Note: This article is an abridgement of a chapter in The Pavilion Book which has additional information on buying a tent.
While I haven't bought many tents in my life, I've sold a few and seen people make good choices and bad choices in what they selected. The people that are happiest with their purchases are always the ones that carefully assessed their needs and camping styles, instead of buying the biggest tent they could afford.
If you're always camping with a large household, it makes sense to buy a large tent. You'll need it for entertaining when the weather's bad. But buying a big tent under the impression that it works for any number of people from one to n is a mistake, for several reasons:
1. If you're the only one going to a particular event, you're stuck with setting up that large tent by yourself, or leaving it at home and taking the dome tent instead.
2. If there are a lot of you going, and you expect to accomodate both entertaining in the tent and sleeping everybody inside, those two needs are going to have to be juggled.
The system that seems to work best is one larger under-canvas area (which in the SCA's West Kingdom is usually a sunshade rather than an enclosed tent) used for entertaining, with several small personal tents providing the sleeping quarters. The sunshade itself is often segmented; if there are not going to be many people at the event who need the shelter, only one segment is used, but for larger, longer events, two or three can be linked together. So unless you're buying tentage for the entire household, you're better off with a smaller tent for your personal use. Smaller tents take less time to set up and strike, freeing time for other things. And they're easier to transport.
One item that figures prominently in the transportation equation is the tent's frame. Larger tents customarily have poles ten feet or longer that have to be accomodated somehow. One solution is to order the poles with breakdowns, which use sleeves to assemble shorter poles into the longer ones you need. This solution isn't always possible or even desirable because it generally adds to the weight and cost of the tent. In addition, it greatly increases the "fuss factor" in assembly, and gives you more pieces to lose. (And when you lose a piece of a pole, you don't have half a pole. You have no pole.) Finally, if the sleeving isn't properly designed, it can render the structure somewhat less strong than an unsleeved structure.
The size that works best for me and my lady is about 100 square feet. That gives us enough room to set up a double bed (with storage underneath), a chair, and a card table inside the tent and still have floor space for dressing and maneuvering. We also have room to take in the travel harp and spinning wheel and store them under the table at night. We've entertained four or five people comfortably in the tent (including ourselves) by seating two on the bed and bringing in chairs from outside, but it was tight; If we wanted to have more room for entertaining, a 150 square foot tent might be a better choice. An even larger tent would allow us to bring in our dining table, but we usually keep that outside, under the sunshade.
If you're buying the tent in California (and possibly some other states), you're going to be getting a flame-retardant tent if your supplier is operating within the law. Otherwise, it's your choice. I've preached elsewhere on the desirability of this feature, for your own safety and that of your fellow campers, and don't wish to belabor the issue here. But you should be aware that if you intend to use the tent in circumstances like SCA merchanting, Renaissance Faires or the like, the operators (or the local authorities) may require that the tent be flame-retardant, and they will ask for proof in the form of documentation from the manufacturer. And a flame-retardant tent may be easier to sell down the road, since it will increase the pool of potential customers to include merchants and RenFaire people.
There's no question that cotton/polyester fabric is lots more expensive than all-cotton fabric, but its superior longevity and its ability to dry quickly make it the material of choice for many people. It's roughly analogous to the situation you face when you're having the house painted; buying the best paint you can will save you money in the long run, because labor is expensive and you don't want to pay for it twice when, with better paint, the job would have lasted twice as long. Again, the choice is yours. If you have the space to hang up a wet tent indoors to dry thoroughly before you store it, if you promise to never, never, never store it wet, and you don't expect to be using the tent very much, an all-cotton fabric may serve your needs well.
Look at the poles. Were they ever given a coat of finish? How is the finish on them holding up? Are they straight? If they're much more than a diameter out of column, their strength is compromised. What shape are the hardware, ropes, and fittings in?
No used tent is likely to be in absolutely perfect condition. That's why you're getting a deal on it, right? But it's worth remembering that a tent is essentially like a disposable lighter or ballpoint pen. Its lifetime is finite, and the time will come when it's used up and not worth saving. Since poles can usually be replaced on a piece-by-piece basis, the lifespan of the tent is usually the lifespan of the fabric. Your job is to figure what percentage of its useful live is still around, and pay accordingly.
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