Like most outdoorsy people, I cut my camping canines while pitching pole tents – largely because there was no other option back then. And structures with pole-based skeletons – whether dome designs or tunnel tents – are perfectly good.
Then, a few years ago, ‘air tents’ started appearing on campsites and in stores. Initially I was a little skeptical. I thought these were essentially pop up tents with pumps, and would not be much good beyond casual use at the beach, at festivals and for backyard sleepouts with the kids.
But then I looked a little closer, and took some for a spin. And the technology behind them also continued to advance. For a small, backpacking tent, lightweight pole structures are clearly the best choice, but now, when it comes to deciding on the best option for a large, family tent, I’m genuinely torn between the two – should I go for pole or pump?
To look at the pros and cons of both, we field-tested two comparably sized tents – the Aether 450 XL and the Osiris Air 500 from Vango’s Earth Collection, which are constructed with Sentinel Eco Fabric (a material made from recycled plastic bottles). Both are large car-camping tents that comfortably sleep families of four or five, but the Aether 450 XL is a pole tent, while the Osiris Air uses Vango’s ‘AirBeams’ in place of poles to support the structure. (Both are available in pole and air versions.)
Air tents vs pole tents: head-to-head
Most modern pole tents are pretty easy to put up (see: How to pitch a tent), and the majority of the larger models these days are based around a tunnel design, so you simply have to thread several large poles through the sheaths on the inner, then bend them and put each end in an eyelet or similar at ground level. This is how the Aether 450 works, and it’s all fairly straightforward – although it’s certainly preferable to have at least two people involved. If the poles are different lengths, it also helps a lot if they – and the corresponding sheath – are colour coded, which they usually are.
With a well-designed air tent like the Osiris Air 500, however, things are even easier. Peg out the base of the tent, attach the hose to the valve on the airbeam and pump. The airbeams are wide tubes, integrated into the design of the inner tent, which, when fully inflated, act exactly like poles, pushing up and supporting the structure. It’s really simple, and with a good pump (such as the one supplied with the Osiris Air) the beams can be fully inflated in about a minute. The big bonus here is that it can all be done easily by one person, when the rest of the family have all mutinied and run off to explore. For this reason, we’re going to score this a win for the air tent.
Design, stability and adverse weather
In terms of features and comfort, this all comes down to the quality of the individual tents in question. Family sized air tents can stand just as high and wide as pole tents designed for the same purpose, offering the same level of head height and floor space, so there’s no real difference there. For more on this, check out How to choose a tent and What size tent do I need?
Because they all tend to stand pretty tall, and are more often tunnel- rather than a geodesic- (half dome) shaped, family sized pole tents and air tents both rely heavily on tensioning at either end to stay up, and guy ropes all around to stay stable during high winds.
Where some people might expect a greater degree of divergence in performance level is in stormy weather, with many people perhaps predicting that air tents might not be so robust. However, we spent a wild windy weekend testing out both styles of tent, and found that the Osiris Air 500 performed just as well as the Aether 450 pole tent, not least because it has internal bracing straps that help it maintain its shape even in gusty conditions. These do impede on the internal space somewhat, but they are optional, and don’t need to stay in place when conditions are more benign.
This kind of performance will of course vary between tent brands and individual designs and models, and not all air tents will be equipped with these straps, leaving them more prone to bending in the wind. However, while they may bend, inflated tubes will not snap, so that’s one thing less to worry about. All things considered, we’re going to call this one a draw.
Always the least fun part of any camping trip, not least because it means the experience is nearly over, is dropping the tent and packing it away. Family sized tents are notoriously laborious to roll up and squeeze back into the carry bag provided, which always seems too small to swallow so much tent.
The Osiris Air 500 comes with a pump with a deflate setting, and it’s imperative you use this in order to stand a chance of getting the tent back in its bag – otherwise you’ll be left with pockets of air that make the task utterly impossible. Even so, we felt that the air tent was marginally harder to wrestle into the carry bag than the pole tent.
Durability, repair and maintenance
As noted above, while an air tent may well move around a bit more in high winds, at least the beams won’t snap – which can be a problem with pole tents, either in very extreme conditions or as a result of an accident (reversing your car over them), or incorrect usage.
That said, you can of course suffer a puncture to an airbeam. While this is very rare, due to the heavy duty materials used on the tubes, it’s not unheard of. This does not mean the entire tent is rendered forever useless, though. Just as with a broken pole, duct tape (the unsung hero of every camping trip) can sometimes be used to do temporary tent repairs, and tubes can be replaced. The one thing you don’t want to break (or forget) is the pump…
In every other respect – in terms of robustness of fly and ground sheet, zips, mesh etc – there is no real difference between air and pole tents. This is another draw.
It’s one thing talking about ease of set up and take down, but long before any of that you have to get the tent in the car and across the campsite. Family tents are always voluminous, taking up serious real estate in whatever vehicle you use to access the great outdoors.
The Aether 450 weighs 20kg/44lb and when packed away the carry bag’s dimensions are 72 x 30 x 32cm/28 x 12 x 12.5in, which is a relatively compact but dense and heavy package to carry around. The air version of this tent weighs in at 21.1kg/46.5lb and the packsize is 73 x 42 x 42cm/29 x 16.5 x 16.5in.
The Osiris Air 500 is a more svelte 15.3kg/33.7lb, but has a pack size of 73 x 34 x 34cm/28.7 x 13 x 13in, and the pole version of this model has the same stats.
All in all, there isn’t a huge difference between the weight and volume of the two styles of tent, but air tents do tend to come in slightly bigger bags to allow you to get them back in once you drop them (see ‘take down’). You also need to fit the pump in, which adds a bit of bulk.
There is a bit of daylight between the two styles in this category, and pole tents are pretty much always cheaper than their blow-up brothers. For example, the air version of both the Aether 450XL and the Osiris 500 is about 20% more expensive than the pole version of the same tent.
Air tents vs pole tents: the verdict
We really loved the ease of pitch that you get with an air tent, which means one lucky person can set the entire thing up while everyone else explores the site. Taking the air tent down was similarly easy, but getting it into the bag was a bit more challenging. If price is a major consideration, then a pole tent will be your best choice, but in terms of performance, they both scored fairly equally.
Writer, editor and enthusiast of anything involving boots, bikes, boats, beers and bruises, Pat has spent 20 years pursuing adventure stories. En route he’s canoed Canada’s Yukon River, climbed Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro, skied and mountain biked through the Norwegian Alps, run an ultra across the roof of Mauritius, and set short-lived records for trail-running Australia’s highest peaks and New Zealand’s Great Walks. He’s authored walking guides to Devon and Dorset, and once wrote a whole book about Toilets for Lonely Planet. Follow Pat’s escapades here.
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