Choosing a tent can be a challenging business. There are a wide range of materials involved, from the fabric on the outside of your tent to the pegs you use to hold it down. This web page looks at some of the materials you are likely to encounter when buying a tent.
You can find out more about other things to look for on another web page – Choosing Tents
Most tents will have two layers – an outer cover known as the flysheet and an inner tent for sleeping. In almost all cases, you won’t have a choice of fabric for the inner tent, so as long as it’s breathable (to prevent condensation building up overnight) you should be fine. However, there’s a range of materials available for the flysheet. Read on for more details.
Most tents on the market today are made of polyester. This man-made fabric comes in many weights and with a variety of coatings, many of which are given brand names by their respective manufacturers.
Polyester is generally more durable than nylon (see below), doesn’t stretch or shrink as much and also tends to be less affected by sunlight. As a result, most tents on the market today – especially family ones – are made from polyester.
Lightweight tents are often made of nylon. This man-made fabric is normally coated to make it more durable, with coatings such as acrylic, polyurethane (PU) or silicone.
One disadvantage of nylon is its tendency to ‘ladder’, which is when a small hole propagates across the fabric rapidly. Top-of- the-range nylon fabrics include a ‘ripstop’ mesh of thicker nylon strands that prevent a small tear getting larger. However, some cheaper nylon fabrics have a ripstop crosshatch pattern printed on – simply to look the part – so it’s worth checking whether the tent you’re looking at is really ripstop fabric.
Nylon tents can be susceptible to damage from sunlight, though some coatings are designed to reduce this problem. You will also need to check your guylines on site because the fabric can loosen in damp conditions.
Polycotton or coated-cotton
An alternative to traditional 100 per cent cotton canvas is polycotton, or a lighter-weight cotton with a weather-resistant coating. These materials have many of the qualities of 100 per cent cotton canvas, but tend to be lighter in weight and lower cost. Many family tent manufacturers have polycotton or coated- cotton units in their ranges, such as Outwell, Sprayway and Vango.
Before the 1960s, tents were generally made of natural fabrics such as cotton canvas. The Camping and Caravanning Club’s founder Thomas Hiram Holding even used silk for his lightest tents.
Today cotton tents are available from specialist manufacturers like Cabanon, Karsten and Bell Tents. Cotton canvas is a wonderful fabric for tents because it remains cool in summer, keeps the warmth inside in winter and rarely suffers from condensation. One result of this is that you don’t generally need an inner tent in a cotton canvas unit.
Canvas is also a better sound insulator, so cotton tents often seem quieter inside than nylon or polyester ones. A cotton canvas tent will normally outlast one of man-made fabric, sometimes by several decades, but it will weigh significantly more and probably cost a fair bit too.
Cotton tents can also require more maintenance than ones of man-made fabric. For example, a new cotton tent will need to be ‘weathered’ to prevent it leaking. This involves soaking it a couple of times, allowing the threads in the canvas to swell slightly and close any tiny gaps where water can seep through.
Cotton’s final winning feature is its smell. You can’t beat the scent of a pure canvas tent to transport you back to childhood days outdoors – even if you didn’t camp when you were young...
Groundsheets in most tents today are of sturdy PVC. You’ll probably want a fully-waterproof groundsheet in your sleeping area, but if you have a choice, it’s worth considering a breathable one elsewhere because it will keep the grass beneath your tent in better condition for future campers.
If the ground is already particularly muddy, you may want to have a ‘footprint’ – which could be purpose designed or simply a piece of polythene from a DIY store or builders’ merchant – to go under your groundsheet to keep the mud at bay.
Glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) – also known as fibreglass – is a popular material for tent poles because it is relatively cheap to produce, lightweight and bends easily around the curves of a tent. It’s often found in small- and medium-sized dome and tunnel units or as extra poles (over a porch or similar) in larger ones.
