Hilleberg Rogen – a review

This is my initial review of the Hilleberg Rogen, a two (and a half) pole dome tent, designed for three season use by two adults. I’ve had searches set on several second had sale sites for over 18 months and finally I bagged a pre-loved Rogen which had (it was claimed) only been used once.

User Requirements Specification (URS)

No tent is perfect for all conditions and all duties, that is why there are so many designs out there. My requirement was for a light weight, yet robust, two man tent to use for mini adventures with my son (8 yrs) or when I go wild walking with a friend. It needed to be capable of handling being pitched on an exposed fell top and have enough porch space for the wet gear and rucksacks from two adults.

My personal preference (based on too many years experience) was for tent where the door was on the long side and not the short side / end as this enables you to sit up in your sleeping bag and cook. Also when you have two people it’s easier for both to sit in the doorway to admire the view. Porch space is very important to me and experience suggests to me that around 0.7 m2 per person is ideal.

So how is it shaping up against my requirements?

Space (Score 5 /5)

The Rogen feels like a Tardis. Being a dome it has an excellent area of good headroom. The long sides of the inner are vertical because of the two porches and each porch is a generous 1.0 m2. On a recent trip we comfortably sat three people for evening drinks, there would have been room for a couple more too. There is space for a 55 L rucksack, boots, waterproofs and cooking gear in each porch. With cooking gear put to one side each of you can enter through your own door so you can get in quickly should it be cold or raining. I’m 5’11” (180 cm) and there is 30-40 cm spare at my feet (or head) to store clothes overnight. There is a good sized pocket on each side too for phone, GPS, matches etc.

The roof pole helps to make the best use of the internal space. It gives rise to eaves on each porch which help protect from rain when you have the outer door/s open.

When I was last out in it there were periodic short showers and I was sat in the porch cooking and kept completely dry despite the door being open. Further, the eaves give rise to a steeper door angle which means you can maximise the usefulness of the massive porches. (I could sit wholly in the porch and cook with two further people in the inner tent, not bad for a 2.1 kg structure.)

Ease of pitching. (Score 4/5)

The first point to note is that the Rogen pitches fly first or all in one. I find this the most practical option for British weather. Sometimes outer first tents have a rather loose, flacid inner, but not so in this case because it is a dome structure. This is the first tent I’ve had with ‘roof pole’ and so far I’ve found this OK to insert but challenging to remove when striking the tent. I’m hoping I’ll get used to this with time. The single ended pole sleeves make putting the two main poles in a breeze and the tent can be pitched by just one person, even in a moderate wind. Striking it is far easier with two if it’s windy, but then it is a two man tent.

Weather worthiness (Too early to rate)

So far I’ve only spent three nights in the Rogen. I can say that it stood up very well to 30 mph winds in an exposed position. In such winds it makes sense to make use of the extra guy points on the porch and it’s a shame it doesn’t come with spare guys for this purpose. My other Hilleberg tents with Kerlon 1000 fabric have never let in a drop of rain. The Rogen has more seams than many tents and the potential for water to pool on the top leaward end of the tent so time will tell. The design is very similar and fabrics identical to the Niak which this tent replaces and I owned for several years. I was dry and secure in both very wet and very windy  weather without the Niak missing a beat, so this bodes well. The Rogen also boasts waterproof zips on the doors.

Ventilation / Condensation ( 4 / 5 so far…)

If people have cause to complain about Hilleberg tents it’s normally about condensation. Let’s first consider the fly; The Rogen flysheet does not come down to the ground but instead has a catenary cut design – the bottom of the fly curves up between the pole ends.

As noted above, I bought the Rogen to gain more porch space on my old Niak which has the same catenary fly design. I found the Niak to perform excellently wrt condensation over a range of conditions and an improvement on my previous Terra Nova Solar 2 and my current Soulo. I’ve only used the Rogen for three nights so far and so long as the wind was not totally absent I’ve not experienced any condensation at all. That said, no tent will be condensation free in all conditions. Because the design has two doors this allows for a cross breeze to be set up. To aid this I would recommend carrying two clothes pegs so that when you open the zip at the top of each door you can force the gap to be wider.

