What you need to know to buy

Tents

© Andy Hiltz

I am just going to buy a tent for spring-break, and I thought, "Maybe
there's some useful stuff on the WWW." Thank's for setting up this
gr8 advice page!

Christian
University of Washington, Seattle

I suppose I should call this section "shelters", because that's really what we're talking about here. A "tent" is nothing more than a shelter you carry in the backcountry to protect you from the elements. This is a key point, since the decision you make concerning what shelter you buy should be based on specifically what kind of elements you want to protect yourself from. Sad that many go in search of tents without this basic premise in mind, and end up buying too little, or too much for their purposes.

To look at it in another way, if you intend to hike the Appalachian Trail in the summer, you don't need to carry a bombproof North Face Mountain-24 designed to take high winds and snow loading. Conversely, if you intend to head into the Rockies in the winter, you may want something more than a plastic tube tent.

There are an extraordinary range of tents available on the market, and lots of good designs. I'll provide you with some general guidelines to follow that will help you pick the best tent for your purposes.


It's all a matter of conditions and comfort. What you ultimately carry into the backcountry for your shelter will depend on the conditions you need protection from, and the degree of comfort you desire once you set up camp.

If you hike solely during the summer months, then virtually any moderate quality tent will do just fine. If you're a three season hiker, you might consider a shelter that has a bit more comfort and room inside for those rainy early spring or late fall days when dressing inside the tent in the morning, or spending the evening inside before bed, is preferable. If you're a four season hiker, snow loading, access, and high winds are a consideration, and more care must be taken in selecting a shelter that will protect you from the harsher elements of the winter months.

A good shelter at a minimum will keep you dry and comfortable in rainy weather and keep the bugs out during the summer months. Those are the main objectives. Sometimes, a basic design will work just fine. If you're headed for more extreme conditions, you'll need something a little more than "basic".

But first, a little "tent history" to let you know where we were, and how we got where we are now:

A Short Tent History......

Back in the 1950's, it could be a challenge locating light, strong, and well-designed backpacking tent. Shoppers had simple choices available - military surplus, or a handful of "camping equipment" companies that made heavy, dark cotton canvas tents. These shelters were typically small, cramped, A-frame affairs with wooden poles. The canvas material was covered with a paraffin wax coating which helped repel rain. But like any wax surface coating, sooner or later, the "waterproof" finish would come off. Then the leaks would start - a slow, steady drip inside the tent.

Canvas tents work on the theory of surface tension. If a "sheen" of water builds up on the outside of the fabric, new water falling on the tent will be carried down the sides on the outside surface of the tent by gravity. On the inside, while the canvas walls will be damp, the rain will not soak all the way through. A nice theory, as long as you don't "break" that surface tension by poking the tent with a finger, or shoving a pack against the side of the tent. Paraffin coatings help, but at the expense of turning your backcountry shelter into a smelly place to spend the night. To make matters worse, canvas can deteriorate rapidly through "wet rot" and mildew. This was pretty much the only choice you had in the way of a tent material in the 1950's. Cotton fabric of one sort or another was the "fabric of choice", going all the way back to the Revolutionary War.


Confederate General Lee confers with General "Stonewall" Jackson during a snowy November meeting in Fredericksburg, Virginia (1862). The tent material of choice during the American Civi War - cotton. (© Lang Graphics, Delafield, WI, from the painting "Strategy in the Snow" by historical artist Mort Kunstler.)

Then two things happened that changed the design of tents forever - nylon, and the "back to nature movement" of the late 1960's. Nylon made it possible to create a shelter that was strong and light. Further, nylon could be treated with a urethane rubber coating that was much more durable and longer-lasting than paraffin. But since the market for tents made out of nylon was small, there wasn't much of a drive to create shelters using this new and exotic material - until the 1960's. Suddenly, millions of young people created an overnight demand for outdoor equipment, either to camp out at rallies, or experience "Mother Nature" on her own terms in the wild backcountry. With this huge, new market for outdoor equipment came competition and design improvements. Suddenly, tents were not only made out of better materials, but also better designs.

