Ultimate tent buying guide
Many of us will buy a tent at some point in our lives – whether we are attending an upcoming music festival, spending the weekend camping in the wilderness with a group of friends, or simply getting out of the city with our families for a few days. Buying a tent should be easy – they can be purchased from dozens of different shops and online stores, ranging from mass retailers to specialist outdoor stores. But unfortunately with so many different varieties on offer, choosing the right tent for the occasion isn’t always easy.
In this ultimate guide to buying tents we look at the various features you need to consider when buying a tent. We also talk you through the different types of tent available, so that you can choose the right one and make the most of your outdoor experience – whatever you have planned.
How big does your tent need to be?
The first and most important decision you will need to make is how big your tent should be. Tent sizes are usually defined by way of the maximum number of people that can fit inside – also known as the ‘berth’ of the tent. This sounds simple enough, but remember that depending on how much time you will be spending inside your tent, you may need additional space for living (rather than just sleeping).
A good rule of thumb is that four-person tents will generally work well for two adults, and bigger tents should provide sufficient space for whole families. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the bigger the tent, the more difficult it will generally be to assemble. You may also have to pay slightly higher pitch fees – so it’s worth checking this beforehand.
It perhaps goes without saying, but larger tents will also take up more space in your car (some will even come packed in several bags) and will also be heavier to carry. Before you leave your house, make sure that you are prepared and physically able to carry your tent once you arrive at your destination.
Do you need a tent with doors and windows?
Ventilation is extremely important when it comes to camping, especially on those longer trips. This means it is important to consider doors, windows and air vents when choosing a tent to make sure you will have adequate air flow.
Firstly you should check that all doors, windows and other openings are double-zipped for extra durability. They should also open from both the top and the bottom for added convenience.
Some doors may act as a windbreak or can be used to form a canopy – this provides an extra element of cover when you are out in the open, which can be particularly useful when cooking on a camping stove. The same goes for built-in ‘porches’ – these make excellent communal areas and makeshift kitchens when camping.
Windows are equally important – they should let a decent amount of natural light into the tent to prevent any fumbling in the dark if you need to find anything in the middle of the night. Good tents will also come with built-in mosquito nets. Anyone who has been camping in the height of summer will testify to the importance of these nets – as they allow you to sleep with the door and windows open, staying cool but without the constant risk of being bitten.
What materials should your tent be made out of?
Tent canvases are typically made from cotton, polycotton, polyester or nylon. Some will contain a fabric coating, others won’t. Tent poles are equally diverse – they can be constructed from steel, aluminium or other composite materials.
It is worth noting that you may see the same make and model of tent advertised in different materials – with different price tags to match. These tents will perform differently and some will be heavier than others, so you should read the product descriptions carefully to make sure that you have chosen the most appropriate model for your own personal needs (or budget!)
Should your tent be single or double skinned?
When you look at tent descriptions you will often see the words single or double skinned (or walled). In layman’s terms, this refers to the number of layers that form the fabric of the tent. Single skin tents are made of a single layer of waterproof fabric that is usually also breathable to help with ventilation.
On the other hand, double skin tents will feature an inner layer that will be made predominantly from a mesh material. This layer isn’t waterproof, but it is covered by an outer ‘flysheet’ that is. The outer layer is what protects you from rain, wind and the other elements while the space between the two layers provides insulation and reduces condensation.
There are various pros and cons to both designs, and the right one for you will depend on several factors.
Single skinned tents tend to be lighter and cheaper, plus they will usually provide more internal space for tents of equal size and weight. However, condensation can become a problem and they are inherently worse at providing insulation – something that can especially be a problem in the colder winter months. To make matters worse, they provide next to no protection if their outer skin is torn.
On the other hand, double skinned tents provide much better insulation and protection against adverse weather conditions – even if the outer layer is damaged. However, you will often pay a premium for this extra protection. Double skinned tents are also generally heavier, so you should bear this in mind if you will be carrying your tent long distances by hand.
Should your tent be waterproof?
You should keep an eye out for a ‘hydrostatic head rating’ for an indication of how well your tent protects against raindrops and other water. The rating is usually given in millimetres, with a higher rating equating to better waterproofing. It’s also worth bearing in mind that different parts of the tent will have different ratings – usually a groundsheet will have a much higher rating than a flysheet.
