Backpacking Tents – A Comprehensive Design Review

sketch

I searched on-line book sellers and shook the internet to find a truly comprehensive summary of lightweight tent designs and was left wanting. Thus I thought I’d pull together my 35 years of camping and backpacking experience, add some up-to-the-moment literature research and write my own. A major driver to my inspiration has been Shamus McCaffery’s YouTube channel “Outdoor Inspiration” where he takes an experienced, evidence centric and practical look at various pieces of backpacking equipment.

Tents are like most sporting equipment – no one design is ideal for all applications. I would not want to race ride the Tour de France on a mountain bike, nor would I take a carbon road bike to the skate park. I could, but neither would allow me to enjoy each activity at it’s best. So it is with tents which you plan to carry or use as the base camp for weekend adventures. So let’s look at all of the designs which are out there, their design principles and their pro’s and cons. My aim is to cover what always used to be called ‘Hike Tents’ not the fabric versions of the Albert Hall used for family holidays, though to a point the same principles apply.  Whilst I will make reference to specific manufacturers, this is just to give real world examples and should not be taken as a recommendation of the maker.  The aim of this article is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each design type to aid you in producing an evidence based shortlist suitable for what you plan to do, where you plan to pitch and in which season.

The Ridge Tent

Vango Force 10

Probably the earliest example of a ‘light-weight’ tent is the ridge tent. Epitomised for me by the Vango Force 10 (above). This design is supported at each end either by a single pole or an inverted V. Variants exist with and without ridge poles, the latter being lighter but normally less strong.

Vertical upright, ridge pole designs, unless made from very strong (and thus often heavy) materials are generally, in my experience, only suitable for summer use. Since they rely on the rigidity of the poles, these tend to be heavy and thus the overall weight of a strong structure is high. They require pegs & guys to keep them upright and thus need to be pegged securely to handle strong winds.

ridge tent

Where this design works well is with the Vango Force 10 (top), which has inverted V uprights which gives an almost free-standing design of considerable strength. However, that strength comes at the expense of weight. Even a Force 10 with a coated polyester fly weighed in at 7.0 kg. The original cotton version weighed 8.3 kg. (3 man)

Another version of the ridge tent which can work well is where there is no ridge pole – what I will refer to as the soft-ridge – sometimes walking poles are used for the uprights. If you are already walking with poles, then the weight of the tent components you need to add becomes very low. Examples of this design would be the the Trekkertent Stealth or the Tarptent Notch.

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The Stealth is very similar to Saunders Jetpacker which was my first ever backspacing tent which I used from 1987-1997. Lightweight for its time, but far from comfortable. Transverse soft-ridge (twin apex) designs tend to offer more space and headroom

Pro’s : Simple; Trekking pole designs can be very light but are only designed for 2-3 season use; V pole designs are very strong but heavy.

Con’s : Very limited area with good headroom, usually cannot sit two people at the entrance (transverse ridge designs are better); Usually heavy; Lightweight versions can be ultralight but are mostly very small inside; Not free-standing.

Teepee / Pyramid Tent

Pyramid

This is another very old design into which new fabrics have breathed fresh life. This design uses one central pole and then relies on pegs / guys to form it’s shape and structure. These have gained popularity amongst the ultralight backpacking / through-hiking community. They are simple and potentially as light at 460 grams for just a single skin shelter. Add another 600 g if you want an insect proof inner / groundsheet. Because of their symmetry they handle wind from any direction. To maximise the area of reasonable headroom the designs tend to slope gently which means a relatively large footprint, compared to say a tunnel or geodesic design. If you want the lightest rain shelter you can buy and insects are not an issue to you this is where this design could win out. You must be able to peg it out for it to stand, so not ideal for kayak tourers who often need to pitch on rock slabs.

Pro’s : Simple; Potentially ultralight; Quick to pitch; Plenty of ventilation

Con’s : No lighter than more refined designs if you add an inner tent / groundsheet; Large footprint; Not free-standing; Plenty of ventilation!

Tunnel tents

tunnel wild country

The tunnel tent was first commercialised by Helsport in 1971. However, the design did not become common in the UK until a lot later. A tunnel tent is commonly formed from two / three semicircular poles which provide structure to a fabric tunnel which is tensioned at each end. The big advantage of this design is the space / weight ratio. Because the walls are steep this provides a very large area of good headroom, so ideal for multi-person occupancy. It is a design found in the catalogue of nearly all tent manufacturers today from budget models to top end high-priced versions. Because it relies on fabric tension to retain it’s shape the quality of the flysheet fabric will determine how well this design will stand up against the wind. Three pole high end designs have proved themselves in the harsh conditions of the Arctic. That said they do tend to flap in the wind which is enough to keep some people awake, so they are not ideal for light sleepers.

