Which camping tent style is right for you?

What is the best camping tent? That depends. You need to match your budget and needs to the right style and brand of tent to identify the best tent for you.

I am not going to try to tell you what your camping needs are, and therefore what the best tent is. Instead, you can assess your own needs. Questions you might want to ask yourself are:

  • What style of camping am I doing? – base camping (set up and stay two weeks) or touring (set up and pull down every day)
  • How many people? – is it for a family, a couple or just yourself?
  • Do I prefer canvas or polyester?
  • How much room do I have? – both in the car for transport and at home for storage
  • Where am I camping? – many camp grounds have relatively small sites, others are open plan
  • What is my budget?
  • What are the weather conditions I am likely to experience – a Queensland winter can be warmer than a Tasmanian summer!

In assessing your camping tent needs, remember that you do not use a tent like you use a house. The tent is really only for sleeping in — the rest of your activities, such as cooking and eating will generally be done outside the tent, often under a tarp or shady tree, or in a screened shelter if the mosquitos are really bad.

If you are new to camping, look for a tent that is advertised as being for approximately double the number of people you intend to sleep — that is, if you have a family of four, choose a tent recommended to sleep 8 people (6 to 10 people to allow for different manufacturer measurements) to allow additional room to store bags and move around in the tent, but not so huge as to take forever to set up. Make sure you look at how large your beds are too — you will need enough floor area to lay them all down, but also allow some gear for luggage and standing room.

Usually there are several brands that sell each style of tent. I am not going to try to assess the merits of each brand in this post.

The following is my opinion of the positive and negative features of the various tent styles available in Australia.

Dome tents

90% of tents in camping grounds are a type of dome tent. Don’t be tempted to buy the biggest dome from your local camping store (wives/girfriends are notorious for wanting to do this!) unless you have a genuine need for it. Biggest is not always best in camping. It may seem a good idea at the camping store, but when it comes time to set it up …

Medium-sized domes are a good choice for first time campers who are yet to establish their camping needs. Decide on the floor area that you need (approximately double the number of people you intend to sleep), and then look for tents that are simple to set up with a minimum number of poles.

+: good interior space for price of tent; huge variety on the market from small through to huge size, and cheap through to quality; relatively small pack size; cheap and cheerful ones can be thrown away when damaged; polyester is easier to look after than canvas; larger domes are great for base camping

-: relatively slow to setup, and very slow if your wife/girlfriend convinced you to buy the mega mart Taj Mahal dome!; poles can break; can suffer in wind unless guyed out

Jackaroo dome tent on our first camping trip

Jackaroo dome tent on our first camping trip

Cabin tents

Cabin tents are generally canvas and have a lot of internal room. For some reason they seem to come up on eBay second hand regularly — perhaps people buy them, use them once and decide they are too hard to set up, then sell them? If you are looking at a large cabin tent, why wouldn’t you just buy one mounted on a trailer? – a camper trailer. With the pack size of these tents, chances are you are going to be taking a trailer anyway.

+: huge sizes available; near vertical walls maximise interior space; relatively cheap for the space; great for base camping; usually have full standing headroom throughout

-: heavy; very slow set up; canvas needs to be properly dried before storage

Tourer tents

Tourer tents (also known as bus tents) are generally canvas and have a centre pole. Some of the extended tourers also have a upside down U-pole to support the rear of the tent. The best known (and very expensive) tourer tents are from Southern Cross. There are numerous cheaper versions on the market, including the OZtrail tourer tents. You will often notice this style of tent in the background of photos in camping magazines.

+: fast setup; robust

-: heavy; large pack size; slanting walls decrease tent volume inside; centre pole can get in the way (but can often be removed with a side pole kit); canvas needs to be properly dried before storage

The back of a tourer tent in the Noosa River Caravan Park

The back of a tourer tent in the Noosa River Caravan Park

Turbo tents

I am using the term turbo tent to describe the increasing range of tents like the Black Wolf Turbo tents. Similar style new models on the market in Australia include the Jet Tent by Oztent and the OZtrail Blitz. Tents in this category are available in polyester or canvas.

+: fast setup on main tent inner; near vertical walls giving maximum space inside; the current range of Black Wolf tents have a reputation for being robust

-: still need to use a fly, adding to the setup time; expensive; lots of moving joints; large pack size

Oztent

The Oztent system really does not have any other similar tents in the Australian marketplace.

