A Guide to Tents
Tent Buying Guide: Everything you need to know about buying the perfect tent.
Buying a new tent is an investment, but with the vast array of styles to choose from, from pop-ups to geodesic, and from tipis to quick-pitch tents, it can be quite a confusing process.
This quick tent guide can help you navigate your way through the various tent types and features available to find the best tent to suit your camping style.
The size of tent you need is contingent on the number of people in your party plus luggage: a two-man or two-berth tent does not make an allowance for luggage room, so you should have at least one extra berth for all of your kit. A four-berth tent can be ideal for 2-3 people!
The fewer the berths, the smaller the tent and the less headroom you will have, but it’s up to you to consider whether you need some standing room or just a bed to lie down in for the night.
Single man tents, perfect for backpacking, are designed just for sleeping in, whereas other styles of tents offer more living space.
If you’re camping with children, it’s important to consider both headroom and space. Don’t be tempted to go too big without taking into account the weight and how far you will have to lug the tent from your car!
Types of Tent
A-Frame or Ridge Tent:
This tent is a triangle-shaped structure. A-frame or ridge tents have a simple pole at each end and a third pole or ‘ridge’ (hence the name) across the top.
Ridge tents are remarkably stable which is why they are still in use today. The main disadvantage of ridge tents is height: there is no standing room except in the largest versions.
Perfect for back garden camping: pop-up tents take seconds to set up and are ideal if you have never pitched a tent before. Also known as instant or quick-pitch, the tents have built-in poles and a sprung frame fitted into the fabric. Just twist the sprung frame, throw the tent into the air, and peg down.
A one-man pop-up tent is ideal for solo fishing trips. Pop-up tents are perfect for festivals, but they are too unstable for exposed, and windy sites so don’t try taking one up a mountain!
Dome tents have flexible poles which slot together and then cross over in the middle. The ends fit into webbed straps at the base that peg into the ground.
Dome tents are sturdier and more reliable than pop-up tents in windy conditions, but stability does tend to lessen as size increases. Some of the best 2-man tents are dome tents.
A tunnel tent has several poles spaced intermittently along its length like a poly-tunnel. Tunnel tents tend to make better use of the available space than dome tents, and the taller ones that you can stand up in are ideal for families.
Smaller tunnel tents, perfect for backpacking, are lower with a taller pole creating a semi-circle at the entrance and a lower pole at the tapered end.
A sociable style of tent, vis-á-vis or ‘face to face’ tents have a central communal area in the middle, which you can stand up in, and sleeping compartments at either end which face toward the central area.
These tents are designed to be lightweight and pack into your rucksack. Backpacking tents are among the more technical tents due to the need for a combination of lightness, strength and durability.
They are perfect for open areas and windy conditions like moorlands. Backpacking tents are usually tunnel or geodesic shaped for optimum stability and are easy to pitch. These tents are a worthwhile investment as they tend to last for years.
Geodesic tents have crisscrossing poles along the fabric that create triangular patterns on the surface. Geodesic tents are very stable and designed for extreme conditions such as mountainsides or highly exposed areas.
If you are planning a challenging expedition, then you should consider a geodesic tent. Semi-geodesic tents have fewer poles, making them simpler to erect, and are suitable for extreme conditions.
Tipi tents are usually large, and some have portable stoves so that you can light a fire inside. They are ideal for glamping weekends, and the more durable ones are perfect for backcountry activities and bushcraft groups, but they are heavy so you won’t want to carry it too far.
A traditional, gypsy-style tent, bell tents are tall and have a central pole and a bell-like shape, wider than a tipi and offering more living space. Many have a wood-burning stove, and they are common at ‘glamping’ sites.
'Blow up' ('air tents') are perfect for festivals and campsites because they’re fun and easy to pitch. The tent has air-filled tubes that inflate via pump instead of traditional poles. They are ideal for a big group as they set up in minutes without poles, but they can also be heavy!
One of the biggest and heaviest style of tents on the market, pod tents are based around a central living area with separate sleeping ‘pods’ leading off from it.
They are perfect for family or group camping with a communal area and still allowing for privacy, but can be very hefty to carry and time-consuming to put up.
What type of tent do I need for a festival?
Festival tents can vary in size depending on the number in your party, but are usually cheap and cheerful. It’s advisable to choose an extra berth so that you have room for all your gear, i.e. if only three of you are travelling, go with a four-man tent. Consider a tent with a porch area to stash your muddy wellies. A dome, inflatable or popup tent makes an excellent choice for a festival.
What type of tent do I need for a weekend trip?
For a short trip or a weekend camping, you need a comfortable, sturdy tent that’s not too bulky to carry. A weekend tent should be a bit more durable than a standard festival tent and will probably cost a little bit more.
