From pop-ups to bell tents and teepees here's our pick, recommended by ‘wild camper’ Phoebe Smith, presenter of the Wander Woman podcast
Which is the best tent? It's a big question. In the same way that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, I truly believe that there’s never a bad time to camp, only unsuitable tents. And I should know; I’ve slept in most of them.
As an adventurer, wild camper and host of the Wander Woman podcast I explore some of the wildest places in the world with just a trusty tent for accommodation. From snow in Antarctica to torrential rain in Wales and gale force winds on the flanks of Everest, having the right tent can transform a survivable night into a very pleasant one – as long as the model you’ve chosen is fit for purpose.
Tents have come a long way since founder of the Caravan and Camping Club Thomas Hiram Holding stitched his own silk A-frame number (so-called because of the shape it forms when pitched) in the late 1800s and literally wrote the book about the joys of camping.
Nowadays if you walk into an outdoor shop you’ll be overwhelmed with choice – from easy to pitch pop-up tents and inflatable tents, to massive family tents (many of them larger than my first flat), to tunnels (good space-to-weight ratio but harder to pitch efficiently), geodesic or domes (free-standing; often heavier, but easy to move), back-to-basics super lightweight tents, bivvy bags and tarps and, of course, the ubiquitous glamper’s tents of choice – bell tents and teepees.
None will be made of silk though. While some of the quirkier options (teepee, bell) are often made of canvas (waterproof only after their first soaking, which causes the stitching to tighten together and prevent water from penetrating), most are constructed from man made polyester and coated with silicone or polyurethane to make them waterproof.
How to tell which tent is right for you? Here’s my quick guide to the importance of waterproofing, breathability and weight.
Now that you know what to look for, by all means check out the kilograms, the total floor space and head height – not to mention the pack size, because if it won’t fit in your car boot then it’s no good, right? But above all consider what you actually intend to use it for.
No matter what your friend/cousin/colleague/this reviewer recommends, it’s got to be suited to your intended use. If you want to go into the wild, go light; if you plan only to use at festivals, go budget or blackout; and if you want to avoid arguments with the family, then definitely go for space and ease of pitch.
But above all, go. Tents are not just a bunch of guy lines, collapsible poles and canvas. They represent a lot more: the freedom to explore.
I’ve slept in pretty much every kind of tent out there, both in the wilds and on campsites. Being as they represent the freedom that I crave, I take a particular interest in new technologies and always explore beyond the marketing spiel to find out if a particular model is fit for purpose.
I’ve visited gear shows around the UK and Europe every year, checking out the latest offerings in detail and drawn upon my 14 years of experience of camping in shelters from a variety of manufacturers. Here I’ve chosen the best examples of tents for every kind of camper.
Read on for the reviews in full
We like: well-designed, easy to pitch and deflate
How we in the outdoor industry laughed when inflatable tent poles first merged onto the scene. It was easy to dismiss them as something for the "casual camper" crowd only, and dismiss them as a gimmick that surely offered no stability and little durability. But when outdoor brand heavyweights like Berghaus adopted the technology – and for their larger, family range – you know that there must be something in it.
Case in point is this behemoth of a family option that comfortably sleeps six people in two bedrooms with space for inflatable mattresses or air beds. The bedrooms can be removed to make one giant room if you prefer, and there is a good-size communal space in the middle. They claim it can be erected in minutes – though I dispute that if you are lacking in cardio fitness and need to take a lot of breaks. Either way, the activity (pump included) certainly keeps the kids occupied.
Once fully inflated it’s very durable and extremely waterproof, with a 6000mm hydrostatic head rating. It has some welcome well-thought-out features too, such as the small roof above the side door – great to stop you getting soaked while unzipping it. I like the darkened lining in the bedrooms to help stop kids waking up with at the first sign of sunrise, and the wheeled carry bag. In fact I fail to see how you could manoeuvre it otherwise. The main drawback may be the price, though it will last, and packed size – small car owners will struggle to fit it in the boot along with the rest of the camping paraphernalia.
We like: it's easy to set up, spacious and built to last
Some people may be immediately put off by the price of this one. I will admit I was too before I used it. But this model is offering you something all the others cannot – total freedom.
Hitting the scales at less than a laptop, it's ideal for throwing in your backpack and going properly off-grid. Normally that ability comes with a drawback of comfort and space, but not so with the Hubba Hubba NX – instead they have used a slickly designed single pole to make its dome/UFO-shape, which has shaved off kilograms found in its counterparts, all the while still giving ample headroom to enable occupants to sit up inside.
I’ve used it by myself for a luxuriously spacious slumber. When used as a two-man tent the two porches and two doors make it feel much roomier, allowing you to choose one side to store bags and the other as the entry, or take a porch and entrance each. Despite the light weight it holds its own in terms of waterproofing (1200mm) and there is the even more appealing feature – the fact that you can pitch it without the fly sheet on dry nights, since it’s a free-standing dome, and watch the stars from your bed thanks to a mesh ceiling, which is also brilliant for ventilation.
It can be tricky to get the fly to line up with the doors the first couple of times and if not pitched properly, it can flap about in high wind. I immediately swapped the tent pegs for more heavy-duty ones. But despite that, there is no denying it’s a classic for wild camping aficionados like me.
We like: truly blackout camping for long lie-ins – just be sure to pitch in the shade
Over the last few years the term ‘blackout walls’ has been bandied around in tent-making circles – promising the best and longest night’s sleep for those who otherwise tend to wake as soon as dawn breaks. For a nature lover like me, rising with the dawn is a major part of camping’s appeal – unless, of course I’m at a festival. With the associated late nights that dancing like a teen (or actually being a teen) involves, a lie-in is definitely welcome.
