We considered 14 popular canopy tents (a category that also goes by a lot of other names, including screen houses, outdoor canopies, camping shelters, day tents, camping gazebos, patio shelters, portable shelters, and—our favorite—portable gazebos) and spent five weekends camping with different combinations of eight 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. Intuitively designed and pleasant to sit in, the Co-op Screen House Shelter does just that, helping to make a camping trip or a day out in unpleasant weather more enjoyable. It isn’t meant as a place to sleep; for that you’ll want a regular car-camping tent.
The Co-op Screen House Shelter is easy to set up and pleasant to use, providing good protection from bugs, sun, and gentle rain showers. A high ceiling and light-colored materials make the tent feel brighter and more airy than other camping shelters with a similar footprint.
Compared with our top day-tent pick, the Woodlands Screen House uses arguably superior materials; it also comes with an unsurpassed warranty. But with a ceiling that’s 6 inches lower, it feels smaller and darker. With a 12-foot-square footprint and a peak height of 7 feet 5 inches, the Mountain View 12 × 12 Screendome Shelter is brighter and significantly more spacious than most comparable camping gazebos. A domed roof made of bright white and teal polyester offers more shade than the squarer roofs on our top pick and runner-up. The tent’s mesh walls are removable, and you can clip on the two included polyester wall panels for extra shade or privacy. Some durability complaints and stock issues keep this model out of the top spot, however.
With a 12-foot-square footprint and a peak height of 7 feet 5 inches, the Coleman Mountain View 12 × 12 Screendome Shelter is brighter and significantly more spacious than most comparable camping gazebos. A domed roof made of bright white and teal polyester offers more shade than the squarer roofs on our top pick and runner-up. The tent’s mesh walls are removable, and you can clip on the two included polyester wall panels for extra shade or privacy. Some durability complaints and stock issues keep this model out of the top spot, however.
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 it comes with the strongest stakes we’ve seen on any tent. The Clam also sets up and folds down with remarkable speed—we timed the process at 60 seconds. However, this model is too big to fit in the trunks of most sedans, and the muted colors look good when it’s sunny but can feel a bit gloomy if it’s already rainy out.
Why you should trust us
Over the past two years, I’ve tested camping shelters and large car-camping tents on weekend trips involving more than a dozen families, and I have talked to dozens more about their tent travails. I also wrote guide to the best family tent, for which I interviewed a prolific tent designer and the author of a book on family camping, as well as salespeople and tent-company employees knowledgeable about tent materials and performance. Over the years, I have evaluated gear for magazines including Wired, Popular Science, and National Geographic Adventure, where I was a senior editor.
Who this is for
Put a canopy tent (shown here: Coleman’s Mountain View 12 × 12 Screendome Shelter) over a picnic table to provide shade and, if necessary, protection from bugs and other critters.
A canopy tent is a purchase most regular car campers consider after stocking up on the basics. After all, you can find plenty of smaller and less-expensive items to help you fight bugs, guard against the sun, and shrug off rain. However, if you love camping but hate worrying that you’ll be making and eating your morning pancakes in the rain—or in a swarm of mosquitos—a canopy tent that protects you from the trifecta of bugs, sun, and sudden showers (within reason) could provide the shelter you seek.
Any $75 canopy tent from a big-box store—we’re talking about the common square canopy with four spindly metal legs—can provide shade during midday. But when you’re camping or eating outdoors, you’ll likely want protection from insects, as well. That’s why we focused on collapsible camping shelters with mesh walls to keep bugs at bay. Each of the shelters we considered is portable enough for you to carry it a couple hundred yards to a campsite; no model in this category is intended to provide overnight accommodations, to be a permanent backyard fixture, or to be pitched on a windy ocean beach (on a tranquil day, sure, you could set one up in the sand).
How (and where) we picked and tested
At Chilao Campground in California’s Angeles National Forest (from left): the Clam Quick-Set Escape, the Coleman 10 × 10 Instant Screened Canopy, and the Coleman Mountain View 12 × 12 Screendome Shelter. Photo: Dan Koeppel.
We started by examining the offerings and reviews at Amazon, Backcountry.com, Cabela’s, Costco, EMS, L.L.Bean, REI, Sears, Target, and Walmart. After four hours of preliminary online research and a handful of conversations with current owners of day tents, 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 step eliminated a lot of models 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 a table is 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 more than a dozen tents that met our criteria. After studying customer reviews and the few available editorial reviews on the subject, we picked eight models to test with the goal of determining which type of tent offers the best features and value for most campers (we tested four in 2016 and four more in 2017).