There are plenty of styles to choose from, so go for something compact but not too small, it will have to hold enough kit for a few days. Consider whether you want to have a porch, and choose a style that’s quick to pitch.
Hiking with the Family
Family tents range in size from 3-10 berths and come in a variety of styles. A family tent will usually have a large living space and multiple bedrooms.
If you are staying at a campsite, go for something spacious and luxurious, but if you’re going to be hiking with your family and moving the tent every day or so, then consider a smaller tent. Tunnel tents have excellent stability for this kind of camping.
Hiking in the Mountains
For high altitude mountain hiking, you need a serious tent that will withstand exposed conditions and extreme weather for extended periods. Expedition tents are usually geodesic, tunnel or dome style depending on the altitude and the type of mountain climate. The outer material should be rip-stop and have a high-quality waterproof coating.
Backpacking or Trekking
Heading off for a few nights’ trekking? Consider an ultralight backpacking tent. These high-tech tents pack down to almost nothing. Constructed from thin breathable waterproof fabric, and with shorter, ultra-light poles, they take up minimal space and weight. You won’t get much headroom but they are perfect for cycle touring and overland trail journeys.
Double or Single Skinned?
A tent may be single or double-skinned. As single-skin tent is made of a single layer of waterproof fabric. They are often made from breathable fabrics, like canvas, to aid ventilation. They can be easier to put up than double-skinned tents.
A double skin tent has two layers: an inner layer usually of mesh that is not waterproof, and a second waterproof outer layer. The inner layer provides insulation and reduces condensation.
The most important feature of any tent! All tents must meet a British standard for waterproofing; the hydrostatic head rating (a rain cloud symbol on the label) determines how waterproof the tent is.
The minimum level is 1000 mm, although 2-3000 is advisable to take into account driving rain conditions. Most tents will need to reproofing with a waterproofing spray from time to time. You should consider reproofing your tent every year or so.
Your poles give the tent its structural support and can be either bendy or rigid.
Rigid poles are usually made of steel and are heavy and bulky, but come with the bonus of added support. Rigid poles are standard for large family tents and traditional tents like tipis.
Bendy tent poles are fibreglass or aluminium and link at the joints with elastic cord. These are lightweight and flexible and used in a dome, geodesic or tunnel tents; they can break under extreme pressure though so be careful when pitching.
Some tents are made with inflatable beams instead of poles.
Traditional tents like tipis, bell-tents and some ridge tents are made of canvas. An untreated canvas tent will leak on its first exposure to rain until the fabric weave tightens through being wet, at which point it becomes permanently waterproof.
Most tents are made of either polyester, polycotton or nylon.
Polycotton is lighter than canvas. Polycotton does not have a hydrostatic rating but absorbs moisture as canvas does. The advantage of canvas and polycotton tents is their high breathability.
Nylon tents have a range of coatings and it’s the quality of the coating that determines the durability (and expensiveness) of the tent. Nylon tents with a silicone coating are great for extreme conditions as they offer the most protection; PU (polyurethane) is another good option while Acrylic is the cheapest coating.
Polyester tents are similar to nylon in that they also need to be coated and are light and breathable fabrics: polyester is slightly more durable than nylon overall.
A groundsheet is simply the waterproof bottom of the tent that forms a barrier between you and the ground. These days most groundsheets form an integral part of the tent, or occasionally you find zipped-in styles.
A waterproof outer layer. The flysheet is suspended over the tent without touching it to prevent water penetration.
These are the cords attached to the flysheet which is pulled away from the tent and then pegged into the ground to stabilise the tent. They are adjustable and it is useful to tighten them regularly to maintain stability.
Double zips allow you to open the door from the top or the bottom for ventilation. Look for good quality zips when buying a tent.
Most tents come with basic steel pegs which are suitable for most conditions, but there are some specialist pegs available for particular types of terrain. For pitching in very soft mud, you may need heavy duty plastic T-pegs, and V or X-shaped pegs. Look for pegs designed for sandy ground if at the beach.
A good tent needs ventilation, as without it condensation will form inside your tent and it will become wet. Air vents help the vapour escape and keep the inside of your tent nice and dry.
Duke of Edinburgh Recommended Kit
The tent is classified as suitable for a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition.
A tent carpet is an excellent insulator that keeps your tent warm and cosy underfoot and banishes those early-morning cold feet!
It’s quite common for most tents to have a porch at the entrance to leave muddy boots and other pieces of your kit that you don’t want in your tent but need to keep dry. Large tents sometimes have huge porches that are big enough to use as cooking areas.
Want to extend ‘your’ space on the campsite? Get a windbreak. Not just for keeping the wind out, these are perfect for creating a sitting area outside your tent and giving you a privacy screen.