From Biblical times to the first 50,000 years of human history, people sought shelter in tents. The oldest tent discovered was found in Russia and dates back 40,000 B.C. In 450 BC, nomadic people brought their homes with them as they dwelled in portable tents known as yurts and teepees.
Military tents became popular in 300 BC as Roman soldiers who frequently traveled across cities used large tents such as ridge tents and marquee tents. American soldiers during the American Revolution and the Civil War used the same tents. It was also around this time that camouflaged tents were introduced.
Tent innovations made a massive leap in the 20th century as tent camping became popular. Tents became more durable, lightweight, and even waterproof along with other technical features.
Table of Contents
- Key Types
- Types of Tent Materials
You probably recognize the ridge tent or the “A-frame” tent, and at one point in time, virtually all tents held this shape. The name comes from the cross pole, called a ridge, that stretches across the length of the tent, holding up the roof. The design is simple and effective, and a well-pitched ridge tent is likely to hold up better than most modern tent styles.
Nowadays, however, you might call this a “retro” tent, and there are also some downsides including less storage space and headroom, less availability, and sometimes complicated setup. In general, ridge tents are excellent options for solo travelers or even couples who don’t plan on spending much time inside.
Traditionally, these tents consisted of a thick canvas stretched over a minimum of three poles: two vertical and one horizontal. Stability comes primarily from guy-lines and tie-outs, and, while commercial availability for ridge tents may be lacking, a skilled outdoors man could probably throw one together himself by gathering materials.
Dome tents are one of the more popular tent styles, and you will find them in a wide range of styles and sizes. While they are most often recognized by their curved pole structure, they may also have features such as a rainfly and a “porch” section, which you can use as a storage space to make more room inside of the tent itself.
Usually, two long poles stretch crossways over the tent, intersecting at the top of the tent and locking into the ground. This creates a square base and a dome-shaped tent that can offer more space and headroom than a ridge tent. While dome tents can withstand moderate weather conditions, ridge tents are better-suited for harsh weather, and the stability of your dome tent will decrease with size.
All other tent styles are going to require some set-up, but these tents simply pop-up and are ready for use. Dedicated shoppers might pitch these outside of their favorite store while awaiting a major sale or video game release. However, they are also common at music festivals and make great backyard tents for your kids.
Pop-up tents are arguably less suitable for intense and frequent camping, though recent developments have certainly increased reliability. The frame of the tent is inside of the fabric, and it’s long, coiled, and ready to spring upon release. Different pop-up tents will have different shapes, sizes, and springing directions. Some unfold, and some uncoil, and by reversing this process, you get a compact, easily storable tent, but due to the convenience, pop-up tents are often more expensive than traditional styles.
If you have a large, outdoorsy family, a tunnel tent might be the perfect option for you. They offer tons of livable space and come in a variety of sizes, so there is likely a tent out there to accommodate even the largest families.
They are made up of a series of flexible pools that stretch from one side of the tent to the other, forming half circles down the length of the tent, which creates a tunnel shape. Given their length, you may want to pay attention to the direction in which these tents face. Facing the entire length of the tent against the wind by force it to collapse or topple over. Tunnel tents offer a lot of space, but they also require a lot of space, so as long as you have the means to transport the tent and the campsite space to set it up, they can make a great sleeping option.
Geodesic or Semi-Geodesic Tents
A relative of the dome tent, the geodesic tent consists of multiple crisscrossing poles that create shapes such as triangles or hexagons, and the purpose of doing this is to create greater stability. In fact, geodesic tents are some of the most stable tents available and can withstand extremely high winds. If you remember the dome-shaped jungle gym from your elementary school playground, then you know what many geodesic tents look like. It’s a fairly common structural design that is utilized for a great number of purposes, one of these being tents.
These are the without a doubt the most suitable tents for extreme weather conditions and are frequently used for mountaineering. They also provide excellent headroom and are constructed with a technical approach for maximum durability and longevity. The semi-geodesic tent is, more or less, a simplified version of this, and, while more stable than a dome tent, it won’t withstand the same weather conditions.
Inflatable tents are both relatively new and fairly uncommon pieces of camping equipment, and, next to the pop-up tent, these are the simplest to pitch. While you do need an air pump, once the tent is set in place and secured, it’s simply a matter flipping the switch and watching the tent take its shape. While heavy, inflatable tents are spacious, and there are no poles to be fixed. Given that this is a fairly new design, most inflatable tents are going to be pricey compared to more traditional styles.
Designed for hikers and foot travellers, the backpacking tent is small, lightweight, and easy to pitch, making it the ideal tent to be travelling with. Hikers have to pay attention to weight when it comes to the items that they pack, and backpacking tents place practicality over functionality. While they aren’t ideal for sitting up or hanging out, these low-lying tents are perfect for hiking-focused camping. After a long day of travelling, hikers can quickly pitch this tent and rest for the night.