We ultimately used the shelters on a total of five weekend camping trips with more than a dozen families, sometimes setting the canopies up over a picnic table where we would prepare and eat meals, other times using them as sun shades filled with camp chairs and beer-sipping loungers. The first trip was an early-February expedition to Indian Cove Campground in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, where our highly exposed group campsite made daytime temperatures in the high 70s feel like the 90s. We used the shelters for sun protection, setting up camp chairs inside one and 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 (PDF) near 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. We later used the shelters on group trips at Wheeler Gorge Campground near Ojai, California, and at the La Jolla group campsite at Point Mugu, as well as on a trip to the El Mirage Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert.
In between trips, we turned a neighbor’s large, flat yard into an ad hoc camping-gazebo testing ground. We erected our shelters just in advance of a 24-hour rain and checked for leaking and rainy-day ambience 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 break each structure down and get the tent back into its bag. We repeatedly zipped and unzipped doors and windows, looking for annoying snags.
Photo: Daniela Gorny.
The Co-op Screen House Shelter is an intuitively designed, easy-to-erect picnic tent that offers protection from sun, bugs, and mild rain showers. Though the boxy design is basic, in our tests we found that this camping shelter offered the best combination of functionality, durability, and affordability of all the tents we tried.
The square shelter has a 10-by-10-foot footprint—the most common size for tents of this type—and a peak height of 7 feet. It will shelter a standard-size picnic table, but with little room to spare.
The six-pole structure is intuitive to figure out. In our tests one camper took less than 10 minutes to put it up on the first try. Two shorter aluminum poles cross to support the roof while four longer poles join to the roof poles at the top of the tent and slide into pegs at the ground. The tent roof is made of ripstop nylon treated with a weather-resistant polyurethane coating. The walls are made of fine no-see-um mesh edged with nylon taffeta. Nylon is more susceptible to UV damage than the polyester material on most tents of this type, but it generally has a softer, more premium feel and a less wrinkly look. It’s also lighter: This REI shelter weighs just under 13 pounds, several pounds less than many others of this type.
The tent has mesh walls on all four sides and a 9-inch edge of fabric at the ground that deters mosquitos and other critters from invading from below. Two of the mesh walls completely unzip to form doorways at either side, and stash into convenient, roomy pockets at the base of the tent. Like many tents of this type, the REI Screen House Shelter has a hook in the center of the ceiling that accommodates a small lantern or other light.
We set up the REI Screen House Shelter and L.L.Bean’s similar Woodlands Screen House side by side on a weekend trip to the El Mirage Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, home of world-record-setting land-speed racing and, on our May trip, daytime averages of about 100 degrees. Fellow campers and sun-baked spectators consistently gravitated toward the REI shelter over the L.L.Bean. Though the two tents have the same footprint, the REI’s roof is 6 inches taller; we found that the higher ceiling and pastel-colored fabrics made the REI shelter feel significantly roomier inside and look cheerier from afar.
The Screen House Shelter has a carrying bag superior to that of any other day tent we tested. Like the REI Base Camp 6 (the upgrade pick in our guide to family car-camping tents), the Screen House Shelter comes in a refreshingly roomy zippered duffle bag rather than the oversized drawstring sack typical of most tents. Though the duffle isn’t designed to be worn as a backpack like the Base Camp 6’s, most people could still use the two unpadded duffle straps that way, leaving both hands free to lug more stuff from car to campsite. This shelter also uses the same color scheme as the Base Camp 6. If a color-coordinated campsite is your thing, this duo makes a pretty pair.
Flaws but not deal breakers
The nylon material used in the REI Co-op Screen House Shelter is likely more susceptible to UV damage than the polyester that’s more commonly found on tents of this type. Though some REI customer reviews report that the tent lasts a decade with occasional use, strong and sustained UV exposure could threaten its longevity.
A handful of REI customers complain that the tent, which has four guylines—the stabilizing lines that allow you to stake out the tent for added security in windy conditions—is not stable in strong winds. Currently it has a rating of just 3.6 out of five stars across 34 reviews at REI.com, though many reviewers seem illogically outraged that a tent with mesh walls does not keep gear dry in harsh rainstorms. Others seem to be annoyed that the fly is not included.
Several REI reviewers who bought both the tent and the fly for rain protection note that the fly has only two walls, leaving much of the tent exposed. The add-on fly for our runner-up pick, the L.L.Bean Woodlands Screen House, offers four-walled protection, though it’s also more expensive. The REI and L.L.Bean tents do have the same footprint, and a couple of REI reviewers reveal that they’ve crossbred the L.L.Bean fly with the REI shelter.
