TRIED & TESTED: TRIED & TESTED; PERFECT PITCH

Seeing a tent in the gentle environment of a camping shop isn't quite the same as battling with one on the top of a windswept mountain. Our panellists show you the ropes
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The Independent Culture
Life "under canvas" may be completely outmoded, but there is no shortage of would-be campers eager to experience a night or two in the new, hi-tech, quick-erection nylon tents now on the market. With summer in mind, we decided to try out a range of tents, with a view to casual weekend trips rather than serious expeditions. We found a superb variety available, though there's not much worth looking at under the pounds 200 price bracket, so our winner at less than pounds 50 is a real find.

We do have a message for tent manufacturers everywhere, however. Of six tents, only three came with pitching instructions and none of these were accompanied by usable diagrams. Since this only serves to alienate novices from the joys of camping, we suggest sewn-in instructions, plus identification labels on tent components.

Meanwhile, here is a brief glossary of terms which perplexed the amateurs on our panel: the flysheet is the outer tent while the inner tent is the bit which often looks like (and may be) mosquito netting. Similarly, "no- see-um" windows refer to nets keeping out tiny insects. Shock-corded poles are ones which can be broken and fitted together again thanks to inner elastic, rather like a conjuror's wand. Guy ropes run from the tent to the ground, not to hold it up but to keep it stable.

THE TEST

We awarded points for easy pitching; comfort and ventilation inside the tent; overall weight; storage space; durability; and cost. Pitching times given here are for first-time erecting by experienced campers - the novices among the panel (including me) took up to three times as long.

THE PANEL

The trial benefited from the participation of several tent experts; Ashley Gawthorp is an engineering student who works in a camping shop at weekends; Anna MacLellan is an archaeology student forced to camp at digs; both Jon Chandler and Nick Allen are keen sailors and outdoor types who could survive anywhere. That left Robert Hughes, Tony Tsai and myself, complete novices who, left alone in a remote field, would have wound ourselves up in the tents and slept under the stars.

**KARRIMOR BALTORO 2-MAN TUNNEL TENT

pounds 180, 2.6kg, pitching time 10 minutes

Karrimor describes this nylon coffin as a "spacious tunnel arch tent, designed to achieve maximum weight to volume ratio in an aerodynamic design." Its low profile makes it impervious to wind and Anna MacLellan put it up in 10 minutes flat: "It would be brilliant if you were hillwalking, where every ounce counts and you just wanted it to sleep in,"she said. It has "great little clips", like the ones used on rucksacks, to attach the flysheet. The drawbacks, however, were numerous. The tent is claustrophobic for two, impossibly hot and with no headroom. "You couldn't exactly sit in here and have a pow-wow with your mates," she added. Nick Allen thought the tent was "a hideous colour - it looks like a giant sunflower - but I suppose mountain rescue would see you." Ashley Gaw-thorp pointed out that you certainly couldn't get your backpack under the extension and there was nothing to hold the door open, "which would drive you crazy," though "with a degree in astrophysics, you could figure out how to take it off altogether". Its redeeming feature is that the inner tent of mosquito net is self-standing and so could be used alone, but nobody advises this in England; "it always rains in the middle of the night when you do that," said Jon Chandler.

***COLEMAN DAKOTA

pounds 200, 3.6kg, pitching time 20 minutes

This two-person, two-door, dome tent in blue with orange trim has a valance at the bottom which makes it look "like a medieval helmet" according to Nick Allen. The valance is "quite a clever feature, because if it's wet and muddy it will keep the rain out," said Jon Chandler. "And if the ground is so hard you can't get the pegs in, then you can just put some rocks on it," added Anna MacLellan. Ashley Gawthorp complained that the instructions were naff; they start off with a diagram that pertains to another tent. You only realise later that the written instructions tell you something different. Ashley was mollified by the "neat assembly routine" which involves putting the poles up alone, then clipping the flysheet on to it, instead of the more conventional method of threading the poles through. There's lots of room inside for rucksacks and dirty pots, and you could sit and play cards in it at a pinch. But it is also "guy rope city", which means lots to trip over in the dark and more ground space required for pitching - not so good at a festival. The tent's weight (a little too heavy for backpackers) caused Nick Allen to puzzle over its market. "I don't know what this is for," he said, "unless it's to throw in the back of the station wagon and go fishing. Anyway, Americans aren't good at making small, lightweight things like tents."

