Ten top tips for buying a family tent.

Weekend before last, as well as tackling two National Trails, we also saw the exciting addition to our family of a brand new tent. Until now, my trusty 2-man Vango has accompanied me on every camping adventure, whether in South America or Dartmoor and our relationship goes back longer than that with my husband! Sadly it does not fit a wriggly toddler not to mention all her gubbins!

Old tent Dartmoor

No room for a little one: wild-camping with the old faithful on Dartmoor.

Tent shopping turned out to be a bit more complicated than we expected but fortunately we received some good advice and learned a lot on our shopping excursion with a fabulous new tent to show for our selection efforts.

Here are our top ten tips for choosing a family tent for others feeling equally bamboozled by the choice of canvas:

  • Work out what you want your tent for. The tent you take on a week long holiday in a hot county and in a drive-to-pitch campsite will be very different to the one you would want for frequent weekend breaks in the UK. Space, storage bedrooms…think it through before you shop and are beguiled by that cavernous 4 bedroomed, multi-window wonder…
  • Try before you buy! Tents look totally different up from their catalogue representations. Good outdoor shops will have space to put up a tent for you in store or better still, head to a show centre where you can see all the different models of tents side-by-side and check things like head-height and indoor space. If you are buying online, do watch videos of tents being put up and demonstrated on websites or YouTube. 
  • Choose polyester for short trips. Large tents are generally made from either polyester or polycotton. Polyester tents are light-weight, quick to dry, more compact when folded and cheaper. On the downside they get hot quickly, tend to flap about more in the wind and will only take about five years or so of heavy use before they crackle and fade. If you are after a tent for short trips in a climate where taking down a damp tent may be a serious factor, then polyester is probably a better choice.
Tent testing

Definitely enough head-room for a toddler!


  • Poly-cotton for long, sunny holidays. Poly-cotton is more expensive than polyester but has some advantages. The natural fibres keep poly-cotton tents stay cooler in the sun, making them a better choice for  family holidays in warmer countries. Poly-cotton is much more durable and poly-cotton tents can be re-treated, remaining in great condition usually for a good ten years. Weightier and thereby less flappy in strong wind, they are quieter than their synthetic counterparts. Poly-cotton tents are much heavy though, take up more space in the boot and take a lot longer to dry out after rain – not so good if you are on a short camping break in the unpredictable UK climate!
  • Steel poles for strength, carbon-fibre for the cost-concious. If you want a long-lasting, stronger family tent for your camping trips you should opt for steel poles over the cheaper and lighter carbon-fibre ones. Whilst carbon-fibre poles are great for smaller tents struggle supporting the material on bigger tents making for a more flappy, unsteady camping experience. We saw this first hand as we chose our tent on a very windy day – the carbon-fibre poled tents were moving a lot and the noise in them from all the flapping was enough to wake even the heaviest sleeping tots from their slumbers. Carbon-fibre poled tents are however considerably cheaper and lighter than steel, so if you are on a budget, are a fair-weather camper or will be carrying your tent any distance then carbon-fibre may well suit you better.  
Robens Cabin 600

Proud owners of our new family tent!


  • Consider light and airy. In the last three years or so, tent manufacture has seen the introduction of airbeam technology. Introduced first by Vango, the airbeam technology removes the need for metal poles on a tent, replacing them instead with air pumped into reinforced tubes. …Airbeam tents are lighter, super-fast to erect and are pretty cool right now. As with any new gadgetry, this comes at a price with airbeam tents more expensive than their humble metal-poled counterparts. They are becoming more main-stream though and it is worth looking for good online deals. If you are thinking of buying your own airbeam tent, Decathlon have a good selection amongst their large tent range. 
  • How big is you boot (and biceps)? When presented with a three bedroomed, two living-spaced palace under canvas it is hard to imagine going camping with less, but it is possible. Remember that the larger the tent you buy, the heavier it is likely to be and the more complicated to put up. Larger tents tend to take up more space in the car – a consideration if you, like me, already struggle with fitting in the family luggage. Don’t forget you’ll need to be able to carry the tent to site too. Size and weight are worthy compromises for increased comfort though if you are going for a long holiday.
  • Know your boundaries. In this case, bedroom boundaries. Often tents will offer one big bedroom that can be divided into two smaller ones – perfect for camping with children (or parents!) who need their own space. Sometimes though these dividers use toggles rather than zips meaning that the sides remain open and your toddler can easily appear through the divide when they fancy company at 2am! If you value your privacy when camping it is worth opting for the zip divided rooms. 
bedrooms in Robens Cabin 600

Roo checking out the bedrooms!

  • Make yours a perfect pitch.  Whilst every camper expects a bit of comedy when putting up their tent the first time, we have first-hand witnessed a blazing family row whilst camping resulting from putting up a large tent (n.b. no amount of canvas muffles shouting) and have heard stories of frustrated families even abandoning the camping trip altogether! Compare estimated times for erecting tents and take into consideration its weight, size and how many people are needed, especially as one adult will be needed to keep an eye on over-excited mini-campers!
  • Tent ‘bling’ or necessary extra? Once you’ve made your tent decision you may well be tempted to purchase add-ons such as a porch, carpet or footprint. It is sensible to have a groundsheet or footprint under your tent when camping – it will help protect your tent’s base from damage and wear. The carpet on the other hand is a luxury and on smaller family tents you can make do just as well with picnic blankets. Don’t let this spoil you fun though – there are a lot of cool camping accessories out there!
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