HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR TENT
When choosing your tent, first choose a model based on your group's size and whether or not you might need additional space for extra friends, gear or dogs. A second consideration is how you intend to use your tent. Will you be cycle touring or driving to a campground to spend your vacation by a lake somewhere. These are very valid considerations as taking a tent built for 8 people and weighing over 15kg is not ideal for traveling while on your bicycle. Subsequently, taking a lightweight cycling tent into the mountains to set up your base-camp in the dead of winter will not suffice when a 4-season tent is what's really required. Your tent must suite your activity and accommodate you and the rest of the people in your party.
Also keep in mind that no industry standard exists that defines per-person tent dimensions. When evaluating tent capacity ratings, our general advice is this: Assume that tent design, like shoe design, takes the law of averages into consideration. If you seek more room, consider up-sizing your tent capacity by 1 person, particularly if you and your usual tent companion(s):
- are larger/taller people,
- need extra space for gear,
- need extra head room,
- you plan to do more in your tent than just sleep,
- are claustrophobic,
- toss and turn at night,
- sleep better with more than average elbow room,
- are bringing a small child or a dog.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A TENT
When you’re shopping for a tent, be aware that higher-denier fabric canopies and rain-flies are more rugged than lower-denier ones. Also, seam tape and high-denier fabrics on tent floors reduce the odds of leakage during periods of rain or moist ground conditions. A good addition to any tent purchase is always to have a 'footprint' or ground sheet to place beneath your tent to aid in protecting you from ground moisture. A 'Footprint' is a custom-fitted groundcloth (usually sold separately) that goes under your tent floor. Tent floors can be tough, but rocks, twigs and dirt eventually take a toll. A footprint costs far less to replace than a tent.
A common phrase in the outdoor industry is “Light is right!” While lightweight products are usually the way to go, that’s not always the case. In tent design, there is a balance between lightweight materials and durability. A lighter tent will most likely be constructed of more delicate materials, whereas a heavier tent will be more durable. Generally speaking, a tent should weigh approximately 2.5 pounds per person. Remember that when backpacking with multiple people, you can split the weight by dividing the tent, rain fly, and poles.
THREE OR FOUR SEASON TENT
Three-season tents are best suited for most climates and conditions; they also tend to have double-wall construction. These tents generally have mesh paneling in the tent body to increase ventilation and keep the tent cool even with the rain fly on. More mesh leads to a lighter tent but may reduce durability. Three-season tents are generally kitted out with convenient features such as gear lofts/pockets, multiple doors, and rain fly vents. These tents can be used by car campers and backpackers alike.
Four-seaon tents can be used year-round, but are really geared towards winter excursions. These tents are built to withstand low temperatures, high winds, and heavy snow, so if there’s a chance you'll be facing this kind of weather, this is the tent for you. Overall, these tents will be heavier than three-season tents, with heavier, more durable fabric, less mesh, and burlier poles. One of the most important differences is that a four-season tent will have a fly that reaches the ground/snowpack to seal out wind and snowdrifts. Four-season tents with an internal pole support are easier to set up in foul weather and offer more rigidity. You can find four-season tents in both single and double-wall construction.
SINGLE OR DOUBLE LAYER CONSTRUCTION
first (and probably easiest) question to answer is whether to purchase a
single-wall or double-wall tent. When most people imagine a tent, they
are thinking of a double-wall construction. The first “wall” is the tent
body, while the second “wall” is the rain fly. This setup allows for
greater versatility and comfort. On hot, clear nights, you can opt to
pitch the tent without a fly. This will allow for greater ventilation
and a cooler night’s sleep. In foul weather, erecting the rain fly will
add weather protection as well as warmth. For a lightweight option, some
double-wall tents allow a quick-pitch setup: a footprint, fly, and
poles are combined for a lightweight setup without the tent body. So, if
double-wall tents are more versatile and ventilate better, why would
anyone want a single-wall tent?
Single-wall tents combine the tent body and waterproof fly into one fabric. As such, they are favored by mountaineers and alpinists due to their lighter weight and smaller packed volume. The main issues with single-wall tents is that they aren’t as versatile and condensation has a tendency to form on the walls inside the tent.
Living space is one of the most important attributes of a tent, however it is the hardest to measure. Traditional tent dimensions, such as width, length, and peak height, only tell part of the story. Vestibule space will determine how much of your gear you can stash outside the tent body, and wall geometry is the most important factor in determining the “living space” of a tent.
