I think a tent and a minivan is a great choice! Having the tent to actually live in will be much more comfortable than living in the minivan (or even a full-size van) alone. Not only will you be much more comfortable, when you take trips into town or move between campsites the minivan can give you decent gas mileage. The mpg won’t be as good as a car, but the extra space of the minivan will also allow you to carry a lot more comforts than you could in a car.
The wind is not an issue in the National Forest where you will probably spend your summer, but in the desert it can be extremely violent and eventually will tear up most tents. Fortunately, in most of the desert the really bad winds aren’t a constant. Generally, they are limited to when a storm is blowing through. And even the storms are not a constant, they mainly occur at their worst in January and to a lesser degree in December and February. I have had a cheap Eureka tent set up here in Quartzsite through all of December and it is holding up just fine. But I know from experience that sometime in January windstorms will come and I will have to take it down.
Even if the tent could withstand the wind there is no way to be comfortable in a tent during a winter windstorm. Sleeping is almost impossible for two reasons: 1) Noise-the tent flapping and shaking is really unpleasant. I don’t know anyone who can sleep through it. 2) Cold-if the wind is blowing it is also cold (below freezing is not unusual) and that is a very bad combination to try to just hang out in. A good sleeping bag might keep you warm at night, but during the day your face, hands and feet are constantly cold.
So the key thing is to be able to have somewhere else to go during the few times when there is a windstorm. That way you can simply take the tent down during it. A minivan is perfect for that because if you get caught in a windstorm and take down the tent, you can still be warm and comfortable inside it for a few days or a week. When it is done you set the tent back up and move out of the van and into the tent. It’s inconvenient, but better than having to buy a new tent all the time or spend $1000 on a tent that will stand up to the wind.
Since you aren’t expecting the tent to withstand the worst winds, it doesn’t even have to be a great tent since it isn’t going to be up in the terrible winds. However, the better the tent, the less often you will have to take it down. The very best tent for wind is a 4 season mountaineering tent, the kind they take up McKinley and Everest. Those tents are designed not only stand up to huge winds, but also heavy snow piled on top. The manufacturers know that if the tent fails, the people inside it will probably die, so they are designed to NOT fail in any weather. They are very expensive and not very tall, but will laugh at a desert windstorm and taunt it saying “Is that all you’ve got!!” They are also reasonably small and light because they have to be backpacked up to 26,000 feet. That means they won’t take up so much room in the minivan.
While a mountaineering tent will stand up to the wind, I think your better choice is a high quality family tent that you plan to take down in the worst storms. The brand I would recommend to you is an REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) tent. Which model is up to you but if it were me I would buy their brand. The reason is simple, they have a 100% lifetime warranty and they truly stand behind it. If you have their tent for 10 years and it fails you can return it and they will give you a new one no questions asked. Their products are high quality and reasonably priced and there are REI stores throughout the country. If there isn’t one near you, you can order one over the internet.
Of course there are many other high quality tents besides REI. I am an especially big fan of Eureka tents. I own an inexpensive 4 man Eureka tent now. I have a friend who lived in the desert in a $400 Eureka family tent (the Copper Canyon) and I personally saw it withstand many huge desert windstorms with winds I know were well over 50 mph. It’s a very good tent!! But there is no doubt in my mind that eventually it would have been destroyed by the wind, and my friend told me he was truly miserable the whole time he was stuck in it during the storms. Because he drove a small car he couldn’t sleep in it. He still has the tent but has since moved into a van which he likes much better. This is the tent he owns:
If you are willing to take it down during even mild windstorms, a cheap family tent like a Coleman can serve you well and won’t cost much. They are surprisingly good quality compared to their low price. Just don’t think they can take much wind because they can’t. What about canvas tents? I’ve spent some time in canvas tents and I know they are used by lots of outfitters and businesses. They should hold up extremely well and last a long time. I have no knowledge of how they do in winds. But they are very expensive and I think they pack down to be very big and heavy. If it were me I wouldn’t even consider it. I would just go with one of today’s high-tech tents by REI or Eureka. But that isn’t based on anything but my personal prejudices, so keep that in mind. Maybe one would be perfect for you. Bob
Jason wrote me back and made a convincing argument for canvas tents:
I have a couple concerns with the Nylon/polyester tents that you recommended. These tents have a very light material which I would think would be prone to tearing. I also wouldn’t think these tents would be very good in cold weather when a person would need a heater to stay warm.
I’m not sure how familiar you are with the Springbar and Kodiak tents I mentioned. These are 4 season tents and they are canvas. The Kodiak is about 75 lbs, but it packs down to about the size of a large sleeping bag. These tents are also known for being easy to set up, even a small woman can put them up in about 10 minutes or so.
My biggest concerns are wind and staying warm. I’m not opposed to spending $600 on a tent that is very well built. I figure spending $600 on a good tent that will be my home is really pretty cheap in the long run.