Choosing a Wildcamping Tent


I want a tent, not a cathederal
Like people, tents come in all shapes and sizes, some useful, some not. Depending on your requirements the number of options are simply mind boggling. In this article I will attempt to give an outline on how to choose a tent based on the standard options available. Please note, this is aimed squarely at wild campers not car campers as car camping has a whole different set of variables. When wild camping the most important factors are more likely to be weight, size and suitability for the elements rather than where Aunt Bertha is going to sleep and at which end should the TV go!

A tent for all seasons.
Backpacking tents can be broken down into 5 basic types:

Dome tents usually have 2 flexible poles crossing from each corner gving the obvious dome shape. Like tunnel tent they can be unstable in windy conditions and in addition can be heavy due to the increased headroom and area. Pros: Good sleeping area with room for storage.
Cons: Unstable in strong winds.
Geodesic tents (also known as mountain tents) comprise 4 or 5 poles in a self supporting configuration. They are the preferred tent for difficult conditions being both stable in wind and capable in snow. Pros: Stable in bad weather and spacious.
Cons: Heavy.
Ridge tents have solid poles in a classic A-Frame style. Pros: Stable in bad weather.
Cons: Heavy.
Traverse Hoop tents are extremely light with one or two flexible poles but suffer in side on winds. Pros: Ultra-light.
Cons: Unstable in bad weather.
Tunnel tents have two or three flexible poles that are used independently. They can be unstable in windy conditions but are handy for taller people as they tend to be long. Pros: Ligtweight and long.
Cons: Unstable in winds, especially if side on.

The style of most tents you will see match the 5 in the table above. However, they all have serious pros and cons. The ones that are light enough to carry over distances don’t fare well in high winds (or snow), the ones cheap enough to afford tend towards the heavy and the types that can withstand all weathers are both expensive and heavy. Helpful?

Things to consider
Size for the number of people
Obviously you need a tent that is suitably sized for the number of people you will need to squeeze in, potentially including gear. All tents will have a rating for the number of adults they will hold. Like most camping measurements they generally err to the best the tent can do in extreme circumstances rather than for comfort. A three man tent will generally sleep 2 in comfort with a bit of room to crowbar some gear in. A three man tent with three sizeable men in it will rarely have room for rucksacks  and require everyone to be fairly friendly.

Single skin or double skin
A tent usually comprises 2 parts known as an inner and outer. The inner is fabric usually with netting and would normally be stitched to the groundsheet creating a single space broken only by a zipped door or doors. The inner is breatheable and will keep insects out. The outer, known as the flysheet is the waterproof part of the tent and is kept separated from the inner as it will usually get damp through dew and condensation. The inner is not waterproof and relies on the outer to keep the rain off. Single skin tents only have a flysheet and no inner so when condensation forms touching the sides of the tent will transfer the moisture to you.

Groundsheet
The groundsheet is the part of the tent flat on the ground that makes up the floor. Most tents have a bathtub floor which means that the groundsheet is stitched to the main tent, but not all. Non-bathtub tents can have water run in from the ground outside and are generally best avoided. Also, the floor is the most waterproof part of the tent and needs to be thick enough to withstand sitting in a puddle of water.

Porch or not
The porch initially sounds like it should be in the “most boring thing to consider” list but it’s actually one of the first things an experienced tent-monkey will look at. Having a porch means you have somewhere to cook when it’s raining and a place to keep wet gear / rucksacks leaving the inside of the tent free for rolling around in. However, like all things, having a porch means extra weight.

Ventilation
Assuming the people sleeping in a tent intend to breathe through the night then condensation is going to be an issue. Your exhaled breath contains moisture which will condense back into liquid when it touches something cold meaning in the case of a tent, the inside of the flysheet and you would be suprised exactly how much moisture will leave the body during a nights sleep – certainly enough for a decent puddle! This can be somewhat negated with decent ventilation but ventilation also means cold. Single skin tents are always a problem as the flysheet is usually attached to the groundsheet so as water forms and runs down the wall it drops directly onto the tent floor. Decent ventilation will allow the moist air to be blown out of the tent before it has a chance to condense but it will never extract it all. A double skin tent has the inner attached to the groundsheet and the outer just drops to the ground giving plenty of ventilation and as the water runs down it drips onto the ground rather than into the tent, however, a cheaply designed or made double skin tent can also have water form on the inner causing issues. It’s worth noting that depending on the conditions condensation can be a problem in the best, most expensive tent.

