[Updated for 2019]
This guide is the result of exhaustive research to replace our family tent. I gave away our family tent when we moved because I never, ever wanted to set it up again. There are tons of tents out there that won’t last a weekend of use by kids and dogs. Let my tale protect you from buying the worst style of family tents. We selected the best family tents, based on our experience along with the latest reviews found all over the web.
Our family took a break from camping while the kids were very young. But once it warmed up this year, the girls finally stared asking about camping. And we’ve already been camping near the beach and in the mountains this spring. Yay!!
Camping was my number one courtship tactic. I’m an Eagle Scout and worked for the Sierra Club for nearly 10 years—so I knew we’d get back to it eventually. There’s no better feeling than to wake up in the woods—warm, dry, and well rested after a l fun-filled day of hiking and playing in the great outdoors.
And I must say, I have been desperately looking to replace that tent with one I won’t WANT to give away.
Cheap Coleman Tents
It was a fairly inexpensive, but huge, Coleman 8-Person Montana tent. The poorly made metal-tipped poles ripped through one of the pole-sleeves the second time I set it up—and in perfect weather. I put no research into the purchase at the time. I just got a big tent from the big box store a few days before an impromptu multi-family camping trip. Don’t do that!
The fiberglass poles finally failed on our old 4-man tent. With two kids, I figured it was time to get a family tent instead of continuing with two smaller tents.
Our 4-man was an old no-name tent my wife had before we were married. It actually served its purpose quite well for our car-camping courtship needs. I’ve camped in tents of varying quality over the years. Lower quality tents usually just meant I had to set them up with a lot more care. They were usually fine in normal weather. So I really didn’t think getting a big cheap tent would pose a significant problem for family car-camping, especially brand new.
The first time I set it up in the driveway as a shakedown to check everything out—by myself. But it was not a freestanding dome tent. It didn’t have quick-attach clips, and it wasn’t easy. The rainfly could cover a jumbo-jet, but it didn’t seem robust enough to keep stormwater out. The bottom looked like a giant tarp, so it was probably waterproof. At least when removed from the box. The zippers snagged and pulled the fabric and screens at the doors and windows.
And even though I did it in the driveway, it was the first tent I could not set up by in the field without having to ask for help.
Once I realized that many of the inexpensive tents are of the exact same style as the Montana, I removed them all from our guide. My research spans far and wide, but is shaped by personal experience. I advise against any tent of that style, regardless of their reviews. They’re just no fun to set up, and I love setting up tents!
There was an 8-man 17’x10’ family dome tent on sale for $129 in a recent Big 5 ad. At REI, most of the 6- or 8-man tent costs at least $400. Make the Big 5 mistake twice and you almost paid for a premium tent—and if the poles break or the rip is too severe, you still might have to buy a third tent just to go camping at all.
What’s in between? If $130 buys me anger, frustration and a ripped tent, what does $200 get me? Below are some options for a good quality family tent that will last a few years of regular use. We’ll cover high-end and premium tents in a future article.
Family of Four, Plus Two Dogs
I started looking at 6-person tents. In case you’re looking for a tent to move out of a cave, tent capacity ratings are based on the maximum number of sleeping bags that can fit into the tent, pretty much in any arrangement. It does not count any gear, like cots and backpacks. And cots take up more room than a sleeping bag. There’s no way four people and their stuff can comfortably fit into a 4-person tent. Ever. Anywhere.
Our family consists of two adults, two young kids, and two small dogs. Most 6-person tents can fit two queen-sized air mattresses, side by side with no gap. It’s the bare minimum size for four adults. Add the dogs and gear and—let’s be realistic, kids take up more space than adults do, despite their diminutive sizes—a 6-person tent isn’t going to cut it for us,
Most 8-person tents can fit three queen size mattresses—or two queen size mattresses and a bunch of space for gear. That sounds a lot more comfortable for a relaxing long weekend.
Because of their larger size 8-person tents are more likely to have big problems with wind, especially those using lower quality materials. Smaller 6-person tents often have more more aerodynamic profiles that can handle windy conditions, and can be a lot more cost friendly. If wind and bad weather are frequently an issue in the areas you camp, you’ll want to avoid large, vertical-walled cabin-style tents. Wind is a common complaint with lower quality tents of any size, but more pronounced the larger they are.
Our Favorite Family Tent
After all my research, I bought, a Coleman Octagon 98 Full Rainfly Signature tent. It’s an 8-sided, 8-person, 7’-high, 13×13’ tent with steel poles. We’re not camping enough to justify spending $500 on the tent yet. The Octagon was one of Coleman’s signature products when they released it, with an MSRP of $299, but it was $240 at Amazon. While lower-tier Coleman tents, like the one this replaces, can be of laughable quality, they do make high quality gear when they want to.
Coleman’s WeatherTec system provides the tent with extreme resistance to rain and even winds over 35 MPH. The tent gets high praise for the resistance to both wind and rain, using. It’s extremely well ventilated too, with the upper halves of the walls and the entire ceiling made of mesh, which also provides an outstanding panoramic view when the rainfly is off, or it can double as a screened-in room at outdoor activities to keep bugs out. Even when the fly is on, all the side panels have a full length zipper at the center that open curtain-style…yurt-style!…for great ventilation. When zipped up, reviewers in the winter mountains of Colorado claim it handled a day of rain followed by 4” of snow that night, with nary a drop of water inside.
If the full-length fly version of the tent is no longer available, they have a half-fly version that has slightly less weather resistance and also lacks the rigid door. The rigid door allows it to be left unzipped most of the time for easy in-and-out, especially by kids, and gravity shuts it tight enough to keep bugs out during the day. It was the deciding factor for me getting the Full RainFly version.
