Season Ratings: Quite a few manufactures rate their tents according to seasons, which would be fine if the weather read the same ratings and took note. In reality, some summer mountain pitches can be as savage as winter conditions in lower level areas, so it's more helpful to break down tents according to their intended use. There's no universally recognised standard, but this is what to expect from each category:
Expedition tents designed for extreme mountain conditions and snow/glacier camping in particular. Often heavy because weight is sacrificed for strength.
Mountain/Alpine One rung down from expedition tents, but still intended for full-on use on high ground in bad conditions.
Trekking/Valley Tents are more suited to valley campsites in the mountains. Fine high up, but not as tough. Usually lighter as a result, though.
Backpacking Tents are aimed at backpackers who generally prioritise light weight over ultimate strength and stability making them usually best suited for sheltered pitches, though some are still pretty tough in their own right.
Touring Tents There's a whole raft of tents out there designed for non-technical activities like car camping and family trips. They're generally intended to be used in campsites, so they're not particularly tough or light. Ideal for camping out of the back of a car.
Decide what you want the tent to be able to do and start from there. Remember that some lightweight mountain tents can also be used for backpacking, but a lightly made valley tent won't hack it in the high mountains.
Single or Double Skinned?: The classic double-skinned tent uses an inner tent made from a water resistant but highly breathable fabric coupled with an outer fly-sheet, which is waterproof and keeps the rain and wind out. It's a good combination for protection and breathability.
It's not particularly light though, which is why there are also some lightweight single-skinned and bivvy tents about. They're great for reducing weight and bulk in your pack, however condensation goes with the single-skinned territory. So, especially in damp conditions and unless you're a total weight freak, you are probable better to stick with a double-skinned tent and accept that you'll carry a few hundred grammes more.
As an aside, bivvy bags sound great, but while they work decently in cold, dry high mountain environments, in damper conditions, condensation again tends to be problematic. And there's nothing quite as miserable as bivvying in torrential rain. A bivvy combined with a tarpaulin is arguably a better combination here.
Tunnel or Geodesic (or in between): Tunnels and Geodesics both have good and bad points. The classic tunnel is a logical extension of the classic ridge tent with 'A-poles' being replaced by two or three curved poles fitted through a sleeve.
Tunnels tend to be lighter than geodesics due to the reduced number of poles and pockets. They're also capable of being extremely robust and stable. Unlike geodesics though, they get a lot of their strength from being properly guyed out, which can make for some ingenious pitching in snowy conditions and on glaciers, though usually pitching is more straightforward than with a geodesic dome.
They also prefer to be pitched end-on into any winds / weather for a sleeker, weather beating profile. Having said that, tunnels also tend to distort under really high winds rather than breaking, which can make them more forgiving than the theoretically tougher geodesics.
Geodesic construction, where a series of poles form an interlocking dome-like structure, makes for a very tough but usually heavier tent, well suited to mountain use. The structure is inherently rigid and the tent can be picked up and moved around if necessary. Guylines are less crucial to the tent's strength.
On the other hand, some experts argue that while geodesics are strong, the rigidity of the structure means that when they do fail, they fail catastrophically while the give in a good tunnel tent may mean it distorts rather than fails outright. It's your choice at the end of the day, though the majority of bombproof mountain tents tend to embrace geodesic construction.
Whichever you choose, if it's for winter use, make sure the flysheet extends all the way to the ground for protection. If it's to be used in snow, then an additional snow valance is even more effective.
Materials: It used to be canvas or canvas. Modern tents though generally use synthetic fabrics, normally either nylon or polyester, proofed either with silicone or PU. Both have their fans with arguments raging over relative tear strengths, UV resistance and stretch. You should also look for a fabric treated with UV inhibitors.
Polyester, for example, is reckoned to stretch less than nylon when wet and have a higher natural UV resistance - crucial to high altitude tents exposed to strong sunshine - though any coating used will enhance this. However, both will do the job.
The good news is that modern fabric technology means that even light fabrics can be very tough and highly abrasion resistant. They are not usually cheap though, which is one reason why light, strong tents are expensive.
