There are many factors to consider when choosing a tent, but the most important is to consider what type of camper you are. Are you just a beginner, or are you more advanced? Are you going to go camping once a year in the summer, or several times a year, in several locations, all year round?
Or are you a beginner who is planning on becoming quite experienced?
All of this can will help to decide how much you should be looking at spending on a tent.
Hydrostatic Head is the measure of how waterproof the tent is. Basic tents will have a 750mmHH to 2000mmHH rating, which means that it could withstand a column of water 750-2000mm high. This sounds quite impressive for a basic tent but it isn't really. More professional tents will go up to 7000mmHH or even higher.
Tents with up to 2000mmHH will be fine for use in the summer with occasional showers. They should be very cheap and ideal for a beginner who isn't sure whether they’re going to like camping or not. They are also ideal for festivals. You’re not going to need a particularly superior tent for camping in fairly sheltered field with thousands of other people.
And it should be cheap enough that if some drunken idiot ruins it, you won’t be too annoyed.
If you would like a more general tent, you should look for one with 2000mmHH to 4000mmHH. These should be fine from about Easter till October. They will be able to take slightly bigger downpours and the waterproof coating should be able to last a full year of regular use without re-coating. It should last a few years of less regular use and good looking-after.
The hydrostatic head is generally a good guide to the overall build quality of the tent, and, as such, the professional tents will have at least 4000mmHH and will be great for year round camping. Higher quality tents will also withstand higher winds and will suffer less wear on the waterproof coating.
Over time, all tents will lose their waterproof coating, and a re-coating will be necessary. But the higher the rating to start with, the longer it will last before you need to treat it.
Single vs Double Skin
There are single skinned tents and double skinned tents. But which are the best? What should you look for?
Single and double skinned tents will both generally be very good at repelling rain to start with. The difference comes as the waterproof coating starts to wear. If water penetrates the waterproof coating, it will run down the inside of the tent. In a single skinned tent, the water will collect on the groundsheet and you will get wet. In a double skinned tent, the water will run down the inside of the outer skin and never come into contact with the inner tent.
The double skin system isn't foolproof. If you don't erect your tent taut enough, the two skins will come into contact and the water will penetrate the inner skin.
Tents can always be re-waterproofed, but a double skin just provides an extra barrier and piece of mind.
Weight & Pack Size
The weight of your tent isn't necessarily as important as a lot of people may believe. If you will always be driving to a campsite, the weight is largely unimportant. Weight only becomes and issue, if you are going to be hiking or cycling with it. You can pay quite a large premium for a lightweight tent, but if you need to carry it for long periods, it will probably be worth it.
Pack size can be important too. Backpackers will want to minimise the size that it takes up in their rucksack. But you should also consider the pack size if you are driving to the campsites. If you are taking a lot of other luggage, and maybe stoves, barbeques, a fridge, etc, a large tent may use up valuable space. It is not worth jeopardising quality for smaller size though.
If you are just planning on using your tent for sleeping in, you can buy one that sleeps the number of people in your party. If you are also planning on using it for storing bags or even for living quarters, then you'll need one that sleeps at least an extra person.
As an alternative, a tent with a porch provides storage space so you may be able to get away with getting one that sleeps the exact number of people in your party. Keep in mind, however, that you may need to clamber over your bags in the porch to get into and out of your tent.
Shape - Dome vs Geodesic vs Tunnel
Dome tents are much stronger than the old ridge style tents. Under strong wind conditions, they will deform and then spring back into shape once the wind subsides.
Geodesic tents are stronger still, but also slightly heavier due to the extra poles. They are not stronger because they have more poles, they are stronger because of the layout of the poles. These tents will withstand much stronger winds without deforming and may even withstand a small person falling on them.
Tunnel tents are largely useless. They can withstand wind perpendicular to the tunnel, but if the wind blows in line with the tunnel, the tent has very little strength at all.
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