Tents come in all shapes & sizes. One of the great great mysteries of life for new campers is tent sizing. I’m often asked, “How is it that such a small tent is considered a 2-man tent?”. I used to wonder the same thing. I had a small “2-man” tent that had a footprint to 5′ x 6′ and used to wonder how 2 men could sleep comfortably in there.
It turns out that tent manufacturers use the back packing tent capacity method. Self inflating sleeping pads are laid next to each other until no more will fit without overlapping. That’s how they figure it out. Granted, this does not make for roomy accommodations since sleeping pads are usually 20-22″ wide. To conserve weight, backpackers will often cram into a tent sleeping head to toe in mummy bags (this also conserves body heat in the winter). In this scenario, back packs and other gear are stored under the rain fly or just left outside if no rain is eminent.
Most campers (me included) want a little more room than afforded by the backpacking style when camping with the family.
Tent manufacturers adopt this model of capacity rating to make their product more attractive to buyers by increasing the sleeping capacity of the tent. One thing is for sure; if you sleep 4 people in a 4 person tent, there is no room for another living soul or their gear!
This gives you a pretty good indication of just how many people you don’t want in your tent. I use the formula of “SSC-2” (where “SSC” = stated sleep capacity) and subtract 2. This will give you plenty of room for the number of campers and their gear without being right on top of each other. Depending on how much gear, the tent will be full but not too full. My son & I used to share a 4 man dome tent and we were comfortable. Our setup included a 2 cots, sleeping bags, back packs, and a cooler. We would set up the cots across from each other with the cooler in the middle serving as a sort of “night stand”. Our backpacks would fit easily under our cots so we had plenty of room.
Obviously, tents with 4 sides (either rectangular or square) offer less sleeping area than the dome tents with 6 or 8 sides. With the dome type tents (and a rectangular sleeping bag) you have the space not taken up by sleeping bags for gear utilizing this “extra” floor space.
The one exception to the SSC-2 rule is the 1 man “bivy” style tent. Obviously, you cant subtract 2 from a 1 man tent. I like a small bivy tent when out by myself or camping with the scout troop. It is big enough for me & my gear and not so big that my gear can get scattered around.
What size tent should you choose? It depends on the type of camping you’re doing, who is camping with you (sharing a tent), and how much gear you have. Camping is fun. It is better to have a bigger tent with a family so that you’re not all cramped together (especially if the weather turns and you have to take shelter!)