Pitch inner first, outer first or both together
A double skin tent that can only be pitched inner first can be a problem in difficult conditions. The outer is the waterproof part and the inner is generally mesh and light fabric so when it’s windy and wet by the time you get the inner pitched and the outer over, the inside of the tent can already be anywhere from moist to ready for swimming in. A tent that can be pitched outer first will stay drier as will single skin tents. Double skin tents that can be pitched inner and outer together also wont suffer but they can’t be so easily split between people.

Weight
When you need to pack your home onto your back and carry it to your destination weight is an issue. Every kilo makes the trip harder and unless you’re André the Giant, trying to carry a 5 kilo tent up a mountain on your own is going to make the trip hard. At the same time, the lighter the tent the less effective it is likely to be in difficult weather so a trade off is always required between weight and suitability for the conditions. Most tents are made up of a number of different parts (inner, outer, poles, pegs etc) so when more than one person is sleeping in a tent then it can be split between its inhabitants. Thus, a 5 kilo tent split between 3 people works out to 1.33kg per person (if it could be exactly divided easiily).

Suitablity for conditions
You are going to need a different tent to cross the Arctic than you will need for a balmy summers day in Spain. Unfortunately this tends to make it necessary to have more than one tent if you will be out in wildly varied conditions. This being Northern Ireland, conditions can actually vary quite a bit. In summer when it’s still and clear any tent would do but on a Mourne Mountain peak in February the conditions can be attrocious needing a tent capable of withstanding driving rain and gale force winds. To a degree you can solve this issue by hiding in the house when the weather is bad but as forecasts can be inaccurate it generally pays to be prepared for all conditions.

Beasties
Northern Ireland is famous for its midges and in the summer they can swarm like an invading army causing some serious irritation. A double skin tent with noseeum netting (the fine mesh that you get on tent inners) will keep them out admirably, however a single skin tent that is well ventilated will just turn into an insect dining room keeping them in rather than out.

Gear storage
When wild camping you will usually have a rucksack per person which in bad weather will need stowed for the night. Being a person that has had his ruck stolen by a fox with a strong love for beef sausages, I’d recommend having your gear somewhere secure even in good conditions. A tent with extra space will take a rucksack in between two people and a long tent can fit bags at peoples feet. Similarly a tent with a porch will give somewhere outside to keep bags in the dry. Ultralight tents will usually not have a porch and be pretty tight inside meaning that a bag sometimes just wont fit. Also, in wet conditions you need to consider if you want a dripping wet bag in the tent with you anyways. A ruck with a raincover can be left outside but it can be a bit of a gamble.

Headroom
Ultralight tents can be really low inside as headroom is a place to save some serious weight. This can make trouser-donning a bit of a sport needing practice and when your clothes are wet it can be a pain. Tents with room to sit-up will usually be pretty heavy.

Hydrostatic Head
Hydrostatic Head (or HH) is a technical measurement of the height of a column of water that a fabric can withstand before leaking. HH is usually measured in milimeters and needs to be at least 1000 to be called a tent. 1500 would technically be suitable for summer camping but 2000 is usually recommended.

Taped Seams
Any tent worth its salts will have taped seams. Anywhere that there is stitching there’s the possibility that water might leak in. Taping the seams means stretching a strip of waterproof tape over all stitching.

Secondary considerations
Cooking
If you need somewhere to light a stove, inside the tent is the last place you want to do it. Tents are made of very fine fabric and they can be completely alight in literally seconds. Also, meths stoves pose an additional hazzard as overturning one in a tent with a bathtub floor and creating a large pool of burning liquid would be a situation of nightmares. The only answer is a tent with a porch where you can sit in the tent with the stove outside although this is merely a compromise as the tent could still potentially end up on fire.

Performance in wind
A tents performance in windy conditions is specifically worth considering. Some tents can simply blow over or away in higher winds and you can never rely on finding shelter, especially at altitude. Some tents fare better than others and you can’t assume that the style of tent (dome, ridge etc) being known to be good in wind means it actually is. Individual tents fare better or worse based on design rather than on pure shape so some research is essential.

Pegs
All tents need pegged to stop them blowing away. Many tents (including expensive ones) have crap pegs as it’s a cunning place to save some weight! Dumping the pegs immediately and buying something better can be a good idea and there are many decent, light and cheap pegs on the market. Expensive tents tend to have have half sized pegs that can be unreliable in soft ground and cheap tents usually have heavy steel pegs. Investing in some light aluminum pegs is good idea or Alpkit do a good peg called a Y-Beam.

