Anatomy of a Really Bad Tent

I was thumbing through the Friday newspaper ads and our local sporting goods store was advertising some $20 tents, which left me to wonder what you really get for that kind of money. Dimensionally, the tent is in pretty good shape, with a 9×9 foot floor and a 72-inch vertical center-height. The walls are fairly vertical, so much of this floor-space is usable, though the ceiling tapers over quickly so most of the vertical height is really about five feet – which is still not bad.


The tent might be dimensionally sound, but where it really falls down is in the materials and construction. Ventilation is limited to a small mesh portion at the very top of the tent and a single window at the rear of the tent. A tent can be really miserable without adequate ventilation and a tent that sleeps four people needs a lot of it! With four people snoring away inside a nylon cocoon, you can actually end up with more water (in the form of condensation) inside the tent, in the morning, than outside on the ground.

The rain fly on this tent, if that is what it can really be called, will send all the moisture right onto the sides of the tent, where it will quickly soak through the 800mm polyurethane coating whenever someone touches it from the inside. This rain fly also offers no protection from the wind, which will be cutting right through the thin sides of this tent, making for some cold nights. A good rain fly that comes all the way to the ground can really help insulate a tent by trapping a thin layer of air between the rain fly and the sides of the tent.

Is this tent worth $20? Maybe if you only plan to use it once or twice in the middle of summer. Even then, you should really baby the floor by placing a heavy tarp underneath the tent and another tarp inside the tent, to help protect the waterproof coating.

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23 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Really Bad Tent

  1. Superb website you have here but I was curious if you
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  2. Pingback: Types of Camping Tents | family camping

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  4. Hey Roy, really enjoyed the article. Thought it was great to have a description of what the problem with buying a tent based soley on it’s price.

  5. I was cracking up reading this post because years ago I purchased a Wenzel tent for $20 at a garage sale. It served its purpose, don’t get me wrong, but I did learn a few vital things that you mentioned here. The ventilation was non-existent…there were no windows at all so the only way to ventilate the went was to remove the rain guard. The rain guard didn’t work because it laid directly on the tent, so when we were poured on at Giant Sequoia and Arches the rain eventually poured right into the tent. After that experience I went out and purchased a fairly inexpensive 4 person Coleman tent that I’ve been happy with. I’m also happy to say it’s survived a few downpours with no leakage…and it has tons of windows. I love your blog by the way!

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  8. VE – you bring a…wait, I won’t go there 🙂

    Dan – those Ground Hogs are great tent stakes.

    in-a-tent – so that’s where they come from!

    Eric – some of the Ozark Trail stuff at Walmart isn’t that bad.

  9. I got a 4 person tent at Wal-Mart when it was on sale four years ago. I also got a tarp as a ground cover for the tent and a tarp for roof over the tent. I think the inexpensive tarps would solved some of the problems encountered by SouthernHiker.

    Eric’s last blog post..Manasquan Reservoir Revisited

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  11. In thr UK this kind of “so cheap you can bin it” tents are bought by people who go to music festivals – like Glastonbury. For 3-4 drunken summer nights where all you really need is somewhere to dump your stuff and to get a bit of shut eye they are ideal. They also have the advantage that if they get trampled/stolen/wrecked or whatever they weren’t a major investment in the first place.
    I think though that you could definitely get a better tent for the same sort of price. The one you’ve highlighted does seem to be particularly bad 🙂

    in-a-tent’s last blog post..We only own one tent

  12. I totally agree with the stakes issue. Ironically, for $20, you can have 10 MSR Ground Hog stakes, or a $20 tent. lol, I guess that puts things back in perspective somewhat. However, I own those stakes and they are worth every penny. Their design is such that you aren’t going to bend them, they’re lightweight, easy to remove, and also reflective. REI is selling them individually now, so I’m probably going to add a few more for guyouts to my next order.

    Dan’s last blog post..How To: Make Your Own Tinder

  13. Jorn – yeah, I think these “superstore” tents are not good for much more than the backyard.

    Rick – thanks, it’s something you don’t realize until it’s too late, unfortunately. I’ve seen some nice tents lately that look like they provide some decent ventilation even with the rain fly on.

    Frank – I’m not sure which Coleman you have, but I did check their Sundome line and the 450mm coating is on the rain fly. I don’t quite understand their spec on the floor; “1000D-140g/sqm” but I’m thinking it must be something similar to 1000m.

    Dan – right, you know you’re not getting tapped seams for that price! Unfortunately, though, it seems like even the mid-level tents are coming with junk stakes.

    Justin – great story, and one that I hope people take to heart. You never *plan* to camp in the rain, but if you (and your gear) aren’t prepared for it, it really sucks (been there!).

    Eric – sorry to hear that. You guys have certainly had some rain this year 🙂

  14. Great Article on cheap tents. I have a cheap tent I occasionally use when road tripping that I was given as a gift before I really did a lot of camping. Mine was $40, but it has served well for a few years, with some major exceptions.

    My wife and I just got back from road tripping to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and several other locations in a large circle around the U.S back to Georgia. That cheap tent we used is now retired from roadtripping for good. The backpacking tent is now our official tent for all trips.

    In Yellowstone, we got a lot of rain, the tent kept us dry with its short rain fly for A ( read: ONE) night, but as it had before, caused anything along the sides of the tent to get wet (specifically my boots). It rained all day and that cheap fabric got saturated and we ended up with puddles in our tent. The next night, for the first time ever, I slept in my car when camping.

    Along the lines of fabric, the tent failed us again in Arizona. After staking the tent down into some hard soil, the fabric hooks ripped.

    As someone else said, the tent served its purpose for the money, but I wouldn’t buy it again. Go ahead and spend the extra cash and buy a tent that will serve you in the summer on those one nighters, and will serve you on the thru-hike you may decide to take later in life, I know it would have made my Yellowstone nights a lot better if I had brought my “nice” tent, even if it has a little less space.

    SouthernHiker’s last blog post..Helton Creek Falls

  15. Humm 800mm waterproofing. My Coleman only has 450mm and has the plastic floor and it has kept me dry in through many rains. It a bit larger and I keep things from touching sides.

  16. This is the tent you set up in the back yard for the kids to “camp” in for a night. They’ll have stabbed a hole in it before the summer is out. There, I just about got my $20 worth. Heh. 🙂