Gearing up: Buying a Tent for Family Camping
In this occasional series of posts, “Gearing Up”, we share tips, lessons and practical advice on different aspects of planning, organising or carrying out different indie style family adventures. Camping has been a big part of our travel style. It’s simple, fun, outdoors and helps keeps costs down.
But what if you want to go family camping but haven’t got a tent? How do you choose from the hundreds of models on offer? Spending a bit of time thinking about what you want from your tent will help you choose one that suits you, your family and your camping aspirations. Here are a few things to bear in mind when choosing a tent for family camping.
How much should I spend?
First things first, what’s your budget? Prices for family sized tents vary wildly. You can pick up a budget tent for under £100. If you get technical it’s easy to splash out £300-£500. And if you start looking at expedition kit you could end up investing up to £1000 or more. So, think about what you want to use it for and invest in a tent suited to your needs and aspirations.
If you’re only planning to go occasional summer weekend camping, or maybe just visiting a festival, you’ll probably be fine with a budget model.
If you’re thinking of a longer camping trip, planning to camp out of season or where the weather may be worse, are heading off the beaten track or thinking of camping as a key part of your travel style then consider paying more to get something more robust, weatherproof and durable.
If you’re heading off for a season, out into the wilderness or anticipate severe weather, then don’t be shy about investing in expedition grade kit. You may question whether the expense is justified, but believe me when you’re all warm and dry sitting out a storm in your tent while others are flapping about wondering whether theirs will last the night, you’ll be glad of it. We thought long and hard about investing £1000+ in a tent but ten years, 10,000 miles of touring and three kids later it’s still serving us reliably. Money well spent.
If you’re serious about camping, go for the most expensive kit you can afford. The quality of materials, construction, zips, poles, pegs, ventilation and insect mesh will be better, which means fewer problems in the field and a better night’s sleep.
What size should I get?
Tents come in many shapes and sizes and are generally advertised according to the number of people they accommodate. But even so they can vary wildly in size (volume) and footprint (the amount of space it takes up on the ground). What size to buy depends upon what you want to do in it (sleep? cook? eat? have parties?), how many people and how much gear you want to get in, and how intimate (squashed) you are prepared to get.
Tents designed for backpacking and touring tend to be smaller and generally of a one compartment design. This may suit you if you want to minimise the weight you carry, camp on small pitches or remain inconspicuous when stealth camping. However be prepared for a squeeze when everyone gets in, don’t expect to be able to stand up and pray there are no arguments. With this kind of tent you might consider going up a size for more comfortable family camping, especially if you’ve a lot of gear. For example you may find a six person tent more comfortable for a family of four.
In the early days we used a four person tent for two adults, a baby and a mountain of nappies and were very glad we did. Going large also helps future proof you, providing something to grow into as a family; today we’re squeezing five into that same tent for four.
On the other hand some large family tents are monstrous spaceships with multiple bedrooms, communal areas, awnings and a space for camping furniture and the kitchen sink. These are great if you want a home from home or if you like to stand up in your tent, but they’re also heavy, bulky, require a large pitch and can be difficult and time consuming to put up and take down. But at least after arguing about putting it up you’ve all got your own space to retreat to! If you’re not moving on every day and want a tent that’s a comfortable base for a few days or weeks then something like this may suit you well.
Weight and pack size
Aside from the size when pitched, it’s worth checking out the packed down size. A tent’s good for nothing if you can’t carry it or store it back at home. For some types of travel, your tent’s weight and pack-down size are critical factors. If you’re backpacking, riding, canoe or cycle touring you’ll want something with that packs down small and lightweight to ensure you can get it in your rucksack or panniers and carry it easily.
An extra kilo or two may not sound like a lot but believe me it feels like a lot if you’re carrying it on your back day after day. And while an extra litre of space may sound hardly worth worrying about, you may change your mind when you have to leave your spare chocolate bars, socks and fleece behind. Even when travelling by car pack size can make the difference between being able to get the rest of your gear in the boot or not. Back at home a small tent will be easier to store too.
Strength and durability
A good family tent needs to be strong and durable, not just to withstand the worst weather you are likely to face but also the stresses and strains of energetic kids. Cheaper tents tend to use cheaper zips, poles, pegs and tent material which may fail more easily when kids are bouncing around inside, zipping and unzipping, or over enthusiastically assembling and disassembling the tent. And of course if these things are going to fail, it will be in the middle of the night, during a storm when you’re miles from anywhere and your torch is dead.
If you’re looking for something that will last it may be worth paying a little extra for a more durable design or higher quality components. Look for rip stop materials, strong alloy pegs and poles, zips that run smoothly and don’t snag, fine but strong insect netting and strong guy ropes. And if you’re thinking of camping in snowy winter conditions make sure your tent is designed to withstand snowfall. I’m not being funny, while rain runs off a tent, snow settles and a few inches of snowpack can seriously collapse your tent if it’s not designed to withstand it.
Waterproofing and ventilation
Do you want to stay dry? Well if you do, make sure your tent is waterproof, not just water resistant or shower proof. You may be surprised to learn that not all tents are built with this in mind; some are little more than sunshades.