Then things went a step further........

In the late 1970's, The North Face (TNF) came out with a revolutionary backpacking tent that changed the face of tent design forever - the geodesic dome. Geodesic domes, based on Buckminster Fuller's theory of intersecting triangles, were not new. Some architects had already been experimenting with "Bucky's" design, because it enabled a large amount of space to be enclosed with a minimum of material in an extremely strong design. For example, the "radomes", or radar domes you see protecting sensitive electronic equipment today is based on the geodesic design. The utility of applying this design to backpacking tents was obvious. Using design concepts borrowed from Shelter Systems, The North Face came out with the first geodesic backpacking tent design - the Oval Intention. Two new models quickly followed - the Vector Equilibrium 2-person 3-pole and 2-person 4-pole designs, or VE-23 and VE-24.

For strength, interior volume enclosed, and weight, nothing could match the geodesic tents. For a number of years, TNF retained exclusive design rights to the design, and sold thousands. When TNF's rights lapsed, other manufacturers started to create copies, and a number of design "clones" started to appear on the market. Today, out-and-out copies of the original Oval Intention (Walrus) and VE-24 design (REI Geodome and Eureka Wind River) as well as countless variations on the geodesic design principle are prominent in virtually every manufacturer's tent line. This is terrific design concept for a tent subjected to harsh conditions, and where comfort and interior space is a goal.


One of the many "clones" of the original North Face VE-24 design - the REI Geodome.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself here. You may not NEED such a shelter for your purposes. How do you choose? Let's go back to where we started, and look at conditions and comfort.

What are your expected backcountry conditions?

Backpackers can be divided into three seasonal categories. Summer only; spring, summer and fall; and all seasons of the year. To round out our concept of "conditions", we also need to think about your geographic location as well. Use the following as a guide:

This is a general rule of thumb. It's not chipped in stone. There are other decisions you'll want to make as you decide on your "ideal" shelter.

What exactly IS a "Summer" tent?

A simple, A-frame style nylon tent with a waterproof fly and no-see-um netting will serve your purposes perfectly well as a summer tent. A waterproof fly is a urethane-coated nylon "sheet" that is typically suspended as a second layer over the tent body. No-see-um netting is designed to keep out no-see-ums, those pesky little biting gnats that you rarely see - until they start biting. No-see-um netting is an extremely fine mesh. You almost have to put the netting up to your nose to see the openings in the netting material. Don't be fooled by the "cheapie" nylon tent models mass-produced in Taiwan that look like they have a waterproof rain fly "permanently attached" and which don't have no-see-um netting. These models are also often only "water repellant", not "water-proof". (About the only thing these tents are good for is as a back yard play tent for the kids. In the backcountry, you'd be better off with a sheet of plastic. At least plastic is waterproof.)


One of the most frequently seen tents in the U.S. backcountry - the Eureka "Timberline". A simple, well made "A-frame" tent at an economical price.

Here and there you can find some nice, basic A-frame style tents which are assembled with poles and staked out with guy-lines and tent stakes. They'll work just fine during the summer months and will provide you with a dry, bug-free environment in which to sleep.

For those who really want to cut weight to a minimum and who are less concerned with bugs, a plastic "tube tent" is always an option. This inexpensive "emergency" shelter is quite popular with "through-hikers" who hike the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast of the U.S. Normally, through-hikers typically stay in backcountry "huts" or "shelters" that have been constructed at evenly spaced distances along the length of the trail. Occasionally, these huts may be full, requiring the hiker to stay outdoors. Since weight is a primary consideration on a long distance hike a "tube tent", which is a simple piece of tubular plastic, is used as a back-up shelter. By running a line through the "tube" and tying each end to trees, a basic, waterproof shelter is possible. Water can be kept out of the tube tent by pulling the bottom of the tube inside the sleeping area. Since the temperatures are typically warm during much of a through-hike along the Appalachian Trail, condensation on the inside of the non-breathable plastic is not generally a major problem. A tube tent can provide basic protection from the elements during the warmer months of the year with a minimum of weight, but of course, no protection from bugs. A plastic tarp can be used in the same manner.