 

Internally each door is 100% mesh which allows for excellent inner tent ventilation. The steep walls should also reduce your breath condensing on the inner on cold nights. Finally the DWR finish on the inner means that should you re-pitch it damp, on day n+1 of your walk, it will dry out* in around 20 minutes.

*The higher the contact angle of a material, the faster it will dry.

Pitch Flexibility (Score 5 / 5)

The design is asymmetric. Whilst this does not make the tent very photogenic it does impart significant practicality. The flysheet door is divided into a wide and narrow section and you can choose which is the fixed section and which becomes the opening ‘door’ depending on the conditions. Combine this with the dual entrances and you can always have a leeward entrance / protected outside cooking area. It is easy to swap the pegging point for each door so if the conditions change you can change the set up in seconds. Ideally you would pitch with one of the narrow ends into the wind, but given the size of the porches, if the wind moves around in the night there is plenty of space between inner and fly on the long side to handle this. I will be adding an extra guy (or two) to my kit to tie out the windward porch. Two tie on points are there for this purpose.

Weight vs. Robustness (Score 5/5)

The Rogen weighs 2.10 kg. This is not the lightest two man, dual entrance tent on the market but neither is it the heaviest:

  • MSR Hubba Hubba – 1.72 kg

  • Vango F10 Krypton UL 2 – 2.01 kg

  • Nordisk Telemark 2.2 – 2.2 kg

  • Terra Nova Pioneer 2 – 2.15 kg

  • Terra Nova Southern Cross 2 – 2.29 kg

If your URS is the same as mine then the MSR Hubba Hubba is certainly something to consider. The Rogen has a 50 Denier groundsheet and the MSR is 30 Denier so you should probably consider the weight of a footprint if you plan to wild camp with the latter which adds another 220 g. MSR tents tend to be like Marmite – some people love them, others criticise the robustness of the materials they choose to keep their weight / cost down. I’m keeping out of that debate.

I’ve long felt that Hilleberg’s yellow label (lightest weight) range gets the balance between weight and robustness just right if you are a regular / frequent wild camper. I’ve used by Enan for over 40 nights in the last two years and before that my Niak in some tough conditions, never suffered any damage and always sleep securely because of the confidence in my shelter.

Summary

I look forward to being able to write a long term review in 12-18 months time because I am really keen to use this tent for two person adventures. It remind me of a modern version of my Phazor Dome – for those old enough to remember this design – however because of the Kerlon fabric you have all the space of a base camp tent in one easily light enough to carry. I do find the roof pole hard to get out when it’s windy, but hopefully that is something I will get the knack of with time. My biggest complaint would be the price, currently £1030. When you can buy a Hubba Hubba for £440 or a Telemark 2.2 LW for £540 it’s hard to justify the additional cost unless you are a heavy user or have deep pockets. I was pleased to buy mine second hand, but I had to wait for 18 months for one to come up for sale – either because people love them too much to want to sell on, or more likely because of the price when new.

I’ve been fortunate to try many tent designs over the past 35 years, many of which I got to borrow rather than buy and have a strong preference for the dome design for three season use. The Rogen is an extremely well designed and manufactured example of this construction which thus far seems even better in use than it appeared on paper.

Hilleberg Enan – long term review

I’ve now owned my Enan for just over a year. It was bought originally just ahead of the initial lockdown relaxations in the summer of 2020. Now 16 months on I’ve used it for 20 nights in a wide range of weather conditions and temperatures. Now I think I have the evidence and experience to give it a proper review.

User Requirements Specification

No tent is perfect for all conditions and all duties, that is why there are so many designs out there. I bought the Enan as a lightweight, three season backpacking / wild-camping tent which would shelter me against anything other than snow and storm force winds, I have a Soulo for that duty. So how has it shaped up against my requirements?

Space (Score 4½ /5)

I am 5’ 11” and the length and height of the inner works very well for me. In terms of height, there is just enough for me. If you were above 6’1” you might find the headroom too limited, but for me it’s just fine even when sat on my new 50 mm thick Thermarest. The length for sleeping is generous and allows me to sleep with my feet at one extreme end and still have around 300 mm of length above my head. This allows me to have my face at a point where the ceiling is higher meaning no issues with claustrophobia. In wild weather I put my jacket around the foot of my sleeping bag as a guard against any condensation transfer, but I’ve not yet seen more than a few drops on my jacket but I’ll keep doing this as a great protection against cold feet.

