A Rant – ‘Bombproof tents’ or ‘How my shelter is better than yours’ (when it’s not when you think about it)

The North Face Tadpole taking in the sun on Crinkle Crags, Lake District

When trying out a new tent, I’ll often pitch it with some element of shelter to gauge it’s storm worthiness before pushing it somewhere more exposed. Common sense, of course – but it’s often those little details we can miss when it comes to the design of a shelter which can prove to be catastrophic for some when camping out on the hills. To others it’s a pain in the rear and they just deal with it.

It’s about one’s mindset I suppose and how we as individuals deal with adverse circumstances when they arise.

I fall into the latter category, though not always by choice. But in this post I’d like to share some experiences and thoughts about tent designs (though not in-depth) and how they tend to cope when setting up home for the night on a summit or moor.

Why? Because sweeping statements and generalisations I read in magazines or online concerning shelters irk me somewhat.

Admittedly, it is a bug bear of mine when I read online about folk having camped in a particular tent and how the winds were “100mph and it stood fine” or “It coped with 80mph winds OK and lived to see another day” and so on. Why is it a bug bear?

First off, often what people perceive to be a given wind speed it’s likely to be much less – surprisingly so. They’ll have read on weather forecast websites winds of 90mph due or maximum gusts of 100mph and because they were knocked about a bit when walking or struggled to pitch their tent – they consequently believe the wind speeds were as they read elsewhere and pretty much state so as a fact.

I use a Kestrel 3000. A handy gadget for gauging weather conditions out on the hills – it will show you dew point, air temperature, wind chill, wind speeds and more. The military use them and those who are keen on monitoring mother nature in general too.

It will come as no surprise that whatever the weather forecasters suggest, often it transpires to be something completely different. Sometimes for the better or worst. It is a guide after all.

But once you’re out in wind speeds in excess of 35mph you’ll notice that you’ll occasionally lose your footing. You may find yourself leaning into the wind somewhat if it’s consistent. About now, many folk will wrongly perceive this to be around the 50mph mark. However, in reality once consistent wind speeds reach 50mph you’ll find yourself struggling to walk or stand still most of the time.

And then when speeds hit 70mph? You’ll be knocked about, struggle to walk and more.

Take a look at the video below. This shows a Hilleberg Soulo tent being pitched in winds upto 50mph. It’s a consistent speed, and unlike the real world per se (as it arrives from one direction only in a controlled environment).

Now, how many of you have pitched a tent in similar conditions to this? Most backpackers I suspect. We hold onto the tent like it’s a kite wanting to break free and reach for the heavens, while we kneel on it and peg it down to the ground and take it from there.
In the real world, the wind speed may be gusting stronger from time to time or coming from varying degrees of the compass making the conditions even more difficult.
However, take a look again – the wind speed is upto 50mph. If you were out on the hills pitching in speeds like that, would you come back home and say the winds were 50mph? Honestly? Or would you state they were much more – simply because that’s what you perceived them to be?
Now, noting it’s stable and strong design you’ll have seen it was quite a struggle to pitch and it wasn’t exactly rock solid or ‘bomber’ as some people like to describe it. But it will withstand such wind speeds much better than single hoop designed tent like a Terra Nova Laser Competition. After all, the latter is clearly not meant for use in such conditions – but even so, 50mph doesn’t sound much really does it.
Here’s another, this time showing the Vaude Power Lizard (single hoop design)…
Different, eh? But the tent still stood. Not ideal by any means – a noisy night maybe the order of the evening, eh? Most will likely reach for some ear plugs.
But how would the Power Lizard have coped in winds in excess of 50mph? Not very well, I suspect. I think we’d all agree we’d much rather be in something like the Hilleberg Soulo.
However, here’s some food for thought – due to it’s geodesic nature, would the Soulo be the better tent to be in through the night? What if a tent pole snapped or buckled? Would the bent pole have put the tent in some jeopardy (ie, damage the flysheet or cause other poles to fail and so on)? A consequent system failure if you like.
Would the Power Lizard have stood and come out unscathed? Therefore, would you rather have spent the night in that shelter?
Take a look at this video – one of my own from many moons ago. It’s from the inside of a Terra Nova Solar Competition in winds around 50mph+
My point being, that even in winds of 50mph things can appear to be much worst. It certainly feels it. After all, we live in a urban world of brick walls, central heating and so on. A breezy day in our everyday world is bad enough – but when out on the hills? It seems to be a hurricane in comparison.
You see, it’s about perceptions and what we’re used to. Everyone is different, and how we relate to that can vary by many degrees.
So, just in these few clips we can see how differing designs of tents cope in wind speeds up to 50mph and 80mph respectively. In truth, they struggle on many levels and they’re not conditions most of us would like to be out in (even then they can occur unexpectedly).

