We're just back from the Lakes where we took part in a very wet and windy two-day mountain bike challenge - the Lakes Epic, more about that tomorrow - but also got the chance to try out Vango's new AirBeam technology in the form of a Velocity 300, three-person, three-beamed, tunnel tent.
Like other tents in Vango's AirBeam range, the Velocity 300 is more of a fixed base tent than a backpackable one with an all-in weight of around 9 kilos. The main plus of the AirBeam technology, says Vango, is sheer speed of pitching - 3 minutes according to the company's figures.
There are two elements to this, one is the AirBeam technology, the other is that the tents pitch all in one with the fly and inner tents semi-permanently linked so there's no messing about wrestling flies over poles or sliding poles through artfully camouflaged sleeves. Nice idea huh.
That's not all though, as with Nemo's similar air supports, air-filled beams tend to deform and then spring back in windy conditions where an alloy pole is more likely to snap once bent beyond sustainable levels. So both fast and resilient is the claim.
Meet The Pump
The tent comes folded into a neat bag with this, the surprisingly lightweight AirBeam, double action hand pump, which pushes air on both up and down stroke. Our tent came without instructions as it's a final sample model rather than a finished production tent, but even so, we had no problems assembling the pump.
Meet The Valve...
The tent has three AirBeams in place of conventional poles, each has a white plastic air valve at one end accessed through a flap in the fly. You simply unscrew the square outer cap, slot in the pump tube and inflate. There's a simple one-way valve, so no air comes out. The inflatable bit of the tube is housed inside a zipped sleeve, if it were to puncture - and we can't see why it would in normal use, playing darts in the tent maybe? - you could zip it out and patch it like a bike tyre.
Inflation is super rapid, the pump takes just 20 strokes or so to get the tubes good and solidly inflated. Once done, you simply remove the tube - no air escapes thanks to the one-way valve - and do up the square cap again.
It's a matter of minutes to pitch the tent. It took around five minutes for us and that was for the first time without instructions, next time should be close to Vango's three-minute claim. If you've ever faffed around with family-sized tents you'll appreciate just what a good thing this is and even the eight-person Infinity 800 pitches in a claimed five minutes. Nice.
Inflated On The Inside...
Here's the inside view of the centre AirBeam before we clipped the front of the sleeping compartment in place. Fatter than a conventional tube, but with a reassuringly solid feel to it. The tent has a full groundsheet that covers the whole inside including the roomy vestibule and is part of the reason for the relatively high weight.
There are three beams, each housed in a sleeve with a full-length zip for easy removal if needed.
Roomy sleeping compartment houses three people or a couple in spacious luxury, lots of side storage pockets for your gubbins. Nice.
Nothing radical, it's a three-person, three-beam, tunnel tent with polyester inner, outer and groundsheet. If it weren't for the fat beam housings, you'd never know it wasn't a conventional tent. We spent a very comfortable night inside, no obvious issues, then we took off for our bike challenge leaving it to fend for itself in the forecast high winds and rain...
This is what happened that night to a - coincidental - Vango three-person conventional tent used for the event. I should stress that the tent was pitched side on to the wind, where it should have been lengthways for best performance, but when a freak gust ripped through the camp site, the rear pole, unsupported by Vango's Tension Band system, distorted and then snapped.
I mention that because the AirBeam survived the same conditions quite happily. AirBeams distort, but then spring back rather than breaking making them reassuringly resilient, particularly in a high-profile family-type tent.
A Few Preliminary Thoughts
We're not going to pass judgement on a tent on the basis of a a couple of days use, but here are a few early thoughts. One is that the AirBeam system goes up incredibly quickly and with minimal effort. It's lots less faff than fiddling sectioned alloy poles through sleeves and, as a bonus, you can also use the pump with air beds and so on. The only quibble is that a pump failure would leave you unable to erect the tent, but it's a simple bit of kit, so we can't see why that should happen unless you're either very unlucky or you leave it behind.
One thing we did notice is that when we got back, small pools of water had collected at the base of three or four of the beams, we think the stitching on the beam tunnels may be the culprit, possibly with the expansionary pressure of the beam slightly pulling the seam open. We only noticed it because of the built-in ground sheet, which held the water there and the sleeping compartment stayed 100% dry.
Vango says our tent is a final sample, not a production model and we're the first users to experience this issue. And to be fair, it was extremely wet and windy.
Our other quibble is over the full groundsheet. Because it covers the vestibule, you can't really cook under shelter in bad weather, we'd like the option to roll it back by the door and be able to use a stove there carefully.
Otherwise we're dead impressed. All the Vango AirBeam tents so far are aimed at car camping, but if you're planning a trip around a fixed base and don't need to carry your tent, the combination of rapid pitching and resilience is really appealing, so much so that we've asked Vango if we can hold onto the tent for a few months for use over the summer months.
If there's a downside, it's the SRP of £325, the two-person 6.65kg Velocity 200 is more affordable at £230 and the Velocity 400 - 9.55kg - will cost £415 when it becomes available at the end of May.
More about the various AirBeam options at vango.co.uk.