How to Choose a Tent for your Family Vacation

by | Jul 29, 2019 | Blog, Outdoor Adventures and Activities

Do you need to escape the swelter of summer in the city?

Do you need to take a long, slow breath surrounded by long, tall trees?

Do you need a vacation that costs less than taking the family to a Mariner’s baseball game?

We have a solution: camping! Any kind of camping is a great way to clear your head, enjoy fun times with your friends and family and not break the bank. But car camping is particularly easy. Throw everybody and everything in the back of your SUV (or better yet, truck), and head into nature. Other than ice cold beer, the most important item you’ll need to pack is a tent. Whether you go for a tent rental or decide to purchase a tent, there’s some basic knowledge about the tent world you’ll need.

Who’s coming along?

One of the first things to decide about a tent is size. Are you a family of six with 3 labradoodles? Or a young couple traveling light? Do you have a professional basketball player or sumo wrestler in the family? In general, everybody will want at least two feet of elbow room per person, plus some space for their gear. Currently, there are no industry standards for per-person tent dimensions, but REI recommends upsizing your tent capacity by 1 person to have plenty of space (or if you’re claustrophobic, flop like a flounder when you sleep, or have small children and dogs.)

Floor area: A good rule of thumb is to allow 20 square feet per person for a roomy camping experience. Since you are car camping, you don’t have to be as concerned about the weight of your tent as if you were backpacking your gear in.

Tent height: Choose a tent with a tall peak height (usually listed in the tent specs) if you like to stand up when changing your clothes, or have the airiness of a tall ceiling. A cabin-style tent will have straight sides that maximize livable space and tent height. A dome-style tent stands tall in the center, but has sloped sides which offer wind resistance and superior strength on a stormy night, but slightly reduces livability.

What’s all this tent jargon about?

Now we’re getting into the nitty gritty! Tent jargon! We’ll try to keep it brief because we know all you really want to do is get out there and start making S’mores, but these are things you really want to know.

Tent construction: Most of today’s tents are manufactured from some form of synthetic nylon fabric…the lower the denier, the lighter the tent will be, but it will also be more fragile. Since we’re not worrying about weight, go for a higher denier, which means more durable fabric. Car camping tents are usually double-walled, which means they have a breathable inner tent covered by a waterproof outer rainfly, which can either cover just the roof for more light, or cover the entire tent for maximum protection from rain and wind. The rainfly allows for the glorious sound of rain dancing on your roof without the nightmare of condensation forming on the inside of your tent walls. Single wall tents are typically used in high alpine camping (when the condensation freezes) or in tents which have lots of ventilation provided by mosquito netting. And in some double-walled tents which provide magical starry views when the rainfly is removed!

Tent Poles: Tent poles usually consist of pieces of aluminum tubing connected with elastic cord which then pop together to form a longer pole. You either slide the poles through nylon sleeves built into the tent (harder), or attach them to the tent with plastic clips (easier) and some tents will have a combination of both. The fewer the number of poles, the easier it is to erect the tent.

Tent stakes will come with the tent and will be sized based on how the tent will be used. In a pinch, look for trees or rocks to keep the tent from blowing away.

Vestibule: Think of the vestibule as your mud room, but with a little more mud. It’s where you kick off your wet shoes, drop your fishing pole, and protect all the gear you don’t want to keep in the tent. The vestibule can either be built into the tent or you can add it on as a separate structure. Well worth the extra expense to buy or rent!

Doors: The size of your tent will determine how many points of access you’ll want. It’s nice to have at least a couple of doors so you’re not clambering over Uncle Pete for that midnight bio-break. Check the door zippers to make sure they are smooth, quiet, and easy to open – look for YKK zippers.

Interior Gizmos: There are a few things which may seem like minor items, but you’ll kick yourself later if you forgot them. A lantern loop in the top center of the tent is a must have, as well as loops on the interior tent walls which can attach all sorts of things like mesh lofts and interior pockets for gear like headlamps and glasses (see afore-mentioned bio-break).

Guylines: These are the cords usually provided with your tent that serve to keep the tent taut. Some dome tents don’t require guylines, but others do. Look for reflective guylines so you won’t be tripping over them in the middle of the night. A great idea, no matter what kind of tent you end up with, is to set up your tent ahead of time to be camp ready – better yet, do it in the store when you have some attentive salespeople to help!

Footprint: This is essentially a groundcloth that goes underneath the tent and protects it from whatever lurks beneath, think rocks, dirt, mud, bugs…you get the drift. They are usually sold or rented separately and some will be custom fitted to the “footprint” of your tent.  If you’re the handy type and want to save a few dollars, head to the hardware store and custom cut a sheet of Dupont Tyvek to your tent’s footprint.

Graphic courtesy of

Tis the Season…but which one?

When and where are you going to be using your tent? The most popular tent choice is a 3-Season tent (spring, summer and fall) which is designed for moderate weather conditions and will generally have mesh panels for good ventilation in the warm weather. They’ll keep out the bugs, provide privacy and keep you dry in the rain. Perfect for car camping.

3-4 Season tents are a good choice if you think you’ll be out in the wilds in the shoulder seasons and may encounter some snow and colder weather. These tents have fewer mesh panels (for more warmth) and are designed with more poles for greater strength.

4-Season tents are for the mountaineers among us and probably not necessary for car camping, unless you really want to impress your camping neighbors with tales of your most recent Everest ascent.

And if you want to be a real hipster camper, check out roof-top camping tents, a recent addition to the camping scene for those who like the high life!

Whatever tent you choose, the San Juan Islands are ready for your next camping adventure (see our blog on the best campsites in the San Juans). We’d love to host you at Lakedale on our 82 acres of lakes, forests, meadows with all the amenities of a great family resort! Check in and let us know which tent you went for!


Call now: 800-617-2267
4313 Roche Harbor Rd,
Friday Harbor, WA