Tents for Wild Camping

The choice of which tent to use is similar to the choice you make when buying a car. There is no such thing as the perfect car; same goes with tents for wild camping. There may be some that are more appropriate to what you want them to do.  There may be some that look great, and that you’d love to own, but which are just way to expensive. So in the end you usually go for the middle ground, and accept compromises.

Tent choice is just like that – you need have a clear idea of the sort of use you’re going to put it to, and be ready to make compromises.

The usual trade offs that are needed when considering which tent to bring with you on your exped are:

  1. Space
  2. Comfort
  3. Weather proofing
  4. Wind Proofing
  5. Weight
Tents for Wild Camping - Big Ol' Valley Tent, with veranda

Big Ol’ Valley Tent, with veranda

Getting a tent just the right space amount of space

Tents for Wild Camping - Valley Tent

Wouldn’t walk with it, but definitely consider for family wild camping

Overall, there is a massive difference between having to carry your own kit and having it either carried by someone else, or using your car to lug it around. If it’s only ever going to be in the back of your car, or being put up, then go large. These are called valley tents, and are designed for use in calm weather, in a valley, with a sit-down chair and a pair of slippers.

OK, so this is hardly wild camping. But that’s fine.  There are times when the idea of wild camping is appealing, but not the idea of walking anywhere wild.  For those times valley tents are perfect.

Carrying a tent

If you’re having to carry the tent around with you, then it’s best to err on the ‘slightly too small’ side, especially in chilly places like Scotland. Even if you like the idea of lots of extra space to lay out your gear, come the middle of the night that’s a lot of cold air to heat up with your bodies. The smaller it is, the warmer it’ll stay. There’s also the benefit that your camping partner can’t roll too far away from you. Sounds ropey, but it’s the equivalent of a little hot air heater in the tent, so the closer the better in cold weather.

Tents for Wild Camping - Instant pitch tents

One minute pitch, one minute pack

Ultra-Small Tents

Finally, there are some tents that go ultra-small. These can be little cheeky numbers that almost deploy themselves (you can throw them out and the ‘self-erect’ because of spring-like poles. Drawback with these are that the shape needed to give this spring-like quality isn’t ideal to sleep inside. It’s essentially a tube, and so the top can squash down in wind and heavy rain, which makes them miserable to be in.

There’s also no space for anyone else. Because they fold to a circle shape, there is a maximum diameter when folded based on what’s practical to carry. This dictates how large they can be when deployed – hence they’re almost all one-person tents.

Comfortable Tents for Wild Camping

The design of a tent is primarily about keeping you warm, dry and out of the wind. Arguably, that’s all about comfort. However, as I’ve said before there’s no point in going wild camping to have a miserable time, so even if the tent is warm, dry and windproof, if it’s really uncomfortable, it’s pointless.

Tents for Wild Camping - Tent Showroom

Oooooo…. Kit….

The best way to judge how comfortable a tent is is to take a trip to a tent warehouse, where you’ll see a large number of them sent up. Now imagine what it would be like carrying out all of the necessary tasks when you’re camped up. How easy is it to cook? Is there a porch area where you can cook out of the rain? Are there two way zips at the entrance to make it easier to use, and potentially two zips so you only need to expose the lee-side when getting out.

Tent Questions on Comfort

Are there doors at both ends? This can be very convenient, and a bit of a hedge against a bad day with the stove.

Are there good ventilation flaps? These are usually held open by guy lines so that a decent amount of moisture can escape without letting in too much cold. (It’s important to let moisture out to avoid everything feeling soggy in the morning. Remember that if you’ve gotten wet, then cosy, you’ll steam slightly. This is made even worse if you brew up or eat your bag meal inside.)

Tent Questions on Utility

Now move on to utility. Is there enough storage space inside the tent for you and your hiking partner, for example, plus your rucksacks? If not something’s going to be left outside and will get sodden overnight. Are there any suspension points inside the tent to hang socks up to dry? Is there anyway to suspend a headtorch so you’re not having to wear it inside?

Of paramount important in Scotland – is there a mosquito net to stop the midges from getting in? Although remember, the midge will always get through, so this is just to help slow them down.

Finally, and importantly, get into the tent, lie down, quieten your head, and look about you. Is there anything about the tent that would annoy you if you had to spend some time in there? It may sound an odd question, but some tents are just – annoying.

