How to Choose the Best Car Camping Tent


Large to luxe to budget-friendly, there’s a shelter for everyone.

Whether you’re taking the whole family to a national park or prepping for a music festival with friends, you want a tent that’s roomy, well-ventilated, and has plenty of storage to keep camping gear organized. Family-size camping tents are generally too heavy and bulky for all but the shortest backpacking trips, but they’re ideal for car and canoe camping, or anytime weight is not an issue. But they’re not one-size-fits-all. Ask yourself these questions to choose the best car camping tent for you.

Who’s going camping?

Camping tents are typically labeled with how many people fit inside, ranging from cozy, two-person models on up to multiroom mega-shelters built for eight or more. But don’t assume a four-person tent is the right size just because you have a family of four. You might want to size up if you’ll be sharing your tent with a dog, need extra space for kids to romp, or just like extra elbow room for large sleeping pads. And different brands have different ideas about how much space each person needs. Look at the tent’s peak height, or the tallest point, as well as the floor area. In a four-person tent, for example, floor area might range from about 55 to 70 square feet. Best bet: Get inside the tent at the store (or at home while you can still return it) and give it a real-world reality check.  

When will I be out there?

Tents are made for different seasons and weather conditions. There’s no reason to get more protection than you need, but if you want a versatile shelter it might be best to spend a little more for superior coverage and stability. The two main types you’ll find are:

3 Season tents (made for spring through fall): This is the most common type of tent and is the most versatile option. They offer all the protection most campers need—many can handle even the harsher edges of spring and fall, including moderate snow. Check stability by pushing on the tent’s top and side; it should feel sturdy, not flimsy. Models with lots of mesh have better ventilation, which makes them more comfortable in hot weather. The tradeoffs? Mesh is less durable than solid fabric, and less warm in cold weather.  

4 Season tents (made for winter): If you love the idea of camping in the snow, it’s worthwhile to spend the extra money for a tougher, more stable winter tent. These tents have heavy-duty pole structures, low-to-the-ground flies that keep out blowing snow, and better insulation against cold temperatures. They tend to have shorter, more aerodynamic shapes that withstand high winds better than taller designs. Downsides: They cost more, have less headroom, and can be stuffy in warm weather. 

car camping tent Photo: Daniel Holz/TandemStock; (top) Ben Herndon/TandemStock

What features do I need?

Tents vary when it comes to bells and whistles. First, think about the number of doors: Two or more doors mean campers won’t have to step over each other to get in and out. Windows are great for brightening the interior and allowing you to see the weather without going out. If you like to stay organized, look for lots of interior pockets to stash headlamps, clothes, electronics, and books.

Do I need a vestibule? 

A vestibule is the sheltered area outside the main tent and underneath the rain fly. They can serve as a mudroom on rainy days, a dry area for storing extra gear, and even a good spot for dogs or overflow guests. Vestibules vary greatly in size, and most summer tents don’t have one at all.

How tough does it need to be?

When assessing a tent’s durability, look at the materials used. A shelter with lots of mesh panels will provide excellent ventilation, but won’t stay as warm or withstand as much wear and tear as a tent made mostly of dense nylon or polyester. Also look at the denier of the fabric: The higher the number, the more abrasion-resistant and durable it is. For example, 75-denier fabric is common in car camping tents, while tents made for ultralight backpacking might use fabrics as low as 15-denier. Most tents in this category use aluminum poles, which provide a good balance between cost, weight, and strength. 

Will I ever want to go backpacking with it?

The nice thing about car camping tents is that weight doesn’t really matter—unless you want yours to cross over into backpacking territory. If that’s you, look for a simple car camping tent that’s relatively light or a roomy backpacking tent. A good rule of thumb for backpacking is aiming to carry a tent that weighs no more than 3 pounds per person. 

Do I need any accessories?

Some car camping tents have a footprint or ground cloth—an extra piece of fabric that lies under the tent body. They’re not absolutely required, but footprints do protect the tent floor from punctures and abrasion. Also nice to have: battery-powered lights for ambiance, and extra stakes in case you bend one or want to use the tent’s guylines for more stability. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.