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Tents for Hill Walkers

August 16th, 2009

hill-walkers-tents.jpgTents are needed for protection from wind, rain, and biting insects. Unfortunately they also cut you off from the outside world and add weight and bulk to your load. If you are going somewhere where rain or mosquitoes are unlikely, do not assume you must have a tent. A bivvy bag may be all you need, or in wooded country you could take a sheet of waterproof nylon known as a tarp or basha to sling between trees if the weather turns bad. On most backpacking trips you will need a tent, though — choosing one needs care and is worth taking time over.

The tent is usually the heaviest piece of carried gear, so keeping its weight down is very important. At the same time comfort and stability also matter so your tent needs to be able to cope with storms and provide enough room for cooking and living under cover. A compromise has to be reached between weight on the one hand and strength and space on the other. Happily, there are a large number of top quality lightweight tents available. For those who move on every day and are keen on keeping the weight down there are tents weighing 4 lb. (1.8 kg) or less for solo units, 6 lb. (2.7 kg) or so for two person models. If you often camp on the same site for several nights or feel greater comfort in camp is worth the extra weight, there are plenty of roomier and heavier models.

The lighter the tent the smaller the packed size, and any tent under 10 lb. (4.5 kg) will be reasonably low in bulk. However, the length of pole sections should always be checked as some are too long for packing easily inside a rucksack.

After weight consider ease of pitching, weather resistance, and roominess. In wet weather you want to be able to get your tent up quickly. Familiarity is important here but some tents are much easier to pitch than others. Making tents waterproof is not difficult and it is rare these days to find a good quality tent that leaks. Wind resistance is a different matter. Tents designed to withstand mountain gales you cannot stand up in are available, but they are heavy and expensive. Some degree of wind resistance is required, especially if you plan on camping high in the hills. Roominess is relative and related to weight. Some people are happy with tiny tents you cannot sit up in, while others use two person tents for solo use and three person tents for duos.

It is impossible to judge the wind resistance of a tent or how easy it is to pitch or how it is roomy inside by looking at pictures in a catalog or holding a packed model. Ideally you need to see the tent erected and be able to crawl inside. Most shops do not have the space to do this, unfortunately. However, there are tent shows around the country each year that are well worth visiting, and Backpackers Club meetings are good places to see various models and hear some clear opinions on them.

Modern lightweight tents usually consist of a breathable nylon inner and a proofed nylon flysheet to keep off the wind and rain, though there are some single-skin waterproof and breathable fabric tents available. Sewn-in groundsheets are standard. Shock-corded poles are much easier to use than single section poles and are usually a good sign of the quality of the tent. Generally, aluminum poles are stronger than fiberglass.

In any tent condensation can be a problem. Moisture from your body, from damp clothing, and from cooking may condense on the inside of the non-breathable flysheet. The purpose of a separate inner is to protect you from this condensation. For two-skin tents to work properly there must be a gap between the inner and the outer in which air can circulate. If the two layers touch then condensation on the outer can dampen the inner. In theory breathable single-skin tents allow moisture to pass through the material to the outside. In practice I have found that while they do this most of the time they can become very damp inside during prolonged wet and cold weather. I would not choose a single-skin tent for a long trip in a damp area.

Condensation can be minimized by cooking outside or in the porch with the door open (also advisable for safety reasons) and by having a tent with two-way door zips or vents so that airflow can be maintained through the tent. You should also store any damp items outside the inner tent. In really wet weather, when you have to keep the tent zipped shut because some condensation is inevitable.

There are many different shapes of tent available, most of which work well. The real difference is usually in how easy they are to pitch. Some designs going up in seconds with a minimum number of pegs being needed, while others will require extensive pegging. With any tent it is worth considering what it would be like to pitch in a storm in the dark when you are tired.

Of the many designs available single hoop and two- or three-pole tunnel tents are light, roomy, and easy to pitch. Simple dome tents where the poles cross at the apex of the tent are even roomier but also heavier and not quite so stable. Geodesic domes where the poles intersect at a number of points are heavier still and harder to pitch but very stable in high winds, hence their popularity with mountaineers and arctic explorers. Three pole semi-geodesics are quite light and can be pitched quickly. All domes have the advantage of being free standing. This makes them ideal for use in areas where pegging down a tent could be difficult.

An essential feature is a large porch in which you can store wet and muddy gear and cook safely under cover when the weather is stormy. Larger tents designed for winter use sometimes have two porches.

Although lightweight tents are amazingly strong for their weight they do require care in use. Most will withstand quite strong winds but in severe conditions it is still best to seek a relatively sheltered site. You will also sleep better if the tent is not thrashing noisily in the wind.

Groundsheets are vulnerable to puncture, so clearing away sharp twigs and stones before pitching is a good idea. Also take care not to step on poles lying on the ground or poke them into rocks when you connect up the sections. When the tent is up do not pull on poles when leaving or entering the tent. Carrying a short pole sleeve and some tape to repair a broken pole section is worthwhile, especially on long trips. I have had poles break twice and on both occasions was able to continue using the tent only because I had the means for a makeshift repair.

Whichever tent you choose it is advisable to practice pitching it before you use it in the hills. By doing so you will also find out if there are any defects or any pole sections or pegs missing. Always seek out as flat a site as possible in order to be able to pitch the tent as tautly as you can. On really bumpy terrain you may find it impossible to achieve a tight pitch, something you will know about when the wind picks up and rattles any loose fabric.


Amy Weber is a freelance writer and article supplier for DailyArticle.com, a source of some surprisingly inexpensive but original articles on hill walking tents, camping gear, and other topics for those who are patient enough to browse through the full selection.


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