Introduction: A Justification for Pontification
Stand back. I am a professional.
Just kidding. But I figure I ought to start out a work like this establishing my bona-fides. Why should you listen to me? Well, I’m actually a well-informed amateur absolutely loaded with opinions about tents, pavilions, and shade flys. In ancient times I earned the Exalted Rank of Eagle Scout. (If you think that SCA rank doesn’t count in Real Life, try flashing an Eagle Scout badge and see the crowd who isn’t impressed.) In addition to Boy Scout camping, I’ve got 24 years of SCA experience. I’m a veteran of ten Pennsics, six Lilies, seven Gulf Wars, ten Border Raids, and a host of weekend events too many to number.
I live in the Kingdom of Meridies, a land blessed with many, many state parks and group camps with cabins, so many of my fellow Meridians do not have much experience with tent camping and the joys and tribulations that follow from it. In an effort to allow others to profit from my mistakes, I thought I might put together my opinions and offer them up for consideration.
So much for that. Now, as to the Perfect Pavilion? There isn’t one. No matter what the label says, one size does NOT fit all. Buying a pavilion is really a lot like buying a car. It’s a substantial commitment of resources (money or time) that you’ll spend a lot of time in. Make sure that you get one that fits. Here are some of the features you will need to consider. With that in mind, we’ll look into a number of the issues involved in tent purchasing. Think about the various features you need and how important each feature is before you make your choice. Each feature, run to extreme, breaks another feature, so no matter what you choose, you’ll end up with a compromise.
So ask yourself the following questions:
What’s The Bottom Line?
How much am I willing to spend? Frankly, if you’re just flat broke and have to get the absolute minimum in shelter for the absolute minimum amount of money spent, run to Wal-mart and pick up a Coleman 7 x 7 Sundome. Coleman’s been in the camping gear business since before the First World War, and they put out a rugged, usable product. They cost under $70 and will keep you and your absolutely critical stuff dry. Most of the time. But be prepared to store your cooler and non-critical items out in the weather. 7’ domes don’t have a lot of room in them. Also be prepared for people to refer to your tent as an “earth pimple.” Be aware that mundane tent manufacturers LIE. The Coleman Sundome claims to sleep three. If you check the diagram on the box, you’ll discover that that’s three sleeping bags taking up the entire floor of the tent. Zero room is left for equipment inside. So if you’re buying a mundane tent for two, get the one that “sleeps 5.” If you are willing to spend just a little more, say, $285.00 or so, I’d like to strongly, strongly recommend a medieval “wedge” style canvas tent of some type. Wedge tents are period for most cultures throughout the Middle Ages. Like the T-tunic, 6 board box, or other simple artifacts, they reach across cultures and time because they are easy to make.
Does it need to look medieval?
I’ve got a one-word answer for that. Yes. There are many aspects to activity in the SCA. We spend money, time, and other resources on things like armor, costume, tools, projects, and the like. But no matter how well you are dress, no matter how medieval your feast gear, no matter how pretty your armor, you’ll never really feel like you’ve transcended time and are actually IN The middle ages if you’re standing in front of an electric blue nylon dome tent. I can’t encourage a medieval tent enough.
How much room do I need?