Another alternative is a "bivy bag", which is simple breathable, waterproof "sack" you can put your sleeping bag inside of. A bivy bag typically has a zipper at the top to completely close the sack in the event of poor weather conditions, and a second mosquito net opening to keep the bugs out. I've received mixed reviews on bivy sacks, but if you want something more than a tube tent and don't want to go the few extra bucks for a solo shelter, this is an option. I've known people to use them year-round, but dressing in the full force of the elements in the winter months can be an exhilarating experience.

A more expensive "minimalist" route is to consider a "solo" shelter - a small, one-person tent. While not affording the interior height of standard two-person models, they have the advantage of being very light. Solo shelters also have a small footprint, which can increase your alternatives when trying to locate a comfortable flat spot to pitch your tent. You can also use your solo shelter during the spring and fall, but you may be dressing outside the tent.


One example of a "solo" shelter, the Eureka "Gossamer", weighing in at 2lbs 14oz.

What exactly IS a "three-season" tent?

By far, the vast majority of tents on the market are "three season" models. The line between what constitutes a summer tent, three-season tent, and winter tent gets a little fuzzy in this category because there are so many design variations. A three-season tent may be a stronger A- frame design (such as the ever popular Eureka "Timberline" tent), or a geodesic dome style tent. The goal is to provide a more rigid shelter capable of withstanding some wind-loading and possibly light snow loading.

In some models, the upper body of the tent may be all netting to allow maximum air flow during the summer months. No-see-um netting does a good job of restricting air flow through a tent due to its fine mesh, which is why large portions of the upper half of some three-season tents are made of this netting. Some may not want to use a tent with netting covering the upper half of the tent during the chillier spring and fall months. On the other hand, others may not consider this a disadvantage and may place a higher premium on staying cool and comfortable during the warmer months. It's a decision you'll have to make for yourself. Personally, the solo shelter I carry in the winter has netting over the upper half of the tent. I would have preferred a solid upper body, but felt the design was superior for winter use, so that's what I use.


The Walrus "Arch-Rival" is an example of a three-season tent slanted more towards the summer months. Liberal use of mosquito netting provides good ventilation, and a waterproof rainfly covers the tent during rainy weather.

What exactly IS a "four-season" tent?

A four-season tent is designed to withstand harsh winter conditions, wind, and the possibility of significant snowfall. These tents are always all-nylon, with no upper body netting. Some models may also incorporate equipment vestibules (a small, enclosed area covered by the rain fly at the font of the tent) or snow tunnels - circular openings in the side of the tent that allow you to enter and exit without opening the entire front of the tent to the elements. A few select models may even have "cook vents", small tunnels of material with mosquito netting on the end to provide a small degree of venting while cooking inside the tent. (NOTE: Cooking inside a closed tent is not recommended due to the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning.) These designs typically have less netting than other tent designs and can be warmer in the summer. Because four-season tents are sometimes made from heavier tent and pole material, they can also weigh more - usually on the order of 8 to 15 pounds. The geodesic dome design seems to prevail in four-season tents in the U.S. due to it's ability to shed snow. In Europe, the Hilleberg design is a favorite, which is a design employing non-geodesic pole hoops at evenly spaced locations along the tent.


Many U.S. expedition groups seem to favor the geodesic designs of The North Face. This "Expedition-25" will stand up to the worst weather mother nature can dish out.

Design and Construction Considerations

The shape of a tent and it's pole configuration can greatly affect how your shelter performs in the backcountry. Since winter provides the greatest test for a tent design, I'll concentrate on things you should consider as you search for a strong, light shelter that will perform well under harsh winter conditions. Due to the variety of tent designs on the market today, you'll probably see some of these design considerations in three-season and summer tents designs.


