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Tent Guide

What Size Tent?
Bivy, Dome, A-frame, Umbrella, or Cabin Style Tent?
What Kind of Tent Poles?
What Type of Material?
Are All Tents Waterproof?

What Size Tent:  This is a fairly easy question to address.  In car camping tent weight and bulk are of little importance.  Of course one should remember that some canvas tents tend to weigh as much as eighty pounds.  But those tents are the exception and not the rule.  So, in buying a car camping tent one can afford to be generous with space more so than with backpacking ones.  Also think in terms of the number of sleeping bags and not persons using the tent.  Sleeping bags take more room than people do.
     In the backpacking tent category, tables turn.  Bulk and weight is of utmost importance.  In the backcountry rarely does one have the opportunity to reduce the weight of the pack so greatly as with a lighter tent.   Meaning that, with little effort you can cut two or three pounds off the weight of your tent, but it may take you much shopping to alter the weight of your stove by so much as a few ounces.  Buy in terms of the number of people you usually backpack with.   If you still want to retain the option of solo trips, remember that you are no longer sharing the weight of your tent, stove, cooking gear, ground cloth, etc..
     In the case of tents, oftentimes size is directly proportionate to weight.  You may easily find yourself sacrificing space for a lighter tent.

Bivy, Dome, A-frame, Umbrella, or Cabin Style Tent:  In this segment I will touch on the different tent styles, and the advantages and the disadvantages of each.  These designs are each unique and do certain functions well.  By having a better understanding of each design and its features one can narrow down his choices quite easily.

     Bivy Style Tents are perhaps the lightest and most compact tent designs in the industry.  Bivy style tents minimize their weight and bulk simply by reducing the number of poles and the amount of fabric used in the tent body.  This unavoidably results in a very small living space that will only appeal to the few hardy backpackers who put weight and bulk before everything else.  Of course, there are times when one must make sacrifices in order to keep the weight of one's pack down.  Multi-week trips for example.  But if you like your space, or enjoy hanging out in your tent during a rainy day, Bivy style tents are not for you.

     Dome Tents:  Since the introduction of flexible drawn aluminum and fiberglass tent frames into the market, manufacturers have become more creative with the shape of tents.  It also has allowed them to make roomier but lighter and more compact tents by using the dome construction.
     The problem is that the flexibility of drawn aluminum and fiberglass poles make tents using these frames less stable, especially the larger and taller family tents.  Companies try to compensate for this weakness by using more poles to make tents more stable, which in turn makes some tents less than fun to set up.   However manufacturers have come up with creative ways of easing this pain.
     The second issue with dome tents has always been that the simpler and more standard tents are either the hexagonal three hoop or the geodesic four hoop designs.  The geometrical names always refer to the shape of the floor.   Although such shapes are interesting to look at, one should keep in mind that neither people nor their sleeping bags are hexagonal or geodesic.  So, once sleeping bags are laid down, one is left with six or so corner areas that are difficult to use efficiently.  Backpackers should also be reminded that finding a rectangular opening in the woods is always easier than a circular one, as well as the fact that one can always wedge a rectangular floor dome tent between trees easier.  There are of course, manufacturers who produce rectangular floor dome tents.

     A-frame Tents have been around the longest of any tent design.  A-frame tents are those with two sloping side walls meeting in an angle.
     Before the age of fiberglass and flexible aluminum tent poles, strait and stiff aluminum tent poles were widely used for their strength and the fact that they did not rust like steel.  A-frame designs allowed manufacturers to use the only available frame material at the time and put together a functional, light, compact, and inexpensive structure.  Although such structures were quite functional as three season tents, they failed to give adequate protection in winter conditions.
     Also, most people consider the slope in the walls of such designs drastic and quite confining, hence the popularity of dome style tents.  Although a well constructed A-frame tent can still be quite functional, there are many well made dome style tents on the market that are as functional, much roomier, and more stable.

    Umbrella Style Tents involve a number of poles of equal length that start from each floor corner and meet at the center of the roof of the tent.  There are many ways of connecting the poles at the center but the most popular and commonly used design is by means of a hub or a junction plate.
     The introduction of drawn seamless aluminum and the better understanding of its properties contributed greatly to the design and manufacturing of umbrella style tents.  We will reserve further discussion of the usage of aluminum until the following segment when we will compare all available frame components, their properties, and their usage in the tent market.
     Although one may see a few umbrella style tents within the backpacking market, it is safe say that most umbrella designs are used for larger family-style tents.  The difference that this category tent made to the family camping tent market was that is allowed manufacturers not only to use shock-corded aluminum poles of equal length, which in turn made the setting up process a much simpler task, also it became easier to design tents with taller walls  and center height without compromising stability.  When you compare these tents to the cabin style category, which we will discuss next, the popularity of umbrella style will become apparent rather quickly.
     It is important to note that since most family tents of umbrella style design almost exclusively use basic, drawn seamless aluminum, it is safe to say that these tents, although stronger than fiberglass frame dome tents under most conditions, are not known for their over-all strength and stability in the wind.  Of course the seven to eight foot center height does not help this matter much either.

