A version of this story appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Uncommon Path. Whether you’re a family car camper, an overlander or somewhere in between, settle in—your next nylon apartment search begins here. This year’s crop of car-camping tents proves that there’s a perfect home away from home for everyone who wants to get […]
A version of this story appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Uncommon Path.
Whether you’re a family car camper, an overlander or somewhere in between, settle in—your next nylon apartment search begins here. This year’s crop of car-camping tents proves that there’s a perfect home away from home for everyone who wants to get gone.
Here’s the skinny: When you’re car camping, you don’t need to worry about the bulk or weight of your gear. That means you can enjoy shelters that are roomier and more feature-packed than backpacking tents. Such shelters are also often easier to set up than their backpacking cousins, and more affordable, too. That all can make sleeping on the ground a wholly enjoyable experience. So get the car packed; whether you’re gearing up for your next trip or planning for a future getaway, you’re sure to find the perfect car-camping tent for you in this guide.
In summer and fall 2019, we sent 22 members (and their friends, families and pups) from across the country out into car campgrounds and parcels of wide-open public land to evaluate the best shelters you can find at REI. They dealt with blazing sunshine, unrelenting rain and gale-force winds, scrutinizing everything from leaks to privacy windows. Ultimately, every tester rated each shelter on its spaciousness, weather protection, durability, features, price and usability. The results are in: These seven tents are proven to provide the best night’s sleep.
Best Tent for Families
Test Results: One tester dubbed this palatial tent his “party house,” and we couldn’t agree more. Not only is the 75-inch peak height tops in our test, but between the floor area and vestibule, this behemoth serves up well over 100 square feet of space—bigger than some brick-and-mortar bedrooms. To that end, the REI Co-op Kingdom 6 comes with a divider, so campers can create two rooms in the rectangular floor plan, each with its own entrance. We had no problem fitting three sleepers on each side, but we highly recommend turning the front room into a lounge with chairs and a card table if you’re not maxing out the capacity.
Massive doors lead to a 29-square-foot vestibule on the front side, where you can store boots, backpacks and wet gear. If you subscribe to the no-dogs-inside-the-tent policy (no judgment), you can convert the vestibule into a dog run of sorts. Or, with a couple of tarp poles and guylines, prop the doors up to create a front porch with an awning. Or go all out: Connect the Kingdom Mud Room ($99.95, sold separately) to give yourself a 50-square-foot foyer. “It’s like our gear garage,” says one tester. “At night, we move our chairs, side table, firewood and the kids’ bikes inside. If it’s raining, we’ll even eat in there.”
Of course, luxury like this isn’t compact. The Kingdom 6 packs down to a bundle the size of a toddler. But color-coded poles, clips and sleeves do simplify the process. Plus, with a tent this big, you’ll likely have help comparable to a barn raising.
Best Tent for Small Groups
Test Results: Sometimes, simpler is better. Take the Big Agnes Dog House 4, a no-frills shelter that does everything you want it to and nothing you don’t. An intuitive pole structure and color-coded webbing and buckles make setup self-explanatory, even for new campers. True story: Our tester was able to erect the Dog House 4 in just a few minutes on his first try (“sans instructions,” he points out). The single-wall design streamlines setup as well because campers don’t have to fuss with a separate rainfly. The partial fly (which props on top of the tent like a bucket hat) is always attached, leaving little to confuse. Other nice touches like pre-rigged guylines and tensioners add to this shelter’s overall ease of use.
Inside the Dog House 4, it’s surprisingly roomy. Steep walls and a nearly square floor plan make ample space for the whole gang—four adults could sleep comfortably head to toe on a group trip in New York’s Adirondacks (a family with small kids has even more room). A large D-door, opposing oversize window and two vents in the peak provide ample ventilation and make coming and going easy.
True, this bare-bones tent lacks certain features like vestibules, double doors and abundant pockets (it has two, plus interior loops for attaching gear lofts), but it has everything you need. And at $250, it’s the best value in our test.
