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Choosing A Camping Tent


This topic has occurred in recent papers, because the correct choice of camping equipment will have a tremendous impact on the comfort and safety of your clients (and yourself). The following article gives a comprehensive overview of factors involved in choosing a smaller tent of the sort you carry with you and erect for the night. (We are not talking about a spacious family-sized tent that you would have to carry in a vehicle but the sort that a serious hiker or canoe-ist might use to accommodate one person – or at the most two.)

“This article hinges on the old camping saying’, “Travel light, Freeze at night” and is suggesting that you think about what sort of light-weight camping tent is easy to carry and does not take up so much room that other essentials are left behind.

There is a huge range of opinions on what you should carry that will give you the good night’s sleep so that you are set up for the next day. These opinions include various sorts of ultra-light shelter, for example:

  • Poncho, preferably a multi-purpose military one which converts into a tent;
  • Bivouac tent or “bivvy-sack” tent;
  • Hammock tent;
  • Tarp or sheet of plastic spread over a paracord line.

Camping tents come in many different shapes such as domes or “igloos”, tunnels, tee-pees, A-frames, etc. (see the illustration below if any of these terms are unfamiliar to you). Basically there are nine major choices and some minor ones you have to make that will determine what shape you settle for.

tent types

Choice 1: Sleeping Capacity or Floorspace

We are talking about small tents to accommodate at the most two people. The diagram shows the usual calculation for how much floor space is needed to accommodate each sleeping person. You do want to balance, however, lightness with the space to keep some of your gear in the tent with you at night. You do not want to have to leave everything outside to make space for yourself to sleep.

floor space

Choice 2: ‘Liveability’ – Peak Height & Wall Shape

This factor concerns how easy it is to “live” in your tent, as opposed to sleep in it. Bear in mind that you might have to spend quite some time in this temporary home of yours, for example, you may be sheltering for many hours from rain, and for this reason you need to give thought to two important factors:

  1. Peak height is the distance from the floor to the highest point of the roof of the tent (which is not necessarily in the middle of the tent, depending on the shape). This will determine whether you can only crawl into the tent or whether you can stand up to dress in the tent. You will have decide what you require in this area – because obviously the taller the tent the more it is likely to weigh.
  2. Wall shape greatly affects your sense of space inside a tent.
wall shape

Choice 3:  Free-Standing(Self-Supporting) or Fixed

1. Freestanding or Self-supporting

These tents stand upright because of supporting poles, without pegs and guy ropes (though you do usually peg the corners to the ground for extra stability, especially when it is windy).


  • Usually fairly easy to erect
  • Can move them to another location without having to disassemble and reassemble the tent.
  • You can easily drain or dry them by flipping the top upside down.
  • You can put them in a place where anchoring the pegs is difficult (for example in rocky terrain or fine sand)

2. Fixed, non-freestanding

  • Usually a lighter option (because less reliance on poles
  • Easy to pack very small (for the same reason)
fixed or freestanding

Choice 4: Single Versus Double Walled

single or double wall

Double-walled Tents

Many tents are made up of the main tent body (also known as the canopy) plus an exterior sheet or “rainfly” (which makes up the other “wall”). Double walled tents are made for rainy conditions. The rainfly is 100% waterproof and non-breathable and the inner body is not waterproof and 100% breathable so that by having both types of walls, you get the benefits of both.

This setup allows for greater versatility and comfort. On hot dry nights, you can pitch the tent without a fly to allow maximum ventilation. On a cold, rainy night the rainfly will add weather protection as well as warmth. For a lightweight option, some double-wall tents allow a quick-pitch setup: a “footprint”, rainfly, and poles are combined for a lightweight setup without the tent body.

Advantages of Double Wall Tents:

  • Usually have multiple doors/vestibules for dry gear storage;
  • Condensation is easier to control.

Disadvantage of Double Wall Tents:

  • Relatively heavy;
  • Require more staking out of both the flysheet and the vestibules;
  • When flysheet gets wet it tends to stretch out and the guyropes need re-tightening

Single-walled Tents:

Single-walled tents combine the tent body and waterproof fly into one fabric wall which is coated to be waterproof and is therefore non-breathable. Single wall tents are best suited for cold weather conditions where you are unlikely to get rain.