     Cabin Style Tents appear to be the easiest on the eyes, partially because people are familiar with their design and shape, and because most people's parents went camping in this type of tent.
     Although the composition of the components of this style tent has changed greatly over the years, the style and the setting up process of this type of design has remained relatively unchanged.  It is possible that the greatest reason for the drop in popularity of such tents has been the simple fact that shock-corded aluminum or even fiberglass frame tents were so much easier to deal with than the jigsaw puzzle like approach to finding the right pieces of poles and installing them in the right places.
     It is also important to note that there is still call for cabin style frames in the market, for these frames have been proven to work quite well in supporting the weight of cotton canvas tents which can exceed sixty pounds.
     There are companies that import entry level cabin tents.   One can easily recognize such tents by the inexpensive steel or rolled aluminum poles that have a seem running down them.


What Kind of Tent Poles?  This question has been an important one ever since the introduction of fiberglass and aircraft aluminum poles to the market.  Before that time rolled aluminum and steel were the most widely used frame component available.
     There are good reasons why companies use different kinds of poles in different tents, but the biggest reason is the cost factor.
     Steel poles are the stiffest and oftentimes the strongest poles money can buy. But there is the problem of rust, weight, and corrosion. Unless a company chooses to add to the manufacturing cost by using stainless steel frames in the construction of their tents the average steel tent pole and will last one storage season before rust becomes visible on the poles and, of course, manufacturing light weight tents using such poles would be out of the question.  Non-stainless steel poles are used primarily in the construction of inexpensive cabin style tents.
     The use of fiberglass in the production of tent poles simply revolutionized the tent market. Not too many people will argue that fact that fiberglass tent poles, and their flexibility, brought more interesting tent designs to the market, and by doing so gave life to a complacent tent design market.
     Not often is the chemical composition of fiberglass poles discussed, but more often than not reputable companies will note the outside diameter and the country of origin of their fiberglass tent poles.
     Now, regarding the diameter of fiberglass poles, the thicker these poles are, the stronger but less flexible they become. For this reason most of the two to three person tents will use poles with smaller diameters. As the size and the height of the tent increase, so should the diameter of its poles.
     Problem with fiberglass frames arise because of the lack of their tensile strength. This leads to issue of breakage, especially when setting up a tent. While erecting the first set of poles one hoop needs to be able to withstand the entire weight of the tent. This becomes a problem in larger tents since they are much heavier than smaller tents and fiberglass pole are not that strong. This problem can be solved by having two people help set up a tent. That way, one person can take some of the pressure off of the poles by lifting the center of the structure. (Before going any further it is appropriate to say that there has been a new form of fiberglass pole introduced to the market. Magnum Halix poles are multi-layered fiberglass forms designed for flexibility. The horizontal fibers wrapped with layers of fiberglass prevents the poles from shattering like conventional fiberglass poles. These poles are not commonly used in the construction of tents but there are companies that do use Magnum Halix poles.)
     It is important to understand that there is room in this market for fiberglass frames. They have helped almost eliminate the old steel frame cabin tents that were so very difficult to deal with, with their many pieces, heavy weight, and the good possibility of loosing a pole section nearly impossible replace. Now days one can spend the price on an expensive steel framed cabin tent to purchase an intermediate level dome tent. The advantages over the old style tents will become apparent after first use.
     Aluminum tent poles have for many years been used in strong tent constructions. Although there have been many changes in the chemical make up of these tent poles the fact remains that aluminum is the best material tent poles are made of at this time.
     Many years ago, before the process of drawing and tempering had made its way into the construction of tent poles, manufacturers used to roll aluminum sheet, weld or crimp the two ends to make a tent pole. The problem with this process soon became obvious. The weld or crimped line on the face of the pole became a permanent weak point and that was not all. There also needed to be some improvements in the chemical composition of these aluminum poles in order to guarantee their durability.
     Manufacturers needed to produce an aluminum tubing that was strong and flexible. At this time there were a number of companies that manufactured aluminum tubing for tents. But there are still weaknesses in the composition of these poles, such as a lack of flexibility that may result in permanent curving, susceptibility to corrosion which will result in the weakening of the poles, and lack of the overall structural strength that forces commercially available aluminum poles to be large in diameter in order to make the poles more stable.
     Aircraft aluminum to the rescue. Although the words "aircraft aluminum" are used somewhat generically to make a point, however vague, about the strength of such poles, it is fair t say that such poles have made a great contribution to the improvement of the quality of tent tubing.
     Aircraft aluminum generally have the same chemical make up. For example, all 7000 series aircraft aluminum poles have the same family of alloys in their make up. The difference is that a 7001 tube incorporates a higher magnesium and zinc mix that a 7075. The higher magnesium and zinc mix will make a pole stiffer.
     The advantage of 7000 series aluminum tent tubing over fiberglass poles and other commercial aluminum tubing are its strength, rigidity and lighter weight. These features allow tent manufacturers to create a lighter, yet stronger and more rigid tent.
     In some of the more classic tent styles where one does not see uniform curves and the design features are more or less limited to straight lines, it is acceptable to use standard high quality seamless aluminum poles. As long as the pressure points of such poles are reinforced, they will serve you and your tent for many years. You may notice a permanent bend or two along the poles but the tent will still be functional.

