How to Choose a Tent for Outdoor Activities

The range of tents available for outdoor activities is wide and varied, depending on how much you prioritise space, protection, durability, weight and use. Here are some tips to help you choose the best one for your needs.

Midnight in Aigualluts, Pyrenees. Photo: Javier Camacho

Why Is Choosing a Tent for Outdoor Activities Not as Simple as it Looks?

Mainly because you have to decide which features are essential and which can be sacrificed in order to get the right balance for your needs.

An important factor to consider is weight: unlike camping, a tent for trekking has to be carried on your back for many hours and days.

And this is where the first problem lies: the lighter the tent, the smaller and less durable it is. On the other hand, a larger and more durable tent at a similar weight is much more expensive.

Although this is important to bear in mind, the most fundamental factor you need to consider is how the tent will be used.

It makes no sense to buy an expedition tent if you plan to use it for summer camping in Europe, for example. Not only is it more expensive, but some of the features will actually cause discomfort.

Let’s take a look at the different features that need to be considered:

Tent Structure: Single or Double Wall

Tents are almost entirely made up of flexible poles, which form the frame, and a single or double wall (inner tent and outer fly).

  • Single Wall Tents: These have a single layer of fabric and are mainly used for big wall climbing or on expeditions in dry and cold conditions. The main drawback to these tents is the build-up of condensation, from your breath, which drips on top of you, causing discomfort.

    If you plan to use a single wall tent in a milder climate, ensure it has a good ventilation system to prevent the build up of condensation.

  • Rab Latok Mountain,single wall expedition tent
  • Double Wall: Condensation is not a problem with double wall tents: the inner tent is not waterproof, but made of mesh that absorbs humidity and the outer fly has vents to allow air flow.

    For this reason the vast majority of tents are made with the double wall system.

Vaude Campo Compact XT 2P

Key Factors When Choosing a Tent

  • 1: The seasons it is designed for and level of protection
  • 2. Waterproofing and breathability
  • 2: Capacity
  • 3: Weight
  • 4: Design, livability and comfort

Some factors will be more important than others, depending on the use. As a general rule:

  • Choose the tent most suited to your type of activity and number of people involved.
  • Then, try to find a balance between making it as light, as comfortable and as spacious as possible.

1.- Three seasons or four seasons. Level of protection

A tent has to offer protection against the elements and so, again, before choosing the design and other details, first choose the tent that is suitable for your activity.

4-season and expedition tents (sometimes called 5-season tents) are very durable. They are usually quite spacious, in case you are stuck inside for multiple days in bad weather. But the specifically designed features which make this sort of tent ideal for expedition use are often a drawback if used for other activities.

Extreme winter conditions require a tent that is durable and able to withstand heavy snowfall and constant winds. In most cases, it will feature snow flaps, which limit breathability and have a greater number of poles, thicker in diameter, which makes pitching more complicated. The inner tent has fewer mesh areas, to keep in the heat, and this can be unbearable if it is used in warmer climates.

Vaude Power Sphaerio, expedition tent
Snow flaps, lots of poles, fewer mesh areas and more durable fabric all increase weight.

Used in the right conditions, this kind of tent becomes an essential item for your protection and survival. But the extra weight, lower breathability, higher condensation and heat retention become a hindrance in milder conditions, where 3 season, tents are more suitable.

Quality 3-season tents are the most popular type of tent. They can perfectly withstand rain, storms, snow and strong winds and the inner tent is designed with large mesh areas, to avoid heat accumulation and increase breathability.

MSR Mutha Hubba NX inner tent. Large mesh areas
Another category is halfway between 3 and 4, called 3-4 season tents, which are more durable and, except in extreme situations, offer enough protection for winter mountaineering and have fewer drawbacks than expedition tents when used in milder climates.

2.- Waterproofing and Breathability

The waterproofing capacity of fabric is measured by placing a tube over the taut textile, and pouring water into the tube until the pressure of the water passes through it. The height the water reaches in the tube is measured in mm and this is referred to as the hydrostatic head.

