The ultimate tent buying guide for 2023: Are expensive tents worth it?
Buy once, cry once
We’re here to give you a full in-depth beginner tent buying guide while answering the age old question: are expensive tents worth it?
Realistically, truly expensive tents are only really worth it if you are a serious camper or backpacker. But the question of whether cheap tents are worth it is always a NO. The price difference between a cheap tent and a good tent is so negligible in the long run that it’s truly a no brainer.
Tents kind of come in tiers in terms of cost and quality, and most people will probably fall into the middle, with only a select few falling on either side.
The lowest tier is department store tents that cost around $15 – $60. These are basically terrible in every way except for price, and should be avoided at all costs. While they’re cheap upfront, they won’t last long. And likely won’t provide a fun experience while they do last.
The next tier up are brands such as Alps Mountaineering and Kelty. They are much better than the tier below, but their durability can be hit or miss. While they provide excellent shelter and wont leak on you while they’re good, they don’t always last as long as the next tier up.
Up another tier are brands such as Big Agnes, REI, Sierra Designs, MSR and Mountain Hardwear. This is the tier that most people will/should fall into. They are extremely well priced, can be lightweight enough to backpack with and are extremely strong, durable and able to withstand abuse.
The final tier are super specialized and fancy tent companies such as Hilleberg and Zpacks. These tents are basically just a step up from the tier below. They are usually super lightweight (if that’s their target), extremely durable and manufactured with the best materials on the market. These tents generally cater towards more experienced campers and backpackers, at which one point, you likely already know what you like, don’t like, what you need and don’t need.
In reality, whether you truly need a proper expensive tent depends on your individual use case. For instance, if you are an avid backpacker, an expensive tent is worth it every time. But if you are just an occasional car camper, your need for specialist materials and features is less of a concern and a good quality tent will suffice.
Ready for the most honest, in depth tent buying guide you’ll ever find?
Tent buying guide
What should I look for when buying a tent?
These days, tent poles are usually made from fiberglass, aluminum and carbon fiber instead of steel. While steel is extremely strong, it’s also extremely heavy and cumbersome. Over the years, tent manufacturers have managed to make tent poles equally as strong as steel but much lighter.
Poles are a super important consideration when purchasing a new tent because while you can sometimes replace broken ones via the manufacturer, you can’t upgrade them. At least not easily. So purchasing a tent with quality tent poles from the beginning will make your life much easier, and save you money in the long run.
It’s also important to note that even replacement parts are often reserved to higher end tent manufacturers too, most cheap tent manufacturers discontinue tents and their parts every few years.
Material & Strength
Fiberglass is the most inferior pole material commonly used and usually comes supplied with cheaper tents. It’s heavier than aluminum and carbon fiber, and offers significantly less strength.
Fiberglass poles are okay for car camping, but are a definite no-no when backpacking. You don’t want a broken tent pole while 100 miles away from the trail head. Obviously a tent failure is less of a problem while car camping.
Hardcore campers tend to say “if the tent comes supplied with fiberglass poles, run”. And to a certain extent this is true. More often than not, fiberglass poles are an easy to spot indicator of the overall build quality of the tent itself.
Though this is not always the case and requires some research into the specific tent. For instance, some of Kelty’s new tents come supplied with fiberglass poles and they are super durable for a budget tent.
We took a deep dive look at some of Kelty’s best offerings, so if you’re looking for a good tent that won’t break the bank, check out this article.
Aluminum poles are pretty much industry standard for any decent tent. It’s the most common pole material you’ll come across when researching mid and premium range tents.
Aluminum is lighter, stronger and more expensive than fiberglass, and as such is seen less often in cheap tents, and more often in premium tents. Aluminum is especially used in backpacking tents due to its lightweight and crazy strength. It can withstand extreme weather while not adding a bunch of weight to your back.
Aluminum poles are particularly beneficial in bended pole structures, often found in dome tents. This is because aluminum naturally bends under pressure rather than breaking like carbon fiber does.