A more recent variant on the tunnel tent is the single hoop design. This design lends itself to a lightweight three season shelter. Whilst the lightest tents on the market are commonly of soft ridge and pyramid designs, once you have added an inner tent they weigh the same as many lightweight single hoop designs. These come in both longitudinal and traverse arrangements, the latter being by far the most common today. Perhaps the most beloved longitudinal design was the Phoenix Phreeranger. Whilst Pheonix is no longer in business you can still buy something very similar to the Phreeranger from Trekkertents.

Tarptent Rainbow

Tarptent Rainbow – another example of a longitudinal single hoop tent

There are too many examples of the transverse design to list here. The main differentiator is where the pole is placed along the length – centrally or bias to the head end. Head end pole designs give a large entrance door but only a small protected porch. They open up most of the inner to rain on entry / exit.  They are nearly always lighter though so popular for competition use.

Terra Nova single hoop tent - offset

Single hoop – off centre design from Terra Nova

Mid pole designs give an adequate entrance but a larger protected porch area.  I now use a centre pole design for solo backpacking. I had been sceptical about the wind-worthiness of tunnel tents for many years but seeing the reviews of Hilleberg tunnel tents being used in extreme conditions made me think again. My single hoop tent has been used in an exposed position with 35-40 mph winds and performed well, but for me that probably represented the ‘comfort’ limit of its performance.

DSC_1308

Hilleberg Enan – plenty of protected porch from centre hoop design.

Good tunnel tents are trivial to erect even if you have to do it alone. Also their porches remain structurally strong with the door open.  This is true for both side and end opening designs. This is great for cooking in windy weather. Good multi-pole designs will handle snow, single hoop designs are not designed to do so.

Pro’s : Best amount of headroom of any design  (2-3 hoops versions); Excellent space / weight ratio; Very easy to pitch; Single hoop designs are the lightest two skin tents currently available; 2-3 pole designs can have two entrances; 3 pole designs handle snow well.

Con’s : Can be noisy in strong winds; Not free-standing; Rely on the strength of their fabric, so wind-worthy-ones are expensive.

Dome Tents

Dome tents have two or three poles which cross at a central point. They have relatively steep walls so can offer almost as much usable headroom as a tunnel tent. They are free-standing and the fabric is held taut between the poles irrespective of how you well you are able to guy them out. They are strong against the wind and quiet. My first base-camp tent was an Ultimate Designs Phazor Dome. It stood up to conditions which broke and collapsed other tents. Three pole designs tend to have larger porches – but the third pole in modern designs may be a shorter ‘roof pole’ as used in the Hilleberg Rogen or MSR Zoic.

Hilleberg Rogen

Hilleberg Rogen with a short ‘roof pole’ extending the size of the porch

Unlike my Phazor Dome, today’s dome tents tend to to be elongated rather than centrosymmetric and thus have a preferred direction to be pitched into the wind. Dome tents are my favourite design, offering a good compromise between space:weight ratio and quiet weatherproofness. The strong roof structure can support snow with the cut of the bottom of the flysheet determining if they are 3 or 4 season tents. Picking a design where the pole is tensioned after it has been inserted rather than as part of the original insertion makes them far easier to pitch. Pitching my Phasor Dome was a test of upper body strength, not true for most of today’s designs. They tend to take slightly longer to pitch than a tunnel tent, but not as long as a geodesic design.

DSC_1174

Pro’s : Good area of headroom (but not quite as good as a tunnel design); Strong; Quiet in the wind; Free-standing. Many handle snow; Three pole designs have large porches; A great compromise between strength, weight and space; Usually erect outer first.

Con’s : Intermediate space : weight ratio; Two pole designs tend to have small porches.

Y-Hub Tents

In 2004 MSR came up the first truly ‘new’ class of tents since the introduction of geodesic tents in 1975, the Y-Hub tent. Hubs were part of early family frame tents, but it using them in a lightweight tent in combination with flexible poles which is novel.  To enhance the space still further both MSR and Big Agnes use a roof pole to a give larger, steeper walled porch like the Rogen or Phreeranger.

