The ins and outs, poles, pegs and polyesters of buying a tent in the latest of our OUTDOORSmagic buyer's guides.
tent is your friend, it's the bit of kit that gives you the freedom
to stay out overnight, to sleep cheaply pretty much anywhere in the
world and to survive the sort of weather that would be an express
ticket to hypothermia without.
Fine, but which one should you buy? Single or double skin? Tunnel
or geodesic? What about season ratings? One entrance or two? A good
shop will be able to help you, but here are some basics designed to
help you narrow down the field.
Quite a few manufactures rate their tents according to seasons,
which would be fine if the weather read the same ratings and took
note. In reality, a Scottish summer mountain pitch can be as savage
as winter conditions in, say, the Lake District.
It's more helpful to break down tents according to their intended
use, there's no universally recognised standard, but this is what
we'd expect from each category:
- Expedition tents designed for extreme mountain
conditions and snow and glacier camping in particular. Often heavy
because weight is sacrificed to strength.
- Mountain / Alpine One rung down from expedition tents,
but still intended for full-on use on high ground in bad
- Trekking / Valley Tents are more suited to valley
campsites in the mountains. Fine high up, but not as tough.
Usually lighter as a result though.
- Backpacking Tents Tents aimed at backpackers generally
prioritise light weight over ultimate strength and stability
making them usually best suited for sheltered pitches, though some
are still pretty tough in their own right.
- Touring Tents There's a whole raft of tents out there
designed for non-technical activities like car camping and family
trips. They're generally intended to be used in campsites, so
they're not particularly tough or light. Ideal for camping out of
the back of a car though.
Our advice is to decide what you want the tent to be able to do
and start from there. Remember that some lightweight mountain tents
can also be used for backpacking, but a lightly made valley tents
won't hack it in the high mountains.
Single or Double Skinned?
The classic double-skinned tent uses an inner tent made
from a water resistant but highly breathable fabric coupled with an
outer fly-sheet, which is waterproof and keeps the rain and wind out.
It's a good combination for a combination of protection and
not particularly light though, which is why there are also some
lightweight single-skinned and bivvy tents about. They're
great for reducing weight and bulk in your pack, however we've yet to
find one that works really well in UK conditions. Condensation, we're
afraid, goes with the single-skinned territory, so unless you're a
total weight freak, we'd stick with a double-skinned tent and accept
that you'll carry a few hundred grammes more.
As an aside, bivvy bags sound great, but while they work
decently in cold, dry high mountain environments, in the UK's damper
conditions, condensation again tends to be problematic. And there's
nothing quite as miserable as bivvying on torrential rain. A bivvy
combined with a tarp is arguably a better combination over here.
Tunnel or Geodesic (or in between)
and Geodesics both have good and bad points. The classic
tunnel is a logical extension of the classic ridge tent with
'A-poles' being replaced by two or three curved poles fitted through
Tunnels tend to lighter than geodesics due to the reduced number
of poles, pockets and gizzmos. They're also capable of being
extremely robust and stable. Unlike geodesics though, they get a lot
of their strength from being properly guyed out, which can make for
some ingenious pitching in snowy conditions and on glaciers, though
usually pitching is more straightforward than with a geodesic
They also prefer to be pitched end-on into any winds / weather for
a sleeker, weather beating profile. Having said that, tunnels also
tend to distort under really high winds rather than breaking, which
can make them more forgiving than theoretically tougher
construction where a series of poles form an interlocking
dome-like structure, makes for a very tough but usually heavier tent
well suited to mountain use. The structure is inherently rigid and
the tent can be picked up a moved around if necessary. Guylines are
less crucial to the tent's strength.
On the other hand, some experts argue that while geodesics are
strong, the rigidity of the structure means that when they do fail,
the fail catastrophically while the give in a good tunnel tent may
mean it distorts rather than fails outright. You pays your money,
etc, though the majority of bombproof mountain tents to tend to
embrace geodesic construction.
