Backpacking Tents

A tent is likely to be one of your major investments for outdoors gear, so make sure you know what kind of camping you want to do. A budget tent may become a liability if you pitch it in a very exposed situation. Similarly, there's little point in buying a tent which is over-specified for your needs if all you're going to do is lowland camping.

Other points to consider are: Do you want a solo tent, or one for two or three persons? How much does it weigh, and how small does it pack? How easy is it to share out the components of the tent so everyone can carry part? Do you want inner-first or flysheet-first pitching? How many zipped doors are there?

Cost v Quality
S
ame equation as you'd expect with most consumer products. Pay more - get better quality. Certainly if you're aiming to use a tent in more extreme conditions, paying less is likely to prove a false economy. Look at £200 as your bottom line for quality.

Designs
T
he basic sloping ridge is still the first choice for many beginners. Good weather-beating characteristics when pitched tail into the prevailing wind. Straightforward to erect, too.
The standard ridge has a horizontal ridge with either single uprights or "A" frames at each end, and perhaps a ridge pole. Not such efficient usage of space for weight, but Vango's Force 10 and the Conquest range show there's still plenty of life in the traditional designs.

Transverse ridge tents have the high point running across the sleeping area rather than along it. The benefits are maximum headroom in the centre, so you can sit up from a lying position without touching the walls, and you get a porch on each side, offering greater flexibility in bad weather.
With two or three hoops, basic domes offer excellent usable internal volume for their weight, much better than traditional ridge designs. They're also self-supporting, so it's possible to move around once erected. Stability can be a problem on larger models, no matter how many guylines they have, simply because strong wind can cause them to compress.
Instead of crossing over all the poles in the centre, geodesic designs have them crossing at different points. It spreads the loading when the tent is stressed by winds, and it often means better use of internal volume. Geodesic designs have progressed into hybrids, using the same principles for tunnels as well.

Supported by two or three flexible hoops, the tunnel is the logical modern equivalent of a ridge tent. Some have sloping roofs, with a smaller hoop at one end, others are symmetrical. Like domes, tunnels offer good use of internal volume. Stable when pitched end into the wind, but poor at coping with gusts from the side. Exceptions include the tension bands in Vango's Hurricane and Micro tents.
Single pole models are popular for ultra-lightweight designs, and can be found in both ridge and transverse ridge designs.

Extra strength and wind-spilling is the priority for mountain tents, built for use in harsh conditions. Ridge designs have "A" frames and a ridge pole, with guying systems more extensive than usual, whilst flexible pole versions are generally built on geodesic lines. Tents of either type will come with a snow valence - some may have flysheet doors which not only open conventionally, but zip down from the top when the tent is surrounded by deep snow.

Tents are designed to be erected either flysheet first, or inner first. The former is favoured by most British manufacturers on the grounds that it makes sense to get the outer weather-beating part of the tent up first, so everything else can be done under cover. It's also possible to attach guys directly to poles on this type of tent. Inner first pitching tents, on the other hand, offer neater inner walls with no sags, and even separation between inner and fly.

Seasons Usage
I
n tent terms, season usage is directly related to strength and durability. A tent used in harsh weather conditions obviously needs the ability to stand up to driving wind and rain or snow. But any scale of season usage may also point to other factors, like porch space, and the amount of ventilation (important in cold or damp weather where condensation is more of a problem). Watch out for mozzie nets, too. Cheapo stuff isn't midge-proof, and bad designs often find zipped mesh panels on the inside of inner tent doors (logic dictates it should be on the outside).

Durability v Weight
As the technology of tent materials improves, the direct correlation between weight and durability becomes more blurred. At the budget end of the market, heavier may still mean stronger, but at the top end, high tenacity fibres and aircraft alloy poles means you don't have to sacrifice strength for light weight - it comes out of your wallet instead! A decent 2-man tent should weigh around 8 pounds - real lightweights go down to around 5.

Fabrics
Cotton tends to be hard wearing, but you pay for it in terms of weight. It's less susceptible than synthetic fabrics to degradation by sunlight, but having said that, the better known "name" manufacturers - Saunders, Terra Nova, Omega, etc. - use flysheet fabrics with UV inhibitors which slow down the process which nature employs to turn tough ripstop nylon into tissue.