The Vis-à-Vis Tent
The trend of a compartmentalized tent came from France, and vis-à-vis is French for “face-to-face,” in reference to the two “bedrooms” that face each other in this style of tent. The center of the tent is a large, open space with great headroom, and attached to the center space are two compartments for sleeping.
These tents basically work additional sections into a traditional dome or tunnel-shape, making them great options for families or groups. The additional sections, of course, mean that the tent will be heavier, but the compartments offer a little bit of privacy that traditional tents can’t. While the vis-à-vis tent consists of two compartments, there are other tent styles that take this to the next level.
Pod-style tents include several “pods” or compartments that are attached to a spacious, central living area. Often times, these compartments are separated from the center of the tent by their own door, so next to completely separate tents, pod-style tents offer the greatest amount of privacy.
They are some of the largest tents on the market, and while this is good news for large families, these tents do come with some downsides. Some campgrounds actually charge extra for tents that require this much ground area, so it may help to inquire with your campground beforehand. Additionally, the extra fabric will increase the weight, and the extra compartments may make the tent more difficult to set up.
Cabin tents are typically a single space tent, though some of them may have internal dividers that separate the space into rooms. They don’t require the footprint that pod-style tents do, but they are square, stable, and tall enough to the point that you can easily stand up in them. They are definitely not ideal for harsh weather conditions, but they make great tents for casual camping and hanging out.
Cabin tents can be fairly heavy and complicated to set up, but once they are up, they make great camping arrangements for families and large groups. The tall door makes entering and exiting extremely easy, and these are also cheap to purchase compared to other tents.
Some of these tents may look something like a modern teepee. Pyramid tents are an extremely simple design, often consisting of just a single poll that sits in the center. A canvas or another material is draped over the pole, stretched out, and secured to the ground by guy-lines and stakes. Given the lack of poles, it’s even more important that the guy-lines are strong. Otherwise, it’s impossible for the tent to retain its shape, and the larger you attempt to make these, the less stable they will be.
Their simplicity, however, also means that they can be incredibly lightweight and easy to set up. If you are skilled and not too worried about aesthetics, you may be able to pull it off with a wooden pull, a tarp, and some rope. Headspace will, of course, be limited, and they are not ideal for multiple guests. They also don’t have built-in ground sheets, so you will need to place your own or sleep on the bare ground.
Another tent, the Bivy tent is made for solo hikers and wilderness wackos who are trying to carry as little weight as possible. Bivy tents usually a variation of the ridge tent, and they are often shaped like a wedge, with the high point of the tent being off to one side. They typically have a maximum capacity of one, but they offer enough protection from the elements that you can stay safe and dry overnight.
Tied to trees and suspended off of the ground, these tents work exactly like a hammock, but they are completed covered so that you can stay protected. They are ideal for forested areas, especially those where the ground may be wet and uncomfortable to sleep on. It’s basically everything that you love about a hammock with the added benefit of having a roof. They’re lightweight, easy to set up, and small when packed.
Bell tents are often considered a luxury tent, and they are certainly the choice for design-conscious campers. They are a single-space tent that closely resembles a teepee, and, like teepees, they support wood burning. The canvas covering is an excellent insulator and temperature regulator, making the bell tent ideal for summer months, as well.
Toward the bottom of the tent, the canvas covering meets a mesh material that generates excellent ventilation on the inside, and it can often be rolled up to maximize airflow. The open floor plan means that they can sleep a lot of people, but you can’t exactly use this everywhere. They aren’t ideal for outdoorsy people and can easily topple over during harsh weather conditions.
Frame tents are essentially just a metal frame with a tent top, and they offer a completely open layout. These are the tents you see at outdoor gatherings and public, private, and promotional events, as they can provide shade for visitors while allowing everybody to walk around freely.
They come in a wide variety of sizes and can also be fully covered for greater privacy. Camping canopies are a version of the frame tent and can be attached to your tent for greater coverage.
You wouldn’t want to camp with these out in the wild, but they provide excellent coverage on the beach. It’s essentially a tent cut in half, and its purpose is to shield you from the sun and blowing beach sand. Most of them have a built-in and extended floor, so you don’t have to dirty a beach towel or burn yourself on the hot sand.
Upon first glance, a car-top tent may generate a lot of confusion, and for good reason. As some sort of strange combination of a tent and an RV, car-top tents are certainly strange looking and will make you wonder how it works.
For a car-top tent to work, you need a solid roof rack to mount it on. You access the tent by way of a ladder, which can easily be detached. The tent itself is much like any other tent that you are familiar with, but installation can be a hassle and may require more than one person. So, why sleep on top of your car instead of the ground?