***LICHFIELD BISCAY

pounds 370, 16kg, pitching time 30 minutes

Perhaps we weren't very specific in our request for the sort of lightweight tent ordinary people go away with at weekends. In any case Lichfield - last of the pure English tent-makers - insists that this palatial, green and burgundy tent with a large porch and side canopy, which allegedly sleeps five, is what most people use. "People who go to dog shows keep their six dogs dry in the living-room, and bikers put their motorbikes under the porch," said a spokeswoman cheerfully. This may well be true, though the panel felt that five people sleeping cheek by jowl in the inner compartment would lead to murder or divorce or both. Nick Allen noted that "the toggles make the inner tent erection a doddle, but the guy ropes were rigged incorrectly, so if you didn't know how to re-tie them, you'd never get it right." Having been shown by Nick how to erect this "stately home of tents", Tony Tsai claimed that he would be able to put it up in future as long as he had the help of another person. But he still thought that "for the dextrously imbecilic, it would take a lifetime." For older campers who like their comfort and are not so price-constrained, the Biscay would be a minimum for "a couple trolling down to the south of France," Robert Hughes thought, or it would sleep four if two were young children.

***VANGO MICRO 3

pounds 199.99, 3.1kg, pitching time 13 minutes

This Scottish-made, four-season mountain tent was one of the more serious varieties tested, and was praised by Ashley Gawthorp as "a good product, solid and for the money quite cheap." Its sturdiness is largely due to Vango's patented tension bands, which pull on the tent hoops inside, making it immovable even in strong winds. The downside of this system, however, is that though the tent was "quite easy to put up, there's a lot of fiddling with the pegs and tension straps afterwards to get it right," said Ashley, who agreed with Jon Chandler that these were "yet more straps to get entangled in at three in the morning. It's almost too clever - over-engineered, I'd say." Anna MacLellan found the Vango "like a little teepee inside, it's much cooler than the Stormshield, but it doesn't have as much headroom. In fact, the inner tent sticking to your face as you lie down was a real problem with this model, and the six-footers in the party saw at once that they couldn't, as Ashley said, "get myself, a friend of same size and two backpacks in here".

****STORMSHIELD 400

pounds 199.99, 3.3kg, pitching time 17 minutes

This cool-looking, blue and green geodesic dunnel (cross between a dome and a tunnel) tent has an interesting triangulated structure which is more rigid and therefore capable of taking a load, "such as snow", so you can tell it's a serious four-season tent. The whole panel loved it, including Jon Chandler, who had to erect it alone, even though it's really a two-man job. However Jon did identify a flaw, "the zip on the carry bag will break eventually - drawstring bags are better," he said. But he praised the flat pegs, which don't bend as you put them in the ground and the "very clever use of modern materials. Wherever the hoops cross, there are strips of Velcro to attach them to the flysheet - even at the door, so you can stop it flapping." This model has a self-supporting inner tent of mosquito net if you wanted to risk a soaking; "it does prevent poaching inside in early hours of the morning as the sun comes up," said Jon. The front and back doors increase airflow. Ashley Gawthorp daydreamed about the lovely possibilities of the Stormshield: "There's lots of room; you could get your buddy in here and sit together thinking isn't-it-awful-when-it's-raining. I'd definitely spend the extra 20 quid on it in favour of the Karrimor model." Nick Allen took the same view: "A yuppie like me would buy this - it's like a BMW, it has a neat image."

*****BLACKS WYE TENT

pounds 47.99, 3.4kg, pitching time 13 minutes

We chose this tent as the winner largely because of its price and simplicity. It has only one door, which isn't so great for ventilation, but the inner tent is made of cool poly/cotton and clips easily on to the shockcorded fibreglass poles with toggles. This is not done until after the outer tent has been erected which means that in rain and mud, you have to crawl around on the ground inside on your hands and knees. In bad weather, all high-sided tents tend to move in the wind, so the outer touches the inner tent, resulting in condensation. But at least the Wye has a thick groundsheet like a postman's bag to keep the damp out. "Any insect in the world would get through the huge mesh of the inner mosi-net door," said Ashley Gawthorp, "so don't take it to Asia." It is for children in the back garden and for any low-level camping trip. "It's perfect for an archaeology student, or to leave up at festivals and not worry about it too much," said Anna MacLellan, muttering, "It's a pity it doesn't have a socket for a hairdryer."

STOCKISTS

For the nearest camping shop stocking these products, call: Coleman 01275 845024; Vango 01475 744122; Lichfield 01922 25641; Karrimor 01254 385911; Blacks Wye and Stormshield available from Blacks Camping, 0171 636 6645. !

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