Tents are tight for the number of people rated
As mentioned previously, tents will usually be tight for the number of people they are rated for. However, this depends on how much comfort you need to get a decent nights sleep. I’ve seen two (smaller) adults sharing a solo tent quite happily but I don’t like the idea of a night with someones rotten feet stuck in my face. A good plan can be to visit a store and stretch out in one or find a friendly owner willing to erect one in their garden for you to play in. As usual, it’s a trade off between weight, size and cost.

Terrain
The terrain you will be camping in doesn’t usually affect your buying decision except for major expeditions but it is worth considering. Boggy or wet ground and excessively rocky ground will both pose issues but to be honest, choosing a good pitch is more important than choosing the right tent but that’s an article for another day!

Bloody hell, so what does that all mean?
I can appreciate that this article was supposed to be about helping choose a tent and what it has actually done is just bring up a crapload of new things to think about meaning the choice has actually become harder rather than easier. Well boohoo, I’m not your Mum, the key here is research! Get onto the interwebs and read some reviews. Get some ideas of tents you might like from retailers, stick them into your favourite search engine with the word “review” pegged on the end and see what the internet denziens have to say about it. If there’s one thing outdoors types can be relied upon to do it’s bang on about their gear so there will be plenty to read.

Right fella, put your money where your mouth is. I didn’t read this far to be told to just go look elsewhere!
Luckily I’m as opinionated as the next hiker and have lots of ideas about what makes a good tent but only in the circumstances under which I use them, ie, carrying them into the mountains. For me weight is the primary concern, even to the point where I’ll endure a bad night and accept it because it was a lighter climb. I always stick to tents that are 2.5kg or less, preferrably <2kg (per person). Single skin is fine by me, as is a tent that doesn’t have a porch and that my ruck can’t come into. I’ll sit in the cold cooking and leave the ruck outside with a raincover on. I also think taking a 1.5Kg tent along with a 300g ultralight solo tarp is a good plan as the tarp can provide shelter for sitting around and can be pegged over gear at night. I also only see tents as a place to sleep. I can’t imagine hitting camp at 7pm and sitting in the tent until it’s time to go to sleep because it’s wild outside – I’ll just brave the elements for a Jack Daniels round the hobo stove with the lads and only climb into the tent when it’s sleepies time. This means that extra room for sitting is also not required. Headroom is another issue I ignore. I’m not the tallest guy in the world but even if I was, I wouldn’t carry an extra kilo so I could get my underoonies on a bit more easily in the morning.

Although, there is one exception….
I like to think I’m not sexist but NI-Wild is liberally littered with stories with very unhappy endings of blokes who persuaded their ladyfriends to have a go at camping. If you are wanting to get your significant other into the outdoors and they’ve not camped much before, a lightweight tent with no room to move that’s going to be damp in the morning is a guaranteed way to enjoy some future solo hiking. In this case buy a tent that will be comfy and secure in bad conditions, strap that bad boy onto your back and suck it up soldier. Once you’ve enjoyed a few (painful on the shoulders) trips you can start to suggest lighter, less comfy gear. Dragging someone out from infront of the tellybox for some walking and camping can be a significant shock to the system and the one area where it can become overwhelming is 8 hours of moist discomfort in bed which is also guaranteed to also ruin the following day.

Recommendations.
There are a number of tents I would recommend based on personal experience or the personal experiences of other NI-Wild hiking chums:

Pro Action Hike Lite Pro
This was the darling of NI-Wild for quite a while. A sturdy dual skin solo tent weighing about 1.8kg and retailing between £18 – £40 with just enough room for a rucksack but no porch. It was a stunning bargain and although there were a few pole failures, this was by far the most popular tent until it was discontinued. There is always chat that the Chinese company that made them might make them again but to date they haven’t. They do turn up second hand occasionally.

Gelert Solo
The Gelert Solo is a decent replacement for the Hike Lite Pro being light, sturdy and very similar. They sell for £20-£30 and weigh 1.5kg or so.

Vango Ultralight 200
I actually have this tent at the moment and to date have been quite impressed. It’s a duo, single skin tent weighing an impressive 1-1.3kg retailing at £70-£110. It has no porch and reviews quite badly for having condensation issues but to date I’ve had no problems, however, I think it has a profile that could be difficult in windy conditions and to date I’ve only had it in forests – once I’ve had it on a peak I’ll report back.