Poles these days are generally made from interlocking alloy with an internal shockcord to hold them together. These poles offer a great combination of lightness and strength, plus they can be pre-bent to suit odd tent shapes.
Finally, look for a thick, durable groundsheet to reduce the chance of leaks. While you can supplement a built-in floor with an extra undersheet or 'footprint' it shouldn't really be necessary. You'll often see the term bathtub used with groundsheets, that means the proofed material forms a tub, usually around 4-6 inches high, meaning the tent can survive minor floods without leaking. A good thing!
Doors and Vents: You'll need at least one door to get in and out of the tent, though some have two entrances which allow you to shelter from the wind more easily if weather conditions change. Make sure there is provision for tying the door back, out of the way when you want to be able to get in and out easily. Think about storage too; will there be enough space to stash a pack (or bike) or two if you need to, in the porch?
Vents are also crucial - particularly in winter - a flow of air through the tent prevents condensation from building up. Ideally you want an arrangement you can use without leaving the comfort of the tent, which can be propped or held open and can be closed quickly if bad weather comes in.
Insect Netting: Mesh doors don't seem particularly important until you're besieged by a swarm of hungry midgies, at which point they are the most important thing in the universe. Most decent tents now come with a fine mesh panel as part of the door construction.
It is possibly better to have the mesh on the outside of the door, since you can then open and close the solid fabric from inside the tent. The only downside to that is that in some conditions, snow can be trapped by an external mesh, but it's not generally a problem.
Pitching: Pitching's generally something you find out about in a dark field in the pouring rain the first time you use your tent. It shouldn't be though, and the simpler and quicker a tent pitches, the safer it is. Some tents offer an all-in-one inner and outer together pitching system, which are great for outright speed and simplicity.
At the very least though, it is better to be able to pitch any tent flysheet first, not always an option with geodesics. That way the inner tent is protected from rain while the tent is being pitched, and so are you... Generally, the simpler the tent, the more quickly it will go up. Multiple tensioners and cunning reinforcement devices weigh more and take time to pitch.
Mesh or fabric sleeves?: Continuous ones are best and make threading poles through easier. Also look for colour coded poles if there are several of different lengths to choose from.
Living Space: It may sound obvious, but make sure there's enough room in the tent and vestibule/porch for you and your kit. Is the tent long enough for you to sleep in without being crammed against the walls? Is the vestibule large enough for packs and other equipment that you don't want in the inner tent?
Internal storage: Mesh pockets on the tent walls are great for getting things out of the way and some tents now come with 'gear lofts' that are suspended from the ceiling to provide extra storage.
Room to sit up: That might seem unimportant now, but if you find yourself sitting out bad weather for hours or even days on end, the extra headroom's worth having. Finally, you may prefer light coloured tents. Not because they're easy to spot, but because in bad weather, it's simply more pleasant and uplifting being in a bright, light space than in a dark, doom-laden kennel....
Finally: Good tents aren't cheap; you pay for lightness combined with strength because that lightness comes from a combination of high tech, expensive materials and careful design and construction. But before you lash out on a top-end tent, ask yourself if you're really going to use it in serious conditions. If you're going to be mainly car camping, there are plenty of more moderately priced, heavier, but still very adequate options out there.
Sleeping mats protect you from the cold coming up from the ground below, and provide a comfortable sleeping surface. Here is an introduction to the type of mats available:
Classic Mats: This is made from closed cell foam material. The 'closed cell' bit is important because it prevents the foam from soaking up water like an open cell version - commonly known as a sponge! The plusses are that they're relatively cheap, fairly hard to damage, can be carried outside your pack with impunity and are light and compact once rolled up. Generally the more insulation you want, the thicker the foam you need. If you're camping on a glacier, you may need two foam mats to keep the cold at bay.
Self-Inflating Mats: These consist of a foam core and air sandwiched inside an outer made of a tough, waterproof fabric. They roll up tightly for carrying, but by opening a valve, air is free to flow into the inside of the mat and inflate the foam. 'Self-inflating' is slightly optimistic .... you will still need to blow a few puffs of air in to ensure the mat is fully inflated. Warmth is generally down to the thickness of the mat. Simply, the thicker the mat, the more air it traps and the thicker and more effective the insulation layer.
