Best Cheap Tents

Price Range

$35 - $150

Cheapism

$150 - $200

Mid-Range

$200 and up

High End

Planning a camping trip or a backyard adventure shouldn't make you want to hide under a tent. Thrifty consumers will find plenty of cheap tents that provide a comfortable refuge for many camping excursions. The first step is to figure out your shelter needs and then decide which basic tent features you must have and which pricier features you can sacrifice. For starters, the type of tent you buy depends on where you'll be camping (the climate, the terrain), how you'll use the tent (sleeping, cooking, family activities), and personal preference. Dollar-wise shoppers take note: The most expensive tents may not be the best buy, so use this guide to help find a quality tent that fits within your budget.

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.

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.

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 won’t 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).

Frills.

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.

Tent Reviews

Set-up Time.

Regardless of the size and shape of the low-cost tent you choose, it should be easy to set up and take down. At times, such convenience is critical; one user writes in a tents review on Amazon that he set up his Wenzel South Bend in pitch black darkness in less than five minutes. For budget campers who are specifically concerned about speedy set up, the Wind Ridge Instant Tent may be the perfect choice: The central hub support structure was designed so that even beginning campers can set up in less than one minute. Tents reviews on Amazon support this claim, and at least one camper looks forward to setting up this low-cost Wind Ridge Instant Tent model during future camping adventures.

The Coleman Hooligan garners praise in a tents review on Hubpages.com for being easy to set up thanks to its single pole design. An experienced camper posting a tents review on Walmart.com says the Wenzel Klondike is a cinch to setup, and he expects it would be just as simple for novice campers.

Weather Protection.

To get the most out of your camping expedition, you'll want to be comfortable and protected from uncooperative weather. Dome tents, in particular, are designed for stability and to deflect wind and shed rain and snow. Although not a dome tent, tents reviews on Walmart.com say the Wenzel Klondike provides fairly good protection. Note, however, that the front windows of the Wenzel Klondike only zip on the side, so you’ll always have air flow but you might get an unwelcome burst of cold air; on the other hand, the back room of the tent is well protected and provides warmth without being stuffy. Coating the tent seams with a seam sealer before venturing out adds a dose of protection. After a first outing with the Wenzel South Bend, for example, one camper writes in a tents review on Amazon that he noticed some condensation so he’ll waterproof the fly and tent floor before using it again; other consumers, however, say they remained dry even through some rain. A full rainfly made of coated nylon that is easy to put on and take down gives the best protection against bad weather. The Coleman Hooligan, with its waterproof floor, sealed seams, and full rainfly cover gets points in tents reviews on Hikingtent.org for providing good ventilation and dry shelter; comments echoed in a tents review on Amazon. By contrast, tents reviews on Walmart.com gripe that the rainfly on the Ozark Trail Dome Tent is difficult to position and rain seeps into this low-cost tent if the fly is not attached correctly. A common complaint posted on Target.com about the Eddie Bauer Alpental Sport Dome Tent (starting at $90) is the difficulty of setting up the rainfly, making it less than useful in sudden rain storms.

Inexpensive Tent Durability.

The durability of your cheap tent is largely determined by its pole support system. Weak structural support can easily dash your camping plans; one reviewer post on the Target website notes that that the aluminum poles in the Eddie Bauer Alpental Sport Dome bent during a windy campout in the desert, forcing the camper to retreat to his/her truck. Another review on Amazon of the Rothco Camouflage GI Type Bivouac Shelter Tent notes that the aluminum poles on this cheap model have small plastic knobs on the end designed to slip into a grommet that break easily, even with minimal stress.

The fabric of your bargain tent also affects durability. The consensus among experienced campers, according to user reviews, is that material quality trumps weight when deciding which cheap tent to buy. Lighter materials may be more convenient to transport, but sleeping without a tent would be most inconvenient. One user of the Rothco Camouflage GI Type Bivouac Shelter Tent writes on Amazon that s/he chose this tent due to of its four-pound weight only to discover that the floor was made of a very thin fabric rather than a waterproof material; the floor ripped and frayed upon first use and this frugal camper now carries an additional tarp that adds unwanted weight to the load.

Low-cost Tent Warranty.

Longtime campers suggest that a well-constructed tent can last 15-20 years if properly maintained. There is, however, no defined life expectancy for cheap tents. Specific stipulations about the warranty of your economy tent can be hard to understand, so ask a sales associate before signing on the dotted line. Even a lifetime warranty won't cover sun damage to the fabric of your tent. On that note, bargain tent reviews say polyester is more resistant to damage from ultraviolet rays than nylon, but if the tent is used only occasionally and/or is pitched away from the sun, the choice of material becomes less important. Warranty terms also vary by manufacturer. Most Wenzel tents are backed by 10-year warranties that include either repair or replacement of any defective part, while Coleman tents typically have limited one-year warranties. The Ozark Trail Dome Tent advertises a 180-day warranty, but limits coverage to repair only.

And finally, it's important to purchase your budget tent through a reputable source, one whose staff (or website) can clearly explain the warranty provided by the manufacturer. You also want to determine whether the retailer accepts returns on camping equipment, just in case quality becomes an issue once you carefully inspect it at home.

Maralyn Edid

Maralyn is a veteran reporter, writer, researcher, and editor. From her early years at Crain's Chicago Business and the Detroit bureau of Business Week, then on to a long-term stint at Cornell University's ILR School and now at Cheapism.com, Maralyn has been -- and remains -- committed to getting the story straight. That means a devotion to balance, to thorough investigation, and to making sense of diverse ideas and facts. Maralyn earned a Master's in Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell, a Master's in Journalism at University of California-Berkeley, and a B.A. at Tufts. Maralyn resides in New York City.

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