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Lightweight tents for bushwalking are made from synthetic materials (polyester or nylon), with a floor, a vestibule or two and poles and pegs. Doors and vents have zippers, most have additional air vents and the inner tent may have several small pockets. Many have reflective guy cords and a few have plastic windows.
Tent design and quality of materials used varies and directly affects weight and cost. Good quality, lightweight tents are expensive, but well worth it for the comfort and safety they provide compared to the cheaper ones available.
It is important to determine the tent features that suit the types of trips to be undertaken. Look at what other people use before rushing out to buy one.
The best way to see if there is sufficient space inside the tent is to set it up and get inside. Some stores have tent displays or allow a prospective tent to be set up.
It is a good idea to practice pitching a new tent at home to know exactly how it goes together. For an extra challenge, this can be done in the dark by torch light and maybe even while wearing gloves. Sometimes tents must be erected in adverse circumstances.
“Liveability” describes the roominess and comfort level of a tent, especially when having to spend several days during a storm and includes:
- Ease of setup and access
- Internal layout and openness of the interior space
- Gear lofts and pockets.
- Good ventilation is important for use in humid or cold conditions
- A light-coloured tent fly transmits more light inside making the interior brighter and less gloomy on a rainy day.
- Larger tents have more room to sit up, get changed in or to pack up, but a balance between space and weight is essential.
Capacity, size and shape
- One, two or three person tents are suitable sizes for bushwalking and ski touring.
- Two and three person tents allow for load sharing.
- Interior floor area can vary greatly so test that the length and width are a good match to the potential occupants.
- Ideally, a tent should also be comfortable to sit up in so check that roof height is adequate.
- Tents come in dome, tunnel and the traditional A-shape. Dome tents provide the most open internal space.
- Have a waterproof outer layer (fly sheet) and an inner tent made from a breathable material and/or insect mesh.
- Allow condensation to form on the fly sheet rather than wetting the inner tent.
- Have one or two vestibules for gear storage.
- Have extra internal gear storage with side and/or loft pockets.
- Heavier than a single-skinned tent.
- May need adjustment to tensioning after setup. A nylon fly sheet can stretch when wet and need tightening. A polyester fly sheet can shrink and need loosening to reduce tension on the pegs.
- Have a single layer of waterproof fabric, which may be breathable or non-breathable.
- Lighter to carry and quicker to set up.
- Best in alpine environments where it is cool and dry.
- Likely to get significant condensation inside the tent.
Tent season rating and weight
Season rating provides an indication of weather conditions for which a tent is best suited.The higher the rating, the greater the ability of the tent to withstand severe weather. One and two-season tents are not suitable for bushwalking trips in cold climates, windy conditions and exposed locations.
Tent weights vary with the design, size and quality of materials used. A four-season tent is usually heavier than an equivalent three-season tent. The term ‘packed weight’ refers to the entire tent (fly and inner), poles, pegs and guy ropes.
- Usually double-skinned and able to handle a good range of weather conditions, but not extreme conditions.
- Made of lighter materials and use fewer poles to keep weight down (compared to a four-season tent).
- Provide good ventilation with mesh walls and air vents to allow for greater airflow.
- Those with steep walls to help shed snow can be used in winter conditions if properly pitched in a sheltered location, e.g. below the tree line, but are not suitable for extended periods in harsh weather and exposed locations.
- Cheaper than 4-season tents.
- Are heavier tents normally used in the winter conditions.
- Made from stronger materials and therefore are more expensive.
- Have more poles and of a higher quality compared to a three-season tent.
- Dome designs can withstand very strong winds and are able to hold substantial snow loads.
- Walls are steep-sided to shed snowfall.
- Fly sheets reach close to the ground to keep the wind out.
- Have less ventilation with fewer or no mesh panels in the tent inner.
- Fly sheets on double-skinned tents are designed to extend beyond the inner tent to provide a sheltered storage (a vestibule) for boots and other gear.
- A separate vestibule for gear storage may be available separately for single-skinned tents.
- Vestibules provide a handy place to store wet or snow-covered gear helping to keep the inner tent drier.
- Provide ease of entry, especially in bad weather
- Some tents have a single entrance, while others have entrances on both ends or sides.
- Two entrances are an advantage when sharing a tent as access is more convenient. One vestibule can store wet gear leaving the other clear for entry/exit or for cooking if the weather is bad.
- Most tent poles are made from high-strength aluminium. Pole weight, thickness and strength vary between manufacturers. Fiberglass poles are cheaper but are more prone to breaking. Carbon fibre poles are the lightest but are very expensive.
- Tent poles have shock cord inside them to make them easy to assemble.
- Some poles sets are complicated and only fit the tent in a specific way – with colour coded pole tips help identify the correct locations for them.
- Some pole sets have connector hubs to form the tent pole structure.
- Pole lengths can vary for some tents – marking each with tape to identify them makes assembling easier.
- Some tents have long tubes or multiple sleeve sections in the inner into which poles are threaded. Others use clips to secure the inner tent to the pole structure.
- Aluminium poles can be repaired with a short section of aluminium tubing (a pole sleeve) that is slightly larger than the pole. Some tents are supplied with these.
Tents for snow camping
Four-season tents are highly recommended for snow camping. The poles systems are stronger and their shape is designed to take the weight of snow without collapsing, bending or breaking, but they are heavier than three-season tents.
Most good quality, three-season tents can also be used for snow camping if pitched in more sheltered locations and excessive snow is removed regularly. Sloping sections of the tent need to be taut when pitched so snow will slide off.
Tents with near flat roof panels are not suitable as snow can accumulate on and cause them to collapse and poles to break.
Attaching cords to floor level loops can make it easier to peg the tent down.
See also: Snow camping
Snow pegs are required for snow camping as normal tent pegs are ineffective, they:
- Have a broad surface, concave shape and are longer than standard pegs.
- Are heavier than normal pegs, but have much better grip.
- Can also be useful if camping on sand.
Attach a cord to each peg so they can be easily found and removed.
Pitching a tent
Choose a tent site carefully to ensure the tent floor won’t be damaged and a good night’s sleep is achieved.
Check the site for lumps and bumps, tree roots, rocks, sticks, broken glass, etc. and clear any sharp objects, but don’t landscape the site. A sharp rock, stick or spikey grass can puncture the tent floor.
Many tents are ‘free standing’, usually dome-shaped and good for camping on terrain where placing pegs is difficult or impossible, e.g. rocky terraces or tent platforms.
When pitching, secure the tent with pegs, ropes or rocks to prevent it from being blown away in strong wind. The tent can be lifted once assembled and its position adjusted if necessary.
Using a groundsheet underneath the tent floor helps reduce damage and prolongs the life of the floor by protecting it from sharp objects.
- A tent ‘footprint’, is a sheet of strong, waterproof material made to suit the tent’s floor, usually purchased separately.
- A plastic or nylon groundsheet is a cheaper alternative. If used under the tent floor ensure it does not protrude as it can trap and channel water under the tent floor which eventually seeps through. It can also be used inside the tent as a liner, especially when the tent floor is no longer fully waterproof.
- A thin, closed-cell foam (2-3mm thickness) can be used to line the floor of tents in snow to add warmth and reduce condensation.