Choosing a Tent
Dazed and confused? This page may help you come to grips with the wide-ranging, web-based tent info that's out there. It's all here. Take a deep breath and start at the beginning!
What Sort of Lightweight Tent Do You Need?
Get this sorted first! All design, materials and construction choices follow from this. Here are the five categories into which you can think of lightweight tents and shelters usually falling.
Simple, lightweight structures to be used in mild conditions, either as insect protection, shelter from the sun or shelter in steady rain. They are not designed to protect against a combination of wind with dust, rain or snow. Some simple tents that require the use of separate walking poles for support fit in here also. Products in this group tent to vary widely in the quality of materials, construction detail and price. High quality WE members are the Bug Dome and Overhang tarps.
General purpose tents for lightweight campers and travelers, used as often for privacy, as for protection against wet weather, damp ground and insects. Tents in this group are mainly used in camping grounds or close to vehicles, rather than depended on in remote areas. Price generally dictates the choice of cheaper materials and unsophisticated construction. Minimum weight is not a real design priority.
Ultra-lightweight, single-skin backpacking tents using materials for absolute-minimum-weight. These tents are for dry-snow alpine use, adventure racing emergency shelter and other fast and light activities. This is a specialized category. The lightest weight, water-repellent-only fabrics used for such tents are not reliable when prolonged wet weather sets in. (For this performance level a single-skin tent must use a true, durably waterproof fabric. The best, and most expensive, have ePTFE membrane laminations and so usually qualify into the next two categories). We have recently released the Tectite range of extremely light-weight 'hybrid' single skin tents. They are completely waterproof but 'hybrid' in that they nicely combine aspects of tents that fall into the first category, above, but this one and the next as well!
Backpacking tents for use in all weather conditions below storm force winds, sustained, remote-country snowfall or blizzards. Tents in this group are lightweight performance structures, depended on for remote-area protection against heavy rain, soggy ground, insect swarms, moderate winds and light snowfall. All WE tents with full-cover outer skins qualify for this group but choose models with full fabric rather than mesh inners if airborne dust and snow are on the cards.
'Extreme' backpacking tents, built up to the limits to what is possible with specialist materials, design and construction techniques, to resist the most severe backcountry weather. Minimising the weight of these tents, which may be carried to high altitudes and over long distances, is an important design objective. The silicone elastomer outer tent versions of the WE First and Second Arrows, as well as the Cirque model qualify in this group.
Which group fits your tent performance needs? Many 'go-anywhere' backpackers end up owning a full-on 'winter' tent like a First Arrow and a really airy mesh summer solution like a Bug Dome or Dart 2. Remember, tents from a higher performance group can work well in less demanding weather conditions but the opposite generally isn't true. Well ventilated high-end tents can be extremely versatile. Think also about the possibility of getting by with a light-weight tarp. They can be very effective for three out of four seasons.
Choosing a Design
An obvious difference between tent designs is the supporting framework they use. Where this is located relative to the tent fabric skin/s will be looked at below, under Pole Positioning. For now we want to focus on the frame system itself. It is usually easy to identify tents from the following different categories but less obvious are the advantages and disadvantages which will critically affect performance and the enjoyment of their use. Here's the summary.
The straight, upright pole type (possibly using walking poles doubling as tent support). This traditional system is appealing for its simplicity but the tent shape and stability rely entirely on fabric tension (pegging and guying) to resist wind and snow loads. Precise panel cuts and attention to the reinforcing of stress concentration areas are critical. There is another disadvantage: the surface area (amount of fabric) is high for the usable volume achieved. For simple two-pole designs guys must be used to pull out the tent panels and create workable internal space. These days it is unusual to find properly engineered and constructed products in this limited category. Tent designs supported by flexible, tubular poles formed into arches now dominate the lightweight market. By the way, if you are comparing product weights, don’t forget to include an allowance for the weight of the walking poles if they are part of the tent structure. If you need them for walking you can’t leave the tent erected.
Tunnel designs use non-crossing-over pole arcs. Their substantial advantages include having the lightest weight for useful volume, being able to flex significantly (so spilling or absorbing much of the extra energy of violent wind gusts), and having the least aerodynamic drag when correctly aligned to the wind. Tunnel designs typically have one, two or three pole arches, often of different lengths. Tunnel tents are not free-standing but note carefully - the weight of the one or two pegs needed at each end to hold them up never amounts to that of the extra poles required for similar sized free-standing designs. To achieve the highest integral strength most tunnel tents have their poles located in fabric sleeves built-in to the outer tent. If the tent is double-skin this construction makes use of the inner tent on its own more or less impractical.
Geodesic designs are generally free-standing, very stable and spacious. Crossing-over pole arches or networks using hub connections automatically tension the floor pan of the tent without the need for pegs. Geodesic designs are naturally 'stiff' because tent distortion is limited by the interlocking poles (often in the fabric sleeves carrying them). Geodesic designs generally support heavier snow loads than other designs because the flatter fabric panels at the crown of the tent are more directly supported by many, if not all of the tent's pole arches. In extreme wind extensive guying is essential. Without it, violent wind gusts can develop very high stresses in the relatively inflexible structure that may lead to sudden, explosive pole failure. It is good practice to peg down any tent design, whether guys are in use or not. So…. allow for the weight of at least four pegs if you're counting the last grams! The nicest advantage of most free-standing, double-skin tents is that inners can be easily used on their own without the outer skin fitted. Mesh inners used like this make excellent enclosures for dry-season camping.