Best Tent for People Who Want Just One
Life is complicated enough without having to buy specific tents for car camping and backpacking. Simplify your life with the Exped Outer Space II, a brand-new shelter that can comfortably do both. And comfortable you’ll be: This tent boasts a vestibule that’s big enough to fit two chairs and a cooler.
It makes sense: We go camping to spend time outside, not inside. The 27-square-foot vestibule of the Outer Space II, which is bigger than many backpacking tents by itself, has its own pole structure that stakes down normally, but campers can roll back the rainfly from the sides to create a covered patio (pictured). It proved to be an all-conditions hangout for our testers, who used it as a front-row seat to Colorado’s awesome summer storms (yes, below the treeline). When a washout seemed imminent, our testers detached the tent body from the fly to create a covered space big enough to host a couple of wet neighbors from the next campsite over.
As for the tent body itself, the Outer Space II offers up the sort of sleeping quarters you might expect in a backpacking tent: Two campers have plenty of shoulder room when lying down and enough space to sit up. Corner pockets and a second (much smaller) vestibule opposite the larger one make organization a cinch. At roughly 3 pounds per person, it is heavy for backpacking, and because it uses an exterior pole setup, you can’t remove the fly in good weather—but those are small trade-offs for the most versatile tent in our test.
Best Cartop Tent
Test Results: Somewhere between car camping and van life, a roof-top tent offers a luxurious and convenient home away from home. The pop-up-style shelter from Thule nests inside a large, zippered compartment that affixes to your car racks; to use it, just remove the cover, extend the ladder and flip open the clamshell floor. The learning curve is minimal, and one tester has her setup time down to 30 seconds. (Though the Ayer 2 can mount on most roof bars, it’s heavy and cumbersome to install. Instead of removing it every weekend, we recommend installing it once and leaving it there for camping season. The cover is durable and will protect the tent, and the low-bulk nature of the thing barely affected our gas mileage around town.)
During a two-week road trip from Colorado to Nevada and back, another tester noted how there was no need to find someplace smooth to throw down; she could arrive at camp late and snap open her Ayer 2. On dry nights, she’d roll open panels in the sides to reduce condensation, and in the nicest weather, she’d remove the rainfly completely and zip back the roof windows like a skylight to the stars. The Ayer 2 has enough room for two adults to sit upright and play cards comfortably (with a 70-pound husky snoozing on the other end) or three adults to sleep shoulder to shoulder.
Inside, you don’t need a sleeping pad. The Ayer 2 comes standard with a 2.5-inch-thick foam mattress that’s a step up from what college kids are sleeping on. Throw your sleeping bag up there or pack it up with sheets and a comforter from home if you’re trying to impress.
Test Results: The REI Co-op Grand Hut 4 is like a portable cabin for a small group, taking the luxury and space of the Kingdom 6 and the simplicity of the Dog House 4 and splitting the difference. The livability comes from its geometry; the Grand Hut 4 is more cube-like than pyramidal, so the entire floor plan is usable, and campers taller than 6 feet should be able to stand up and walk around without bumping sloping walls. It’s the perfect size for a couple of festival-goers or campers holed up during a rainstorm: “We rearranged our pads and sleeping bags to create a living room on one side, then set up the iPad on the other for an A-plus movie-watching setup,” one tester says. The same tester noted that, because the rainfly extends all the way to the ground, there was no leaking in either vestibule. (Since the tent is quite tall, plan on using the guylines in wind.) The Grand Hut 4 fits three sleepers comfortably and “four is snug, but doable,” our tester says.
