The most-used method to size a family tent is the sleeping capacity rating.
Since tent floor area is proportional to this rating for most tents, this method can help novice tent shoppers make an apples-to-apples comparison between tents.
As campers become more experienced, they become aware of other important factors for finding a comfortable camping tent.
The backpacking system for sleeping capacity
The rated sleeping capacity of family tents is based mainly on backpacking-tent capacity: Self-inflating, sleeping pads are laid side by side inside a tent until no more can fit without overlapping. Voila, the sleeping capacity of the tent.
This method does not make for roomy conditions. The self-inflating pads used to rate a backpacking tent may be only 20-22 inches wide.
Backpackers cram into tents, sleeping side by side and head to toe in mummy bags, in order to conserve equipment weight when hiking and to conserve body heat in cold weather.
Backpacks and other gear are stored outside the tent body under a vestibule formed by the rainfly.
Backpacking tents are relatively small, usually rated to sleep 1 to 3 adults total and, more likely, actually used to sleep 1 or 2 backpackers at most. These tents are rated as 1-man, 2-man, 3-man, etc.
Close sleeping quarters are not so much of an issue with a couple of backpackers, who are using the tent only at night for sleeping.
However, this system leaves much to be desired for family tent camping.
Sleeping preferences for families vs backpackers
Family campers are not interested in occupying a tent in the same manner as backpackers.
They want to stretch out while lying down.
They also prefer to keep some gear inside the tent body.
Family-tent sizes begin where backpacking-tent sizes top out, namely at about a 4-person tent.
Trying to replicate the backpacking sleeping system with larger numbers of campers can make it very awkward to get around, as well as to sleep comfortably, inside the tent
However, most family-tent manufacturers continue to use the same backpacking-tent method to determine the capacity of family tents, because it maximizes the "sleeping capacity" of the tent, which makes the tent more attractive to shoppers.
One thing you can be sure of: if you try to occupy many family tents to the maximum-rated sleeping capacity -- the tent absolutely, positively, categorically will not hold one more living creature!
Now that you know how many people you don't want sleeping together inside some of these tents, you are ready to learn how to better choose a comfortable tent for a couple or a family.
Reducing the rated capacity for more comfort
A simple rule of thumb is to reduce the sleeping capacity of the tent by subtracting 2 from the rated capacity, in order to make for more comfortable sleeping.
This rule works surprisingly well for family tents rated from 4 person to 8 person sleeping capacity, which are the most common sizes. It refers mainly to adults and teens.
After applying this rule, the tent will still feel "full", but will not feel "tight" for sleeping space.
Here's a simple guide for interpreting tent ratings:
|Rated Sleeping Capacity
||The Tent Should Comfortably Sleep|
|4-person tent||an adult couple|
|6-man tent||a family of 4|
|8-person tent||a family of 6|
As family campers gain experience, they may also want to include other factors in determining a tent size that will suit them best.
Using floorspace as a guide to sleeping capacity
The standard, backpacking capacity works out to about 15 square feet of floor area per person. This is suitable for backpackers in small tents where campers can't stand or walk around, and only crawl into the tent to sleep or to escape bad weather.
Families will want to do much more inside their tents than backpackers normally do. Families will often want to stand, dress, relax, stretch out, sit in chairs, play games, store gear, etc.
Instead of the 15 square feet per person that backpacking tents offer, adult family campers (and late teens) will each prefer closer to 25 to 30 square feet of sleeping and living space.
30 square feet of floorspace is about 7' long by 50" wide. This offers room for a large, rectangular sleeping bag, an air mattress, for relaxing, walking between sleeping places and for keeping some personal gear close by.
Young teens will need 15 to 20 square feet, depending on age, mixed genders, etc. This will offer enough space for a sleeping bag and a self-inflating pad for a cushion.
School-age children can often be tucked along walls that are too short for adults to sleep along. Shorter cushions can be purchased or made from foam.
Toddlers can sleep two-to-one in a standard sleeping space, either side by side or end to end.
