We considered 12 popular canopy tents (a product that goes by a lot of names, including screen houses, outdoor canopies, camping shelters, patio shelters, portable shelters, and—our favorite—“portable gazebos”) and spent two weekends camping with four of them to find the best shelter for your next camping trip or picnic. A good canopy tent should protect you from the trifecta of outdoor discomforts: sun, rain, and bugs. The new Coleman Mountain View 12×12 Screendome Shelter excels at all three, making it the most versatile option. It was the only one with mesh walls that can be stashed into built-in pockets for an open-air option when bugs aren’t an issue. It isn’t meant as a place to sleep. For that you’ll need a family-size tent; look for our upcoming guide.
In addition to its versatility, the Coleman Mountain View is bigger than most comparable canopy tents made for camping and picnics. With a peak height of 7 feet 5 inches and a domed roof made of bright white-and-teal polyester, it feels brighter and more spacious than other canopy tents we tested. In addition to its removable mesh paneling, two included wall panels can be clipped on for extra shade or privacy.
The Clam Quick-Set Escape was by far the toughest canopy tent we tested. It’s made with reinforced polyester and heavyweight no-see-um mesh and comes with the strongest stakes we’ve seen on any tent. The Clam also sets up and folds down with remarkable speed—we timed it at 60 seconds. However, it’s too big to fit in most sedans, and its muted colors look good when it’s sunny, but can feel a bit gloomy if it’s already rainy out.
Over the years, I have evaluated gear for magazines including Wired, Popular Science, and National Geographic Adventure, where I was a senior editor. After my first son was born five years ago, I embraced the transition from backpacking to car camping. We live in Southern California, where weekend car camping is a year-round activity.
Any $75 canopy tent from a big-box store can provide shade during midday, but when you’re camping or eating outdoors, you want protection from afternoon sun and insects as well. That’s why we focused on collapsible canopy tents with mesh walls to keep bugs at bay. All the canopies we considered are portable enough for you to carry them a couple hundred yards to a campsite; none of the shelters we looked at are intended to provide overnight accommodations, to be permanent backyard fixtures, or to be pitched on a windy ocean beach (on a tranquil day, sure, you could set one up in the sand). If you love camping but hate worrying that you’ll be making or eating your morning pancakes in the rain—or in a swarm of mosquitos—one of these canopies could provide the shelter you seek.
We started by examining the offerings and reviews at Amazon, Backcountry.com, Cabela’s, REI, EMS, Walmart, Target, Sears, Sports Chalet, and Costco. After four hours of preliminary online research and a handful of conversations with current owners of such shelters, we narrowed our search to structures that offer both a sun- and water-repelling roof and full bug protection, with screen walls that reach to the ground. That eliminated a lot of products that are designed to block sun but not bugs. We reasoned that if you’re going to carry around what’s essentially a second tent to use as a campsite dining or living room, you want it to do multiple jobs.
We eliminated canopies that were not big enough to comfortably shelter a picnic table, concluding that that’s probably the number-one spot where campers would place such a structure. We also eliminated bulky, heavy shelters that are intended to be used as semipermanent backyard fixtures.
With all that in mind, we found 14 canopy tents that met our criteria. After studying user reviews and the few available editorial reviews on the subject, we picked four testing models across three different designs with the goal of determining which type of tent offers the best features and value for most campers. The popular Coleman 10×10 Screened Canopy stood out as an Amazon favorite that offered a good balance of price and features out of the many, similar options from Coleman. When we called the company to talk through its lineup of canopy tents, we were told about the Mountain View 12×12 Screendome, a brand-new tent for spring 2016 with a current list price of $200. Meanwhile, Walmart’s Ozark Trail Instant Screen House seemed to offer everything the 10×10 Coleman does on paper, but for a lower price (at the time we ordered it). We found that the Clam Quick-Set Escape Shelter is a cult favorite among a certain set of car campers, with excellent reviews, more heavy-duty materials—and a heftier price tag to match (currently $300).
We used the shelters on two weekend camping trips with a total of 10 families. The first was an early-February trip to Indian Cove Campground in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, where high-70-degree (Fahrenheit) days felt like 90 degrees. We used the shelters for sun protection at our highly exposed group campsite, setting up camp chairs inside one, a play mat and toddler toys inside another, and placing the large Clam shelter over a picnic table piled with markers and coloring books.