Give careful consideration to this question. Be generous. In my experience, I have occasionally stored a tent that was too big. I have pitched tents that were too big. Heaven knows, I’ve often carried tents that were too big. But I’ve never, ever LIVED in a tent that was too big. What kind of activities will you be using your tent for? If you’re a combat monster and spend all day fighting and then have a beer and go to sleep, you’ll never see your tent except when you crawl into it to sleep at night. Your average Viking warrior can dress by rolling around on top of a sleeping bag. But a Spanish Lady of Quality needs three ladies in waiting, a derrick and a crane just to get dressed! Just kidding. Seriously, do you need to stand up? Hang clothes? Hang LONG clothes? If that’s the case, you’ll need more head room. Are you a clothes horse? Be honest? How many court dresses or doublets do you take to war? That stuff’s gotta be stored, sorted, and accessed conveniently. Are you a woodworker? A blacksmith? Are you thinking about taking your tools? You may need TWO tents. So, to answer this question, make a list of everything that you normally take to War. If you are particularly detail oriented, draw all of your tubs, boxes, suitcases and back packs on graph paper and look at how your tent layout is going to look. You’ll find that it takes more space than you think. But don’t go hog wild. Some event sites, and Pennsic is one of them, limit the amount of space each attendee can use. In general, the first person in a tent needs about 100 square feet of tent for SCA camping. Yes, that seems like a lot, and yes, you can get by with less, but if you’re planning to live like this for several years, you’ll be glad you have the room. Go to your living room with a tape measure and lay out a square 10’ x 10’. That’s 100 square feet. By the time you add a single camp bed (21 sq feet), a cooler (6 sq feet), one trunk (6 sq feet), an a single table (9 sq feet), it’ll start looking awful small. Add an armor stand, chair, camp stove, book case . . . What, doesn’t everybody travel with a reference library? You don’t? Well, okay, but the second person doesn’t need as much room. My lady wife and I share a bed and trunks. On the other hand, now we have two suits of armor … Add at least 50 square feet for each additional adult in the tent. I don’t have any children, so you’re on your own there. Although I will say that of my friends who have children, once they get past the toddler stage, the children seem to get moved to their own tent.
Where am I going to store it?
There’s an old saying in the tent biz: “You can store your nylon tent behind your couch. You can store your canvas tent AS your couch.” When selecting your tent, be sure to give careful consideration to where you are going to keep it. If you are an apartment dweller with limited storage space, a canvas tent may be too much for you. A canvas tent suitable for two adults will require at least six cubic feet of storage space for the canvas, stakes, and ropes, effectively filling the bottom of one closet. And that doesn’t even consider the poles. Larger tents take up even more space.
How is it going to be transported?
The smallest of canvas tents have poles that are six feet long. Give careful thought to how you are going to haul your mobile mansion. Adding a roof rack to your ’73 VW Super Beetle will be an additional cost. Canvas is also heavy. It takes a healthy person between the ages of 13 and 70 just to pick up the canopy for my big marquee.
Who is going to pitch it?
While most of the tent-pitching process can be done alone for most tents, each design has its limitations, and most require help. So, do you have to be able to pitch your tent alone? Or would it be okay to have a tent that only needs a little help the first few minutes. Wedge tents require help to raise the ridge pole, but can otherwise be pitched alone. Marquee tents call for 2 – 3 people starting out, but can be finished alone. And there are variations.
With those questions in mind, let’s look at some specific features.
Features and Formats
The Rigid Frame
The rigid frame pavilion is characterized by a stiff internal frame, usually made of steel or aluminum tubing, over which the canvas is stretched like a slip-cover. I include in this category the Viking wedge and the rigid-frame marquee. The rigid-frame pavilion has a number of advantages. To begin with, smaller rigid frame pavilions can be set up easily by one person. Few pavilion designs can say that. The interior frame lets you hang things securely from it while camping. Garb and small accessories can be safely hung from the interior frame and not sit on the ground to get wet in the event of flooding. The ambitious can add wooden decking to the upper level and provide for a small storage loft, although this is a lot of stuff to haul, and generally is only done by folk staying for a long war (six days or more) or who are in dire need of storage space. In mild-to-moderate weather, the rigid frame pavilion is also able to maintain stability as well as its soft-wall counterparts while using fewer stakes, ropes, and perimeter poles. It also requires less daily maintenance, or “tuning,” than a soft-wall tent. Finally, if you find that you need to re-position your rigid frame tent after the canopy has been raised, you can un-stake it, get a half-dozen friends or passer’s by, and walk it to its new home.