Sportsmen in large, outfitter tents may prefer 50 square feet of floorspace per person. This allows room for sports gear, king-size cots, wood stoves, etc. Behemoth outfitter tents can offer this much space to each camper.
Tent floorspace vs sleeping capacity
Let's see how tent floor area relates to the info in the above chart:
|Rated Capacity||Tent Floor Area||Comfortable Capacity||Floor Area Per Person|
|4-person||60 to 70 square feet||an adult couple||30 square feet for each adult
|6-person||90 to 100 square feet||a family of 4||25 square feet for each adult
20 square feet for each child
|8-person||120 to 130 square feet||a family of 6||25 square feet for each adult
17.5 square feet for each child
Reducing the rating of the tent by 2 persons greatly increases the floor area per person.
Even so, the larger the tent, the less floor area per person.
By keeping in mind the 15-square-foot-per-person guideline, campers can also see whether the tent manufacturer is using the backpacking-tent sleeping-capacity system or a more generous sleeping-capacity system to rate the tent.
Adjusting the rated sleeping capacity for maximum comfort
Tent campers can subtract 4 from the rated sleeping capacity to get a fairly spacious tent for a couple or a family.
||Floor Area Per Person
|6-person tent||an adult couple||45 square feet for each adult
|8-man tent||a family of 4||30 square feet for each adult & child
|10-person tent||a family of 6||25 square feet for each adult & child|
Tent campers will find their trips even more enjoyable with this rating scheme, but they should take into account the packing and transporting of a larger tent, as well as the availability of suitable ground area for pitching one.
This rating system is more suited to air mattresses or camping cots.
The closer campers occupy a tent to its rated sleeping capacity, the more the tent becomes a sleeping tent. Otherwise, the more it becomes a living tent.
Non-rectangular tents vs sleeping capacity
Tents with more than four sides offer reduced sleeping capacity for the amount of floor area, but can also offer a unique camping experience.
These tents are often six or eight-sided and shaped like a regular hexagon or other polygon.
The secret to enjoying these tents is not to over-occupy them. Some of these tents may appear large, but only comfortably hold an adult couple and perhaps a young child or two.
Without a rectangular floorplan and long walls, campers will most likely need to sleep away from the walls these tents, thus giving that space over to storage space.
Windows in the many walls of these tents can offer a panoramic view of the surrounding area.
Some large tents may have a shape similar to the letter L, V, T, X, or Y. Campers will need to evaluate the floor area and the length of the walls to determine a comfortable sleeping capacity for the tent.
Please note that when describing a tent, a 12' x 11' tent is, for all practical purposes, square. A 12' x 9' tent is, of course, rectangular.
The height of the tent is also an important consideration for camping comfort.
Younger campers may find crawling around a tent to be part of the excitement of camping. However older campers may prefer to get around the tent on their feet, instead of on their hands and knees.
Tent height is related to tent size. Larger tents are also taller tents.
The chart below will help novice campers to get a feel for the inside of tents of various heights:
3' (36") (0.9m)
Campers will only be able to sit, lie or crawl inside of the tent body.
Trying to dress inside the tent will make many novice, adult family campers feel like Harry Houdini, escaping from a straitjacket in chains inside of a coffin submerged in water, etc., etc. Public campgrounds will probably not offer enough privacy to dress outside of the tent.
Young, supple pre-teens will enjoy these tents more than many adult campers will.
Sitting height is found mainly in 1 to 3-person, backpacking or leisure tents.
4' (48") (1.2m)
Campers will be able to kneel, sit, lie or crawl inside of the tent.
Young and trim adult campers may be able to dress inside the tent body, getting to their knees to draw up and cinch trousers. Older and less-fit, adult family campers will most likely prefer a taller tent.
Young teen family campers will be able to manage in these tents.
Kneeling height is found mainly in 3 to 4-person, backpacking or family tents.
Sitting and kneeling-height tents are known as low-profile tents, and campers generally need to crawl to get around inside the tent body.
5' (60") (1.5m)
Campers will be able to get to their feet to dress, get around inside of the tent, and to retrieve items, but will not be able to stand completely upright and will need, instead, to stoop.
