selecting and caring for tents, tarps and bivi bags
One of my first camping experiences was on a wet campsite in North Wales. I slept in a tent that had the words ‘sun-resistant’ printed on the flysheet. By morning there was a stream running through the centre of the tent, and I had to wring out my sleeping bag. For the rest of that so-called holiday, I wore my waterproof jacket and trousers inside my sleeping bag at night.

Since then I’ve spent hundreds of nights under canvas, so I hope that these notes based on my personal experiences will help you to make some initial decisions about which type of tent is right for you.

Cotswold’s staff have between them used many different tents and are definitely in the best position to give you advice on a particular model. So if you’re after an expert opinion, please chat to them.

Happy camping!

Paul Deegan

Paul is the author of the award-winning ‘The Mountain Traveller’s Handbook’, published by the British Mountaineering Council and available from Cotswold.
backpacking & cycle touring
tent designs
If you are carrying all your equipment on your back – or strapped to the frame of your bicycle – comfort and space are probably going to be less important than the weight of the tent you choose. A tunnel, traverse hoop or three pole semi-geodesic tent that weighs just a couple of kilos will go a long way towards reducing the weight of your packed rucksack or panniers, which is always a good thing.

It is worth thinking about which tent features are really important to you. For example, if you plan to spend bad weather days inside your tent, you will want to ensure that the design has a sufficent amount of headroom so that you don’t get a face full of nylon when you sit up in the morning. Make sure that the tent is long enough for you: some tent manufacturers produce ultralight tents that are only suitable for people under six feet tall.

If you are planning to cycle between campsites, then short pole lengths and a vestibule large enough to cover your bike when it is left unattended will probably be two of the most useful features to look for in your ideal tent.

There are now so many hybrid tent designs on the market that it is almost impossible to classify every configuration. Nevertheless, most tents stem from one of five primary structures. These are:

• flexible poles which meet at the highest point
• pros: large sleeping and storage areas
• cons: can be unstable in strong winds

• two or three independent flexible poles
• pros: lightweight, and usually long enough for tall people
• cons: often unstable if exposed to side-on winds

traverse hoop
• one or two flexible interdependent poles
• pros: ultra-lightweight
• cons: often unstable in strong side-on winds

• rigid poles set in classic A-frame style
• pros: stable in bad weather and heavy snow
• cons: usually too heavy for backpacking

• four or five flexible poles in a self-supporting configuration
• pros: spacious and stable in high winds and heavy snow
• cons: heavier than hoop and tunnel tents

Note: tents pitch either flysheet first or inner tent first. Flysheet first helps to keep the inner tent dry when pitching in bad weather, or the inner can be dispensed with and the fly used on its own as an ultralight weatherproof tarp. Inner tent first ensures the largest possible sleeping area thanks to a drum-tight design, and also allows the waterproof fly to be left off in hot weather. Some hybrid tents allow the inner and flysheet to be erected together.

mountain & wilderness
If you plan to camp in winter, or on an exposed ledge instead of a sheltered valley site, then you’re going to need more protection than a lightweight backpacking tent can provide. Modern mountain tents normally have four poles set in a geodesic pattern in order to withstand strong winds and heavy snowfall. Traditional A-frame tents are also very strong, but tend to be heavier than geodesic styles.

Because mountain tents are often used in situations where going outside to relax and cook is simply not possible, a tent that sports two entrances can be a really good idea. You can throw all your clobber in one end, and use the other for cooking. Remember, tents are not flame-proof and can burn down in just a few seconds, so always ensure there is no possibility of a lit stove coming into contact with the tent fabric.

Mountain tents come supplied with plenty of guy lines. In calm conditions, it is not essential to deploy them. But in windy weather it is vital that they are pegged out and adjusted in order to ensure that the flysheet remains drum tight and away from the inner tent. It’s also worth sticking reflective tape on the lines so that you can see them at night.

family & car camping
the technical stuff
By using a car to travel between campsites you can really go to town in terms of space, comfort and style. The most popular options are a large dome or tunnel tent that has separate sleeping and dining areas. It’s a go idea to leave room in the car for collapsible chairs and a folding table; a lot of people heading to southern Europe throw in a portable BBQ as well.

If you have small children, then it might be worth considering a model that has removable dividers in the sleeping section. That way, when the little ones get a bit older and want their own space, you can simply pull the curtains down and compartmentalise the tent. That way, you get some privacy too!

