Ozark Trail 12 Person $209 Air Bed Bundle at Walmart
Trek 10×16 (Chinese) Canvas Tent $663 Amazon
Trek Tents on Ebay
If there is one thing I have learned since starting this column, it is that survival is very detailed. The byproduct of this is that survival can also be very expensive, because the cheaper options, while they look viable, fail in the details. To stay on the topic of bugging out which I started three weeks ago with pack basics and essentials, I got to thinking about family tents. In any disaster scenario, a large percentage of those who survive will end up displaced, and third only to food and water is shelter. And while small tents may be the way to go if you are lighting out alone or as a couple, if you have a family, with supplies, being able to drop everybody and everything into a dry single secure shelter is going to be a very big deal.
The details come in when you talk about price vs. pack weight vs. durability. And this is one case where I can’t go buy all of the leading candidates and compare them, because even if I wanted to spend our editorial budget on it, I wouldn’t have the room or time to deal with so many big pieces of broadcloth and the headache of learning how to set them up. I will however share what I have learned, and if some of you have experience with some of these tents, please weigh in.
The good thing is, you don’t have to rely on my opinion or the anecdotal testimony of one commenter here either. This is the internet afterall, and the internet is full of reviews. When I first started this project I was visually impressed by several tents that when compared against the reviews on Amazon, proved to be not worth the time or money. I prefer to start with the 1 star and negative reviews, because they tell the story of what happens to the tent in the worst of conditions. Sometimes you’ll see a few bad reviews, but if you read into them, you find that the person was just a sloppy guy who didn’t read the directions, then blamed the tent. Others are incredibly insightful, like “We tried to stay in this tent for a month in Florida, and the UV shredded the roof.” When you think about a tent, you think about water resistance, wind resistance, but who’d a thunk of something like that? Thanks to the reviewer!
From what I can glean, If you want a tent under 50 lbs. in pack weight, you are going to have to settle for a nylon tent, but the good news is that they are cheaper than canvas. Huge caveat here though! Read the reviews! A lot of the very large family tents are made of very thin materials, and the hardware is not strong enough to hold up the tent under its own weight. I had an experience with a large family tent that I bought at Kmart a few years ago that resembled a lot of the reviews that I see on the cheaper large tents in the $200-$400 range (I think the tent at Kmart was $229). It looked great, and I followed the horrible directions stitched into the bag to the letter, but the corner pieces were made of cheap plastic and even the slightest twist while setting the tent up cracked them. Big tents are lanky. Even with two people setting them up you are going to get some flexes and odd angles at times. I was amazed at how many reviews sounded just like my experience.
The other thing I see in the reviews of course is wind and water. I have seen reviews on $500 nylon tents that say “our tent was the only one that got flooded out from our whole group.” Ouch right! But in many of the reviews I wonder if it was just a notice camper making novice mistakes, because other reviews are very positive. I wonder if the person didn’t tie all the guy lines on, or if maybe they thought that a ground tarp was a way to stay drier, but they didn’t cut the tarp to slightly smaller than the outline of the tent, because otherwise the tarp turns into a bathtub, and you will for sure get flooded.
In a survival situation, for one I’m going to try to find a protected spot to pitch my tent. If I have to set up behind an abandoned shopping mall, I’d prefer that to an open space in the local park. To some degree being in a group of tents is going to protect you from midnight raids, and that’s great, but if everyone else had a bad idea of setting up in a windy place, I won’t be joining them. No family sized tent under $500 lasts long in high wind. Now that I know about UV shredding tent nylon, I’ll be looking for shade as well. That brings us to canvas, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
The no-brainer deal that I found for this week, if you just want to check “family tent” off your list, is a deal from Walmart.com for a 12 person “easy up” tent with two queen sized air mattresses for $209. I have found that same tent on Ebay and Amazon from $289 to $500, so it is definitely a good deal. If you live in a mosquito infested area like I do, you may want to look at the Tahoe Gear Carson, which has a large attached screen room with a floor, currently on Ebay for $299. There is an even larger Tahoe Gear tent, but the dark green ones seem to be not available at a decent price right now. As you can see, I’ve tried to stick to subdued, earthy colors. I don’t think it is good idea to have a bright yellow, white or blue tent in the woods, hidden behind buildings, or even in a tent city. But maybe that’s just me. I haven’t found any large tents in camo, but I do have two large camo tarps that I hope to be able to carry with me.
If you can go a little smaller, a step above dome tents in size, there is a Coleman 8 person tent that I found for $209 that has double thickness walls and what seems to be a rugged pole system. In general the Coleman tents are smaller, but have very strong reviews, even though they are made in China just like the offname brands. I don’t know how much room you’ll have for kids and stuff in a tent that size is the only thing. They are also pretty bright colors.
