Beginner's Guide to Tents - Part 1 - Seasons & Structures
In Part 1 of this guide we'll explore arguably the two most important important things to consider when buying a tent; how many people you want to fit in it, and when/where you want to use it.
As with sleeping bags, or waterproofs, if you pick the product most suitable for the intended end use, the features will usually have scaled to make sure that they're suitable. Of course we'll cover the actual anatomy of a tent in Part 2.
As a general rule of thumb each person is estimated to occupy the width of a standard roll-mat which is ~ 50cm.
Bear in mind that lightweight or more technical tents may expect you to 'top & tail', or get very cosy! If you want to store your gear inside, or you're trying to fit two 6'2" rugby props into your tent, you may need to allow for more space.
Always try and map out the sleeping area plan at home (dimensions are usually found online) and try it out, or even better, try the actual tent out first.
Choose your tent for the the expected conditions you aim to use it in...generally the more expensive a tent, the stronger it is, so do not expect a £50 dome tent to survive the same conditions as a £500 winter tent.
2 Season (Summer)
- Ideal for late spring - early autumn in the UK.
- Intended to be used at festivals, camp-site camping and casual use.
- Usually fibreglass poles and cheaper material as strength is not a paramount concern, which also helps keep cost down.
- Often 'single' skinned.
- Weight can be higher because of the above, not ideal for trekkers.
- Not suitable for very high winds or protracted rain.
- Examples: Vango Alpha 200, Gelert Eiger 3.
- Ideal for spring to autumn in the UK.
- Ideal for general camping, trekkers/backpacking and travel, the workhorse of the group.
- Many varied designs and construction materials ensure large amounts of choice, for versatility.
- The best choice for lightweight backpackers or trekkers, 3 season tents usually provide the optimum blend of weight and strength for most people's needs.
- Should protect in even spring storms.
- Examples: The North Face Tadpole 2, Vango Tempest 300, Vaude Taurus I
4 Season (Mountain/Expeditions)
- Ideal for all year round use.
- Designed to cope with the worst mountain weather; high winds, heavy snow or rain, sub-zero temperatures.
- A sub-genre, 4 season backpacking tents, are not designed for high-mountain use, but are ideal for backpacking where conditions could be extremely poor...basically an ultra tough 3 season tent.
- Can often weigh more than 3 season tents due to the extra poles and headier duty fabrics.
- Can be very expensive, but of course, they're life-saving!
- Examples: Mountain Hardwear Trango 2, Terra Nova Quasar, Vaude Hogan
Most Common Tent Designs
There are a lot of varieties of tent design, from the classic A-frame, to fully geodesic domes. Over the past ten years or so, advances in technologies and poles have narrowed the field down to these common forms (or combinations of of them), so although you'll still find A-Frames if you want, you're much more likely to see one of these during your tent browsing.
- Consists of one or more poles formed into hoops which run along the length of the tent.
- Provides a lot of internal volume, so ideal for headroom along the length.
- Often has a large porch, so ideal for biking or those with lots of gear to store, or use as a base camp for extended trips.
- Well ventilated porch for warmer weather.
- Very light for the amount of internal space.
- Surprisingly strong thanks to even tension across poles.
- Does not 'free-stand', and requires good all round pegging to retain strength.
- Often trickier to pitch, especially solo, and not easy to move without striking.
- Because of larger porches, tunnel tents are usually heavier than a dome tent which sleeps the same.
- Examples: Wild Country Aspect 1, Vango Beta 250
- Usually consists of two poles which cross over the centre.
- Flysheet is then either tension over, or suspended under the poles.
- Sometimes extra poles are added to allow for generous porch height and space, but these do not add strength.
- Very lightweight for the strength provided.
- Often allows for two doors/porches, giving extra ventilation for warm conditions, or storage space.
- Can be found in all-in-one, flysheet- or inner-first pitching options.
- Ideal for 2 or 3 season use, whether casual summer camping, backpacking or trekking.
- Usually free-standing, easy & quick to pitch and move around.
- Examples: The North Face Rock 2, Vango Alpha 300, Vango Sigma 200, Mountain Hardwear Drifter 3
- Usually consists of 4 or more more poles which cross 5 or more times to provide huge amounts of strength and wind-resistance.
- Usually used on 4 season tents where stability is paramount.
- Often quite snug internally, with low internal height to minimise profile and keep strength high, not ideal for sitting in for hours in hot weather unless pitched without fly.
- Usually free-standing, can take longer to pitch because of extra poles, but should be simple after some practice (you should be able to pitch it in snow storms once you've got a routine worked out ).
- Because of extra poles and heavier duty fabrics, can be quite heavy (compared to a similar sized 2 or 3 season tent.
- Very expensive, but if you intend to camp in winter conditions, worth the extra outlay.
- Examples: Terra Nova Quasar Superlite, Vango Hurricane 300, Terra Nova Hyperspace
Vis a Vis (Satellite)
- A large atrium with sleeping compartments opening into it.
- Ideal for groups or families where adults and/or children may wish to have extra space.
- Perfect for wet weather days where you may need to shelter for long periods.
- Very heavy, very bulky...usually ideal as a base-camp for car camping holidays.
- Can be tricky to pitch, practice before you leave home if you can to avoid embarrassment at the camp site!
- Simple and easy to pitch (although in my opinion not that much faster than a 'normal' tent if you know what you're doing...I have years of experience though so it might just be me?)
- Ideal for festivals or fair weather summer camping.
- Usually a large pack-size will render them useless for trekking/backpacking.
- Not the most stable of tents due to design.