Inflatable tents have become all the rage ever since Vango released the first one in 2011. For new campers and seasoned campers alike, inflatable tents offer a variety of benefits: convenience, reparability, and flexibility. I’d be willing to bet on your next car camping trip; you will see at least a solid handful of these tents around. Unmistakable, with their hissing pitching sound, inflatable tents offer an easy way to camp both alone and in groups.
What are inflatable tents?
Inflatable tents are exactly what they sound like. They trade metal poles for inflatable air beams that are erected through the use of a hand or foot pump. Other tents that are commonly grouped with inflatable tents due to their similar nature include Pop-up tents and Instant cabins. Pop-up tents have flimsy foldable poles and tend to fold up into a round shape. Instant cabins are similar to Pop-up tents; only they are much larger and more suitable for groups.
Inflatable Tents vs. Standard Tents for Camping
- Pitching Speed: Unless you are a professional tent pitcher, or are incredibly familiar with your tent already, inflatable tents have superior pitching speed. Most of them can be erected in ten minutes or less. Pop-up tents and instant cabins can often be erected in seconds. If you’re in a hurry to get out and enjoy nature and would rather not spend thirty minutes or more setting up a tent, then an inflatable tent may be right for you.
- Structure Stability: This is hotly debated. The flimsy poles in Pop-up tents and Instant cabins, make them unsuitable for most elemental camping trips. In fact, they are almost more suited for festivals than anything else. That’s not to say that people haven’t camped with Pop-up tents and Instant cabins — just that they aren’t the best option when it comes to structure. Good inflatable tents, however, do have the upper hand over standard tents. Once tethered down, they can flex and sway with the wind. This may not sound great, but it means that you lessen the risk of a snapped pole in the middle of a wind storm. Standard tents are rigid, which means they are indeed stable, at least until they reach their breaking point. Then you could have snapped poles and ripped tent fabric that is not easily repaired. Meanwhile, inflatable tents come with puncture kits that allow you to quickly and easily fix any tears that may occur (though tears are not likely).
- Weather Resistance: Inflatable tents may be able to stand up to strong winds better than standard tents, but can they endure all the elements? This really depends on what you are buying. As you might assume, Pop-up tents and Instant cabins aren’t very weather resistant. They are made from thinner materials, tend to condensate, and can sink in from too much exterior pressure (such as heavy snow or rain). Inflatable tents are almost all waterproof, are safe from excess amounts of condensation, and some hold up exceptionally well to snow! Of course, if you shop appropriately, both inflatable tents and standard tents will do the trick for your all of your seasonal needs.
- Life Expectancy: A good, standard tent that is well taken care of should last you ten years or longer. Some can easily last over thirty years with proper care! Can inflatable tents hold up to this life expectancy? The short answer is, probably not. Due to the novelty of inflatable tents, they just haven’t been given the thirty or even ten-year time test. And while punctures can be easily repaired, if you get multiple punctures over the lifespan of a tent, you may compromise the structure and stability of the shelter.
- Price Difference: You will absolutely pay a higher price for a quality inflatable tent than for a quality standard model. This is again due to the novelty of these tents. The newer air beam technology still costs a pretty penny to produce. Even so, you could certainly spend more on a standard tent than on some inflatable tents, depending on size, quality, weather resistant properties, and other specs.
- Maintenance: If you are looking for a tent that can be repaired on the fly, then an inflatable tent is for you. As mentioned earlier, the puncture kits that come with them make for quick repairs in the event of a puncture or a tear. However, if you are looking for a tent that can be fully repaired, standard tents are you. These tents may not be able to be repaired on site if you get damage to the tent canvas or the poles, but replaceable poles are easily bought, and tent canvas can be professionally repaired, making the repair more likely to hold than your “on-the-fly” puncture kit.
- Cleanliness: For cleanliness, nothing beats a standard tent. It is easier to shake out, air dry, and clean. Inflatable tents are incredibly difficult to clean as the parts are not easily separated.
Are there options for all seasons?
As with standard tents, there are seasonal options. You won’t find many four-season inflatable tents, so if you are on the hunt for a “one-size-fits-all” type of tent that can be used for all of your camping needs, you may be more limited in options if you go the inflatable route.
