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How To Set Up A Tent

Make Camp Like A Pro: In The Rain, In The Dark, And Solo

If you’ve never done it before (and even if you have) pitching a tent can be a little intimidating.  Do it right, and you’ll be warm and dry as you’ve ever been. Do something wrong, and you’ll have the longest night of your life. That’s why we put together this guide–sometimes we all need a little refresher on how to use our gear (because, let’s be honest, who among us actually holds on to instruction manuals?).

What Kind Of Tent Do You Have?

To know how to pitch a tent, you first have to understand what kind of tent you have. There are endless models and styles of tents, but the basic structure comes down to the following three types:  

Freestanding Tents

The easiest tent to set up, freestanding tents don’t need to be staked–they rely fully on poles for support. The benefit of freestanding tents is that they are the sturdiest,  most versatile–you can pitch a freestanding tent anywhere, even on a slab of rock.  


Semi-Freestanding Tents

Semi-freestanding tents use poles and stakes. Semi-freestanding tents use a pared-down pole system–usually, one end of the tent uses poles for support and the other end requires staking. Semi-freestanding tents are a great balance of ease of use, functionality, and lighter weight.  


Non-Freestanding Tents

Non-freestanding tents require one or both trekking poles to set up. The most ultralight of all tents, non-freestanding tents don’t use collapsable poles at all, but depend on trekking poles and stakes to provide structure. 


Tent styles vary based on if the tent is double or single-wall, three or four-season, and if it’s sized for one or more people. But the biggest factor affecting how to set up a tent is whether or not the tent is freestanding. This article focuses on freestanding and semi-freestanding tents. For non-freestanding tents, reference the manufacturer’s website or product manual. 

Choosing The Perfect Tent Site

Before you go to set up a tent, you need to find the ideal tent site–choosing a dry and comfortable site is essential to a good night’s sleep in the backcountry.  

A Flat Spot On High Ground

Look for level ground that doesn’t hold water. Always pitch your tent on high ground, even if you don’t expect it to rain. The impression your body makes in the ground will already encourage water to run there should it pour, and camping in a low spot will only make it worse.  


No Sharp Roots Or Rocks

When you see a potential flat spot, look closely for roots, rocks, or anything that would be uncomfortable to sleep on. The ideal tent site is on dirt, pine needles, or grass–soft materials that make a good natural bed. 

Pine needles and leaves have the added bonus of preventing backsplash–the rain that splashes back up underneath the tent fly, soaking you and your gear. If you expect heavy rain, go ahead and build a small pile of leaves that run the perimeter of your rainfly to help prevent backsplash.  


No Dead Trees Or Branches

Look above you for dead trees or broken limbs that could fall in your sleep. We call those widow makers for a reason–they could potentially injure you, damage your tent, and ruin your hike. 

Pitch Your Tent In 8 Simple Steps

Once you’ve found the perfect tent site, you’re ready to make camp for the night. To set up a tent by yourself, run through the following steps: 

1. Gather Your Supplies: Make sure you have everything you need to make camp for the night: footprint or tarp, stakes, tent poles, tent body, and rainfly. Have a shoe, rock, or even a rubber mallet nearby to pound in any stubborn stakes. 


2. Lay Out The Footprint: A footprint is a tarp-like material designed to sit between the tent body and the ground, protecting the underside of the tent from moisture and abrasion. Though not all tents come with a footprint, you can usually order them separately. 


3. Position The Tent Body: Lay the tent body out flat, netting side up, centering it over the footprint. Make sure that no part of the footprint is exposed or water will pool up underneath the tent. 


4. Assemble The Tent Poles:  Most tent poles have a break-apart design that’s connected with shock cord. Identify which poles go where–most ultralight tents have a single pole, while other tent designs use two or more poles. Some tent poles are even color-coded, making it easy to match the tent poles with their corresponding corners.  


5. Anchor And Attach Tent Poles To The Tent: Depending on the style of your tent, the tent poles will attach to the tent body in one of two ways: threading the poles through the sleeves on the tent or attaching the poles to the grommet at the corners and then clipping the tent body along the pole. Don’t be afraid to bend tent poles–they’re designed to be flexible. It’s helpful to have a partner for this step, but if you’re setting up your tent alone you can use your foot to hold the tent body in place while you insert the end of the tent pole into the grommet.  


6. Stake The Tent: Once you’re happy with the placement of your tent, stake all four corners. Put each stake through the loop on the tent body and drive the stake into the ground at a 45-degree angle towards the tent.  

If your stakes won’t go in the ground–or if you’re pitching your tent in gravel, concrete, or sand–you can use large rocks or roots to anchor the tent body. 

You can remove any wrinkles from the tent floor by re-staking the corners. It might take a few different tries to get it perfect, but with practice, you’ll get a feel for how to tension the tent floor correctly.


7. Attach The Rainfly: The rainfly attaches a little differently to the tent poles, depending on the manufacturer and tent model. Some designs use velcro, and some styles use buckles. Either way, make sure that the rainfly is securely fastened and staked, especially during high winds and precipitation.  


8. Secure The Guylines: If you’re not using a rainfly you can skip this step–but guylines have a dual purpose on a humid night. Not only do guylines secure the rainfly in high winds or snow, but guylines pull the rainfly away from the tent body, increasing ventilation and minimizing condensation.  

 Any place where the rainfly and tent body touch will cause condensation to drip into your tent, so keep everything taut. If you have extra stakes, you can stake the tent corners and rainfly corners individually, further separating the two pieces of fabric and minimizing potential leakage.  

 Remember where you tied your guylines so you don’t trip in the night!  

Making Camp In Tough Conditions

Setting up a tent in the rain isn’t fun, but there is a way to do it that minimizes your chance of getting wet. If it’s raining, it’s windy, or it’s dark and you still need to make camp, the best thing you can do is work quickly. 

Pitching A Tent In The Rain

Snap the tent poles together first, then lay out the footprint. Anchor the tent poles in the grommets, then quickly pull the rainfly over the tent poles and fasten it. Now you can crawl underneath the rainfly and clip the tent body to the poles without the body getting wet. Once that’s done you can stake out the tent corners and rainfly guylines as normal. 


Pitching A Tent In Strong Wind

There might be times when you have to pitch a tent in heavy wind. If you have a hiking partner, ask for help holding down the footprint, tent body, and rainfly as you stake your tent. You can always return the favor when they go to pitch their tent. 


Pitching A Tent In The Dark

Regardless of how tired you are when you make it to camp, it’s a good idea to pitch your tent first, so that you have plenty of time to set up camp before it gets dark. If you do have to set up a tent at night, use a headlamp, and don’t rush through the process–it’s much easier to make simple mistakes in the dark.  

There are a lot of different tents on the market, each one more intricately designed than the last. Regardless of how much camping experience you have, it might still take some time to get familiar with a new product or a new process. Be patient with yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help!  


Looking for more advice on choosing a tent? Check out our article on selecting a backpacking tent.

Giving sleeping under the stars a try? Here’s our how-to on cowboy camping.

Hiker trash or granola girl? Virginia-based freelance writer Sarah Collie has a foot in both worlds. An AT thru-hiker and a home gardener, she’s always looking for an excuse to get outside. Follow @dirt_e_hippie for equal parts flower and mountain pics.