Everything you need to know about camping tents
You’ve decided to buy a camping tent. Great! Camping is a wonderful way for you and your family to enjoy the outdoors and it's fantastic value for money.
But if it’s been a while since you bought a tent or you’ve never camped before, it might all seem a little confusing. There's no need to panic, though.
Just like buying a house, a car or even a bottle of wine, the most important thing when it comes to buying a camping tent is having all the knowledge at your fingertips.
These are the sort of questions you need to ask before you splash the cash.
Our guide will provide all the information you need to choose the right tent for your next camping adventure.
What kind of tent do you need?
Before we get all technical, the first thing to consider is how you are likely to use your tent. Are you going away for a two-week summer holiday or are you going to take lots of mini-breaks?
Perhaps you only have a small car to squash the camping kit into with the kids, or maybe you have a trailer and roofbox to take everything including the kitchen sink?
If so, are you fit enough or have sufficient bodies to erect a big tent and do you have the space to store and maintain such a unit at home?
So answer these questions and you’ll be well on the way to targeting your perfect tent.
Family tents tend to be large and are designed for longer term trips than just the occasional night. The layout provides standing room throughout and comfortable space for extended holidays for larger groups of campers.
Generally big family tents take longer to set up and pack away so aren’t ideal if your time is limited.
The packed size and weight of family tents also means they’re best suited for transporting by car rather than being carried.
They are available in either inflatable or traditional poled versions and can be bought in four, five and six-man versions.
For larger families or groups you can choose a tent that will house up to 10 people.
Tunnel tents, like the Coleman Castle Pines 4L (pictured above) are currently the most common type of family tent. They are likely to have at least one bedroom (also known as the inner tent) and a large, separate living area – often fitted with high walls, side annexes and wings to provide even more usable space for furniture and storage.
An important feature of family tent is that it has enough headroom throughout to walk around and stand upright without having to stoop.
Some family tents have a front porch area that is often used as a kitchen/diner or for storage and can be either enclosed or open fronted.
Other popular family tent options are vis a vis (best for families with older children) and large domes.
Also known as touring tents, these are smaller tents which have less living space but are quick and easy to pitch and pack away, making them ideal for shorter breaks when time is at a premium.
Like family models, weekend tents come in poled or inflatable versions.
They tend to be for a maximum of four or five people but work especially well for couples who want a little more space to spread out.
A weekend tent, like the Coleman Aspen 4 (pictured), can have a single living/sleeping area or might have a separate bedroom and living room.
Depending on the model, there could be a side door in addition to the main front entrance.
Many weekend tents have a high roof that allows you to comfortably walk around inside, while others have very little headroom. If mobility is an issue, you should go for the taller style, as crawling in and out of the tent can be difficult.
The smaller pack size means they are easier to pack into the boot of your car without having to use a trailer or roofbox.
Also included in this category are instant-pitch tents. Also known as quick-pitch or pop-ups, these literally do just pop into shape as soon as they’re taken out of their bags; after that, they just need pegging out.
Finally, if your trips fall into the adventure camping category – trekking, backpacking, cycling, canoeing, etc – rather than simple holidays, then you'll need a more technical tent, such as the Coleman Batur.
Adventure tents can be for one, two, three or, occasionally, four people and tend to be more expensive than mainstream models because of the technical materials used for fabrics, poles and pegs.
The high-tech materials include ripstop fabrics and alloy poles and pegs.
The lightweight fabrics used are designed to allow you to carry the tent in a backpack or on your bike or canoe and they can usually be pitched very quickly
Find out more about the different styles of tents here
Is big better?
Of course, it’s great to have lots of extra space when you’re on site.
A large tent, like the Coleman Meadowood 6L, lets you set up plenty of furniture inside the living area and makes tent living more comfortable, especially if the weather is bad or you are camping at a time of year when it gets dark early.
Think also about how and where you will be storing all your clothing and equipment. You might want to use one of the bedroom pods as a storage area/dressing room.
Something else to consider, is how much room there is for seating, possibly around a table, and other furniture.
Bear in mind the larger the tent the longer it takes to put up, take down and look after.
Bigger tents tend, also, to be heavier as well as bulkier when packed. That’s something to think about in terms of how much luggage capacity you have to spare in your car, also taking into consideration other items of gear you want to take with you when you go camping.
There are also pitch size restrictions on some campsite pitches which could result in extra charges.
Some campers will buy a large tent for longer family holidays and a smaller model for weekend trips. This can be an expensive approach, but a cheaper alternative is to buy a smaller tent and an optional extension, that can be used to increase living space on long trips.
Poled tent or inflatable tent?
Traditional poled tents have two, three or four fibreglass, steel or alloy poles to provide the tunnel shape that is popular in larger family tents.
Colour-coded poles that match with sleeves on the flysheet make them easy to pitch and they have plenty of room for both living and sleeping.
The disadvantage of poled tents is that they can take longer to pitch and large models will usually need at least two people to put them up. On the other hand, they tend to be lighter than inflatable tents and pack away smaller.
Steel poled tents offer more stability than fibreglass but are heavier.
Rather than using fibreglass, steel or alloy poles, inflatable tents are supported with air-filled chambers or beams that mean you can have a large family tent pitched in a few minutes.
Although inflatable tents have been around for many years, they really came into the mainstream in 2011 when Vango launched their AirBeam range. Nearly all the major manufacturers now do their own versions, mostly in the tunnel style.
