Thursday, July 15, 2010

Guide to tents and camping

Camping is an acivity that more people should enjoy. It can be combined with many other outdoor activities, including climbing, hiking, walking and biking, and whether you're out for just one day, or for several weeks, it's one of the best ways to get in touch with the outdoor world. Unfortunatley some people make mistakes, and have bad experiences that put them off camping. While I'm no expert, I have enjoyed camping in many places and situations for years, and made quite a few mistakes of my own. This article is intended to help people avoid those mistakes and enjoy their time outside.

What makes a good tent?

Primarily a good tent is one that is suited to your needs, and one that is pitched correctly. Having said that, there are some considerations to choosing a tent which will help ensure you have a dry and comfortable nights sleep.

In order to understand what type of tent will suit your needs, you need to understand a bit about how tents are constructed.

The main purpose of a tent is to create a living space which keeps out rain and bad weather. You may think that the best way to do this would be to have a totally waterproof sealed tent. This is correct up to a point, but misses out two crucial design factors.

1) waterproof materials generally don't allow much air to pass through them.
2) The human body produces a large amount of water vapour from breathing and sweating.

These two factors mean that a sealed waterproof tent generally wouldn't be practical, as we need to breathe, and we need to allow our own water vapour to get out instead of condensing on the inside of the tent and making us wet.

Because of this, traditional tent design has tended toward double skin tents. In this arrangement, there's an inner tent made from breathable material such as cotton and a waterproof ground sheet - then a "flysheet" made of waterproof material which covers the inner tent. Usually there's a gap at the bottom of the flysheet to allow better ventilation. In order to prevent condensation drips from getting into the living area, the outer and inner tents must be held apart from each other, which is usually achieved by the use of tent poles and guy ropes (The thin ropes stretching from the outer of the tent down to the ground, or other anchoring point).

Using this design means that tents can be effectively waterproof, while still allowing water vapour to get out of the living space.

Some modern tents use a single-skin design, meaning that they don't have an inner tent. In order to do this while remaining waterproof and breathable, they need to use expensive and exotic materials (Such as Gore-Tex or Event membranes), and so are generally used for specialist purposes. DO NOT BUY A CHEAP SINGLE SKIN TENT, because it won't be breathable or waterproof - meaning that you, and your gear WILL get wet.

Size of tents

Sizes of tents are usually quoted in terms of the number of people who can sleep in it (ie. a "2-man" or "2 berth" tent will be big enough for two people - Note: they don't have to both be men :) ). You should also consider storage space, especially if you are hiking or biking with large backpacks. Some tents come with "vestibule" or porch areas, which are covered by the flysheet, but outside of the main tent. These can be used to store some items, especially if the ground sheet covers this area. Most small tents will not be large enough for you to stand up in, however unless you have mobility problems, this is only a minor inconvenience once you get used to it.

Free-standing or not.

Some tents will stand up on their own when the poles are in place, and they have been pegged down. Other tents require guy ropes to hold them in shape. If all else is equal, you will be better off with a free standing tent, as guy ropes can be easy to trip over and damage at night, as well as meaning that your tent will take up more room. In bad weather, you should use all appropriate guy ropes in order to make sure your tent is securely pitched.

Shapes of tents:

The names of the tent types are a good clue as to what they look like, but here's a few pointers about the most common types.

A-frame tents are just like the traditional image one might have of a tent. They usually have a central ridge pole, and a triangle or "A" shape at each end. These tents can be very strong, and relatively spacious, but require fairly sturdy poles to maintain the strong shape.

Tunnel tents are generally made from several hoops with the flysheet stretched over them. Because the walls are nearly vertical at the edges (meaning good headroom), these tents usually have a lot of usable room inside them. They are seldom free-standing due to the design.

Dome tents are usually constructed of two poles which cross in the center at the top, forming a dome shape. These tents are usually free-standing, although guy ropes should be used in bad weather.

