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 Choosing Your Tent

There's an incredible number makes and models of tents on the market today.

In this section we will answer some key questions and take you through the various shapes, their advantages and disadvantages.

We will look at tents large and small and what you need to look for in order to get a tent that will provide you and your family with years of comfortable camping.

How big does it need to be?

The size of a tent is normally described by the maximum number of people that can sleep inside, or its number of 'berths'.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? But it needs more than a little thought. Remember you will probably need space in your tent for living, not just for sleeping.

Some large tents are heavy so whether you’re backpacking, using a car or towing a trailer, make sure you’re happy with lifting and carrying the tent you intend to buy. And, if it comes in several bags, don't forget to take them all with you when you go camping...

Can I stand up inside?

A most important aspect of size is headroom. Smaller tents don't offer standing headroom but it's great to be able to stand up straight in the morning, even just to pull your trousers on.

Why do tents have two layers of fabric?

Not all do. Very lightweight small tents can be single layered, so can some larger tents and some made from 100 per cent cotton. For the family camper most serious tents will have an inner and an outer. Check the gap between the two. Enough room to put your hand in as a fist is probably about right and don't buy a tent where the inner and outer touch, that is a recipe for leaking.

Many smaller tents are pitched with the inner first and then a flysheet is added for weather protection. In larger tents you often put up the outside first and then fit a number of inner tents that define how you use the space inside. Some premium family tents can be packed away with the inners still inside, which makes it easier to pitch them then next time.

What about groundsheets?

Today, most tents will have a fitted groundsheet. In smaller tents it will cover the whole of the inner tent floor, but often in larger family tents each compartment will have its own groundsheet.

Campsite owners prefer separate groundsheets. The theory is you can lift them during the day to allow the grass beneath to breath and you won't leave a groundsheet-sized patch of yellowing grass when you leave.

However, many campers like sewn-in groundsheets (sometimes known as SIGs) because they keep more bugs and draughts out. These are permanently attached to the outer fabric of the tent. A good compromise is a zipped-in groundsheet, which can be 'zipped out' to let the grass breathe but can be sealed when necessary.

Check the strength of groundsheet material. It's also worth checking what happens to the groundsheet at the tent's doorways. Does it form a high lip to trip over? Or can you peg it out flat?

What shape should my tent be?

The shape will be important. Will it be a dome? A tunnel? A frame tent? Will it be a hybrid?

What should my tent be made of?

Tents can be made of cotton canvas, nylon or polyester with or without a fabric coating. Poles can be of aluminium, steel or composite materials. We look at tent fabrics and poles, groundsheets and pegs on separate pages.

One thing to watch is that some tents are made in more than one fabric, the same style, for example, can be made in either polyester or poly-cotton, which will affect both its price and performance.

What about doors and windows?

Ventilation is very important in a tent so you'll need to have a good look at doors, windows and vents.

Some doors also act as a windbreak and some double-up as a canopy to give you extra space under cover but in the open air, which is ideal for cooking. Good tents will often have double zips so you can open a door from the top or the bottom. Check there is a way of fixing it open.

Some tents have porches so, again, make sure that it all works well and that the space is useful to you. Now check the windows - they can make the inside of a tent light and airy and they may have mosquito nets so even when the window is open, you'll still get a midge-free night's sleep. On warm nights you can sleep with the door and windows open with the midge nets in position.

How can I judge the quality?

It is difficult to grade quality in tents. Certainly we're able to suggest which are the best tents to buy for different needs, but suitability depends on many factors. Not least on price, of course, and personal preference plays an enormous part too.

The Club magazine regularly test tents and other camping equipment. Check out their expert opinions.

In general, as with so many things, in terms of tent quality you normally get what you pay for. Some things to look out for include:

Does the fabric look and feel up to the job? Can you spot and flaws or irregularities that might cause problems after a few outings?
What are the seams like? Does the stitching look good and even? Are the seams properly waterproofed?
How many points are there for guy ropes? Are they sensibly positioned to keep the tent stable in windy conditions? Normally, the more guying points the better.
What if you damage part of the tent? Does it come with a fabric repair kit? Can you buy a replacement pole if one breaks?

Sizing for real people

The camping industry is making some attempts to create standard sizes and descriptions – but at the moment you can't guarantee that everyone will agree on the size of a sleeping person. For that matter, there's no standard size for a sleeping mat or airbeds so what chance do they have?

When you look at a floor plan, try to compare it with the people who will occupy the tent – especially in the sleeping areas. Check out sizes of the air beds or mats you want to use and make sure they will fit – or that there are suitable alternatives to fit you. Will there be space for your luggage too?

Some manufacturers are also beginning to quote the pitching areas of their tents. This is the total size of the tent, including guy ropes. This can be a useful guide, but will obviously be larger than the useable area inside. A more helpful measure is the size of the tent without including guys, since this is the size you will need to quote when you book a pitch at most campsites. If, for example, you want to pay for the cheapest, standard pitch at a Club Site you'll need to keep these measurements at 5m x 9m or less.

nb: Information used is from the Camping & Caravan Club website

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