Advantages of Single Wall Tents:

  • Less fabric altogether and are therefore relatively light;
  • Faster to set up.

Disadvantages of Single Wall Tents:

  • Not as versatile;
  • One layer of non-breathable fabric which causes a lot of condensation to build up on the inside of the tent during the night;
  • Tend not to have as much gear storage space as double wall tents.

Choice 5: ‘Season’

If you are buying a tent you are looking for protection from the weather, specifically from rain and from the wind. The measure of how much protection a specific tent will give you is measured in “Seasons”.

Your decision for a tent will be determined by the worst of the weather you can expect where you will be camping.


2-Season Camping Tent

A 2-season tent is designed for use from the end of the spring until the beginning of autumn. They are not designed to keep you comfortable in more harsh conditions.

3-Season Camping Tent

A 3-season tent will have the following features:

  • Flysheet that can withstand downpours and light snow;
  • Relatively light weight (tend to have few poles and use light-weight fabric);
  • Easy to set up;
  • Generally have mesh panels for better ventilation (and to discourage insects);
  • Steeper sloping walls to create more interior head room;
  • A variety of convenient extras like multiple doors and extra pockets for gear.

They are, in other words, versatile because they are well-ventilated for hot conditions but also able to protect against autumn cold and damp.

4-Season Camping Tent

A 4-season tent can be used year-round but is really more geared towards harsh winter conditions – low temperatures, high winds, and heavy snow. For obvious reasons they are:

  • Made from more durable and robust materials than a 3-season tent;
  • Need more poles to maintain rigidity;
  • Have less mesh/ventilation;
  • Taped/reinforced seams;
  • Fewer openings like doors or windows;
  • Baffles along zipper closings to prevent cold or moisture seeping in through these features;
  • Have a flysheet that stretches right down to ground level to exclude snow;
  • May have a “bathtub” built-in floor of waterproof material that runs up the base of the canopy walls.

For all these reasons a 4-Season tent will be heavier to carry than a 3- Season tent – though you will certainly experience its’ advantages when you are sitting out a snow storm in one!

Choice 6: Weight & Space Taken

This section concerns those guiding situations where you will be carrying the tent in a rucksack or on a canoeing trip down the Zambezi – not where you unpack the tent from the back of your truck to set up for the night. We come here to a balancing act of considerations where only you can make decisions. In the choices suggested above, you will note that the differences are often concerned with weight – and when you might be carrying this tent on your back for a considerable distance then this difference could become very significant.

Bear in mind that you will not just be carrying your tent. You will presumably be carrying all-important food, water, cooking and lighting equipment, 1st Aid supplies, spare clothes, sleeping bag, tools, communication and way-finding equipment to name a few items! Your calculations about the weight you can reasonably carry over a prolonged period must take all these things into account.

In choosing your tent you will also have to factor in the weight (and space taken) of the ancillary equipment that comes with your tent in the form of poles, guy ropes, stakes or pegs, and, if separate, a groundsheet or “footprint”.

And then there is “packability” – the extent to which your tent can be packed into a relatively small space to leave room in your pack for all the other equipment you need. You cannot afford to have your tent take up a large proportion of the available space.

Choice 7: Auxilliary Equipment


There are three considerations in relation to tent poles:

Material – Tent poles are generally made of aluminum or fiberglass. For a tent that you might be relying on in survival conditions aluminum poles, though they tend to be more expensive, have the edge over because they tend to:

– Be stronger,
– Weigh less,
– Be less inclined to shatter/poke holes in your tent
– Be easier to repair.

Connection to tent fabric – Poles can connect to the tent canopy with clips, sleeves or a combination of the two. Fabric sleeves can give a stronger pitch, but threading poles through them can be a challenge. Pole clips are lighter and easier to attach. They also allow more airflow underneath the rainfly, which reduces condensation inside the canopy.