Choosing floor dimensions are relatively easy; about 25 inches of width per person and about 80 inches of length will be suitable for most people. Taller occupants, or those camping with a dog, may want to look at tents that are closer to 90 inches long. Choosing a tent by number of occupants (e.g., two-person tent) will generally be appropriate.
Peak height is the height measurement at the tallest point in the tent. The value, and more importantly the location, will dictate the living space of a tent. While a greater peak height generally yields a roomier tent (assuming similar floor dimensions), the location of the peak height is just as important. A large peak height in the middle of the tent means that you have to be seated in the middle of the tent to effectively “feel” the roominess, whereas a large peak height on one end of the tent means that the tent will feel roomier when you are lying or seated in your sleeping bag.
Similarly, wall geometry is the biggest factor towards how roomy a tent feels. For a roomier feel, look for a tent with more vertical walls. Some tents have poles that start out vertical near the bottom, and only start to converge once they’re off the ground. This pole design is a great blend between roominess and weight savings.
Dome tents are by far the most common tent available. Their shape provides great headroom with relative ease of setup. Manufacturers achieve the dome shape by using at least two crossed flexible poles. Two pole designs look more like a wedge than a dome. Very often they are made using three flex poles, creating a true dome shape which provides more internal space in all directions. The rounded shape provides lots of extra areas for clothes and gear without cramping your sleeping space.
Tunnel tents provide even more interior headroom by using two or more hooped poles to create a tunnel shape enclosure. Strong and lightweight, hoop tents are often used by backpackers. This style can be applied to larger tents, as the greater number of poles affords more support and headroom. However, guy lines are still necessary to maintain structural integrity.
The term geodesic is a mathematical one. Originally a ‘geodesic’ line was the shortest route between two points on earth. Nowadays, it’s used to describe a tent where the poles criss-cross over the surface, intersecting to form triangles. This distributes the stress across the structure, making it the most stable type of tent for extreme weather conditions. This is the strongest tent structure available, and as such these tents are typically mountain and expedition designs, due to their ability to withstand very high winds and heavy snowfall. If you climb Everest, chances are that you'll want to take a geodesic tent with you. Obviously there is a weight penalty with these designs, but this can be minimized through the use of high tech construction materials.
Semi-geodesic tents use similar principles but generally fewer poles for slightly less extreme conditions. Nevertheless, they are still normally produced in small sizes for those who are likely to pitch them on mountains or in windy, exposed terrain.
Some of the largest tents on the market these days are called pod-style tents. They have a central living area with several sleeping areas (‘pods’) leading off, like spokes from the hub of a wheel. These tents look great in the showroom. In the family setting, children can have their own spaces with good air gaps between and everyone can congregate at the heart of the tent during the day. However, they also include a larger volume of fabric than an equivalent tunnel tent, making them heavier to transport and generally more challenging to erect.
Cabin style tents are tall and spacious - the perfect home-away-from-home for the whole family. Features of cabin tents include near-vertical walls to maximize overall peak height and livable space, (and some models come with family-pleasing features such as room dividers and an awning, or a vestibule door that can be staked out as such).
Basically, there are two main types of tent pole: Flexible ones and rigid ones. Flexible poles are usually made of lighter material, rigid ones are generally more robust and heavy-duty.
The traditional frame tent and many trailer tents use rigid poles, usually of metal with angled joint fittings where they need to turn a corner or where a number of poles meet. Steel poles may be painted or plated to stop corrosion. Aluminium or aluminium alloy poles, less common in this size of tent, will be polished or anodised. Aluminium poles tend to be lighter and slightly more expensive than steel ones.
KEEP YOUR FLEXIBLE POLES LINKED
Whether flexible poles are made of composite or aluminium sections, they should be linked with elastic cords to make assembly easier. If cords break try to repair them immediately. If you put away a tent with a few broken cords you’ll experience utter confusion when you next try to put up the tent.
RIGID METAL POLES
Sectional rigid tent poles will normally be fixed together, usually with steel springs, but these can come apart by mistake. You should always try to fix them back together before you put the tent away because it will be much easier next time you put the tent up.
It’s a good idea to mark the poles and joints of a frame so that next time you put the tent up, you’ll know exactly where each part of the frame goes, unless the manufacturer has already done this for you.
