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Cheap Tents Buying Guide

Budget tents come in an assortment of styles that are made for various activities. Tents that will be used in milder and drier climates and/or close to home are usually the cheapest; these inexpensive tents will probably not endure the climatic and geographic conditions that warrant heavy-duty tents, which generally cost more.

Experts universally advise that you choose at minimum a three-season tent in order to be prepared for most weather. The best low-cost three-season tents are versatile enough to withstand cold or heat, light snow or driving rain, and most conditions in between. These less expensive tents typically weigh between 5 and 10 pounds, which makes them a good choice for easy packing and carrying. Bear in mind that the number of people the tent is supposed to hold is almost always greater than the number that it will comfortably hold; figure at least one fewer person per tent than is advertised.

Cheap Tent Features.

The standard components of an economical tent include lightweight aluminum poles, a reinforced floor, durable stitching, and a quality rainfly. Some cheaper three-season tents are designed with open-air netting and are best suited for summer backpacking. Many of the better bargain tents also feature pre-sealed and taped seams as well as a silicone-treated rainfly for even better protection against unpleasant weather.

Tent Components.

There are three basic components that a tent should always include: poles, body, and rainfly.

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The poles provide the tent's support structure. Poles are usually made of aluminum, fiberglass, or carbon fiber and should be sturdy and well-constructed.

The body refers to the tent itself and is usually made of nylon (light weight) or polyester (heavier). Expert advice from Familycampinggear.com stresses the importance of a floor that continues up the sides for about six inches, creating a bowl effect that helps to keep the interior dry.

The rainfly serves as an umbrella for the tent, protecting it from ultraviolet rays, wind, rain, and snow. (Waterproof fabric tents without a rainfly are generally very light and recommended only if you plan to go backpacking and weight is a critical consideration.) A full rainfly, made of coated nylon, gives the best protection against weather that is too cold or hot, wet or windy by fully wrapping around the tent. The rainfly should also be quick and easy to put on and take off.

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Low-cost Tent Materials.

Lower-priced tents come in a variety of materials and colors. Most cheap tents intended for any type of camping beyond the backyard are made of nylon; in general, polyester tents are heavier. Coated nylon aids in waterproofing and should be used for walls and floor. Nylon mesh allows venting for inner walls; "no-see-um" mesh is an effective window screen for privacy and keeping out the local fauna. Polyester fabrics withstand ultraviolet exposure better than nylon and are often recommended by experts as a better choice for long-term or frequent camping trips despite the heavier weight.

The Wenzel South Bend Sport Dome Tent (starting at $39), for example, features polyester mesh windows.

Tent Seams.

For increased durability and stability, look for a tent with as few seams as possible, preferably factory sealed. Periodic do-it-yourself resealing will help keep things dry when it rains, and some cheap tents need DIY seam sealing before the first camp out. Expert and user reviews stress the importance of properly waterproofed seams. The Coleman Hooligan 2 Backpacking Tent (starting at $50) claims leak-free and protected seams designed so that you wont get soaked.

Tent Ventilation.

No one wants to sleep in a hot, muggy tent, so ventilation that minimizes condensation and enhances air flow is critical. Look for breathable side walls and roofs, and mesh windows, doors, and panels (some placed low and some placed high). Large screened windows on opposite sides of the tent, or a screened window opposite a screened door allow air to flow freely. Some cheap tents, like the Wenzel Klondike 16 x 11 Tent (starting at $119), feature lower zippered vents near the ground for added circulation during summer months. Other low-cost tents, like the Eureka Apex (starting at $74), have dual doors for added convenience and ventilation. One user review on Outdoorreview.com applauds the dual doors in this moderately-priced tent partly for the ventilation and partly for the convenience (i.e., you can get in from either side and you may not need to ask anyone to move out of your way while entering and exiting). One owner of the bargain Ozark Trail Dome Tent (starting at $49) comments on Walmart.com about the door being the only real window and the resulting lack of adequate ventilation.

Some discount tents, such as Ozark Trail Dome Tent increase ventilation by providing only partial-coverage rainflies that attach over the windows and doors, an arrangement that is probably OK in a light rain but probably useless in pouring rain. A word to the frugal tent shopper: Choose a low-cost tent, like the Wenzel South Bend, that offers a full rainfly and proper ventilation through strategically-placed vents. Also pick a lower-priced model that comes with vent covers you can get at from inside, whether the rainfly is on or off. And for campers who enjoy watching the stars or leafy foliage, make sure the economical tent has windows and screens in the spots that let you enjoy the outdoor scenery.

Tent Size.

Reasonably-priced tents are commonly sized as two-man, four-man, and six-man tents. This classification gives a clue about the number of people who can comfortably sleep within, as well as the approximate size of the perimeter. Don't choose a cheap tent based solely on the square footage, however; good advice from About.com suggests campers should buy a tent that is supposed to accommodate at least one more person than the number expected to use it. Expert and user reviewers agree. One consumer commenting on Familycampinggear.com complains that she purchased a tent (brand not disclosed) sized as a four-man that barely housed two. Remember to check the length and width of your economical tent to be sure all your gear, including sleeping bags or cots, will fit.

