Taking off for an overnight trip or setting out on a six-week expedition, your tent will be your home. It will provide physical protection from the elements, and though it’s only a couple thin layers of fabric, a sense of safety in the great outdoors. With tents billed for backpacking and mountaineering dominating the market, it’s hard to determine just which tent will do well on your canoe trip. For the most part, a “backpacking” tent is equally a “canoeing” tent: a lightweight, durable shelter from the elements and bugs. We’ve divided this slew of tents into categories suited for canoeing and summed up some useful information about Choosing a Tent, Construction, Materials, Set Up, and Use and Maintenance.
CHOOSING A TENT:
There are a wide variety of tents available, so there are plenty of choices to find the one that best suits you. Start off by considering where and when you travel. Expedition Tents are built for extreme, cold weather with flaps that seal up the mesh panels, full-coverage rainflies, and a dome-shape to withstand high winds. Wilderness Tents are good in spring, summer, and fall, with lots of mesh paneling, fewer flaps that seal, and some partial-coverage rainflies. Recreational Tents are taller, larger, and have both full and partial-coverage rainflies, but they aren’t constructed to hold-up under high winds and heavy rain. Bug Tents are floorless, mesh shelters for surviving in buggy locales. Shelters provide super lightweight protection that can be equal to a tent, but they don’t have the floor or mesh panels to keep out the critters. Finally, Tarps are rectangular or square pieces of coated nylon or polyurethane that can be used as shelters, ground-cloths, or anything else you can invent.
Factors to Consider Once you’ve decided which category of tent you’re interested in, it’s important to balance the tent’s specific features to fit your individual preference. These include construction features, like whether the tent is freestanding or not, if it has a full or partial rainfly, and the number of vestibules. Then, look at the weight of the tent, its interior height and dimensions, ease of set-up and take-down, ventilation, the convenience of doors and zippers, and of course, price. It’s always good to try out a tent if you can. Was it a hassle to set up? Were storage pockets and doors accessible? Did you feel cramped?
Freestanding or not
Full or partial-coverage rainfly
Interior height and dimensions (which determines roominess)
Ease of set-up and take-down
Amount of ventilation
Convenience of doors and zippers
Number of vestibules
Size The first step is to figure out, on average, how many people (or pets) will be sleeping in your tent. Then decide if you need space to store gear. Can it fit inside? Is there an outdoor vestibule for it? A tent is usually sized by how many sleeping bags it will fit, but each one’s a little different. Checking the interior height, floor dimensions, and shape will help, though nothing beats trying it out for yourself. More elbow-room will mean more weight, but the extra ounces might be the difference between comfy and claustrophobic.
Limiting tent size to four people—even if it means bringing two tents—provides more flexibility in packing gear and selecting tent sites, especially in wilderness destinations like Canada’s Woodland Caribou and Wabakimi Provincial Parks. Smaller tents also stand up better to wind. For families and big groups, being all together in one tent can be important, so tents for up to six people are included in our Recreational Tents.
Freestanding or Not Freestanding tents use poles to provide structure and support for the tent body. Inserting poles into grommets, pockets and sleeves creates tension that allows a tent to stand on its own. The result is a tent that can be picked up and moved around, and it is a more durable tent in the face of wind, rain, and even snow. Staking your tent down is still important, lest the tent blow away in the wind. Tents that are not freestanding tend to be lighterweight, but they must be staked down to stand up.
Full- and Partial-Coverage Rainflies Full-coverage rainflies are important in very windy or rainy conditions, and for long excursions. Partial-coverage rainflies usually have some kind of waterproofing on the exposed sections of the tent body, but they still will not keep you as dry. Many partial rainflies also provide a place for the wind to blow into your tent, or even where the wind can catch and pick your tent up. That being said, if you camp in dry conditions or feel confident it won’t rain during your trip, a tent with a partial rainfly could be all you need.
Vestibules Vestibules can be a great alternative to storing gear and shoes in the tent. Leaving shoes in a vestibule keeps them protected and the tent dirt free. When ground into the tent floor, dirt and grit can eat away at its durability and waterproof coating.
Single-Wall vs. Double-Wall A single-wall tent is just as it sounds: a rainfly or single layer tent that is very lightweight. The downside is that they have little ventilation and fewer set-up options. All the tents in the Canoeing.com Gear Guide are double-wall tents that combine an outer rainfly with an inner tent wall to maximize comfort. The waterproof rainfly keeps rain out while the breathable inner wall allows perspiration and condensation to escape. Double-wall tents allow for better ventilation, and can also be set up without the rainfly, or with the rainfly pulled back, in extremely warm, dry conditions.
Look for a “bathtub” floor, where the thicker, more durable floor material continues part way up the tent side for further water protection. Some tents even come with a floor made of thick waterproof material.
Fabric Tent fabrics are most commonly nylon or polyester taffeta. Some tents utilize polyurethane coatings to make fabrics more durable and waterproof. Others layer waterproof and breathable laminates to create strong, breathable and waterproof fabrics (similar to GORE-TEX®).
