Whether you’re heading off for the weekend or planning to be gone for a few weeks, a tent that’s sturdy, easy to use and waterproof is essential.
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Even in summer, our weather can be unpredictable so a tent also needs to keep you warm and dry. Don’t overlook the potential hassle of pitching your tent, and taking it down again.
In our test we pitch and leave the tents up for a week. Our test assesses:
Usability: We consider the size and configuration of sleeping and living spaces – in particular the headroom available and the slope of the walls. Vestibules and storage spaces are important for extended periods of tent-living. We also look at the number, size, and configuration of doors, and check the windows and venting options.
Ease of assembly: We put each tent up and take it down twice – recording how long it took the second time. We also consider the weight and ease of carrying a packed tent, and the usefulness of the pitching instructions given. We note the quality of poles, pegs and guy points.
Rain: If we don’t get a downpour during the week the tents are pitched, we simulate one with hoses. We look for water entering into the vestibules (inconvenient), living areas (bad) and sleeping areas (very bad). There are limitations with our rain test, which is why we don’t include rain scores in the overall score. We find most tents perform well when faced with light or medium rain, which is how we test. The problem comes when rain and wind are combined, which we can’t realistically test.
Look for strong but flexible poles. A tent should be sturdy when pitched, but like a tree, it has to bend with the wind rather than stand resolute and firm. Fibreglass poles are cheaper than aluminium, but not as strong and tend to shatter rather than bend – possibly tearing a hole in your tent. Family-sized tents tend to have fibreglass poles. Aluminium poles are lighter and stronger, and tend to bend rather than break. Aluminium poles are standard on most smaller backpacking tents. Whatever type of pole, it pays to take a pole repair kit with you.
A tent’s shape can affect its ability to shrug off wind. Geodesic or semi-geodesic tents (where poles cross over multiple times) are stable and wind-resistant – but they tend to have lower headroom and walls that slope more, making them less liveable. Crossover dome designs offer some stability in high wind, whereas tents with poles that don’t cross (often called “tunnel” tents) offer good liveable space but tend to be less resistant to the forces of nature. Along with shape, you also need to think about the prevailing wind direction, and pitch the tent to place the lowest profile into the wind – and for comfort, place the door away from the wind.
For most family tents, guy ropes are an essential part of the structure. Look for neatly sewn and reinforced attachment points and guy rope adjusters that stay in place.
Like guy ropes, pegs are a crucial part of the tent structure – always use all peg points when pitching your tent. Pegs get all sorts of abuse – who hasn’t bent one bashing it into hard rocky ground? Look for aluminium or steel pegs, although long plastic pegs can be useful for softer ground. The “skewer” peg is most common and works well for pegging out the tent and fly directly – though they bend easily if too thin, and can spin around to release guy ropes and pull out of the ground. Notched V-shaped pegs are a better choice for guy ropes. A rubber mallet can make inserting pegs much easier.
Tent rain-flys (the outer layer of a two-layer tent) are usually made of polyester waterproofed with a waterproof PU (Polyurethane) coating. You might see a rating for “hydrostatic head” listed in mm – values of 1000-3000mm are typical. This, technically, refers to how tall a column of water the fabric can hold before water starts to seep through. Generally, the higher the number, the more waterproof the tent – 1500mm is the minimum you should look for, with up to 3000mm being better. Another thing to consider is a tent’s seams and zips – a likely spot for leaks. Look for a tent with double-stitched seams that are taped and sealed, and door zips with a protective cover or storm-porch covering them.
Tents with solid inner-walls tend to be warmer, particularly in windy conditions, and more durable. However, they can get hot in summer and attract condensation inside at night – look for good ventilation in a solid-walled tent. Some tents we tested have mesh inner walls: this means they have great ventilation and are a good choice for warmer-weather camping, but could get rather chilly if a cold southerly blew in. The Dwights Drifter 4EV has side walls made entirely of mesh, while The North Face Kaiju 6 uses substantial mesh panels in its walls. The OzTrail Sundowner has three mesh walls and the fly can be opened up to create an awning on every side.
A number of the tents in our test came without the guy ropes attached. That’s not what you want. To make the tent secure in windy weather, the guy ropes must be securely tied to the tent and the slider on the guy rope tightened. So make sure the guy ropes are tied to the tent securely before you need them (attaching guy ropes in a gale at 3am is no fun!). If you have to tie the guy ropes to the tent yourself, the best knot for this is the bowline
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