Geodesic tents are similar to dome tents, but usually have additional poles in the structure, providing extra bracing and rigidty. These tents are often less spacious, but very strong in bad weather. They are usually free standing.

Large frame tents are suitable for bigger groups, and often have several internal chambers for sleeping. Be aware that they can be extremely heavy, and so always consider how easy it would be to split the tent into smaller packages for carrying within a group. The person carrying a 45Kg tent on his or her own will not be very happy.


Sounds silly, but the colour of a tent is a consideration. Some colours and fabrics let through more or less sunlight and heat - a tent can become uncomfortably warm very rapidly on a hot sunny morning. Ask other tent owners and knowledgable shop advisers of their experiences, and have a look at a good outdoor shop . If you plan on camping in remote places, a brightly coloured tent could be helpful for rescuers if you get into trouble. If you'd rather blend into the countryside, then a darker coloured green or brown will stop you looking like an eyesore.

When camping in a large group or organisation, such as at a music festival, it can be helpful to have a distinctive tent, as finding your way home through the maze of guy ropes at night after a few brews can be a bit of an adventure.

Tent materials and construction.

Most current tents have a man-made fabric such as woven nylon or polypropylene. These are good materials for tent flysheets, as they are waterproof, light, and pack small. When buying a tent with a man-made flysheet, the "waterproofness" of the fabric is measured by a value called the hydrostatic head in millimeters of water (mm H2O). This deals with the level of water-pressure that the fabric will withstand, and generally the higher the value, the better the fabric. I would recommend looking for at least a hydrostatic head of 3000 mm H2O when buying a tent for use in a rainy climate. Bear in mind that tents with these fabrics are not suitable for use anywhere near where you might have a campfire, as they are very easily damaged by heat.

Cotton flysheets are used on only a few tents currently, as they pack larger that other fabrics, and are often heavier. They will tend to absorb the noise of rain much better than other flysheets, and are somewhat less susceptible to heat than the man-made materials (Don't pitch them near fires though). Cotton can never be 100% waterproof, but with a good water repellant coating, and careful tent design, it can perform excellently even in the worst weather.

PTFE Membrane materials (eg Gore-Tex / Event). These are fairly lightweight, and extremely waterproof (~15000 mm H2O). These tents use a variant of the well known Gore-Tex breathable membrane that is used in all sorts of waterproof breathable clothing. As the tent can be almost entirely sealed while remaining breathable, they do not require an inner tent, which further cuts down weight. In certain conditions, the membrane's breathability is reduced, meaning that they can be susceptible to condensation. These tents are also not suitable for use near fires.

Groundsheets are usually made of a heavier grade of coated waterproof fabric, often the hydrostatic head will be specified seperately (again, the higher the better). Some groundsheets are referred to as "bathtub", which means that the groundsheet comes a few inches higher off the ground, and is a good thing. Look for sturdy groundsheets with reinforcements at all pegging points, and wherever any poles are attached.

Seams between waterproof fabric panels used in a man-made flysheet or groundsheet should all be fully taped. The tape is a permanent patch welded over the seam to prevent water getting in through the needle holes. Seams can be re-sealed with a liquid sealant if the taping wears out.

Choosing a tent

When choosing a tent, look around and see what's available. It's always a good idea to see a tent before you buy it - even if you plan to buy it online, have a look down at your local outdoor shop. Check the size is correct for what you need, and that it packs small enough and light enough to be useful for your purposes. Check online reviews to see how well rated the tent is, and if possible speak to existing owners if you know any. Choose a light tent if you plan on carrying it around all day, or a bigger tent if you need a more luxurious lifestyle, and don't need to carry it around. Tents range from under 1Kg (930g Terra Nova Laser Competition is the lightest double skin tent), to tens of kilos for large frame tents.

I have had good experiences with the following brands: Vango, Force Ten, Outdoor Designs, Khyam

Other equipment

I tend to err on the side of lightweight rather than luxurious, but everybody has their own needs while camping. I would reccomend making sure that you have at least the following kit in addition to a tent. This is aimed at the british climate, and of course other items may be needed.