Our second trip, in early March, was to the oceanside Sycamore Canyon Campground in Oxnard, California, where we encountered mild temperatures in the 50s and 60s. During this trip, we experienced a light dinnertime rain that had us cooking and eating under the canopies, a pelting early-morning downpour, and violent wind gusts that sent all of our picnic shelters hurtling into the nearby woods—the best testing conditions we could have hoped for! A later check of the weather at nearby Point Mugu Naval Air Station confirmed top recorded wind gusts of 40 miles per hour.
In between the two trips, we turned a neighbor’s large, flat yard into an ad-hoc canopy testing ground. We erected our shelters just in advance of a 24-hour rain and checked for leaking and rainy-day ambiance midstorm. We also timed how long it took for one person to set up each shelter and how long it took for one person to take each structure down and get it back in its bag. We repeatedly zipped and unzipped doors and windows, looking for annoying snags.
Coleman’s new Mountain View 12×12 Screendome Shelter is our pick because it’s spacious and versatile and protects from sun and bugs. It’s a bit pricier than a basic shelter, but we think the additional features, like zip-off walls and a roomier domed design, make it much more livable.
The Coleman Mountain View’s 12-by-12-foot, 27-pound structure has four mesh side panels, all of which can be fully zipped off, turning the tent into an open-walled, sun-blocking canopy. The other shelters we tested all had mesh doors that could be tied open, but the Mountain View is the only one in which the mesh can be completely removed, and from every side. If you don’t need the bug protection, this is a great feature, especially when you have a large group of people all trying to access a buffet of food laid out on a picnic table.
Two included shade panels clip easily onto the sides of the tent, increasing protection from sun, wind, and rain and providing a bit of privacy if you’re at a tiny campsite. Though the more expensive Clam shelter also offers shade panels, you have to buy them separately.
The Mountain View has an unusual modified dome shape designed to block low-angle evening and morning sun. The difference was obvious during our desert camping trip at Joshua Tree National Park when the smaller and less expensive box-shaped Coleman and Ozark Trail shelters started letting in an uncomfortable amount of sunlight in the late afternoon. The Mountain View’s 150-denier polyester fabric is treated with UVGuard to provide 50+ UPF sun protection, which is standard on Coleman’s camping shelters.
The Mountain View’s peak height of 7.5 feet is just one inch shorter than that of the Clam, a shelter that costs $100 more, and it is almost half a foot taller than the square Coleman and Ozark Trail canopies. Its series of crisscrossing poles give the Mountain View a taut structure that held its shape even without staking, while the cheaper Coleman and Ozark Trail tents flapped around without additional support.
A note: In online images it appears that the Mountain View has a gray polyester floor. Not the case. This shelter—like the other three we tested and like most shelters of this type—is floorless.
The crisscrossing pole structure that gives the Mountain View its superior shape also makes it a bit complicated to set up, especially for one person. On our first try it took almost half an hour to figure out. But once you know how to do it, two people can easily erect the large tent in less than 10 minutes. Some tips: Start by sliding the two roof poles (those are the short ones) in and securing them. Then thread all four of the longer poles through the four white pole sleeves before inserting the poles’ ends into the divots at the tent’s base.
Like all of our other camping shelters, the Mountain View was lifted up and blown about 50 feet into the next campsite during an early-morning windstorm at Point Mugu State Park on the California coast. (Though we had the tent staked at all four corners, we didn’t have the guylines out; the winds were strong enough that we suspect it would have blown away regardless.) The shelter, which had been protecting a picnic table covered with cooking supplies, was tangled and splattered with mud, but otherwise undamaged. The only lasting scar was a tiny hole in the mesh, likely the result of a puncture from the scraggly underbrush it landed on.
It’s worth emphasizing that though the other three shelters we tested have a several-year history of consistently good reviews, the Mountain View is a brand-new product, and our enthusiastic recommendation is based only on our own two-month-long testing with a single tent. We’re confident that it’s a good pick, but we will keep an eye on user reviews in case problematic trends arise.
Finally, it sells for about twice as much as the cheaper Coleman and Ozark Trail tents we tested. However, after testing them head to head, we think the Mountain View’s added size and superior versatility justify the cost.