Terra Nova Lazer Competition
The Lazer Comp from Terra Nova is probably the most popular solo tent ever. If you stop at the overnight stage of a mountain marathon this is the model of tent you will likely see the most of, however it is quite expensive at around £200-£300. You can occasionally pick up one for £170ish but they generally hold their price with being so popular. They weigh a mere 860g-920g which is shockingly low for a double skin tent.

Vango Banshee 200 / Vango Banshee 300
The Vango Banshee tent is my favourite tradeoff between weight and performance. The 200 (2 man) weighs 2kg and 300 (3 man) weighs 2.5kg costing £60-£90 and £90-£120 respectively. They have no porch and little headroom but for weight vs floor space they are simply excellent. Factor in that their low profile performs well in windy conditions and I think it’s a winner!

Vango Tempest 200Vango Tempest 300
I don’t have a Tempest but have heard great reviews. It’s a spacious tent with a porch and is shaped well for wind. It weighs 2.8kg / 3.45kg and oddly, costs £90-£120 for both models.

Special Mention : Vango Juno 300 Teepee
The Vango Juno 300 always gets my comedy vote. I’ve had one for years and although it’s 3.5kg at £29 it’s too much of a bargain to pass up. With loads of headroom this a great tent for the kids. I’d not carry it up a hill but if I end up near the car this one get’s the vote every time. It’s single skin and does suffer a bit from condensation but not to the point that it’s ever been a problem. One downside is it’s rated as a 3 man tent but with a single, dirty great pole down the centre two people can sleep either side in luxury but I’ve no idea how to fairly squeeze in the 3rd!

These are by no means a finite list of suitable tents, just some that I have experience of. The links are to Amazon where if you click through and make a purchase NI-Wild will get a smidge of comission.

Conclusions – anyone for Marmite?
Tents are many and varied in their sizes and shapes but more importantly, different people will rate the same tent in vastly differing ways. Think of hiking tents like Marmite, just because a group of people think they’re terrible / flawed doesn’t mean everyone thinks the same, read as widely as possible before buying and always try your best to see the tent you’re after in the flesh, it can make all the difference!

If you think I’ve missed anything please mention it in the comments. Also, feel free to recommend any other model of tent and I will include it.

Sources:
http://www.cycletourer.co.uk/cycletouring/gear/camping.shtml
http://www.cotswoldoutdoor.com/data_documents/knowledge/Tents.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tent

This entry was posted in Outdoors Advice.

3 Responses to Choosing a Wildcamping Tent

  1. craig says:

    Good overview, but just 2 points I’d like to note:
    5kg split 3 ways is 1.66kg each 🙂

    Also, regards cooking in tents, another reason it is not advisable is the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. This gas is released by most stoves and can build up in the tent (worse in single skin or non-mesh inners)… you can go from fine to unconscious very quickly, then worse if not dragged into clean air. We know we all do it anyway, but ensure good ventilation and actively circulate the air out of the tent every so often to encourage fresh air in. Keep the porch open, or better have the stove just outside! It’s hard when the weather is battering you, but staying alive ensures you’ll be around to enjoy the better days.

  2. craig says:

    My tents are a Coleman Cobra 2 RS (like the Banshee but heavier and has a door/porch both sides). It’s nearly 10 yrs old and going strong, pitches inner first but goes up in 5mins with practice.
    Other tent is a 1kg Lidl single-skin, 1 man thing that I really like. Has a great mosi-net door, so I always leave the main door open and have never had bad condensation. Don’t expect it will last, but getting good use for a tenner!

    Coleman are worth checking on the mid-price, and Vaude as a Terra Nova alternative, but North Face (tadpole) and Mountain Hardware also make quality tents. Personally, if you have the dosh, and need to address the ‘other half’ issue, I’d be tempted by the MSR Hubba Hubba… wonderfully roomy for a small, light tent, doors and spacious porch each side, and pretty strong for the tall design.

  3. David Hoy says:

    Hi, thats all very well if your into this modern ‘Glamping’ malarky and enjoy being indoors when your outdoors.

    Why no mention of a good old fashioned tarp bivvy? (Go camping for under a fiver)

    Or even an ultralight Hammock rig? (Stay warm & a part of your environment)

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