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Spotlight - equipment views and reviews from the AK team

Choosing a 4 season tent

By Nick
24, Nov, 2011

Inner pitching or outer pitching? Geodesic or tunnel? This guide will help you through the process of buying tent which will keep you well-sheltered in any weather.

Which tent to buy?

To many campers the term 4-season sound like the anathema to the word camping, yet waking up to crystal clear skies is sometimes only possible after you have survived the night thinking the worst might happen.

Some of our worst nights camping have been in blustery showers in the Peak District, and some of the best have been in electrical storms in Wyoming or heavy dumps of snow in the Swiss Alps. As long as you know you can trust the tent you're in, you'll sleep easy.

This small guide aims to help you through the process of buying a 4-season tent.

An red tent in the snowy mountains

Inner pitching Geodesic vs Outer pitching Tunnel: Choosing the system.

The arguments rage on and everyone has their own thoughts on the subject. We decided early on we would make our mountain tents pitch inner first and, to be honest, there is no concrete reason for this. Advantages for either system are yet to be discovered, and one person's 'pro' is someone else's 'con'. The most important thing to remember, whichever way you pitch a tent, is that you have your own system for pitching, carrying, and storage. If we had to pin a reason for choosing "inner first" it is probably that most of us use inner pitch tents and have systems in place already to use them.

To give you an idea, here are a few of the arguments:

The argument for the Geodesic

If you look at most 4-season tents on the market they are geodesic in design. The geodesic dome is characterized by a number of interlinking crossover poles which makes for an inherently stable structure, because they are stable they are less reliant on their pegs for the stability. It's perfectly possible to spend a night in the geodesic tent even without pegs - not perfect, but certainly possible. A tunnel tent, by contrast, would become a £500 nylon bed sheet. Yes the inner can get damp when you put it up, and it can be a little awkward to put up when it’s windy, but there is nothing like the feeling you get off the beaten track in a wind swept location knowing that things are going to be ok, even if the wind changes.

The argument for Tunnel

When trying to keep weight to a minimum, it's pretty obvious to think that you have to take less stuff. If your tent has two poles rather than 4 and uses less fabric and pegs then it's possible to make a considerable savings in weight and packed size. The other powerful argument is when the wind is lashing down and it's a little blowy, you can put up the tent without you or the inner getting wet. As long as all aspects of the design are well thought out and executed with the right materials, they are a credible alternative, but the materials, particularly the poles, have to be right. To make a proper 4-season tunnel tent is an expensive business, make sure you ask the right questions if it looks too good to be true.

A Heksa Geodesic tent in the snow

What makes a Tent?

There are three basic elements to a tent;

The bits that hold all the stuff off your face -> POLES

The stuff that that keeps the wind and rain out -> FLYSHEET

Finally the little bits that stop it all blowing away most of the time -> PEGS

I guess we could add Inner tent and groundsheet to the mix, but the first three are the most important. 

Poles

Poles come in all shapes and sizes; here at Alpkit we use anything from 6m long wooden poles in our teepee to 70cm carbon fiber poles for a micro tarp. In most modern style tents, whether geodesic or tunnel, the poles are made from glass fiber, metal, or carbon fiber. Don't buy any tent with glass fiber poles, if you are serious about your camping - they are simply not durable or strong enough. At the other end of the scale, carbon fiber is super lightweight and strong but it's also expensive and only used on the lightest most exotic of tents. The choice made by many manufactures is metal and, although on the whole they all look the same, their performance can vary enormously due to both the construction and materials used. 

Poles make up a significant proportion of the cost of the tent and are one of the easiest ways to save money, but they're also one of the simplest elements to make a tent stronger and more durable.  The best construction is seamless extrusion, which basically means the molten metal is squirted out of a mold like icing out of a piping bag, coming out hollow to make it lighter. Often, cheaper poles are made by rolling a tube then welding the join, this obviously makes it quite a bit cheaper but quite a bit weaker. Despite appearing identical, these poles are not really suitable for long term, all-season use.
The poles that we use are DAC (possibly the worlds best poles) Featherlite NSL (the most suitable pole for lightweight 4-season tents).

Flysheet

Now that you have something to hang it off, the flysheet provides the primary barrier to the weather. It doesn’t have to be totally waterproof in order to keep you dry, however the best material for Lightweight 4-seasons tents is Nylon. It has a strong tensile strength, it's lightweight, and when coated offers a high degree of weather protection.

The degree of weather protection is mostly related to the amount of coating, the thicker the coating the more waterproof and durable. As with almost everything there is a trade off between better protection and durability Vs weight and cost. If we want to have a fabric that is durable, weather resistant and is light, it's going to cost. We could easily use a cheaper fabric and you would probably never know, but we would know, so - like all our gear - we have used the best fabric we can whilst keeping an eye on the price.

Pegs

If you want to hold a tent down, you need the biggest baddest tent pegs you can find. The problem is you may not want to carry 10-foot iron spikes along with a hammer.

Most pegs you take camping are a compromise between strength, weight, and holding power. Some need to be used cautiously and with a delicate hand as they easily bend, and with some you can grab the nearest rock and hammer in. It all depends on what the ground is like and what the conditions are, we like to think we have the pegs for most conditions, including weight weeny ti-pins to great big sand and snow spikes.

Groundsheet

On a 4-season tent, what's important is how waterproof and durable the Groundsheet is. Anything under 10,000 mm is not going to cut the mustard. It needs to be so waterproof because as soon as you kneel on a groundsheet you place a surprising amount of force through the fabric. Again nylon is the choice fabric, chosen for it high strength, low weight and overall durability.

The inside of a heksa tent

Inner

Although you could probably live in house with no glass and no insulation, it's these two things that transform a shelter into a house. The inner does much the same job, it provides Privacy, Bug Protection, Warmth, a place to hang you light, and stow a mobile phone. Not 100% essential to survival but nice nevertheless. The inner of geodesic tents needs to have a closely woven inner that allows a little airflow through the fabric to reduce condensation but provides some draft proofing.

Size

The number of people you will need to fit in a tent determines this. A six-person tent with just two people will feel roomy but will get cold, six people in a two-man tent will be cosy and probably pretty warm but you'll need to be the best of friends!

Heksa tent interior

Other considerations

"By The Power of Greyskull !"

It would be great to shout this out in the middle of storm, but the reality is that a tent's strength comes from the sum of the parts and not some retro 80s cartoon catchphrase. One weak link in the design of a tent and it all falls apart. Literally. Our range of tents combines the very best of materials to make them strong enough to support a good dumping of snow, yet still able to withstand a blast from an unsheltered windstorm. Even your favourite summer campsite can suddenly turn horribly open and desolate once the leaves have fallen from the trees.

Warm as Toast

Don't buy a 4-season tent that has lots of mesh, as it is very difficult to keep the warmth in when you need it. Much better to have ones with solid nylon panels to reduce airflow, but don't be scared of a bit of fresh air to reduce condensation, just as long as you are controlling it through the doors.

Space the Final Frontier

Camping in winter can involve quite a bit more gear and clothing than summer. Having the space to change out of cold damp clothing is significantly easier with a bit more space. More space not only creates more side panels and more storage for sorting your gear, but allows that little extra space when the weather closes in and you get tent bound. We reckon having two doors is almost essential and you should never take colour choice lightly. A green tent - although more discreet - will feel more oppressive, a red tent will be difficult to hide but feels like a much more pleasant space.

Happy Camping!

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