Once upon a time all tents were well – not to put too fine a point on it – tent shaped. They had a pole at each end and sometimes a cross pole called a ridge holding up a tent-shaped roof: Hence the name ‘ridge tent’.
Ridge tents are remarkably stable and range from tiny one-person tents right up to large marquees. They are easy to pitch and still make excellent shelters today.
Their main disadvantage is in head height – even in the largest units there’s limited height in most of the tent. This doesn’t matter when you’re using the tent purely for sleeping, but makes it less than ideal for a family holiday in the rain if you can’t walk around inside.
You’ll see plenty of flexible pole tents on site today. The basic shape bends a flexible pole into a half circle with both ends fixed to a strong tape or webbing strap running across the base of the tent, often as part of the groundsheet.
Two flexible poles crossing in the middle give a square dome, three poles a hexagon. The sides are more vertical so overall headroom is better across a wider floor area. Stability is good in smaller models but, unlike the ridge tent, domes can get less stable as they scale up in size.
Geodesic and semi-geodesic
The term geodesic is a mathematical one. Originally a ‘geodesic’ line was the shortest route between two points on earth. Nowadays, it’s used to describe a tent where the poles criss-cross over the surface, intersecting to form triangles. This distributes the stress across the structure, making it the most stable type of tent for extreme weather conditions. If you climb Everest, chances are that you will want to take a geodesic tent with you.
Semi-geodesic tents use similar principles but generally fewer poles for slightly less extreme conditions. Nevertheless, they are still normally produced in small sizes for those who are likely to pitch them on mountains or in windy, exposed terrain.
Instant or quick-pitch tents
Instant tents are made by a number of suppliers and are the latest in a range of tents that really do erect themselves.
A long, coiled, sprung frame is permanently fitted into the fabric of the tent. By twisting the frame, the tent becomes a circular package.
Unleash the spring – in some cases you can do this dramatically by throwing the whole tent into the air – and the sprung frame turns the fabric bag into a remarkably elegant and practical shelter.
A short time ago we’d have said that these tents were really only suitable for good weather conditions, but recent developments have made some much more robust – complete with inner tents and sleeping space for as many as five people.
However, many are still best kept for a night or two at a festival or for the children to put up themselves while you put up the main family tent.
Despite the fact they’re quite rare, most people seem to have heard of inflatable tents. Inflatable tents can be expensive and surprisingly heavy.
However, when you see an inflatable tent turn up on site, watch the proud owner simply peg out the corners, switch the compressor on and sit back to watch the tent erect itself in just a few minutes you’ll understand the attraction of inflatables.
The Khyam system
The best known and the longest-established of the ‘instant tents’ are those from manufacturer Khyam, whose large range of tents has been on the market for more than a decade.
The system is based on a simple sprung ‘knuckle’ or elbow joint. This can hold a flexible pole straight or be ‘broken’ to let the pole bend. The tent skeleton is permanently fitted to the fabric and putting the tent up is as simple as getting it out of its bag and letting the poles fall into the right position. Working round the tent, the poles are straightened using elbow joints to allow the tent to adopt its final shape. Just be careful not to pinch your finger.
Domes don’t necessarily give the largest amount of useable space, so another way of using flexible poles is to bind them into semi-circles and stand them up in a line to create a tunnel tent. Other tunnels use sturdy, rigid poles to form their structure.
These come in a huge variety of sizes and styles and are perhaps the most common form of family tents found on campsites today.
Once domes and tunnels started to grow, tent designers added extra rooms to the basic structure.
The trend started in France where a large central part of the tent would offer standing headroom, and an annexe room off each side would offer two sleeping compartments. These two compartments faced one another. They were face to face, hence the French description vis-à-vis. Vis-à-vis tents can be domes or tunnels and indeed, some of the very first ones were square frame tents.
Some of the largest tents on the market these days are pod-style. They have a central living area with several sleeping areas (‘pods’) leading off, like spokes from the hub of a wheel.
These tents look great in the showroom. In the family setting, children can have their own spaces with good air gaps between and everyone can congregate at the heart of the tent during the day.
However, there are some disadvantages to this style of tent. Apart from the fact that they cover an enormous ground area – many campsites charge extra for such a large footprint, if they allow them on site at all – they also include a larger volume of fabric than an equivalent tunnel tent, making them heavier to transport and generally more challenging to erect.
If you like the pod arrangement but don’t always need all the pods, consider a tent that will allow you to pitch just some of the pods, leaving the extras at home.
Large family tents
Tent designers are coming up with ever more complex designs and scaling up their favourite small tent shapes into bigger family tents.
Scaling up is not always a good idea – not all designs work as well in differing sizes and some very unstable giant domes have been produced.
Generally speaking, tunnels work better in bigger sizes but but they can act effectively as kites if the wind catches them before they are properly pegged out.
Most manufacturers now produce tents that are in a combination of styles and these often work well. For example, you may sleep in a tunnel and have a dome for the living area.
The flexible pole hasn’t done away with the traditional rigid frame tents – these still exist and are popular.
They use a rigid framework of straight poles (usually steel) with angled joints and can still offer lots of space including good headroom, plus stability when properly erected. On the down side, frame tents tend to be heavier and take somewhat longer to put up than other tents.
Sons of the traditional tepee
Single pole tents based on the traditional tepee or even the old-fashioned Scout’s bell tent get more popular all the time so most manufacturers have introduced a tepee or something similar in the last year or so.
Tepees may look great on site, but most don’t have inner tents so are probably best suited for ‘fine weather’ camping or festivals.
However, there are exceptions – the traditional 100 per cent heavy cotton tents used as patrol tents by the Scouts and Guides will withstand pretty much anything the British weather will throw at them.