There's a basic questions you can ask to determine how well a tent will perform in harsh conditions - how rigid is the tent when it is assembled? A rigid shelter will always perform well in windy or snowy conditions because it will shed snow and wind better than other designs. There are two factors that go into creating a rigid design: the poles, and the amount of "unsupported" material between the poles.


To illustrate this point, a basic A-frame design has poles at each end, with a large area of unsupported material between the poles. In windy conditions, this material will flap and billow in the wind, even when it's staked out. In severely windy conditions, these stakes can even be pulled out of the ground, requiring you to go out in the very conditions you hoped to protect yourself from to restake the material. On the other hand, a geodesic dome design typically has much less unsupported material between the poles. As a result, the fabric is drawn taut between the poles and the design is much more rigid. Further, poles can support the weight of snow much better than unsupported nylon tent material. And in geodesic designs where the poles overlap each other around the sides of the tent, stress is more evenly distributed over the entire tent frame opposed to a single pole. (This is not true of dome designs where all poles cross at one point - at the top of the tent.) Keep in mind that geodesic designs vary. Depending on how the manufacturer has configured the poles in the design, large areas of unsupported material may exist. Wherever there is unsupported material, the tent will be vulnerable to snow and wind loading.

Why should this be a concern? Let me go back to a trip I took into the Wind River Range in 1980.

There were five in our group, and two tents. I brought my new North Face VE-24, and the other three brought a Sierra Designs "Pyramid". The Pyramid was an interesting design concept. The tent floor was octagonal, and the tent was supported by two, long segmented poles which suspended the tent over 6 feet in height at the center peak. This shelter had lots of headroom. Unfortunately, all eight corners of the tent had to be staked out to give the shelter shape. The amount of unsupported material between the poles was incredible - on the order of three square yards. Since we had travelled into the Titcolm basin above tree line, there were no unexposed areas to pitch the tents. They were both fully exposed to the weather, and a constant wind blew through the valley.

That night, a large weather front moved into the region just as we were settling down to sleep. The wind rose to a howl. The Pyramid shuddered against the wind and started to flap noisily. One of the inhabitants got out to reposition the stakes, only to discover that two had been pulled out of the ground. All night long, the wind blew. The next morning, our friends rose bleary- eyed after a sleepless night. The shelter was only partially assembled, and the wind had really given it a beating. In the VE-24, the exact opposite was the case. We had no problem with the wind and slept well. There was quite a bit of ribbing about this over morning breakfast. It should be noted that TNF and Sierra Designs no longer manufacture either design, and a majority of the Sierra Design tent line is now geodesic.

In a sheltered environment at lower elevations, the Pyramid would be a very good tent. At the higher, exposed elevations of the Wind River Range, it was the wrong design for the conditions.

Does the top of the tent have a peaked roof, or a large, flat, sloping surface? Remember that the flatter the roof, the more prone a tent will be to snow loading. If you don't intend to take your tent out in heavy snow, this is not a consideration.

Is the fly attached to the tent frame, or must it be staked out? Tents designed to stand up to a "real blow" will typically have the ends of the rain fly attached to the ends of the poles. The fly also typically has additional areas that can be pulled out and staked to create a completely rigid shelter.

Is the tent "free-standing", or are tent stakes required to raise the shelter? Tents that "stand on their own" without the need for additional staking are stronger than other designs. Stakes can always be pulled out of the ground during a blow, and additional stress can cause them to pull out if the tent becomes wet and heavy due to snow or ice. Rocky ground, or soil in deep woods can make it difficult to get the stakes in deep enough to be of value. Loamy or sandy soil is not beneficial to keeping stakes in the ground. During the winter months, the ground may be too frozen to drive in stakes at all, or too soft if there is a significant amount of snow on the ground. In the Eastern U.S. where snow can be an occasional event but frozen ground a certainty, attempting to find "dead weights" to tie a non-free standing tent to can be a challenge. Frequently, the dead weights are frozen to the ground too!

A strong, free-standing pole system can only get stronger with guying and staking.

