Pitch perfect in the great outdoors
Gone are the days when tents were a mess of heavy wooden poles and sodden canvas billowing in the wind. Now you can sleep in the comfort of a shelter that is wind-proof, rain-proof and light enough to carry in a rucksack, whether you’re heading to a summer festival or a wintry mountain range.
Tents come in all shapes and sizes, from ultra-lightweight shelters that are little more than water-resistant sleeping bags to gargantuan family-sized canopies requiring a car to transport. We tested tents designed for two people who might want to (or have to) carry their tent while travelling. If you need something bigger, many makers offer three-person tents in similar designs or larger tents still, whose various components can be evenly distributed between several hikers.
When choosing a tent, your first decision should be how much space you need. Some two-person tents are small, while others are spacious, so compare the interior dimensions. Width is a critical measurement (130cm, or 4ft 3in, is standard) but height can also be important, especially in tents with sloping roofs. Ideally, ask to see a new tent pitched before parting with cash.
A tent’s design will affect its stability, weight and internal space. Basic pop-up tents are ready to jump into in seconds but can be heavy, awkwardly shaped and shouldn’t be relied on in bad weather. General-purpose dome tents (not tested) are cheap and roomy but do not cope well with high winds. Tunnel tents are lighter but less spacious. Geodesic tents (braced with crossed poles) tend to cost more but are extremely stable, making them ideal for sleeping out in the wildest conditions.
If you’re planning on camping in Britain this summer, one of your biggest concerns might be staying dry. Modern polyester and nylon shelters are waterproof and if the seams are sealed (as are all on test) they won’t leak along the stitching either. Cotton inner tents are found on some cheap tents, but they soak up water and rot if not dried thoroughly, so look for nylon or polyester inners for long-term performance.
The more ventilation a tent has, the less clammy condensation it will accumulate but the colder it will be. A good compromise is a tent with a lightweight inner to keep you away from condensation, plus mesh vents at each end that can be covered during cold weather. Some modern tents are so well ventilated that condensation will not form except on the coldest nights and so there is no need for an inner tent. These so-called single-skin tents are ideal for ultra-lightweight backpacking in mild conditions.
Tent doors generally lead into a porch. Make sure the door is large enough to allow easy access and the porch roomy enough to store your gear out of the rain. Some tents don’t have a porch, which is fine in dry weather but not much fun in the wet.
Pricing of two-person backpacking tents varies enormously but be wary of the cheapest models, especially if you need a shelter that you can rely on, night after night. Low-quality material can leak or tear, cheap pegs can bend and poorly designed poles can buckle or be tricky to erect in the dark. Lower-priced tents may also have a single-skin design or forgo a porch.
Be realistic, though – do you really need to splurge on a lightweight, highly technical shelter that will never be pitched more than a couple of yards from your car? Ultimately, your pitch-perfect tent will be one that suits you: a basic dome tent for fair-weather car campers; a lightweight geodesic for more serious adventurers.
Geodesic Highly stable tent design whose poles cross one another at three places
Single skin A tent without an inner. Saves weight but can suffer condensation
Tunnel A tent design with (at least) a pair of flexible poles at each end. Relatively lightweight but not the most stable
Mountain Equipment Dragonfly 2XT – typically £350, or £280 from www.cheaptents.com
Dependable go-anywhere shelter
If you want to be well protected in the worst of weather and still able to carry your tent on your back, the Dragonfly is a safe bet. Its tall, spacious, geodesic design is stable and comes with a huge porch extension, so you can stow loads of gear out of the elements. It is a breeze to pitch as colour-coded poles simply feed through sleeves in the flysheet. There is ample space for two campers and excellent zippered ventilation means condensation is easily controlled. At 5½lb, it’s far from the lightest on test, although its weight is modest for the space it provides. It’s also pricy but if you are planning on camping regularly, or in a range of conditions, the 2XT is a superb investment.
Vaude Taurus 1 – typically £135, or £108 from www.chevintrek.co.uk
Low priced, functional backpacking tent
Not quite a geodesic tent, the hybrid Taurus 1 pitches easily with just two poles. One of the great features of the Taurus (and other Vaude tents) is its door design. It has multiple zips so it can be opened from either side to suit the wind direction, from the bottom to give ventilation or from the top to control condensation. The inner is smaller than most other tents here because of the tent’s tapered profile, and the porch is cramped too, but there is just enough room for two. Weighing 5½lb, the Vaude is heavy for the amount of space on offer, but when you consider that it is half the price of some larger rivals, it is a winner for anyone travelling light, and cheap.
The North Face Spectrum 23 – typically £230, or £200 from www.ellis-brigham.com
Stable, light and ideal for one night
Tent companies are continually trying to shave off weight while maintaining space and stability. At just over 4lb, this tent is light for a two-person model, with a geodesic design that can shrug off storms of up to 130mph, according to the maker’s wind tunnel tests. However, it is also the narrowest tent on test (less than 4ft at its widest point) and it saves weight by sacrificing an inner, which means that condensation may build up inside, especially in colder weather. In our tests we did not find condensation a big problem, because the airflow through the roof of the tent is good without being draughty. This is not a tent for everyone but for overnight backpacking in warm weather, the Spectrum is a miniature marvel.
Vango Spirit 200 Lite – typically £180, or £160 from www.outdooraction.co.uk
Good all-rounder for backpacking
The Vango is a lightweight (5lb) tent for general camping and backpacking, utilising a tunnel design supported by just two poles. While tunnels are generally not as stable as geodesic designs, this tent has a tension band system that adds support from inside the tent, allowing it to withstand strong winds. However, this can be somewhat fiddly to set up. There is room for two campers and a spacious porch for stowing gear, although the Mountain Equipment tent offers a little more space and length. While stability and living space may not be the absolute best on test, the Spirit 200 offers excellent value in terms of the load on your back and the load on your bank balance.
Coleman Avior X2 – typically £90, or £75 from www.wildday.co.uk
Low-priced but heavy for its size
The Avior X2 has a tunnel design with an unusual side entry as well as an end entrance. We found this really useful as two campers could come and go without disturbing one another. The porch is big enough for a couple of rucksacks and has a zip-out groundsheet to protect your gear from soggy ground. The X2’s main drawback is that the tunnel narrows and tapers steeply, cutting into the interior space, so that only one person can sit up at a time. Given the restricted headroom, the weight (5½lb) seems excessive for what you get. However, if you cannot stretch to the higher-priced options, this tent offers a reasonable and cheap camping solution.
Ministry of Sound Speed XT – typically £70 from www.millets.co.uk
Festival fun in a heavyweight package
The hassles of pitching a tent in the dark are history, as this one pops into shape when released from its carry bag. It is a good choice for late sleepers, too, thanks to a blackout lining that cuts down the light of dawn. It easily sleeps two people, and four can sit up inside. However, it is by far the heaviest tent here (almost 10lb) and its folded disc-like shape is spectacularly hard to pack in a rucksack. Also, the fibreglass poles it uses are not as durable as the metal poles used by all the other tents on test. Forget backpacking, then, but for anyone who wants to sit in a field listening to music with friends rather than walk in the countryside listening to nature, the Speed XT is an ideal choice.