One of the biggest decisions that most hikers are faced with at one point or another is how to pick which tent to buy. The options seem endless and the amount of information and technical jargon can easily overwhelm. With that in mind we have put together a few thoughts that will hopefully help you spend your money wisely and end up with a tent that ticks all the boxes.
Tents are one of the ‘big three’ pieces of hiking gear (the other two being a backpack and sleeping bag + mat). The ‘big three’ are usually the biggest, heaviest, and most expensive pieces of gear that hikers carry and as such require a bit of thought before you part with your hard earned cash. If the opportunity arises, take a friend's tent for a spin if you're thinking of buying something similar as there's nothing quite like trying the real thing before purchasing.
Before we continue a quick word on a term you will see used when measuring the waterproofness of fabric - Hydrostatic Head or HH. This is a measurement of how tall a column of water your tent fabric can hold before the water begins to seep through, or more precisely the water pressure the fabric can hold before it seeps through. The higher the HH the more water pressure the membrane can withstand before it fails (Rain Jackets tend to have higher HH ratings than Tents due to the added pressure of pack straps and your body movement on the fabrics themselves).
Another variable to take in to account is that when you place added pressure onto an area of your tent water will seep through easier as the water is now under more pressure (e.g. The floor when you sleep on it, or the fly when snow begins to accumulate on it). For this reason tent floors are often made of fabric with a higher HH rating than the fly. The tent floor also has to cope with the abrasion that comes from the ground, sticks, rocks and any other obstacles placed underneath it.
When thinking about how waterproof a tent will be also look at how the entrance and exit points are designed, the quality of the zips, and the type of seam sealing used as these are all weak spots that will allow water in if designed poorly.
The second term you'll come across is a season rating which can be annoyingly subjective depending on where a tent company is based and how conservative they choose to be when advertising the capability of their tents. In general it is as it sounds, a 2 season tent should comfortably withstand all conditions in the Summer and late Spring/early Autumn months which is when most hikers are using them. A 4 season tent is suitable for pitching in the depths of winter, in alpine environments and will have stronger pole and fabric designs to deal with snow loading and strong winds. In general NZ designed tents will be rated based on NZ weather conditions which are considered wetter and somewhat more unpredictable than other areas of the world so make sure you use key objective measures like HH and the composition of the poles themselves to compare between tents, not just season references alone.
The first thing to think about when trying to pick a tent is how you intend to use it. I know that this seems like an obvious question but bear with me. Firstly do you intend to camp in one spot for multiple nights (perhaps with the family in a spot you have driven to) or are you going hiking and need a tent which will be pitched at night and packed up in the morning (and in your pack during the day as you hike)?
This is the first difference that you will notice when picking a tent. A camping tent is perfect for a trip that has little to no walking involved. They tend to be heavier, and not pack down as small as their hiking counterparts. They are also often available in much larger sizes so as to be suitable for the whole family. If you are buying from a reputable brand the floor and fly material will often be of a similar quality to the hiking tents from the same brand but their weight and size will normally limit their use to vehicle accessed areas only. Camping tents are also not usually designed (in terms of the pole design/composition or fabric) to withstand the more extreme weather conditions that can be experienced in the mountains.
A hiking tent on the other hand will be designed to be carried in a pack and therefore will pack down as efficiently as possible, and weigh as little as possible. They also tend to be able to withstand more extreme weather conditions. We will focus mostly on the hiking tent side of things as typically most of our readers are hikers!
The second part of the equation is to think about what kind of terrain you normally hike in and what areas and weather conditions you intend to use your tent in. For the purposes of this post we will break it down into the following categories:
The fair weather hiker: you mostly sleep in huts, walk on well marked trails, and want a tent as a backup in case of the hut being full, or to allow you to hike and tent on summer trips when the sun is shining. Sure - you still need a tent that can cope should the heavens open but you don’t intend to be up above the bush line when that happens and the thought of pitching a tent on the snow makes you shudder.
You should be looking for a two season tent. This will be more than adequate for the bulk of your hiking and will ensure that you stay dry should you get caught out. Two season tents are usually lighter than there 3 and 4 seasons counterparts which allows you to keep your pack weight down and enjoy the journey minus those sore shoulders hikers often experience. For a two person two season tent look for something in the 1.5 - 3kg range. The floor hydrostatic head should be at least 3000mm HH for NZ conditions and the fly should be at least 1000mm HH. Expect to pay around $250 - $500.
