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

Tent

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.

Camping in comfort when you live with chronic pain: begin with the bed

Growing up, my family took more camping vacations than any other kind. We went annually with the same people—friends with kids my age. Even when we moved to a neighboring state, we traveled for hours to camp with them.

These are golden memories for me, and it’s the kind of tradition I’d like to re-create for my own kids.

Camp Coleman Instant Tent 6

Coleman Instant Tent – 6 person model (Retail $180)

Lately, the trick has been figuring out how to travel the way I want to, experiencing the world at large, when my body has developed an autoimmune condition that sporadically surprises me with painful symptoms.

Camping for people of all abilities

Should a person with occasionally debilitating joint pain risk going camping?

Pardon my French, but: Continue reading