But it goes to show, that it’s often not as clear cut as you may think when chasing a bomb proof tent for such conditions.
How easily and quick the shelter can be pitched is the first thing that comes to my mind, closely followed by how well it will withstand high wind speeds.
Where you pitch your tent (needless to say) is very important – but putting that aside for a moment where does this all lead you to think?
Do you now believe you may have had that Akto in 100mph winds? Very likely not. You may have got lucky of course and are truthful but most probably aren’t (without realising it maybe). Even so, is it ideal? Is it worth the money?
These tents may have stood – for want of a better description – but apart from my video, ALL were taken down soon after and the user headed off home (or back to display depending on which video). So, those tents could be deemed to be fine and dandy and performed exceptionally well – or did they??
Terra Nova Solar Competition 2 – getting hammered side on by winds up to 45mph
When I woke from that nights storm in the Laser Competition, the tent appeared to be OK at a glance. In fact I was quite relieved! But then I noted some friction burns on the flysheet where it’s rain hood is situated. Grey smudgy marks on the flysheet.
What I also didn’t spot and consequently discovered on another exposed and windy camp, was severe wear and tear where the carbon rods are situated at the foot and head ends of the tent. The rods had almost run through the fabric. After that particular camp, the main tent pole developed a severe buckle, too. Winds were not as strong as before – so clearly the duress the tent had been previously put under had taken it’s toll. 
A bit like when you bend a spoon. You can flex it, but always straighten it out to normal. But after several repetitions, eventually the spoon snaps. Tent poles can be just like this (clearly depends on it’s composite of course). 
Same goes for tent fabrics. Tear strength, for example. Or how about SilNylon (silicone coated nylon)? Worth observing when it’s sagging after prolonged rain as it could consequently be compromised in high winds.
So, your shelter may well have stood – but at what cost? Do you really want to fork out for spares or even a new tent?
One camp I recall was on Seathwaite Fell in the Lake District, and on that occasion my Laser Comp withstood a severe battering but a friends Hilleberg Akto took off in the night and ended up near Sprinkling Tarn some 300 metres away. He’d climbed out for a call of nature, zipped the door shut and ‘whoosh!’ Off it went.
I’ve always thought those ‘barn end doors’ on the head and foot of a Akto were screaming for any strong winds to ram into them and try to pick the tent up. Whereas with a Laser Comp, though it’s not as stable with regards to fabric flapping about in the wind – it only soaked up the winds energy by flexing and moving. Even so, this causes wear and tear. We were pitched together in the same vicinity, too.
The only tent on this occasion to not budge an inch was a The North Face Tadpole. A semi-geodesic tent which requires the user to ideally pitch tail into the wind (fortunately, it was on this camp). But does this all mean the Akto is pretty crap in bad weather? Of course not. Some would read it that way though – it’s just not the ideal shelter for such conditions.
So, whereas some tents will flex and move and act as a sponge to the winds energy – it doesn’t make for a comfortable nights sleep. Or prevent any unseen damage, either. But a strong geodesic tent will be a lot more stable but is consequently prone to catastrophic failure if a pole snaps and so on. (OK, the word catastrophic sounds extreme but to some people it may feel like that on UK hills)
It goes without saying that fabrics, poles, guy lines and pegs all contribute to a tents strength when out on the hills – never mind where you select to pitch your shelter for the night.
Swings and roundabouts springs to mind. Minefield is word that pops into my head too.
This tent was pitched tight as a drum, but overnight rain and condensation
has made the silicone coated nylon flysheet sag
If anything I’ve learned over the years (and continue to do so) – despite how impressive some tents have performed in ghastly conditions (and we haven’t mentioned snow loads or heavy rain!) a geodesic tent is the way to go for comfort. There’s less noise but you still have to take care where you pitch. They’re less likely to fail and succomb to rapid wear and tear at the end of the day, and that’s why most expedition tents are geodesics. Unless of course you consider the latest breed of ‘superlight’ geodesics – which to be frank are pointless. You got a strong performing tent, why weaken it with materials that are not as durable? Something will give over time.
Then again, what about tee pee type tents? The design has been around for millennia! Or consider tarps and bivouacs. Not always ideal, they may not tick some of the boxes you seek in a shelter. Heck! Some lightweight tents are so small (though light) you ought as well bivouac such is the limited room for maneuver. 
