One of my favorite ways to connect with my inner Clark Griswold is to pack up the family and scoot down the highway to find reprieve in the form of a polyester dome shelter, a campfire, and the messiest s’mores on Earth. In fact, years ago we started a tradition of heading out on a camping trip the day after the last day of school—it's our way of officially kicking off summer. Last year we visited Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. This year, we’re exploring the rivers and lakes around Bend, Oregon.
I’ve learned the key with any family camping trip is comfort, and comfort begins with a reliable tent. But with so many tent designs, materials, and features available, it can be tough to know which shelter might suit your family best. To help, here is a list of family-sized, dependable, and affordable tents to consider before heading out on your first overnight in some remote corner of the woods, or in your own backyard.
I’ve been on more than one camping trip where the biting bugs were so bad we had to hide out in the tent. We didn’t get bit anymore, but felt like we were trapped inside. That’s why I like tents with a small “porch” that’s separate from the main sleeping area. The Vango Odyssey 500 takes that idea a step farther by including transparent PVC windows instead of a screen mesh, which is great if it’s especially cold or windy outside and you want to contain as much heat as possible. Vango includes a groundsheet to keep moisture and bugs at bay, and inside there are lantern hangars and mesh storage pockets. Though it’s certainly not the least expensive or lightest (31 pounds) family-sized tent on this list, the Odyssey 500 is rigid, built with durable materials, comes in an oversized carry bag, and doesn’t take long to set up. The tent comes with a zippered, compression stuff sack and customizable ID label.
If you’re cold and wet while camping, you’re miserable, so when you’re considering a new tent, don’t just judge it by it’s size, weight, or construction—study the rainfly as well. Many models don’t include a cover that stretches all the way to the ground and covers the entire tent. Shelters like the NTK Arizona GT, which includes a full polyester rainfly that’s laminated with a polyurethane coating for water resistance, does a great job at keeping precipitation off the entire shelter. There is a divider to create two rooms inside, two doors, three windows, mesh utility pockets, and ventilation ports to keep air moving.
Ozark Trail took a cue from portable hunting blind designs when it created its Instant Cabin, and proves that assembling large, multi-room tents does not have to be complicated. The unique feature of this shelter is the frame poles are already attached to the tent, and all you need to do to set it up is extend the corner supports, and then raise the roof like an umbrella (or hunting blind). Ozark Trail says that done correctly, set up time averages around two minutes, which is great if you’re trying to corral a wild child, or bad weather is on the horizon. Inside are three separate doors for private rooms large enough for inflatable queen mattresses, eight windows, gear pockets, electrical cord access (if you’re plugging in or running a generator for power), and a bug-free porch. A small rainfly and carry bag is included.
Because the pole design is similar to Ozark Trail’s Instant Cabin, CORE claims you can erect their Instant Cabin Tent in 60 seconds, which is much faster than the estimated setup times of any other tent shown here. But the other nice feature about this model is the extra-wide door, which zippers down the middle and opens almost as wide as the entire front wall. The tent fabric is heat sealed at the seams and treated with CORE’s H2O repellant to keep moisture out. Inside there is overhead storage, mesh pockets along the wall, and adjustable vents. A small rainfly which mainly covers the top of the tent and a storage bag are included.
It’s hard to think of camping and not think of the name Coleman. For decades the company has produced reliable, affordable outdoor gear and they show no signs of slowing down. Their Dome Tent is an inexpensive option if you have a small family that doesn’t mind sleeping together in one room, and you like the idea of having a small, screened, porch-like area off the front door. The area also makes for a great storage space, especially for dirty shoes that otherwise muck up the living quarters. There are storage pockets along the inside walls and the rainfly has window awnings so you can leave the windows open for ventilation while it’s raining.
The nice thing about the Camp Creek from ALPS Mountaineering is the four walls are almost completely vertical, which is great for headroom, especially if you line the inside perimeter with twin-sized cots or inflatable mattresses. There are storage pockets, attachment straps for hanging lights, and four screened windows inside. The polyester rainfly has a weather-protective coating, and though it only covers the upper one-third of the tent, it has an awning that extends out over the entry in case you want to leave footwear or other gear outside.
If your family likes to go big or go home when it comes to camping gear, then this tent from Ozark Trail might be for you. Built on the same easy-setup pole design as their 6-person Instant Cabin, the L-shaped 16x16-foot version is the largest and heaviest tent on this list. It also has two entries, three separate room dividers, a large front awning, seven windows, electrical cord access, and oversized ground ports for ventilation—or an air conditioner, if roughing it isn't your style. Ozark again claims a setup time less than two minutes, and the layout is great if you like to custom arrange your camp with something like a “family room” in the middle, with two sleeping areas branched off to both sides. A rainfly and carry bag is included.
The North Face is well known for its compact, lightweight backpacking and backcountry tents, and they’ve taken those design principals and applied them to a large, family-style lineup of shelters. The Wawona is one that looks similar to a shelter you’d pack for a bivy hunt, but it’s spacious enough to accommodate up to six adults. What’s more, the polyester rainfly covers the dome all the way to the ground so there’s less risk of moisture invading the tent. Inside there is a pocket large enough for an iPad, other storage pockets, clothes-drying lines, and a Velcro lantern loop. The entire unit packs down into an included duffel bag for transport.
If you like the idea of a partition between sleeping areas, but don’t like the idea of lugging around a massive tent, then consider the two-door Family Camping Tent from Timber Ridge. This dome-shaped refuge is easy to set up and take down. The wide door allows access to both sides of the tent if the divider is installed, and the large windows and screened roof allow for more than enough ventilation. Though the rainfly doesn’t offer much protection, it does have a door awning if you want to keep footwear outside the entry, and the entire unit itself is one of the most compact tents to also include power-cord ports.
If your kids are like mine, there’s no end to what they see, hear, and do when their imagination takes over. Sometimes all they need is a good jumping-off point—and what better way to kick start their camp-time creativity than by telling them you’re all camping in a teepee. The six-person model from Winterial has the look and feel of a traditional teepee, but it’s made with modern materials, and it has a full-length rainfly, to keep everyone inside safe from the elements. It’s easy to set up and take down, and if you’re OK with losing a small circle of your lawn this summer, it’s a great shelter for your kids to host backyard sleepovers or all-day imaginary adventures.