Don’t buy a cheap tent

Many of the following pictures were taken in a 20 hour period in August at Tuolumne Meadows campground, Yosemite National Park. The evening had completely clear starry skies. At a little before midnight it started drizzling and then it poured. Many people did not have good tents and had to cover them with an extra tarp or plastic sheeting.

tent with plastic sheet: cabin tent with green tarp:
tent with plastic sheeting:

There are dozens of varieties of cheap tents and the prices are very tempting. If you were only going to use it for the kids to sleep out in the backyard, or if you were certain that it would never rain when you camp out, you could get away with buying one.

A good tent has a full rainfly that goes all the way down the outside of the tent. The one below also has a vestibule, or mini covered front porch as well.

tent with full rainfly breakfast:

This family camps in luxury with a good tent and a screenroom for the dining table.

good tent and screen room:

Cheap tents have only a partial, cap-sized rainfly. Rain soaks through all the tent roof not covered by the rainfly and drips into the tent. This can happen fairly quickly.

A good tent will have full zippers around doors and windows, not flaps. It will have full zippers around window and door covers in the rain fly, not flaps. Pitch the tent and test the zippers to see if they open and close easily.

The tent and rain fly should pitch taut. There should be a small amount of air space all around between the fly and the tent when it is pitched.

Some of the people in the campground that night did not have a tarp to cover their cheap tents and moved into their cars until daylight, then packed up and went home. Most people packing up also did not have rain jackets and did their packing in a drizzle as their sweatshirts got slowly soaked.

Some people must have used their tents previously and knew they would leak, because they came prepared with an extra tarp set up as a rainfly.

tent with tarp set up overhead: tent with pre-made tarp rainfly:

Someone was a perhaps a little overly prepared, as this tent looks like a good one with a full rainfly underneath the tarp.

tent with tarp did it need it:

One family had what looked like a good tent, but didn’t take the time to pitch the rainfly on top. If they moved fast enough that night they might have stayed dry.

good tent no rainfly:

One dad slept outside so the family would have more room in the truck/camper. He might have made it inside before he got too wet.

sleeping out on a cot:

The family below had a great campsite set up with a dining canopy over the picnic table and playpen, and raft for fun, but the tent didn’t have a full rainfly. They packed up the next morning and the kids who had been playing on the river the day before got their vacation cut short.

cabin tent and raft:

Below is a photo of a really good tent, the right shape to shed snow or rain and with a rainfly that goes all the way down the sides. But to protect the bottom from rocks the user put a big blue tarp under it. The problem is that the tarp sticks out a ways from the sides. So if it rains, the rain will run down the sides and create a big puddle on the tarp. It’s better to custom cut a thick plastic bottom protection that fits completely under the bottom of the tent.

tent with tarp under:

This next group pitched a dining canopy to try to protect both their tent and picnic table. It rained briefly but heavily while they were gone for the day. All the rain from the dining canopy came down the sides, some of it directly on to the tent with an inadequate rain fly and soaked into the tent fabric and tent interior. The wide plastic tarp sticking out from under the tent created a large puddle under the tent.

dining canopy partially over a picnic table and tent

On the 2017 winter Yosemite trip these people pitched their tent incorrectly. (Many tents have instructions printed on the bag, did they read them? If they borrowed it from someone did they ask for instruction on how to pitch it? Did they try pitching it before the trip?) When they were having difficulty with it they did not ask other more experienced campers they were traveling with for help. In the dark, from a distance, it looked to the other campers as if they were okay. They were found trying to sleep in their car in the morning and complained that their tent was “unstable,” as if to say it was a fault of the construction/design of the tent, rather than their failure to properly put the ends of the rain fly tent poles into the ring pins at the base of the tent. As far as the rest of the group could tell, it looked as though they had just stuck the ends of the rain fly tent poles in the snow.

tent with end of poles sticking into snow instead of set in tent

No good tent should have the ends of the rain fly poles in the ground or in the snow. All good tents will have pockets or ring pins for the ends of poles to go in to, as in this example:

Cabela corner:

On the 2019 winter trip we convinced neighbors that the dining canopy they set up over their poorly designed tent was a mistake, as it would collapse with the weight of the expected overnight snow (their gear was already wet already due to not having a rain fly that goes all the way down the side of the tent):dining canopy over a tent, with a tarp sticking out the side

And here, a tent on the second day of a winter Yosemite trip, the occupants said their sleeping bags were already getting moist. You can see why: the sides of their tent stuck out beyond the rain fly overhang, and they had pitched it on a tarp that stuck out from the sides and collected rain water that seeped in though the tent bottom. On this second day of the trip it started snowing, adding to the accumulation of water inside their tent.

tent with snow on it, including out beyond where the rainfly could have protected it

At the De Anza College Outdoor Club we recommend a freestanding dome tent with a full rain fly. If you insist on using a tent with guy lines, ways to improve it can be found at:

Snow or rain camp must-haves

If you’ve been drinking enough water to stay healthy, you will need to get up in the middle of the night. This gives you an opportunity on a winter trip to check the tent for snow accumulation. A little insulation is okay, but knock a bunch off if it’s been snowing heavily. On one De Anza Outdoor Club trip a tent collapsed from too much snow (no one was hurt).

tent that collapsed and one that did not:

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And another cheap tent without a full rainfly, AND . . .

In the campgrounds you must pitch your tent IN your campsite, not down by the river at a nice small beach:
tent by the river in Yosemite

If you decide to pitch your tent “out of bounds” you might be lucky and find the violation notice on your tent (or in this case, on a portable charcoal grill)

camping violation notice saying out of bounds camping
OR you might not be that lucky and could find yourself trying to track down your confiscated tent.

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For info on the logistics of where to pitch your tent and staying warm and comfy overnight camping in a tent in the snow, go to: First-timer’s instructions

There’s easy camping info at: Have more fun camping

Camping solutions for women answers typical questions.

for fun: an eight person tent holds this many campers

How to pitch the Cabela eight-person tent

For a laugh, Camping Blunders has tales of tent mistakes.