Battle of the Tents: Budget vs. High-End
Which rewards you with the most bang for your buck?
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Is it worth it to splurge $600 for a tent when there are $100 models out there? Absolutely. Except, of course, when it isn’t.
Bear with me. A tent with a higher price tag often comes with more features and better construction, but that could mean complicated, time-consuming setup and accessories you may have no use for. To wade through the differences between budget and high-end four-person tents and determine if the extra scratch pays dividends, I enlisted engineer, reformed dirtbag, and personal friend Ryan Pyles. He pitted the Coleman Sundome Four-Person against the MSR Papa Hubba NX in a series of head-to-head tests to see how they stacked up.
Coleman Sundome Four-Person ($54)
Floor space: 63 square feet
Center height: 4 feet 11 inches
Weight: 9.7 pounds
Wall material: Polyester
MSR Papa Hubba NX ($600)
Floor space: 53 square feet
Center height: 3 feet 8 inches
Weight: 6.5 pounds
Wall material: Nylon
To simulate a car-camping experience, Pyles and partner Macayla Sparks set up the Coleman and MSR tents in the evening after a couple of beers. This was the first time either of them had seen these two tents.
Setup time: 13 minutes 3 seconds
“This is a classic tent structure. Two crisscrossed poles attach to the main body with clips and sleeves,” Pyles says. “A third, shorter pole keeps the rain fly taut. The rain fly is color-coded well enough that even the most alcohol-addled brain should be able to place it correctly.”
MSR Papa Hubba NX
Setup time: 14 minutes 44 seconds
“This one is much more complicated,” Pyles says. “It, too, has three poles that give it structure. Two shorter poles hold the sides up and out, while a third forms the backbone. But the backbone pole is composed of three separate sections all attached by swivels. Combining these pieces was a baffling experience.”
Because it hadn’t rained in weeks in Pyles’s hometown of Bozeman, Montana, he staked each of the tents within firing range of some sprinklers. Then he sprayed them down with a hose for 15 minutes while Sparks checked for leaks inside.
Pyles and Sparks were pleasantly surprised at how well the Sundome sloughed off water. “Under full blast, the walls showed no signs of leakage, even though I hit it from every angle,” Pyles says. The exception was the huge mesh windows; since the fly doesn’t cover them completely, they leaked like sieves when open and the wind was blowing.
MSR Papa Hubba NX
“This tent didn’t leak a drop,” Pyles says. While both tents repelled water extremely well, the Papa Hubba scored higher for its massive rain fly, which totally covered the windows. “There is no way any water is ever getting past that thing,” Pyles says. Keep the windows open for some fresh air, even in the rain.
Using one of the quickest ways to bring destruction down on a tent's floors, walls, and mesh windows, Pyles let a couple of dogs loose in each and then riled them up to see how much havoc they’d wreak.
“The heavy-duty material and bulky construction make this thing feel pretty invincible. And sure enough, the dogs didn’t rip through the fabric,” Pyles says. “But because of the low replacement cost, I wasn’t too worried about it either way.”
MSR Papa Hubba NX
Pyles’s concern over ruining a $600 tent led to him to abort this part of the test before the dogs even entered. “I had no desire to see how many holes they could poke in the thin floor,” he says. “This is the tent you place far, far away from a campfire circle.” However, he did concede that the Hubba’s burly 30-denier nylon would probably have been fine.
Both Coleman and MSR built their tents for four people. But to see if the Sundome and Papa Hubba could fit those four people comfortably, Pyles enlisted three male buddies to join him in each of them. He also took the two tents camping to gauge the convenience of features like pockets and door size.
“The Sundome was pretty damn comfortable,” Pyles says. “It fit four people, although those at the ends were pretty close to the walls. This isn’t a big deal when a tent’s dry but can lead to unhappy campers in a rainstorm” or when condensation builds up inside. Coleman’s tent really suffered on user-friendliness. “There are two pockets, but they’re accessible only if you’re on the end,” Pyles says. “The narrow doors make it impossible to get out without crushing skulls.”
MSR Papa Hubba NX
“Here the superior design of the Papa Hubba wins out,” Pyles says. “The side poles pull the walls almost vertical, so there’s a ton of space, preventing the people on the end from sleeping with a face full of tent. The doors are super wide to allow easy entry and exit. I would have given it a nine or ten for convenience, but the side pockets are fairly small, and there isn’t an overhead mesh shelf for anything. I assume these are weight trade-offs.”
Do you get your money’s worth from MSR’s Papa Hubba? Absolutely. With its remarkable amount of floor space and (almost) backpacking-worthy sub-six-pound weight, the investment delivers an objectively better tent, despite how pleased Pyles was with the Coleman.
But it’s important to consider how you’ll be using your tent. “It should come as no shock that $600 buys way more tent than $100 does,” Pyles says. “But I take my outdoor adventures any way I can get them, whether leaving after work to car-camp at a trailhead or just heading to a lake with friends.” If that’s more your speed, and you aren’t looking for something to pull double duty for a summit attempt, the plucky polyester Sundome should do you just fine.