The top brands use more sophisticated foam inside their mats with holes cut into them to save weight and bulk. They also tend to use lighter, thinner fabrics to cut weight and pack size. That's a two-edge sword as the really light self-inflaters tend to puncture more easily. Speaking of which, make sure your self-inflating pad comes with a puncture repair kit; a self-deflating mat is no fun.
As a generalisation, self-inflaters are more comfortable and significantly warmer than closed-cell foam mats because they trap more air and pressure adjustments allow for comfort tuning. If you're car camping rather than backpacking, a really fat self-inflater offers amazing comfort, though at a weight you won't want to carry. Last point, look for a non-slip finish to stop you from sliding down or off the mat during the night. Not fun.
Down-filled Pads: These are similar to airbeds but contain high loft goose down to prevent air currents from moving heat away from your body, which is why conventional air beds are not good at keeping you warm. The end result is a mattress that's much warmer than any other mat of the same weight.
Users swear by them, though they're not particularly light, and the cost of them means you have to be serious about your sleeping. A dedicated high altitude glacier camper perhaps. Over The Top for most, but if you must have the most warmth, possibly the way to go.
Choosing a stove is all about the basics and it starts with the two most basic questions of all:
What conditions is the stove going to be used in?: Altitude and extreme cold make different demands to low level summer backpacking. Also, are you planning a full-on Alpine expedition, or a jaunt with the family, camping from the car? These questions will determine the importance of weight and pack size. The number of people you will be cooking for will also influence your decision, as it will influence the size of the stove and pans you cook in.
What fuels are available locally?: If you're travelling to a remote area like Bolivia or Kazakhstan, it may be impossible to obtain gas canisters or clean white gas, so you'll probably be looking at one of the multi-fuel stoves.
Looking at the vast array of shapes and sizes of stove available, consider also:
Pan supports: these vary from 12-20cm in diameter. On uneven ground (especially if you are wild camping), a wide support is most stable. Think about how many people you will be cooking for as well - if two or more people, you will need larger pans, and hence larger pan supports to hold a large pan stable.
Burner size: the larger the burner, the wider the heat distribution, the more even the cooking and the faster the boil time. If you are going solo, a stove with a smaller burner and smaller pans will save weight.
Flame control: you don't want your food to be burnt to a crisp within seconds - can you control the flame relatively easily to change from boiling to simmering and back again as necessary? Is this adjusted right next to the burner (might get hot) or on the fuel bottle itself (might not be so responsive).
Ten Key Points
1. Fuels: gas is clean and easy to use and mixes are far better than previous attempts at low temperature burns. However airlines won't carry gas. Kerosene (paraffin) and gasoline (petrol) are almost always obtainable.
2. Maintenance: gas stoves need very little cleaning, the same is true of refined white gas, but dirty petrol will clog burners rapidly - stoves don't burn hot enough to combust all the additives - so look for an easily strippable system.
3. Burn Power: what time does it take to boil one litre of water in low level conditions. At altitude, pressurised stoves and propane do best. Unfortunately propane needs big, heavy canisters and isn't available very readily.
4. Spares: if you're off on an expedition, you'll need a spares kit to keep things burning.
5. Carrying: keep fuel and stoves away from clothes and sleeping bags unless you want to be Johnny (or Joanna) Paraffin-Pong. Use proper fuel bottles and carry Meths (methylated spirits) in plastic, not metal containers.
6. Ignition: matches or lighters? Lighters will work best if you get horribly wet ..... some stoves come with their own igniters.
7. The Kitchen: Don't cook inside your tent!
8. Wind: using a windshield and putting a lid on your pot will make a big difference to boiling times. You can get excellent foil, roll-up versions that'll work with most stoves.
9. Solid Fuel: the absolute lightest stove / fuel combinations are the sold fuel, semi-disposable types used by hardened adventure racers and military hard men, but they're a little spartan for general use.
10. Snow Melting: on glaciers, if you have to melt snow, always keep a little water in the bottom of the pan, new snow and ice will melt more quickly. Honest.