Tents for Staying Warm, Dry, and Bite-Free

Text: Rick Schunk • Photography: Rick Schunk

A well-designed tent is the single most important piece of camping equipment you'll own. Think about it - the best sleeping bag in the world is of little value if it's floating inside a wet tent, and no amount of bug spray works as well as a good screen. Still, there's no tent that's perfect for every occasion. What will work on a boundary waters canoe trip with the kids might be totally out of place when motorcycle camping. Before you buy, you definitely want to know what to consider.

The Importance of Design

A tent's basic design is more important than reinforced zippers or thread count. Top quality construction won't make up for an inadequate design. Domes, tunnels, and A-frames will all provide shelter, yet domes are a favorite for motorcycle camping as they offer a larger floor area than tunnels and pack smaller than most A-frames. In their defense, A-frames and tunnels generally have bathtub floors (a floor with perimeter seams that extend a few inches up the side of the tent), which can prevent leaks. Most domes lack this feature.

Height and Dimensions

The height of a tent is as important as floor area. Unfortunately, in most lightweight backpacking tents, you won't be able to stand up. Be sure to crawl inside and see how it fits first. Also, beware of one pitfall novice campers often make, which is selecting a tent that's too small. Tent space is usually described by the number of sleeping people the tent can hold, but this number doesn't account for any gear. Always add a person to the total number of campers expected to use your tent. Even if it's just you, choose a two-person tent. You'll need floor space for your helmet, jacket, tankbag, and the next day's change of clothes.

Must-Have Features and Materials

Poles: The fewer the better, shock-corded, of course, and made of aluminum.

Stakes: Aluminum is again the choice, about 10 to 12 inches long with a U-shape top.

Vestibules: Many tents include vestibules and for experienced campers, they're a must-have. Porches might be a better name for these features, as they offer additional outside storage space with a roof and sides, but no tent floor. They're perfect for riding boots and detachable saddlebags.

Tent fabrics: For lightweight tents, nylon is the best choice. We retired our Sears wax-cotton umbrella tent during the Johnson administration.

Rain fly: A well-designed rain fly is critical for a dry camping experience. Even a well-crafted tent can't go it alone in a heavy rain. A fly that covers the entire tent, and extends right down to the ground, is essential. Trendy mini flies won't cut it - no doubt you'll be cursing at them when that unexpected storm hits. Look for a rain fly that can be staked out away from the tent walls to provide water protection.

Ground cloth: Save money and purchase a 4 or 6 mil plastic sheet (slightly larger than the floor area) at your local hardware store. Remember to tuck it under the edges of the tent, which will prevent rain water from hitting the ground cloth and running beneath the tent.

Sewn-in accessories: D-rings or loops inside the tent are convenient for hanging wet items such as towels and swimsuits. One or two pockets will provide storage for bike keys, coins, and a small flashlight.

Six Tent Tips You'll Be Glad to Know

1. As lost stakes are a common occurrence, always carry at least one extra.

2. Tune-up your poles before your camping trip. Using 400 or 600 grit wet/dry sandpaper, buff the unpainted pole ends where they mate with their partner. Then carefully lubricate these ends with a product like Dri Slide®. We picked up this tip from Cliff Jacobson's excellent book, Camping's Top Secrets - a highly recommended publication.

3. Use rubber bands to hold together folded poles, as it's easier for storage. And always carry a few extra rubber bands.

4. Seal your tent's seams. Use a waterproofing product like Olympic WaterGuard® or Thompson's® WaterSeal®. One application is all it takes.

5. If the forecast predicts you'll be packing up in a morning rain, make sure you have your rain gear in the tent before retiring. Put it on, pack up, and enjoy a dry start to your day. Under extreme conditions, consider putting your ground cloth inside your tent. A dry night is guaranteed with this approach.

6. Don't store a tent or ground cloth for more than 24 hours when wet, or mildew will definitely set in. We've gone as far as spreading out a damp tent to dry in a motel room if we won't be using it the next night.