What Type of Material?  There are only a few different kinds of fabrics currently used in tent bodies: cotton, nylon, polyester, and very rarely, polyethylene.
     Often cotton tents are also referred to as canvas tents but in fact any time a fabric incorporates an 'over/under' or a square weave such weave is called 'canvas'. Most people relate to cotton/canvas tents because their parents used to own such tents. In fact, army wall tents and most quality tents of many years ago and present as well, are made with cotton. Such tents, once wetted down and dried, are naturally water proof, quite breathable and show the most resiliency to the ultraviolet rays of the Sun which can easily destroy nylon fabrics if left exposed for long periods. For this reason cotton has always been the choice of those who use their tents as semi-permanent structures and who leave their tents standing for months at a time. No other material could withstand such use. Unfortunately cotton/canvas tents are not without their problems. Cotton, being organic material, if stored wet or in a damp area can mildew or rot. Such damage is irreversible. The best that one can do to prevent any further spread of mildew to the rest of the fabric is to give it a sponge bath with an anti-fungus solution.
     The other problem with cotton/canvas tents is their weight. Tents of respectable quality use 7oz (7ox per square yard) fabric in their construction. This translates into a tent that can weigh as much as fifty to eighty pounds for an average size tent. You can see the difficulty that a family will have in handling such a monster for mere weekend use. But again, if the use requires one to set up a tent and leave it up for weeks and months, this is the best way to go.
     The last issue with cotton/canvas tents is their high cost of manufacturing. This is in fact one reason why the number of companies that produce such tents has swindled to only a few. At between six and nine hundred dollars per tent, combined with their bulk and weight, it is easy to see why more and more people are buying nylon tents.

     Polyester, which is a synthetic resin, has taken the burden of weight somewhat off the shoulders of cotton tents. Polyester blended with cotton allows manufacturers to create tents that retain most of the properties of cotton/canvas tents without all the weight, all that bulk and the high price tag. But of course there is a catch. Since synthetics don't allow for the same amount of swelling that one gets in cotton tents, poly/cotton blends tents will not be as naturally water tight a construction as an all cotton tent. They will require a coating in order to enhance their water proofing.
     The only thing that all polyester tents have in common with the tents discussed previously is their comparative longevity to nylon ones. A fabric can incorporate a canvas weave with the use of polyester alone and therefore still be called a 'canvas tent'. For long term use, polyester fabric is still a good alternative to nylon fabrics for it will resist UV much better. But polyester fabric is generally heavier than average nylon fabrics used in the construction of tents and it seldom shows the ability to be coated properly and to stay as waterproof.

     Polyethylene, or the "blue noisy plastic stuff" as it is known to most people, is actually hardly ever used in the construction of tents. However, very often you will find it used in the construction of less expensive tent floors. Although highly water proof, this synthetic fabric is not known for its strength.

     Nylon is the fabric that most people are familiar with. It is very widely used in tents ranging from family camping to backpacking to expedition quality structures. Taffeta, which is a tightly woven nylon cloth that is characterized by a dense uniform appearance, is the most common type of nylon used in the tent market today. The use of taffeta has allowed the market to introduce structures that provide excellent durability and very low total tent weight. There was a time when ten pounds was an average weight for a two person tent. These days six or seven pounds is considered almost too heavy. Much of that is due to the use of nylon in today's tents.
     Taffeta is available in different weights usually measured by a given weight per square yard (1.9oz, 2.1oz, etc..). Most tents combine a lighter fabric for the upper body of the tent with heavier fabric for the floor since the floor goes through more abuse than the rest of the tent. 1.9 to 2.1oz. taffeta are the most commonly used fabric weights in today's tents combined with a floor fabric weight of 1.9 to 4oz.