There are disadvantages, though. Perhaps the largest and most obvious is that rigid-frame pavilions were generally not used in the middle ages. For many people, though, they pass the “Conan Test,” and that’s good enough. The overwhelming majority of illustrations we have available to us portray soft-wall tents when medieval people took to the field. No matter what you do to them, they always seem to look like a giant canvas shoebox with a lid on it. The next critical point is that in heavy weather, rigid frame tents do not fare as well as soft-wall tents. Further, rigid frame tents are quite sensitive to uneven ground, and want a very flat spot to be pitched on. Rigid frame tents also have more kinds of parts than soft-wall tents. There are very specific corner joints that are only available from tent manufacturers. If you break, lose, or forget one, you are not going to be able to pitch the tent until you get it replaced. This is an awkward thing to discover in the rain at 10:00 at night. They’re also quite heavy. All those metal poles add up to extra weight on your vehicle and your joints. While the smaller tents are arguably not significantly heavier than soft-wall tents, the larger ones out-weigh their soft-wall counterparts significantly. Most rigid-frame manufacturers also use either Velcro or zipper closures, neither of which are medieval.
The Spoke Wheel – A Potentially Medieval Rigid Frame Variant
There’s also something new on the tent market today that fits in the rigid-frame category that may very well be QUITE medieval. I refer to the new development of “wagon wheel” and “spoke wheel” internal frames. These frames are used exclusively by the curved wall tents. They consist of a series of spokes that extend out from the center pole to points on the canopy where perimeter poles would normally be. Like an umbrella’s ribs, these hold the tent in its proper shape without the need for perimeter poles. Adherents to this design point to copious illustrations in medieval documents of tents unencumbered with perimeter poles. The addition of a rim around the tent to support the tent shape creates the picture of a wagon wheel.
The soft-wall tent is one that is help up solely by ropes, stakes, and upright poles. In most cases the top, or canopy, is stored, transported, and pitched separate from the walls, although there are exceptions. Most designs have a single rigid pole that runs along the top of the tent called a ridge pole. Of the commercial tents on the market, these tents most closely parallel the look and utility of medieval tents. The greater number of ropes and larger stakes typical of soft-wall tents make them far more resistant to stormy winds that rigid frame tents. Because each pole of a soft-wall tent is supported independently, it doesn’t matter how uneven the ground you are pitching the tent on; the tent will be just as stable as though it were on level ground. Most structural parts of a soft-wall tent are interchangeable and can be improvised. A broken rope can be replaced by just about any rope on short notice, although I have very firm opinions about using natural fiber ropes with period tents. Missing stakes can be replaced using stakes from the camping department at Wal-Mart, or even a carefully trimmed piece of firewood, in an emergency. A quick trip to the local Home Depot or Lowes can provide a tent pole or ridge pole as well.
On the other hand, there are some disadvantages to soft-wall tents. Having no frame to hang things from can be inconvenient. There’s no simple way to put an “attic” in your soft-wall tent, and hanging things from the tops of poles requires additional fittings. If the weight of a large soft-wall tent is easier on your vehicle and your joints the additional number of poles to be raised and stakes to be pounded can take their toll. While it is possible for an experienced camper to adjust the rigging of a soft-wall tent so that one person can pitch it, it is generally difficult to quite challenging for one person to raise a soft-wall tent by themselves. And finally, the very stakes and ropes that make soft-wall tents so stable in heavy weather make them impossible to move while pitched. Once you have started staking your soft-wall tent, you will be unable to move it without taking it back down.
For many people who only need small tents, less than 144 sq/ft, the convenience of putting up a rigid frame pavilion may outweigh the non-medieval styling and execution of the tent. A variation on this would be the spoke wheel design, which offers a more medieval profile and camping experience at the cost of adding a center pole and loss of corner space.
People who need larger tents or are more concerned about medieval appearance and experience should carefully consider soft wall construction, which adds stability and is lighter to load and pitch in the larger sizes.
The Sod Cloth and Double Valence
There are many features and options that various vendors offer for the tents they sell. Some are very convenient, some are critical, and some are more trouble than they are worth. Foremost among the options are the double-valance and the sod-cloth. If you decide to purchase a tent with detachable walls, the valance is the part of the canopy that hangs down over the upper edge of the wall and provides an over-lap with the wall, to keep out wind and rain.
