Buy a Product with Money, or Buy a Skill with Time?

My small net-tent under a tarp

People who are new to camping often ask, “What tent should I buy?”

My answer is, “a cheap secondhand tent, ideally from someone who has used it and can show you how to pitch it.”

Might the tent suck? Yes. That’s why you shouldn’t pay much. Never buy a secondhand tent for more than 50% of its original retail price (a few rare ‘collectable’ tents which are no longer manufactured are worth more, but if you’re that kind of connoisseur, you don’t need my advice).

You can find secondhand tents for sale at various websites, but, if possible, I recommend buying from someone you know or a local camping group. Camping enthusiasts tend to build up a collection of tents over time, and chances are some of them have tents they no longer want to keep.

If you can borrow a tent, that might be better. It’s a tradeoff between money vs. the obligation to return the tent in good condition.

As a beginner, there’s something more important than what tent you use: starting with easy conditions.

Easy conditions include:

1) Close to home

2) Good weather forecast

3) If something goes wrong with the tent, you can easily leave the campsite (that is, don’t hike 20 km from the road to the campsite your first night out)

This will give you the greatest margin for error—and as a beginner, you’re likely to make errors.

I set up the first tent I bought in my apartment to practice pitching it (it was semi-freestanding). Backyards can also be a good place for a first camping experience (though note that using the tent will compact the ground and damage plants). You may have campgrounds near where you live. The only legal recreational campground within San Francisco city limits is a group campground and costs over a hundred dollars a night, but within an hour’s drive of San Francisco are many campgrounds, some inexpensive (I remember when some were free, but those days are gone, sigh). For a first-time camper in San Francisco, I’d recommend a) a backyard if you can get permission and it’s a bare soil surface with few plants (mulch/dry leaf cover is ideal) or b) one of the following campgrounds: Bicentennial Campground (Marin Headlands), Pantoll Station (Mount Tamalpais State Park), or Francis Beach Campground (Half Moon Bay State Beach). These campgrounds are next to roads, so it’s easy to leave if there’s a problem, and Francis Beach Campground is within the town of Half Moon Bay.

I don’t know what legal camping options are near you—but your local camping groups would know.

Is the choice of tent important? Yes. That said, experienced campers have stunning differences of opinions because we have different preferences. I’ve grown into a preference for open tarps, but some people with far more experience than me hate them. I’ve never tried a hammock camp (and I’m in no rush to try it), but some experienced people swear by them. It also depends on what conditions one wants to camp in.

Some people say that the Moonlight tents are great in most conditions and easy to use. I haven’t used them, but based on the detailed specs they look great.

Notice that qualifier: ‘most conditions.’ Even the lightest Moonlight tent has a minimum weight of 2 kilograms (over 4 pounds). For many purposes, that’s fine, but for a long-distance hike that’s heavy. The designer says the weight should only be a consideration for thru-hikers, but weight is so important for many section hikes I’d rule those tents out. The designer says these tents are great for the John Muir Trail: having done most of the JMT myself, I consider 2 kg for minimum tent weight too high.

Those Moonlight tents are expensive (that’s why I don’t have one). Someone who is getting started won’t know if they want to camp often enough to justify that expense.

Sometimes, I camp in spaces smaller than what would fit even the smallest Moonlight tent. Having such a big tent is comfortable (I need to twist my body in certain ways to get around in my smallest tent, lol) but it rules out the smallest campsites.

You need experience before you can make good choices, so it’s better to buy cheap, get some experience, then upgrade based on what works for you.

So many beginners fixate on gear because it promises fast answers. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could buy a great experience just by buying the right gear? Building up the experience and knowledge to camp well takes time. No instant gratification.

It’s not just camping, it’s also gardening, and sewing, and so many other activities. Buying a product promises instant gratification. Building a skill does not.

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