There are technical single skin tent designs on the market these days, some using sophisticated materials technology to keep rain a materials width away from you. You’ll get best results and least condensation from materials that are ‘breathable’ but these are often expensive and perhaps not best suited to family camping where the risk of inadvertent toddler induced damage can be high!
For family camping you’ll probably get best results from a design with a separate inner and outer (or flysheet). And that way you won’t have to spend every cloudburst shouting at the kids not to touch the sides or worrying whether their pencil is about to pierce your Gore-Tex skin.
If you go for a two layer design, look for one where inner and outer pitch together as it will be quicker to put up and dismantle. Detachable or removable inners can be helpful for cleaning or separating things out if you have to dismantle on a wet day. Likewise you’ll really appreciate a design where you can pitch the outer first and then insert the inner if you find yourself pitching in the pouring rain.
Ventilation is a big part of keeping dry too. In poorly ventilated tents condensation inside the tent can be as much of a problem as rain penetrating from the outside so look for designs that are well ventilated or with ventilation you can adjust. It also comes in handy if someone inadvertently drops one in a confined space.
Ease of assembly
How quick and easy is it to put up? Do not underestimate how important this is. It’s not a good start to a trip if it takes three unhappy hours to put up the tent. And it can be an absolute disaster if the weather’s bad and you need to pitch quickly. On longer trips or where you are moving on every day pitching and dismantling can become a real grind and waste of time if it takes you 30 minutes to an hour each time.
Some ‘pop-up’ tents literally take seconds to pitch. Most simple dome and tunnel tents can be pitched in five to ten minutes, once you’re familiar with the technique. But beware the monsters that involve hours of family arguments over poles, awnings, guy ropes and tent pegs.
Look for something with good instructions, that’s quick and intuitive to pitch. On larger tents with more complex designs, colour coded poles and pockets can help save a few arguments. A lot of tent manufacturers now provide short videos online showing how to erect their tents, so take some time to look at these and decide whether it looks achievable for you or not. And don’t be shy about asking to have a go before you buy. But try not to argue in public.
Entrances, compartments and layout
Even with small tents it’s worth considering what sort of layout suits you best. Even in one compartment tents you’ll find endless options in terms of entrance configurations, bell ends (the end spaces outside the inner tent) and porches. Again, much depends upon your intended use and personal preferences. If sleeping’s all you want to do a simple design will suffice. If on the other hand you also want to cook, have a family meal, play cards and have some privacy you’re going to want something with multiple compartments.
With simple designs a canopy, porch or bell end can be useful, providing extra sitting space with a bit of shelter, a place to store muddy boots, kids or footballs, or somewhere to cook or eat if the weather is bad. Multiple entrances are handy too, helping you organise things, and making access easier when there’s a group of you, reducing the need for all that clambering over each other to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. With two entrances you can designate one for kids, leaving the other child free for grown-ups, cooking and for storing things you don’t want them messing with. And with entrances at opposite ends you can also pitch (wind permitting) so you have one facing sunrise and the other for watching sunset.
If you want to be able to divide and rule or set up a home from home then look for a design with separate sleeping and living areas. If you’re really into comfort and thinking of taking air beds then make sure the compartments are big enough to accommodate them. Some designs have removable bedrooms which can be useful if you want more flexible space, allowing you to reconfigure for extra visitors or create a larger living space when that’s what’s needed.
Think about what sort of layout you like. With young children, you might want the bedrooms to be next to each other so you can easily check on them during the night. If your children are a bit older you might be happier with the ‘vis-à-vis’ style, where the bedrooms are at either end of the tent with the living area in the middle. One of our favourite compartment tents involved a mummy tent, daddy tent and baby tent which could be zipped together or pitched separately for maximum flexibility.
For some tent colour is simply a fashion statement or expression of personal preference but in some situations colour can be a matter of blending in, standing out, possibly even of life and death.
If you’re only thinking of camping at campsites or festivals, your tent colour is probably just a question of fashion, standing out or fitting in. In a large festival field or campsite a standout colour can making finding your home much easier.
If you’re camping wild or heading off the beaten track you may have other colour considerations. If you’re stealth camping and want to disappear you may want to look for something that will blend in and camouflage you in the kind of environments you will be camping in.
On the other hand if you’re on an expedition and may need to make sure you can be seen to be safe, you may want a colour that stands out.
Look, see, and try before you buy
With so many models on the market it’s a good idea to look around before you buy. While the internet is great for research and price comparison we recommend visiting a large retailer or camping show to look at and compare different models before you buy.
You could make a family day out to a camping show where you can see different models of tents erected, crawl inside and imagine what it’s like in the sun, in the rain, in a storm. There’s nothing quite like looking, seeing, touching, feeling and comparing for yourself to find out what suits you best.
Large outdoor retailers are great for advice and guidance. Staff are usually knowledgeable and happy to share experience, answer questions and suggest models that will suit your needs. Outdoor retailers like www.blacks.co.uk have extensive online catalogues, and in store stock a wide range of tents to suit all budgets and requirements. They are as good a place as any to start the search for your perfect family tent.
Disclosure note: Our thanks to Blacks whose support enabled us to bring you this post.