Aluminum is slightly heavier than carbon fiber, but you will notice a negligible weight difference between the two if you try to compare them. Manufacturers tend to just make the aluminum poles thinner to make the weight seem more attractive. So if a carbon fiber pole weighs the same as an aluminum pole, the carbon fiber pole will actually be stronger than the aluminum.
Carbon fiber is the most lightweight material of the three commonly used tent pole materials. Carbon fiber is a less popular material, and is rarely seen on any tent other than the high end.
It’s seen less because it is the most expensive material, but also because it’s peak strength comes in the form of straight poles. Carbon fiber is more prone to snapping when bent, so is less regularly used in most mainstream tents that are predominantly dome shaped and require bendable poles.
You will most likely find carbon fiber poles offered as an upgrade option when purchasing ultralight backpacking tents such as those by Zpacks and LightHeart Gear.
2. Tent Fabric
Tents made from natural materials are almost always superior to man-made tent fabrics in terms of quality and durability. However, natural fabric tents are much, much heavier than their man-made counterparts. So while natural tents are more durable, there are times where using one just isn’t feasible.
Backpackers for instance, have no option other than to use man-made tents due to their lightweight.
This doesn’t mean, however, that man-made fabrics are rubbish. Just that, if you do have the option to choose, such as if you only go car camping, natural fabric tents are always the way to go.
If however, you’re looking for an ultralight tent, then you need to find good quality man-made fabric tents. Cheap man-made materials rip and tear easily.
Polyester is one of the most common tent materials and is used across a whole range of quality tents from cheap to mid/high end. But not all polyester is equal.
But first, let’s discuss the generic properties of polyester in tent fabric. One of it’s main advantages above nylon is that it doesn’t stretch or sag. Stretching or sagging occurs usually when the tent gets wet and causes the outer rainfly to sag onto the inner tent material, potentially causing damp inside the sleeping area of your tent.
High quality polyester tents usually have a ripstop weave which adds an extra protection against ripping and tearing.
Polyester is often found in family tents or tents for car camping due to its weight. It’s much heavier than nylon, which is primarily used for ultralight backpacking tents.
Nylon is most commonly used in backpacking tents due to its lightweight nature. While it’s lightweight, it’s much more prone to tearing, laddering and sagging.
Many manufacturers tend to coat the nylon in silicone, acrylic or polyurethane (PU) to add a waterproof barrier, increase durability, and lessen the likelihood of tearing and laddering. For more information on which coating is best for waterproofness, check out point 4 – waterproofness of this article.
The sagging issue however, is still the same no matter the quality or coating applied to the nylon.
High end brands also often utilize ripstop mesh to prevent a small tear from laddering.
Composite materials such as Dyneema fabric, are often found in extremely specialized tents. Dyneema is known for its extreme strength and light weight. It’s predominantly used in high-end backpacking tents and tarps due to its cost.
Dyneema is inherently waterproof and doesn’t absorb water. This is a great feature for backpackers, as it means you are not relying on a coating to protect you from leaks.
While Dyneema composite fabric IS strong, its use as an ultralight material means that manufacturers make the material as thin as possible. So while Dyneema itself is super strong for its weight, the durability issues of ALL lightweight tents, remains the same with Dyneema. Dyneema fabric tents are no more durable than nylon tents, they are just lighter.
Cotton tents, often referred to as canvas tents, provide all of the great properties you find in natural materials.
One of the main advantages of cotton/canvas compared to man-made fabrics, is its insulation properties. Cotton tents don’t get as hot in warm weather, or as cold in winter weather.
Canvas/cotton tents tend not to have issues with condensation due their breathable nature. The water droplets are absorbed by the fabric as opposed to sitting on top of it with nowhere to go.
As touched upon earlier, the weight and insulative properties of canvas means that in wind and extreme weather, you will find that it’s much quieter inside the tent than a man-made fabric tent.
Besides the properties that make camping comfier for you, cotton tents are also much more durable than man-made tents. A good canvas tent can last you a lifetime if you take care of it properly.