Dressing inside the tent will be a bit uncomfortable, but manageable.
A couple with young child or two can manage in these tents.
Some family campers don't feel the need to spend a lot of time standing inside a tent, but just want a sheltered place to sit, lie or dress in privacy; standing can be done outside or under a canopy in rain and strong sunshine.
Due to the lower profile, more rainfly coverage may be available for these tents than larger tents.
Compromising some tent height may offer better tent performance in windy regions.
Stooping height is often found in 4 to 5-person, family tents.
Campers will be able to get around on their feet inside the tent body.
6' (72") (1.8m)
Most adult campers will be able to get to their feet without stooping at the center of the tent body, but will probably need to stoop when away from the center.
Taller campers will feel ceiling fabric against the top of their head and may need to stoop in these tents as well.
Campers will be able to comfortably dress inside the tent.
A family of 4 with teenage children can manage in these tents.
Standing height is often found in 6-person, family tents.
7' (84") (2.1m)
Adult campers will be able to stand and freely walk about much of the tent body without their heads contacting any ceiling fabric.
Roaming height is often found in tents with a rated sleeping capacity of 8 persons or more.
This is the most comfortable tent height for adult campers, but tents of this height generally take longer to pitch.
This height is, however, more affected by winds; campers at exposed campsites in windy regions will need a strong frame for a tent of this height, and should consider an outfitter tent. Most family campers pitch their tents at forested campsites, so wind is less of an issue.
Standing and roaming-height tents are known as high-profile tents.
Peak vs eave height
The greater the number of grown campers occupying a tent, the more ceiling height and headroom will be necessary for comfort.
Tent-ceiling height refers to either peak height or eave height.
The tent peak is the tallest point inside the tent body. Both dome and cabin tents have peaks.
The tent eave is the point where a cabin-tent ceiling meets the walls. Dome tents don't have eaves, because they have one continuous tent-body canopy, instead of walls and a ceiling.
Eave height may be a foot or more less than the peak height and campers who are able to stand at the center of the tent may need to stoop near the walls.
Cabin vs dome tent
Cabin tents usually offer a higher, tent-body peak for the same amount of floorspace than dome tents offer. They also obviously offer a lot more headroom away from the center peak.
Although campers are willing to stoop or sometimes to crawl around a dome tent, few campers want a cabin tent they cannot stand up in.
As tent floors get larger in area and walls get longer in length, manufacturers give them sturdier poles, which can support a taller tent body.
Cabin vs dome tent height
Family tent heights tend to be approximately 60% (dome) to 70% (cabin) of the average length of the walls with an upper limit of about 7'.
A square tent floorplan offers 4 sides of equal length, so all tent walls are the average length.
A rectangular floorplan offers a shorter and longer set of walls, so the average wall length is halfway between the 2 different wall lengths.
Due to the dome or cabin tent design, the ceiling height of family tents tops out at about 7'.
Outfitter tents may offer 8' to 9' of ceiling height, due to the large floor area. A frame or pole tent can support the higher ceiling.
2 or 3 person dome tent
Although common among backpackers, a 2 or 3-man tent is not considered a primary, but instead a secondary family-camping tent, suitable for teens or guests to have their own space away from the larger, primary family tent.
2 or 3-man camping tents will be either standard dome, pup, ridge or wall tent designs.
2 or 3-man tents offer roughly 30 to 45 square feet of floor area as well as sitting height at the peak.
These tents are generally 7' by 5' to 7' by 7' along the walls.
4-person dome or cabin tent
A 4-man tent is the smallest size that is suitable for most family campers as a primary camping tent.
These tents are often used as a starter tent by couples who are novice campers. As the novice camping couple becomes a family, they will then look for a larger tent and have a good idea of the features they need.
Even a single, adult, leisure camper will find a 4-man tent more comfortable and less cramped than a 1 to 3-man tent.
They are easy to pack and can perform well in wind and rain, because they are fairly low profile and, therefore, often available with a full rainfly to better protect against rain.
4-man, family tents are mostly dome-style tents, but an occasional 4-man, cabin tent can be found.
