Hiking Tents 101: What makes a quality tent?


Tent construction, materials, waterproof ratings and pole configurations

Quality camping tents. What makes a quality tent good quality?

When you walk into our tent showroom, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. There are so many tents, and they all look very similar! Then, you look at a price tag. And, you might wonder how our tents are different from $89 deals you might find at a discount shop.

In this article, we explain…

  • common pole configurations found in outdoor tents;
  • tent waterproofness and how it’s calculated;
  • why you might choose to get a tent footprint;
  • what determines the strength of a tent design;
  • common fly fabrics and treatments;
  • denier – what it is, and what it measures;
  • differences between four-season and three-season tents;
  • what you need to know about tent weights;
  • cheap vs. expensive – why some tents are more expensive than others.

Tent Pole Configurations

Two common pole configurations found in camping tents are TUNNEL designs and CROSS-POLE designs.

Tunnel Tents, historically, have the best strength-to-weight-to-space ratio. This means that for their weight, they offer a lot of space. Also, they perform the best in inclement weather (because they’re designed to move with the forces of bad weather).

The main disadvantage of a tunnel tent is that it’s entirely reliant on pegging for its structure. That means, you have to be good at pitching a tent properly, in order for it to perform well. You also need to be camped in a spot where you can actually get pegs into the ground (e.g. not a completely rocky surface).

Cross-pole (e.g. dome) tents are easy to pitch. Pitching a cross-pole tent (such as a dome tent) requires no finesse. Also, cross-pole designs in two-person tents are nicer functionally: in a cross-pole design, it’s easier to include two large entryways (one for each person, so that you’re not climbing on top of each other to get in and out of the tent), and generally the style allows for bigger vestibule spaces.

The main disadvantage of a cross-pole tent is that it’s designed to sit solid in the wind. And, a tent, ultimately, is never going to be stronger than the strongest wind. (By comparison, tunnel tents move with the wind instead of against it, and are therefore more likely to stay put in high winds.)

Hybrid tents: Nowadays, tent manufacturers are bridging the gap between tunnel tents and cross-pole tents. This is achieved with various new-fangled fabrics and pole configurations. One great example is the Exped Venus II, which is a tunnel tent that functions as a cross-pole tent: the Venus II has two large entrances for each person and good vestibule space on both sides; yet it offers the strength of a tunnel design.

Note: ‘Free-standing’ tents are, technically speaking, a mythical beast – almost all tents require pegging. Most cross-pole or dome tents that are advertised as ‘free-standing’ are actually semi-freestanding (with the exception of the Wilderness Equipment i-Explore).

Tent Waterproofness

When it comes to determining how waterproof a tent is, the important figure you need to pay attention to is the waterproof rating in the tent FLOOR MATERIAL.

Tent manufacturers provide a rating based on a hydrostatic test or water column test. This is a test in which a column is placed on top of a swatch of tent floor fabric. The amount of water the fabric can hold in the column (measured by the number of millimetres on the column) before water intrudes through the fabric is its rating (e.g. 10,000mm).

At Bogong Equipment, our preference is to stock tents with floors rated at 5000mm+. This is our benchmark, which we’ve determined from our own experience. In fact, ideally, all our tents would be 10,000mm+. However, we do stock special exceptions; such as the Mira I HL Tent, which is an ideal option if you need an incredibly light one-person tent that you’re not going to use in a wet environment (e.g. soft, muddy ground) – its floor is rated at just 1500mm.

Of course, there are other components that contribute to the ‘waterproofness’ of a tent. For example, you might wonder about the tent fly. In our experience, it’s not worth worrying too much about the waterproof rating in your tent fly. Why? Because most of them – particularly the tents that we stock – are waterproof enough for the ‘real world’.

Tent fly fabric doesn’t need to be extremely waterproof, because it doesn’t have to handle the same amount of pressure that a tent floor does (e.g. you won’t be kneeling on your tent fly) – the tent fly only has to deal with falling rain. What’s more, if tent fly fabric is tensioned, rain just bounces off it. (Think of how rain bounces off even crappy umbrella fabrics with very low waterproof ratings.)

So, it’s not the tent fly fabric, but the tent floor fabric that you should pay most attention to. Bear in mind, tent floors are only as waterproof as one pin-prick hole. Luckily, holes are easy to fix.

Tent Footprints

This brings us to tent footprints. What is a tent footprint? A tent footprint is a piece of fabric that you place underneath your tent, which is usually sold separately from the tent itself.

What a tent footprint is not for: You shouldn’t need to buy a tent footprint to make your floor waterproof. (The tent floor itself should be waterproof.)

At Bogong Equipment, in most cases, we recommend buying a footprint to protect your tent floor from abrasion. When it comes to sharp sticks and rocks, a tent footprint isn’t going to protect your floor. (Instead, you’ll need to be savvy and careful about where you pitch your tent, to avoid those.)

What a tent footprint does protect your tent floor from is longterm wearing down. Over time, without a tent footprint, your tent floor will get chewed up from many years of abrasion against the rough ground.

Remember: Tent floors can’t be replaced, but footprints can be. You can easily buy a new footprint (and, it’ll be a lot cheaper than a new tent!). Getting a footprint, therefore, extends the life of your tent.

Tent Strength

What makes a tent strong? Mainly, it comes down to…

  1. pole quality;
  2. pole configuration;
  3. material choice.