Pitched behind The Crown in Shap on the Coast to Coast

The porch space is generous allowing me to put my boots and 55 L pack and any wet waterproofs in the ‘closed’ half leaving space for all my food, water bottles and cooking gear in the ‘open’ half. Having a porch to allow this is important to me and one reason I moved on from my previous Niak to the Enan. I could not commend cooking with the door closed, but should you choose to do so, you would find you have plenty of room to make a cup of tea from bed.

Ease of pitching (Score 5/5)

I’ve been a life long sceptic concerning tunnel tents, I’ve never liked that they rely on their pegs for structural stability. But that is a theoretical concern and not something I’ve found to be a problem in the reality of actual use. And if I need extra assurance, I double peg (details here) my longitudinal guy lines. The big pro with the tunnel design is that pitching is both fast and trivially easy. This is of especial importance in a solo tent and one I wish to pitch on fell tops in the wind. The fact that the inner and outer go up together speeds the process up yet further. When it comes to striking camp, Hilleberg’s practice of slightly over-sizing their tent bags makes it trivial to pack away even when wet.

Weather worthiness (Score 5 / 5)

So far I’ve had this tent out in 40 mph winds on an exposed fell top, in heavy rain on the North Yorkshire Moors, in calm warm weather all around NW England, during hot summer nights in the Lake District and even in winter temperatures down to -7C. The ventilation on this tent comes from two mesh ‘ends’ not by passing underneath the fly. These mesh ends are inclined steeper than vertical so no rain run off ever enters them.

These can be covered in the event of really foul weather, but so far I’ve only needed to use these covers once. I cannot speak of how it holds out in torrential rain but I found my Niak to be faultless in the foulest weather possible and this used the same fabrics and same seam construction technique. Remember that this is a three season tent, and I’d consider it fully capable of anything within that weather envelope. I’d not want to pitch it in an exposed position in 60 mph winds as has just one pole, but if I were to encounter such weather I’d seek an sheltered position, as indeed I did when I walked the Cleveland Way last autumn.

It is important to pitch it correctly vs. the wind direction, both for strength and ventilation. If the wind moves around during the night the rain will still be kept safely outside, it’s just that you will see more condensation on the inner of the fly on a cold night. And on that topic…

Ventilation / Condensation ( 3 ½ / 5)

If people have cause to complain about Hilleberg tents it’s normally either about condensation or the price! With the Enan the amount of condensation depends strongly on the conditions and I can only compare against other tents in Spring / Summer conditions as up until recently I’ve not camped frequently through the winter months, well not since the 1980’s!

With night time temperatures in the 10-14 C range I’ve experienced either extremely little or no condensation with wind speed determining the difference. When the temperature drops to 5-10 C and the wind is light then a modest level of condensation formed, even with the top of the door open as well as the end vents. Comparable with Terra Nova and Vango tents which I’ve owned. When I do see heavy condensation is at sub zero temperatures when I seem always to get a good skin of ice on the inside of the fly, even with a 20 mph wind. At -7 C I got the most modest amount of condensation (ice) on the inner directly above my head, the immediate condensation of my breath; the only time I’ve seen condensation on the inner itself.  The inner door is 100% mesh, but because that mesh is perpendicular to the airflow through the tent it doesn’t less in excessive drafts and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the tent is in winter temperatures even with a good wind blowing.

Moon rising over the Calder valley

Moon rising over the Enan

From this I conclude that the condensation issues often talked about in connection with the Akto have been largely – but not totally – solved by the end vents of the Enan. What could make it even better would have been if Hilleberg had included the same design of vent cover at the top of the door so that this could be opened more widely (The Akto has two zips at the top so you can open a segment not strip a narrow strip). This should encourage a chimney effect. I have adopted a low tech clothes peg solution! (see RHS). But is this condensation actually a problem? It is modest enough to mean you never get anywhere even close to it dripping on you. Also the DWR finish on the inner means that when you re-pitch it damp, on day n+1 of your walk that it dries out* in around 20 minutes. I guess the aspect you might choose to take issue with is the additional weight of that water which you are lugging with you after a cold night. I imagine it could easily be in the 100-200 g range. I know I observed much less condensation in the Niak at similar temperatures but this might simply be down the higher volume. My summary would be that it was not a problem, and is probably no worse than any other tent of the same size.