Test Results: While the Marmot Limestone 4P doesn’t have the height or headroom of the Grand Hut, it has a similar floor plan for easy living. Our group of four testers sat out some rain in New York’s Coyle Hill State Forest in the Limestone 4P without issue, noting that the clever venting system kept condensation to a minimum. Even when our crew invited five more friends over for cards, each person fit fine when sitting in a circle with room in the middle to play. And when the party was over, sending everyone on their way was easy thanks to the massive double-wide door in the front (you can open either half or the whole thing). Another smaller door in the back makes entry and exit without disturbing your partner easy.
Test Results: You don’t have to break the bank to sleep under the stars. Enter the Kelty Discovery Dome 4, a four-person shelter for less than a Benjamin. Its simple, three-pole frame is intuitive and quick to master, even for our camping newbies. You don’t get a ton of features at this price, but our testers happily reported that the removable rainfly and durable bathtub-style floor kept water out during a squall in Shenandoah National Park. The Discovery Dome 4 also has a large, D-shaped door, organization pockets on the inside and interior loops for hanging a headlamp or gear loft.
Car-camping tents are generally larger, more spacious and more feature-packed than backpacking tents, but also heavier. That would be a problem if you had to haul your setup everywhere—but that’s the beauty of car camping. When you drive to your campsite, weight isn’t an issue. The tents in this guide are roomy, feature-rich and affordable. They’re not the most portable, but there are some crossover tents (like the Exped Outer Space II) that are light enough to backpack with and would still be incredibly comfortable in a front-country campground.
In order to select the best shelter for you, consider the following factors.
Every tent model features a number in its name that corresponds, roughly, to how many people can fit inside, lying down shoulder to shoulder. There isn’t an industry standard for how much room each person gets, so think of it as a maximum; four sleepers can fit in a four-person tent, but you’ll be more comfortable in a six-person shelter.
Also take a look at tent specs before buying. The floor area can help you think about where the sleeping pads would be positioned to maximize space, and peak height can tell you how much headroom you’ll have.
The space inside the main body of the tent isn’t the only space that matters. Especially if you’re dealing with weather or otherwise spending extended time inside your tent, you’ll want to get extra stuff out of the thing. That’s where vestibules come in. These indoor-outdoor spaces on the other side of the door are covered and accessible from the inside of the tent, but don’t eat into the floor space. They’re great for storing extra gear and wet clothes or, done properly, even cooking.
If you have more than a couple of sleepers in your tent, having multiple doors is a nice feature. They allow folks to enter and exit without stepping over one another or getting in anyone’s way.
It’s also worth considering things like organization, ventilation and even color. Extra features tend to add cost to the shelter, but can be worth it. Interior pockets, gear lofts and gear loops let you get your sundries off the floor and out of the way, preserving floor space for sleeping. It’s nice to be able to designate one pocket for every sleeper, but not essential.
Being able to remove the rainfly completely in good weather can improve the feeling of being outside. If you have multiple people sleeping in a tent or are camping in rain or humidity, you might want the ability to open vents in the tent to increase airflow and minimize condensation.
A bright-colored tent may make the inside feel more comfortable and pleasant when it’s gray and murky outside. It’s also more visible from afar. A neutral-colored tent, on the other hand, will blend in with its surroundings more.
We enlisted nearly two dozen co-op members (ranging from beginner to advanced campers) to take these tents on their weekend and cross-country getaways throughout 2019. They braved crummy weather, confusing gear, uncomfortable campsites and lots of campfires over the course of nearly 250 nights to really get to know their makeshift studio apartments.
When they came back on the grid, our testers analyzed each tent’s spaciousness, weather protection, durability, features, price and usability. We averaged those scores to give each tent a combined score out of 100; the seven best are the ones you find in this guide. The REI Co-op Kingdom 6, Big Agnes Dog House 4, Exped Outer Space II and Thule Tepui Explorer Ayer 2 performed the best overall in every category; the REI Co-op Grand Hut 4, Marmot Limestone 4P and Kelty Discovery Dome 4 performed well in at least one—but not all—categories.
We’d like to give a special thanks to our testers, who sacrificed more than a few nights’ good sleep on our behalf.