The biggest advantage is that they are very simple to put up and even large tents can be pitched quickly, often by one person.
The downside is that they can be heavy and bulky and are currently more expensive than pole tents. Bear in mind, too, that a manual pump can be hard work on big family tents so it is worth considering an electric pump.
See also: Buying A Tent: Ultimate Guide
Sewn-in or separate groundsheet?
The groundsheet is the piece of waterproof material, usually polyethylene, that sits under the tent so you don’t have to walk around on the grass.
For many years, tents either didn’t have a groundsheet or they were completely independent of the main flysheet of the tent, meaning there was a gap between the walls and the floor.
As camping became a popular recreation, tents started to come with groundsheets that attached to the sides, either sewn in or fixed with toggles or zips.
Nearly all family tents now have a sewn-in, waterproof groundsheet which completely separates the inside of the tent from the outside – keeping out unwanted insects, small animals and the weather.
Some tents come with come with a “bathtub” design groundsheet, a tent floor made from one piece of material, which continues up the walls about six inches before being attached to the sides with toggles or a zip.
The raised edges are designed to keep your belongings dry, even if an overnight downpour waterlogs your pitch.
The benefits of a sewn-in groundsheet are obvious but there are also a couple of problems.
First, groundsheets are vulnerable to rips and tears, and if they do, unless you are prepared to carry out repairs, you’ll have to get a new tent. Find out more about groundsheet repair and maintenance here.
Second, every time the tent is packed away, even on lovely drying days, the damp under the groundsheet (as well as, maybe, mud and dying grass) can damage the tent fabric if not aired off properly at home.
Protection of the groundsheet from the ground can be ensured by using a tent 'footprint' – which will extend the useful life of the tent plus makes packing up easier.
Custom made footprints are available for many models of tent, but a large cheap tarpaulin will serve as a cheap alternative.
What is the best tent material?
A well-made tent, if properly maintained, should provide years of fun-packed holidays, but the quality of a tent’s construction is quite hard to gauge – especially the materials.
Traditionally, tents were made out of cotton – a tough natural fabric which breathes well. But cotton is heavy, particularly when wet, and can take ages to dry. It’s difficult to handle when wet but if you don’t dry it out properly, it can rot easily.
Cotton is still a great fabric for inner tents, as it breathes well, meaning less condensation but most modern tents now use man-made materials like nylon and polyester - usually proofed with polyurethane.
These are normally cheaper, lighter, more compact, more weather resistant and easier to maintain.
However, they are more prone to UV degradation and condensation and can get extremely hot in warm weather.
Polycotton – sometimes called technical cotton – has become popular in recent years for some top-of-the range tents.
This is a breathable flysheet material that combines natural cotton and synthetic fabric and replicates the feel and smell of traditional canvas tents combined with the better long-term waterproofing abilities of man-made materials.
Initially, in wet weather, the material actually absorbs some water then subsequently becomes water tight. As it dries, the fabric actually opens up, hence the term breathability.
Polycotton is generally cooler in hot temperatures and warmer in the cold. It is a popular choice for many seasoned campers, but it tends to be significantly more expensive than comparable nylon or polyester tents.
Will my tent be waterproof?
The ability of a material to repel water is measured in terms of its hydrostatic head. This is its theoretical ability to withstand the pressure of a column of water, measured in millimetres, without allowing any of it to penetrate.
Virtually all tents sold in this country will have a hydrostatic head measurement of at least 1,500mm, comfortably over the minimum 800mm that is required for it to be claimed as waterproof.
A rating of 3,000mm or above should cope with any conditions you are ever likely to encounter, although some tents are have a hydrostatic head of up to 6,000mm.
Polycotton tents are not measured in terms of hydrostatic head and some tent manufacturers have dropped the measurement completely from their specs as they don’t consider it important.
To ensure they are watertight, most tents now have factory-taped seams, around which you may find a few pinprick holes.
These won’t necessarily allow water to penetrate, but it is a good idea to use a seam sealant before first use. Remember to allow plenty of time for it to dry before packing the tent away again.
Unless your tent is damaged or faulty, any water seen clinging to the inside of the tent will almost certainly be condensation rather than a leak, which can be kept to a minimum by keeping the tent well aired.
Inner or outer first pitching?
Most tent designs incorporate inner and outer tents (or flysheets), except for those made from heavy cotton canvas, which is waterproof and breathable.
When camping in our unpredictable weather, there are obvious advantages to a design that allows you to erect the outer tent first, allowing you to keep the inner tent dry.
How much should I spend on a camping tent?
You can buy a basic four-berth family tent for less than £100 but we’d suggest spending a little more than this (£300 - £550) to get something that will be better quality and ensure you are warm and dry.
A six-berth model will provide extra living space and take the cost up again - you could spend between £400 and £800 depending on the features.
If you’re looking to upgrade your existing family tent then you can easily spend up to £2,000 on a quality model, especially if you go for something in canvas or polycotton.
Poled tents tend to be far less expensive than inflatable models, although the cost of these is coming down.
You can now buy a six berth inflatable for as little as £400 , although top of the range models can come in at around £1,500.
Whatever you are looking for, the key is to shop around for a bargain.
Want more great tent information?
Our "Buying a camping tent: The ultimate guide" is full of great tent buying advice.
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