Tent Camping for Beginners: The Basics

Estimated read time 6 min read

I’ve had many people reach out to ask me how to get started tent camping. Here are some things to know to get you started!

Tent camping is hella fun. Some people call it “car camping” because usually you drive up to the campsite and set up there. If you have a tent that you pack in somewhere, I’d call it backpacking. That said, all camping is glorious, so no hate.

If you’re a camping noob and want to know more about how to pitch a tent for maximum wilderness fun, here are some tips to get you started.

eureka solitaire black and yellow tent

“Why is my 3-person tent so small?”

First of all, the number of people a tent “sleeps” per the package is deceiving. Think of that number as how many people you could fit in the tent, without any (or very little) gear, inside of individual mummy sleeping bags, shoulder to shoulder. For example, most dome tents say they sleep 4 or 5 people. The same tent is realistically a good size for just two people, or maybe two people with a child. This is because you’ll put some gear in the tent, want to stand up in it to get dressed (etc.), and would probably prefer sleeping on a bed.

If you’re shopping online or at a store where the tents aren’t set up, take note of the specifications and map out the footprint at home with a tape measure. Be sure to note how tall the tent is, too. Some tents won’t allow you to stand up all the way, depending on your height, and that can make for an awkward experience if you’re expecting to stretch out.

green wenzel 8 person tent
I bought this tent from Sierra Trading Post. It’s an 8-person tent with 2 rooms that we use for family camping for 3-4 people.

Where to Buy a Tent

I’ve heard a lot of good things about Ozark Trail (the Walmart brand) tents for families, especially if you’re just starting out and don’t want to spend much money. I had a Wenzel tent that I found on clearance that worked great. Make sure to check places like secondhand stores, Facebook Marketplace, and yard sales if you really want to save money. Tons of people have outdoor gear they don’t use, so check there first. And ask around. You might be surprised that people close to you are happy to lend or give away camping stuff they haven’t used lately.

Follow the setup instructions.

You don’t want to forget to tie down the rainfly. You don’t want your tent, like, inside out, or with the poles going the wrong way. Doors or windows might not work if you don’t follow instructions, and a little rain can turn into a massively wet tent if the rainfly isn’t attached properly. Did you get terrible instructions? I’ve had it happen! Look online for videos to explain how your style of tent goes together. Practice a couple of times in the backyard and you’ll do fine. If the stakes that came with your tent are crap, replace them before you head out. There’s nothing worse than following the instructions and still having a bad time because your stakes are cheap and either bend and become unusable or won’t stay in the ground.

green wenzel 8 person tent eldorado
I was not following the instructions. It’s not tied down and that’s why it’s crooked! But this was a practice run in my backyard, so meh.

Add a floor to your tent.

Some people like to use interlocking foam mats as a tent floor. I love this idea, but it’s not cheap and a stack of foam tiles can take up a heck of a lot of space on the floor. Consider using a moving quilt or two. You can buy them from Walmart for under $10 and they’re a very durable option for tent flooring to give you a little cushion underfoot.

cots and bed in tent
Because we use cots in our tent, I put down a moving quilt to protect the tent floor.

What is a tent footprint for?

Some people like to buy the tent footprint for their model of tent or just bring an extra tarp. These do two things: they can help prevent water from coming in your tent from rain or percolation, but they also protect the bottom of your tent from sitting on sticks and rocks.

Clean the tent floor.

I small broom and dustpan will do a great job of keeping your tent floor clean, but I honestly like to bring a handheld vacuum with me. I know it’s a little extra, but it’s really nice to be able to suck do a quick run of the vacuum and get all the sand up. If you’re camping with kids, be prepared for your tent to get dirty fast. They usually can’t help it! But keep the floor clean will help extend the life of your tent and potentially prevent added wear.

hanging mesh organizer
I use clips and hang these in our tent to stay organized!

Look for tent storage or make your own.

If you don’t know that those little mesh pockets are storage, you might miss them! Lots of tents have convenient little spots to stick your glasses or phone so that they don’t get lost or stepped on. Check out your tent when it’s all set up and notice the storage. You can also use a mesh organizer like you’d hang from a shower curtain rod for easy storage inside your tent. They often have them at dollar stores.

Some other things to keep in mind are that some people like to treat their tents for additional waterproofing. If you’re going to do a lot of camping in wet conditions, it’s worth looking into. And don’t be mad if you can’t get your tent back into the original package or bag. I sure can’t! I have a giant Molle II pack I got at an estate sale and I stuff my tent into that for easy transport while our mattress and tent poles stay in the carrying bag.

Any other tent questions? Ask me on Facebook!

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