Tents are essential items for a camping trip – humans need shelter and warmth to survive, and tents provide both. But there are many different varieties of tent available, each with their own distinct niches and it can be quite bewildering to decipher which you may require when you’re new to outdoor life.
One thing is certain – the right tent can make or break a camping trip. Here are 10 types of tents and when you would use them – see which one might be best for your brand of future camping experience.
Backpacking or Adventure Tent
Space in the tent is highly limited. These tents are about quick set-up, squeezing in a SIM (self inflating mattress) and a sleeping bag and getting your head down. The aim is to keep the weight of your rucksack as low as possible, rather than offering the height of luxury.
Adventure tents can be purchased for under £100 (e.g. the Coleman Cobra) and they work well under most conditions. Emphasis on the word ‘most’ there. It is when the temperature drops below 0°C or the heavens open that you may wish that you spent a bit more on what is pretty much the most important item in your backpack.
Brands such as Hilleberg, Robens and MSR, are at the top of the adventure tent tree and offer fantastic technology (e.g triple stitching), great materials and handmade construction.
These can be termed ‘three or four season’ tents which means you can brave anything from storms to freezing alpine adventures – provided you have decent clothes and a warm sleeping bag too of course! The world is your oyster on the top backpacking tents if you fancy dropping a large amount of cash!
A bit of a catchall term, but a family tent offers a larger space for families with children. This type of tent is larger than a backpacking tent and often will have two doors on opposite sides to allow easy access in and out of the tent from either end.
The range of sizes on offer is immense, but typically 4 – 8 people can be catered for. Manufacturers will invariably list the number of people who can sleep in one of their tents – we recommend always subtracting 1 from that number if you are of normal size!
Family tents will generally have separate living and sleeping spaces – a bedroom at the back is common. The best family tents will have blackout material in the sleeping areas, clear and large windows as well as little extras like storage pockets and access hatches for mains hookup.
Cheaper family tents will use fibre glass rods to provide support to the tent. Newer family tents will use airbeam struts which are inflated with a pump.
Car Camping Tent
These tents are specifically made to attach to a car boot and attempt to incorporate the car as part of the camping experience. You can then use the car boot from inside the tent as a cooking area or similar – you can even run the car engine to help provide heat into your tent.
We would also include roof tents in this category. If you’re camping with something like a Land-rover Defender, you can get tents which are built onto the roof of the car. These are designed to be used on safari so you are raised off the ground, away from predators. Probably not required for a week in Skegness!
Pop Up Tent
Perfect for those who don’t know how long they’ll be staying at a campsite or festival, this type of tent is usually compressed within a bag and then pops up when you take it out using a system of springy internal poles.
Quick and easy setups are the main reason why festival goers have been snapping up pop-up tents over recent years. Suffice to say, they’ve become a necessary part of any outdoor enthusiast’s kit bag!
We have found that they are often tricky to squeeze back into the bag though and can be more useful as a dog kennel or temporary storage.
For those who want an inexpensive type of tent, this is made from tarpaulin and rope and doesn’t usually offer much protection but can be good in emergency situations when you need shelter fast. These are also often set up between trees and in conjunction with a bivvy bag and sleeping bag for fast, open-to-the-elements camping.
One for the true purists!
Geodesic Dome Tent
Typically for 1 or 2 occupants, geodesic dome tents are a great starter tent and one of the most popular styles, offering lots of room for standing in the center but not much headroom at either end. The shape of the tent is essentially half a sphere – i.e. a dome.
They offer excellent stability in high winds and rainwater will simply flow off. Another advantage is under alpine snowy conditions – a dome can support much more weight of snow before collapsing than alternatives (e.g tunnel tents).
A Gazebo is essentially a roof on stilts, providing shelter to rain or sun during the day. Gazebos are not really tents in the conventional sense as they do not provide any warmth during the night – they don’t have any walls!
Gazebos are perfect if you’re looking to create a cooking area at the campsite or in your back garden – they pack away reasonably small and are just useful to have when a bit of protection from the elements is required.