A double valance allows you to connect your wall between the two valences and provides a much better seal against rain and wind. The wind will blow a single valance up and allow rain to get in between the wall and the canopy. Usually this occurs right next to where you have set up your bedding. The sod-cloth is a narrow strip of canvas that is attached to the bottom of your wall and lies on the ground, under your ground-cloth, providing an overlap to keep out wind and water. In wet weather these features work together to keep the rain out of your tent and off of your bedding. Most folks who buy tents without a sod cloth find a reason to upgrade to a new tent in a few years and invest in a sod cloth when they do.
The sod cloth and double valence are easily worth the money, regardless of style of tent or frame, and come highly recommended.
Canvas weight is an issue that needs to be thought through carefully. Most tent vendors offer canvas in a variety of “weights.” Usually advertised in “ounces” this measurement indicates how rugged the canvas your tent is made of is. Two weights common in the industry are 10.38 oz and 13 oz. I’ve had experience with both the heavier and the lighter weight canvas, and I must say that both weights have their points. The heavier your canvas, the more durable it’s going to be. The canopy on my marquee is ten years old and, while dingy and faded, is showing no signs of wearing out. “Big Blue” does 3 wars a year, one week at Lilies, one week at Gulf Wars, and two weeks at Pennsic. In ten years that’s 40 weeks out in the weather. The heavier weight canvas also has a higher thread-count per inch, resulting in a tighter weave that some claim leads to better waterproofing. From my own experience with 10.38 oz canvas thus far, admittedly limited, it seems to keep water out just fine. Then there’s also the shadow puppet theater experience. Consider the activity that may occasionally go on in your tent late in the evening. Consider the light within your tent and the shadows you may be projecting on the walls. Heavier canvas can not only block out unintended shadow puppet shows, but can actually help muffle the noise of the kids playing on the beach fifty feet from your tent at eight o’clock in the morning after that late night revel. Except for the higher cost, there’s really only one true disadvantage to the heavier weight canvas: heavier weight. The canopy of my oval marquee is too heavy for most people to move by themselves. If you aren’t built for heavy lifting, consider the size and weight of your canvas carefully. You can probably handle heavy canvas on a small tent. For a larger one you may wish for the lighter canvas.
In smaller tents, less than 225 sq/ft, heavier weight canvas is a worthwhile investment if you can spare the cash. The additional weight is not significant when loading and pitching the tent, and the extra years you will get from the tent will more than pay for the cost of the heavier canvas.
For larger tents, consider more carefully. The heavier canvas canopy will wear better and last longer, and may even be dryer in heavy rains, but it will come at a cost to the joints in your body and the suspension in your car. On the other hand, I prefer heavy canvas walls for preventing unintended shadow plays. Also, given that the walls can be packed in separate totes, the additional weight of the canvas is less important for toting, lifting, and pitching. For tents larger than 225 sq/ft I recommend that you have the canopy made from 10.38 oz canvas and the walls made out of 13 oz canvas.
Having brought up the subject of weight, this is a good time to talk about detachable walls. Wedges, bell-wedges, and bell tents don’t really have much in the way of walls to speak of. The “canopy” stakes directly to the ground. Wall tents, marquees, and similar styles have walls that come down from the canopy down to the ground, and you need to decide if you want your walls attached to your canopy or not. One advantage that I have seen to having what is essentially a one-piece tent is that with the walls sewn directly to the canopy, you have zero chance of blown in rain. I have also observed that the smaller one piece tents can be easier to put up by one person than multi-part tents, but this may be because they tend to be smaller than multi-part tents. One piece tents also tend to be more stable than multi-part tents. The seam that attaches the wall to the canopy spreads out the stresses more evenly, and this means that the tent holds up better in bad weather. Some people regard the ability to store your entire tent in one box to be an advantage. I don’t agree. The biggest problem with this design choice is you cannot break the tent up into component pieces and pack it in multiple lighter boxes. You have to keep it all in one huge, hernia-making box. In addition to making it hard to lift and carry, it also makes it hard to load into smaller vehicles and to pack around. The great weight is also destructive to the lightweight plastic boxes many of us store our canvas in, requiring a heavier box adds even more weight. The bigger your tent, the more likely you are to want it in sections. Attached walls also fix your doors in one place. You can’t shift them around to put the doors where you want them.
