Car campers have one distinct benefit over backpackers: a vehicle. Car-camping gear can be larger and heavier than backpacking gear because you won’t be carrying it for miles on end, so we recommend taking advantage of the extra space and buying a tent that gives you room to breathe. A 2-person tent is great for solo campers; a 4-person tent is best for two people with a dog, a kid and some gear; a 6- or 8-person tent is a good choice for families or groups of four or more adult campers.
To bring you the best car-camping tents of 2018, we first looked at REI customer reviews. For this guide, we only looked at car-camping tents, not backpacking tents. (You can find our guide for the best backpacking tents here.) Each of the below tents is highly rated by verified REI purchasers who took these tents out in all temperatures and terrains and reported back about how they performed. After reading through reviews of more than 50 tents, we spoke with several REI experts, including a tent designer. Then we narrowed our tent list to five tents from REI, Kelty and Caddis, packed these tents into our car and took them into the Pacific Northwest wilderness for a weekend of car camping. We set each tent up according to its directions, timer in hand. We shook them, sprayed them with water, and slept or lounged in each. We examined the materials, zippers and seams. Then we packed them back up and threw them into the car. A few days later, we reviewed each tent for smell and storability. After all that research, we found that we liked these three REI tents best.
(It’s worth noting that we reviewed these products from an independent perspective: The writer of this guide is a freelance contributor and she evaluated dozens of products from many brands. She thought the REI tents were the best in the bunch based on their criteria, not just because they’re sold by REI. The tents in this guide have also been positively reviewed in other publications like Wirecutter and Outdoor Gear Lab.)
The Best Tent for Most People
- 2-person: 5 lbs.
- 4-person: 8 lbs. 13 oz.
- 2-person floor area: 31.5 square feet
- 2-person peak tent height: 43 inches
- 4-person floor area: 59.6 square feet
- 4-person peak tent height: 56 inches
- 2-person: $99.95
- 4-person: $199.00
The REI Co-Op Camp Dome Tent is the best durable, weather-resistant, roomy-but-cozy tent choice for most car campers. We tested the 2-person model of this tent, which is ideal for one person plus gear. The Camp Dome also comes in a 4-person option; we’d recommend the 4-person model for two people who plan to camp with a child, dog or lots of gear. If you need a tent for a group or larger family, we’d suggest the REI Kingdom 6 (see below).
The Camp Dome 2 was relatively simple to pitch, with a setup time of under five minutes. The poles are easy to assemble and made from durable aluminum. The polyester tent floor is thick enough, although we’d recommend buying a footprint (2-person or 4-person) to help reduce abrasion on the tent floor. The Camp Dome’s polyester taffeta rainfly pulls on easily enough, too, with one pole added to create an awning over the door. If the weather is nice, you won’t need your rainfly and the mesh canopy offers a lovely view of the stars. Based on reviews and our personal experience with this three-season tent, we’d recommend buying extra stakes and being careful with the rubber ends on the poles, which can be pushed off during setup.
Inside the Camp Dome, you’ll find mesh storage pockets attached to the corners, which help keep you organized at night. There are two doors on both the 2- and 4-person Camp Dome versions, which makes late-night exits and entries quite convenient. This tent also packs up small for simple transport; unlike many of the other tents we tested, the Camp Dome actually fit back into its carrying case after use.
Said one reviewer of the Camp Dome 2: “I bought this for a recent camp in the desert and it was perfect. … Super easy to set up and take down with just the right amount of room for one.”
Of the 4-person model’s durability, one customer wrote: “[My] girlfriend and I took this tent on a week-long trip to Kings Canyon. Beautiful weather for most of the trip, but in typical High Sierra fashion a freak thunderstorm blew in out of nowhere. High winds, heavy downpour, hail and some snow. This tent held up like a champ! No water leakage at all! I was very impressed with this tent and highly recommend it.”
The Best Tent for Festivals and Weddings
- 4-person: 14 lbs. 2 oz.
- 6-person: 16 lbs.
- 4-person floor area: 59.7 square feet
- 4-person peak tent height: 75 inches
- 6-person floor area: 83.3 square feet
- 6-person peak tent height: 78 inches
- 4-person: $299.00
- 6-person: $349.00
The REI Co-op Grand Hut comes in 4-person and 6-person versions. We tested the 4-person model and think it’s ideal for two people who want to camp in a tent that feels like a bedroom. If you’re camping at a wedding or you need a private, roomy place to sleep during a festival, the Grand Hut is a better choice than the Camp Dome because you can stand up inside.