One Skin or Two?
Lightweight tents have traditionally been double-layer affairs. The two main reasons were the lack of truly waterproof yet moisture-vapour-permeable fabrics and the unavailability of tape seam-sealing technology. Instead, cotton based fabrics were commonly used for backpacking tent walling and it needed a separate rain-fly to repel direct, heavy rain. Even when the cotton was waxed these tents were more reliable with a fly, seams required constant treatment and absolute care needed to be taken to pitch them on well-drained ground.
With factory taped seams and related water-resisting construction technologies, waterproof, single-skin construction has become routine. The argument about one layer or two now comes down to managing the intertwined issues of condensation, ventilation and heat retention. Here are the important points to consider…..
If minimum weight is the absolute objective, single-layer construction is the solution. For true waterproof performance in a tent that is sealed against snow or dust entry in high winds moisture-vapour-permeable (MVP), durably-waterproof, laminated fabric technology must be used. These types of fabric are expensive and, as well, door and vent openings call for sophisticated construction. The wash-up is that these MVP single-skin tents find their main application in mountaineering where the need for an ultra-lightweight, simple shelter outweighs considerations of economy and versatility.
If just a little more weight is tolerable, double-skin construction can deliver equal or better performance at considerably less cost. A well-designed, full-coverage outer tent will shield the inner tent from rain and splash as well as provide vestibule space and ventilation pathways. The inner tent can be constructed so the floor is a completely waterproof tub. The inner tent canopy can use a very lightweight fabric and, by the use of openings and mesh panels, provide for the regulation of ventilation and heat-loss, as well as shielding occupants from direct contact with condensation that will inevitably form under the outer tent from time to time. The two skins provide a degree of thermal insulation. The only serious annoyance with condensation comes when it drips down into the tent and onto sleeping bags. Double-skin construction substantially reduces this problem, even in the dampest of situations. What remains can be mopped up by hand with an absorbent cloth. Many single-skin tent fabric laminations use an absorbant lining, which is fine, but the water is still there, still weighs something, and will not go away easily without direct sun to dry it off.
Between expensive MVP waterproof single-skin tents and full double-skin construction lies an extremely light-weight 'one-and-a-half' skin solution that uses economical conventional waterproof/coated fabric. Condensation is managed by combining provision for excellent ventilation with only the essential elements of a full inner tent: the floor pan and the ceiling.
The last obvious difference between light-weight, modern, backpacking tent models is where designers have located the poles. (This discussion relates mainly to tents using sprung arches. For tents using straight poles the pros and cons are similar). Here are the three common arrangements.
Free-standing tents usually have the poles fitted to the inner tent, either enclosed in fabric sleeves projecting from the seams, or by a series of hook-up attachments. In the case of fabric sleeves, these maximize the space within the tent and can be made from pliable mesh fabric. Pushing the poles through such sleeves is relatively easy. Fabric sleeves or hooks, this system is simple and cheap to produce. The outer skin, which is simply fitted over the erected inner tent, does not have the added seam-sealing complications that occur in the next category. Although it is widely used (including by us) there is a compromise with this system. Because the outer tent skin is relatvely free to move on the underlying inner tent structure it is difficult to achieve good, constant skin tension. The pole arc shapes are determined by the inner tent and the pole tip separation is set by the tensioned inner tent floor base. The outer tent cut, fit and adjustment is critical and, although these designs are free-standing the use of pegs to tension the outer tent perimeter is strongly advised.
Outer-pitch-first tents usually have the poles housed in fabric sleeves attached to the outer skin. For true waterproof performance these sleeves must be sewn flat to the outer skin and seam-sealed on both sides. Feeding poles through such sleeves that would need to cross-over in typical geodesic designs is impossibly difficult and is universally avoided with such tents. However, having the poles located in sleeves integral with the outer skin is easily the strongest and most aerodynamic construction. The poles directly support the outer fabric skin, they can not slide around and the fabric can form a smooth surface. So, this system finds use in tunnel tent designs where the poles do not cross over and can be inserted with relative ease.
The last system is to clip the outer skin up under an external pole framework. This allows any configuration of poles to be used for the framework. Outer skin attachment is, as in the first category, either by multiple pole clips or by curved sleeve arrangements. With this system the tent skin can be easily seam-sealed on the underside since all detailed construction is outside. For single-skin tents an external framework is a good alternative to the tempting practice of locating the poles completely within the tent. It avoids the sealing and wear problems on the tent floor at the pole tips and also of sealing the multiple tie points required to hold the poles in position within the tent. On the downside the external, exposed framework has poor aerodynamics. Double-skin tents using a completely external frame-work must use the same solution for attaching the inner tent up under the outer as tents where poles are contained in outer tent fabric sleeves – a series of seam-sealed hook or toggle points.
Now that you can recognize and understand the major differences between most backpacking tents available on the market your next step will be a critical look at individual models. The choice and quality of fabrics and materials, and attention to design and construction detail are what separate an excellent tent from a poor one, in any category. Here the technical detail thickens but, if you are interested in textile technology and WE tent design and construction just follow the links! In the end most of us have a capacity to recognize good general quality and, combined with a brand’s established reputation, this is a reasonable guide.