Choosing a Tent

Doug Cunnington

The Leader, March 1987

Although the spring camping season is a few weeks away yet, now is the time to start thinking about buying the new tent you need. If you know what you are looking for, you can take advantage of spring's Sportsmen's Shows to comparative shop in one place. If you don't, count on being totally confused at the end of a day of shopping.

Tent prices start at about $50 and go upwards into four figures. What is best - A-frame, dome, wall tent, or some other interesting design? Aluminum, fibreglass or steel poles? Taffeta or rip-stop nylon, cotton or canvas? The choices seem endless. If you are unsure about what you want, the first step is to buy the new Field Book for Canadian Scouting and read pages 186-194 and 59-68. They include everything you need to know about tent design, construction, types, materials, workmanship, uses, and so on.

Next, you must decide what type of use the tent is likely to get. If you will use it only a few weekends a year at a standing camp, an inexpensive wall tent is probably adequate. If you are looking at several weekends a year of canoe tripping, high altitude camping, or backpacking, you need a more specialized and durable shelter. Perhaps more than for any other piece of outdoor equipment, you must decide about use before you examine the standard seven considerations in preparation for buying.

Safety. A tent must provide adequate shelter; i.e., protect you from wind, insects and moisture. A failure to do any of these is not only uncomfortable but potentially dangerous. The tent must also be easy for its users to pitch and strike, and durable enough to stay standing in order to offer shelter against expected extreme conditions.

Cost. Although usually an important consideration when buying outdoor equipment, cost is less significant than other factors for tents. Certainly, we must buy within budgetary limits, but we must also try to get the best tent for the intended use within those limits. Never compromise essential quality for cost. It's far better to rent a tent of proper quality, or to hold an extra fund raiser so that you can afford what you need. In a wilderness situation, a quality tent can mean the difference not only between a good and bad experience, but possibly between life and death.

Durability: Examine the tent carefully. Does it appear durable enough to stand up to its intended use? Materials and workmanship are the key.

Materials: Many of the better nylon tents are available in different weights of material. If you will use a tent most on canoe trips where weight is not quite so critical, a heavier weight may be the better choice because it will better withstand the wear and tear. Backpackers, for whom every gram counts, will opt for the lighter weight. The Field Book gives the advantages and disadvantages of various types of materials. Poly-weave tarpaulin floor material is often used in less expensive tents. It does not stand up nearly as well as nylon and is not found in better quality structures.

Does the material breathe? If not, does it have breathable panels sewn in? You don't want to wake each morning in a shelter covered with condensation that will shower you at the least provocation. In better quality tents, some of the ventilation is provided by mosquito netting. A fine mesh called "no-see-um" netting, standard in good quality tents, is best and will keep out those annoying little sand flies.

Poles are also a major consideration. Many inexpensive tents have a poor grade aluminum alloy pole prone to collapse if bumped or if winds are high. If the tent has aluminum poles, check the thickness of the pole wall: thicker is better. Better quality aluminum poles are also usually shinier (a better alloy) and held together with an elastic shock cord. Many tents, particularly domes and their variations, come with fibreglass poles. Hollow poles tend to be better than solid ones.

Check zippers. Poorer quality tents often have ties or other closing devices instead, and these alternatives are all but useless in wind and rain. Ensure that zippers are of good quality and work smoothly. If not, chances are you will have to replace them in the near future.

Workmanship is what really separates the wheat from the chaff in tents. Once you could associate a name with a particular design and quality of tent. Not so today. Many of the better quality designs, such as the free-standing A-frame, are being copied by other campanies, but the duplication stops with design. Workmanship in cut of material and stitching is barely adequate, let alone good.

Be sure the tent fits the frame snugly when set up. If it doesn't, it will flap in the wind, not only disturbing you but, in time, causing seam separation or tearing. To ensure this "fit", ask to see the tent set up before you buy it. Good outdoor equipment stores will not object. If they do, chances are the product is inferior.

Check that the stitching is even and does not run off the material. Loose threads often indicate that a seam will come apart easily. All seams should be flat-felled and double-stitched to prevent fraying of the material and separation. Check them carefully to ensure they do not separate when under stress. All stress points, guy-line or fly attachments, zipper ends, corners, peg loops, etc., should be reinforced with extra material and extra stitching.

Check aluminum poles to ensure there are no burrs or sharp edges. Make sure fibreglass poles have finished ends. If they are simply cut off, they will often start to fray and splinter.

Maintenance: Most tents are easily maintained and can be repaired in the field with a standard tent repair kit and needle and thread. Under normal conditions, a good quality tent will not need pole repairs but, just in case, make sure replacement poles are readily available.

Better quality tents come with a sealer to waterproof the seams. To avoid mildew and rot, all cotton or cotton blend tents must be thoroughly dry before storing. This also applies to nylon tents with cotton thread. You need to store large cotton or canvas tents either hung up or folded according to instructions. Nylon will not deteriorate when stored damp but you need to air and dry a nylon tent after each use, then store it in its stuff sack, which should come with it.

Ease of Use is extremely important for young people. Some dome and modified dome tents can be difficult to pitch, so it is especially important to set one up before buying. Ensure that the tent fits easily into its stuff sack. Some fit only when rolled extremely tightly in a particular way. I prefer to stuff rather than roll a tent so that the material is not weakened by being creased at the same point each time.

This article provided by: The Netwoods Virtual Campsite