A durable but less spacious runner-up
Woodlands Screen House is remarkably similar to our top pick, REI’s Screen House Shelter; the two canopies have an identical footprint and pole structure. But while the L.L.Bean tent uses arguably superior polyester fabric, its peak ceiling height of 6 feet 6 inches is half a foot lower than that of the REI tent, making it feel notably darker and less spacious. It also costs $30 more at this writing and lacks the convenient carrying bag we like.
The Woodlands Screen House uses six lightweight aluminum poles, just like the Screen House Shelter. But while the REI model is made of nylon, the L.L.Bean tent uses ripstop polyester, which is more resistant to UV damage and absorbs less moisture than nylon by weight. Though we didn’t have the opportunity to compare the tents in rainy conditions, L.L.Bean spokesperson Mac McKeever told us that polyester is more structurally stable: “It won’t be as baggy from dew in the morning and won’t shrink and tighten as much in the sun” as nylon will, McKeever wrote in an email. The Woodlands Screen House also has the advantage of eight guylines, whereas the Screen House Shelter has just four. In addition, this model has the same bug-deterring flap of fabric along the base as the REI tent, but while the REI’s flap is about 9 inches wide, the L.L.Bean’s flap is about 10½ inches wide.
One wall comes fully unzipped and stashes into an internal pocket. But instead of having an identical door on the opposite side of the tent—as the REI shelter has—the L.L.Bean shelter offers a smaller, zippered opening, a design that’s likely better for people primarily concerned about keeping bugs out of their tent. Like the REI model, the L.L.Bean tent has ample interior pockets, a lantern hook, and a roomy carrying bag, though the bag is of the typical drawstring-sack variety. The whole thing, bag and all, weighs 14 pounds.
The L.L.Bean Woodlands Screen House has a much more consistently glowing history of online reviews than does the REI tent. Of the 111 people who reviewed the tent at the L.L.Bean website between 2009 and early 2017, 85 gave it a top five-star rating (and 21 more gave it four stars). The add-on rainfly and tent-floor combo, which costs about $140, is also well liked, with an overall rating of 4.4 out of five stars across 36 reviews at the time we checked.
The tent is covered by L.L.Bean’s superior 100 percent satisfaction guarantee.
Also great but sometimes hard to find
Photo: Dan Koeppel.
Coleman’s Mountain View 12 × 12 Screendome Shelter is bigger and more versatile than any of our other picks. With four zip-off walls and two add-on panels included, it’s more adjustable for different weather conditions than any other shelter we found.
The 27-pound Mountain View has four mesh side panels, all of which you can fully zip off, turning the tent into an open-walled, sun-blocking canopy. The other shelters we tested all have mesh doors that you can zip or tie open, but the Mountain View is the only model in which the mesh is completely removable, from every side. If you don’t need the bug protection, this design is an appealing feature, especially when you have a large group of people all trying to access a buffet 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 added privacy in a crowded campground. Though the more expensive Clam shelter (see below) also offers shade panels, you have to buy them separately.
The Coleman Mountain View’s two shade panels clip on and off easily and are included in the price.
The Mountain View’s dome shape is more adept at blocking low-angle evening and morning sun than squarer shelters. The difference became obvious during our desert camping trip at Joshua Tree National Park, when the smaller and less expensive box-shaped shelters from Coleman and Ozark Trail started letting in an uncomfortable amount of sunlight in the late afternoon. The Mountain View’s 150-denier polyester fabric is treated with UVGuard, which claims to provide 50-plus UPF sun protection for the people inside and is standard on Coleman’s camping shelters.
At a peak height of 7 feet 6 inches, the Mountain View is 6 inches taller at its peak than the REI Co-op Screen House Shelter and a foot taller than the L.L.Bean Woodlands Screen House. The crisscrossing poles that enable the domed design also make it more complicated and time-consuming to set up, especially for one person—on our tester’s first try the process 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 (the short ones) in and securing them into the corner slots. 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. The poles should crisscross near the ground at each corner.
Three final notes: First, in online images the Mountain View appears to have a gray polyester floor. That’s not the case, as this shelter—like all the others we tested and like most shelters of this type—is floorless. (An exception: You can buy an add-on floor-and-fly combo for the L.L.Bean canopy.)
Second, while the other three shelters we recommend have a many-year history of good reviews, the Mountain View was new in 2016, and some owners have complained about weak poles and poor customer service. The narrow poles are less rugged than those on our other picks, so this is a tent you’ll want to assemble and disassemble gently.
