Talk about tents these days and you’ll end up talking inflatable. Pretty much every manufacturer has jumped on the bandwagon and created a line of tents that use integrated inflatable ‘beams’ instead of the regular poles. We wanted to know if the hype was all just a lot of hot air, or if these tents really did offer something revolutionary for campers.
So, we’ve taken a close look at what’s available in quick to pitch tent systems – inflatable, pop-up and quick-erect poles – and compiled our findings into an easy guide for tent buyers.
If it’s an awning you’re after, we’ve got some recommendations in our feature on lightweight, driveaway awnings.
Our favourite quick-erect tents these days are the Coleman Instants. They’re nice-looking fast-pitch tents with pre-attached poles, at around £160 for the largest, which sleeps four to five. These are compact tents without a separate living area (extensions available), but are very light and simple to use.
Khyam’s system of quick-erect Rapidex tents is unique. The tents have built-in poles that enable the tent to be folded up a bit like an umbrella and then clicked into place.
Some of the Campfire team have used the two-person Highlander and the old-style four-person Wayfarer (2008). They really couldn’t be easier to put up and take down. Khyam used to be our number one choice, but they’re starting to be left behind a little because they’re expensive and some models haven’t been sensibly designed (saggy canopies, for example). So, these are now just pipped into first place by the Coleman.
The Khyam Screendome is worth a look – more a shelter than a tent, but so fast to put up and can become a gazebo and awning (as shown next to this VW California). A better choice for versatility is the Screenhub, which you can add bedrooms to.
Khyam’s smaller tents are gorgeous. Who wouldn’t want a black and orange tent. The Biker Plus, shown here, sleeps three and has that useful porch area.
The main difference – apart from overall tent quality – between the inflatable systems used by manufacturers is whether the air ‘beams’ are separate or connected. Vango’s range, for example, has three or more separate beams that you inflate independently of each other. The Outwell range has a one-go inflation system for their Smart Air tents, which is made up of three connected tubes with isolation valves.
While the Outwell people believe this makes everything faster and easier, the Vango people are convinced separate beams are better because, should there be a problem with a valve or air tube, you only need replace the one section. Outwell counter with the fact that their tubes have isolation valves so that if one fails, the whole tent won’t collapse.
For us, any talk of things going wrong with valves, punctures or leaks is a bit scary. Snap a regular pole while camping in the wilds of Portugal and you can always rig something to keep your tent upright. We weren’t sure how quick and easy it would be to find a leakage problem and fix it on-site, let alone get a replacement part.
This really comes down to confidence in the tent manufacturer, so we would certainly advise against buying an unusually cheap inflatable. And, if the materials or design seem a little low on quality, we would definitely not take the risk that their inflatable system would be trouble-free.
How do they work?
You lay the tent out in position and inflate the air beams using the two-way pump (supplied by most manufacturers). The beams fill with air and the tent rises magically. You then shut off the valves. To unpitch, you open the valve and the air races out under pressure, though there may still be a bit of squeezing out to do to get a tight pack.
The Vango Airbeam range is pretty gorgeous. They use separate airbeams. They’re very quick to pump up, and deflate instantly. Price from around £370 to £1,600. The Amalfi (available as 500 or 600 size) is around £500-£600…and very smart. For a big family, the Taiga 600XL seemed a decent price, however…lots of complaints of bad stitching and leaks.
Kelty – Newish to the UK, Kelty has a four-person air-pitch tent for around £300. Head height is reasonable, there’s a small living area and a weight of under 10kg. However, reviews are mixed and there seem to be problems with leaking air. It’s a shame because we really liked their shelter tent. Another one with poor reviews (although it looks fabulous) is the Neumayer. One to avoid!
Quechua at Decathlon have an Air series with two, three, four – and even a six-person option. Very cheap and some good design features, such as the lightblocking lining on the Fresh and Black range. Some Quechuas can also be customised with extra rooms, a shelter roof, awnings and so on.
Outwell’s air range…is baffling! There are 26 to choose from and three systems –Advanced Air Tube, Power Air Tube and Rigid Air. They range in price from around £400 to a whopping £2,000. The choice, though, means you can select the ideal combination of size, quickness-to-pitch and weight. Our favourite is the Tomcat in cool grey. Great awning (no sag) and lots of light.
Easycamp do some of the cheaper inflatable tents. Their three-person Tornado is popular and costs less than £350, and the five-person Tempest is rather smart looking. Separate inflation tubes and nice light porch areas, though better suited to three or four people.
Coleman’s FastPitch air tents come in a choice of four sizes. We like the blackout bedroom feature for sleeping-in past dawn, and we REALLY love the hinged doors. The Valdes is one of our favourites, despite being a bit boring to look at.
Pop-up tents are mainly thought of as children’s, festival or two-person backpacking options. Coleman, though, now has a two and four-person Galiano pop-up that’s simple and costs £60/£100.
Quechua, has added three-person options to its range.
The tents come in a circular pack and are held flat by Velcro and straps. You peg out a separate groundsheet and then release the fastenings on the tent package. The built-in poles ‘explode’ the tent into shape and you then fasten it down with pegs and guyropes. Don’t try to get them back in the pack without having first watched the instruction video…you’ve been warned!