A bivouac bag is a waterproof coccoon into which a sleeping bag and your body can be covered, but not much else. They are a replacement for a tent if you are on a long distance multi-day hike and you want to sleep in the wild with minimal construction time.
Bivvy bags are great for mountaineers, climbers and anyone who needs lightweight gear on their back during the day or night. They’re also useful in emergency situations when access to more substantial shelter might not be possible.
A bivvy tent is a little larger than a bivvy bag and is essentially a halfway house between that and a standard 1-person adventure tent. A bivvy tent will typically use one or two tent poles at a minimum and can be erected quickly. Packed weight is normally under 1.5kg.
The design provides ample headroom and the steep sides help block wind and provide shelter from rain or snow. There are many benefits to choosing this type of tent, including being able to stand up as well as providing more space for cooking meals inside the tent while keeping your gear outside dry in case it rains or snows.
Bell tents are typically made from canvas rather than nylon and this natural fabric can provide a unique feel to the camping experience – the way the light filters through in the morning is a joy to be seen. We recommend buying the heaviest weight canvas you can afford – 285GSM (grams per square metre) is a good target to aim for.
Bell tents are often used for ‘glamping’ – glamorous camping and can have full size beds put inside as well as log burners with chimneys! As a result, the price can be quite high. They are also heavy and so this is not a tent to strap to your rucksack!
They can be used for camping or outdoor events in diverse climates including coastal areas because of their stability against wind.
The A-frame is free-standing and most often has quick clips for an easier setup. Most of these tents are quite small with enough space to comfortably sleep two people, but not much else.
They have five poles that help form the ‘A’ shape in between them; usually four big ones stick out from each side (two at the front and back) while one connects both sides across their tops so they don’t fall down on themselves when it gets windier outside− great for those who spend a lot time outdoors!
Types of Tent technology
Tent Poles are what give a tent its structure and form. The poles come in different lengths depending on how tall the tent will be and whether it is a dome or tunnel. Typically the poles are flexible and will unfold using several sections which clip together lengthwise to make a longer pole. They are often made from fiber glass – this means they can survive stormy weather without snapping.
Many modern family tents in particular are dispensing with the tent poles and using inflatable airbeam struts to create the frame of the tent. These are often slightly more expensive to buy than pole-based tents, but are much easier to set up as well as sometimes being slightly lighter and with less components to lose. However there is always the risk of the airbeam getting punctured and deflating in bad weather, but most manufacturers offer a lifetime guarantee against this. We like them, and it’s certainly a bit of exercise pumping them up!
Tents also come with a groundsheet, which is what you’ll be sleeping on inside your tent – it provides insulation and protection from moisture as well as bugs or insects that might crawl in
The tent material or fabric is an important consideration for your overall camping experience. The material weight and waterproofing are key parameters. The tent material also determines how much light will be let in.
There are tents made from nylon, polyester or cotton – each of which lets through different levels of light and also breathe differently and can have different levels of waterproofing.
Nylon stays cool during the day but can get stuffy at night because it doesn’t breathe as well. Polyester on the other hand stays warm during the day but can become too hot at night if it’s not ventilated well.
Cotton is what you’ll want for colder climates because it’s breathable and will keep your tent cooler in summer months, warmer in winter months.
Guy ropes are what keep your tent steady and secure. They’re made of nylon or polyester cord that is attached from the tent to the ground at a few points then stretched out by stakes so it’s taut in all directions.
Some tents have insect nets on their doors, which are great for not having bugs crawling around inside your tent while you sleep.
Tents certainly need to be waterproof. But they don’t necessarily need to be breathable. If you’re camping in a humid climate or there’s lots of dew on the ground, then breathability may not matter so much – but if it rains and your tent doesn’t breathe well, then you may end up having condensation inside – not a pleasant experience.
Typically we recommend at least 4000mm of hydrostatic head for tent use in the UK.