If you’re after space and comfort no shelter is bombproof – but the more durable and tough you want the fabrics to be, the stronger you want the poles – logically the heavier it will be to carry on your back. Simple.
Common sense is the order of the day. You choose a shelter apt for the conditions you are likely to encounter and make your pitch carefully. There’s not much to add, really. Experience and mindset count for something, too – I’ll happily deal with a storm while someone else may feel very unnerved. Each to their own.
So my gripe? Well, I’ve mentioned one and that was peoples perceptions of wind speeds. Another was, “The tent stood fine. It’s bomber!”. Errrrr, no. It stood then, but after a few nights in those conditions I very much suspect it will soon fail.
Just because my Laser Competition tent withstood winds of 50mph one night, does not mean it should be deemed ‘bomber’. Or any other tent for that matter. There’s so many other factors involved. How about cotton fabric tents, for example? They’re tough and durable if cared for (though heavy). All the rage is silicone coated nylon (SilNylon) and cuben fabrics now. Durability and stamina are keywords to be mindful of.
You get what you pay for and consequently have to gauge or accommodate the shelter’s limits. It’s a tough balancing act. And when I say “you get what you pay for”, I don’t necessarily mean budget tents are not worth considering either.
The Gelert Solo, for example. That will withstand most conditions you’ll face on the hills in the UK, make no doubt. It has an extremely low profile for starters which helps. It’s a glorified bivvy, really. But it’s not ideal if you wish to sit up inside and potter about cooking in all weathers. You can pick this tent up for £50. So, there’s no excuse to not give wild camping or free camping or whatever you want to call it a go, no?
There’s much to consider when you really think about it – but then again, it’s quite black and white too.
I’ve got two tents on test at the moment. A Terra Nova Solar Competition 2 and a Vaude Power Tokee UL. Both are around the 1kg mark, pack small – yet one is much more stable and roomy than the other. The former is quick to pitch while the Vaude is tricky in comparison.
The Solar Comp 2 has had a minimum of 30 nights out with my stinking sweaty body in on the hills already. It’s withstood winds of up to 45mph and heavy rain too (despite not being seam sealed, not a single leak has occurred). I spent 4 hours on Sunday giving it a thorough inspection and clean ready for winter. It’s a fair mark of Terra Nova’s design and attention to detail for such a lightweight shelter that seams are strategically positioned carefully and it’s not showing any signs of wear and tear either.
Whereas the Vaude Power Tokee UL has yet to get a hammering, I’m dubious to it’s strengths with how light and translucent the materials are and how it’s overall stability (or how taught you can get it) appears to be when compared to a Terra Nova Laser Photon, for example. After all, it’s a comparable product – so which is worth parting with your hard earned cash? But I’ll be taking it out for a regular spin over the next 3 months or so to find out. Never judge a book by it’s cover, so they say.
So out of these two tents, which would you choose when it’s blowing a bit of a hoolie on the summits?
Sweeping statements or ill judged perceptions when it comes to shelters for the outdoors really wind me up if you hadn’t noticed by now. For some it’s like some kind of competition about who’s got a bigger ding dong than the other. Or who has more money (usually than sense) than another.
No tent is ‘bomber’, all have their strengths and weaknesses. All shelters have varying compromises to be made – be it for you as a user or for the conditions you’re likely to face. And then of course, there’s your money – do you take a gamble and go for repairs/replacements or do you spend the extra for something weightier and stronger?
Furthermore, you could ‘sod the lot of them’ and just rough it out in a bivvy and tarp? Heck, it’s cheaper!
Either way, shelters are just another tool in your armoury for enjoying the outdoors. If you want to talk about the science and other various intricacies of tents and such like – go ahead. If you’re like me and care only if it’s fit for purpose so you can enjoy the great outdoors? Then join the club.
Don’t get me wrong, I find the design process behind it all fascinating otherwise I wouldn’t have much to talk about or understand/appreciate when testing gear. Nevertheless, it’s still about making the most of a trip out amongst the landscape wherever that may be.
It’s more emotional than technical for me. Always has been and always will.
Otherwise consider this wee rant over – less talk and type, more hike and camp!
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20 Comments Add yours

