I missed out on sleeping in a tent as a little kid. My family wasn’t outdoorsy, and the closest thing we got to a tent was my grandparent’s cottage in Michigan. So I had to surmount a steep learning curve when I finally pitched a tent for the first time.
Over the years, I've learned proper technique through lots of trial and error: once, in the Grand Canyon, just as the clouds started to roll in, I set up a tent without a tarp underneath it. Those clouds turned into a six-hour downpour, after one hour of which my tent was completely soaked. I spent the night below a covered picnic table.
Thankfully, I've made the mistakes for you. Here’s how to avoid bungling your tent the first time out.
Buy a freestanding tent that’s easy to pitch
Most tent designs these days use two poles to create a dome that’s relatively straightforward and easy to set up. That’s what you want to look for: a tried-and-true design that’s kept people warm and dry for years. Whatever you do, get a free-standing tent: non freestanding tents can be great for going ultralight or if you have a lot experience in the backcountry, but for the most part they’re a pain to set up and don't offer the same amount of protection. Tents like MSR’s Hubba Hubba or REI’s Half Dome 2 (my personal favorite) are standout classic. The Half Dome 2 even comes with setup instructions right on the tent’s stuff sack.
Seam seal the tent and fly
Most tents come from the factory with a waterproof rain fly, but over time, they'll lose their waterproofness. In my experience, this is even truer with lower-priced, entry-level tents, some of which I’ve had trouble with right out of the box. One way to make sure your tent won’t leak on you is to apply a waterproofing treatment and use seam sealer on the fly. Give it plenty of time to dry before taking it camping.
Always use a tarp or footprint
My night in the Grand Canyon would have been a lot less soggy if I’d had a footprint or tarp with me. Tent floors are pretty durable and water resistant, but a lot of rain pooling below will defeat them. Plus, not only does a footprint keep water out, it also prevents your tent floor from getting ripped up. I recommend buying some Tyvek to make your own footprint, just make sure to make cut the Tyvek so it’s smaller than the tent floor so water doesn't collect on it.
Always stake out the tent—with nice tent stakes
I once woke up in the middle of the night at a campground in Moab to someone else’s tent blowing past my campsite. Regardless of whether there’s wind or rain in the forecast, a properly staked-out tent is going to give you more interior space and keep the tent walls off your face at night. I also recommend buying some quality tent stakes, as the ones that come with a lot of entry-level tents are garbage and will bend the first time you use them. You’ll want to drive the stakes in at a 45-degree angle facing away from your tent.
Use the rainfly
Here’s another misconception: “it’s not going to rain, so there’s no need for the rainfly.” Wrong. First of all, and this is especially true if you’re in the mountains, weather changes quickly. It’s much better to have the thing on than scramble to set it up at 2 a.m. Using the rain fly will also keep you much warmer, and most tents these days have great ventilation, so you don’t need to worry about getting too hot. If you’re really worried about heat, then check out a tent like the Sierra Designs Flash or Nightwatch, which have cool, roll-up rain fly designs.
Most tents come with a few pieces of string with little plastic sliders attached—these are guy lines, which are meant to provide additional support for your tent in strong winds. They attach to fabric or webbing loops on the rain fly and can be staked down (that’s what those extra tent stakes in the bag are for). These work pretty well, but I keep some extra paracord with my tent stakes, as well. If it’s really windy, you’ll need to attach more guy lines, and having paracord gives you more options with no weight penalty.
Organize in the daylight
Once the tent is set up, the first thing I do is organize anything I’ll need in the middle of the night and hang a headlamp or small LED lantern from the tent’s ceiling. Most tents have either an included gear loft or, at the very least, a loop in the ceiling. I like to get the step out of the way while there’s plenty of daylight so I’m not left searching for things in the dark.
Bonus: Don’t put the fly away wet
The first thing you should do in the morning is peel off the rain fly and hang it up somewhere to dry. Chances are it’s wet—either from condensation inside the tent or dew on the outside—and you don’t want to put it away damp if you can avoid it. Obviously that’s not always possible, so at the very least take it out and let it dry when you get home. Otherwise, it’ll mildew and you’ll have a lot more cleanup to do.