Tent Weatherproofing

Tents for Wild Camping - Some times no amount of waterproofing will be enough

Some times no amount of waterproofing will be enough

Waterproofing for Wild Camping

It only seems fair to give yourself a fighting chance by always choosing a tent that’s waterproof. Although it may seem obvious, not all tents are. High Altitude tents don’t always need to be waterproof.  Windproofing (see below) is all they need when you’re never going to get above zero.

Water column waterproofing test

How Waterproofing is measured

Waterproofing comes with a number, to help decide whether a tent is waterproof enough. The number is a height – being the height of a column of static water that the material can withstand in direct contact with it before leaking. Generally look for around 5000mm.

Lightweight Waterproof Tents

Lightweight tents usually come with separate fly-sheets. Usually these are nylon or polyester, and are the bit of the tent that’s actually treated to be waterproof. When checking these over, look carefully at the seams as these are always the weak point in waterproofing. Ideally these should be taped up secure by the manufacturer. If you want a bit of DIY it is possible to keep non-taped seams waterproof by using resin sealant (like seamgrip), but best to only give yourself that job if there’s damage, rather than a planned-for necessity. It’s not fun, and blackwitch smells.

The design of the tent should allow a good clearance between the fly and the inner tent. Some can be zipped together which makes them easier to put up in bad weather, but as water can seep through two layers if they are in contact with each other, be wary of this. Others solve this issue by having ties inside the fly which attach to either the poles or the inner. These are also a weak spot for leakage, but much less of a problem.

Groundsheets

The groundsheet is part of your waterproof boundary. If it’s wet ground this needs to be the ‘bath tub’ style and incorporated into the tent. This will give you a few inches of waterproof skirting all around, which can save your night. If it doesn’t have this, or if you’re going army-style and having no built in ground sheet at all, then you can use bivouac bags (bivvy bags). But these add more weight that a groundsheet attached to a tent would, and are less effective, so unless you’re doing it for entertainment, best to avoid.

Windproofing Tents for Wild Camping

Tents for Wild Camping - windy pitch site

Hmmm.. Pitch here?

Wind can make your life a misery, and if you’re tent is not fit for the conditions can pose a serious threat to your safety. A tent which is not strong enough to withstand the wind, or which has the wrong shape, will simply fail. Usually this happens very quickly, and sometimes with you inside.

The way to avoid this and choose the right tents for wild camping in windy places is to follow the ‘seasons’ numbers that almost all tent manufacturers follow now.

Tent Seasons

The season of the tent has nothing to do with temperature, even though some manufacturers list that amongst the stats. Rather the season of a tent is the design conditions that tent should easily be able to withstand when considering the wind and rain you’re likely to encounter.

Tents for Wild Camping - 4 season tent

Hunkering down – 4 season tent

So if you’re planning on leaving the valleys and heading for the mountaintops, it’s probably sensible to go up the seasons to deal with the extra wind you’re likely to encounter. Likewise, if you’re reading a weather report that expects lashing rain in the middle of the summer (which is more often than not on the west coast of Scotland), then again you’d be wise to upgrade the season of your tent.

Specialist Tents

One thing to be aware of.  As you go up seasons you get into specialist mountain tents.  Mountain tent design uses less forgiving materials.  They don’t like rough handling. Quite often a misplaced pole is enough to rip the flysheet of a very expensive mountain tent if rammed in along the length of the stuff sack, for example.

They can also be less forgiving in how you put them up. For similar reasons, a rip could develop if you lose control of a mountain tent in high wind, perhaps more easily than it would for a cheaper, lower season tent.

Tent Shape

The other aspect of a tent which gives it a season rating is the shape. The shape of a tent makes a huge difference to surface area presented to the wind, and to the inherent strength of the tent once up. For example, the strongest design in terms of shape is the geodesic tent, which has a series of overlapping arched poles to give it strength. Likewise there are low-profile tents which are suitable for high altitude because of the low surface area to present (although personally I’ve had a poor experience with these, as in heavy rain the shape sometimes allows pools of water for form in a hollow or fold in the material, drenching you as you come out.

When considering which shape to use, be aware that not all are the same difficult in terms of deployment. Putting up a geodesic tent can be a pain. Quite often the design calls for you to put up the inner tent first, then the flysheet. If you do this slowly in a rain storm you could well end up with a drenched inner, and a wet night.

Try it out first

There are many ways to choose tents for wild camping.  As with many things to do with kit, the answer is not to wait to try things out. Go play with it! It’ll be fun.  You’ll get faster at putting it up, and it will allow you to spot any drawbacks with your choice.