Photo by Justin A. Levine
Chuck Bruha displays tent options at The Mountaineer in Keene Valley.
 
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"To me, it's a successful expedition if you still want to be friends with your partners at the end," Chuck Bruha laughed. And a big part of not wanting to kill each other after a few nights of camping is comfort. Comfortable people tend not to hate each other after 72 hours.

Enter the tent. The right tent can make or break a trip, especially when camping with family, spouses, kids, dogs or an old friend.

The number of different people you might want to share a tent with is probably lower than the number of tenting options available these days. From hammocks and bivy sacks to multi-room and winter tents, the choices can be staggering. But there are a few key things to consider that can help make your choice smarter.

"The only really good way to buy a tent is to get inside of it," Bruha said.

Bruha works at The Mountaineer store in Keene Valley, and sells tents all year long. Tent specifications usually include the weight and height and square footage, but the way the walls are shaped and where the doors are located can make a big difference too.

"Ultimately it's thinking about how you sleep, and what are the things that prevent you from sleeping," Bruha said. "Because when you're out in the woods you need to sleep. Your body needs to repair itself, and the best way to do that is to feed it and water it and let it rest."

The first thing to decide is if you need a three- or four-season tent. Unless you plan on camping in the winter, you need a three season tent. There are a number of differences between the two, from the amount of bug netting to the design, and the four-season tents weigh a bit more due to thicker poles and material. But the winter tents are also designed to shed wind and snow more effectively.

The four-season tents also tend to be smaller, a nice feature when body heat can make the tent toasty warm.

Next up is the size of the tent.

"If your feet stick out of the end of the tent, that's not going to help," Bruha chuckled.

There are some simple questions to ask yourself once you've started crawling inside of tents at the store.

"Can I live with these walls? Are me and my partner going to be friends at the end of three days of rain? And am I going to put my gear inside of the tent or outside."

Putting your gear inside the tent to keep it dry can create a serious shortage of leg room if you don't plan for it.

"Are you claustrophobic? Because then having a really tight little tent isn't going to do it," Bruha said.

Bruha said that shopping online for tents can be tempting, but all the information that's shown is weight and size, but you won't get a feel for the tent. He said that a good tent should last between eight and 10 years, depending on use, so ensuring that you're comfortable in the tent before buying is key.

Some tents have a door at one end or at both ends. Other tents have doors on the sides, and some square tents can even have doors on three sides. It may not seem important when you're in the store, but when it's cold and rainy out and your partner has to keep climbing over you to go outside and pee, the door location's importance can quickly come to light.

"Depending upon whose bladder is weakest, you want a tent that it's easy for one person to get out without waking the other person," Bruha said. "If you have a door on the side, then someone's going to be crawling over someone else."

Some of the other considerations to keep in mind are how much of the tent body do you want to be bug netting? If your partner is a hot sleeper, then maybe more bug netting is good. Or do you only do fall camping when there's no bugs but the temps might get kind of low, and therefore want less bug netting and more solid fabric?

The weight of the tent can also be an issue if using it for backpacking. Bruha said that every choice is a trade-off and those trade-offs have to be paid for somewhere. When buying a tent, you have to balance weight, size, comfort and price, but all of those things play off of each other.

The lightest, biggest, most comfortable tent in the world is unlikely to be cheap, and a heavy, bulky, musty tent will probably be really inexpensive. As the consumer, it's up to you to decide where your balance lays.

Are you trying to get your girlfriend or boyfriend to camp? Then you probably will add some weight and price to make sure they're comfortable so they want to go camping again.

While there are many trade-offs, there are just as many options. Solo hikers can use something as simple as a tarp for a tent, or use a one-person tent or bivy sack. Hammock camping is growing in popularity as well. Some of the hammock options now include built-in rain flies and bug netting. But Bruha reminds everyone that you also need something to tie the hammock to. The desert or a glacier is not the place to bring a hammock.

A bivy sack is about the size of a loaf of bread when it's in a stuff sack, and is meant for one person. They too come in all configurations, with more head room or bug netting, or smaller, sturdier ones for inclement weather.

A step up from the bivy sack is one-person tents, which are exactly what the sound like. A little bigger than a bivy sack, but uncomfortable for two people.

Then there's the range of two-, four-, and six-person tents. These often start getting up there in terms of weight, but can be more of a shelter than a bivy sack in case bad weather socks you in the tent for a few days.

Bruha recommends buying a "2-plus" tent for added comfort and gear storage, and went so far as to say that his family of four uses a six-person tent. The added space ensures that everyone has plenty of sleeping and gear room without being on top of each other.

There are also the huge McMansion tents that might have a couple of "bedrooms" and a common area. These are a great option so that parents and kids alike have some private space, but are unlikely to be a good tent for backpacking.

Bruha said that when buying a cheaper tent for family camping, you should still check out a few things to make sure the tent is something you're comfortable in.

He said that some of the tents may have rain flies that don't fully cover the bug netting, or that seams may not be sealed. Again, the trade-off is that the price is low, but the design may not be ideal.

And don't forget, that once you've bought and camped in your tent, you need to take care of it. A damp tent that gets put away creates an ideal place for mold to grow. It's important to properly dry and clean the tent after use.

Bruha said that the tent should be spot cleaned with soap and water and allowed to dry properly. This usually includes setting the tent up in a dry spot and letting it air out, but make sure to flip it over and let the bottom dry as well.

"I like to keep the rain fly separate from the tent when backpakcing," Bruha said. "So that when the fly is wet in the morning from the dew, it doesn't get the rest of the tent wet too."

While looking at tent options may be a bit overwhelming, try to narrow down some of the bigger questions before you even begin shopping: Will I use it in winter? Will it be just me or me and a partner or my whole family? Am I going backpacking or car camping? Do I want one door or two?

Answering these questions ahead of time will help you make the right decision on what can be a make-or-break piece of equipment. And that correct choice is something you'll be able to enjoy for years to come.