The ultimate guide to tents

By Gemma Chilton | January 15, 2015

Adequate shelter is listed as a basic human right by the United Nations, but tell that to any damp, shivering camper who has ever come to regret a bad tent purchase late at night in the middle of nowhere.

IN A BIT OF friendly Monday morning banter around the office kitchen, I once asked a colleague how he’d spent the weekend, to find he and his wife had been camping.

“Great!” I replied, pleased to have stumbled across a mutual interest. “How was it?”

“Not great,” he informed me. “We woke up cold, wet and miserable.”

As it turned out, he was an infrequent camper, and had picked up a $25 tent from a chain department store and – unsurprisingly – it hadn’t worked out well. Now, he would forever associate his impromptu overnight camping trip with waterboarding torture by condensation.

Of course, if you’re reading this, you’re less likely to be heading off on your next adventure via a pitstop to KMart. However, such anecdotes can still act as a reminder of the value of putting adequate thought and, often, a bit of hard-earned cash into your gear selection, and a tent in particular is not something to scrimp on.

It is common, after all, to spend upwards of $100 for a single night in a dodgy, Hitchcockian roadside motel, so what about a piece of gear that you expect to protect you from the elements for several days or weeks at a time? All the while remaining light enough to fit in a backpack, on a touring bike or in a kayak?

The sheer range of tent styles, designs and brands available can be intimidating and, even when splashing out, at around $300 to $500 a pop, most of us still can’t afford to choose a tent suitable for every occasion. For this reason, one of the most popular tents on the market is the two-person, three-season lightweight backpackers’ variety.

“One word – versatility,” says Henry Kelsey, Brand Manager at Wilderness Equipment. While many campers do so in pairs, contemporary designs and materials mean most two-man tents are also a reasonable weight for solo adventurers. And, as for climate adaptability, two out of three ain’t bad.

“Unless you’re heading above the snowline, a three-season tent is usually appropriate for use anywhere in Australia,” Kelsey says. “You can pitch them as bug tents in the tropics, and still get bad-weather performance for summer walking in Tassie.”

In this context, however, another word for versatility could be compromise. That is, between cost, weight and performance – the holy trinity of outdoor gear selection. The key to any purchase is measuring your priorities against these variables.

Different types of tents

Contemporary three-season tent designs can be separated into three main categories – dome, geodesic and tunnel. A dome tent structure comprises two flexible poles crossed over corner to corner, suspended with guy ropes, while a geodesic design adds an additional one or two shorter poles. The latter results in a sturdier structure, particularly in windy conditions, and often with increased headroom (but with extra weight thanks to the additional poles).

The tunnel tent, as the name suggests, consists of two or three arched poles forming a tunnel. Tunnel tents are not freestanding and must be pegged out, but generally have a higher space-to-weight ratio than freestanding tents.

Another consideration when choosing a tent design is the vestibule – a sheltered space between the inner and outer tent. Generally speaking, vestibule space should be generous enough to shelter gear with which you do not want to be sharing your sleeping quarters, but still want to keep dry from overnight rain and morning dew, such as your boots and pack.

Look out for tents with double entries, which means double the vestibule space. Double entries also provide improved cross-ventilation in humid conditions and help keep tent buddies on friendly terms by preventing unwanted late-night encounters when nature calls.

The ease with which a tent can be pitched is another important factor – something that may only become truly apparent that one time you arrive at camp after dark and in the rain…

Ventilation and preventing condensation

While a waterproof fly should effectively keep out the rain and dew, there’s still the problem of condensation – when warm, moist air hits the cool interior lining of your tent and condenses to form water droplets. “Without sufficient ventilation, condensation will form on the inside of the fly,” explains Kelsey – a piece of advice that would have been handy for my down-on-his-luck colleague.

When a three-season tent is being used at the colder end of its capabilities, the fly entry or entries are likely to be kept closed to keep out the full force of the wind (or, alternatively, simply for privacy at a crowded campsite).

Additional ventilation is therefore normally provided via a small opening high up on the fly to let air flow through the tent and prevent condensation from forming. The positioning of vents is key, says Kelsey. “If it isn’t in the top 20 per cent of the tent, its inclusion will be purely cosmetic,” he says.

Another attribute affecting the ventilation/condensation dynamic is whether the tent is single- or double-walled. Traditionally, and still commonly today, most tents consist of an inner breathable fabric layer and a waterproof outer layer or fly. The mesh tent is erected with poles, over which is positioned the waterproof flysheet secured by pegs and guy ropes.

This design improves ventilation compared to a single-skin tent, although thanks to modern waterproof materials and improved designs the latter is increasingly popular, particularly among solo hikers hoping to squeeze out the last grams of pack weight.

Materials of tents

The two standard fabrics used on modern lightweight tents are nylon or polyester, each with its comparative pros and cons (remember compromise?). Nylon is slightly stronger and stretchier than polyester, but polyester is inherently more water-resistant than nylon (although good tents will also incorporate a water-resistant coating on the outer fly). Polyester is also considered to have better UV resistance.

As material technology evolves, fabrics are becoming lighter while retaining durability, opening up new opportunities in lightweight design. “The materials that are now available are allowing us to manufacture products in ways that haven’t been done before,” says Kelsey. However, he adds, don’t be hoodwinked by what he calls the “race to the bottom” in tent weight, as this can sometimes mean reduced performance in other areas, such as the water resistance of the fly and floor.

“It’s easy to strip weight by using very light floor fabrics,” points out Macpac’s Dijkstra, “but in reality, the gain will often be negated by either a separate footprint or simply by frustrations because the floor will not last.”

Staying warm and dry

You’ll only find out how good a tent really is in bad weather,” says Daan Dijkstra, Content and Sponsorship Manager at Macpac. “When it’s sunny and warm, any tent will do.”

The water resistance of tent fabric is expressed as ‘hydrostatic head’, measured in millimetres. It refers to the water pressure required to penetrate the fabric. To test a tent fabric, manufacturers clamp the material over the bottom-end of a vertical tube. The tube is then slowly filled with water – if the fabric starts to leak when the water has reached a height of, say, 1000mm then that is its hydrostatic head.

In practical terms, water pressure is likely to be higher in heavy rain accompanied by winds, while your weight on the floor of the tent will add to the pressure on any water underneath, meaning the tent floor will need higher water resistance than the fly to avoid seepage. A hydrostatic head of about 1200mm or more for the fly will generally be adequate for most types of rain, while the floor of a three-season tent should be have a hydrostatic head of at least 5000mm.