The tent you get is going to largely depend on your budget, and subsequently what conditions you’ll be using it in. I put it in that order because there’s no way you’re going to afford an expedition tent on a $150 budget, even if you need an expedition tent. In that case, rent one.
If, like most people, you’ll spend one to a few nights in it a few times a year in moderate conditions, you’ll find plenty in that range.
Here are some things to look for:
- Aluminum poles, the fewer the better. Some shelter systems have one. Some have four and five poles for two people. HYOH*. Fiberglass poles should be outlawed; they’re downright dangerous if compromised. Don’t get a tent with fiberglass poles, or a floor made from woven polypropylene. You’re looking for coated nylon.
- Seam-sealed coated nylon rain fly and floor. You can do this yourself, but you shouldn’t. Trust the pros.
- Below five pounds, packed weight, for a two person tent; three and a half pounds for a solo shelter.
- Side entrance(s). There’s no bigger PITA than having to squeeze into the head-end of your tent, trying to get your big-ass boots off, only to knock your sleeping partner in the back of the head with your elbow. Side entries allow you to face away from your partner, and better utilize vestibule space. Oh, that reminds me…
- Vestibule space. Most reputable camping stores either have models set up, or will allow you to set one up. Take your full pack to one such establishment. Put your pack under the vestibule, sit in the tent and then take your boots off. Everything fit without touching the fly? You got enough. Nothing can touch the fly — it will compromise its waterproofness.
- Color. It depends on your ideology, believe it or not. Some are of the Leave No Trace school of backpacking where one lightens the euphemistic footprint on the places one uses to enjoy wilderness. Some take this to the degree of choosing a more neutral color to better blend in with the environment. I say to hell with that. If I’m off to see a man about a horse at three in the morning and get a little disoriented, I want to see my tent as a gleaming beacon on the hill. Or, if I’m injured and can’t move, I want SAR to be able to see me from the ground and air. My tent is orange, thank you.
- Guy points. If you know you’ll be camping in windy conditions, choose a tent with little loops at strategic points around the fly to add lines for a more secure pitch.
- Ventilation. If you know you’ll be in an environment that particularly humid, consider a tent with good ventilation. Be sure, though, that the ventilation can be sealed well if need be.
- Stakes. Most well-made tents come with aluminum, alloy, or titanium stakes. Turn your nose at a tent with plastic stakes. Most experienced backpackers replace the stock stakes with those that are purpose-built for their needs. The most common, the ‘shepherd’s hook’ style, is fine for ‘car camping’ conditions — even ground with cut grass and deep topsoil — but don’t do well on snow, or in sand, for example.
- Guy lines. Again, experienced backpackers tend to exchange the stock lines for something lighter, stronger, and optionally, reflective. 50 feet of Nite Ize rope is all of them for about $10.
Buy or make a footprint or ground cloth. Dust, dirt, and friction are the enemy of your tent’s floor. Limiting exposure will prolong its ability to hold out moisture. It doesn’t have to be waterproof — Tyvek is an inexpensive, synthetic cloth used to make, among other things, express mail envelopes. It’s very durable, lightweight, and can be bought by the foot on ebay. It does allow moisture to pass through, but as long as you’ve got a good seal you shouldn’t need to worry about a little. My maps are printed on it.
Avoid a used tent. People lie. No use cursing the guy while laying in a cold, dark tent, sopping wet with long hours until morning.
After making all of your considerations, check out a backpacking forum and look at their gear section. You’ll find a bunch of reviews by people who bought and used the stuff, and are offering their experience for free. That could save you money, right there.
There are alternatives to a tent, too. Some people opt to sleep under a tarp suspended by trekking poles. This really cuts down on weight and setup time. Some even choose to ‘hang,’ or, camp in a hammock under a tarp. Both options may utilize a bug net when appropriate.
If cost is less of an obstacle than it is for me, you can choose exotic fibers like siliconized nylon or cuben fiber. Both are gossamer, but strong and waterproof. Both are expensive. A cuben fiber tent can run you $1000 (yeah, thousand) or more.