Air tents vs pole tents: which are the best shelters for your camping trips?

air tents vs pole tents: two tents near a river
We pit the Vango Osiris Air and the Vango Aether 450 XL up against each other (Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

Air tents vs pole tents is a contest that has evolved over recent years. Since Scottish manufacturer Vango pioneered the AirBeam tent at the start of the last decade, brands have been perfecting their own air tents, shelters that feature inflatable air beams instead of tent poles.

With more and more campers opting for a fast-pitching air tent, to see which option truly delivers the best camping tent experience, we decided to test a couple of equivalent models together: the Osiris Air from Vango's Earth Collection vs the Aether 450 XL, a traditional pole tent.

We really loved the ease of pitch that you get with an air tent, though pole tents are still generally cheaper. In terms of performance, there was little to choose between the two. Of course, each had their advantages and disadvantages, which we reveal in more detail in this guide.

If you've made up your mind, we've rounded up the best deals on the featured Vango tents, as well as on the Coleman Valdes Deluxe 6XL Air BlackOut and the Big Agnes Tensleep, our two top rated air and pole-based family tents. Otherwise, keep reading for the full lowdown of the pros and cons of each.

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Meet the tester

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Pat Kinsella

Writer, editor and enthusiast of anything involving pegs, pitching, boots, backpacks and bruises, Pat has spent 20 years pursuing adventure stories. His love of camping has seen him enjoy backpacking trips on multiple continents, as well as the occasional camping holiday with his family.

Pitching

  • The Aether 450 is straightforward to pitch but best with two people
  • The Osiris Air 500 has the edge as it can be pitched by one person

When it comes to knowing how to pitch a tent, most modern pole tents are pretty easy to put up 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 is a large family tent that can be erected 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.

Air tents vs pole tents: An Osiris Air tent being inflated

Air tents can easily be pumped up by one person (Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

Air tents vs pole tents: Inflating the Vango Osiris Air 500 with a pump

Inflating the Vango Osiris Air 500 with the provided pump (Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

Design, stability and adverse weather

  • Comfort and liveability comes down to individual tents
  • Both air tents and poled tents perform just as well in windy conditions
  • For air tents, internal bracing straps are required, impeding internal space
  • While inflatable beams may bend in challenging conditions, at least they’ll never snap, unlike poles

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 – one of the parts of a tent many won't be familiar with – 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, giving you more room for things like your camping chairs once more.

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.

Take down

  • It was slightly more challenging to stuff the Air tent back into its carry bag

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.

Air tents vs pole tents: tension straps being adjusted

Tension straps mean an air tent can withstand rough weather (Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

Durability, repair and maintenance

  • Air tubes can be replaced if punctured, while duct tape can provide a temporary solution
  • Poles are liable to snapping when put under stress
  • No significant difference overall in terms of durability

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.

Transportation

  • No significant difference between weight and volume
  • Air tents tend to come in larger packs and the pump can be bulky too

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.

Air tents vs pole tents: Two packaged tents

The difference in packed size between the two is noticeable (Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

Price

  • Pole tents generally cheaper than air tents

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.

Comparison table

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Header Cell - Column 0 Vango Osiris Air 500Vango Aether 450
Price£725 (UK)£760 (UK)
Capacity5 people4 people
DesignAir tentPole tent
Weight15.3kg/33.7lb20kg/44lb
Packed Size73 x 34 x 34cm/28.7 x 13 x 13in72 x 30 x 32cm/28 x 12 x 12.5in

Final verdict

Air tents vs pole tents: do we have a winner? 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. Why buy an inflatable tent? Why not?

Pat Kinsella

Author of Caving, Canyoning, Coasteering…, a recently released book about all kinds of outdoor adventures around Britain, Pat has spent 20 years pursuing stories involving boots, bikes, boats, beers and bruises. 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 on Strava here and instagram here.