I can easily pitched the tent by myself. The only difficulty is getting the rain fly over the 7’ tall roof, though it’s simple with two people. It’s big and cumbersome, but easy to set up, mainly walking around the tent, replicating each task eight times with color-coded poles. It’s completely freestanding and only really needs stakes or guylines in strong wind.
It was pretty windy at times during our first camping trip. We had an onshore coastal breeze about a mile and a half from San Onofre Beach in Southern California, but it didn’t rain. The tent handled the wind like a champ, both with the rainfly wide open and zipped up all around, and that was using only three stakes, because more seemed unnecessary.
We put two queen size mattresses next to each other in the center, with tons of surrounding room for gear and walking around. Did I mention this tent is close to 7’ tall inside, even at the walls.
Best Inexpensive Family Tents
The Wenzel Portico 8-Person is 12’x10’ and has a rain fly that goes nearly to the ground with an awning that projects out over the front door. While there aren’t many reviews, they are all positive and many noted the tent kept them dry with only minimal leaks in terrible weather. It’s an extremely simple, easy to pitch, 2-pole freestanding dome tent. This model has somewhat unique, but quite handy, exterior pockets next to the front door.
This is the style of family dome tent I envisioned to rectify the the setup struggles of the Coleman Montana. This Portico is the classic dome style and comes in 6-person and 8-person sizes. It’s a simple, lower-cost tent that will be further improved by adding a sealer to the seams, especially if it starts to leak after a few uses or you want to prepare for known rainy areas. This will be quick and easy to set up, even in bad weather.
Not as easy to set up, but able to handle much worse weather, the Wenzel Evergreen 6-Person Tent is a 3-pole freestanding dome tent, making it a great alternative to the 6-Person Portico.
Early on, I was ready to buy the 8-man Portico, but my wife said it was too small for our primary family tent. The 6-person is 10’x9’. Queen size mattresses are 5 feet wide. So any tent with a 10-foot dimension will fit two queen size mattresses.
There’s a good chance I’ll get one of these 6-man Wenzels as a more portable family option when traveling up the coast, pitching and striking the tent every day. We’re planning that trip for the end of July, so check back here for updates.
Best Mid-Priced Family Tents
The CORE Instant Cabin Tents stood out for having very favorable reviews on both Amazon and Costco’s websites. “Instant Cabin” style tents can be set up in as little as 60 seconds, or so they claim. That’s if there are no problems encountered. One reviewer said they were able to set up their Coleman Octagon in about 10 minutes, beating the couple next to them still struggling with an Instant Cabin tent. Most of the negative reviews have to do with the poles getting extremely difficult to extend and lock into place, or failing to completely.
I really wanted to give this style a try, based on its large size, ease of setup and takedown, and reasonable cost. They have surged in popularity since their debut in 2016, but I just couldn’t do it. Not this time.
The 6-Person tent holds two queen-sized mattresses, has heat-sealed seams, water resistant zippers, and an advanced water-repellent fabric. Yes, they are easy to put up, but they are far from “simple,” so if anything goes wrong it may not be an easy matter to figure out how to fix. But my big fear with the CORE cabin tents is wind. These are not aerodynamic tents. From what I’ve read, they can handle some wind, but only if the fly is well staked to the ground. There are far more stories where wind was an issue.
Coleman makes the same style of tent, the Coleman 6-Person Instant Cabin, but their line uses the same WeatherTec treatment as the Octagon, with inverted seams, a welded bucket floor, and heavy duty weatherized fabric. They are so confident of its innate water resistance, it does not come with a rain fly, and very few reviewers complain about water getting in. Even so, they sell a rain fly separately for those who don’t have faith, or if it develops leaks when it is older.
After I finally decided on the Coleman Octagon 98, giving into the Coleman brand despite my reservations, I started having pangs of regret in favor of the Coleman 8-Person Instant Cabin. It’s far quicker to set up and it gets pretty good nasty-weather reviews (if staked down properly). There’s a promo video of Coleman blasting it with 35 gallon of water at 35 MPH in their wind and rain tunnel. A drive up the coast, with stops every night to camp, will be far quicker, easier, and more pleasant with any instant cabin. But realistically, most times I set up the tent in one spot for an extended weekend. For me, the 15-minute setup of a weather-taunting beast of an orange yurt outweighs the convenience of the Instant Cabin.
If ease of setup is your number one consideration, Coleman or CORE Instant Cabins are your main choices. The Coleman is made of heavier material and may be more weather resistant, but the CORE comes with a rainfly with taped seams that can be removed for stargazing on warm dry nights.
Best Family Tents at REI
The less expensive 6- and 8-person tents at REI start at $199 with the Kelty Discovery 6. It’s what REI considers a basic tent, but there is a big difference in the type of floor material. Most tents REI sells have floors made of the same polyester taffeta material as the body, but of a heavier weight and coated with waterproof polyurethane, whereas the mass-marketed tents often use a less expensive but tough polyethylene, the same stuff as waterproof tarps. Polyethylene is heavy, though, and difficult to roll up and store.
The Kelty Discovery is a bit smaller than the other 6-person tents, but the fabric, coatings, zippers, design, and construction are all of higher quality.
That raises expectations however, which means tougher reviewers, and as a result they don’t get the amazed, glowing praise the more mass-marketed tents get. Reviewers on REI’s site likely expect more from their gear while exposing it to more demanding conditions.
The Caddis Rapid 6 tent is REI’s version of the Instant Cabin, but a 10’x10’ square. It’s made of a heavier polyester taffeta fabric than all the other tents mentioned so far and is $100 more expensive than Coleman’s, a foot wider, and comes with a rainfly. If you’re going to use it hard and want it to last several years, this is a better bet than the Coleman or the CORE, but if it will be used only occasionally, you may want to save the $100.