Are All Tents Waterproof?  Absolutely not! In fact it is safe to say that most tents are not but before getting into the standards of tent water repellency, it is helpful to know the different reasons for leakage in a tent since it is common misinformation that provides consumers with the notion that the coating on a tent fabric, or lack thereof, is solely responsible for water penetrating the structure of a tent when in fact there are many reasons for this occurrence such as:
     Coating: As mentioned in the previous section on the properties of different fabrics, cotton/canvas and Gore-Tex fabrics are the only naturally waterproof tent fabrics available. This means that other tent fabrics will require an additional coating to help keep moisture out.
     A fabric will resist the penetration of moisture by two means. One is a layer of silicone applied to the surface of a fabric in order to create a smooth texture over which moisture will slide instead of penetrating. This process, although somewhat functional is only effective in very light rain. In other words a tent relying on the surface tension of silicone to achieve its water resistance will be water resistant at best. In the tent business calling a tent water resistant instead of water proof is a polite way of saying that the tent will leak.
     The most effective way to waterproof a fabric is to apply layers of polyurethane coating to the back of the tent fabric. This will provide the structure with a thick waterproof shield that will stop water short of coming through and applied properly it will make a tent fabric water proof. The operative phrase in the above sentence is 'applied properly' because like any other aspect of this business there are manufacturers that will choose to cut corners during the process of waterproofing a tent in order to save a buck. This will lead to a tent that is coated inadequately which in turn will result a less than enjoyable camping experience.
     So, how does one know if the tent he or she is buying is waterproof? Easy!! All reputable companies that are at least those companies that are not reluctant about informing customers, will test and note the water resistance of their tent fabric and inform customers of the results in their consumer guides. If they don't, there is a good reason for it, they probably don't want you to have this information.
     The standards of a water proof fabric are discussed in two terms: Pressure per square inch (PSI) or a simple but unique Waterfall Test.
     The US Army's standard of waterproofing is 25PSI. Any fabric that tests lower than 30PSI is water resistant and not waterproof. By the same token a good quality tent will test at about 70 to 100PSI.
     The Waterfall Test is a simple yet effective way of testing the ability of a fabric to resist moisture penetration. In this test a sample of the fabric is placed under a long tube marked in millimeter increments on its surface. Water is pored down the tube slowly. As the column of water increases in height water pressure is also increased. At the first sign of leakage the water flow is stopped and the height of the water tube is measured. A coating that tests to 1000mm water height should be the minimum standard for a water proof fabric. A quality tent will incorporate a 1200 to 1800mm coating.
     Water proofing test results should be available to all consumers. Such information is necessary for us to make an informed decision. Ask for them and if you are not provided this information someone doesn't want you to have it!

     Stitching:  Most people are under the impression that all tents regardless of their quality need to be seam sealed, the process of applying a layer of coverage to prevent moisture form penetrating into the needle holes.  This assumption is not entirely correct.  It is true that less expensive or entry level tents may require seam sealing since these tents will use less expensive threads to sew fabrics together.  Such threads are usually made of cotton which tend to be more vulnerable to the elements and the seams will erode more quickly which in turn will result in falling apart.  Secondly cotton will function like a wick.  It will suck the moisture though its body and transfer it to the inner part of the tent.
     Some manufactures have tried to address this problem by using polyester threads wrapped with a cotton sheath. This way fabric is protected from polyester and the cotton is strengthened by its polyester core.
     The other issue in stitching tent fabrics is the process by which two pieces of fabrics are brought together and then sewn. Logic would dictate that the easiest way to accomplish this is to overlap the two pieces of fabric and then sew. But this process will leave water with only two layers of fabric to travel though. In such cases leakage is likely to take place since often times needle holes are larger than the thread that go through them.
     Manufacturers with a reputation for attention to detail will address this problem by folding each fabric once before starting to stitch. This more time consuming process will strengthen the stitching areas and leave water with four layers of fabric to travel through. Tents following this simple pattern will be more water proof and stronger in the long run.

     Design:  Understanding the simple fact that it is the property of fabrics, especially nylon, to stretch when wet, it is common for water to pool on top of poorly designed tents. Pooling will result in eventual moisture penetration or, in some cases, the collapse of the structure under the weight of water. To avoid this problem, try to purchase tents with the least amount of horizontal unsupported fabric. This is the fabric with no poles running though or near it. Also tents should have some means for one to be able to adjust the tension on the rain fly. This way, when the fabric sags, one can simply re-stake the tent and create the necessary tension in order to create a tight structure.