Polycotton is, as the name suggests, a hybrid between polyester and cotton. So while not technically completely natural, polycotton tents keep all the positive qualities of cotton tents.
They also keep the bad points too – such as weight and cost.
However, the polyester in the weave makes the fabric more resistant to mildew than standard cotton canvas, and also adds more strength, helping reduce the risk of large tears.
Weight is one of the major players in the cost of a tent. Lightweight and ultra-lightweight tents cost significantly more due to the use of specialized materials. Lightweight tents need to weigh less but be equally as durable.
As a general rule, the lighter you go, the more expensive the tent will be. This is obviously especially important for backpacking, and the extra cost is definitely worth the break on your back.
When talking about the design of a tent, there are multiple factors to consider. Whether that be the actual shape of the tent and its ability to withstand extreme weather, the design of the interior and how comfortable and liveable it is, or the design of the walls and how much space you have.
The ergonomics of a tent can vastly alter just how much you enjoy your camping trip. Higher end tents tend to focus on smaller features that really add up over time. Things such as the shape, height, location and number of doors on a tent can be really helpful in ensuring maximum comfort.
The tents shape is another aspect to consider. Good tents focus on the ergonomic design to ensure that they can handle wind, rain and snow effectively. Low, geodesic dome-style tents tend to be best at handling wind.
A low to the ground tent doesn’t have to mean that you have to feel claustrophobic inside your tent either. Many mid-high end tents utilize a more vertical wall structure these days, so you feel less enclosed, while the tent remains safe and sound in harsh weather.
Similar to the ergonomics of a tent, comes the “nice-to-have” features included in high end tents. These include things such as multiple storage pockets, loops for hanging lights and lanterns in the ceiling, the ability to open and close vents from the inside of the tent, and more specialized features such as rainfly stargazing systems.
The weatherproofness of a tent is, for obvious reasons, one of the most important duties of a tent. Particularly preventing rain from leaking in.
There are two aspects where tents can fail at preventing water infiltration – the seams and the weatherproofing technology of the fabric itself.
The seams of a tent are where most cheap tents fail, it only takes a small error or hole and water will seep into your tent during a rainstorm.
Tent manufacturers tend to use one of two methods – seam taping or seam sealing. High end tent manufacturers also focus on creating a strong seam construction, so that sealing is just an added extra protection against water ingress.
Seam taping is pretty self explanatory. A layer of tape is placed under the seams to prevent any water from entering the tiny needle holes that are made when the seams are stitched.
While seam taping is fine on most tents, it does tend to degrade over time. Particularly if you don’t dry out your tent properly.
On heavier weight materials, the tape adheres correctly to the fabric and creates a strong barrier that can last a long time if you dry the tent out correctly. However, on lightweight materials the tape doesn’t adhere quite as well and leaves it exposed to the environment. Humidity and dampness cause the tape to degrade extremely fast. So on lightweight tents, seam sealing is the better option.
Seam sealing uses a layer of glue, as opposed to tape, across the seams. Many tents come seam sealed directly from the manufacturer, while others require you to seal the seams yourself.
However, tents that require you to seal the seams yourself are generally more specialized tents where owners are likely already educated in tent care and maintenance.
Seam sealing is also what many people do when the seals begin to fail on their tent over time.
Where tape tends to cover needle holes, sealant seeps into the holes of the stitching, creating a barrier against water ingress.
The waterproofness of a tent comes down to many things such as the actual material used, the coatings applied and, as mentioned above, how well the seams are “sealed”.
Cotton canvas tents are naturally water resistant, though some come with added special coatings. The main thing to understand about canvas tents is that they require seasoning before use.
Seasoning is the process of erecting your tent and soaking it with water. Seasoning the tent basically allows the fibers of the fabric to expand when wet, and then shrink when drying. While shrinking, the fibers interlock with one another, creating a weatherproof effect.