This will vary. In general I prefer detachable walls because they are easier to haul and store and allow you to move your tent doors to where you want them. Tents with fewer than 144 Sq/ft can be pitched faster if the walls are attached, but tents larger than 144 Sq/ft become very unwieldy to carry, store, and move.
Nothing adds more to the pageantry and fun of our events than banners, pennons, and flags. Most tent manufacturers offer “peak grommets” as an option on their tents. These are nothing more than one or more holes in the top of your tent with a protective metal grommet to allow the spikes at the top of your tent poles to poke through. If you do not take the time and effort to put a spike and flag through this hole, you can get a little water in during heavy weather. In practice it amounts to a small puddle at the bottom of your tent pole, and then only in the absolute worst of weather. At best, you get to display your personal badge, group device, or coat of arms from the top of your tent. Or, if you prefer the barbarian thing, the spike also makes a great place to display the skull of your worst enemy.
Get the peak grommets, unless you are seriously planning to leave the peak of your tent un-decorated.
Tents with walls have an opportunity for medieval display that wedge tents don’t get: scallops or dagging. Dags are the decorative shapes on the outer valence. These are almost entirely a matter of taste, but are a detail that comes highly recommended. They really add to the medieval look of your tent and camp. I prefer the embattled “castle wall” look. The only negative thing to be said here is that the “wavy” scallop or “Standard Scallop” of Panther nomenclature has a tendency to blow up in heavy weather due to the amount of material removed. This is less of an issue if you have gotten the double valence option.
Get the dagging if you have the cash. Which dagging you choose is a matter of stylistic preference.
Another feature often seen in painting of the medieval period is that of slanted walls. This means that your walls hook to the canopy of your tent, and then slant out from your tent, providing a cone-shaped look. The most important aspect of this feature is that it makes your tent look more medieval, and isn’t that the point of all this? As an added bonus, boxes, trunks, armor bags and the like can be stored between the perimeter poles and the slanted wall, out of the main floor. One more advantage to the slanted wall comes up in high winds. A tent with slanted walls presents a more aerodynamic profile than one with vertical walls. I had one experience where a vertical wall tent blew down right next to a slant wall tent that was hit with the same wind gusts. There are three disadvantages to slanted walls that come immediately to mind. First, the cost is greater. More canvas calls for more money. Second, you lose the flexibility of where your doors go. Slanted walls must be fitted to the tent. Third, your tent footprint gets larger, requiring more land at War. This means that a 13’ x 16’ marquee requires a 16’ x 19’ spot of land.
What’s more important: a medieval look and stability in high wind, or the ability to move your doors to wherever you want them and a smaller footprint? For me, looks and stability combined trump convenient doors. I recommend slanted walls for all tents.
One of the most important purposes of a tent is to keep the rain out. With this in mind let’s talk about roof pitch. Some of you who camped as children may be old enough to remember the admonition “don’t touch the tent; you’ll make it leak.” Up until very recently tents didn’t really shed water, so much as absorb it, and then wick it down to the ground. Once the fabric had absorbed as much water as it could, additional water would either seep through or sheet off, and a steep pitch helped with this process. That’s why the marquee tents in medieval paintings have such high ridgelines and steep roofs. Modern waterproofing techniques and compounds have sharply reduced the need for this. In fact, most modern marquee style tents do not have a problem with leaks when new. However, it has been my experience that tents with a low pitch tend to develop puddles of water on their roofs during heavy rains, and this can lead to leaks. In fact, I know of two large, expensive tents, both rigid frames with low pitched roofs that developed chronic leaks that could only be resolved by adding the weight of an additional tarp over the top. So when considering your tent style, consider a roof pitch of at least 2/1. That is, for each one foot of length, the tent roof rises two feet. 3/1 would be preferred if you can get it. The disadvantages of this are twofold. The higher ridge calls for more canvas and longer poles. This means a higher cost and the inconvenience of dealing with longer poles.
Get a tent with a roof pitch of 2/1 or greater. You will have far fewer leaks.
