Tent Buying Guide
Tents can be complicated things and with so many options available, it can be hard to know which is the right one for you. Whether you’re sitting out a storm high up in the hills, travelling fast and light on a multi-day trek, or pitching up with the family at an organised campsite, you’ll want a tent you can rely on.
Our expert guide explains the different tent types and their features to help you find the best one to suit your adventures, but if you're still not sure what to go for, visit us in-store for tailored advice from our experts.
How many people are going?
First things first: there’s more to tent sizes than meets the eye. Tents are labelled to indicate how many people they can fit – not people with luggage. This means that a “4-person” or “4-berth” tent will likely only fit two people plus luggage, unless they have a living space which can be used for storage, so it’s important to bear this in mind when you’re selecting your tent. Not only that, but there is no standard for the size of one person, so the individual sizes of the people in your group will affect the size of tent you need. Add at least an extra person to your group when choosing how many people the tent is for, and consider whether you’ll be bringing extra kit for backpacking trips, additional luggage or furniture if family camping, or how big your airbeds/sleeping mats are, etc. It all adds up, and it’s always better to have excess space than to have too little.
Tents are classified into two main categories: backpacking and campsite tents.
Backpacking tents are perfect for self-supported adventures where you are heading off the beaten track. They utilise lightweight fabrics and poles and come in a range of designs, from pared back setups that keep weight to an absolute minimum, to roomier designs featuring generous vestibules that offer more useable space, whilst remaining light enough to carry comfortably. Much smaller and more lightweight than campsite tents, backpacking tents can withstand harsher weather conditions.
Campsite tents are geared more towards group and family camping. They have larger living spaces, come with additional features and are designed with an emphasis on comfort and practicality. Their bigger size means heavier weight and these tents aren’t designed to be carried long distances. They are best suited for use in campsites where you park your car close to the pitch. Easy to pitch, they provide a dry, spacious and reliable shelter if the weather takes a turn.
Image (clockwise from top left): Geodesic tent, dome tent, bell tent, large tunnel tent.
Geodesic tents feature more than two tent poles which cross over each other multiple times for extra stability. These are perfect for backpacking because they’re able to stand up to stronger winds. It’s worth noting that how ‘geodesic’ a tent is depends on how many nodes it has (points at which tent poles cross). Fully-geodesic tents have five or more nodes giving them a very strong structure capable of withstanding very high winds. Tents with fewer than five nodes are classified as semi-geodesic and, whilst still very stable, compromise on strength for the payoff of being slightly lighter overall. Both geodesic and semi-geodesic tents can be pitched on rocky terrain as you don’t need guylines to keep them up.
Dome tents are spacious and quick and easy to pitch. Their stable, lightweight construction of two main poles which cross once at the highest point of the tent, makes them a good choice for those wanting a bit more space to sit up in. Although they’re not as technical or strong as geodesic or semi-geodesic designs, they are a good all-rounder, great for general camping use, short backpacking trips or campsite visits in non-extreme conditions.
One to two-person tunnel tents are ideal backpacking or trekking options for trips where you have to carry and pitch your tent every night. They are quick and easy to pitch, have storage space separate from the main sleeping compartment giving you a great weight-to-space ratio. With the inner tent and the flysheet joined, these tents offer a simultaneous pitch option which is great for speed and protecting the inner tent in bad weather. However, they are more vulnerable to very strong winds and need to be pitched on soft ground using guylines. Larger tunnel tents are a great campsite tents, making then a good choice for families. They often feature separate compartments for privacy – great for kids wanting their own space - and great standing room in the ‘living’ area.
A bell tent is a multi-purpose shelter with a single central pole and canvas exterior. From a distance they look a bit like a yurt, and their open, roomy interior means they are a great choice for groups or families. They have one large area which you can customise to the needs of your group, offering the most home-like camping experience. If you’re planning on driving to a campsite for an extended family stay you can’t get much cosier than a bell tent.
What to look for when choosing a tent
Most tents have a flysheet: the outer cover which protects those inside the tent from getting wet. Flysheets tend to be coated with a waterproof layer, and the material used to make this layer will affect the tent’s price – but this is one area you don’t want to skimp on! Flysheets are usually made from polyurethane (PU), which offers the best waterproofing, or polycotton, which is excellent for breathability in temperate climates, so your material choice should be influenced by where and when you’ll be using the tent. It’s also worth noting that whilst a polycotton flysheet will give the tent much better light, it does require extra care.
If the flysheet is there to keep the elements out, the inner tent is designed to keep you as comfortable as possible. Inner tents will feature a combination of solid fabric and mesh for ventilation. Models intended for year-round use will allow you to cover any mesh panels for comfort during colder nights.
Tent groundsheets can be sewn-in or linked-in. Sewn-in groundsheets mean the tent comes as a self-contained unit, whilst a linked-in groundsheet will have to be attached to the tent. It’s also worth considering an extra layer of protection, such as a footprint, to aid the tent’s durability and your comfort.
Poles or air?
Air tents, or inflatable tents, are a fairly recent development, and use inflating beams instead of tent poles to form their structure. They offer equal stability and strength to tents with poles, and are much easier to assemble. Air tents also offer better wind resistance than tents with poles, which makes them great for camping along the coast or in vast open spaces.
If you choose a tent with poles, look out for what the poles are made of. More basic tents often use fiberglass poles, which are suitable for mild conditions as they can break under excessive strain – but are cheap and easy to replace. Tents intended for harsher conditions often have aluminium or steel poles, which are stronger but more expensive. The poles themselves are made up of several sections linked together by elasticated cord so that they can fold down to a small size, making them easy to pack.
Designs featuring a single door help keep overall weight to a minimum, whilst dual-door models offer greater practicality for more than one occupant. Tent doors have a fine mesh covering to provide ventilation whilst at the same time keeping unwanted bugs and insects out.
Vestibules (or porches) are areas of the tent which are covered by the flysheet but separate from the main inner tent. They are great for storing wet or muddy kit away from the sleeping area or acting as extending living space when sitting out bad weather. Some tents have the option to add on a vestibule (or extra ones) - something well worth investing in.
A tent’s hydrostatic head is an indication of how waterproof it is. A hydrostatic head of 1500 is the legal minimum for a tent to be classified as waterproof, so a rating of 2000-3000 will be plenty to cope with the varying British weather.
Ventilation is key to preventing condensation from building up in your tent and leaving a pool of water for you to wake up to! Condensation is a particular problem when the temperature outside is much cooler than inside the tent, so making sure your tent is well-ventilated with the option to also leave the door or windows slightly open will make sure your trip is a comfortable one.
From tables, chairs and carpets for comfort, to structural add-ons like awnings and windbreaks, there are plenty of great accessoriesto make your tent a true home under canvas. Whilst these are a great way to add space and functionality to your tent, bear in mind that there will be a resulting increase in weight and pitching/take down time, so it’s all about finding balance.
Still not sure which tent is right for you? Visit us in-store for advice from our experts.
A sleeping mat is an essential part of your camping set-up, offering you comfort and warmth for a good night’s sleep. We’ve put together this guide to the different types of sleeping mat which are available, to help you choose the perfect one for your next camping trip.
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