Poles Aluminum alloy anodized to prevent corrosion has become popular for tent poles, providing a lightweight yet strong alternative to previously favored fiberglass. Some recreational tents are made with fiberglass poles, but they are not quite as durable and strong. “Press fit” aluminum poles are the most basic and inexpensive choice. Another common choice is DAC Featherlite, which are extremely strong and light, and a variety of other aluminum variants specific to manufacturers.
Ease The more poles and parts to a tent, the trickier pitching it can be. Look for tents with color-coded parts for easy assembly, and don’t wait until the first night on trail to set it up. Pitch the tent before every trip to become familiar with it and make sure there are no rips, tears or missing parts.
Ground-Cloths A ground cloth placed under a tent extends the life of the tent floor by baring the brunt of the wear and tear created by rough or uneven ground. They are not indestructible, though, so it’s still a good idea to remove sharp objects from the site before pitching your tent. Ground-cloths also provide an added layer of protection from wet ground.
Many tent manufacturers sell footprints that correspond with their tent models. These are a perfect fit and lightweight, but a tarp or swath of plastic sheeting from a hardware store can also work as a ground-cloth.
Staying Dry To help stay dry, avoid tent sites that are collecting points for water, i.e. depressions where there are swirls of forest debris over bare mud. Also, in inclement weather, look up and around to check for dead branches and trees that could fall your way if the wind picks up.
If your ground-cloth extends larger than your tent, it’s a good idea to roll the edges under, which prevents rain from flowing underneath you.
Stake or rock-stake your tent out as best you can. Pulling the tent body taut will maximize the amount of space in your tent. Pulling the rainfly taut, paying attention to keep it from sagging onto the tent fabric, will do wonders towards keeping you dry and sturdy in rain and wind.
USE AND MAINTENANCE:
Seams and Seam-sealing All tents can benefit from seam-sealing, particularly if you camp for a long time in wet conditions. Lay the rainfly out on the ground and pitch the tent, making sure to open its doors and windows for ventilation. Use a urethane-based sealer on the seams inside the tent or on the underside of the fly, as well as places where attachments are sewn to the fly. Seam-sealing is best done before going camping.
Some tents come with factory-taped seams, which have been reinforced with the addition of a waterproof layer between overlapping seam edges. The primary benefit is a stronger seam. The tent will be more water resistant but not necessarily waterproof during a rainstorm. Seam-sealing is still a good idea.
Tents and Trail Life A camp stove can melt through a tent floor in the time it takes to look for the next ingredient, and food odors linger longer than human noses can detect. It’s as good as setting out a blinking, neon sign that says “Eat Here” for nighttime critters with more sensitive snouts. Instead, consider a bottomless screen tent, shelter, or tarp, for a lightweight “kitchen-and-dining-room-in-one” sheltered from the elements.
Store and apply deet-based bug dope away from the tent – deet can damage the coatings that makes your tent waterproof and durable.
Minimize exposure to UV rays that can weaken and fade tent fabric over time.
Storage Always air out and dry your tents completely after camping and before storing to prevent mildew and mold. Rolling or stuffing tents into stuff sacks instead of folding prevents creases that create weak spots and leaks. Even when packing up for the day, dry the tent as much as possible before stuffing it into a pack to limit the growth of mold and odors.
Cleaning Machine washing is highly discouraged and you should never machine-dry a tent. Instead use a non-abrasive sponge with cold water and a non-detergent soap, then let it air dry in the shade. There are also various technical cleaners and (re-)waterproofers available at outdoor retailers.
Repairs Like for most repairs on trail, duct-tape is a camper’s best friend for tent tears. Use pieces that are considerably larger than the tear and patch both sides of the fabric. Be careful not to over-stress the rip by staking it out too tight, for once begun it can easily escalate. For a long-term home-made fix you can use fabric from an old tent and sew on a patch. There are also several adhesive repair tapes and patches that prevent stitching that could compromise the tent fabric’s integrity.
If a zipper starts gapping on both sides, squeeze the back of the slider with a pliers (top to bottom, not on the sides)—this will tighten the slider so it will align the teeth again, and fixes the majority of zipper problems. If you ever need to replace a slider or zipper completely, take advantage of the thorough product guarantees most manufacturers make, but for repairs in the field, Alan Kessleheim has excellent instructions in The Wilderness Paddler’s Handbook.
TIPS & TRICKS: Many tents offer vestibules - great for storing boots and keeping dirt out of the tent
Practice setting up a new tent before you go on trail
Always air-dry tents before storing to avoid mildew
Expedition Tents Expedition tents are made to withstand high winds, snow, and the cold for those traveling in the Arctic or other locations with extreme weather.
Wilderness Tents These tents are rugged enough for a wilderness canoe trip, yet lightweight and versatile, ready to keep you comfortable weather in rain, wind, or heat.
Recreational Tents For weekend adventures and big groups, recreational tents will fit a crowd and your budget, while still providing quality protection from the elements.
Bug Tents Lightweight and portable, these floorless mesh tents provide great shelter for cooking and passing the time in buggy locales.
Shelters For solo canoeists and serious minimalists these full and partial coverage shelters provide ultra-lightweight protection from wind and rain.
Tarps Tarps provide quick, versatile shelter and can be the key to happy camping: just try cooking in a downpour without one.