The standard minimum rating for waterproofing in British tents is 1,000mm. However, a higher rating of at least 2,000mm is usually required for protection against wind-driven rain – so bear this in mind if you’re expecting to be out in adverse weather.
If your tent is used heavily over an extended period of time, it’s not uncommon for the water-repellent coating to gradually break down. This can lead to water being absorbed into the fabric itself, rather than running off. This isn’t a reason to buy a new tent though – ‘reproofing’ sprays are available to maintain the fabric’s breathability and waterproof protection.
Which type of tent is best for you?
Once you have considered all of the above, you will still need to decide on the best type of tent for your needs. Tents come in all shapes and sizes, each with their own pros and cons, so to make sure your camping trip is a success you should think carefully and consider all of the options before making a purchase.
The clue is in the name – popup tents ‘pop up’ when they are taken out of their carrying cases. Their poles are already assembled and fed through the outer layer of the tent, so once they are released they spring up into shape. They are ideal for beginners or people who simply don’t have the time (or patience) to assemble a regular tent. For this reason you will often see a lot of popup tents at music festivals, but they are also ideal for taking children camping. You might also see popup tents advertised as instant or quick pitch tents. However, popup tents aren’t suitable for particularly windy conditions as they are less stable. They can also be difficult to put back into their carrying cases after use.
Dome tents are perhaps the most common type of tent for your average camper. They feature flexible poles that are fed through the outer layer of the tent and cross over at the top. The ends are fitted to straps at the bottom corners and attached to the ground with pegs. Dome tents are sturdier than popup tents in strong winds, but as a rule of thumb they become less stable as they increase in size.
A-Frame tents (also known as ridge tents) feature a pole at each end with another pole placed horizontally across the top of the tent. These tents are fairly stable, often with thick sturdy poles that are easy to assemble. However, on the flip side they can be bulky and heavy. Due to their shape, they are not always easy to walk around inside either.
As their name suggests, tunnel tents are long and thin with the poles arched over at the top (rather than crossing, as is the case with dome tents). Tunnel tents are one of the most popular styles of tent for family camping – they are generally taller and their shape means that you can usually stand up in them easily. Whereas some other types of tent can be freestanding, tunnel tents will always need to be pegged down for stability.
These tents – named after the French expression for ‘face to face’ – feature two sleeping areas each facing one another. The two areas are sloped down towards the edges, and are separated by a communal opening in the middle. There are several types of vis-à-vis tent available, usually in either a dome or tunnel shape.
Inflatable tents (also referred to as air tents) boast the newest technology in the camping industry. The ‘inflatable’ nametag refers to the structure of the tent poles. Rather than fiddling with a set of steel or aluminium poles, simply plug in your foot pump and watch your tent take shape as the inflatable ‘poles’ become filled with air.
This is a much quicker and easier process than assembling a traditional tent, making inflatable tents increasingly popular with families. What’s more, there is no risk of losing any parts or your poles becoming damaged in strong winds.
Geodesic tents are recognisable by the triangular, criss-crossing pattern of the poles across their surfaces. This unique design makes geodesic tents sturdier in strong winds and rain, which is why they are popular among mountaineers or people camping in wide-open spaces with less protection from the elements.
Traditional bell tents have been around for centuries – they are one of the most recognisable models of tent. They have raised walls and high ceilings, allowing for easy access and a large living space. Bell tents are usually made from durable, natural fabrics that provide excellent protection from the elements. Certain models will even allow you to install a small wood burning stove – perfect for cooking meals or generally keeping warm.
With their high ceilings and large circumferences, tipi tents are ideal for larger groups. Many tipis will house up to 10 people at once, making them ideal for weekend camping trips with a large group of friends. Tipis are much heavier and sturdier than regular dome or tunnel tents, with durable heavy-duty fabrics, so they’ll usually need to be transported in a car or trailer rather than in backpacks. However, this does mean that they fare particularly well in bad weather.
On the opposite end of the spectrum to tipis, backpacking tents are smaller in size and much lighter than your average tent – so they can be carried in a backpack easily. This makes them ideal for people who are looking to camp off the beaten track, or perhaps spend a weekend hiking in the countryside. They will often come in tunnel or geodesic shape, allowing for the best possible wind resistance and stability despite their smaller size.