It might be tempting to go for the largest tent available, but remember that the bigger the tent, the more room it will take up on a campsite. During the busy summer months when camping space is at a premium, a tent the size of an aircraft hanger could turn out to be a bit of a nightmare. Large tents also take more time to pitch than smaller models; something to bear in mind when the kids are tired and it’s pouring down with rain.

Lightweight tents are made from nylon or polyester, so try to keep part of the inner door unzipped so that air can circulate. If you spend all night in a sealed tent, by morning the walls of the inner tent could be awash with condensation. Take a moment each morning to adjust the guy lines in order to maintain a taught flysheet.

These days, most tents have sewn-in waterproof groundsheets. The best groundsheet designs are shaped like bathtubs for maximum dryness when the campsite you are staying on floods during the night.

Fibreglass poles are usually fine on tents that are used on valley campsites in fair weather. If you are planning to camp in wild terrain or in bad weather, then stronger aluminium poles are definitely worth the extra money.

Some tents have their critical flysheet and groundsheet seams sealed in the factory. If your tent is not seam-sealed, then this can easily be done at home with a proprietary sealant. Bear in mind that some sealants take a few days to dry, so try to plan ahead and get the job done ahead of your departure date.

tarps & bivi bags
Sometimes it’s not worth carrying a tent. For instance, if you are travelling in areas that boast hot, dry conditions then you might need nothing more than a mosquito net and a tree from which to hang it. In these situations, packing a lightweight tarp and a couple of bungees will allow you to rig up a canopy in the event that an unexpected shower passes overhead.

If you are planning to stay in mountain hostels or tea shops, but want a piece of weatherproof protection in case you get caught out, then why not invest in a lightweight bivi bag? Made from waterproof and breathable materials, these little insurance packages take up about the same room in your pack as a waterproof jacket. They are also great when you want to escape from the snorers in the alpine hut dormitory and sleep out under the stars.

Orange survival bags offer cheap and effective emergency protection from rain, wind and snow. It’s always worth keeping one in the bottom of your rucksack. If the weather is so bad that rain and wind are entering the survival bag whilst you are sitting in it, tear one corner off the bag, sit down on your packed rucksack, pull the bag over your head and body and tuck the wide opening under your seat and feet.

camping tips
looking after your tent
Modern tents are a lot easier to erect than they were 10 years ago. Nevertheless, it is worth putting some practice in before your first trip with a new tent. If your garden isn’t big enough, pop down to your local park. You might get some odd looks but it’s better than having to ask for help if you arrive on a wet and windy campsite in the dark.

If you are planning to camp on privately-owned land, make sure you obtain the permission of the landowner, and ensure that you leave no trace of your passing. Do any washing up or ablutions at least 200 feet away from all water sources, and please take all your rubbish home with you.

Remember that a flat pitch can become waterlogged in wet weather. A slightly sloping pitch will allow water to drain away more easily.

Finally, if you only have a single tent entrance, pitch the tent so that the door is out of the prevailing wind, otherwise a gale could end up blowing into your tent every time you step outside.

Tents don’t need much looking after, but these few pointers will help you to prolong the useful life of your shelter.

Nylon tents are resistant to UV-light, but given enough exposure to the sun, all fabrics eventually lose their waterproofness and strength. One way to minimise damage is to pitch your tent in the late afternoon and take it down early the following morning. If you plan to camp in one place for more than a few days (especially at high altitude) pack a large, thin sheet of coloured plastic with you. (This can be bought for a couple of quid in a DIY store.) Drape this over the flysheet in order to shield the tent from the harmful rays.

On rough ground, a second piece of plastic slipped under the tent will protect the sewn-in groundsheet, which can be expensive to repair or replace if it is torn. Some manufacturers produce shaped underlays for specific tents which slide beneath the groundsheet.

As soon as you get home, remove any dirt with warm water and a soft brush, and then allow the tent to dry out slowly. Only pack your tent away when it is bone dry, otherwise you run the risk of mildew spreading through the fabric.

All outdoor activities are potentially hazardous. The information provided on this site offers guidelines only, and is no substitute for personal instruction from a qualified person. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, no responsibility can be accepted by the author or Cotswold Outdoor Ltd. for any errors or omissions. By choosing to follow any of the advice contained in this leaflet, the reader accepts personal responsibility for a) learning any techniques required, b) any risks involved, and c) any damages or injuries of any kind - including death - howsoever caused. Cover shot: Checking the way ahead on the Trekker's Haute Route, between Chamonix and Zermatt.
© Paul Deegan & Flirt Design under license to Cotswold Outdoor Ltd.