Price: £625 (including inner)
Material: Canvas – 285gsm/540gsm groundsheet
Number of poles: 2
A frame/entrance height: 160cm
Overall height: 3m (floor to top of centre pole)
When we were looking around for a first family tent that would happily serve the critters long term we considered lots of options. I’ve had all manner of nylon tents over the years from affordable tunnel tents used for leisure camping to full on mountain geodesic dome tents that I’ve used in some pretty serious conditions. So nylon was quite naturally our first port of call. I hadn’t slept in anything remotely canvas-like since my cub scout days which left me with memories of damp smelling, damp feeling, military green coloured tents that were cold, wet and very, very dark. And let’s face it, nylon tents do have their advantages. For one they are, in comparison, nimble featherweights able to be carried under one arm by macho looking dads. A bell tent then is a heavyweight bordering on the morbidly obese. Nylon also dries relatively easily and quickly making it that appreciated relative that pops round for a cuppa and leaves an hour later. A bell tent, on the other hand, is that annoying elderly aunt who rocks up for a mince pie on December 23rd and doesn’t leave until the 7th January. They take an age to dry. And, if you don’t want to be cleaning mould off it before its next use you really must allow it to dry properly. Finally, nylon tents come in all manner of designs and setups, some with bedroom compartments like the wings of a mansion where you can neatly compartmentalise each child and not see them until departure day if you’re lucky. Bell tents don’t. Bell tents promote a jamboree, all in this together atmosphere where you’re pretty much face to face for the duration. Up to now you’d be forgiven for thinking that nylon tents win hands down. But, you’d be wrong. Very wrong.
We simply love our bell tent. Ok, it’s nearly half of my body weight. But the vast majority of family campers will car camp – parking up right next to their adventurous abode. Problem solved. Even if you don’t there are ways to get round this. When we went to Kendal Calling music festival I used a heavy duty garden trolley to transport all of our stuff from the car park to the family campsite which was approximately a 35 minutes walk away, later transforming it, Optimus Prime style, into a Jesse’s festival wagon and portable sleep chamber (see review). I’m not saying it was easy but it was very do-able.
The beauty of a bell tent is that it fosters a sense of outdoor communal living. Being 3 metres in height at the centre and 5 metres in diametre this shared space is truly brilliant for families. I for one, want to take my kids camping because I want to spend time with them away from the distractions of modern living. I certainly don’t want them tucked away in a neat little compartment. Even after we had opted for an inner tent to go with it we still had communal sleeping and living areas that were simply vast. To give you an idea, the sleeping section alone has comfortably held two queen size airbeds. Obviously as the critters get older they may want a little bit of privacy and something to call their own, but the optional inner tent caters for this as it can either divide the tent in half or it can create two quarters to create two adjoining bedroom spaces. Importantly the inner also lengthens the camping season. Although canvas will naturally insulate more effectively than nylon there is still a hell of a lot of space for cold air to congregate because of its size. The inner negates a lot of this and, as it comes with its own groundsheet, you also have an extra layer underfoot which makes a big difference to warmth and comfort. Of course, lots of people that I speak to with bell tents prefer it without the inner – just having one truly magnificent space – it is very much a personal thing. But at least you have that choice.
Erecting a bell tent is far simpler than erecting most nylon tents. For starters it only has two poles, a very heavy duty centre pole (32mm diametre and made of 2mm thick steel) and the A frame pole to shape and support the entrance. It takes approximately 20 minutes from start to finish and can easily be done by one person. Speaking to other bell tent owners with children, some of whom are single parents, this is seen as a real advantage. It is equally easy to pack away. My only piece of advice would be that if you can afford the little bit extra to go for a ZIG (zipped in groundsheet) type bell tent then it makes muddy departures even easier as the dirty bottom layer can be detached easily from the rest of the tent (fold it mud to mud/bottom side to bottom side to avoid dirtying the other side/your tent floor) and packed separately, which makes cleaning the whole tent a lot easier when you get back home. The other advantage of a ZIG is that in warm, summer weather it can be zipped undone while the tent is up creating a lavish marquee effect and letting fresh air and cooling breezes float in.
Although there are lots of established brands out there we opted for Dusky Deer after speaking to a couple of bell tent owners in an online forum and then comparing the technical information to other makes. Basically the things to look out for are the weight of canvas and groundsheet (the heavier the gsm the better); whether it has integrated mosquito netted doors, windows and air vents; quality of centre pole (look for diametre and thickness of steel); and finally quality of pegs. With a thing this big and this heavy it needs anchoring down with solid serrated pegs or stakes. Some companies only supply you with two sets for the guy lines and tent stakes, but Dusky Deer supply a third set for pegging out the elastic loops too. They also supply a wooden dolly instead of a cheap plastic rain cap to sit on top of the A frame spike and a bag of wooden sliders should you wish to change the plastic ones that come fitted to each guy line. Impressively, it then took just two days from the date I ordered to arrive. I would certainly recommend them.
There are lots of extras that you can buy for bell tents which can be both a blessing and a nightmare (to your bank balance). The most common thing that people do is beautify it. Be honest, no number of festoon and fairy light or canvas bunting is going to improve the aesthetics of a nylon tent. It would be like putting a beautiful dress on an Alsation. But on a beautiful bell these things look at home. Canopies or awning are also an invaluable addition. They come in many shapes and sizes but create a great porch area, ideal for cooking or sitting under in poor weather. Finally, lots of owners choose to have purpose built stoves with flues that exit either the roof or outer wall. Personally, with two small critters this is something we have not considered as I simply wouldn’t be able to relax. Jesse sometimes adopts the persona of the Grinch and thinks wreaking havoc is his sole purpose in life! That said, I know of many people with children who have them and manage them safely. Again, it’s very much a personal opinion that divides owners.
So, if you are thinking of getting into the great outdoors with your little critters, look beyond the obvious nylon choices and you might just fall in love with camping all over again.
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