When it comes to tent design, dome and cabin models are two of the most popular.
You probably know outdoor enthusiasts who swear by one type and scorn the other, depending on which one’s in their own garage. They’ll tell you dome tents are cramped and flimsy, or that cabins are polycotton Taj Mahals that buckle under the slightest breeze.
Predictably, the truth isn’t quite that simple.
Different outdoor shelters have their strengths and weaknesses, and the choice between dome tent vs cabin tent will depend on your own camping needs.
- Cabin tents look a bit like a canvas house. They’re roomy inside and often have internal partitions, windows, and a high peak height.
- Dome tents appear like a turtle shell. They can feel less spacious inside and are more for sleeping than hanging out.
- Cabins are usually made of durable fabrics and can be pretty heavy. They’re best suited for car camping and family/group vacations.
- Domes come in a variety of sizes, and lightweight models are ideal for backpacking.
- Domes can withstand harsh weather, while cabins may struggle in high winds or heavy rain.
What Is a Cabin Tent?
A cabin style tent is about as close as it gets to camping in an actual house. It has nearly vertical walls and a high, v-shaped roof. Cabins normally have windows, and the larger ones often feature internal partitions to divide them up into different rooms.
Cabin tents are sometimes called “frame tents” because the older designs were constructed by stretching canvas material over a framework of metal or wood support poles. Some are still designed this way, but modern ones often feature integrated poles that you just plug in or slot together.
The Roomy Option
Unless your name is Bilbo or Frodo, a defining feature of any tent camping trip is the crick in your neck you get from stooping down all the time.
Not so with a cabin tent.
The tall peak height provides headroom for all but the loftiest of campers, and there are no internal poles to trip over.
The vertical walls give you much more useful floor space than most other designs, and there’s more space inside to get changed without busting out your advanced yoga contortions.
Best for Car Camping
There are two main downsides to most cabin tents, and the first is that they’re usually pretty bulky. Designed to be comfortable rather than lightweight, these are designed for hauling in the trunk of your vehicle rather than on your back.
The flipside is that cabins make a fantastic semi permanent set up if you’re camping in a fixed location. So when it comes to car camping in the dome tent vs cabin tent debate, cabin tents come out on top.
Durable and Long-Lasting
If you’re after a camping tent that’ll last as long as you do, a cabin tent could be the one. Because weight isn’t really a concern with these portable palaces, they’re often built out of more heavy-duty fabrics that can be extremely durable.
Scroll through the camping forums and you’ll find people getting especially hot under the collar about the canvas version. These don’t come cheap and they weigh a ton, but they’ll give you decades of service.
A Favorite for Family Camping Trips
Sometimes the secret to a happy family is a little bit of privacy. Larger cabin tents usually have room dividers, so you can get dressed without being in full view of three kids, a Labrador retriever, and your parents-in-law.
Kids will love the illusion of their own sleeping area — even if you can hear exactly what’s going on through a millimeter of canvas — and adults may appreciate being able to turn a blind eye.
When you’re buying a cabin tent, try and look out for one with storage pockets. These let you keep core camping gear like flashlights, bug spray, or sun cream in easy reach.
Enjoy the View
Cabin tents usually come with side windows, and some also have skylights. These are especially lovely on starry nights in bug territory, allowing you to gaze at the cosmos without getting eaten alive.
Quick to Pitch (Sometimes)
Cabin tents have a reputation for being like giant Meccano sets, with huge bags of pole sections that you’re guaranteed to put together in the wrong order, ending up with a crooked monstrosity that looks more like a witch’s cottage than Cinderella’s castle.
Fortunately, times have moved on. Many modern designs are “instant” cabins where the poles are already inserted and you just plug-and-play — saving both time and, potentially, marriages.
Watch the Weather
The second downside is that cabin tents aren’t great in heavy weather. Wind, in particular, is their Kryptonite. Those high, straight walls act like sails in strong breezes, and you’ll need to peg yourself down very securely if you want to wake up in Kansas rather than Oz.
A sheltered camping place can help reduce the risks, but sometimes, if the forecast is for really high winds, you might need to swallow your pride and find a motel for the night.
Rain can also be a problem for cabins, since the roof design makes it more likely that water will pool in the rain fly. Eventually the weight of this can cause leaks or damage the frame.
Hard on the Credit Card
Cabin tents can be pricier than other models. But remember that dome or tunnel tents won’t have nearly as much interior space as a cabin, and will usually be made of much lighter materials that won’t stand up to years of hard use.
It’s best to think of your new tent as an investment. Up-front costs might be higher, but buy the right one and it’ll give you years of service.
What Is a Dome Tent?
A dome tent is the classic backpacker design. Resembling a turtle shell, it’s constructed from flexible arched poles under tension.
Dome tents are often confused with tunnel tents, but they’re not the same thing. A dome is formed from crossed arches that make it free-standing, while a tunnel is a series of hoops that rely on guylines at each end to keep the whole thing upright.