An outdoor jacket with a membrane has a waterproofing capacity (hydrostatic head or HH) of 20,000 to 30,000mm (the higher the number, the more waterproof). A tent usually has between 1,200mm and 3,000mm, yet it is still waterproof. Why?

  • First and foremost, unlike a jacket, your breath affects the inner layer of the tent and therefore the fabric has to be breathable.
  • Secondly, a the level of friction influences the performance of the membrane.

Jackets and similar garments rub against your inner layers and also externally, against your backpack, rocks, branches, etc. This increased friction increases the water pressure against the membrane and for this reason, a greater level of waterproofing is required.

The fly sheet of a tent does not suffer friction either internally or externally, although many campers will know not to touch the walls as this has the same effect as above and lets in humidity.

The groundsheet is subjected to the weight of yourself and your gear and so it has to withstand greater pressure. For this reason, the hydrostatic head is usually higher compared to the fly sheet, but still lower than a jacket, because the humidity comes up from the soil, rather than directly from rain.

Three-season flysheets are usually between 1,200 and 3,000-4000mm. Four-season and expedition tents are less waterproof, as they are designed for high altitudes, where it snows more than it rains.

So high waterproofing capacity is not always the best solution. You need just the right amount, no more and no less, for the activity in question: this way you will prevent condensation and be much more comfortable.

3.- Dimensions and Sleeping Space

By dimensions we do not only mean length and width: height is also important. Being able to sit up and move around is clearly much more comfortable than having to crawl. For this reason, many tents are designed with a higher head and central area and a lower foot area.

You will also need to consider the number of people a tent sleeps. Bear in mind that most brands calculate space for a very snug fit.

  • If the brand indicates the tent is for two, it will sleep two.
  • If the brand indicates the tent is for 2-3, it will either sleep two with extra room for your gear or it will sleep a very snug three.
  • For this reason, the lower number indicated is always more realistic: a 1-2 person tent is good for one person plus the gear, etc.

Of course this also depends on the size of the person. If you are large, be generous in your choice. Smaller people can usually get away with a lighter, smaller tent.

You also need to consider if the tent has enough space for your gear, unless you plan to keep it outside under plastic. Most people store the gear in the space between the inner tent and the fly, to keep it dry and away from animals.

Vaude Invenio SUL 2 person tent

4.- Weight

Since it has to be carried on your back, a tent has to be as light as possible.

There is a trend among mountaineers to make do with tarps (we will talk about these later), and from there, extras can be added according to their needs, choice and economic capacity.

This trend works mainly with solo mountaineers, who cannot split the weight. If two people can divide the weight of a 2-person tent between them, the load will be lighter than each carrying an ultralight single tent.

Separating a tent into two loads is not always the most practical solution as the tent bag keeps the contents tight and compact. It is often preferable to keep the tent whole and share other items to divide the weight.

Another factor to bear in mind is the weight indicated by the manufacturer. In most cases there are two:

  • One appears as the trail or minimum weight. This is the weight of the tent without non-essential components, such as the guy lines or stakes.
  • The higher number is the packed or total weight. This refers to the tent + poles + stakes + guy lines.

The weight of the pegs and guy ropes make up a considerable part of the total weight and not all tents carry the same quality or quantity of pegs or guy ropes, so the trail weight is very useful for a more realistic comparison of the different tents and models.

So, comparing the trail weight of different tent models it is easier to choose the tent you are looking for. Then, if the stakes included seem heavy, they can be replaced by lighter ones, at a fairly small cost.

Nordisk Oppland 2 LW, under 2 kilos for a tent with a large opening

5.- Design and Livability

Livability, comfort and dimensions are not only related to the size of the tent, but also to the design.

  • The dome shape of tents nowadays optimises space.
  • Tent designs with less vertical walls penalize interior space, but they use fewer materials which makes them lighter.
  • More vertical walls optimize space and comfort.
  • The most minimalist tents not only have more curved walls and doors, but also tend to be tube-shaped, making them more uncomfortable. Comfort and livability are penalized in favour of weight.
  • The verticality of the walls also affects the size of the vestibule, so you need to consider how much space you need for your gear and if you are able to store your gear in your sleeping space, which can be uncomfortable when waiting for bad weather to pass.