Most modern lightweight tents are made from nylon or polyester, usually with a waterproof PU coating on the flysheet. Silicone elastomer proofings are more durable and more water repellent, and usually found on high-performance tents such as those made by Saunders and The North Face. Silicone elastomer not only repels water, it repels glue, and is thus impossible to tape seams. Terra Nova reckon they've cracked it with their Watershed flysheet fabric - a nylon base fabric with a highly water resistant silicone elastomer coating on the outside, and tape/glue-friendly PU on the underside.
Manufacturers have experimented with breathable coatings to see if they offer any advantage. They don't. Some bivvy tents are made with Gore-Tex panels, although for "British" conditions, you're much better off with a double-skin tent.

Inner tents are made from a light breathable fabric, and even synthetic flysheet tents sometimes have cotton or polycotton inners. They're warmer to the touch, and so make a tent more comfortable, particularly on long trips. Inners are generally treated with a light fluorocarbon finish to repel any condensation which may drip off the underside of the fly.

Groundsheets
Not just sewn-in, groundsheets should be stitched together so the material extends up the walls a few inches to provide good protection from wet ground. Generally made from nylon fabric, they can be coated on one or both sides with PVC, polyurethane or neoprene. PVC is heavy but extremely robust, whilst PU offers good waterproofing for its weight, but needs a little more care. Several manufacturers offer neoprene coated groundsheets as options on their tents - somewhat heavier than PU coated nylon, but more durable.

Seams
There's a school of opinion which says that a flysheet shouldn't need its seams taping if it's designed properly. Even so, there's no doubting the benefit of extra proof against leaks, and it's a boon on groundsheets. Saunders came up with an original idea, incorporating an absorbent core to flysheet seams. Seams should be lapped for strength, whilst bar-tacks are used at high stress points such as pegging loops.

Poles
Traditional ridge tents start out with a single upright pole at each end. A-frames, set in an upside down "V" formation, make for greater strength and stability, particularly good for mountain camping. Ridge poles add greater strength and stability to a tent.
Domes and tunnels are supported by flexible poles, short sections of glass fibre or aluminium alloy which snap together. The better pole sections are linked by shockcord, which reduces the awkwardness of poles coming apart whilst you're trying to thread them through their sleeves. Glass fibre poles are fine for budget tents, but the material tends to split in very cold conditions. Some alloy poles come pre-curved, which reduces the possibility of kinking.

Pegs
Straight alloy skewers tend to be the standard fare, although they may not be ideal for all conditions. Angle section pegs are more useful in softer ground, likewise larger plastic pegs. It's worth getting a few of each type just to provide some valuable insurance. I've found 6" steel nails to be quite handy in ultra-stoney conditions, but if you fancy a high-tech alternative, try The North Face's Super Tent Peg.

Guylines
Always pitch in the most sheltered spot you can find. Even so, guylines can provide stability in more lively weather. The best set-up has large panels of flysheet guyed, with storm guys also attached to the poles. Useful on hard ground where guys can be weighted with rocks instead of pegged.

Room To Move?
The most telling point about a tent, especially on a multi-day trip, is just how much room there is. Tunnels and domes give a better feeling of space than the equivalent weight in ridge tents, even though two backpackers may still have to take it in turns to use the headroom. Ultra-lightweights may be light partly because they're short. Check you have enough room stretched out inside the inner!

Storage / Porch Space
The great advantage of a porch (or bell end) is in providing somewhere you can store muddy boots, sopping wet rucksacks and the like, without bringing them right inside and messing up things like sleeping bags. It's also useful for cooking under cover, although the flysheet door should always be secured open for safety. Some ridge tents have space for storage between inner and fly at the tail - not always accessible by a zipped panel, you simply have to lift a peg to get at it.

Doors
The traditional ridge tent has a single door at the head end of the tent, a design which has followed on with some tunnels. Domes and transverse ridge/hoop tents tend to lend themselves to greater versatility by having more than one opening - useful if the wind changes overnight, because you can swap your sheltered cooking area to the lee side porch without uprooting the tent.
Zipped closures are the order of the day, most good ones are coil zips, which are self-repairing. Vertical flysheet zips can pull apart from the bottom - some manufacturers provide a hook and eye link at the bottom of each door flap to take the strain off the zip. Otherwise, it's better to peg the corners across each other.

Care & Storage
A small spares kit is a good idea for longer trips. Many tents come supplied with a couple of sleeves for temporary pole repairs, as well as squares of flysheet fabric which can be glued over tears.
The biggest sin is to store your tent without giving it a thorough airing first. Damp cotton rots, but even synthetics will suffer from fungal attacks. Poles and pegs benefit from a light application of silicon spray to prevent corrosion.