Family camping tents

Car camping with family or friends is a summer pastime for many of us. Whether the campground itself is the main attraction or it's simply your base camp for nearby activities, this article will help you find the right camping tent—your home away from home.

Prefer backcountry camping? See the REI Expert Advice article, Backpacking Tents: How to Choose.

Types of Camping Tents

Camping tents typically sleep 4, 6 or 8 people. Choose a model based on your group's size and whether or not you might need additional space for extra friends, gear or dogs.

The basic styles:

  • Cabin-style tents: These upright designs offer the easiest in/out access. Their near-vertical walls maximize livable space, and some models come with family-pleasing features such as room dividers and an awning (or a vestibule door that can be staked out as such).
  • Dome-style tents: These larger cousins of backpacking domes offer superior strength and wind-shedding abilities, both of which you'll appreciate on a stormy night. They stand tall in the center, but their walls have more of a slope which slightly reduces livable space.
  • Screen rooms and sun shelters: These usually cover the camp picnic table or are pitched for a day at the beach, though they can double as sleeping shelters if needed. All-mesh "screen houses" excel in warm conditions and keep you shielded from bugs, though not rain.

Shop REI's selection of camping tents.

Tent Shopping by Price

Camping tents are sold at discount stores across the land, sometimes at crazy low prices. Outdoor specialty stores such as REI, meanwhile, can carry models that can cost upwards of $500, or even $1,000. From a distance they look about the same, so what's the big difference?

As is often the case, you get what you pay for. In calm weather, a bargain tent may serve you just fine—for a while. The real difference is the quality of materials, which tends to become apparent in bad weather or after your first few outings. Here are some tips to compare a tent's quality:

  • Poles: Aluminum is stronger and more durable than fiberglass.
  • Zippers: YKK zippers resist snagging and breaking better than others.
  • Materials: Higher-denier fabric canopies and rainflies are more rugged than lower-denier ones.
  • Rainfly: A full-coverage fly offers better weather protection than roof-only styles.
  • Detailing: Guyout loops let you batten down the hatches in bad weather.
  • Floor design: Seam tape and high-denier fabrics reduce the odds of leakage.

Bottom line: If camping is an annual activity for your group, consider the long-term advantages of having a quality tent. Similarly, if you camp in areas where wind and storms are a threat, the same advice holds.

Tent Setup and Livability

Key features to consider:

Headroom: This is listed as "peak height" on spec charts. If you like being able to stand up when changing clothes or enjoy the airiness of a high ceiling, then look for a tall peak height. Typically, cabin-style tents are taller than domes.

Doors: Does the tent have 1 or 2 doors? What shape are the doors, and how easy are they to zip open and shut? Cabin-style tents tend to shine in this area.

Ease of setup: A tent's pole structure helps determines how easy or hard it is to pitch. Fewer poles allow faster setups. It's also easier to attach poles to clips than it is to thread them through long pole sleeves. Many tents use both clips and short pole sleeves in an effort to balance strength, ventilation and setup ease. Color-coded corners and pole clips also make setup faster.

Freestanding: Virtually all family tents these days are freestanding. This means they do not require stakes to set up. The big advantage of this is that you can pick the tent up and move it to a different location prior to staking. You can also easily shake dirt out of it before taking it down.

Rainfly coverage: A rainfly is a separate waterproof cover designed to fit over the roof of your tent. Use it whenever rain or dew is expected, or any time you want to retain a little extra warmth. Two rainfly types are common:

  • Roof only: This allows more light and views while offering fair rain protection.
  • Full coverage: This offers maximum protection from wind and rain.

Packed size: How big is the tent when packed? Motorcycle and small-car campers find this spec especially useful.

Ventilation: Mesh panels are often used in the ceiling, doors and windows. This allows views and enhances cross-ventilation to help manage condensation. For hot, humid climates, seek out larger mesh panels.

Vestibule/garage: This shelter or awning attaches to a tent for the purpose of storing your dusty boots or a keeping your daypacks out of the rain. It can be either an integral part of the rainfly or an add-on item that's sold separately.

Interior loops and pockets: A lantern loop is often placed at the top-center of the ceiling for hanging a lantern. Loops on interior tent walls can be used to attach a mesh shelf (called a gear loft, sold separately) to keep small items off of the tent floor. Similarly, interior pockets help keep your tent organized.

Guyout loops: Higher-quality tents will include loops on the outside of the tent body for attaching guy lines. Guy lines allow you to batten down the hatches—no flapping fabric—during high winds.

Optional Tent Accessories


Tent footprint

This is a custom-fitted groundcloth (sold separately) that goes under your tent floor. Tent floors can be tough, but rocks, twigs and dirt eventually take a toll. A footprint costs far less to replace than a tent. For family tents that get a lot of in/out foot traffic, this is especially useful.

Also, footprints are sized to fit your tent shape exactly, so they won't catch water like a generic groundcloth that sticks out beyond the floor edges. Water caught that way flows underneath your tent and can seep through the floor fabric.

Gear Loft

Most tents come with an integral pocket or 2 to let you keep small items off of the tent floor. A gear loft is an optional interior mesh shelf that can tuck greater volumes of gear out of the way.

Other Nice-to-Haves

  • Stakes for sandy-soil campsites
  • Broom and dustpan
  • Inside/outside floor mat
  • Battery-powered ventilation fan

Shop REI's selection of tent accessories.

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