4-man dome tents offer roughly 60 square feet of floor area as well as kneeling or stooping height at the peak. 4-man cabin tents offer stooping height throughout the tent body.
These tents can be approximately 8' by 8' (square) or 9' by 7' (rectangular) along the walls.
6-person family-dome or cabin tent
A 6-man tent is commonly chosen by families with children.
A 6-person tent size is an upper limit for a standard dome tent and a lower limit for a cabin tent and are commonly available in both designs.
These tents offer roughly 90 to 120 square feet of floor area as well as standing height.
These tents can be 11' by 11' (square) or 12' by 8' (rectangular) along the walls.
A 6-person, dome tent would be comfortable for an adult couple and a few children. A 6-person, cabin tent should be comfortable for an adult couple and older children.
8-person family-dome or cabin tent
An 8-man tent is a common choice for families with several children.
8-person tents are very common as cabin tents.
These tents sometimes employ a modified or family-dome style, where a large, dome, central, tent body is extended to each side with flexed hoop poles to form tent-body shoulder sleeping areas.
X-large, rectangular cabin tents are also commonly available in this size.
Earlier, truss-style cabin tents, with 3 or 4 large, heavy-duty, inverted u-shaped, galvanized steel poles suspending a flat-topped tent body via sleeves and stakes are also occasionally still found in this and larger sizes.
An 8-person tent is probably the largest size, family tent that is readily available from a number of tent manufacturers.
These tents offer roughly 120 to 140 square feet of floorspace as well as standing or roaming height.
An 8-man tent might be 12' by 12' (square) or 8' x 15' to 10' by 14' (rectangular) along the walls.
10-person cabin tent
A 10-man tent offers roughly 150 to 180 square feet of floorspace as well as standing to roaming height.
This tent size approaches an upper limit for family cabin tents and may or, more likely, may not fit on a 15' by 15' tent pad.
Tents this large can vary widely in shape.
Campers planning to use a 10-man tent at a campground should be sure that it will fit on any campsite tentpads or patches of ground suitable for a tent.
Tents of this size and larger may be more widely available as outfitter frame tents, instead of as family cabin tents.
These tents will need a sturdy frame, in order to perform in moderate winds or stronger, so campers in windy regions should consider a reputable family tent manufacturer or instead an outfitter tent.
12-person cabin tent
A 12-man, camping tent is pretty much the largest family tent available. There are only a handful available.
These are oversize structures that will need to be pitched on open ground.
This tent offers roughly 180 square feet of floorspace and roaming height.
These tents will be fairly expensive, if campers expect them to perform for several years.
Tent size tips
If a family tent model has a number in it, the number can denote either the maximum-rated sleeping capacity of the tent or the length of the tent walls.
A single-digit number (2,4,6 or 8) after the tent model usually denotes capacity (example: "Vista 6 Tent" is rated to sleep up to 6 adults).
A number after the tent model may instead denote the length of the walls of a square tent (example: "Vista 9 Tent" may be a 9' by 9' square dome or cabin tent, or it may instead be a tent that sleeps up to 9). This situation may occur with the numbers 7, 8, 9, 10, or 11 after a tent model. A quick look at the tent will allow a tent shopper to determine if the number is sleeping capacity or wall length. A large tent that sleeps more than 6 will probably be rectangular, so a square tent would probably indicate that the model number was the wall length.
A large number of several digits after the tent model often denotes the length of the walls of a large, rectangular tent (example: "Vista 1410 Tent" has 14' by 10' walls).
Tips for tall family tent campers
Tall campers should try to get a tent with a wall to sleep along that is at least 12" longer than their height, 18" is even better--especially for dome tents with sloping walls.
When lying down, this will help keep head and feet from rubbing against wall fabric.
In the rain, this will keep head, feet and sleeping gear away from possibly damp wall fabric.
In cool temperatures, this will help prevent breath from condensing on sloping wall fabric above the head.
Small, medium, large, and x-large
Another way of designating family tent size is by the large, medium and small sizes that people are accustomed to from clothing and other camping gear.