Another great way to make your tent more medieval and less modern is choosing color. Most vendors charge extra for colored canvas, but it adds so very much to the look of camp that most people find it worth the money. But one word of warning: all colors fade. It’s not so bad when your dark blue becomes a soft blue or your Benedictine black becomes Carmelite brown, but be warned: all reds eventually turn pink. So beware. Your grim black Mongolian yurt with the blood red top will, over the years, turn into a gray cupcake with pink icing. Choose wisely. Take special care with the color of your roof. During daylight hours, the color of your roof will color everything in your tent. Do you want everything in your tent to be screaming yellow or blood red? Darker colors also block more light. A dark blue tent with a dark blue roof turns into a cave, even during the brightest days. Handy if you’re using it as a classroom with a Powerpoint presentation, but not so good if you’re planning on the sunrise waking you in time for the big field battle. Finally, dark colors absorb heat. A dark tent can quickly become a sauna in hot, sunny weather, particularly on windless days.
Avoid red. Really. Nothing is sadder than a strapping, hairy barbarian living in a light pink tent.
Now we’re going to talk for a moment about an “option” that’s not optional: fire retardant canvas. It is still possible to find vendors who are willing to make tents out of traditional canvas which is not fire retardant. In fact, some re-creation groups require it. Make no bones about it: if the canvas in your tent is not fire retardant, you are not welcome in my camp. There’s a lot of fire in the SCA. Blacksmith forges, campfires, cook fires, oil lamps, camp stoves, candles and tiki torches, just to name a few. There are more ways for a tent to catch fire than you can readily imagine, and a tent fire is something truly impressive. You’d think that a cloth building that caught fire and fell over would only destroy itself, but canvas burns hot, and once aflame, will ignite everything inside it that’s not made of metal or stone. In 1944 there was a tent fire at the Barnum and Bailey circus that killed 163 people, half of them children. And it’s not just your stuff or even you that traditional canvas puts at risk. It’s everyone around you. We’re packed in very tight at war, and the tents are close. If one goes up, it will be a threat to everyone. The Great Fire of London was in 1666, and firmly post-period. Re-enacting it is firmly outside of our charter. If you have to sacrifice color, dags, or even the double valence, pay the money for the best fire-retardant option you can get. No ifs-and-or-buts.
It is recommended that people who buy tents without fire retardant canvas be slapped with a live carp.
Most of the options we’ve discussed here have had their upside and downside, but there’s one tent option that I’ve never been able to find and upside to: the roof vent. Some manufacturers offer screened windows with canvas cover flaps up near the ridgepole. These are most often seen on rigid frame tents. The idea is to provide a vent for hot air to escape on blazing hot summer days, and it’s great in theory. In practice, roof vents tend to require a lot of management during set up. They all seem to come equipped with self-tangling control ropes that have to be de-snarled before the canopy can be raised. Once the canopy is raised roof vents introduce a leak prone area. If you open them and there is problem with the control lines, you can find yourself in the position of being unable to close them and the snarl being eleven feet in the air. Finding a ladder that tall at an event with a rainstorm looming can be a challenge. Having camped in tents with roof vents on blazing hot summer days when roof vents are supposed to provide their greatest benefit, I will testify that they are not worth the trouble they cause.
Just say “no” to roof vents.