GRP is made from thin glass strands held in a resin. Some such poles are surrounded by an outer wrapping and appear under a brand name, such as Durawrap or Dynaflex. One disadvantage of the material is that when a pole breaks or fractures – and they can do, especially if they are accidentally mis-threaded in a sleeve – the break can have sharp glass splinters.
Steel tent poles are generally painted, plated or coated to prevent them rusting, and need to remain that way. Steel is a strong, heavy material, so you’ll normally find these poles in larger tents, and they are not designed to bend around the curves of a tent.
If your chosen tent has steel poles with angled corners, check the thickness of the material at these corners because they can be weak points. An accidentally-bent steel pole can often be straightened, but it will never have all the strength of its condition before the incident.
Aluminium is a much lighter metal than steel and it can bend around curves like GRP . For extra strength, aluminium is combined with another metal in an alloy.
These materials are more costly than GRP , but the strength and weight saving (over steel) mean they are often sold with lightweight, backpacking tents.
At the top end of the market, you’ll find poles in hi-tech materials. Carbon fibre ones, for example, are incredibly light, strong and perfect for the curving structures of many tents, but command a high price.
One advantage of buying a slightly more-pricey tent from a well-known supplier is that you are likely to be able to buy a replacement part if you accidentally break or tear something. During our tent testing at the Club we expect to break at least one pole every season – so it’s not as unusual as we may hope!
Replacement poles, pole sections and end caps (known as ferrules) are normally available from your local camping equipment retailer, or a specialist spares stockist such as tentspares.co.uk.
If replacements are no longer available for your particular tent model, you can normally buy a standard piece of pole with the correct diameter and cut it to length.
When you buy a tent it is likely to be supplied with standard straight steel pegs with a circular cross-section, sometimes called ‘pins’. If conditions are good, these may be sufficient, but in many cases it’s worth investing in some additional pegs to keep your tent securely on the ground. Pins can be easy to put in the ground, but they often bend if they hit something hard in the ground and they are also easily dislodged.
Some campers with many years’ experience will carry a selection of pegs, each suited to different ground conditions. It’s always worth having a few spares – even of the most basic pins – to replace any broken or lost ones.
Pressed steel or alloy
Pegs with a shank with a flat cross-section generally give better grip than standard steel pegs.
If you’re carrying your kit yourself, you may consider alloy pegs or titanium ones to reduce weight. These need to be used carefully as they are more likely to bend under the mallet. You also need to be sure they will be good enough to stay in the ground keeping your tent down in the wind.
There are many shapes and sizes of moulded plastic pegs on the market. Many are remarkably strong, even though they are light in weight. Some larger tents are sold with moulded plastic pegs for the main guylines and steel pins for the remaining guys.
Rock pegs are designed for especially hard ground – perhaps stony or frozen. They are normally made from toughened steel and generally have a head to take the guyline, perhaps made of plastic.
These pegs have a strong grip and are designed to stay in the ground unless you unscrew them. Many people use a cordless drill to put them in place and extract them.
Groundsheet pegs normally have flattened tops so you can stand on them without spiking your feet.
These pegs are designed to degrade in the ground if you accidentally leave them behind after a camping trip. They should only decompose after a few months, so should remain intact for your holiday, and are sometimes required at festivals, so animals using the field after you are not hurt by stray metal pegs for years afterwards.
And the rest
You’ll find a wide range of pegs on sale at your local camping retailer or online, with extra features such as glow-in-the-dark heads or extended tops to anchor them to the ground. After a few camping trips, you’ll soon decide whether you’d like to splash out on a different type and you’ll find many enthusiasts on camping forums happy to discuss the options.
Putting in and removing pegs
Unfortunately there are too many campsite accidents when a peg breaks through the sole of a shoe or boot. So it’s worth investing in a rubber-headed mallet to help push your pegs into the ground (unless you’re only using screw- in ones). You may also like to buy a peg extractor for the end of the holiday – it’s a good way to save your hands and prevent pegs being left in the ground.