Tips for buying, setting up a tent

There’s plenty to consider when choosing a new tent.

My wife and I received a tent as a wedding present in 1999, so until last year I’d never purchased one. I suddenly needed something smaller than our family-sized tent for a trip into the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness.

Like many people these days, I spent a couple weeks researching tents on the web. I looked at a few in stores but never talked to an expert. I eventually decided on a Big Agnes Tumble 2 mtnGLO.

In the end, I bought the right tent for me. But after spending some quality time with REI’s David Johnson last week, I wish I had just gone to the store and started quizzing an expert. Johnson has been selling tents since 1978, when he worked at Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum. He’s now the sales lead for camping, climbing and snow sports at REI in Boise.

Here’s what I learned about shopping for, and setting up, modern tents.

Know your needs

The first question Johnson asks customers: “How many people do you want your tent for?”

Tents are marketed as two-person, three-person, etc., but there’s no standard for what that actually means. Pay attention to the dimensions, which will tell you whether you’ll have enough room to place a bag at your feet or sit up and change clothes.

Johnson’s second question is about price. If you want an ultra-light tent for backpacking or extra space for comfort, you’ll pay more. Aluminum poles are stronger and more expensive than fiberglass poles.

In my case, I wanted a tent that could be carried in a backpack on occasion. I also wanted enough room to maneuver comfortably. That’s how I settled on the Tumble 2, which is outside the ideal backpacking weight.

Setup is a cinch

My 18-year-old tent is awkward to set up. My new one is so easy that my 9-year-old can do most of the work in a matter of minutes — with color-coded pieces to make sure he gets it right. And mine isn’t even one of the models where the pole structure is all one piece.

Don’t fret when you have to bend your poles to set up the tent. Most don’t come pre-bent.

A couple tips from Johnson: Take apart the shock-corded poles from the middle out to retain the tension in the cords longer and try upgrading to three-sided, lightweight, after-market stakes. And if you’re worried about water, you can build a moat around your tent to funnel water from the high side, around the edges and away from your tent.

Johnson also recommends setting up your tent at home before your first trip.

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