Footprint (Score 5 / 5)

As a solo tent which is not oversized, the footprint is small and I’ve been able to pitch the tent in the tightest of spots. Given my newfound love of wild camping this is an excellent characteristic.

Weight vs. Robustness (Score 4/5)

The Enan weighs 1.2 kg. For those of us who can remember carrying half of a 7 kg Vango Force 10 that’s amazing! There are lighter tents out there, but they either compromise on robustness or space. If you were to consider the Robustness : Weight ratio I’d say the Enan was at the top of its class. I could have a TN Laser at 1.0 kg but would have less ventilation and a pole sleeve cover to faff about with. I could have a Nordisk at 700 g and not be able to sit up, or I could have a Cuben Fibre tent which I might have to accept needing to repair once or twice a year. I think the only design out there which would give me the space, strength (when new) and stability would be the MSR Hubba NX but I bet I’d not get 10 years of hard use out of an MSR tent. If anyone would like to lend me one to try and review then I’d give it a go and let you know how it compares!

Summary

I love my Enan. It’s got nicely more than the bare minimum amount of space and is comfortable for solo touring for a week. It is both trivially easy and quick to pitch and strike. It stands up to the wind better than I imagined (sound at 40 mph, probably not good at >50 mph), better still if you add two additional guys to the ready-for-use guying points on the windward end. It comes with good pegs that stay where you place them. You can sleep soundly with the assurance that it will definitely keep the weather out, even if that’s wind driven heavy rain. If no snow is forecast it’s comfortable in sub zero winter conditions. It’s not the lightest solo tent on the market, but I think Hilleberg have got the robustness : weight ratio spot on. If I wanted to loose 400 g from my pack weight that would be better lost from the pack animal than the tent! I think it’s only weakness is the lack of a hood / cover over the top of the door to improve the weatherproof venting a little further.

Overall score comes in 27/30 – making me a happy wild camper!

*The higher the contact angle of a material, the faster it will dry.

Tent Fabrics – an objective summary of the 21st century options

MSR Wet fabric - header

Having written a comprehensive review of tent design, several people asked if I could write something similar about tent fabrics. This was a subject, at the outset, which I knew rather less about. However having spend eight years as a material scientist working with powders I have been pleasantly surprised how this skill set has transferred and been valuable when reading around the topic of tent fabrics. As with my original article my aim is to present the facts objectively and without bias. I am simply a hill walking & backpacking enthusiast of long standing with a background in chemical and material sciences but no professional or financial interest in the tent industry.

Definitions / Glossary

I am going to limit myself to the fabrics used with modern backpacking tents, if you want to know more about cotton canvas, this is not the article for you. Let’s start with some definitions to help you read the tent makers specifications and sift out the facts from the hype.

Denier – This is a comparative measure of the thickness of the fibres from which a fabric is made. It is the mass, in grams, of a 9000 m length of the fibre. The definition stems from the fact the 9000 m of single fibre of silk weighs one gram. If all else is equal, then the higher the denier the stronger the fabric. By definition, higher denier fabrics are heavier. But as we shall come to see, fibres made from different materials have different strengths.

Thread Count – This is the total number of threads (total of vertical and horizontal) within a square inch. Again if all else is equal, the higher the value, the stronger the fabric. Thread count is not universally quoted with tent fabrics.

Tensile strength – the force required to rip a sample when force is applied to opposing ends of the sample. This is a more useful measure than either Denier or Thread Count when comparing tent fabrics.

Specific strength – The tensile strength per unit weight of a material of the same dimensions and critically, thickness.

Ripstop – this is a fabric which periodically has a stronger fibre added into the weave with the aim that any tear be unable to propagate beyond that fibre.

ripstop

HHeadHydrostatic head (HH) – It is measured as a length, representing the maximum height of a vertical column of water that could be placed on top of the fabric before water started seeping through the weave. Whilst a HH of > 3000 mm may seem extreme at the outset, remember that HH is really a measure of pressure and the pressure on a tent fabric can be increased by wind-speed on the fly, or weight applied to the groundsheet.

