Camping doesn't need to be expensive. With a little effort, you can even find a quality tent at a super-affordable price. How? Shop the used market.
What Type of Tent Do You Need?
We’ve written about this topic at length. Here's the brief recap: tents are designed for specific purposes. That means an ultralight backpacking shelter may pack insanely small and weigh virtually nothing, but will feel cramped and it may not provide much weather protection. Conversely, a huge car camping tent may provide standing-height room for several occupants, as well as a generous porch that’s protected from both the weather and bugs, but you’d never want to carry it more than five feet from your car.
There are also tent prices and qualities to consider. Something like an Alps Mountaineering Lynx 2.0 ($106) would be just fine for general camping purposes and maybe even some short distance backpacking. It eliminates the need to buy a used, fancier tent, if you don’t need the weight savings spending up would bring. You’d be hard pressed to find an ultralight tent for that price, even used, so just buy new if you don’t need to save weight.
The same goes for car camping. If you’re just spending a couple nights out, here and there, in fair weather, go buy whichever Coleman you like the looks of in WalMart. Only go through the effort of finding something nicer if you’re spending many nights outside and want a tent that will hold up to challenging conditions.
Is there a such thing as an all-rounder? A category of tent that can handle most uses, for most people? Something you can be pretty comfortable in car camping, while also taking along on basic backpacking trips? We’d suggest picking up a quality, mid-range backpacking tent like the MSR Hubba Hubba NX, in a size appropriate for your needs.
Remember that tent sizes run small. A one-person (or 1P) tent will be a tight squeeze, just for you, your sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. If you want to bring your gear inside, or your dog, you’ll need a 2P. Two people can fit in a 2P, but you’d better really like spooning with your partner. A 3P will be more comfortable for two people. Conversely, the cheapest way to shed weight is to size down to your bare needs.
Where to Score One
Advantages: You shop the whole country. Sellers are reviewed, and if you pay through PayPal, you have recourse to get your money back if your tent is not in the condition described.
Disadvantages: If the seller isn’t local, you won’t be able to physically examine the tent before purchasing it.
Advantages: Local listings, cheapest prices you’ll find. You’ll be able to physically examine the tent before you buy it.
Disadvantages: Craigslist creeps, Craigslist flakes, limited selection.
REI Garage Sales
Advantages: You’ll mostly be buying “scratch and dent” style returns, so hopefully you’ll be able to buy what’s basically a new tent, for used tent money. And you’ll get the advantage of friendly, knowledgeable staff to help you find the right one for your needs.
Disadvantages: Prices don’t tend to be as low as Craiglist; Garage Sales only occur a couple times a year; you may not have an REI near you; and you need to be an REI member to take advantage of them.
The best approach may be to shop all three. That’ll give you the best odds of finding the best deal.
What to Look Out For
The biggie is mold and mildew. If a tent has any black spots, anywhere inside or out, walk away. If it smells like mildew, walk away.
Actually, your sense of smell should be your first tool in evaluating any used tent. In addition to mildew, smells can indicate other problems. Faint whiff of urine or vomit? It may have been urinated or vomited on, but more likely, the PU coating is beginning to fail, and the tent will no longer be waterproof. It will also be smelly. Walk away. Does it smell like a wet dog? Then a wet dog has spent considerable time in there, and you may not want to. Cigarette smoke? Body odor? Are you really going to want to sleep in there?
Don’t buy a tent you can’t first set up. Examine it thoroughly for cuts, tears, and holes. Make sure you set up the tent yourself. If there are elastic cords connecting the tent poles, are those cords still elastic? Are all the clips and grommets and connectors and other hardware in good condition? Do the zippers operate smoothly?
Also familiarize yourself with what you think you’re buying. Know what the generation or year of tent you’re shopping for is supposed to look like, and what parts and accessories it’s supposed to come with. You don’t want to pay 2014 prices for a 2008 tent.
Do You Really Need to Buy a Tent at All?
Increasingly, the answer may be no, unless you plan to use the tent regularly. Gear sharing startups Outdoor Exchange and Gear Commons have failed, but you can still rent pretty much anything you’ll need at your local REI. What’s available differs by location: you can check local inventory here.
Alite has a great rental service it calls Ranger Station, operated out of its flagship San Francisco store. In it, you can rent a complete camping kit for various activities for just $40 a weekend. It’s a great idea we hope finds more traction in other locations. Additionally, your college or university may, if you’re a student, operate a similar program. You may as well get some value out of the massive debt you’re in, and do some camping while you’re there.
And don’t be shy about asking friends who are more experienced outdoors for a loan. So long as you take good care of it, return it dry and clean, and are prepared to replace it if there’s damage, then gear loans are a proud tradition amongst us outdoorsy types. If you’re one of those, be cool and loan people stuff when they need it. You’ll be helping to pass outdoor recreation along to a new audience.
Have you bought a used tent? Where'd you find it? Are there other gear share resources you'd recommend?