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.
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 small two-person Highlander and the old-style Wayfarer (2008), which is a Flexidome four-person tent. The nearest to the Flexidome Wayfarer in the present catalogue is the Rigidome Chatsworth. The main difference is that the Wayfarer has fibreglass poles and plastic hinges, whereas the Rigidomes have aluminium and nylon poles.
Our Khyam users said they’d always enjoyed the attention they got when they arrived at a campsite and snapped their tent into place in around five minutes (pegging and guyropes a little longer). What show-offs!
How do they work?
The Khyam poles are permanently fixed on the outside of the tent. They fold out on robust hinged joints that slide and lock into place. For a large tent like the Chatsworth, you do this in two stages – the first set of joints set the tent on its ‘knees’ and the second raise it up to full height.
Coleman make nice-looking instant tents with pre-attached poles similar to Khyam at around £130 for the largest, which sleeps four to five. These are small tents without a living area (extensions available), but are very light at under 5kg.
Our test tent: The Khyam Chatsworth
- Price: £600-£900 (the cheaper price was an offer from Khyam at the time of writing)
- Packed size: 109x36x29
- Weight: 21kg
- Dimensions: 475x300x200
- Very fast to put up and take down – up and pegged in around four minutes.
- Big and airy with lots of headroom
- The poles are very sturdy and unlikely to break, but spares are available should the worst happen
- Khyam uses a tri-line system of guy ropes to save time and patience. These connect two points of the pole with one adjustable cord for ease of pegging out
Not so keen on…
- The fold-out awning tends to flop in the middle and it gets a bit irritating to duck whenever you go into the tent
- The Wayfarer Flexidome version couldn’t cope with strong winds in Corsica last summer. Our campers had to dismantle the tent and sleep in the car. We weren’t able to test the Chatsworth in strong winds, but we’re told the more solid poles of the Rigidomes would fare better
- Our campers preferred the two separate bedrooms of the Wayfarer because they could leave one at home and create more living space in the tent when just the two of them were camping
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.
Our test tent: Sunncamp’s Invadair 600
- Price: From around £490
- Packed size: 79x41cm
- Weight: 26kg
- Dimensions: 380cm width x 500cm depth + 155cm porch
- Lots of headroom and a light and airy feel
- Nicely designed store pockets, guying tabs and inner tent
- Felt sturdy and comfortable
- Excellent ventilation
Not so keen on…
- The guyrope system uses many points, which means a bit more work
- Our tent had a leaky front air beam, though we’re assured this is very rare and was most likely caused because the tent had been hauled around the country for demonstrations
- Not all the air came out on the fast decompress
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 Revello 500 shown here is around £500…and very pretty.
Kelty – Newish to the UK, Kelty has a four-person air-pitch tent for around £320. 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!
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.
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. In fact, this one is one of our favourites, despite being a bit boring to look at.
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.
Pop-up tents are mainly thought of as children’s, festival or two-person backpacking options. Quechua, though, has added some larger options to its range, so are they a contender for a fast-to-pitch (small) family tent?
How do they work?
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.
Our test tent: The Quechua Illumin Fresh XXL
- Price: Discontinued – have a look at the Fresh and Black range instead, with their clever light-blocking feature
- Packed size: 93cm diameter
- Weight: 11.75kg
- Dimensions: 405x295x180
- The fastest of our test tents to pitch – around two minutes
- Stylish and airy design.
- Built-in LED lighting.
- Great storage pockets.
- Spare parts available at Decathlon, so good for European use.
- Light to carry – though you will look like a Mutant Ninja Turtle.
Not so keen on…
- Not really a problem, more a warning! Difficult to pitch and impossible to pack away unless you watch the video carefully. Decathlon’s new pop-ups (largest is for three people) come with a system to make dismantling easier. Hooray!
- Too many flaps and layers – great for ventilation, but a bit fussy and a worry in the wind and rain.
- Not as much headroom as the other tents we tested
- Rather unwieldy. The size of this tent seems to have pushed the pop-up system a little too far, which is maybe why it’s discontinued and there are now only two- and three-person options.
We’re updating this article every so often, but apologies if prices change. The links will take you through to the latest options and latest prices. If you’ve got a tent recommendation, do leave a comment below.