  1. Yeh but my tent is better than your tent, na na na na na. Exposes bottom and then runs aways cackling into the night……………

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  2. Good read, reason I purchased the Hilleberg Allak was its 2 person, it has a strong design massive porches and as you can see by the video my other big tent got wrecked in them winds so needed replacing lol (not that am a gear junkie or owt) but anyone getting into wild camping should take note comon sense is a big key factor

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  3. A bothy is bad enough in high winds, tents just scare the b'jesus out of me when the weather gets hoolified.

    A great piece, thanks for putting it together.

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  4. northlakesuk says:

    A good read there terry . I am hoping to treat myself to a new tent for crimbo so i can enjoy some wild camping adventures . Just aint quite decided what to go for deffo summet decent . Every time am out on the fells i find myself looking for places where i could pitch up in the future .Think i have been bitten by the wild camping bug with reading yours ,The Muss,chris25119600,& daveswildcamping blogs lol

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  5. A very interesting post, I think we all over estimate the wind strength when were in the hills.
    I know it’s traditional to pitch tents with the pointed end to the wind, but there is a school of thought that says single hoop tents like the Laser comp are actually more stable in strong winds if they are pitched with the wind blowing parallel with the pole.
    Have you ever put this theory to the test? I’ve been tempted a couple of times but always bottled out at the last minute.

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  6. Ben says:

    As you say some peoples perceptions of the conditions does get exaggerated ( I am also guilty m'lord) and any reviews should be read a one persons opinion. Very interesting post. It is just a shame that in the first video that the sailing dingy did not shoot across the lake just after it came into shot.

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  7. terrybnd says:

    @James Boulter – Yeah, well my Dad's a policeman! lol

    @Paul aka Themuss – See, you're going for an all rounder. One tent to cover most bases, though you're paying the price (in more ways than one lol). No doubt you'll love it

    @Locomountaineer – Lol True. It's all a state of mind, mate. Mind over matter. I tend to sleep the storms out no bother.

    @northlakesuk – Thanks. Yep.That's another thing that annoys me. Folk asking where's good to camp. Well, look around (as you do) and you can see! lol

    If ya new, best go see a tent exhibition if you can. Always good to see them in the flesh, sit in em, lie in em, pretend you're cooking in them….then you'll have a good idea what you'd be comfortable with.

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  8. terrybnd says:

    @Geoff Edwards – Thanks. It's true. Even I gauge the wind speeds wrong. I'll think “Bloody hell, it must be touching 40mph” and whip the Kestrel out and see it's only 25mph or something stupid.

    Yes, I have pitched the Laser Comp parallel – and have found it is more stable. Even Terra Nova say it's best to pitch it that way. Makes sense when you consider it's design.

    It doesn't flap anywhere near as much, by the way.

    @Ben – LOL I thought that with the dingy. Interesting videos though. I recall a TV programme where some ordinary guys from Nottinghamshire were heading off to the North Pole and they practised in some wind tunnel pitching a Terra Nova Quasar (or something similar).

    Once the wind tunnel speed hit 70mph, they really struggled to pitch it and if memory serves me right, it got damaged too. And that's just in a controlled environment.

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  9. houltmac says:

    I picked up a Gelert Solo for £25 online a while back. Great tent. Then I got a Snowdonia 2.1 in the sale and recently I picked up a Hubba Hubba HP. I figure, between them they cover most bases and while none of them have been tested to the limit yet, it's good to know I have options.

    Great read.

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  10. I carry an anemometer as well and am always surprised that wind speeds are not higher. Gusts are usually worse that pure speed. I haven't got a Soulo, but it looks the best design to me. It's a shame they don't make a lighter version. As you say no tent is going to be totally bomb proof.

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  11. @Terry it seems a good tent mind you its idiot proof to pitch but its mainly for the worst of the weather my voyager is still going to be my main tent of use cant big that thing up enough, and its light

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  12. What on earth made you think about this? Hee Hee. I done my trip report tonight from last weeks bail out. Great read this post btw. Isn't it funny how you end up in such a love hate relationship with outdoor kit. Sometimes you sit back and think why on earth do we all get so obsessed when all we really want to do is get outdoors. Totally agree on the wind tunnel tests being unrealistic. It wasn't the winds that finished me off last week but the crazy gusts. Same with most other people I've ever heard of who have bailed, the constant speed of the wind doesn't matter as then tents handles it, it is when the crazy gusts happen that it goes wrong, especially a few in sequence. 🙂

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  13. Muss, I was shocked at how well the Superlite Voyager did last week, I'd have been done several hours sooner if I had been in a single hoop tent and a lot less comfortable.