The Clam Quick-Set Escape weighs 34 pounds and comes in a 6-foot-long, ski-bag-shaped carry case that is too big to fit into most sedan trunks. As we pulled this monster out of its box we were skeptical that we would get it erected in anything close to the promised 45 seconds. We were wrong. This hexagonal shelter pulls open like an accordion; each of its walls pops out with a firm pull on a looped handle located in the middle of each side panel. The final step is popping up the roof, which has a generous center height of 7 feet 6 inches (one inch taller than the Mountain View). There are no poles to connect, no sleeves to thread them through. The whole thing is remarkably easy to set up, even for one person; the family at the next campsite was amazed at my tent prowess when I set it up solo. Takedown is similarly simple (but Clam provides a likely unnecessary instructional video if you need help). And reviewers love it.
Though the Clam lacks the versatility of the Coleman Mountain View—the mesh walls cannot be removed, and it has only a single doorway—it feels more durable. It’s made with heavy-duty 210-denier poly oxford walls and the heftiest bug-blocking no-see-um mesh we’ve seen in any tent. The thicker, darker netting also makes the whole structure shadier, even without the optional side panels, which are currently sold three for $30 on Amazon.
Though we appreciated the escape from California’s beating sun offered by the Clam’s dark interior, the heavy structure might seem gloomy in already-dark weather. But an additional nice feature was the generous fabric skirt at the Clam’s base that is designed to keep determined insects—and pooling rainwater—out. If we were camping somewhere infested with mosquitos or no-see-ums, we’d prefer the Clam, which is a newer product from a company known for its rugged tentlike alternative to the traditional bobhouse.
Several testers liked the more muted colors of this shelter, which comes in brown or green. The green model, which costs about $30 less, lacks a 2-inch flap of fabric at the roofline that fastens (Velcro) over the side panels for added rain protection. If you envision using the shelter in downpours, we recommend paying more for the brown tent. Clam also sells a Quick-Set Pavilion, which is the same product as the Escape, but supersized.
The heavyweight stakes that come with the Clam were burlier than those provided with any of the other shelters we looked at for this story and were also stronger than any of the stakes included with the family-camping tents we tested at the same time (the stakes were also heavier, but when your tent already weighs 34 pounds, who cares).
A crucial caveat: Though we managed to slide the Clam under the back two rows of seats in a minivan, this thing is impractical for anyone who is tight on vehicle space.
Though staking these shelters may not be necessary in calm weather, the companies recommend always doing so. Like regular camping tents, they are not intended to be left up for extended periods of time, as the fabrics are susceptible to UV damage. To avoid mildew, never pack away a wet or damp tent.
The other two shelters we tested were the Coleman 10×10 Instant Screened Canopy and Walmart’s Ozark Trail Instant Screen House. These two shelters are the same size and shape (7-foot peak height, 17 pounds) with an almost identical design. Both are manufactured in Bangladesh; we wondered if these tents had the same patent, but Coleman told us that it doesn’t share their patents with or sell any of them to Walmart.
Online reviewers give both canopies a glowing 4.5 stars (out of five). But we found both lacking, at least compared with our top two choices. The caplike roofs on the Coleman 10×10 and the Ozark Trail provided far less shade than we wanted, especially in the beating desert sun. The mesh walls do have a ribbon of polyester at the foot, but even carefully staked they could leave gaps at the ground. Though we didn’t encounter bugs on our Southern California weekend trips, if bug protection is your main concern, these tents might not measure up. Finally, these shelters are noticeably smaller than our top two picks. If all you need is a little shade to enjoy your camp cocktails, they’ll do the job (though we’d suggest considering one of these instead). If you want a durable product that will protect your entire picnic table from rain and bugs for years to come, we don’t think these smaller, cheaper shelters are good enough.
A note of comparison: Like our two main picks, these shelters were upended in our Point Mugu windstorm. Though both were mangled and filthy with mud, only the Ozark Trail shelter suffered lasting damage, with bowed poles, a small puncture in the polyester and a foot-long tear in the mesh. Granted, this was far from a controlled trial. But the polyester on the Ozark Trail tent does feel slightly less durable and doesn’t have the same level of UV protection as the Coleman 10×10 shelter. If you want a camping shelter in this price range, or something cheap and easy to bring to the park or sporting events, the Coleman 10×10, which also comes in a 15×13 six-sided model, is the better choice.
(Photos by Dan Koeppel.)