My friend Shawn has long endured the nickname "Girlscout," despite the fact that she is over 40. No matter what event she attends, she always comes prepared to provide for herself, her husband, her daughter -- and everybody else. If it's a pool party, she'll show up with three sets of water wings, five extra towels, and a couple of extra bathing suits for the girls. So when I heard that she was planning for an actual girl-scout-type activity -- a camping trip -- I couldn't help but chuckle. "Do they make tents with room for the kitchen sink?" I asked my husband Patrick. Shawn started packing weeks in advance for her two-week trip up the coast. They were going up to Portland and then stopping in the Sierras on the way down. "I can't wait to see the Redwoods!" she exclaimed. And suddenly, I couldn't wait, either. I had gone camping plenty of times as a kid, and had never taken my own little ones. But as I made my mental inventory of our own camping equipment, I was forcibly reminded that Patrick's idea of roughing it is going where there is no Wi-Fi for his laptop. We had sleeping bags, an old camp stove...but no tent.
"What kind of camping did you have in mind?" asked Matt at outdoors store REI (858-279-4400, locations in Encinitas, Chula Vista, and Kearny Mesa). "How many are going? Are you backpacking or family camping? Backpacking tents need to be lightweight, and floor plans are geared toward that; they're typically A-frames. When you're family camping, you generally use a dome tent."
Size? "An eight-person tent will sleep eight people if you have everybody lined up next to each other, body to body. You won't have room for your other camping stuff. So if you have two adults and two kids, I'd go with a six-person tent."
Style? "If you're beach camping, we have tents designed for less-aggressive wind. It will be a little higher, and it will have mesh on the top. But if you're going to Alaska, where it gets windy and really cold, you'll want a tent without mesh. Most four-season tents -- as opposed to three-season tents -- have no mesh. They can be good for really cold situations, but sometimes, what happens when you have no ventilation is that condensation builds up. That can create a drip, and if it makes you wet, that can make you even colder."
Materials? "Most tents are made from nylon or polyester; the polyester is more UV resistant. You want to lean more toward aluminum poles instead of fiberglass. Fiberglass is a lot more rigid than aluminum, and it can shatter really easily."
For my needs -- basic family camping -- Matt suggested the Hobitat ( $339 for a six-person, 83 square feet, top height of 6'4"). "It's got waterproof doors, four mesh windows, and a mesh top. If it rains, you can put the rain fly over the top. It's nice because it's really tall." Another possibility was the Base Camp ( $399 for a six-person, 87 square feet, top height of 6'1"). "It's a mountaineering tent -- the poles have seven points of crossing, which makes it really stable. It's got four mesh windows, and the fly covers the entire tent. There's also space in front called a vestibule -- it's covered, but it's not inside your tent. Your gear won't get wet, but it also won't get your tent dirty." Matt also recommended ground cloths that clipped on to the tent poles to help keep things comfortable.
Both tents, said Matt, required two people for assembly. As for maintenance: "Take down the poles from the middle, and keep the tent as clean as possible. Dirt in the poles and dirt on the material are what wear down your tent."
I called Girlscout to tell her what I'd found. But, of course, she was way ahead of me. "REI was a bit out of my price range. My husband and I have bought, assembled, taken down, and returned three different tents. The fourth one, we're keeping."
Shawn's husband Mike gave me the rundown: "You know Shawn. There are three of us camping, but she wants an eight-person tent. First, we went to Big Five. They had a large selection, maybe 20 tents to choose from. I found an 18'x10' rectangle [High-Tech eight-person tent, $149 ]. I liked the design, but one of the pole strings broke the first time we tried to put it up." Next stop: Sports Authority. "Most of their tents were pentagon-shaped. They looked really cool and had a lot of character. We bought one [Mountaineer eight-person tent, $149.99 , top height of 6'] and assembled it. But as you moved to the edge, you lost height. Shawn and I are tall, and so we couldn't stand up straight. Third stop was Target [Greatland eight-person tent, 14'x10', $99.49, top height of 7']. We bought it for the screened-in vestibule -- we thought we could sit in there and eat if it was buggy outside. But because of the way the sides of the tent slanted, the vestibule was too short for that. Finally, we found the perfect tent at Target [Eddie Bauer eight-person, two-room cabin tent, 14'x10', $195.99 , top height of 7']. I went back to the square shape for the height, and Eddie Bauer has a reputable name. It took two people to assemble, but once it was up, Shawn and I could walk the length of the tent without stooping. Plus, the center curtain divider would let us sleep in one half and set up a table in the other...along with all of our stuff. And we liked the louvered windows -- they let you regulate the light and airflow. And it was the easiest of all to disassemble -- I had it down and in the bag in ten minutes."