Getting Down to Specifics: Tent Designs
The wedge design comes in a variety of flavors, such as the Norman wedge, Saxon Geteld, and Viking Wedge. At its core, this tent is two rectangles of canvas joined on the long edge, with a ridge pole and two uprights. It’s shaped like a big ol’ wedge of cheese standing on its end. Four triangles of fabric at each end supply the doors. All wedges are variations on this theme. The biggest advantage of the wedge is the startup cost; wedges are the cheapest tents to make. They are also fairly easy to equip. They require a minimum of three poles, ten stakes, and no ropes at all. This also means that they tend to pack up small, and small tents are also relatively light to move. Most wedge campers can hold their tent and all of it’s accoutrements except the poles in a single box or tub. For look and feel, they are appropriate to all medieval periods and most cultures. This tent does have its disadvantages, though. Because the sides of the wedge slope down sharply, the only place where you can stand is in the center of the tent. Storage space in this tent is especially limited because the taller your box is, the farther from the wall it has to be stored. Tall items, say, over two feet tall, can only be stored down the middle of the tent, and any bed at all will have to be low to the ground. In cold weather camping, a bed low to the ground is susceptible to cold winds blowing under the tent walls. This problem can be minimized by getting the sod cloth option and using bulky, multi-layered bedding. The Geteld differs from the Norman wedge in that it has a specialized “pocket” along the ridge for the ridge pole, whereas the normal wedge just crams the ridge pole up into the top fold of the canvas. The Geteld also has a ridge pole that is shorter than the length of the tent and is designed so that the doors at each end taper out rather than come straight down. This means that the tents ends slope in towards the ridge pole, reducing the interior space of the tent. This means that the ridge pole is shorter and easier to deal with and there is less canvas overall, making the tent lighter to move. On the other hand, it means that there is less interior space for use relative to the amount of square footage you are taking up on the ground. The Viking wedge is a different animal all together. It’s the only medieval tent design I am aware of that uses a rigid frame. A pair of crossed poles at each end provides the support for the ridge pole, while a pair of poles along the ground on each side provides support for the crossed poles. The biggest advantage of the Viking wedge over the other wedges is that there is no upright pole in the center of the doors to the tent. The biggest disadvantage of the Viking wedge is that it required three long poles, and the crossed poles are longer than the uprights in the other types of wedges.
The tent I recommend for people who have not settled on a persona, are on a limited budget, or have sharply limited storage space is the Norman wedge. It is easily stored, easily pitched, and is the least expensive. Wedges of all kinds suit single people fairly well. Married couples can also utilize a wedge fairly effectively as long as they are willing to travel fairly light. Families of three or more will begin to feel quite crowded unless they opt for the larger and larger wedges. If you develop the need for a larger tent, or you move to a Viking persona, you can easily re-sell your Norman wedge and get your money back out of it, as long as it has been well maintained. The Viking wedge is only recommended for people who either have a Norse persona or simply MUST NOT have an upright blocking access to the middle of the tent. The Geteld, likewise, has disadvantages that make it only suitable for someone who wanted to peruse an authentic Saxon persona and encampment.
The Bell and Double-Bell Wedge
These tents are variations on the Basic wedge design. These tents enjoy many of the advantages of the Norman wedge, but each has its own problems. Inexpensive and easy to pitch, they are often tempting to people who want a more medieval looking tent than is offered in the Norman wedge, which looks like it could be straight out of a Revolutionary War film or Boy Scout campout. In the case of the Bell wedge a semi-circular bell is added to one end of the wedge. Typically it does not have a door in it. The bell area provides no additional headroom, and so this end typically ends up being used for storage. The lack of a back door prevents the use of flow-through air circulation, so this tent can be particularly hot at summer events. Further, I have yet to see any paintings or drawings of a bell wedge in medieval illustrations. I can only document the bell wedge back to the 17th century.
The double-bell wedge has its door in the side, rather than at the end, and has a bell on both ends. Rather than extending the storage area inside the tent, it tends to reduce it. This tent has the advantage of a very short ridge pole, and the two uprights typically used are close enough together that one person can raise them by himself. The slope of the sides of the tent means that the door exposes a significant part of the floor space of the tent when it is open, meaning that you MUST close the door when out of camp, or the inside of your tent will get wet. Advantages include a lack of guy ropes, and additional stability in rough weather not enjoyed by the Norman or Viking wedges. Many of the disadvantages of the double bell can be minimized by making sure that you have a very tall roof, but this introduces the problem of dealing with transporting very long upright poles. The double bell wedge can be seen in pictures from the Crusader and Tudor eras, and is so common in French illustrations that some vendors call this tent the “French Double Bell Wedge.” Perhaps the single biggest advantage of this tent is that it looks really, really cool in camp.
The disadvantages inherent in the bell, together with its lack of documentation in medieval times lead me to not recommend it at all. The double bell fares better. Due to the reduced headroom this tent is not recommended except for those wanting a tent appropriate to Crusader or Tudor personas. For Crusaders, Tudors, and Frenchmen who want an authentic medieval experience in camp, this tent is quite suitable. It is most useful as a tent for single people or as a secondary tent for children.