Coating – a second material applied to the surface of fabric to change its material properties. In the case of tent fabric this is usually something applied to make it waterproof. Whilst historical fabrics such as canvas were intrinsically water resistant, modern fabrics rely on the coatings applied to make them waterproof, both polyester and nylon fabrics are not in themselves waterproof.

Base fabrics

Today’s tents are generally made from one of three fabrics, polyester, nylon or DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabric). Each have their good and bad points. If you are looking for a lightweight backpacking tent in 2021 you will find that most are made from nylon with just a few made from DCF.

PolyesterPolyester has a lower specific strength than nylon, so to be of the same strength it needs to be thicker and thus heavier. Whilst it is slowly degraded by UV light it is less susceptible than nylon. It’s highly significant advantage is that it does not stretch (significantly) when wetted. Traditionally cheaper tents has been made from polyester as the fabric itself is cheaper, but this comes at the cost of extra weight. The main reason it is cheaper is the scale on which it is made for other applications.

Because of it’s lower specific strength the lightest polyester fabric readily available is 20 denier. By contrast, 7-10 denier nylon is common.

Screenshot_2021-01-29 Hilleberg tent materialsNylon has a higher specific strength than polyester, is more flexible / pliable and is thus easier to pack down to a small volume. However, it does stretch when wetted (Nylon 6,6 by 2.5%) and holds more water within its structure and thus gains more weight when wet than polyester. It is also slowly degraded by UV light, but in fairness today’s buyer would be more likely to change their tent because of an improvement in design than due to fabric degradation. Where UV damage is more of an issue is at high altitudes, above 5000 m, where UV light is a stronger component of the light spectrum. This can be mitigated by choosing a fabric colour which absorbs less UV light. Apparently green and brown fabrics should be preferred over red or orange.

DCFDCF, Dyneema Composite Fabric or Cuban Fibre is not strictly a fabric because it is not woven. Now I’d headed the etymologists off at the pass let me tell you what it actually is. It is a non-woven mat of UHMWPE (a type of polyethylene) sandwiched between two layers of polyester film. Typical of all composite materials it marries the qualities of two materials , the UHMWPE is a very strong but flexible fibre and the polyester film is both waterproof and water impermeable. A very similar composite material called Ultra is now being used for some tents made by Terra Nova.

The specific strength of DCF / Ultra is far higher than polyester or nylon fabrics. So for comparable strength DCF can be significantly thinner and approx. 35% lighter for the same strength. It does not stretch when wetted as it does not absorb any water at all. Thus it both dries quickly and does not get significantly heavier when wet. It does not stretch under strain either so anchor points have to be stronger as they take all the force, it is not dissipated across the body of the fabric. DCF seams are commonly bonded rather than sewn, eliminating any need for seam sealing.

So is DCF / Ultra the fabric of our dreams? That depends on your application and your budget. It is considerably more expensive that Si-nylon (200-300%) and whilst it has a very high tear strength, because of it’s nature and thickness (or the lack thereof) it is far more easily punctured than the other options. It also has a lower abrasion resistance because it is a film rather than a fabric. It can be very easily field repaired, but that is likely to be required more often than you might hope.

Fabric coating options

Both polyester and nylon need to be coated to make them waterproof, DCF does not. The same coating options exist for both.

Polyurethane (PU) coating

This is usually applied to the inside of the fabric and bonds to it’s surface. A significant benefit is that seam tape can be stuck to the PU and thus the seams can be readily sealed. PU hydrolyses with time (reacts with water to break down) and this will eventually cause it to delaminate and fail. That said my Si coated / PU lined Solar 2 flysheet lasted 15 years before it started to fail.

Silicone coating

Silicone coatings soak into the weave of the fabric and actually increase it’s strength. This is true for both polyester and nylon. They are far more chemically stable than PU and thus have a greater lifetime. The only downside is that because of their ‘slippery’ nature they cannot accept seam tape*. Brush-on seam sealant is available but is usually expected to be applied by the buyer rather than the manufacturer. Some tent manufactures overcome the seam issue by designing the seam positions to reduce the water loading onto the seam. Hilleberg uses specially cooled needles for flysheet seam sewing which leads to holes small enough not to allow water to pass through them.

