UNTIL THE FIRST DOME TENTS began appearing in the 1970s, nearly all tents were all designed around a traditional `A' frame design with rigid poles. Nowadays, you will have to search hard to find more than one `A' frame design in an outdoor shop. The advent of the flexible pole has changed tent design beyond all recognition. Flexible poles create space, headroom and enlarged entrances with minimal weight penalties. Their use remains the key to modern tent design. In order to whittle down the almost bewildering choice of tents available, stick to answering two hard questions; in what conditions will you usually use the tent, and how many people do you want it to sleep?
Unsurprisingly, the most popular tent size is for two people, and by comparing internal dimensions of different models, it is possible to squeeze the maximum length and width from the tent floor. So sometimes you may find that a two-person tent can become a three-at-a-pinch tent, and the same rule applies to three and four-person tents. By contrast, if you plan to live in your tent for more than a week, you should consider buying a tent that is rated for one more person than you plan to share it with.
Be honest about your camping aspirations. If you're unlikely to ever wander far from the security of a valley campsite with attendant facilities, then buying a tiny mountain tent designed for use on K2 will not only be over-designed and expensive, but probably a whole lot more uncomfortable than a roomy dome tent that has plenty of headroom.
There are many different tent shapes and these in turn have spawned many hybrids. The following table gives an indication of the different types and what conditions they are ideal for:
Dome year-round valley camping Geodesic mountains and expedition-use A-Frame group/heavy-duty use Tunnel year-round valley camping
The material that poles are made from offers a big clue as to what conditions the tent that they belong to will be able to withstand. Fibreglass poles are cheap to manufacture but deform or even snap in high winds or heavy snowfall. Tents with fibreglass poles are therefore usually found on sheltered valley campsites. Aluminium poles are more durable, and less likely to break in adverse weather conditions.
Nights under nylon
With few exceptions -- most notably tents manufactured for use by groups and schools -- the vast majority of today's lightweight tents are supplied with nylon flysheets. Nylon is lighter, dries faster and resists the effects of mildew much more effectively than cotton. However, nylon is prone to damage from UV rays and can easily be damaged or torn. Some manufacturers go to great lengths to add treatments to their nylon flysheets in order to minimise these drawbacks, but the fact remains -- if you plan to use your tent for extended periods of time in high-altitude locations such as the Himalaya where UV rays are particularly acute -- then consider covering your tent with a cheap sheet of fabric to extend the life of your flysheet.
Nylon has also superseded cotton as the material of choice for inner tents. However, an all-nylon tent will generally suffer greater condensation problems than one that has a cotton inner. So, ensuring that your all-nylon tent has adequate ventilation is vital if you're not to end up feeling as though it has rained inside your tent during the night!
One of the easiest ways to ventilate your tent is to open the door. All the better if your tent has a door at both ends, as a through-draught of air can be created. Opening the door can be a bad idea, though, if there are insects flying about. If you anticipate camping in midge or mosquito-country, make sure that your tent has mesh doors at all entrances that can be zipped into position. These must be sewn onto the outside of the regular nylon door, so that during the night the nylon door can be done up from the inside without having to undo the mesh door and in so doing let all the critters in!
Groundsheets should be `sewn-in' to the inner tent in order that the occupants do not get wet at night from frost or dew. Many manufacturers now seal groundsheet seams with tape to prevent any water penetrating through the stitch lines. The few that do not should supply a tube of seam sealant so that you can do it yourself. Groundsheets can be made from heavyweight nylon such as neoprene in order to make them as durable as possible. Better perhaps to buy a tent with a lighterweight groundsheet and then simply place a second sheet of nylon or plastic under the tent to protect the groundsheet from nicks and cuts. Some manufacturers now sell secondary groundsheets or `footprints' that are cut to fit precisely under their different tents. These can be clipped in position so that they do not slide away. On really rough terrain, simply place your foam sleeping mats under the groundsheet.
Plenty of porch
Most tents will have a porch of sorts. Indeed, some are so large that they can double as an extra sleeping berth. Again, tents with two entrances allows for one porch to be used as a storage area, reserving the other exclusively for cooking. If you do choose to cook inside the porch in bad weather, remember that tents are highly flammable and can burn to the ground in just a few seconds. So make sure that there is no possibility of the stove coming into contact with any part of the tent, and ensure that the door is left open when you're cooking so that the contraption can be booted clear if it suddenly bursts into a ball of flames.
Many lightweight tents now have mesh rather than nylon panels on their inners. If you're camping in hot weather this can be good news; not only is ventilation increased, but the tent will weigh less too. However, in mixed weather conditions, mesh panels can be a curse. Rain and snow can blow under the flysheet and penetrate through the mesh, and of course mesh traps far less heat than nylon. Winter camping in a tent with mesh panels is often a miserable experience.
The uninitiated would be forgiven for thinking that all pegs are pretty the same. However, pegs come in many shapes, sizes and weights. Unless you're car camping and weight is irrelevant, steer clear of steel pegs which are surprisingly heavy. Lightweight aluminium pegs are the choice of most backpackers. But they can be easily bent, particularly in hard ground. Some campers find that a mixture of short aluminium and long plastic pegs allows the tent to be pitched on almost any surface. Of course, if you find yourself on sand or snow, pegs just won't work. In these situations, empty all your stuff sacks, fill them with the sand/snow, tie them to the corners of your tent and bury them in the ground.
The perfect pitch
Even the best tent in the world needs to be pitched correctly. Following these techniques will give you a sound night's sleep:
1. Judge the direction of the wind, and pitch the lowest point of the tent to face the oncoming breeze or gusts. This will allow the wind to pass easily over the surface of the tent, resulting in a quieter night's sleep.
2. At the same time that you are judging the wind direction, you also want a site that offers good drainage. This may mean choosing somewhere with a gentle incline. If so, ensure that you sleep with your head facing uphill.
3. Avoid camping next to rivers. At night they can be very noisy, and at dawn and dusk, flying insects invade river banks.
4. Try and keep the tent as clean and tidy as possible. A tidy tent is a happy tent! Pack items away when not in use, and leave dirty boots and wet clothing in the porch area.
5. Store tent, pole and peg bags between the inner tent and flysheet so that they can be found in the morning.
Six Of The Best
Best-value two-person backpack tent under 200 [pounds sterling]: Vango Hydra 200
Best two-person mountain tent: The North Face Mtn-24
Most stable three-person expedition tent: Mountain Hardwear Trango Two
Best one-person cycling tent: Macpac Microlight
Most durable three-person group/school tent: Vango Force Ten Mk4 Std
Best emergency group shelter: Conquest Refuge MKII