On the other hand, many Europeans swear by the non-free-standing Swedish Hilleberg tent design which employs poles curved in a hoop at evenly spaced locations along the tent. The stucture looks similar to a "quonset hut" when assembled. Hoop tent designs provide good interior volume and lower weight, with the disadvantage of requiring a large number of stakes to guy the structure out and provide a taut pitch. The typcial "winter" hoop style Hilleberg tent requires a minimum of 7 stakes to assemble the structure, and from 18 to 22 stakes to batten down for a major blow. In comparison, a North Face free-standing geodesic tent requires none, or from 7 to 11 for a major blow at altitude.


The Hilleberg tent designs are highly regarded in Europe. This "Helags" model has two entrances and is suitable for four-season use.

As for the structural strength of a geodesic vs. hoop style, a Swedish friend of mine posed this question directly to Bo Hilleberg. Mr. Hilleberg agreed that the more crossings you have between the poles of a geodesic, the more stable it should be. But he insisted that this was in theory only. He personally had not been able to discern any real difference in practice, and other considerations had made him keep with a traditional hoop style.

Does the tent use pole "sleeves", or clips? A tent with pole sleeves is a more rigid design than a tent with clips. A pole sleeve supports the tent material and distributes stress over its entire length. A "clip" connection does this only at one point - where it is clipped to the poles. However, in inclement weather, a "sleeve" design can be more challenging to set up, especially when the wind is blowing hard. A "clip" design can be assembled easier and faster.

So much for basic design considerations. Let's look at specific features:

Poles -

There are two major pole materials - fiberglass and aluminum, with aluminum being the material of choice. Some manufacturers prefer fiberglass due to its lower cost and flexibility. Solid fiberglass poles can be heavier than their aluminum counterparts. They can also be too flexible in some cases, and not provide a desirable level of rigidity. If you're considering a tent with fiberglass poles, check the rigidity and think about the conditions you intend to use the tent in. Also keep in mind that fiberglass is a brittle material. Care must be exercised to ensure that you don't step on the poles when you're setting up the tent. You should also pay close attention to the reinforcement around the pole-to-pole connections. If it does not appear to be strong, the poles could crack and fail at the pole connections.

There are a variety of aluminum poles in use in tent designs - from the rigid aluminum poles of the Eureka Timberline to the flexible aluminum of TNF geodesic tents. I won't attempt to go into the virtues of one type of aluminum over another. All poles are made in different lengths, configurations, thicknesses, and material. You need to decide if the poles used will provide the tent with the amount of rigidity you think you need for the conditions. That's going to have to be a subjective decision on your part.

Some poles are loose, and some are connected together with stretchy "shock cord" (nylon fabric covering multiple strips of stretchy rubber). Trying to feed loose poles into a tent sleeve can be a frustrating experience, as is getting them out the following day. Shock-corded poles are desirable. If your tent uses pole sleeves, you'll also want to look at pole connections. If the pole is completely smooth when it is assembled, it will slide easily through the sleeve to the other side. If it has raised reinforcements at each pole-to-pole connection, the reinforcements can "catch" on the sleeve as the pole is being slid through to the other side.

Hand

"Hand" refers to the feeling of the material. As a general rule, nylon that is "crinkly" is of lower quality than nylon that is soft to the touch. Both will probably work fine in your tent, but quality IS quality after all.....

Reinforcement at Stress Points

You can get a quick idea of how much attention a manufacturer has paid to this important construction element by looking at one of the four corners of the tent - a spot that typically receives stress. The point where the pull-out loop is located should be stitched over in a solid fashion, in lieu of one or two cursory passes with the sewing machine.

Stitching

Good quality backpacking tents will have 10 to 12 stitches per inch. Lower quality tents may have eight, which is undesirable. Want to see eight stitches per inch? Check the zipper sewn into your favorite pair of Levi jeans - it's eight stiches per inch. (It is recommend that you check this at home, not on the sales floor of your favoirte outdoor shop :-) Anything less than 10 to 12 stiches per inch is good for backyard play only.