*Thanks to recent development work at Vaude a way to apply seam tape to Si-Nylon has been developed, but is currently (Feb-20) unique to them.  In parallel with this they have also started offering bonded rather than stitched seams on a couple of their flysheets which they describe as seamless.  A bonded seam does not, in theory require secondary sealing it should be fundamentally water tight.

Silicone coatings are more expensive than PU as you might imagine, and designing out the seam issue comes also at an added cost. However, if your budget allows, silicone is the superior coating because it adds strength, allowing for lighter base fabrics and has a longer service life.

Dual coatings

Some manufacturers apply PU to the inside of the flysheet and silicone to the outside. I’ve read extensively and can see only one reason why this might be considered technically superior. That is that it allows for factory seam taping. I cannot help but think that the primary driver is cost.

Practical considerations

The groundsheet of a tent needs to be more robust that the fly and this is achieved by both higher denier fabric and the application of a greater number of layers of waterproof coating. The groundsheet does not need to have a 5-10 meter hydrostatic head for the purpose of keeping the water out, but this comes as a bonus once you’ve made your floor robust enough for it’s duty.

The inner tent fabric is something that is little discussed, but experience has taught me that it is advantageous for this to have some form of water repellent coating (DWR). A fabric that wets less easily will dry more quickly (because the water transport coefficient of a material is proportional to contact angle since you asked!) and this can be very handy if you have a damp inner tent because you have packed it next to the condensation left on your fly. I favour ‘all in one’ pitching / striking and find it takes ≤ 20 min for my inner tent to become totally dry post a re-pitch. Having reviewed the websites of a wide range of manufacturers I only found one which claims this feature. Others may offer it, but they certainly don’t shout about it. Perhaps spraying your inner tent with Nikwax Direct would be worthy of consideration?

Conclusions

So what is the best flysheet option? That depends on your planned application and your budget. When choosing a tent I would be guided primarily by design, Unless you are buying a ripped off design made in the Far East you should expect a well designed tent to have an appropriately specified materials. A strong fabric with poorly re-enforced guying points which are badly positioned will not make the most of even the best fabric. Once you have chosen the design that fits your application, then your choice of manufacturer is likely to be primarily influenced by your budget and weight target. It is an eternal truth that less is more! Some manufacturers offer different ranges of the same designs with cheaper heavier models and more expensive light-weight versions.

[] If you are fastidiously careful, want to travel very light and have very deep pockets then you might well consider DCF / Ultra as your tent fabric.

[] If you favour peace of mind and longevity then silicone coated nylon is probably for you.

[] I hope that if you are buying on a budget that this article will allow you to see the strengths & weaknesses of cheaper materials and ensure that your chosen supplier has compensated appropriately. 70D polyester in place of 40D nylon for example. Remember that the lower price is a strength if it is what makes your adventure possible.

Finally, the research behind this article suggests that there is a gap in the market for someone to develop a stronger low denier polyester fabric. There are a couple of niche manufacturers who offer 20D Si-polyester based flysheets (TrekkerTent, The Tent Lab) which may offer you the sweet-spot between weight, strength and a nice taut pitch.

MSR Wet fabric - header

 

Double Pegging

Double pegging / back staking

I am indebted to Shamus McCaffery for reminding me of a technique I used when staking out the summer fete marquee’s when I was a Scout some 30+ years ago.  That is to ‘back stake’ a peg with a second peg.  He nicely demonstrated that it more the doubles the force required to pull a peg out from the ground by a simulated guy line.  A quick shake of the internet suggests that whilst this method is still common with marquee pitching it is not commonly spoken about within the backpacking community.   It’s a cheap, simple and effective solution as you just need a couple of extra generic V pegs.

It works most easily if you have a cord loop on your pegs, if you don’t then most pegs made in the last five years can have cord added.

The one thing I’d add is from recent experience is that this method isn’t just good for guys, it is also ideal for your first two peg placements when you are pitching solo in a strong wind.  Even if you don’t carry spare pegs, at this point you will have plenty.  Then, once you have most of your pegs in place the load will be shared across them and, if necessary, the initial back stakes can be removed and used elsewhere.  I wish I’d thought of this ahead of my Storm Bella test pitch, but both you (dear reader) and I will know for next time.

Soulo

Trusty Soulo at the top of Buckden Pike

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!