Whichever you choose, if it's for winter use, make sure the
flysheet extends all the way to the ground for protection. If it's to
be used in snow, then an additional snow vallance is even more
It used to be canvas or canvas. Modern tents though generally use
synthetic fabrics, normally either Nylon or Polyester proofed either
with silicone or PU. Both have their fans with arguments raging over
relative tear strengths, UV resistance and stretch. You should also
look for a fabric treated with UV inhibitors.
for example, is reckoned to stretch less than Nylon when wet
and have a higher natural UV resistance - crucial to high altitude
tents exposed to strong sunshine - though any coating used will
enhance this. We've used both Nylon and Polyester successfully in the
past and both will do the job.
The good news is that modern fabric technology means that even
light fabrics can be very tough and highly abrasion resistant,
they're not usually cheap though, which one reason why light, strong
tents are expensive.
Poles these days are generally made from interlocking alloy
with an internal shockcord to hold them together, Easton is one
aluminium brand name to look out for. They offer a great combination
of lightness and strength, plus can be pre-bent to suit odd tent
Finally, look for a thick, durable groundsheet. The best
we've used is the one from Macpac, which we've never known to leak,
and while you can supplement a built-in floor with an extra
undersheet or 'footprint' it shouldn't really be necessary. You'll
often see the term bathtub used with groundsheets, that means
the proofed material forms a tub, usually around 4-6 inches high,
meaning the tent can surivive minor floods without leaking. A good
Doors and Vents
need at least one door to get in and out of the tent, though
some have two entrances which allow you to shelter from the wind more
easily if weather conditions change. Look for an entrance that
includes a decent-sized porch so you can cook in the tent plus the
facility to open and close different flaps for maximum
Make sure there are provisons for tying the door back out of the
way when you're cooking or simply want to be able to get in and out
easily. Think about storage too, will there be enough space to stash
a pack or two if you need to?
Vents are also crucial, particularly in winter, a flow of
air through the tent prevents condensation from building up. Ideally
you want an arrangement you can use without leaving the comfort of
the tent, which can be propped or held open and can be closed quickly
if bad weather comes in.
Mesh doors don't seem particularly important till you're besieged
by a swarm of hungry midgies at which point they are the most
important thing in the universe. Most decent tents now come with a
fine mesh panel as part of the door construction.
We prefer to have the mesh on the outside of the door, since you
can then open and close the solid fabric from inside the tent. The
only downside to that, is that in some conditions, snow can be
trapped by an external mesh, but it's not generally a problem.
generally something you find out about in a dark field in the pouring
rain, the first time you use your tent. It shouldn't be though, the
simpler and quicker a tent pitches, the safer it is. We like Macpac's
all in one inner and outer together pitching system for its outright
speed and simplicity.
At the very least though, we prefer to be able to pitch any tent
flysheet first, not always an option with geodesics. That way the
inner tent is protected from rain while the tent is being pitched,
and so are you... Generally, the simpler the tent, the more quickly
it will go up. Multiple tensioners and cunning reinforcement devices
weigh more and take time to pitch.
Mesh of fabric sleeves, continuous ones are best, make threading
poles through easier, also look for colour coded poles where there
are several of different length to choose from.
may sound obvious, but make sure there's enough room in the tent and
vestibule for you and your kit. Is the tent long enough for you to
sleep in without being crammed against the walls? Is the vestibule
large enough for packs and other equipment that you don't want in the
How about internal storage. Mesh pockets on the tent walls are
great for getting odds and sods out of the way and some tents now
come with 'gear lofts' that are suspended from the ceiling to provide
Can you sit up in the tent? That might seem unimportant now, but
if you find yourlself sitting out bad weather, the extra headroom's
worth having. Finally, we prefer light coloured tents. Not because
they're easy to spot, but because in bad weather, it's simply more
pleasant and uplifting being in a bright, light space than in a dark,
Good tents aren't cheap, you pay for lightness combined with
strength because that lightness comes from a combination of high
tech, expensive materials and careful design and construction. But
before you lash out on a top-end kennel, ask yourself if you're
really going to use it in serious conditions.
If you're going to be mainly car camping, there are plenty of more
moderately priced, heavier, but still very adequate options out
there. Happy camping...
Help and Advice
Hopefully this article will have given you some basic pointers.
The good news is that there's a load more advice on
- Ask on the gear
forum about general issues or specific items.
- Check the member
reviews section for user experiences of kit.
- See OM editorial reviews on the front of the site for our
Richard Gear if you have a specific question you need