The Grand Hut was a little more difficult to put up than some of the other 4-person tents we tested—it took about 10 minutes—but the extra setup time was worth it. To build the Grand Hut, you construct a frame out of poles, then attach the tent itself to the poles with pole clips. The rainfly clips over the top of the tent with an easy-to-use red-red and black-black color matching system: Two tent corners feature red tabs that link to red tabs on the rainfly, to help you clip the fly on straight every time. The fly also contains well-thought-out vents that stay open on their own, and the tent’s two doors make it easy for people to come in and out at night without waking anyone else up.
The Grand Hut’s aluminum poles are strong and unlikely to snap in the wind, and the stitching on the rainfly and tent were durable. The zippers appeared well-made, and they rarely got stuck when opening and closing the doors. The three-season tent also packs up easily into a relatively small bag with handles, making it surprisingly easy to transport.
Once set up, the Grand Hut feels like a spacious home-away-from-home. The 4-person model’s 75-inch height means you can easily stand up or change clothes in the tent. The rainfly provides nice privacy. Sleeping in a tall tent like this does feel a bit like sleeping on the floor of a big room, but we didn’t mind this sensation given the benefits the high ceilings provided. We could fit three sleeping pads side-by-side in the 4-person model of this tent with lots of room to spare for our sleeping puppy and packs.
“The tent floor is thicker than a lot of other tents, and might make a footprint (4-person or 6-person) or tarp unnecessary in most developed campsites,” said one customer. “The sheer fabric and mesh also seem very durable. Expect many years of fun and adventure with this tent.”
The Best Tent for Families or Groups
- 4-person: 18 lbs. 8 oz.
- 6-person: 19 lbs. 12 oz.
- 8-person: 22 lbs. 3 oz.
- 4-person floor area: 69.4 square feet
- 4-person peak tent height: 75 inches
- 6-person floor area: 83.3 square feet
- 6-person peak tent height: 75 inches
- 8-person floor area: 104 square feet
- 8-person peak tent height: 77 inches
- 4-person: $389.00
- 6-person: $439.00
- 8-person: $529.00
If you’re car camping with more than three people, the REI Kingdom is the best choice. We researched and tested family tents from Caddis, Kelty and other brands but felt that the Kingdom offered the most durable, easy to carry, and easy to pitch tent option for groups. The Kingdom comes in 4-person, 6-person and 8-person versions. We tested the 6-person version, which would be ideal for two couples or a family of four people. The 4-person model would be ideal for two people camping with a small child, and the 8-person model is geared toward groups with more than four adults.
This tent is more complicated to set up than the other options in this guide, mostly because of its size. The process involves reading the directions, then spending 15 minutes constructing the tent frame from a somewhat complicated pole structure—but the directions were more straightforward than those of some of the other family tents we tested. In the end, the setup time was worth it: A curtain in the middle of the Kingdom allows you to carve out two “bedrooms.” The walls of the tent have multiple mesh pockets for holding small items. The room offered by this three-season tent is unparalleled, too; it’s cozy but big enough to stand up in. The Kingdom has also been awarded accolades from other outdoor publications, including Outdoor Gear Lab.
The Kingdom’s floor material is durable, but we’d still recommend purchasing a footprint (4-person, 6-person or 8-person) to keep the tent lasting longer—especially if you plan to camp on rocky terrain. The Kingdom’s rainfly is everything you need but nothing more, offering protection from the rain but minimal venting. If you do decide to add the rainfly, you’ll need to use the attached guylines. The tent’s aluminum poles are durable, and half the tent is covered in mesh to allow for proper ventilation when the rainfly is removed. Many reviewers recommend adding extra stakes to your pack if you plan to camp with this tent in windy areas. You can also purchase a garage to add on to the Kingdom.
Our favorite thing about this tent might be its carrying case. After use, the tent packs down into a three-compartment case that separates out poles, tent and rainfly. The case can then be worn as a backpack, making it easier to transport than any other large tent we tested.
