Seeking Camp Shelter
CLIMATE CONTROL Four-season tents are built for people who camp in severe weather conditions like monsoon rains, high winds and snow. Three-season tents are built for the rest of us. Their shapes are designed less for snow and wind, and more for comfort and usable interior space. Even in the three-season category, though, you want to look for the features that suit your particular camping weather conditions.
Camping in the Northwest requires first-class protection from the rain while family camping in the South puts a premium on ventilation. In some areas a rainfly must be deployed for the occasional thunderstorm. Camping in the deserts of the Southwest is all about shade during the day, but temperatures can really drop at night. Ultraviolet (UV)-resistant fabrics are also important; tent fabrics that are not UV resistant can degrade after just a few seasons of use.
FAMILY SIZE The third major consideration when purchasing a tent is the number and sizes of people in your party. Fewer people: smaller tent. Older children: bigger tent. Or perhaps you want more room for smaller ones to play or more room to accommodate a playpen.
When the kids are old enough, you may want to have a separate tent or two. This can be a good alternative for campsites that can’t handle super-sized tents. It can also be a good way to nudge older children toward independence.
MATERIAL AND CONSTRUCTION Most tent poles are made of steel, fiberglass or aluminum. Manufacturers are constantly seeking a balance between weight, strength and affordability. Much of the cost differences in tents can be found in the type of poles used.
“Aluminum is stronger and lighter than fiberglass, but more expensive,” says Curt Dinges, product manager of Cabela’s Camping Division. Fiberglass tends to be lighter, more flexible and more expensive than steel. Some tents are sold with your choice of aluminum or fiberglass frames. The fiberglass version will be a little heavier, but less expensive.
The material a tent is made from is also a big factor. Most high-quality tents use polyesters and nylons. “Nylon starts out stronger,” according to Dinges, “but over the course of time there’s a point at which exposure to the sun, UV rays and rain weakens nylon. In the long run, polyesters can be better than nylon.” This is especially true for rainflys.
“Polyester is a desired fly fabric due to its low stretch when wet,” according to Andrew Day, Kelty Tent product manager. “Also, polyester resists UV damage more so than nylon. On the other hand, nylon resists abrasions better than polyester. That is why a heavier weight nylon is commonly used as a floor fabric.”
The weight of a fabric is rated by denier (d). This d number is how much 9000 linear meters of yarn or filament weighs in grams. Higher denier means heavier fabric, which generally means better quality. Ripstop fabrics are also desirable for their durability.
COATINGS Tent fabrics are not waterproof by themselves. They must be coated to make them waterproof — usually with polyurethane. Tent coatings are tested and rated by how much water pressure they can withstand before water droplets form inside. Kelty’s Day said, “waterproof tests are determined by placing water in a cylinder with one end sealed by the fabric being tested. The height of the water in millimeters before leaking is noticed determines the water resistance of the material. Most waterproof tent materials are in the 1000 to 2000 mm range.”
Tom Gooch, senior camping designer for Johnson Outdoors (Eureka! tents) says 800 mm is probably the minimum you want on a fly, “but something like 1200 mm is preferable.” Higher coating numbers are better. Thicker coatings are more durable and less likely to develop leaks due to abrasions.
But it’s not just the thickness of the coating, according to Chuck Smith, president of Wenzel. “You want to make sure you get a double-pass (two coatings); one on the inside and one on the outside.” Perhaps more than any other factor, quality materials and construction will increase the life expectancy of your tent.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR Here’s what the experts we talked to said were the features you should be on the lookout for in a family camping tent:
- Inside height. According to Jeff Basford, president of Paha Qué, “If you are a car camper, you can easily find a tent that has standing room even in the corners.”
- Gear lofts, attics and organizers. Several tent models have storage areas built in where you can get stuff off the floor and out of the way.
Bathtub floor. The fabric floor of the tent extends partly up the walls to get the seam off the ground where water is likely to penetrate.
- Bathtub floors greatly reduce the possibility of ground water seeping in.
Removable room dividers. Some tents allow you to zip your tent’s interior partitions in and out to make more than one room.
- “No-see-um” mesh. No-see-ums are biting insects that are hard to see and are sometimes called “flying teeth”. A tent that keeps these tiny predators out will protect you from other bugs, too.
- Fly/rainfly. Think of this as a rain jacket for your tent. Look for tents with a full-coverage rainfly if you are camping in wet weather.
- Vestibules, porches and awnings. These porch areas are ideal for storing wet and muddy clothes, extra gear, boots or pets.
- Factory-taped seams. Sewing needles make little holes in the tent fabric during the seam sewing process. Some manufacturers tape these seams to seal the holes. You should use “seam sealers” as an added precaution.
- Shockcorded poles. Seg-mented tent poles that are strung together with a “bungee cord” are easier to pack, and make the tent easier to set up.
- Guyouts. Built-in attachment points for extra ropes that can be staked to the ground to keep the tent from blowing away.
- Gear access ports. Zippered openings allow you to store or retrieve gear from your tent without going completely inside. Very handy for snagging a dry towel or other essentials without tracking in mud or sand.
- Color-coded sleeves and poles. Makes tent setup easier because you know exactly which pole goes with which tent sleeve.