Color-coding – Some tents come with color-coded tips to the various component poles – this helps you quickly orient each pole tip to the correct tent corner and helps you find which sleeves or clips go with which pole sections.

Stakes or Pegs

A set of tent stakes is invaluable in your Bug-out Bag even if you do not have a tent because they can be put to use in a variety of different ways for digging or tying down. You can obviously use them to help set up your shelter and anchor it in even the strongest winds. Steel stakes are the heaviest but are very durable and titanium stakes are the lightest but are likely to slide out of soft terrain and to bend easily. Aluminium is often the best option but there are also heavy-duty plastic options.

Bear in mind that the shape of your stake is also significant for how easy it is to drive in and how well it stays in place. Y-beam and ‘V’ stakes work well in loose soil and sand and come in plastic or aluminum varieties. If you are expecting snow, a curved stake with holes in it goes in easily and freezes in place.

Guylines or guyropes

Depending on the design of your tent you might have guylines to help to keep the tent surfaces taut.

  • If your tent does not come with reflective guylines (easy to spot by torch light at night so as to cut down on tripping accidents) they can be purchased separately;
  • You can ensure that your guylines lines are taut with knots such as the tautline or midshipman’s hitch. On the other hand you can use guyline tensioners – plastic sliding devices that make adjusting your guylines easier.

Choice 8: Color

There are some contradictory opinions affecting a decision about the color of your tent, in particular about the color of a flysheet.

  1. Light, bright flysheet colors transmit more light making the interior brighter. That will make a tent feel more spacious and make it a more pleasant place to be if a storm keeps you tent-bound for an extended time. Sunflower yellows will be more cheery on the disposition than blues;
  2. Dark colors (which absorb more light energy) can raise interior temperatures (which will be beneficial in cold climates and be detrimental in excessive heat);
  3. Bright colors (such as yellow, orange or red) do not blend well with natural landscapes and can be easily spotted. It might be desirable to unobtrusively blend with the scenery and to choose earth tones or camouflage patterns. On the other hand you might want bright colors to draw the attention of potential rescuers.
  4. You could go with a neutral color but have a bright ‘overlay’ of an emergency color tarp but then weight and space become a further consideration
    Tricky, isn’t it?!

Choice 9: Ease In Setting-Up

When you are buying the tent, even if it is already set up, ask if you can set it up. Is it intuitive? Do the poles snap together easily? Will you be able to set it up in the dark, with cold fingers, in the rain? Consider how many features the tent provides to ease the process of set-up – such as color coded tent poles, elastic-jointed tent-poles. Once you understand how the tent body, rainfly, and poles go together, setup should take just a few minutes.

Choice 10: Price

Of course we all need to be realistic about what our budget can stand. You will automatically be throwing cost into the mix while you are working out your optimum choices in all the categories suggested above.

During and After Making Your Choice

Visit a camping/outdoor store (or several) when you are going to buy a tent and are working through the above factors. Set up prospective tents so you can crawl inside. Stretch out. And then ask yourself some questions on behalf of yourself and your potential clients.

  • Do your head or toes touch either side?
  • Can you sleep in here without your sleeping bag touching the walls?  Even if you sleep on your side with your knees bent?
  • Sit up in the tent. Look around yourself. How do you feel about the space around you? Can you imagine fitting bulky kit in here with you?
  • What will it be like getting dressed in here every morning?
  • Evaluate the doors and ventilation. Will it ventilate properly for your conditions? If there is condensation (there likely will be), where will it drip or pool? Which is the one model you would choose if you had to ride out a storm for hours on end?

Practice With Your Tent

Once you choose a tent, get to know it well. You want your tent to be a comfortable old friend, not an anxiety-inducing stranger!

  • Set your new tent up in your backyard or other space close to home first.
  • Make sure you understand the different size poles, how the rainfly fits, and the way it all packs up when you disassemble it.
  • Use the tent for ordinary camping trips or back-packing trips as possible.

Paddy Pacey

Zimbabwean field guide and trainer of aspiring guides

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