Bonus Points: Some tents can be pitched fly only or tent only (often referred to as "multi-pitch") which is helpful for a couple of reasons. If it's raining in the morning you can dismantle the tent from inside while keeping the fly overhead as you pack all of your gear. The last thing you do when you're ready to go is pull down the wet fly and poles and stow them on the outside of your already packed pack. Secondly, you can take just the fly and pole set for a more structured tarp set up on a more minimalist trip. This gives you the full space of both the tent and any vestibules (see the photo at the beginning of this post) to sleep under. Alternatively you can sleep in just the tent itself which offers significantly more ventilation but relies on no precipitation overnight.
Bottom Line: These tents are at the cheaper end of the scale and will suit many hikers fine but will need an upgrade should you start getting into more difficult trips or trips to higher elevations.
The Backcountry Wanderer: you often venture off track and spend nights in areas away from huts where having a decent tent is a non-negotiable. You intend to use your tent as your only means of shelter on some trips and will take it on multi-day trips where the weather forecast is less certain.
You should be looking for either a 3 or 3 - 4 season tent. These will likely be slightly heavier than the two season tents and are usually 2.5 - 3.5kg for a two person tent. The extra weight comes from the fact that these tents have heavier fabric with a higher HH rating. They also often have stronger tent poles and may have extra poles to reinforce the design and allow them to stand up to harsher weather conditions and higher winds. For this category we strongly recommend that you get a tent with a 10,000mm HH floor. While there are many tents on the market in this category with floor ratings of much less than this we believe that if you want a tent that will both cope well with the often boggy and saturated ground encountered in NZ and have a long lifespan then this is an area you shouldn’t skimp on. The fly should ideally be 1000 - 3000mm HH. Expect to pay $400 - $800.
Bottom Line: This type of tent is what most hikers actually require and for the vast majority of the time will be appropriate for the conditions in NZ.
The Alpine Maestro: Tracks mean nothing to you! You long for the open tops and snow covered slopes of the mountains and need a tent capable of taking a hammering from the wind and coming back for more. You need to be able to set up camp on the snow and need a tent that will cope with a blizzard and offer you shelter from the storm.
This is where the 4 season tent comes into play. These tents are made of the most bomb proof material and are built to stand up to the worst that mother nature can throw at them. They will often have more poles which overlap and provide significant strength to the tent structure. In this category again look for a floor with 10,000mm HH and a fly with 3000mm+ HH. These suckers are heavy - for a two person 4 season tent expect it to weight 3 - 5kg. Expect to pay a fair bit as these tents are not cheap to make: $800 - $1200.
Bottom Line: Quite a few people fool themselves into thinking they need a 4 season tent but the reality is unless you are a mountaineer or hardcore backcountry tramper spending nights above the snow line you probably don’t. Keep this kind of tent for expeditions and serious backcountry adventures only. It really isn’t fun lugging 5kg of tent around on your back….
The Ultralight Hiker: Light and Fast is your mantra and the last thing you want to be doing is carrying around a heavy, bulky shelter. You are used to being a bit more spartan with your gear choices and are happy to sacrifice a little in the way of comfort at night in order to enjoy the lightweight life.
You have a few options. From super lightweight tarps which you pitch using trekking poles, to one man bivvy bags that require no pitching at all. More and more super lightweight shelter options are becoming available each year. A tarp and groundsheet setup can come in at as little as 500g, with actual tents being closer to the 1kg mark. The options are simply too many to go into any great detail but there are a few things to consider.
Many ultralight shelters are made by American outdoor companies and are designed to handle the often more predictable climate of the continental US. This doesn’t mean that they are useless in NZ conditions but it is worth taking into account as often (but not always) the HH ratings tend to be at the lower end of the scale.
Also bear in mind that if you are going to use a tarp as your primary means of shelter then they require practice to pitch well and need to be pitched taking into account the current weather conditions so as to ensure that rain doesn’t blow in underneath them. Tarps also leave you exposed to sandflies so you may need to consider taking some other means of saving face (literally).
That said we do own a tarp and have used it on a few trips with good success but I guess I enjoy the comfort of a tent more!
Prices vary from a couple of hundred dollars through to well over a thousand depending on what you are looking for.
Bottom Line: Picking this type of shelter is a very personal decision based on how you want your sleep system to work. Any ultra lightweight shelter will ultimately be less durable and have a shorter lifespan than the other options above. While some of the newer fabrics are perhaps the exception to this rule (I’m looking at you Cuben Fibre) expect to empty your wallet in a big way to get a hold of them.