Coated Waterproof Bottom

Good quality backpacking tents will have a waterproof bottom. Some manufacturers fashion the material into a "tub" that follows up the sides of the tent a short distance for protection against rain splatter, and minimize the need for seams at the ground level. Other manufacturers have been known to design their tents so seams are raised off the ground a short distance.

What about the waterproof coatings themselves??

The vast majority of backpacking tents have a urethane coating sprayed on the material to make it "waterproof". For most backpackers, that's about all you need to know. However, for those who regularly head into the backcountry and often use their tent in warm and humid conditions, there's something more you do need to know - there are actually two generic types of urethane used on backpacking tents: Polyether-based and Polyester-based. The polyester type is subject to "reversion", where the polymer chain in the urethane starts to "unzip" when subjected to certain temperature and moisture conditions. Typically, reversion can occur when the material is subjected to regular high heat, high humidity conditions (95 degrees, 95% humidity). When the polymer chain starts to unzip, the coated material starts to get sticky. For backpackers, this means your rainfly may need to be "peeled apart" once you pull it out of its storage sack. (The military learned this lesson in Vietnam in the late 1960's and early 1970's when polyurethane in airplane instrument panels deteriorated so fast that a pilot's boots could be stuck to the floor when he returned from a mission.)

While the military has figured out a way to encapsulate equipment that is potted in place, like instrument panels in the dashboards of airplane cockpits, there are no cures for tent flys. If the stickiness actually develops and becomes unappealing to you, the only solution is to buy a new rain fly. How can you tell if the tent you're looking at in the store has a polyester urethane coating? Unfortunately, there is no way to make that determination - short of calling the company that makes the tent and asking someone who knows the answer.

For most occasional backpackers, this is not really a problem, since it takes a lot of exposure under hot and humid conditions to bring on the polymer unzipping. If you only use your tent once or twice a year, it will likely give you many years of good service. On the other hand, if you go out every other weekend in hot and humid conditions over a number of years, you might want to consider how important the quality of the coating is to your tent investment. In any case, polymer unzipping won't affect the waterproofing properties of the material, just make the material "sticky".

As a basic guide, remember this. The less expensive backpacking tents are more likely to have the polyester urethane coating. As usual, the basic rule of thumb applies: "You get what you pay for".

Other Considerations

Comfort - A-frame or dome? An A-frame has very little headroom, but uses less material in the tent design. In some cases, this can add up to a lighter tent. A "dome"-style tent will allow you to move around inside your tent, and can be quite spacious in inclement weather.

Equipment Vestibule - A nice addition, especially if you want to get some equipment out of the weather, but not bring it into the tent (such as your backpacking stove, which might have gotten wet in the rain).

Fly coverage over the door - If you're a comfort camper like me, in the winter, I like to cook outside the front door of my tent in the morning while I enjoy the warmth of my sleeping bag. If the weather is bad, a tent that does not have a rainfly that protects the open front of the tent can make this profound act of laziness impractical.

And Finally.....

If you end up using your tent regularly, sooner or later it's going to start to leak. Either the urethane coating is going to eventually wear off the fly, the seam-sealer is going to come out of the seams, or the nylon is simply going to break down from ultraviolet exposure. I have tried many different techniques to "fix" this problem, from resealing the seams to recoating the fly, and none have worked. Sooner or later, you're probably just going to have to replace the fly. Just something to keep in mind.

About the only thing I can say about tent care is to be certain to haul it out of your pack as soon as you get home so it can dry out. Even if it didn't rain on your trip, it's likely that dew, or dampness from the ground was absorbed by the tent material. This can lead to mildew if the tent is not unpacked and aired out. It can also lead to a rapid voiding of your "lifetime" warranty, due to "improper care". ALWAYS air out your tent when you get it home.


I hope this information helps you choose a tent that's well suited to the conditions you intend to use it in, and your own personal levels of comfort. If I've overlooked something, please let me know and I'll see about including it in the write up. You can email me at jhiltz@cox.net.