Small, medium and large tent sizes vary between tent manufacturers and retailers, so the sleeping-capacity system is more often instead used in order to reduce confusion.
However, "small", "medium" and "large" are used by campgrounds in a fairly consistent manner to describe square tent pads, so Campetent will use tent-pad sizes in order to offer readers a good guideline for sizing tents.
Campetent would like to encourage family-tent manufacturers to design family tents that will fit on standard tent pads, as well as encourage campground owners to build more tent pads for family tent campers. Matching tent sizes with tent-pad sizes should help prospective tent campers find a suitable tent for the campgrounds in their area.
This chart will help compare tent sizes to tent pad sizes:
Small family tent vs tent pad
A small, family tent fits on a small, 8' by 8', campground tent pad. (About 2.5m square.)
All tent walls of a small tent should be 8' or shorter in length.
A small tent pad can hold a two, a three and a square, 4-person tent.
Most small tents are standard dome tents that offer sitting or kneeling height. However, a few tent manufacturers offer an 8' by 8', 4-man, family cabin tent that offers stooping height for adults; these are the only cabin tents that can fit on a small tent pad.
Most small tents are too small to be comfortable for family tent camping. However, a 4-person tent is suitable for a couple.
Small tent pads are not large enough to be common in most campgrounds, but can be found in walk-in or distributed campsites in wilderness areas.
Medium-size family tent vs. medium tent pad
A medium-size, family tent fits on a medium, 10' by 10' tent pad, but is too large for an 8' by 8' tent pad. (About 3m square.)
If the tent has more than 4 sides, the tent floor should be designed to fit on a 10' by 10' square tent pad.
There are a multitude of dome and cabin tents available in this size.
A medium tent pad can hold up to a square, 6-person, family tent.
Medium tents offer stooping (5') to standing (6') height.
As dome tents get larger, they are less likely to offer a full rainfly.
Medium and larger, dome, family tents generally offer a partial rainfly, which covers the ceiling and possibly the upper walls of the tent only. This increases ventilation inside the larger tent body, but allows rain to strike the lower tent body, possibly dampening the lower walls, which may come into contact with campers and camping equipment.
A heavier waterproof coating on the tent body fabric will allow walls which are not protected by a rainfly to stay drier in heavy rains.
Medium tent pads are more often found in older campgrounds and are also common in certain regions of the U.S.
Large family tent vs. large tent pad
A large family tent fits on a large, 12' by 12' tent pad, but is too large for a medium tent pad. (About 3.75 meters square.)
These are often 2-room tents, because they are large enough to divide into 2 sleeping chambers.
Although some standard dome tents are available in this size, large tents are more likely to be modified-dome (dome & hoop) tents as well as cabin tents.
A large tent pad holds up to a square, 8-person tent, but many 8-person tents are rectangular with a longer set of walls and belong in the x-large category below.
Large tents offer from standing (6') to roaming (7') height.
These are generally the largest square dome or cabin family tents. Larger family tents are usually rectangular.
Canvas, outfitter, frame tent sizes usually begin in this category and get much larger. These large and oversize tents for sportsmen are often single-room affairs. (Evidently, real men don't use divider curtains.)
X-large family tent vs. x-large tent pad
An x-large, family tent fits on an x-large, 15' by 15' tent pad. (About 4.5 meters square.)
Although there is a rare, standard-dome tent available this large, the selection of x-large, family tents is almost entirely modified-dome and cabin tents.
X-large tent pads can hold rectangular, 8-man and 10-man tents.
X-large tents offer roaming (7') height.
Most campgrounds limit the number of campers at a single campsite to six persons (park campground) or eight persons (forest campground) or to a single family unit. For this reason, a 15' by 15' tent pad is generally the largest size that is available at a single campsite in most U.S. campgrounds.
X-large, family tents are usually rectangular and are often 9' by 14' to 12' by 15' in floor dimensions.
At this size, rectangular, family tents are more stable than square tents in moderate to strong winds. A shorter set of walls, which means a shorter ceiling span in one direction, can better support the peak in moderate winds.
Family tents have a moderately-strong pole frame. Outfitter tents have a strong pole frame, which can support longer walls and greater ceiling spans.
