Tents Part 1
We sell a lot of tents at Charles Camping. From superlight, one person, backpacking tents for trekking across mountains to massive family sized units that will accommodate a large family in comfort for the entire summer we pretty much cover all the possible options. Lots of what is available however can be a bit confusing. Some tents look the same but can have very different purposes or performance. Conversely there are designs which appear radically different but which are just two different ways of tackling the same problem. In this article I will run through the basics of fabric, design, pole materials and layout and hopefully this will make life easier when thinking about a first or replacement tent.
The fabric of the outer flysheet is the most obvious part of any tent. This is the bit which has to resist water ingress and retain a degree of tension so that the tent doesn’t flap in the wind. There are three commonly used fabrics in modern tents and as with everything there are positives as well as negatives with each of them. I will start with the most common and go from there.
The workhorse fabric of the tent world. Polyester with a waterproof polyurethane coating on the inside for rain resistance is used on virtually every kind of tent imaginable. It is highly resistant to breaking down in UV light so is almost always used in family, festival and scout type tents which are likely to be pitched throughout the day in constant sunshine (hopefully). Polyester also resists stretching in damp conditions so will tend to require less tightening over time compared to other fabrics and is available in multiple grades, colours, strengths and costs so it can be fine tuned for all kinds of purposes as well as budgets.
A lot of backpacking tents, most superlight tents and pretty much all the serious expedition tents on the market feature a nylon flysheet. Nylon, like polyester has to have a PU coating on the inside surface for rain resistance but is generally stronger for a given weight of fabric and so lighter tents can be produced that weigh less than a polyester equivalent or alternatively, a fabric of the same weight can produce a stronger tent. The downsides are that nylon costs more, can fade really badly if exposed to constant UV light and stretches more when wet. For this reason Nylon tends to be used when tents are being carried in a rucksack through the day and pitched overnight. Fading is not an issue if the tent is only exposed to limited sunlight and stretching in the wet is not a big deal if the tent is being pitched every day anyway.
More correctly described as BTC which means “Breathable Technical Cotton” or “Breathable Terylene Cotton” depending on who you speak to. This is a combination of synthetic and cotton fibres, usually in about a 70/30 ratio which produces a fabric which is just gorgeous to camp in. Polycotton tents have no PU coating on the inside of the fabric, the waterproofing comes from the swelling of the outer fibres when they get damp which prevents the further ingress of moisture. This lack of an impermeable coating means that BTC tents are much cooler and less stuffy in warm weather as well as warmer in cold weather. They are also much quieter to sleep in. All this sounds great but there are definitely a couple of drawbacks. For the best rainproofing the tent fabric has to be “Weathered in” initially. This means that it needs to get wet or at least damp a couple of times before the fibres swell enough from new to become effective. This means getting the hose out or camping in Ireland and putting up with it for a few days. This is also a heavy, bulky fabric. BTC tents tend to have a bigger pack size and weigh about thirty percent more than a polyester equivalent. They also dry out more slowly and can be liable to mould and mildew if not cared for. The final negative is the cost. These tents are made in small numbers, from more expensive materials and cost a lot more.
Tents made from only cotton/canvas are pretty much a thing of the past for most campers. Scout tents, some work shelters and some exotic specials are the current extent of it. Cotton is heavy, bulky, slow drying, expensive and not particularly popular. Apart from the Blacks Icelandic scout tent or the classic, orange Vango Force Ten they are rarely even seen nowadays. I don’t see this changing any time soon.
The traditional A-shaped ridge tent still exists but in annually diminishing numbers. This style gives limited internal space for any given size of tent and so could be heavy and cramped in sizes beyond two person. Small versions used in expedition situations and extreme weather could be very strong but cramped and basically gave little room to do anything other than lie down and sleep. Larger versions are less wind resistant, heavy and can be a bit of a nuisance to pitch.
