The choice of which tent to use for wild camping is similar to the choice you make when buying a car. There is no such thing as the perfect car; there may be some that are more appropriate to what you want them to do, and 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:
- Weather proofing
- Wind Proofing
Getting a tent just the right space amount of space
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 there are some who like the idea of wild camping but not the idea of walking anywhere wild, so for them valley tents are perfect.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ventiliation 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.)
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 soden 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.
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. Those that are used at very high altitudes, and so look the business, do not always need to be waterproof as windproofing (see below) is of paramount importance when you’re never going to get above zero.
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 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 resen sealant (like blackwitch), 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 seap 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.
The groundsheet is part of your waterproof boundary, and so if you’re planning on going anywhere you may need to pitch up on wet ground, best that this is of the ‘bath tub’ style, and incorporprated into the tent. This will give you a few inchs 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 enterment, best to avoid.
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 the wind conditions is to follow the ‘seasons’ numbers that almost all tent manufacturers follow now.
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.
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.
One thing to be aware of, though, is that as you go up seasons, and therefore start to get into specialist tents that are meant for mountain use, the material they’re made from is often less forgiving of rought 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 they are put 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.
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. And so if you do this slowly in a rain storm you could well end up with a drenched inner, and a wet night.
As with many things to do with kit, the answer is not to wait until you’re on a mountain 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.