Does every family camping trip end with, “We need a bigger tent?”

We went car camping as a family in August. There are four of us. We’ve enjoyed our affordable, easy to erect Coleman Instant Cabin six person tent for a little over six years now. It has never let us down.*

Camp Coleman Instant Tent 6


Upon arriving home, one of the first things I did (after a long shower and donning fresh clothes without the scent of smoke) was to begin researching new tents.

According to the reviews I found, “Honey, we need a bigger tent!” is a pretty common refrain.

I find myself asking:

Does every family camping trip end with a wish for a larger tent?

I’ve posted before about my new favorite car camping accessory: a set of Disc-O-Bed Cam-O-Bunk XL stacking bunk bed cots. Lifting two of our four sleeping positions up off the floor allowed for a vastly improved storage situation, and a much more comfortable path to the door. Not to mention improved sleep quality for those of us lucky enough to rest on them!

The cots do fit in our Coleman tent, but only just. If used as a pair un-stacked for twin beds, the cots wouldn’t touch the tent walls. Due to the inward slope of the walls heading up toward the roof, the top bunk, when stacked, does press against the fabric and produce small about 1″ protrusions visible outside.

If you’ve never camped in a tent, you may not be aware that touching its side walls when it rains sometimes causes moisture to migrate through the fabric from outside in. The classic blunder is a child reaching up to touch the tent immediately above her face. For the rest of the night, drip! drip! drip!

Most kids learn the “why we don’t poke the tent” lesson via natural consequences.

It’s true that modern tent materials are much better at preventing such leaks, but it is also my opinion that it is always better to be safe than sorry about staying dry when sleeping outdoors. For this reason—and to avoid added wear and tear on my tent’s sidewalls—I would be happier if my tent were at least six inches longer in the door-to-back-wall direction.

Camp Disc-O-Bed Cam-O-Cot XL in tent by door

End view, seen through the tent door

We have yet to find ourselves in a campsite that wouldn’t accommodate a modestly longer tent than the one we have, especially since I don’t see any need for it to be simultaneously wider. Our current tent is 9′ x 10′. I think my ideal tent size is 9′ x 12′ for a family of four.

On the other hand, as you can see in the photo of the cot visible through the Coleman tent’s door, we could also make do with the exact size we already own… if the door were centered instead of set to one side. You see, in my ideal world, I would have two sets of Cam-O-Bunk cots stacked to sleep our family of four. A pair would sit on either side of the tent with a clear aisle in front of the door.

Two bunk beds would allow all of us to sleep off the ground, but, more importantly, also get all of our clothing and personal gear under a bunk, out of the way, yet not touching the potentially damp side walls of the tent.**

The newer Coleman model with the same name as ours seems to have been updated in precisely this way. I bet I’m not the only adult who wanted to walk right into the open full height center of their tent, leaving beds snugged against either side wall. You can see from my photograph that the XL Cam-O-Bunk blocks the majority of the tent’s doorway, and at the least convenient side of the door.

It would be possible to enter our tent with the cot there, but it would be constantly annoying. Even shaving off 7 ¼” of width by choosing the narrower Cam-O-Bunk L set for the kids would leave the door about halfway blocked, on the side with the zipper, no less.

Am I going to buy an almost identical tent to replace the one we have to solve this problem? No, almost definitely not, unless our old tent is actually destroyed.

We will probably buy an additional, larger tent to use for longer trips or those with greater probability of rain. We’ll keep our trusty Coleman Instant Cabin – 6 person for quick trips and fair weather. I’ve yet to see another tent as easy to erect as the one we own.

REI Kingdom 8 tentI’m leaning toward the Kingdom 8 from REI. It’s 8.3′ x 12.5′ which is almost exactly the size I seek. Its centered door means the narrower width should suit us well. The available floor-less garage sounds like a dream come true for soggy trips or sandy*** areas assuming a combined 27.5′ length would fit the site. Side walls of approximately 57″ would allow for the bunk bed cots (36″ high) to stand quite close to the edges of the space.

At 104 sq. ft., the Kingdom 8 isn’t that much larger than our Coleman Instant Cabin – 6 which measures about 90 sq. ft, but the extra square footage appears to be exactly where I need it.

There’s a Coleman Instant Cabin – 8/10 (retail $310) widely available for less than half the REI tent’s price, but its 140 sq. ft. are still arranged in a more square-ish 10′ x 14′. These dimensions just don’t strike me as more helpful to my ideal layout. It is also worth noting for new campers that having more volume inside your tent means it is less likely to feel cozy due to the warmth of your family’s bodies. This could be great in very hot or humid weather, but is a negative for climates with cool/cold summer nights.

With a retail price of $529, I wouldn’t suggest the Kingdom 8 tent to a first time camper with limited funds. I paid only $136 (retail $180) for our Coleman, and I have a strong hunch that it would prove easier to use for most beginning campers. For reasons of quality and comfort, you don’t want the very cheapest tent you can find for your first camping trip, either. Try to find a balance between reasonable price and features/ease of use.

When my family camped during my childhood, we had an heirloom (old!) canvas and wood tent that absolutely, definitely leaked in the rain when a kid poked it with a finger. Do you need to ask me how I know? It took my dad a long time to set up with much cursing and he needed my mother’s help to manage that beast. Before I reached my teens, newer materials arrived that gave us the option to buy a spacious family tent one person could put up on his own. These new tents kept us drier, too.