Says one customer: “I got tired of small tents, especially when it rains and you're stuck inside. We're two slim, athletic people with a medium-sized dog, and a 2-person tent became claustrophobic the last time out when we had to shelter inside from 5pm onward because of heavy rain. So I upgraded to this glorious tent. It is absolutely amazing. Half of it I kept for sleeping, and the other half as a living room.”
Camping Tents Buying Advice
What should you look for in a good car-camping tent?
According to Chris Pottinger, lead gear designer at REI, tent poles are a major differentiating factor between good tents and bad tents. If you want durable, lightweight, packable poles, aluminum is better than fiberglass, which is better than steel. “Aluminum can bend a bit but steel will break and fiberglass could shatter,” he says. “It’s not that steel or fiberglass are bad if you’re on a budget, but if there’s a strong wind or you’re setting up in the dark, aluminum is the best.” All of the tents recommended in this guide contain aluminum poles.
Weatherproofing is another differentiator. Pottinger says to look for a tent with a full-coverage rainfly that goes all the way to the ground, especially if you'll be camping in inclement weather, and to never buy a tent with a less than 1,200mm water column number. (Water column ratings involve looking at how much water, in millimeters, you can suspend over a piece of fabric before it starts to leak.) If you're in a dry, hot climate, Pottinger recommends a tent with an awning.
Check tent materials, too: You want tents made with high-quality polyester and nylon that doesn’t feel crunchy or stiff. “You want good flexibility and fabric that will behave well after being stuffed and folded multiple times,” Pottinger says.
Finally, consider ventilation. Ventilation can be tricky in a tent: Most tent fabrics are covered in a polyurethane coating that renders them waterproof, but this doesn’t allow for much breathability. “We bring moisture into a tent when we sleep, even without humidity,” Pottinger says. “So whatever tent you buy should allow for ventilation, whether that’s zip-down windows or a fly with vent props.” Ideally, these vents should be as high up in the tent as possible to allow hot air to escape as it rises, preventing excess condensation.
What size tent is best?
Most experts, Pottinger included, recommend going one size up from the recommendation on the label. For one person, a 2-person tent will provide the best comfort. For two people and a dog, a 3- or 4-person tent will likely be most ideal. When it comes to bigger families, it’s worth purchasing a large tent (6- or 8-person) or dividing people up into multiple tents. “We talk to people who go camping to reconnect and want to pile a bunch of people into one tent,” Pottinger says. If that’s the case, go big. If not, he recommends thinking about your living arrangements at home and recreating those at your campsite.
What’s the best way to store a tent when it’s not being used?
Keep your tent in a cool and dry place when you’re not using it. Cycles of heating and cooling over time can eventually damage a tent, shortening its lifespan. Humidity is also dangerous for outdoor gear like tents, as it can break down the polyurethane coating (which makes the tent waterproof). Pottinger recommends putting your tent in an old pillowcase or storage bag that is loose to reduce humidity. “Never store it in a stuff sack,” he says.
How to fix a tent if it breaks
Zippers are almost always the first thing to fail on a tent. Even a small amount of fine dust, dirt or grit can start to fray the threads that attach the coil to the zipper over time. Take care of your zippers by scrubbing the slider and zipper with an old toothbrush once per year. If you find a sticky spot, lubricants can help to get things moving.
If your poles start to lose tension over time, take the locking tip off of the end of the pole, pull in some slack, then re-tension the line. If your tent gets a hole, you can use duct tape temporarily out in the field. However, when you get home, you should take the duct tape off and use gentle soap and water to clean the spot. Then sew a patch onto the spot or take the tent back to the manufacturer or retailer where you purchased it for a repair. Pottinger says you can also use a Tear-Aid Type A patch kit to fix a hole permanently.
Campsite setup tips
“One big mistake I see when people set up a tent is that they don’t stake it out and they hurry the setup,” says Pottinger. “If you’re going to have bad weather, take the time to walk around and make sure the tension is even across your tent.” The seams sewn on the tent are intended to follow the poles—so if they don’t look aligned, take a few steps back and redo your set up. If you’re camping for several days, materials can adjust with the humidity and weather; you might need to readjust your tent’s alignment a few days into the trip.
Pottinger also recommends buying a footprint for rocky ground, investing in some extra stakes and bringing a section of cord, just in case.