    Terry, “Mind over matter. I tend to sleep the storms out no bother.” Hmm wonder if this is more alcohol over consciousness? 😉

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  14. swanscot says:

    I usually avoid reading most of the 'tent wars' threads 😉 simply because 95% of the time they are about 1-person tents and I have a 2-person to share with hubby.

    The only time we really worried about damage to our tent was when camping on the Faroes. Now, it can blow some on that wee cluster of islands in the middle of the Atlantic and we were worried in case our tent became unusable in the middle of our holiday. It's not as if we could pop out to buy a replacement as very few Faroese go walking and many come to the UK for shopping, so I doubt we'd have found an outdoors shop.

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  15. OWDBUM says:

    Who cares what the wind speed is when out and about? If it's too windy to walk, get off the hill. If it's too windy to pitch your tent, move somewhere else or get off the hill. You don't need a digital windy-o-meter to work it out. Why does anyone apart from a gear tester need a windy-o-meter anyway?
    wife: “oh, hello love, how were the hills?” husband: “well…the average wind speed was 13.6mph gusting to 21.3mph with a wind chill factor of minus 1 centigrade…”
    wife: “oh…that's nice, dear”
    A backpacking tent is just a nylon bag held up with bendy poles, it's a temporary structure designed to offer a modicum of shelter, not protect you from a raging hurricane while you listen to your iPod and drink cocoa, blissfully unaware of the meteorological drama occurring on the other side of your porch door.
    My lightweight tent is feeble, ancient and rubbish. But I've always pitched it taking this into consideration, seeking sheltered spots when necessary, so it's lasted and kept me safe. Well, until I stood on the pole last time out, now it's f**ked and I need a new tent.

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  16. @trekking Britain they are a very strong tent they flex and lap up the energy from the wind, I would happily sit out a storm in 1 with me Brandy watching the walls cave in on me lol (oops think I do already) lol

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  17. Alan Sloman says:

    I agree with OldBottom: If it's shite, get off the hill. However, there are times when you don't have that option, and then it comes down to campcraft and hanging in their like grim death!

    I prefer to have a well designed tent that doesn't flap. Look at tents when they are pitched in calm weather. If they are wrinkly, chances are they will flap like hell. if they are smooth, you stand a better chance of the tent slipstreaming rather than shaking itself to death.

    On that basis, a Trailstar would do pretty well. (Not that I would choose one, though). My old Wanda has been out in some absolutely horrendous gusty weather (half way up Ben Lui was pretty memorable as was half way Scafell Pike).

    I had an Akto for twelve years and that stood reasonably well, but you had to park her pole parallel to the wind or she would flap like hell.

    Interestingly, my old Quasar was a right pig. Poles would take on a permanent set after a big gusty night as the pressures spread from pole to different pole. It was always the poles over the doorways that got knack'd.

    If it looks like your tent is about to be torn to bits, it's probably best to take the poles out and stick rocks on the flappy bits and crawl back inside and use it as a bivybag.

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  18. terrybnd says:

    @blogpackinglight – Nail on the head, Robin. Perceptions, it's all relative mate.

    @Trekking Britain – True. Often it's the gusts that are the real pain in the rear (no pun intended). And yeah – I suppose the ale does help at times LOL

    To be honest, when clocking off for the night I don't mind the storms. It's in the morning when I stir from my slumber that it can unnerve me a little. For some reason, it's then I begin to worry about the tent. Weird eh? lol

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  19. terrybnd says:

    @swanscot – You give a perfect example of why it's important to pick the right shelter and pitch carefully. There's loads of factors to consider and in that respect it's no surprise people fret over which shelter to buy/use.

    @OWDBUM – LOL! You just described the sort of conversation I'll have with my wife from time to time! But you're right. Though avoiding bad weather can be a pain, most tent instructions even for the strongest of tents will advise to seek shelter.

    @Alan Sloman – I always think lying there in a tent, if it fails, so what? I'm dry, warm and out the elements. Be worst to head out in the dark etc. It just becomes a large bivouac 😉 Not happened to me yet though.

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  20. Hi Terry,good post. I have both the Power Lizard and the Soulo. Both have stood up to strong winds not as high as 50mph. In my experience whilst the Power Lizard stands up to the wind, the tent flattens near to your face in high winds and so you don't get a good nights sleep. Anyone who has camped in an exposed area, winds come in gusts so I think it is much harder to sleep when every 30 seconds bang the tent fabric is in your face( probably same with other single hoop designs).

    With the Soulo, it will move about but it tends to give you a better night's sleep , because it is more rigid. The tent however is double the weight of the Power Lizard, so I tend to use the Soulo more in the winter months.

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