FLEXIBLE COMPOSITE POLES
Dome tents and many tunnel style tents will use flexible poles curved to form arcs. In cheaper tents these will be some kind of composite Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP), often called fibreglass or glassfibre. Depending on diameter and weight considerations, they will either be solid rod or tubular and different methods of manufacture can give a surprising range of strength to weight ratio.
GRP poles can break – especially if you accidentally mis-thread a pole and try to force it. Since they contain glass fibres, the broken pole can be very sharp, so take care. Some manufacturers use poles with an outer wrapping (the brand name ‘Durawrap’ is one such material) to protect the pole further. At the top end of the ‘flexible pole’ range is carbon fibre. Poles from this ultra-light material are incredibly strong, but come at a cost. They are not yet in general use, but you can buy replacement carbon fibre poles for a current tent if you want to spend the money.
FLEXIBLE ALLOY POLES
A more durable alternative for flexible poles is metal. These are almost always made from aluminium or an aluminium alloy, they are light and strong and less likely to break unless really abused. They can sometimes bend permanently, particularly if trodden on or if a heavy tent is put up incorrectly. Try to avoid this because although they can be straightened, they will never be quite as good or as straight again.
The basic tent peg may seem to be a simple piece of kit, but pegs come in all shapes and sizes and you will probably wonder where to start. Most tents come with simple steel hooked pins. In firm ground and moderate weather these pegs are fine. But sometimes the wind does push and pull a tent about and the ground you’re pitched on may range from soft and sandy to hard and rocky. A range of pegs to suit different ground and wind conditions is useful along with a few spares. It's important to balance the requirements for keeping weight and bulk down with the need to hold your tent down in extreme conditions (not forgetting the cost!).
Steel pegs are the strongest but also the heaviest for their size. Pegs pressed from sheet steel can provide better hold in the ground than thin steel pins, but do watch out for sharp edges when pulling them out of the ground. Hardened steel pegs, like long masonry nails, are useful for hard or stony ground.
Plastic pegs are light, cheap and their greater cross-sectional area provides greater resistance to pulling out when the wind is strong, but they can be bulky to pack. Avoid the really cheap ones which can break easily.
Pegs made from light alloy are very popular with lightweight campers, but hard ground or clumsy mallet work, or a combination of the two, can result in bent pegs.
Top-of-the-range lightweight tents will have the lightest pegs possible and these can be made of titanium. A bundle of tiny 2g pegs may be easy to carry, but if they are not long enough or have sufficient cross section they may not be adequate to secure your tent in extreme conditions.
These are made in steel and plastic and are rather more expensive and bulkier than normal pegs. They need to be screwed into the ground using a small hand grip or an electric drill with an adapter. They do provide excellent grip in soft ground and are useful for stormy conditions.
Always take a mallet with you when you go camping. It's the best way to get pegs in, except if using the screw type. Never try to push pegs in with your foot, pegs can and do pierce footwear and then your foot.
A peg puller is good investment to ease the extraction of pegs, they often go in easily, but then refuse to come out. A peg puller can make this job much easier when you're packing up to go home.
TIPS FOR PITCHING YOUR TENT
Practice pitching your tent before you go camping: This will familiarise you with your new tent, so that you don’t have to spend hours working out which poles go where out on the hill, with light fading and the threat of rain! This will also enable you to locate any faults in a safe environment, and work out if your chosen tent is up to scratch.
Minimise condensation: Make the most of tent ventilation when conditions allow, as this will prevent the build-up of moisture from condensation inside the tent. With the flysheet (outer layer) zipped up, you can open vents or doors in the inner to let off some steam! Even if you take measures to minimise condensation, it’s inevitable that some will build up over the course of the night. Don’t worry – your tent is almost certainly not leaking. Shake or wipe away excess moisture from the flysheet if necessary.
Look after your poles: When feeding the poles into their pole sleeves/pole loops on assembly, be sure to push them through, carefully guiding them through as you do so. Do not pull from the end, as this can cause the pole sections to pop apart, and even snap the pole shock cord! Remove poles completely from the tent before folding them up after use, and fold them carefully from the centre of each pole. This reduces the likelihood of the cord snapping.
Air your tent after use: When you return from your camping trip, be sure to either hang out the tent inner and flysheet to dry, or, if the weather is fine, pitch the tent in your garden with doors and vents open. This will ensure that your tent doesn’t go into storage in wet condition, to grow mould in time for its next use!