The hub allows for a Y shape pole arrangement at each end, flexible poles mean that tension is introduced via the poles yielding a stronger, light, free-standing and spacious design. If MSR Y-Hub tents didn’t go up inner first (see section below) then I would be very tempted.

The Y-Hub design is an enhancement on the longitudinal hoop design as it offers a slightly greater area of good headroom and a free-standing structure. This is the one tent design I’ve not had personal experience of so I spoke with people who own both the MSR and Terra Nova versions of this design.  This guided me to understand where the two designs sit relative to other constructions.  The MSR can be viewed as an enhanced longitudinal hoop design, with a better area of headroom and stronger if pitched ‘Y into the wind’ (and the wind doesn’t swing around in the night).  The Terra Nova Southern Cross should be viewed as an enhanced two pole dome offering a greater area of headroom and better wind stability than either a dome or the MSR variant as it does not just have a roof pole but a full second hoop.  This is well illustrated by looking at the inner area : weight ratio (m2 / kg) of these four designs (all based on the two man versions):

Y Hub data table as pic

Pitching inner first and being made from lighter weight fabrics the Hubba design is firmly in the three season camp, the Terra Nova just crosses the boundary to be four season, with it’s strength midway between dome and a geodesic structures.  Both the MSR Hubba and the Terra Nova Southern Cross tents comes in solo and two man versions. A key difference with the Southern Cross is that it pitches outer first / all in one.

TN - Southern Cross 2

TN Southern Cross 2 (Four Season Y-Hub  tent)

It will be very interesting to see what other manufacturers make using this concept.  The Big Agnes Copper Spur range used to use this pole design, but the latest versions are now two pole domes.  It would be interesting to know why Big Agnes moved away from the Y-Hub design.

Pro’s : Excellent area of good headroom; Good size : weight ratio; Free-standing; Terra Nova version erects outer first. Southern Cross pitches outer first;  Two entrances on both 2 man versions.

Con’s: MSR is reported to be a little noisy in the wind like a tunnel tent.

Geodesic Tents

Terra Nova Quasar

The Iconic TB Quasar, in it’s element on top of Blencathra

A geodesic tent is one where the poles cross each other more than twice. To be strict, if the poles cross a total of five times (or more) the tent is geodesic, if they cross three or four times this is classed as semi-geodesic. There is no stronger tent design, if you are heading high in the Himalayas or want to do a winter wild-camp on top of Cairngorm then you want to be in a geodesic tent. Most geodesic tents have four or more poles so they tend to be relatively heavy, but like a tunnel tent they have steep walls and thus offer a big area of excellent headroom. They are quiet in the wind and can stand a good dump of snow. The classic tent design of the 1980’s was surely the Terra Nova Quasar, a geodesic design. They are fully free-standing and only need pegs to stop them blowing away, not to hold them up / in shape. I’ve pitched one on volcanic ash in Iceland, a material so lacking in cohesion that it is worse than dry sand. We tied ours to our mountain bikes and to rocks for security since the ground had all the holding capacity of candyfloss.

Hilleberg Tara pitched on volcanic ash in Iceland

Hilleberg Tara pitched on volcanic ash in Iceland

You would not choose to carry a geodesic tent in your pack unless you really had to (TN Quasar weighs 3.5 kg, Hilleberg Tarra weighs 4.3 kg) but carrying a semi-geodesic tent for a winter wild-camp is a practical option.  For example, the TN Voyager weighs in at 2.2 kg. But if you want a base-camp tent which you know will stand up to anything, a geodesic tent would be an excellent investment. Most have two entrances, meaning either two of you can get out of the weather at the same time, or at other times you can opt to enter / exit / cook at the leeward end with your wet gear / boots all stored in the other porch.

TN Voyager

TN Voyager, a classic semi-geodesic design

Pro’s : The strongest tent design yet made; Geodesic tents offer offer as large an area of excellent headroom as tunnel tents. Semi geodesic designs have a lower area of good headroom; Quiet in the wind; Handle snow very well; Free-standing; Most geodesics have two entrances; Full five season capability.

Con’s : Heavy (semi geodesics less so); Expensive.  Slower to pitch compared to other designs.

Pitching Method – inner or outer first?