As time goes on and the air beam technology is perfected, this may change. For now, you may need to buy one to two season inflatable tents, to ensure that it holds up well for your camping trip.
What do the experts recommend?
So you’ve thought long and hard about the benefits of inflatable tents, and you have decided to purchase one. Now comes the hard part: choosing the right one. This is no easy feat, as there are so many options and it can be hard to determine what is right for you.
I want to camp on my own.
Camping alone is a great way to push yourself without distractions. You can test out your camping skills without other people to intervene, boosting your confidence as a camper.
You can also better enjoy the nature around you, free from the weight of human interaction. But solo camping can be challenging, especially when it comes to pitching a tent. That’s why using an inflatable or pop up tent is the superior option for solo campers.
Recommendation: Outsunny Compact Portable Pop-Up Tent
This is my favorite solo tent on the market. It comes with a complete sleep system (read more about how to sleep comfortably here), and you can assemble it in minutes. The nylon material and the bug net help to protect from simple elements.
However, I would not recommend this tent if you will be traveling in harsh weather conditions. The tent material is flimsier than others and may leave you shivering in the night.
Runner-Up: Heimplanet The Cave
This tent is advertised as a three-person tent, but many people argue that is better suited for one or two people at most. It looks overwhelming and complex, but it as simple as they come. Their proprietary Geodesic dome offers the most efficient structure, and their weatherproofing is impeccable.
It is lightweight for its size, making it easier to carry than some other tents. Finally, it is said to hold up well in windy, rainy, and snowy climates. It does come with a hefty price tag, though, which landed it solidly in second place.
I want to camp with my family/friends.
If pitching a tent solo is challenging, imagine pitching a tent with children. Veteran family campers know the struggle of folding and unfolding and refolding and placing poles, all while listening to incessant screaming and trying to keep children from running off into the woods or drowning in the lake. It can be an utter nightmare if you aren’t prepared. Inflatable tents are a literal godsend for family campers.
Recommendation: Vango Odyssey Air 800 Tent
This tent is a five-room powerhouse with a sturdy but flexible structure sans a single metal pole. Can I get a hallelujah? It is very reasonably priced for what you are getting: a three-season tent, suitable for cold weather and strong winds. It should be noted, however, that the tent is large, almost 22 feet long and it is bulky and hard to carry, best suited for car camping or short treks.
Runner-Up: Wenzel Vortex 8
This tent inflates in under a minute, is priced lower than most inflatable tents, and sleeps eight people. It has two rooms, zippered windows, and all the necessary bells and whistles, such as lantern hopes and convenience pockets. For the affordability of an eight-person inflatable tent, this tent had to be the runner-up.
I don’t like the recommendations, what features should I look for?
If, for whatever reason, the recommended tents are not suitable for your camping trip, we would like to leave you with some tips for choosing the best inflatable tent to meet your needs.
- Material: If you can stand a bit of extra weight, opt for polycotton. This will provide you the best of both worlds. Cotton, while heavier, is a better insulator than plain polyester. Polyester, however, is quick drying, less bulky, and cheaper than a fully cotton or canvas tent. (Pro Tip: Canvas and Cotton Tents are the same things!)
- Pricing: Inflatable tents will likely cost you more than a standard tent, but you should still price control. I certainly wouldn’t spend more than $600 for a large canvas or $300 for a small one.
- Water Resistance: Never buy a tent that isn’t water resistant, inflatable or not. It’s just not worth it.
Problems People Face with Inflatable Tents
Inflatable tents aren’t all bells and whistles, though. You may wish to use a standard tent if you are going on longer excursions or backpacking since inflatable tents are significantly heavier and bulkier and require that you also carry a pump, taking up precious backpack space.
They can also deflate in certain weather conditions, although this is less common in well-made models. As with standard tents, there is a risk for condensation. Many of them do not come with sewn in ground sheets, which can be a problem if you are in an area or climate with little critter crawlers.
Finally, tears in the fabric near the air beam expansions are relatively common, and while patching is easy enough, it can be daunting to complete multiple patches.
Inflatable tents make for a convenient alternative to traditional tents. As always, when it comes to camping, you should consider what your individual needs are and whether or not an inflatable tent can meet those needs.