Choosing your tent

There’s an incredible number makes and models of tents on the market today.

Go along to an outdoor camping exhibition or camping dealer and the choice will amaze you. 

In this section we’ll answer some key questions and take you through the various shapes, their advantages and disadvantages. 

We’ll look at tents large and small and what you need to look for in order to get a tent that will provide you and your family with years of comfortable camping.

How big does it need to be? 

The size of a tent is normally described by the maximum number of people that can sleep inside, or its number of 'berths'.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? But it needs more than a little thought. Remember you’ll probably need space in your tent for living, not just for sleeping.

Over the years we’ve found that four-berth tents often work really well for two adults, and larger tents can work well for families. Children will often be much happier if they’ve each got their own sleeping compartment. But don’t go mad, the bigger the tent, generally the harder it is to put up and the more space it will take up in the car (and it might cost you more in pitch fees…).  

Some large tents are heavy so whether you’re backpacking, using a car or towing a trailer, make sure you’re happy with lifting and carrying the tent you intend to buy. And, if it comes in several bags, don't forget to take them all with you when you go camping...

Can I stand up inside?

As a rule, the smaller the tent, the less headroom you'll have. If pack size and weight matter more then standing room is something you may have to sacrifice. For general holiday camping being able to stand up and move around in comfort is desirable. Check the headroom if you get a chance to see your intended purchase erected as you can't get such a good feel for headroom from a catalogue.

Why do tents have two layers of fabric?

Not all do. Very lightweight small tents can be single layered, so can some larger tents and some made from 100 per cent cotton. For the family camper most serious tents will have an inner and an outer. Check the gap between the two.  Enough room to put your hand in as a fist is probably about right and don’t buy a tent where the inner and outer touch, that is a recipe for leaking.

Many smaller tents are pitched with the inner first and then a flysheet is added for weather protection. In larger tents you often put up the outside first and then fit a number of inner tents that define how you use the space inside. Some premium family tents can be packed away with the inners still inside, which makes it easier to pitch them then next time.

What about groundsheets?

Today, most tents will have a fitted groundsheet. In smaller tents it will cover the whole of the inner tent floor, but often in larger family tents each compartment will have its own groundsheet.

Campsite owners prefer separate groundsheets. The theory is you can lift them during the day to allow the grass beneath to get some daylight and ‘breathe’ so hopefully you won’t leave a groundsheet-sized patch of yellowing grass when you leave.

However, many campers like sewn-in groundsheets (sometimes known as SIGs) because they keep more bugs and draughts out. These are permanently attached to the outer fabric of the tent. A good compromise is a zipped-in groundsheet, which can be 'zipped out' to let the grass breathe but can be sealed when necessary.

Check the strength of groundsheet material. It’s also worth checking what happens to the groundsheet at the tent’s doorways. Does it form a high lip to trip over? Or can you peg it out flat?

We go into more details on our poles, tents and groundsheets page.

What shape should my tent be?

The shape will be important. Will it be a dome? A tunnel? A frame tent? Will it be a hybrid?  

On our types of tents page we’ll take you step by step through all the sizes and shapes.

What should my tent be made of?

Tents can be made of polyester, cotton canvas, polycotton or nylon with or without a fabric coating. Poles can be of aluminium, steel or composite materials. We look at tent fabrics and poles, groundsheets and pegs on separate pages.

You may also see what is from the same manufacturer the same tent layout but in different materials, polyester and polycotton for example, not only will they perform differently, there will be a weight and price difference too.

What about doors and windows? 

Ventilation is very important in a tent so you’ll need to have a good look at doors, windows and vents.

Some doors also act as a windbreak and some double-up as a canopy to give you extra space under cover but in the open air, which is ideal for cooking. Good tents will often have double zips so you can open a door from the top or the bottom. Check there is a way of fixing it open.  

Some tents have porches so, again, make sure that it all works well and that the space is useful to you. Now check the windows - they can make the inside of a tent light and airy and they may have mosquito nets so even when the window is open, you’ll still get a midge-free night’s sleep. On warm nights you can sleep with the door and windows open with the midge nets in position.

How can I judge the quality?

It is difficult to grade quality in tents. Certainly we're able to suggest which are the best tents to buy for different needs, but suitability depends on many factors. Not least on price, of course, and personal preference plays an enormous part too.

The Club magazine regularly test tents and other camping equipment. Check out their expert opinions.

In general, as with so many things, in terms of tent quality you normally get what you pay for. Some things to look out for include:

  • Does the fabric look and feel up to the job? Can you spot and flaws or irregularities that might cause problems after a few outings?
  • What are the seams like? Does the stitching look good and even? Are the seams properly waterproofed?
  • How many points are there for guy ropes? Are they sensibly positioned to keep the tent stable in windy conditions? Normally, the more guying points the better.
  • What if you damage part of the tent? Does it come with a fabric repair kit? Can you buy a replacement pole if one breaks?

Sizing for real people

Tent brochures, websites and point of sale materials in camping shops are full of tent floor plans and talk of ‘pitching areas’.

The camping industry is making some attempts to create standard sizes and descriptions – but at the moment you can’t guarantee that everyone will agree on the size of a sleeping person. For that matter, there’s no standard size for a sleeping mat or airbed – so what chance do they have?

When you look at a floor plan, try to compare it with the people who will occupy the tent – especially in the sleeping areas. Check out sizes of the air beds or mats you want to use and make sure they will fit – or that there are suitable alternatives to fit you. Will there be space for your luggage too?

Some manufacturers are also beginning to quote the ‘pitching area’ of their tents. This is the total size of the tent, including guy ropes. This can be a useful guide, but will obviously be larger than the useable area inside. A more helpful measure is the size of the tent without including guys, since this is the size you will need to quote when you book a pitch at most campsites. If, for example, you want to pay for the cheapest, standard pitch at a Club Site you’ll need to keep these measurements at 5m x 9m or less.

Try it for size if you possibly can

Try to see the tent you're buying actually erected. Climb inside, all of you who are going to use the tent. Lie down where you will be sleeping - is it big enough have a little walk about? Will the children be under your feet?

If you all fit and reckon you could live in the space then add that model to your list of potential purchases. If not, cross it off your list and move on to try another, more suitable tent.

Now, let's move onto types of tents.