+: fast setup, sturdy construction; lots of accessories to customise the tent

-: low headroom; relatively small for family camping; long pack size will not fit inside most cars; expensive, particularly after you have purchased several accessories; accessories substantially increase the setup time

Swift pitch tents

These are the pop-up style tent. Throw them in the air, they pop out, a couple of pegs and you are done.

+: ultra fast setup; relatively cheap and cheerful; tent inner, fly and frame are one piece

-: small size; can suffer in wind unless guyed out; folding can be difficult (but with practice and the right technique, they are easy)

Malamoo 3-second X-tra tent -- yes, that is Bass Strait in the background!

Swags

The quintessential Australian swag has made a comeback. Swags are very popular with single blokes going bush. Some swags resemble one and two person tents with pitching systems and insect screens. Others are more traditional, in that there is the possibility of a snake seeking some warmth joining you overnight.

+: quick setup; warm; able to be rolled up with sleeping gear inside; huge range available; robust

-: limited privacy; relatively large pack size for what they are; some people may find them claustrophobic

Burke & Wills Ironbark swag

Burke & Wills Ironbark swag

Camper trailers

A large canvas tent mounted permanently on a trailer.

+: large size; can keep all your gear stored in the camping trailer; double mattress permanently left on trailer

-: expensive; often relegated to the back of camp grounds with the caravans; storage for the trailer at home; canvas needs to be looked after; some of the larger tents can take forever to set up

Hiking tents

Hiking tents are generally carried by people on multi-day hiking trips.

+: small pack size; lightweight (important when you are carrying it for several days!)

-: only small sizes available; not as robust as some other tent styles due to lightweight construction; may be expensive due to advanced materials used to minimise weight

Roof top tents

Roof top tents, as the name suggests, mount semi-permanently to the roof of the vehicle. There are several different versions and brands on the market.

+: generally quick setup; sleep off the ground (great for crocodile infested areas)

-: must pack up everytime you want to use the vehicle; relatively small size given the cost; adds weight and increases the centre of gravity of the vehicle

3 thoughts on “Which camping tent style is right for you?

  1. Pingback: Recommended canvas tents for your outdoor camping adventure | I Love Camping

  2. Bob

    I’ve spent a lot of time in various kinds of tents… For mountaineering or any time you have to share your tent especially back camp tent… He main thing for me is get a strong water proof one with durable poles and ( get one with 2 entry’s ) it sucks stomping over boiling billies every time you need to take a piss and during those times when you just want your own space you can each have a door way of your own… Vestibules are really a must in almost all cases as they provide a dryish area and more air space for breeze and cooking and keepin your gear out of the elements as well as providing ventelation at the same time as shade in dryer places…internal long and small handy pockets are both good ideas mostly to… A internal string running the length of the tent can be good for drying things and hanging head touches and lantons. As for car camping… Well the older I get the quicker I want my tent to erect it self Hay I said tent stop laughing bastards Ahahahahaha… I did go out and buy a cheapy pop up tent the kind that comes in a circle shape and you through in the air and POP! Instant tent… This I really like but be warned some of these kinds of tents are to short length ways and as with any tent you NEED to check out if you can fit in the thing comfortably before you buy it… That means adding sometimes 30cms or possibly slightly more to the length of your body… Remember if you touch the sides of your tent your gonna wake up wet next morning if there’s moisture outside or if you block the flow of air through the vents and sides. I reckon for car camping a good rule of thumb is if you want a pop tent even a normal dome tent get at least one size bigger then you thought example if there’s two of you get a three person tent at a minimum… I reckon for two people to be comfy in a pop tent get a 4 person pop tent for car camping that is. Most good hiking tents are made to work for the number of people specified in my experience… If your going into very remote places for longer time spans take a few lengths of tubing just a little bigger then the tent poles diameter… So if you break a pole you can put one of these little sheaves over both ends of the pole… Failing this good old stick and duck tape to the rescue. So good luck friends and remember the sun kills tents so if your going on some long trip in the desert take a steady but cheaper ten and save your Everest base camp special… Oh and if your old trusted tent zip starts to fail work very gently crimp each side (gently now) with players or whatever’s on hand. Good luck you camping maniacs. :0)

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