Now for canvas. I’m sure that a lot of you elk hunters out there said right away “I know the perfect tent for you.” But um, nope. Canvas tents may be great when the guide and his mules or laborers is carrying the tents in for you, but otherwise a large tent, 10×8 or larger, is going to weigh at the top end of what a large man can carry in a pack. The poles are usually long and heavy too, even the aluminum ones.
I’m not saying don’t buy a quality canvas tent if you can afford it. With the poles and shipping, a large canvas tent from an American maker is up in the $1,200 range, and I don’t think they are making a lot of margin at that price. Broadcloth has come way up in price in recent years, especially domestic. The big thing with buying a canvas “wall tent” is understanding what you are paying for. Does it have poles, a screen door etc.? I prefer to buy on Ebay and Amazon if I can, because I have third party resolution if the thing isn’t right, and I found a great 100% positive feedback guy on Ebay that makes the tents in various configurations to order.
I also found a Chinese canvas wall tent, and before you start throwing tomatoes, let me say that we are talking about survival here, on limited resources. For $663, shipped, you can get a 10×16 canvas tent with screened windows, screen doors, a sewn floor, steel poles, and the pack weight is about 75 lbs. with its **included** polymer stretched rainfly. The same deal is currently on both Amazon and Ebay, and the reviews on Amazon are outstanding, from people who used it in 4 season weather. There is no stove jack, and the weight of the canvas is 8 lbs. per yard, not 10 lbs. per yard like the outfitter tents, but this tent is the expensive no brainer for this week, if you can swing it.
Military tents are also very popular among preppers, but I don’t know why. If you plan to bug out to land you don’t own, and you expect to be able to set up your giant military tent there, great. I hope it works out, but most likely your “secret spot” isn’t as secret as you think it is. Military tents are heavy heavy heavy, and not cheap. If I have to leave my preferred location, I do hope to be able to use a vehicle, but there is no way I would put my eggs in a big heavy military tent basket.
Tent in the Living Room?
Or for that matter, the basement! There are two uses for a tent that I think most people don’t consider. The first is if you live where it gets really cold.
Most likely, in a survival situation, you won’t be able to heat your whole house, and because it is a whole house, any heat that you can generate will quickly get eaten by the sheer amount of space in which it can dissipate. Nylon tents these days tend to have screen roofs covered by a rainfly. From what I have seen ad read, they are notably cold. But dome tents with solid shells and canvas tents hold in heat pretty good, and if you set one up in the living room, a half a dozen people sleeping in it will keep it pretty warm even in really cold temps. If you want to run a small stove in the tent safely with a stovejack, which you can buy and sew in yourself, then lead the vent pipe out of a window. If you use the military heater I reviewed, even a half gallon of home heating oil a night just to take the edge off and melt some water, an inner tent will preserve a lot of that heat.
The other use I think of for these tents is as a sealed filter room in the case of nuclear fallout. As I’ve explained a few times, air does not become radioactive. But in the first 48 hours after a nuclear attack or explosion of a nuke plant, there will be particulate of Alpha and Beta particles floating around. If your windows are closed, that is going to protect you from a lot of fallout, because the particles are fairly heavy and fall mostly straight down. But if there is a wind and some of the particles are being driven into the air leaks of the house, even a nylon tent will be good protection to filter the particles that are pushed your way. Nothing is foolproof, but short of an actual fallout shelter, which I hope to get to here, a nylon tent in the basement is actually not a bad plan.
The Risk of Bugging Out
As I’ve said several times in this column, I don’t think that bugging out should be anyone’s Plan A. But we all have to accept that there may come a day where we survive the initial event, but we have to leave. I think you have to make baseline plans for “how we would bug out.” And I don’t think that bugging out with no plan for shelter is a very good idea, especially with kids, even in a vehicle. You can’t sleep sitting upright very long without it affecting your ability to cope. There is so much crap out there about makeshift shelters, but I’ve looked at the plans, and as I explained at the start of this article, survival is all in the details. It isn’t like the survival reality shows. Palm fronds don’t make a viable shelter unless you have experience in binding and laying them. Regular tarps rip, get pockets of water between supports, and never stay where you think you are sure they are going to stay. Good luck with your mud hut and Walmart tarp, but I don’t see a lot of success there, and makeshift shelters aren’t very portable.
Starting with a well reviewed family tent puts you that much higher on the “what can go wrong” scale, though of course, stuff is still going to go wrong. Putting the big tents up, taking them down, wind, rain, flying debris, all kinds of things can and will go wrong. I just think that you should pay attention to the specifics of long term road survival now and have something before it is too late. Tents last forever in their bags. Ten years early is better than one minute too late, when you won’t be able to find a tent for any price.