Even if you plan on camping with a crowd, don't rush to buy a cheap tent that is larger than 10 feet x 10 feet. Large tents present three potential problems. First, it will be difficult to find a smooth and level spot large enough for set up. Second, big tents can be very heavy (remember, you may have to haul the tent to the campsite along with all your other gear), take up lots of room in the car, and be difficult to load and unload. Finally, consider whether you really want everyone to sleep, dress, and live in the same room. Some affordable big tents, such as the Ozark Trail Dome Tent, have privacy partitions and others, such as the Coleman Squaw Creek (starting at $79), do not.

Tent Weight.

A tent's advertised weight includes the tent body, rainfly, poles, and stuff sack. Hikers and cyclists generally look for tents that are not heavy or bulky, characteristics that lead them to hoop (tunnel) tents. One fan of the relatively low-cost Wind Ridge Instant Tent (starting at $99) says on Amazon that its lightweight and compact form are well suited to motorcycle travel, but suggests the set up might be difficult for inexperienced campers. Another tent review posted on the same site, however, praises the simple set up of the cheap Wind Ridge. In both reviews, size and weight were key factors in the choice of this cheap tent.

Family campers often choose the comfort and roominess of larger shelters, such as lower-priced dome or cabin tents. But family-sized tents can add as much as 10 to 20 pounds to the weight you'll be hauling. A cheap three-season tent that accommodates three to five people generally weighs about four to nine pounds; the Wind Ridge Instant Tent is a nine pounder.

Tent Shape.

Tents can come in many shapes and sizes; four dominate the category. The A-frame tent is often called a "pup" tent and is a reasonable choice for one or two cost-conscious campers going on a short excursion. The umbrella tent gets its name from the design, which consists of a single pole in the center of the tent and smaller poles that extend from this pole across the underside of the roof. Because the design provides room to stand and tends to cost more, the umbrella tent is often considered a luxury for those camping on a budget; the Eureka Northern Breeze Shelter Umbrella Screen House, for example, starts at $400. (This particular tent falls far outside the low-price tent category, but it may be an option for families more concerned about camping in roomy comfort than about sticking with the cheapest models.) The geodesic (or dome) tent is a series of connected triangles that meld into an igloo -- a good choice if you expect to be camping in windy conditions. Cabin tents, such as the Trek Double Ridge Geo Cabin Dome Tent (starting at $150), are generally large, with a square design and high ceilings, and are suited for established campgrounds or campsites with very flat ground. Cabin tents also have vertical walls, which leaves more space for cots, chairs, coolers, and other comforts of home. (Note: these common shapes are sometimes modified by using rounded "hoops" for interior support, a design feature that creates more inside space and strengthens the structure.)

Remember that total interior space (measured in cubic feet) refers to the entire area of the inside of your low-price tent, so shape is an important consideration. A-frame tents have the least amount of interior space due to the slanted sides, while hoop, dome, and umbrella tents have more interior space. This may pose a trade-off for economy-minded campers: steep walls that allow precipitation to run off quickly vs. more sheltered space. Budget tent reviews generally recommend shoppers look for a tent design that maximizes the interior. Shape factored into one disappointed user's experience with the frugal Ozark Trail Dome Tent; posting a review on Walmart.com, the camper states that the odd shape in conjunction with the interior storage area meant less usable living space. One final caveat: the tallest campers will be much happier if there is room to sit up or, in the case of cabin tents, stand up. So check the interior height carefully.

Organizational Aids.

Many inexpensive tent models also come with internal pockets and gear loops that are handy for storage. Some lower-priced tents, like the Eureka Apex, even include vestibules that keep your gear separate from the sleeping area. One satisfied owner of this tent, commenting on Outdoorreview.com, says the storage vestibules are easy to attach if you ever need to provide shelter for yourself and your gear in a hurry. You can also find a cheap tent with porch-like areas for outdoor camping, like the Coleman Squaw Creek (starting at $79).


If you're willing to spend a bit more, there are some useful extras more commonly found in higher-priced luxury tents. The Texsport The Lodge Square Dome Tent (starting at $129), for example, attaches to the back of an SUV. Higher-end tent features can add upward of $200 to the price, but careful shopping will reward thrifty campers with some of these very same features. Consider the convenience of brightly colored stakes and guy lines that are easy to see, and stakes with reflective coating that stand out in the dark. Set-up time can be speeded along by shock-corded poles, color-coding, and quick clips. Or go one-step better with a one-pole setup, which is what you get with the Coleman Hooligan 2 Backpacking Tent.

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Tents
  2. Tent Reviews
  3. Discount Tents Features Comparison Table
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