The Best Backpacking Tent
Domes are popular among backpackers. They’re often made in lightweight fabrics like silnylon or polyester, and they give you a lot of strength for a minimal number of poles — all of which gets a big thumbs-up from gram-counting mountain goats.
Bad Weather Is a Breeze
Dome tents are among the most weather-resistant of outdoor shelters. It’s basic physics that curved surfaces will shed wind and water more easily than flat ones, and that’s where the dome wins out big-time.
What’s more, the crossed arches make the dome shape particularly strong in high winds, and its free-standing nature means that the whole thing won’t fall in on you if you lose a guyline in the night.
Often Made of Lighter Fabrics
Choosing the right tent is all about trade-offs. Because dome tents are often designed to be lightweight and packable, the fabrics tend to be less durable, and it’s rare to find them in heavier materials like canvas or polycotton.
Great news if you’re fastpacking the PCT, but less useful if you’re looking for something rough ‘n’ tough that’ll last through successive summers of long family camps.
A Tent of Many Sizes
Few tent designs come in as many different sizes as the dome.
Most backpacker domes fall in the two- to three-man size bracket — with some itty-bitty coffins for lonesome travelers — but you can get larger dome tents too.
There are plenty of models that’ll comfortably take seven or eight people, and these can be a good pick for large group camps in more exposed locations where you’re willing to trade a bit less headspace for better weather resistance.
Just remember that dome tent manufacturers are notorious for exaggerating their capacity. An eight-man tent will almost never fit eight people unless all of them are children under ten.
Larger dome tents are also ideal for festivals, where fewer guylines to trip over can only be a good thing.
Not So Spacious Inside
Whatever their other merits, these tents are really just for sleeping. The dome shape is strong but not particularly spacious, and even at peak height you’ll struggle to stand up.
Head towards the edges and the floor space becomes less useful as the roof curves down. In a cabin tent you can comfortably put your air mattresses right up against the wall, but try this in most domes and you’ll find yourself wedged into a sort of clammy silnylon taco.
Pitch It in Minutes
Some brands of dome tent can be very quick to put up, including inflatable models and so-called “pop-up” tents (though most of these are actually tunnel tents). Beware of pop-up tents — they may spring into life like a Jack-in-the-box, but getting them folded up again can be like wrestling a giant squid.
When you’re choosing a dome tent, it’s worth looking to see what material the pole sleeves are made of. Some manufacturers use grippy synthetics that give better stability but make it much more fiddly to get the poles in and out, whereas mesh sleeves will make the whole process much quicker.
Pick a Number, Any Number
Prices for dome tents vary hugely, and you don’t always get what you pay for. You can pick up a cheap and cheerful one for twenty bucks, and that might do you fine for casual weekend camps or festival use.
At the other end of the scale, high-end hiking tents are a lot like designer swimwear. The more you pay, the less you seem to get. Premium models are incredibly compact and lightweight, but they’ll cost you big time.
Dome Tent vs Cabin Tent — Things to Consider
Cabin tents usually have more space than domes. Though the rectangular floor area of a tent is important, you’ll also want to consider the center height, since this’ll tell you whether you can stand up in it.
Remember to look for features like storage pockets and room separators when you’re making your choice.
Dome tents are generally lighter and more portable than cabins, and would be a better choice if you’re planning on ponying your tent around on your back.
Because they’re made for fixed camps where weight isn’t really an issue, cabin tents are often made of sturdier fabrics than domes.
Where resistance to wind and rain is concerned, domes win out by a mile. The shell-like design doesn’t give the weather any flat surfaces to hammer, and the crossed arches add strength.
With their tall, flat surfaces, cabin tents are particularly vulnerable to wind, and water can often pool in the roof.
Ease of Pitching
If you’re looking for a tent that’s quick and easy to pitch, either type could work. Both dome and cabin tents are available in “instant” or “pop-up” versions, so it’s more about which particular model you go for.
Remember, though — tents that go up in two minutes don’t always pack away so easily at the end of camp. It’s a good idea to practise in the backyard in case the weather rolls in and you have to drop the thing in a hurry.
Other Designs are Available too
The choice isn’t just between a dome or cabin tent. There are loads of others to choose from, including bell tents, tipis, tunnel tents, and pup tents.
What’s the Difference Between a Dome Tent and a Cabin Tent?
A cabin tent looks like, well, a cabin. It’s built on a frame and usually features almost vertical walls and a high, pitched roof with plenty of headroom.
A dome tent, on the other hand, resembles a turtle shell and is constructed of crossed arches.
Is a Dome Tent Better than a Cabin Tent?
Not always. A dome tent often weighs less and copes better with spicy weather, but cabins offer more space and comfort.
What are Dome Tents Good for?
Smaller domes are ideal for backpackers, since they’re very lightweight. They also stand up well in bad weather, so they’re a good choice for more exposed camps.
What are Cabin Tents Good for?
Cabin tents are great for car campers. They’re tall and spacious, and often feature internal dividers for privacy. Good ones are made out of tough fabrics and will last many years. They’re generally too heavy for backpacking, and the design isn’t so good in high winds or heavy rain.