Of the many brands jumping on this particular bandwagon, Coleman is the one that has achieved the best results eliminating, they claim, 99 per cent of daylight once inside. It is dark for sure, so dark in fact you will need a torch to find things or avoid tripping over your festival friends, but that does create a little problem when it’s warm – it has a tendency to overheat.
Luckily there is ventilation in the form of mesh panels, but you may need to leave the door ajar in a heatwave. However, it’s still a good model – offering a generous size porch for gear and decent headroom inside (you can even sit in a camping chair and fit). It’s very easy to pitch, fire retardant and very waterproof (4500mm). Just be sure to pack some patience, because getting it back in its bag is not an easy job.
We like: All the pitch-appeal of canvas but the waterproofing of synthetic material
If there’s a single tent that defines the glamping genre it has to be the bell tent. Many campsites offer ready pitched numbers to rent, complete with proper beds and rugs inside. If you’re a convert to this style, you can start saving money by buying and transporting your own bell tent with you on your travels.
Boutique Camping was formed 12 years ago by two festival-loving friends. This online store has evolved from initially selling a single design to offering a multitude of options. This is their classic model but with a twist – whereas canvas needs to be ‘wetted’ before it is naturally waterproof (no hydrostatic head rating here), this one has been made with a synthetic and anti-mould polyester canvas-look waterproof treated fabric, which will see you through rainy nights straight out the bag.
I’ll level with you, pitching will take practise. There’s a single centre pole to create the height and an additional metal frame to shape the door, but once you get the hang of it, with a couple of pairs of hands it can be done within half an hour. There’s plenty of ventilation (the side panels even lift up all the way round its base), the ground sheet is heavy-duty and you can even opt to pay more and add an inner tent if you’d prefer. Plus, the price is nearly as attractive as the limited-edition rainbow design.
We like: it pops up fast – though putting it away takes a little longer
I’ll never forget my first pop-up tent – the ease and speed at which I could pitch it truly astounded me. But then it came to putting it away again and that was a different story – it took me ages to figure out the knack of bending, folding and twisting in just the right way to flatten it back down and fit it in the bag it came out of.
Of course things have changed – a little – since then. With more YouTube videos out there and better technology it is slightly easier. Decathlon’s Quechua may have cracked this with a series of colour coded straps and clips which, though I had to watch the video a few times, is much easier to fold down than I was imagining.
Aside from the pitch the tent is actually pretty impressive – a decent amount of head room, waterproofness (2000mm) and ventilation (there is at least some space between the inner and fly), plus a more robust feel than other models in the pop-up arena. With a 5-year warranty and push to repair rather than replace, this pop-up won't be left abandoned at a festival any time soon.
We like: a decent size for a decent price – ideal for the occasional camper
Everyone likes a bargain, and boasting a 55-year legacy of making a host of great value offerings for Duke of Edinburgh participants across the country and beyond, it’s perhaps no surprise that Scottish brand Vango strikes a good balance between cost and features.
This tunnel tent is easily pitched using two poles which are colour-coded to match the sleeves they slide inside. When pegged out correctly (there’s reflective tabs on the peg points so you can do it in the dark if needs be), it is a decent size for two, a bearable size when you add two kids and – honestly – a bit of a squeeze for four grown-ups.
The waterproofing is good (3000mm) and there are mesh panels for ventilation, though how well you pitch it can affect this. The groundsheet is made from a durable fabric and extends to inside the porch, which an adequate size, but you’d struggle to fit in everything if four adults brought along large bags.
There are a few niggles, as you'd expect at this price. The first is the weight; this is not really backpacker friendly. The zip which only opens from one side – so if you find yourself on the wrong end, nipping to the loo in the night could be awkward.
We like: it looks good on the campsite or in the garden – and won’t break the bank
Perhaps the most iconic of all the tent shapes is the teepee. Usually you’d be looking at an easy £1k to have your own, but renowned budget brand Eurohike has come up with a much more affordable alternative.
From the outside it certainly looks the part, with the classic shape and single mast pole design, and inside the head room is good and the floor space adequate – though four people and sleeping bags would feel squashed. There are low level vents to help with airflow, plus a mesh door which can also help stop condensation – the only issue is that it’s a single skin model – so no separate fly and inner.
The polyester fabric offers good waterproofing (2000mm) however with no separate inner, with four people inside, condensation could easily be an issue. For occasional use in summer, or a year-round addition to the garden this is a great option, but for the full glamping experience, you may need to pay a little more.
Best tent for cycle touring
We like: it has a massive porch big enough for bikes, trailers and dogs (although not all at the same time)
Look at a picture of this offering and you may be surprised to see it classed as a two-person model only – that’s because it looks huge. And it is. With a whopping 6.8 square metres of floor space, a huge portion of the Hoolie is actually its porch – in fact it’s so big you could easily sleep another two in here (albeit without a ground sheet).
This makes it a great option if you’re touring on bikes (you can store them safely in with you) or kids in trailers, or dogs. It also works well in bad weather as you have an area you can comfortably get organised and dressed in without having to get wet.
When it comes to rain you are more than covered with great waterproofness (4000mm) and a thick groundsheet. Pitch-wise the three-pole tunnel is a breeze to erect with colour-coded poles and sleeves, and the inner and outer sheets are pitched as one, saving you faff. If there’s a couple of you the tent weight can be split easily (detach the above) which then offers an incredible amount of space for the weight. Inside the sleeping area is a mesh door for keeping out bugs and, for added ventilation, the porch can be opened both sides to keep things cool in warm weather.
Heading off on an outdoor adventure? You may find our guides to the best thermos flasks, the best head torches and the best binoculars for bird watching useful.
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