Sleeping bag appropriate to the location and climate (These are usually graded in "Seasons". A 4-season bag will be warmer than a "3 Season sleeping bag). "Mummy" style sleeping bags will keep you warmer, and pack up smaller, but some people find them claustrophobic. Keep your sleeping bag dry otherwise it will be uncomfortable, and may not keep you as warm.

Sleeping mat. The cheapest option is a foam pad, however a thin inflating mat will provide better insulation, and more comfort. the Thermarest brand is exceptionally good.

Either a travel pillow, or something you can stuff clothing into to support your head. Small backpacks or dry-sacks can be good for this.

A small lightweight torch with a clip or lanyard on it. Tents often have a loop on the top of the inner tent that you can suspend a light from. LED torches are best, as they can have a long battery life

(In some areas) Adequate protection from mosquitos and other insects.

A bottle of water for during the night.

You may also enjoy the following

Small meths-burning stove and cookset - great for a hot drink, or fried breakfast. Trangia models are good, and pack small. Make sure you follow the instructions and obey regulations while using these, and keep the cookware as clean as possible.

Collapsible chair. These are great for festivals, though you won't be popular if you set up your chair right in front of the pyramid stage at Glastonbury (!).

The means to safely start a campfire. As with the stove, make sure you obey safety and site rules when doing this.

Beer. Well 'nuff said really. Don't drink too much, especially if it's cold. Do as I say, not do as I do :)

Planning a trip

Always make sure you know the area you plan to be camping in, and where the campsite is. Take adequate maps, and arrive as early as possible. Some campsites require you to book ahead, or have other restrictions on usage. If you're new to camping, it's best to take along someone more experienced in case of difficulties.

Always make sure you have the right equipment for your planned trip. Don't plan on camping in remote locations unless you know what you're doing. If you plan on wild camping (not in a campsite) - make sure you know the laws regarding this, and have permission from the landowner. Bear in mind hygiene and medical considerations as well as safe food and water.

Pitching a tent

Bad pitching of a tent is the most common cause of leaks and other problems. Make sure you practice putting up your tent before having to use it for real. Bear in mind that it may be getting dark when you put your tent up, so the more familiar you are with it, the better. Always aim to pitch your tent before dark.

When pitching your tent, always be aware of the amount of room it will take up, including guy ropes, and allowing adequate room for people to walk between tents. Your tent will have instructions about the minimum distance that should be allowed between adjacent tents, and between tents and fires. The campsite may also have rules regarding this. Make sure you follow these instructions and rules, and never cook in your tent.

Avoid camping under trees and in boggy or overgrown ground. Find a flat area and thoroughly clear it of any sharp objects. To extend the life of your tent, you may want to invest in an underlay groundsheet, or groundsheet protector which will help avoid sharp objects puncturing or wearing out the groundsheet. Some tent manufacturers supply them premade to the sizes of their tents. You may want to consider the direction the sun will rise from, as well as any prevailing weather conditions when orienting your tent.

Always try to make sure the flysheet is taut and smooth, but don't over-stress the fabric. A flysheet that flaps around in the wind is noisy, and will be more likely to come into contact with your inner tent, and cause leaks. It will also wear out faster, but most importantly it makes you look like a muppet to anyone who knows about tents.

If you don't have a mallet to hit in tent pegs (I never carry one), you can often push them into the ground by hand, or use a sturdy shoe to hit them in. On very hard ground, you may be able to weigh the guy lines down with rocks or other heavy items instead of pegging them down.

While inside the tent, you should aim to avoid touching the outer tent, or positioning gear against it, as it can cause water to wick into the tent. Try to avoid wearing outdoor shoes and boots inside the tent, or anything that could snag or damage the fabric.

When you break camp, check the area thoroughly for litter and left equipment. Make sure you dispose of all litter and leave the site in a good condition.

Okay now, get out there and enjoy the outdoors safely!

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