The choice of a tent depends on what you like and what you plan to use it for. Will it be used only in the summer, or for three or four seasons of the year? Above or below timberline? For you alone, or for two people, or three, or four? Are you after luxurious space, or just the bare minimum? How much weight are you willing to carry? How much money are you able to spend? Manufacturers offer almost any combination of size, weight, and design. The choice is yours, after consulting catalogs, stores, your friends, and neighboring campers.
Tents are built with either single or double walls, of either waterproof or breathable materials. A completely enclosed unit must be well ventilated and preferably should "breathe." If the tent is waterproof, the moisture you exhale condenses on the cold walls and runs down to collect in puddles on the floor. In a single night, you and your tentmate can expel enough water vapor to drench the sleeping bags. Watch out for the cheap tents built of a single layer of unbreathable waterproof material. They are only good for the mildest of conditions below timberline where the door and windows can be left open for ventilation; even then, you can expect some condensation. Some single-walled nylon tents have a design that uses gravity to spread and remove condensation, but to be effective, the tents must be well ventilated.
The dilemma of a waterproof yet breathable tent is solved by using double walls. The inner wall is breathable: it is not waterproof, so it allows your breath and perspiration to pass through to the outside. The outer layer is a waterproof rain fly, usually separate, that keeps the rain off the tent and also collects and disposes of the body moisture from inside the tent. The rain fly must not touch the inner walls, because where it touches, water will condense inside. The fly should come fairly close to the ground to cover the tent and entrance, discouraging wind-driven rain. Even in a double-walled tent, sleeping bags can get wet from condensation that forms on the waterproof side panels that extend a foot or so up from the floor in some models.
An important step in keeping a tent dry is to close up the needle holes from stitching by painting all seams with waterproof seam sealer. Do this before the tent is ever used. Some tents come with factory-sealed seams; on others, it's up to you, but it's got to be done. In camp, put a plastic or nylon ground cloth under the tent to stop ground moisture from entering the floor of the tent and to keep the bottom clean and protected from abrasion.
Many tents are rated by a "relative strength factor," the speed of wind a tent can withstand before the frame deforms. If you expect to run into wind and snow, this is an important consideration. The tent should stand up to high winds and snow loads without structural failure.
It's usually a tradeoff: light weight, or more comfort and durability. Lightweight tents are available, but the question is whether they are big enough or tough enough for your particular uses. Simply look for the lightest tent that meets your requirements for number of occupants, head room, floor space, gear storage, strength, climate, and weather conditions. A two-person tent for summer camping might be light, while a three-person, four-season expedition tent could weigh twice as much, and be two to three times as expensive.
The trend in tent shapes has been to tunnels and domes (fig. 3-1). These designs make maximum use of space and minimize the number of stakes and guy lines. The free-standing dome needs no guy lines at all and can be picked up and moved as a unit, but it still must be staked down so it won't blow away. The two- or three-hoop tunnel tent, usually not free standing, offers efficient use of space and has wind-shedding characteristics. The traditional A-frame doesn't give as much usable space, but it's a simple, proven design.
The two-person tent is probably the most popular size and offers the greatest flexibility in weight and choice of campsite. For versatility in a group, it's generally better to bring, for example, two two-person tents rather than one four-person tent. Many two-person tents handle three in a pinch, yet are light enough to be used by one person occasionally. Some three- and four-person tents are light enough to be carried by two people who crave luxurious living. Larger tents, especially those high enough to stand in, are big morale boosters during an expedition or long storm. For carrying, you can distribute the weight among a group by dividing the tent into parts.
Warm tent colors such as yellow, orange, and red are cheerier if you're stuck inside, and they make it easier to spot camp on the way back. On the other hand, more subdued hues blend into the landscape. One's an eyesore; the other may be camouflaged only too well if you're having a little trouble finding camp.
Entrance designs offer zip doors, tunnels, alcoves, vestibules, and hoods. Compare designs to find the one that looks like it will keep out the most rain and snow as you're coming and going. Vestibules can be nice as a way to shelter the entrance and provide more room for gear, cooking, and dressing. There are a lot of options in the arrangement and type of ventilation holes and windows. Mosquito netting can help keep out rodents as well as flies and mosquitoes.
Avoid cooking inside a tent, especially with stoves that use white gas. Fumes, spilled fuel, and stove flare-ups are fire hazards. Asphyxiation is a danger in a closed tent, particularly from the combination of a watertight coated-nylon tent and cooking fumes. Cooking also adds greatly to inside condensation.
If you must cook inside the tent, do it in an alcove or vestibule. Well-placed ventilation holes can lessen the danger. Always start the stove outside the tent and use an insulating pad under the stove once it's inside.
Care and cleaning
Your tent will give more years of good service if you are careful to air-dry it thoroughly before storing it away after each trip.
To clean a tent, hose it off with water, or wash with mild soap and water. Scrub stains with a sponge or brush. Don't put the tent in a washer or dryer. High temperatures or prolonged exposure to sun are damaging to tent material.
A tarp is light in weight and low in cost, and may offer adequate shelter (fig. 3-2) from all but extreme weather in lowland forests and among
Fig. 3-3. Securing a tarp without grommets subalpinc trees. It gives less protection than a tent from heat loss and wind, none at all from insects or rodents, and demands ingenuity on your part and some cooperation from the landscape to set up.
Plastic tarps don't hold up very well, but are cheap enough that you can replace them often. Coated-nylon tarps come with reinforced grom-mets on the sides and corners for easy rigging. If your tarp doesn't have grommets, sew on permanent loops of fabric, such as nylon or twill tape, before leaving home. Alternatively, you can just tie off each corner (fig. 3-3) around a small cone or pebble from the campsite. Take along some lightweight cord to string the tarp and perhaps a few light stakes.
Fig. 3-3. Securing a tarp without grommets
The most versatile tarp size is about 9 by 12 feet—luxurious space for two people and their gear, and adequate for three, or even four. An 11-by 14-foot size will handle four campers comfortably. Since the outer margins of tarp-covered ground are usually only barely protected, usable space quickly approaches the vanishing point if your tarp is smaller than 9 by 12 feet. Put down a waterproof ground sheet, but if rain results in a surprise flood, be ready to move camp. A tarp is not meant to be used as a blanket, because perspiration will condense inside the waterproof material and leave you damp.
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