Some research is warranted on a purchase of this size for most middle class families. A tent can be seen as a reasonable investment in many years of affordable family vacations. If you aren’t comfortable, you won’t end up camping as often, and your money could be wasted.

You might want to ponder how you think you will use the interior space before selecting your first tent. At home, do your kids climb into your big bed, or do some (or all) of you prefer more defined personal sleeping space?

sleeping in tent - 1Families who share queen size air mattresses will enjoy the more rectangular tents such as Coleman’s Instant Cabin line.

Those of us who are using individual foam or air pads (or cots!) may prefer a longer, narrower rectangular arrangement—or not. Taller individuals, too, may be grateful for reserving open space in the tallest, middle area of a family tent.

*FYI for new campers: tents usually fail by collapsing or leaking. Most often this is a result of user error, but better designs lessen the odds of a failure.

**Aside from rain water migrating through the walls of the tent, it is also common for condensation to form inside a tent, especially when the air outside is cooler than your little fabric shelter full of warm, breathing bodies. Condensation is cured by ventilation, such as leaving the mesh windows somewhat open at night instead of zipping everything up tight.

***Unless you take off your shoes every time you step into the tent, the floor will end up very gritty. If you have kids, it’s pretty much a guarantee. Keeping a mini broom and dustpan by the door helps manage this, but it is a fact of life of tent camping.

8 thoughts on “Does every family camping trip end with, “We need a bigger tent?”

  1. II was lucky a few years ago and was able to buy a huge 8 person $279 Kelty for $25 at Target on sale . . We are looking for buying come cots too so we can sleep better when tent camping but I havnt found something that fits our budget and packs away small enough

    • I always hope to find a bargain like that, but I’m also suspicious of my tendency to buy something “almost but not quite perfect” on sale and regret its lack of features. At that price, even one or two uses would make it a good deal.

      The Disc-O-Bed cots are heavy, not not too large. You could store them if you have a FLAT space to slide them out of the way, like under a bed or table. Packed up, they are the full width of the cot (about 36″?) and the height of one cot (24″) but only about 2 inches deep. The two cots fit into two separate bags, so can be stored separately.

      I know excess weight is often an issue for trailers. Since you’re going full-time, are you worried about overloading your RV with your possessions? There’s volume of stuff, but also weight to consider there, too, I imagine.

      • We don’t worry too much about being too heavy. In the RV we have been pretty good throwing stuff we don’t use out and when we buy things for the RTV weight is always a concern. I hope that when we are on the road the next time we can get on a scale and measure how heavy we are.

  2. I am in serious “gear-envy”… not that we would ever use it. The very idea of trying to get my lot out of heated, or air-conditioned accommodation, and spending whole minutes at a time in a tent, away from a WiFi connection, fills me with dread.

    But one of those big tents all to myself, now that’s an idea…

    • There was a single gentleman camping at the state park we visited last month. (Tidiest and most orderly campsite set-up I’ve ever seen!) Our group chatted with him while on a hike, and it turns out he’d had a fight with his wife and gone camping spur of the moment to have some time to himself.

      I don’t suggest arguing with your family (!), but offering a camping trip and then taking one by yourself if no one else is interested seems reasonable to me. (You could justify the luxurious tent by hoping they will take you up on it.)

      Canada has an exceptional array of beautiful wilderness areas on offer. Are campgrounds there typically government run, private, or a mix as we have in the USA?

      Most of my personal experience has been in our state campgrounds in Oregon, Washington, and a few New England states. I don’t think we ever camped in Canada, even when we lived in Washington state, but, as a child, I didn’t always pay attention to little details like which side of a largely uncontrolled border I was on.

      • Most of our camp sites are privately owned I think, but there are obviously a few national parks, so the mix is probably the right answer.

        In all honesty I think I’d have to drive quite a distance to find somewhere more beautiful than where we live — I grew up in London, and escaped to the Welsh mountains at weekends as an adult, so rural Ontario is frankly stunning. I could camp down by the lake on my own land, and never get tired of waking up to that view. But I do like NY State and New Hampshire… maybe I’ll convince Lorraine one day.

  3. Yes! You nailed that ever present question. We travel full time via car camping and tent. We have a pretty huge tent, as in 2 queen inflatables could fit, but now I want to upgrade to a 3+ season tent with more space. Is that horrible? Lol. Currently looking into the Big Agnes Flying Diamond 6. Pricey, but since we do a lot of winter camping, would be worth it to our family. Thanks for your post info. Wishing you many fun adventures!

    • I just read through your blog and the beginning of your grand adventure living full time as car campers. Wow! I would want a bigger tent, too!

      I’ve seen some cool family blogs about using a minivan as a tiny camper. One key idea was to use a utility strap and hang a hammock INSIDE the van for an adult sleeper. Just a thought for your larger party.

      I almost wonder if a family of five—and I think your kids are all a bit older, not tiny babies—might do better with two medium sized tents instead of one large one? That would give you a backup if something failed catastrophically, too!

      I hope you are all all enjoying life on the road. Try to get to Oregon (my home state) as it is incredibly beautiful… but maybe not until summer for tent camping. The rain is a very real part of life in the Pacific NW. 🙂

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