Which tent is right for you?

26 June 2008 16:35

With a tent you’ve got your own portable hotel in the hills. But check these details before you spend a cent to make sure the one you buy is perfect for you.

All tents are sold with a clear indication of how many people they are designed to sleep. Bigger means heavier, and if you’re backpacking, you need to strike the right balance between weight and living space. A small saving in weight isn’t always worth it, as cramped conditions can make the inevitable time spent inside miserable. If you’ve got a mate to share the weight with, it takes quite a big weight saving to be anything other than negligible too. If you camp only in campsites by your car, don’t waste money on a lightweight design – focus on living space, convenience features, ease of pitching and ambience.

Tents come in all different designs and shapes. Geodesic designs are the most stable as the poles cross one another, making them ideal for camping in winter or on mountains. Tunnel designs are lower in weight and are quite spacious, so they’re best for backpacking where weight is the priority. Domes are very spacious but not as stable as a geodesic design, so they are ideal for valley use.

Always make sure you can sit up inside the tent: get a friend to measure your height when sitting and then compare this to the maximum internal height in the specification.

You sleep inside the inner tent, so it needs to be dry and spacious. There must be a gap between the inner and the flysheet, so that any condensation on the underside of the flysheet doesn’t soak into the inner tent. If the inner and outer touch, avoid the tent as the inner will get very wet from condensation. Single-skin tents are very lightweight, but as they do not have a separate inner tent the occupants run the risk of coming into contact with condensation on the inside of the flysheet. Tents that allow you to leave the inner in place when you strike camp will be quicker and easier to pitch.

The external doors allow entry to the porch and the inner tent. But they also provide ventilation and act as a windbreak and a canopy when cooking. Ideally all zips should have double pullers so that the top or bottom of the door can be opened.

Size and material quality affect the weight of the tent. When backpacking, the tent spends most of the day in your rucksack, so weight is very important. But if you camp in the valley from the back of the car, you can let the car take the strain!

This is the large area outside the inner tent but still under the cover of the flysheet. Your porch is ideal for storing wet gear as well as acting as a kitchen in wet weather. You need to make sure that you can open the door from the top and that there is enough space in the porch for your rucksacks and gear.

The groundsheet is the part you lie on inside the inner tent. In modern tents it is usually sewn in and seam-sealed to prevent it from leaking. The best groundsheets rise up the side of the inner like the sides of a bath tub.

Flysheet fabrics
The big choice is between nylon and polyester. Nylon is less sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) than polyester, so it lasts longer when exposed to daylight over long periods. Heavier fabrics are more resistant to the effects of UV too. All fabrics have a layer of polyurethane (PU) applied to make the fabrics waterproof. The higher the ‘hydrostatic head’ that the material can withstand, the more waterproof it will be.

Poles give the tent shape and stability. Some tents feature poles that are permanently sewn in place, making life easier. Most tents have alloy poles with shock cords down the middle that allow them to be easily folded and opened. Hollow glass fibre poles will snap more easily than alloy ones, and this is particularlytrue in cold weather.

Packed size
Be warned that just because a tent can be vacuum-packed into a tiny stuffsack it does not mean that it will pack into the same stuffsack when the tent is wet and your hands are cold. So try unpacking and repacking the tent before you buy it.

Inner-pitched-first designs save weight and tend to be more stable as the inner and outer contribute to stability. Outer-pitched-first designs are better if pitching in the rain as you can put the outer up, get inside, strip off your wet gear and then put up the inner in the dry. When striking (taking down) the tent you can do the reverse – pack the inner away and get your waterproofs on before hauling down the outer in the rain and packing it away. Tents may also be described as ‘quick-erect’ or ‘easy to pitch’. Ask for a demonstration so you can see for yourself.

Guy lines
A set of cords are usually provided to help hold the tent stable in high winds. Some tent designs need fewer guy lines than others, as stability can also be controlled by careful use of the poles.

Midge nets
Midge nets should be fitted to the outside of the inner tent doors so that you can open the door for ventilation without opening the midge net which would allow midges in.

Most tents come with fairly lightweight basic wire skewer-type pegs which are fine for general use. But more durable pegs are available for different types of terrain, and these can be purchased separately if needed.