Since the mid 1970s there has been a revolution in tent design and the Dome style dates from then. At its most basic this is a square or rectangular floor with two crossing poles to form the structure and the tent is supported by this frame. These are at least partially, free standing and the pitched tent can be picked up and moved easily if the original site proves less suitable than at first glance. There are simple domes for lowland camping and festival use, Geodesic domes for extreme expeditions and mountain use and Semi-geodesic domes for backpackers seeking the best of all possible worlds. Domes give the highest strength for the least material and can withstand the greatest loading from snow and wind. Internally dome tents give a large amount of space and bigger options are often used as expedition base camp tents by groups.
For the maximum amount of internal space and the least amount of tent it is impossible to beat the tunnel design. Straight walls and high roofs allow a degree of elbow room that no other design can touch. Nowadays there is an enormous range available covering activities from festivals to extended family holidays and Arctic expeditions. Wind resistance is generally very good but in blowy conditions they are best pitched tail to the wind. Unlike domes these are not self standing so check your site for stones and bumps before pegging everything down. Tunnels are the single most popular style for family camping at any price point as their advantages hugely outweigh any disadvantages. Good snow loading is not a major factor for a family of four during the Irish summer holidays.
Steel frame tents.
These can still be seen on campsites occasionally and are used by companies like Eurocamp and Keycamp as semi-permanent installations on holiday parks around Europe. Heavy, not particularly strong, a nightmare to pitch and did I say heavy? Steel frame tents are a camping dinosaur, a canvas refugee from a bygone age still lurking in odd corners and I very much doubt that many people who have ever pitched one lament their passing.
As seen everywhere. On every campsite, festival, park, beach or mountain that has ever seen a tent there has been a tent with glassfibre poles. These are reasonably strong, flexible and above all cheap to manufacture and replace. The first prototype dome tent was put together using fishing rods for poles and that basic innovation has changed very little in the last forty years or so. Glassfibre poles come in different grades of quality and when comparing like with like the stronger ones have a larger diameter than the lighter more flexible ones. The cheapest poles are more likely to break than the better ones but even the best glassfibre poles are susceptible to breaking in strong gusts or if the external coating is cut and some fibres get broken. The upside is that a pole repair kit with five or six poles, a replacement elastic cord, steel ferrule and a cord threader will cost less than twenty euro and will allow you to perform on-site repairs quickly and effectively.
Better tents for backpacking and mountaineering almost always use poles made from aluminium alloy. The few exceptions use carbon poles but these are expensive, less durable in the long run and save almost no significant amount of weight. Alloy poles are strong, light, durable and come in several grades ranging from very good all the way up to incredibly good. Some of the better family camping tents from European companies are also available with alloy poles but this is less common as the effect on price is instant and inescapable. Where a multi-section glassfibre kit costs less than twenty euro a single section of an alloy pole costs anything from ten to sixty euro depending on the type. On the positive side we sell one or two short pole sections per year for alloy poles and anything up to two hundred glassfibre kits. If money is not a major factor or if you are venturing into extreme areas then alloy is the go-to pole.
Another tent material which is on a slow slide to irrelevance. Steel is heavy, bulky, difficult to repair and not as strong over time as we would like to think. This type of pole is almost exclusively found of larger family tents.
Now in its tenth year the Vango Airbeam tent has changed the market hugely. Initially mocked or treated as a curious fad, this style has been adopted by virtually every manufacturer of family tents and is a staple of the family camping market. Essentially this style replaces the solid poles with a series of inflatable hoops, not unlike large inner tubes. When inflated these stiffen and support the tent just like the solid poles. The advantages are that the pitching time is massively reduced and the tent is very hard to damage in windy weather as the structure will bend rather than break. The inevitable downside is that old favourite; price. Airbeams tend to be about thirty to fifty percent more expensive than standard glassfibre equivalents.
Although people new to the concept worry about punctures the incidence of such events is rare and we tend to see only about a dozen or so problems every summer. The main issue so far is over inflation by enthusiastic campers. The maximum pressure for most beams is normally around 7PSI and it should always be remembered that this is a maximum and not a target to be surpassed. The replacement beam business may pick up as more second hand; older inflatables enter the market but as it stands these are very reliable. Due to uncertainty about a new product most manufacturers still offer generous warranties with new Airbeam tents and awnings.
The second part of this article will focus on layout options.
As ever if you have any comments or suggestions I can be contacted by email firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Charles Camping Facebook page.