If you are travelling for an extended period of time and can’t always make it to a traditional “campsite,” a car-top tent may be of use to you. It also keeps you off of the ground and away from bugs, dirt, and unexpected flooding, among other things.
Types of Tent Materials
Cotton and canvas materials are often used interchangeably in a discussion, and canvas tents are some of the most popular kinds of tents out there. They not only provide ventilation, but they also provide excellent temperature regulation.
Cotton/canvas is less prone to condensation, though it’s often advised to set up your tent prior to your camping trip and allow it to go through a “weathering” process. This is recommended for the first use, and when you expose your tent to the elements, the fibers in the materials swell and settle again, filling the tiny but penetrable holes produced by the sewing process. You can either wait for rain or take a garden hose to your tent and achieve the same results, which is a waterproof tent ready for camping.
Cotton is a very traditional material for tents, used for decades because of its effectiveness. It remains cool during the summer and keeps the inside of your tent insulated during colder weather. The insulation benefits also apply to sound, so you can usually enjoy a quieter camping experience. While most tents are layered, there is no need for an inner tent with a cotton canvas cover.
Some cotton or canvas tents may already be “weathered” upon the initial purchase, but it will usually be because it’s coated in polyvinyl chloride. This coating makes your tent waterproof at the very start, so you can feel free to use it immediately without preparation. While you have this added convenience, the PVC coating might make your tent slightly more prone to condensation, as opposed to natural weathering. If you want a PVC-coated tent, it may be wise to purchase one with excellent ventilation so that you can cut down on the condensation.
Polycotton is an alternative to the 100% cotton canvas tents, and they are usually lighter in weight and lower in cost while retaining many of the benefits of traditional cotton. Just like with t-shirts, polycotton is cotton blended with polyester, and the purpose is to produce a fabric that is both lightweight and durable. These tents can also be chemically-coated to better repel water.
A pure polyester tent is lightweight and breathable, and it’s arguably the most popular tent fabric because it’s also less expensive. The fabric doesn’t shrink or get baggy when it gets wet, so it offers you excellent protection from inclement weather.
Nylon fabrics and polyester fabrics produce similar results, though nylon may be even lighter in weight. The fibers also don’t absorb water, so, naturally, this is another excellent tent material. Some of the least expensive, as well as some of the most expensive ten, ts use nylon as their fabric, but these tents are most often coated with some sort of chemical.Nylon coatings include acrylic, silicone, or polyurethane, among others, and the quality of these coatings will vary, the best coatings, of course, being the most expensive. Silicone tends to be priciest because it offers the greatest protection.
While water-resistant, nylon tents can may slack significantly when it rains, so you may need to tighten the guy-lines here and there. Extensive sun exposure also causes a nylon tent to deteriorate quicker.
The “floor” of your tent may be comprised of similar fabrics or an entirely different fabric. Usually, it’s some sort of tarp, either made out of canvas, polyester, PVC, polyethylene, or some other material and coated with a polyurethane. Given that these are being placed on the ground, these are coated with a protective and waterproof material so that the bottom of your tent doesn’t get damp while you are sleeping.
Tent poles may be made out of a handful of different materials, all of which will have their own purpose. The materials will primarily determine strength and weight, but bendability is also important when it comes to tent poles.
- Glass-Reinforced Plastic (GRP): You may know this as fiberglass. It’s a popular material and one commonly used for tent poles because it’s relatively inexpensive to produce, and it will easily bend around the curves of the tent, so they make some effective tent poles. GRP is made out of strands of glass that are held in a resin, and while these poles aren’t entirely glass, they can give you some glass splinters if they break.
- Steel: Steel tent poles are typically reserved for square tents or framed tents because steel poles are not designed to bend around curves. Another downside is that steel is prone to rust, so steel tent poles are typically painted and coated to prevent it from doing so. If you are buying steel tent poles, it’s important that they are good quality. When steel poles bend, they can be bent back, but they will never have the same strength as before.
- Aluminum Alloy: Aluminum alloy is a commonly-used material because it is both lightweight and strong. It can bend around curves like GRP but is usually more expensive to produce. Aluminum alloy is commonly used for backpacking tents where weight is a major concern.
- Carbon Fiber: These are at the high-end as far as price goes. Carbon fiber tent poles are strong, incredibly lightweight, and perfect for curved structures, but they will cost you.
Lightweight tent poles aren’t always a good thing, as they can blow away or come loose in high winds, so make sure that you are buying tent equipment that is suitable for your camping habits.
Ground pegs for tents are made out of a wide variety of materials including steel, plastic, titanium, and different alloys. They are also made in varying strengths. Some of them are designed for basic ground penetration, while others are constructed with a hard steel or plastic to be able to penetrate harder surfaces.