Finally, since we first recommended this tent in spring 2016, we have frequently seen it go out of stock.
A sturdier shelter that sets up in a snap
Photo: Dan Koeppel.
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 erect it 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 (the same as the Coleman Mountain View and a full foot taller than the L.L.Bean Woodlands Screen House). 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, though Clam provides an instructional video if you need help. And reviewers love it.
Though the Clam Quick-Set Escape lacks the versatility of the Coleman Mountain View—the mesh walls are not removable, and it has only a single doorway—its heavy-duty materials and construction make it more durable and likely more appropriate for people who regularly camp in windy or rainy weather. It’s constructed with heavy-duty 210-denier poly oxford walls and the heftiest bug-blocking no-see-um mesh we’ve encountered in any tent. The thicker, darker netting also makes the whole structure shadier, even without the optional side panels, which are currently sold in a set of three for $40 on Amazon.
Though we appreciated the respite from California’s beating sun offered by the Clam’s dark interior, the heavy structure might seem gloomy in already-dark weather. (The tent is a newer model from a company known for its rugged tentlike alternative to the traditional bobhouse.)
Like the REI and L.L.Bean canopy shelters, this Clam tent has a generous fabric skirt at its base that is designed to keep determined insects—and pooling rainwater—out. If we were camping somewhere infested with mosquitos or no-see-ums and could fit the Clam in our vehicle, we’d prefer it over any of our other picks.
Looking out from the Clam’s breezy innards.
The stakes that come with the Clam Quick-Set Escape are burlier than those provided with any of the other shelters we looked at for this guide; they’re also stronger than any of the stakes included with the car-camping tents we tested at the same time. (The stakes are heavier, too, 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.
Care, use, and maintenance
Though all of these shelters are self-standing and staking them may not be strictly necessary in calm weather, it’s wise to always do so in case the wind picks up unexpectedly. Before staking out a tent, make sure all of its doors are zipped closed to avoid staking it too tightly and straining the zippers. Like regular camping tents, these camping gazebos are not intended to be left up for extended periods, as the fabrics are susceptible to UV damage. To avoid mildew, never pack away a wet or damp tent.
The Coleman Instant Screened Canopy (front) and the Ozark Trail Instant Screen House (back) are nearly identical. They’re both inexpensive, and neither is terribly rugged.
We tested the Coleman 10 × 10 Instant Screened Canopy and Walmart’s Ozark Trail 10′ × 10′ Instant Screen House during our first round of testing in the winter and spring of 2016. 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 its patents with, or sell any of them to, Walmart.
At the time we checked, online reviewers gave both canopies a glowing overall rating of 4.5 stars (out of five). But we found both lacking next to the other shelters we tested. The cap-like roofs on these Coleman and Ozark Trail models 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 can leave gaps at the ground; though we didn’t encounter many bugs on our Southern California weekend trips, if bug protection is your main concern, these tents would likely fall short. Finally, these shelters feel noticeably smaller than any of our 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 canopy chairs instead). If you want a durable tent 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 the Coleman Mountain View and the Clam Quick-Set Escape, 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 experiment was far from a controlled trial, but the polyester on the Ozark Trail tent does feel slightly less durable than that on 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 is the better choice of the two.
All torn up: The Ozark Trail canopy was damaged in a windstorm.
During the winter and early spring of 2017, we added four more canopy tents to our testing lineup. In addition to the models from REI and L.L.Bean, which became our new top picks, we tested the Coleman 15 × 13 Instant Screenhouse and the Wenzel Sun Valley Screen House.
The Coleman 15 × 13 Instant Screenhouse is essentially a larger version of the Coleman 10 × 10 Instant Screened Canopy, and it has similar shortcomings. The sloping walls make the interior space feel much smaller than the generous footprint might lead you to expect. The mesh doesn’t seem particularly durable, and given the cap-like roof, the shade provided is much more limited than with our top-pick tents.
The inexpensive Wenzel Sun Valley Screen House has a design similar to that of the Coleman Mountain View. The two tents have the same 12-foot-square footprint and the same crisscrossing pole structure, though the roof on the Wenzel is several inches lower. We compared the two tents side by side and preferred the airy feel and aesthetics of the Coleman Mountain View, which also seemed to provide slightly more shade in the same conditions. However, if the Coleman is unavailable, or if its price rises to more than $75 above the Wenzel’s, we might choose the Wenzel instead. It has a lower peak height and lacks the optional shade panels we love on the Coleman, but other than that it’s a very similar tent.