent can look intimidating when you lay it out in the yard for the first time. The solution is to practice pitching the tent a few times before you take it out. Camping tents are by nature large – enlisting in a little help doesn’t hurt.

Troy and Cassie setting up family camping tent

Durability

Given that adults, kids and dogs can all be using the same shelter, a family tent needs to stand up to a lot of use. Durable materials will resist damage and give your tent a longer life.

Tent poles – Aluminum poles are strong and durable.  Aluminum bends under stress, allowing field repair. Aluminum bends under stress, allowing field repair. Fiberglass poles are lighter and cheaper than aluminum, but fiberglass tends to snap or shatter when stressed, meaning damaged poles must be replaced. However the low cost of fiberglass decreases the sting of replacing a pole. If you want to shave a few seconds from your setup time, you can look at tent designs that use fewer poles and those that use clips instead of sleeves for the poles. Clips may sacrifice some wind stability, however.

Tent floor – A bad tent floor is the quickest way to ruin your camping trip. Here are a few hints to keep dry:

  • Look for sturdy material. An Oxford nylon floor or 70 denier nylon taffeta floor provides better protection than coated nylon. A sturdy floor also protects against foot traffic inside the tent.
  • Taped floor seams from the manufacturer means you won’t have to seal the seams yourself.
  • Look for reinforced corners. Corners are notorious entrance points for water. 
  • Bathtub floors wrap a small distance up the side of the tent wall. They help block splashes and keep water from coming in at the base of your tent.  

Footprint — The forest is full of sticks, rocks, roots and man-made litter that can all take their toll on your tent floor. A footprint, the nylon or polyester sheet designed to fit underneath your tent, adds an extra layer of protection and will prolong the life of your tent.

Footprints are sometimes included with large family tents but are often sold separately. Make sure that you buy a footprint properly sized for your tent. An incorrectly-sized footprint can collect water and channel it under your tent.

Steven and Becky at a campsite with a picnic table and a large family camping tent

The Takeaway

You’ll find a wide range of sizes, materials and features to make a camping tent a fun and comfortable place for family, friends and pets. Plenty of living space, multiple doors, durable fabrics and good ventilation are important features when the tent is full of people. Pockets and storage options allow all those residents to organize their gear.

Roomy tents for the whole family

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Questions? Talk to a gear specialist.