Tent pole quality

There are poles and there are poles. Good tent manufacturers use only the highest quality poles. For example, Montuses poles made by a company called DAC, in South Korea. DAC’s poles a exceptionally strong, lightweight and are engineered precisely and to DAC’s market-leading environmental standards.

Tent pole configuration

We talked about this earlier. To recap: Tunnel tents tend to be the strongest (they move with the weather). Cross-pole (e.g. dome) tents are less strong (they’re designed to sit solid against the weather).

Nowadays, there are lots of ‘hybrid’ tents. In fact, many of the tents in our range are hybrid designs, or modified tunnel designs, or modified cross-pole designs: for example, the Exped Venus II, which is a tunnel tent, with cross-pole elements (the Venus II design is referred to as a ridge pole designsometimes). Likewise, the Mont Moondance II tent is a cross-pole design, but not in the traditional sense – its main pole has hub systems, allowing for more internal space with fewer poles (in order to cut weight).

Tent Materials

Nylon vs. Polyester
Nylon is stronger than polyester. However, polyester holds less water than nylon, which means it doesn’t sag as much when wet. Polyester also has better UV tolerance.

A siliconised fly is one made of fabric with a silicone coating. A tent fly can also be coated in PU (polyurethane) or PE (polyether).

Denier is a unit of measurement that refers to the mass (in grams) of 9000 metres of a fibre. So, the higher the denier, the heavier the fibre. However, because fibres can be woven at different densities (e.g. tighter, looser weave), higher denier does NOT necessarily mean heavier fabric. That, said, the higher the denier, the more durable and thicker the fabric tends to be.

Mesh vs. Full Fabric Inner
Usually (but, not always), people opt for a full fabric inners in a 4-season tent and a mesh fabric inner in a 3-season tent. However, there are reasons why you might deviate from this convention. For example, if you tend to camp in really dusty environments (e.g. Western Australia, where there’s lots of fine, red dust), a full-fabric inner keeps dust out. Whereas, a mesh inner – although capable of allowing more airflow inside the tent – tends to trap dust.

Likewise, a full fabric inner isn’t necessary in a cold environment. Your sleeping bag (as opposed to your tent) does the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to keeping you warm. Your tent, by comparison, provides shelter. A full fabric inner can increase the temperature of the air inside your tent overnight as it captures some of your body warmth in the tent inner. Full fabric inners also help protect from splash-back in driving rain around the edges of the fly and give extra protection from moisture under the fly from condensation or minor leaks.

4-Season Tents Vs. 3-Season Tents

4-Season Tents

  • Stronger pole design (to cope with wind and snow loading).
  • More space (generally), due to the likelyhood that you’ll have bigger sleeping bags and are likely to be tent-bound for longer.
  • Tend to have a full-fabric inner.

3-Season Tents

  • Tend to be lighter.
  • Tend to have a mesh inner.
  • Not as strong, but still sufficiently strong for most conditions.

Why doesn’t everyone get a 4-season tent, then, you ask?
The stronger the tent, the heavier it’s likely to be. (This is because a stronger tent requires more poles. Plus, the poles themselves are more robust.) Why doesn’t everyone get a Mont Epoch? Because a Mont Epoch weighs 3.63kg. That’s light for the type of tent it is (that is, an expedition tent designed for very extreme conditions). But, maybe you’re not likely to go to places where you’re going to experience extraordinarily bad conditions. In which case, it makes much more sense to opt for a 3–4 season tent that’s likely to not only be cheaper, but also lighter. (For example, the Mont Moondance II (Full Nylon Inner Version) is a two-person, 3–4 season tent that weighs just 2.13kg.)

Tent Weights

The main thing you need to know about tent weights is that different manufacturers and different stores define tent weights differently.

Here’s how: Tents are made up of several components – fly, inner, tent poles, pegs, a bag for the whole tent, a bag for the pegs, guy ropes, any extra bits and bobs, etc.

Not all of these components are included in all manufacturers’ definitions of ‘tent weight’. (This is why some tents seem to have impossibly low weights.) For instance, some manufacturers in their ‘tent weight’ might only include the fly, inner and tent poles. However, in reality, you’re going to need to carry pegs.

That’s why, at Bogong Equipment, we’ve come up with ‘The Bogong Weight’. We take all the components we believe are the minimum required for camping in good conditions and we weigh them ourselves.

The Bogong Weight includes…

  • Fly
  • Inner
  • Poles
  • Tent bag
  • Pole bag
  • Peg bag
  • 6 x pegs

We weigh all our tents this way. Doing this helps give us an even comparison across our range – so that you can make the right choice.

If you want a lighter tent…
There are two main ways a manufacturer can make a tent lighter:

  • Use lighter materials;
  • Use less material.

You’ll find that when you’re choosing a tent, there will be trade-offs, inevitably. And, it’s very likely you’ll need to make a decision that involves compromise.

Cheap vs. Expensive

By now, you’ll get the idea: better quality materials, better quality manufacture, lower weight, stronger designs… all these amount to more expensive tents.

At Bogong, we try to cater for all budgets. Some of our less expensive tents have simpler pole configurations, or might be a bit heavier, for instance.

However, we like to offer only tents that will hold up and actually perform in the outdoors, which is why we only stock the best quality tents from trusted brands.

Contributed by Bogong Equipment

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