If you are at that stage where you are really not sure about camping, but would like to give it a go without shelling out loads of money on equipment, then the obvious answer is, see if you can borrow any kit from friends or family (but do be careful with their kit – if they are anything like me it is important to them).
Failing that, you could also look at purchasing a more basic tent. There are plenty of these in Argos – Camping Section. If you are new to camping, and this is your first purchase – then you have this fundamental decision to make- do you want to spend less now, get a cheaper end tent, but if you really get into it accept the possibility that you might want to invest in something better in the not-too-distant future? Or would you rather throw both feet in now, and invest in a decent tent to start with?
I will now explain what is a ‘lower end’ tent and a ‘higher end tent’. In other words – what am I getting with a cheaper tent or for an expensive tent.
Tent Size: Be aware, in camping speak a ‘two man tent’ will have just enough room for one person and his bag. Consider the [number of] man size as – how many people could lie down in it completely straight in a mummy position. Most of us (particularly holiday campers, or those not used to it) would rather have a bit more space than that. So, for example if you are a family of 4, it would probably be better to look at 6-man tents. Most tents of this size can accommodate a family of four very comfortably. The key things here are – how much space do you need for other things? (kids stuff, bags, food boxes etc), and also how much sleeping space do you want to feel comfortable?
Waterproofing: The techy term for how much a tent will hold out the water is ‘hydrostatic head’. So check the HH rating ... a ‘low’ HH would be 1000-2000, a ‘medium’ HH would be 3000, and a ‘high’ HH would be 5000 (or more). Note: this applies to the ‘flysheet’ – ie the ‘main’ tent, not the groundsheet – the groundsheet should be very waterproof). I would say, if you feel you are going to get into camping properly (ie a few times a year – maybe even a number of long weekends), then the chances are you may encounter some bad weather – particularly in the UK. In which case, clearly the most sensible option is to look for a tent with a higher HH. On the other hand, if at this stage the camping thing is a bit experimental, and you plan to do it only at the height of summer, then many of the lower end tents are perfectly acceptable. So now, when you compare some of the ‘more affordable’ tents with the ‘more expensive’ tents you can see one of the main reasons why there is such a price difference. I would think this one through properly. Personally, in the UK, I like to ‘go west’ (ie Wales and the Lake District) – but this does come with the inherent risk of rain. And to be stuck on west coast Wales in a tent leaking water in gale-force winds is no fun (although it’s always something to talk about later!).
Sewn-In Groundsheet: This is something else which affects the price of a tent. What is a ‘sewn in groundsheet’? ... Basically, the tent is all sewn together like one big bubble from the outside world. If a ground sheet is not ‘sewn-in’ or ‘seamed in’ (or similar), then there is that gap between the flysheet and the groundsheet, where bugs and wet could get in. I would always recommend sewn-in groundsheet as a must. But, again, this affects the price you pay, and if at this stage you just want to try out camping, and you don’t mind bugs so much, you could go with a more budget tent, but understand what it is you are getting.
Tent Style: All of the above factors are the things that affect the price the most. The next thing to consider is – what type of ‘living space’ do I want? ... For family tents, there are so many tent options that, if you are new to it, it can be overwhelming. Here are some considerations to help you out... There are tents that have separate sleeping rooms laid out like a 3- or 4-point star. These are sometimes known as ‘pod tents’ because you have different sleeping ‘pods’. Many people are immediately drawn to this style of tent, because it has obvious advantages – the main one being – you all sleep in separate rooms with one central living space. But there are some disadvantages that many do not consider: 1) if you have toddlers or children you may have to attend to in the night, it means getting out of bed, unzipping your own pod, going into their pod etc, whereas if you were all in one big space you know they are a reach away, b) Sometimes the ground you pitch on is not perfectly level, and if your pod just happens to be the one where the ground slopes in the direction of your partner, you won’t be popular when you spend the night rolling into them, on the other hand if you have a tent with one big room or sleeping areas adjoining, you can pitch the tent so that your feet are ‘down-hill’ – and everyone has a lovely night’s sleep! c) Some of the pod tents are enormous in terms of the ground space they take up, and there are more and more campsites who deem them unpopular and may even want to charge you more (I guess from their point of view – for your one pitch they could have fitted about 3 or 4 2-man tents in the same spot, basically you just check with the campsites if they charge for ‘bigger tents’). I am not trying to dissuade you from buying a pod tent, I am just saying, consider this first. The alternative, and equally popular is a ‘tunnel’ tent with adjoining rooms, where the room separators can be removed if you want to.
Millets have a very good page explaining in detail all the tent types (click here to go to their home page, go to the bottom of the page and click buying guides and go to tents and then ‘different tent styles’).
Here is my more unbiased word on tent styles: Dome tents tend to be the most stable in all winds. ‘Geodesic’ means a tent that is specifically designed to be stable in all winds and tends to be of a fundamental dome design but with a bit of clever trickery with how the poles are laid out. Tunnel tents are the style where the poles make up an upside-down ‘U’ and are set out in a row. Tunnel tents are surprisingly stable. Actually, their stability relies mainly on the strength of the poles, so a tunnel tent with steel poles will be very strong. Many of these tents have an added advantage of being able to extend your living space with tent extension or porch which is continuous with your main living area. This is particularly handy if you want a cooking area under cover (Note: you should not cook in tents – it is dangerous, but to have a tent extension with doors open and by exercising caution with where the heat is, you can have yourself an undercover ‘kitchen’ area). This is another thing to consider when buying a tent: Is it likely that you will get yourself a tent extension? Even if you do not get one now, you may want to get one next year. If this could happen, then check what extensions are available for the tents you are looking at.
My own personal choice?... I prefer a strong tunnel-style tent with the main door situated at one end. That way, my kids sleep only a reach away (by detaching the room separator), we have ample living space next to the bedroom, and an additional space for cooking and sitting outside but protected from the elements. Although we also have a dome style tent – which is quicker to pitch – for weekend camping (that is the one pictured on the home page).
Tent Brand: As with any walk of life, there are brands. Vango tend to offer the greatest range – in terms of size, type, quality and affordability. Outwell position themselves at the ‘higher’ end of the market in terms of quality (all have decent HH ratings, sewn-in groundsheets, and offer great add-ons such as extensions, carpets, and even kids rooms). Coleman tend to offer ‘comfort’ touches or novel features to their tents, but this may sometimes come with a lower HH rating. I would say, regardless of brand, go with the right tent for you. But, if you are the kind of person who only goes for top brands, you won’t go amiss with an Outwell.
A useful video which covers tent types and a sample of those available on the market
Outwell's new tents for 2019