X-large tents almost always feature divider curtains or walls to divide the tent body into 2 rooms, if desired.
Tents with 14' to 15' walls allow 2 (tall) adults to sleep along each long wall, which helps maximize the sleeping capacity of the tent, when occupied by grown children or adults.
XX-large, oversize, family tent vs. bare ground
An XX-large family tent will have a set of walls that is longer than 15'.
These oversize tents are too large for tent pads in most campgrounds. Check your local campground, if you need this much space for a tent.
However, some group sites have larger tent pads. These sites might have a capacity of 40 to 50 campers in a dozen tents, instead of the 6 to 8-person in a single tent or two limit at a regular campsite.
Oversize tent pads are usually rectangular, and might have dimensions something like 12' by 18' or more. (About 3.75m x 5.5m)
Oversize, family-tent wall lengths top out at about 18 to 21 feet along the long walls. (About 5.5m x 6.5m)
3-room and 4-room tents and tents with attached screen rooms often fall into this oversize category.
Probably less than 15% of family tents fall into the xx-large category, but there are a sizable number. Campers considering one of these tents should bear in mind where they will be able to pitch it.
Family campers with oversize tents can usually expect to pitch them on a large, level patch of ground, instead of on a tent pad.
Large, outfitter tents fall into this category. These tents are designed to be pitched in wilderness meadows and not so much at campgrounds.
Tent-pad size tips
Each size tent pad size (small, medium, large, etc.) is roughly 50% larger than the next smaller size, so this system scales fairly consistently.
Park services and campgrounds are fairly consistent in describing square tent-pads by size. They will describe an 8' by 8' tent pad as a small tent pad, a 10' by 10' tent pad as a medium tent pad, etc.
Family-tent manufacturers are less consistent, when using the terms "small", "medium", "large", etc., to describe their family tent sizes. Matching tent sizes to tent pad sizes offers a way to consistently describe family tents and to keep track of wall lengths, in order to reduce confusion as to whether any given tent will be able to be pitched at a certain campsite.
Prospective family tent campers wanting to use tent pads should call around to the campgrounds in their area to get the sizes of tent pads available.
Campsite tent pads at a specific campground are often all the same size.
The larger a family tent, the more it can benefit from a tent pad. However, the larger the tent, the fewer the tent pads in general available to accommodate it.
Since tent pads are usually square, square tents are often, when possible, the best choice for using the tent pad to the fullest.
Tent pads are often a few inches larger than the given dimensions, which allows space for the stake-down loops to extend away from the tent floor, but verify this with your local campground.
Tent size tips
Note that the length of the longest wall, not necessarily the floor area, determines whether a tent will fit on a specific-size tent pad, and thus whether the tent is small, medium, large, etc.
Because of this, it is possible that a large, square tent might have more floor area than an x-large, long and narrow, rectangular tent. However, family tent campers can generally expect a large tent to offer more floor area than a medium tent, which will offer more floor area than a small tent.
For family campers considering large tents for use at campgrounds, the length of the longest wall is often as important as the comfortable sleeping capacity of the tent. Many families find out too late that their tent won't fit on tent pads or on any level ground at their local campsites.
Tent size at campsites without tent pads
A standard, tent-size system is also useful for campsites without tent pads.
These campsites are much less consistent in what size tent can be comfortably pitched there.
Due to trees, brush, roots, rocks, depressions and slope, some of these campsites only offer space to comfortably pitch a medium-size, family tent, while others may offer enough open, level ground for an xx-large, oversize, family tent.
The length of the longest wall of the tent is also important in determining where the tent can be pitched at a campsite without a tent pad. X-large and oversize areas of open ground that are fairly level, elevated and flat can be difficult to find at many U.S. campsites.
Being able to specify a maximum tent size for each campsite without a tent pad would save a fair amount of confusion and frustration between campground staff and tent campers.
Congratulations for reading this far. You now know more about tent sizes than you could have imagined and should feel confident in finding a proper-size tent for your family. You should also be able to help a friend find a suitable-size tent for their family.