Hiking and Backpacking Tents | Buyer’s Guide - Outdoors Magic

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Hiking and Backpacking Tents | Buyer’s Guide

We cut through the jargon of tent technology to help you make an informed decision on your next tent purchase.

Tents have been providing protection and comfort for humans since the early years of civilisation. In fact, the first evidence of tent usage dates back to 10,000 BC where Native Americans and Canadian aboriginal utilised a simple tipi’ design using wooden poles and animal skins to create a shelter to live and cook in.

These days, we use tents as a way to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Aside from the proven benefits of spending time close to nature, modern-day ultra lightweight tents are commonly used as a tool for launching big days in the mountains, with these designs allowing them to be carried for long distances, high into the alpine, or deep into the backcountry.

Modern day tents come with features to help make your life in the outdoors as comfortable as possible, depending on the activity planned and tempo you’re going to be travelling at. In general, ideally you want to find a tent that strikes the right balance between comfort during the day (a light load) and comfort during the night.

Fast packers, for example, are going to look for a super light tent, with a small packed size and just enough protection for a comfortable sleep. On the other hand, casual weekend wild campers will be happier carrying a slightly heavier tent to benefit from the space, comfort and reliable protection.

The Different Tent Designs and Constructions

There are a lot of different tent constructions out there – especially now that inflatable tents have been introduced – and we’re not going to go into the full list here, but will look more specifically at the tent varieties that are relevant to walkers, backpackers and cyclists. Here’s a quick breakdown…

Tunnel Tent
These involve one or more poles that form hooped semi circles to form a shape rather like a slug.

Ridge Tent
Two upright poles and a straight ridge between them. It’s a classic design, but one seen less regularly these days. Some people of a certain age might remember the bright orange Force 10.

Bell Tent
Essentially, an evolution of the tipi. It’s a style that’s now more commonly associated with festivals and glamping but there are ultralight, modern options out there from the likes of Tentipi, Nigor and Robens.

Dome Tent
Another classic design, commonly interpreted as having two poles that cross at the very top.

Geodesic and Semi-Geodesic
Like the dome style but with more pole crossing points for extra stability. Fully geodesic designs feature five or more points at which the poles cross. If there are less than five, it’s a semi-geodesic.

Tarp tent
Blurring the lines between a tent and a tarp, these will usually feature at least one standing pole (usually a trekking pole) and/or strung guy lines. Some come with an inner bug mesh while others will just provide basic shelter from the rain.


Internal Size (Capacity)

Internal space is imperative if you’re planning on sharing the tent or have lots of kit. Photo: Chris Johnson

The internal size is obviously an important factor when looking to purchase a tent. You’ll never really find a backpacking tent that sleeps over four people, due to the restrictions this will put on the overall packed size and weight of the tent.

Be aware that many of these stated tent ‘berths’ can be on the ‘cosy’ scale, with brands optimistically stating that they’ll sleep three people, when in reality, three people will be sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder, with not much room to move and zero space for kit. If you’re looking to use the tent between multiple people then it’s possible to split the flysheet, inner, poles and pegs between the group in an effort to share out the weight evenly.

It’s not just sleeping space you need to think about. It’s also important to consider whether there’s enough room for you to store your kit (you won’t want to leave it outside if it’s wet), and whether you can cook from a porch when necessary.

One thing that’s often overlooked is the sitting up space. Some people will find it absolutely necessary to be able to sit up and cook, read, write or organise their kit while in their tent. To some however, this will be a luxury that’s not worth the weight.

Pitching Time & Order

Photo: Chris Johnson

There’s not much worse than getting to your planned (or perhaps unplanned) camp spot for the night to then have to faff around for 30 minutes in the rain in order to get your tent pitched. Of course, reducing pitching time comes from practise, but it can also depend on the construction of the tent.

A tent with a single pole design will naturally be much quicker to pitch than a tent with multiple poles. We’re also big fans of pole sleeves that are colour coded – particularly for those tents that have geodesic designs with multiple poles crossing one another.

The style in which the tent is pitched is another important factor in damp climates, such as the UK. Whilst in drier climates, inner pitched first tents are the norm (and it’s can also be common to pitch without the fly), if you are based in a wetter part of the world, it’s tricky to pitch an inner first tent without leaving the mesh of the inner exposed.

Flysheet Waterproofing

Photo: Chris Johnson

Similar to Gore-Tex and other waterproof membranes typically found on walking jackets or pants, tents are also treated and tested to reach a certain level of waterproofing. Brands will often state the waterproof rating of the fabric of the tent. Varying from 1,500mm up to 10,000mm (1,500mm is the legal limit to be called waterproof), these numbers represent the amount of water the fabric in question is able to resist, before letting it leak through.

However, don’t see this rating as the be-all and end-all of the waterproof qualities of the tent. This rating is in relation to the waterproofness of the fabric in use. Ensure that you also look out for taped seams, covered vents, and storm flaps over zips.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that tents lose their waterproofing with age. One of the main causes of degradation is UV from the sun. Fortunately, there are solutions you can buy from the likes of Nikwax and Grangers that will help to maintain waterproofness.


Flysheet offers wet weather protection / inner offers condensation protection. Photo: Chris Johnson

Sadly here in the UK, we can expect a large dosage of condensation to build up during our typically cool, moisture rich evenings. For this reason, the UK outdoor community tends to gravitate towards outer pitched first, dual skin tents, over the single skin counterparts.

However, don’t let this deter you from considering single skin designs. We’re now seeing single skin flysheet technologies being developed at an impressive rate, so much so we’re sure that we’ll be seeing single skin tents giving the dual skins a run for their money. The Lightwave Sigma tent is one such example.

Regardless of whether a tent is single or dual skin, look at the ventilation options. Ideally these will be placed high up the tent to allow the rising warm air to escape. Have a look at the door(s) on the flysheet. It can be handy to have a tab or hook at the bottom of them so you can open the zip up without the whole flap blowing open.

A single hooped tunnel design. Photo: Chris Johnson


All of the attributes shown above will have a bearing on the seasonal rating that the tent will be suited towards. This is usually split between two-season, three-season and four-season tents.

Think about the seasons that you’re going to be taking the tent out in. Many of the lightweight tents have been built from fabrics that simply won’t be able to stand up to the wild nature of say, a Scottish winter season. Add on the fact that the tent shape also has a bearing as to how well the tent will be able to withstand a hammering from strong winds. As a rule of thumb, fully geodesic shaped deigns stand up to the wind most effectively, and tunnel tents can also be reliable.

Other Features

Weight and packed size are also essential features to consider when choosing the correct tent for your needs and we do of course expect each of our readers to have a unique budget that they’re looking to spend – we’ve therefore tried to cover a range of budgets within our tent reviews.

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