The design of the vestibule and doors is very important.

Mountain tents do not stand out for being comfortable. The front opening and vestibule means you have to climb over each other to reach your gear in the vestibule or get in and out of the tent.

However, many of the latest tent designs now feature dual side entrance doors: a full-length door on each side of the tent, so that each person can roll out of bed and leave the tent in one swift movement.

The North Face Talus Eco 2 inner tent with two lateral doors
  • Each person has their own door for a more livable space.
  • It’s very comfortable getting in and out of the tent
  • They usually have a vestibule for your gear on either side, next to each door, which helps keep your gear separate and organized and is accessible from your sleeping bag.
  • Cooking is also easier and more comfortable in the vestibules.
The North Face Talus 2 tent side entrance. Another is on the other side.
The only disadvantage is that the 2-way zips add weight to the tent and make it a bit more costly.

If you are able to share the weight of this type of tent, the improved comfort and livability is well worth the slight increase in weight, which can be as little as 100 grams each.

The side entrance design is so successful that even the lightest double tents now feature a single side opening.

We can also find some hybrid designs that save weight, by featuring just one vestibule and two side doors.

Double door designs are becoming lighter (some 2-person tents weigh under 1,800 grams and have two vestibules) and, except for those looking for the most radical minimalism, the additional comfort of use is greatly appreciated by outdoor enthusiasts.

In general, regarding livability vs weight:

  • If the use of the tent is for bivouacking or solo multi-day treks, a more minimalist tent with less space may be preferable, in order to save weight.
  • If you can share the weight on a long trek and expect bad weather, a larger tent is more suitable for greater comfort.

Ultra-light Tents, Tarps

There is a growing movement in minimalist tents, especially in the United States. In Europe, they are also becoming more popular among solo trekkers.

You can choose between an ultralight tent or a tarp.

Poles are not usually included as these types of tents are designed to be pitched with your trekking poles.

Rab Siltarp 1, tarp pitched with trekking poles
A Tarp is just an awning to give protection against light rain. A groundsheet can be added for greater insulation or a compatible mosquito net to keep off the bugs. There are many types of groundsheets available. Most are designed to be used with a specific tent model, to protect the floor of the tent on bad terrain.
Vaude Floorprotector Hogan SUL 2P
Rab Element Solo Bug Tent. Can be combined with a tarp
It may not be everyone’s style, or suitable for all situations, but it saves a lot of weight, protects against bugs, enhances freedom of movement and gives you direct contact with the natural environment.

You can also find tarps that are compatible with tents (mainly by Vaude), to increase the living space of the tent and sit outside for dinner, etc.

Vaude Wingtarp SUL 2P

Tent Stakes and Poles

Tent stakes are easy to replace, whether they are lost or broken or you just want some that are lighter and better quality.

It is highly recommendable to look for quality stakes, especially if you plan to pitch your tent on difficult terrain: not only do they save weight, but they make pitching quicker and they won’t bend or break in the process.

Sea To Summit Ground Control Tent Peg
Quality aluminium tent poles are usually made by DAC (Dongah Aluminum Corporation). They come in different diameters. Ultra-light tent poles are usually under 8mm in diameter, while standard tent poles are 8-9mms.

The strength of the poles is another factor as is their length and curve capacity. Small, ultra-light tents often use the minimum thickness which is usually an acceptable strength.

Poles can also be made of fibreglass. This material is heavier and more fragile than aluminium and is used in more economical tents, due to its lower price. Having said this, if well-constructed, fibreglass poles offer excellent value for money in these kinds of tents, such as those by the brand, Hannah

Hannah Hover 4
Fiberglass can also be used for quality family camping tents; these do not need to be as strong and the length of the poles required would add unnecessary costs if they were made of DAC aluminium.

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