Of almost as much importance as the design / structural shape of a tent is whether it pitches inner or outer first. Depending on your preference you can find most of the above design types available in either form simply by choosing a manufacturer with that bias. For use in the UK I  actively favour an ‘outer first’ pitch system.  Trying to pitch an ‘inner first’ tent in heavy rain either means a wet inner or feeding in the poles blind with the fly resting over the top of what you are trying to erect. There is a reason why key hole surgery is a specialist field!  Additionally most outer first systems offer the option to pitch all in one which is very fast.  All this said, when it comes to striking camp is is likely that you will have some condensation on the fly which will transfer to the inner if you drop both skins together.  There is no reason why you should not drop the inner separately to the fly if you see this as a problem.  My experience is that the condensation that soaks into the inner tent dries out in 30 min post re-pitch.  That will be aided by the water repellent finish on my inner tent which is not something used by all tent manufacturers.

In warmer drier countries I can see that being able to readily pitch just the inner as insect protection might be just what you need. Living and travelling in Europe and having owned both styles, today I would always opt for outer first. However, if you review the market you will find that the majority of tents pitch inner first, and I guess this comes down to cost. Adding strong clips or water tight pole sleeves to a flysheet is more expensive than sewing mesh sleeves to an inner tent. Most Scandinavian tents pitch outer first or all in one, but for one of these you will need deeper pockets.

Single or double skin?

With the advent of breathable waterproof membranes came the availability of robust single skin tents. For me this seems to be a concept whose time window has passed. Now that materials technology has brought us two skin tents which are lighter than single skin models and designs which allow two skin tents to be pitched all-in-one I cannot help but feel that breathable membrane tents have been superseded.  Ultralight ‘fly only’ tents need to let the wind pass through them if heavy condensation is to be avoided and as such are really more of modified tarp than a tent.  They certainly have their place but it is more niche than mainstream.

Other things to consider

Once you have decided which design type looks like working best for you there is no substitute to seeing a tent ‘in the flesh’ before you make a purchase.  Good retailers will have space to pitch the tents inside the shop for you to take a good look at.  As well as assessing for size look also for the build quality especially the stitching.  Consider also the position of the guys and how they are anchored to the tent.  The attachment points should be strengthened and most of them should be attached to a seam as the ideal arrangement of the main guys of any tent should be running out in line with the flysheet seams.  If there is a big area of fabric between the poles on the rear of the tent it’s can be good to have a guy in the middle of the face of the fabric at this point, but the vast majority of the guys should be on the seams.  Some five 4 / 5 season tents allow the guying points to be wrapped around the poles for greater strength still, thus spreading the load still further.

Ventilation is important too.  Except for winter use it is best there is a gap between the fly and the ground and the ability to vent at a high point on the tent too – this allows convection to draw air through the gap between the fly and the inner and keep any condensation to the minimum.  Look at the design of the high vent on the tent, good designs allow for the high vent/s to be left open even in the rain.

Conclusions

To cover the topic of tent fabrics will take a lot of research so I’ve not included that within this initial article.  Once I’ve done the necessary research I plan to publish an article on fabrics here.  In this article I aimed my focus was to pull together was a comprehensive guide to the different structural designs available. I hope now that you can see that no one tent design is ideal for all uses. It’s up to the user to decide which features they value the most for the locations and seasons they plan to camp. But whilst each design has it’s strengths, the advent of the flexible aluminium pole has largely resigned ridge and pyramid tents to history unless you are an ultralight tarp camper. Tents that rely on the strength of their fabric more than that of their poles will be more expensive than a like for like pole-centric design.  But they can be excellent if your budget can stretch that far.

If I could choose only one tent what would it be?  It would certainly need to pitch outer first.  As for the structure I think it would be a dome tent like the Hilleberg Rogen or possibly a Y-Hub Terra Nova Southern Cross 2. These two designs offer a good compromise of strength vs. weight vs. headroom.  As it is I am fortunate to own more than one tent.  I have chosen a single hoop tunnel for the better months and a semi-geodesic for wilder or winter conditions.

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I’d love to hear about your favourite tents (be that current or historical) in the comments section below.  Also any additional pros and cons for the Y-Hub design, the one type for which I don’t have personal experience.  Is there a design class I have missed?  If so tell me about it so I can add it to the second edition!

7 thoughts on “Backpacking Tents – A Comprehensive Design Review

  1. Excellent article – I particularly liked your triangle. I have a very old (15+years old) two man Coleman Cobra which is still doing great service. It’s disadvantages are weight and inner pitch first but it is very sturdy and above all has some very happy memories to it. If it comes time to retire (the tent) I will take your advice into consideration

  2. Pingback: Tent Fabrics – an objective summary of the 21st century options | weston.front

  3. Pingback: Hilleberg Enan – long term review | weston.front

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