Man-made fabric tents such as those made with nylon and polyester, require a coating to be waterproof. Manufacturers tend to use silicone, acrylic or polyurethane as a waterproof coating.
Top end tents use a silicone polymer coating (usually known as ‘silnylon’), mid-range tents often use polyurethane (PU) coated fabric, while cheaper tents often use an acrylic coating.
An acrylic coating on a tent is often applied to one side of the fabric, and while it is often described as a fabrics waterproofing technology, it is actually inadequate. While it does provide a barrier against water to some degree, it fails rapidly when exposed to rainy or wet conditions.
Similar to acrylic, polyurethane fabric has a coating of PU on one side of the fabric, usually the inside of the fabric. Polyurethane coatings are thicker than acrylic and also offer more breathability. While polyurethane is better than acrylic, it is still riddled with problems of its own that ultimately end with the coating failing.
Silicone coated or ‘silnylon’ as it is commonly known, is double coated, as opposed to single coated like with Acrylic and PU. The silicone polymer is applied to both sides of the fabric.
Another key difference, and reason that silicone coated fabric is so superior to anything else is that the silicone polymer actually permeates the fabric fibers and forms an actual layer through the fabric, as opposed to sitting on top of the fabric like acrylic and PU.
You’ve probably heard of silicone before, it’s what is used to seal aquariums, bathtubs and anything else that requires prevention of water ingress. When a silnylon tent is rained on, you will see that it sits on top of the tent and simply requires a shake to remove most of the water.
Hydrostatic head rating
Another thing to take note of with man-made fabric tents is its HH (hydrostatic head) rating. This is basically the measure of how water resistant your tent is. The higher the HH score, the better.
As a general guide, a tent with a hydrostatic rating of 1000mm can withstand light showers before leaking, while a tent with a hydrostatic rating of around 2000mm can withstand torrential rain and driving winds. A groundsheet requires an even higher HH rating to be able to withstand the pressure of people standing/laying on it, and needs to be around 3000mm or above.
The ability (or inability) of a tent to breathe is what dictates how much condensation you get inside of your tent.
Natural tents tend not to suffer with condensation issues at all. Cotton is an extremely breathable material, and you will struggle to find anyone who has experienced condensation problems with a cotton or polycotton tent.
Man-made fabric tents are a different story, and without proper ventilation can cause serious condensation issues.
While tents that are coated with PU have the ability to breathe more than acrylic coated tents do, its significance is negligible in comparison to good ventilation.
The two key things to note when purchasing a man-made fabric tent are how many ventilation points are located on the fly of the tent, along with how much of the inner tent is mesh based.
More vents, and larger mesh areas will ensure the tent can expel the humid air, instead of settling on the surface.
The quality of the sleeves, clips, hooks and grommets are a great indicator of the overall quality of a tent.
Many cheaper tents use plastic parts for most of the grommets, hooks, and clips which can be fine. But higher end tents tend to use metal grommets as they are much more durable and less prone to breaking.
With the sleeves (where you put the poles) it’s important that the stitching is top notch.
Zippers are a major culprit of tent failure in cheaper tents. The zippers might seem kind of trivial on first thought, but, when a zipper fails, your tent is pretty much done for.
Most cheap tents will use rubbish quality zippers that stick, break or come apart from the seams.
High end tents use solid zippers that are often also waterproof to prevent water leaking into your tent via the zippers.
One of the major factors in cost is whether you are looking for a 3-season or 4-season tent. While there are plenty of high quality tents for $500 and under, it’s bare near impossible to find a good 4-season tent in that price range. This becomes even more difficult if you are also looking for a lightweight 4-season tent.
A 3-season tent is generally designed and rated for use in spring, summer and fall. They are predominantly designed to be lightweight, to handle strong wind and rain and to offer excellent ventilation for the summer months.
A 4-season tent however, despite its name, is predominantly used only in winter. 4-season tents are designed to handle extreme snowy conditions and harsh winds. The build of a 4-season is much more robust than a 3-season to be able to cope with snow and snow build up without caving in from the weight.