(The Gear Loop) - In the world of fast-pitching shelters, the battle that matters is pump up versus pop-up tents. With the camping season almost upon us, families, festival goers and outdoor lovers from Newquay to Newcastle will be eying up the best options for their trips. Shelters that assemble in no time are commonplace these days and deservedly popular.
The best pop-up/easy up tents have come a long way in the last ten years and many models now rival traditional tents in terms of protection against the elements, comfort and build quality. In this feature, we consider the differences between pump-up tents and pop-up tents, their advantages and disadvantages and give our verdict on what you should be investing in and why.
What is a pump-up tent?
More commonly known as air tents, these ingenious shelters do away with poles altogether, instead using inflated air beams to give the tent its structural integrity.
The approach was pioneered by Scottish brand Vango, when they unveiled their AirBeam tents 2011. Today, many of the main players in the camping world boast their own air tent products.
What is a pop-up tent?
A pop-up tent is a shelter designed to magically leap to life when you liberate it from its pack. Unlike with traditional tents, where each pole has to be assembled and guided into place to support the tent’s structure, a pop-up’s poles come ready assembled. These poles are flexible, often spring-loaded, ready to leap into shape when free from the straps that hold it all together in its pack.
The first time you see a pop-up perform this trick it can seem like magic. One moment the shelter is stashed away, the next it’s a fully-fledged tent. All that’s left for you to do after this is peg out the corners and guy lines.
The fuss-free and time efficient approach represented by pop-up tents became popular with festival goers, fans of the beach and summer campers who didn’t want to waste any time to pitching.
When it comes to speed and ease of pitching, there’s only one winner: the pop-up tent. These ingenious shelters take form in a matter of seconds and within a minute you’ll have pegged out the corners and the guy lines.
However, air tents are also super speedy to erect compared to equivalent poled tents, particularly when it comes to shelters roomy enough to house a large family. To assemble an air tent, you first lay it out flat and peg out the corners. Next, you inflate the air beams using the supplied pump and marvel as your shelter takes shape. It’s important to inflate to the correct pressure (or PSI), which will be stated in the instructions.
Once the beams are inflated, it’s just a matter of pegging out the guy lines and arranging the interior to your liking. A large air tent usually takes in the region of 15-20 minutes to erect.
The winner when it comes to size depends on your planned use. Pop-up tents are usually on the smaller side, with most falling in the 2-person to 4-person range. Pop-up shelters that are larger than this tend to be fine for fair, dry weather but are not stable enough to stand up to more challenging conditions. This makes pop-up tents ideal for beach trips, festivals or summer camping weekends but don’t expect cavernous interiors. The convenience of quick assembly comes with the cost of reduced comfort.
In terms of size, pump-up tents are the opposite, with the smallest models generally around the 4-person mark. The way they are engineered makes them ideal as large family tents with living spaces roomy enough for your camping chairs, table, stove and anything else you fancy bringing along.
More importantly, they’re often spacious enough to stand up in, which is a real bonus on extended camping trips. Some models, such as the Berghaus Air 6XL and the Vango Joro Air 600XL Sentinel Eco, include compartmentalised bedrooms that are often customisable, with removable dividers giving you the option of multiple small rooms or fewer large rooms.
Considering pop-up tents tend to be small and air tents tend to be large, it should come as no surprise that pop-up shelters are much more portable. Many pop-up tents fold down into a large disc shaped fabric sack, which is great for carrying from the car to your festival pitch, but not so great for taking on a wild camping expedition. However, some pop-up tents are now designed with packability in mind, such as the Quechua 2 Seconds Easy Fresh&Black, which packs away small and compact enough to be carried on backpacking missions.
Air tents are much heavier and stow away into relatively large packs, which usually makes them suitable only for car camping. Models like the Berghaus Air 6XL feature a wheeled carry case for ease of transport, so if there’s a bit of a walk between the car and your intended pitch, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Robustness and durability
Air tents are the winner here, with models that stand up to abuse and the elements just as well as most traditional poled tents. It can seem surprising that a tent that relies on air for its structural integrity is such a well-fortified castle of canvas, but the leading models are superbly robust and feature excellent build quality.
Shelters like the Outwell Airville 6SA feature a waterproof rating of 6,000mm, which is more than enough to cope all but the most ferocious rainstorms. They’re also extremely durable; just don’t pump the air beams beyond the stated maximum pressure. Having said this, the leading air tents usually come supplied with a repair kit anyway.
Pop-up tents have improved over the years but still do not quite compete with standard tents or air tents regarding robustness, which is sacrificed somewhat for convenience. However, for summer camping trips, a decent pop-up tent will hold its own, we just wouldn’t go up a mountain with one in winter. We also wouldn’t expect a pop-up tent to last a lifetime of camping adventures.
As well as convenience, pop-up tents have also have the advantage of value. This combination of low cost and ease has made them favourites with festival goers. However, this has also seen them garner controversy due to the all too familiar scene of fields strewn with abandoned tents and rubbish once the crowds have dispersed.
When purchasing a pop-up tent, remember the old saying "buy cheap, buy twice" and consider the environmental impact. Invest in a good model that should last you multiple camping seasons.
Due to their higher price point, air tents are more of an investment. However, considering their size, usability, durability and comfort, they’re a shrewd purchase. This is especially so if you’re planning on consistently taking the family on camping holidays, as they should last you many years.
If you’re after a high-quality product for car camping family holidays, you can’t go wrong with a pump-up shelter. These superb products rival traditional large tents in terms of build quality and robustness.
However, if you’re looking for something smaller, portable and more convenient for summer camping trips, a pop-up tent is also a great option. Just don’t be tempted to spend the minimum, as you will get a product that won’t last and you'll definitely get wet if it chucks it down.
We wouldn’t recommend either options for wild camping or backpacking expeditions. For these purposes, you are far better served by a traditional, ultralight, poled tent.