A tent is the single most important camping gear purchase you will make. It is your main source of shelter and the place you might be stuck in for hours during a big rainstorm. A tent is a serious investment, which if well chosen, could last for decades. Tents come in a huge range of prices, sizes, and styles; it can be overwhelming to know where to begin.
How many people? Begin narrowing down your search for a new tent by thinking about how many people will be sleeping in your tent on most of your camping trips. This will dictate the size of the tent you need. You can buy a "solo" tent for one person, or a tent built for a large family to sleep in, with space to spare. If the size of your group varies you can choose to either buy one tent big enough for the largest size group, or 2 smaller tents to give you more flexibility.
How many seasons? Tents are designed for the seasons they will be used in, taking into account the weather, ground cover and temperatures. If you stick to camping only in the warm summer months, you'll need a 1-2 season tent. If your camping trips spread into spring and fall, a 3 season tent will better suit your needs. If winter camping is part of your repertoire, a 4 season tent is a must.
Freestanding or staked tents? A "freestanding" tent is one that can be set up completely without tent stakes. Tent stakes are small metal or plastic posts that hook to the tent and get driven down into the ground to secure it. Freestanding tents can be set up on any surface, including rock, because they don't need to be staked down to retain their structure. This is a benefit if you like to set your tent up on wooden camping platforms sometimes provided in campgrounds, or if you encounter unusually rocky or hard ground that is difficult to drive stakes into. Freestanding tents also have the ability to be moved easily from place to place, if you move campsites or want to change your tent location. A tent that needs to be staked is a perfectly fine choice if you camp mostly in established campgrounds. Most campsites will have at least one place that a staked tent can easily be set up. Freestanding tents will provide the most flexibility for the location of your tent.
Vestibule? A vestibule is a sheltered area, usually an extension of the rain fly. It provides a spot outside of one or more doors to store wet/dirty boots, gear or anything else that you want access to, but not necessarily inside the tent. Vestibules usually do not include a ground cover, but a top only. Some tents have the vestibule space for purchase separately.
Once you've decided on most of these factors, you're ready to head to the sporting goods store. You will find the highest quality tents and the best selection in a store that specializes in outdoor activities. In these stores, you will find multiple tents set up. You can lay down in them, try the zippers, check out the entry/exit doors, and pay attention to windows, internal pouches for storage and spaciousness.
Setting up a tent can be a confusing endeavor. Talk to the sales person about the ease of setting the tent up. It is imperative that the system be simple and straightforward. Some tents have started offering color coded pole sleeves and poles. See if the sales person will help you set up the tent you want to buy right inside the store. This truly isn't too much to ask!
Don't forget to make sure the tent is 100% waterproof, and that no additional waterproofing is required. Puddles and camping do not mix!
It's fun shopping for a new tent. Take your time and make a list of all of the features you are looking for beforehand. If possible, compare a few different stores. If well chosen, this important piece of camping gear will provide you with years of outdoor happiness.