The Wall Tent
Like the wedge, this tent design can be dated all the way back to the late Republican period of ancient Rome. It has a triangular profile similar to a wedge tent, but unlike a wedge, the roof does not go all the way to the ground. Instead, a classic wall tent has low walls a couple of feet tall on the sides, and a roof that then slope sharply up to a peak. Most have a door at both ends like a wedge. The low walls on the sides allow furniture, particularly beds and trunks, to be places well over against the walls, while the doors at both ends allow for through-ventilation during hot weather. This tent has an advantage over marquee tents in that because the ridge pole runs the entire length of the tent, the center poles are not in the middle of the living space, freeing up all of that space for other uses.
The walls do present a vertical profile to the wind, so this style of tent is less stable in high winds than the wedge, and the additional canvas that makes up the walls makes it more expensive, as do the additional poles. The additional canvas necessary for the walls and taller doors makes this tent heavier than a wedge of the same size. Further, this tent is still generally sold as all one piece, so it can’t be broken up into smaller containers for ease of transportation and storage. The all-in-one design can also make it awkward to pitch until you have gotten some practice. Some vendors will construct wall tents with taller walls. If you opt for this, remember that this will change the slope of your roof, and water will not sheet off of it as well. Wall tents can be pitched without perimeter poles, but this process requires the side ropes to extend out up to five feet from the base of the tent, effectively increasing the footprint of the tent by ten feet. This can be partially alleviated by crossing ropes with the neighbors, but still make the tent rather wasteful of space. By adding either perimeter poles or side frames the wall tent can reduce its footprint to that of a similar-sized marquee. The perimeter pole technique calls for more poles, but shorter ones. The side frames call for fewer but longer poles, as the frame must run the length of the tent. Note that most wall tents can be pitched in any of these three configurations, as selected and equipped by the owner. These tents were used during the time of the Roman republic, and never fell completely out of use, and could be easily found in military field camps throughout the middle ages. It’s relatively large size and headroom has it typically referred to as an “officer’s tent” in most modern literature.
Variations on a Theme – The Trader’s Tent
This tent is similar in construction to a wall tent, but it has walls up to seven feet tall, allowing headroom all the way to the edge of the tent, like a marquee. Like a wall tent, the center poles are all the way to the ends of the tent, so the interior offers complete flexibility for how it is organized. Not surprisingly, this tent is favored of many merchants, hence the name. This tent is a hybrid of the wall and marquee styles, and I have yet to encounter it in medieval illustrations. By raising the wall height, the roof pitch is effectively reduced to less than ideal, and over time this style of tent is more prone to leakage than its parents, the marquee and wall. Careful maintenance can prevent this problem. These tents are also favored for larger households in the SCA who are buying secondary tents for dining halls or kitchens. This tent also has the flat ends of a wall tent, and is rarely seen with slanted walls; probably because merchants are probably the most squeezed for space on event sites, and need every square inch of space to be as useable as possible.
The wall tent provides a period tent with a fairly minimal footprint, no obstructive center poles, and lots of floor space. Depending on the configuration of the pitch, the tent can have a relatively small footprint for its space. It can be unwieldy to transport and pitch. The wall tent is recommended for people with Roman personae, and provides a luxurious space for single individuals with medium to large transportation and storage resources. A medium-sized wall tent, 10’ x 14’ and up, generally provides sufficient space for a married couple with no more than one small child. Additional people in the tent will call for a larger size.
Authorities on medieval tents can generally be counted on to support the idea that this tent was the tent most commonly used during the medieval period in Western Europe. This tent has one large center pole and is generally cone-shaped. Variations on rigging include perimeter ropes only, ropes with perimeter poles, internal spokes not unlike an umbrella, and an internal hoop to support the frame. A round tent with slanted walls is hands down the most stable tent in high winds. It the Lilies War in Calontir, land of the most savage winds in the Known World, I’ve heard many a concerned person told, “Eh, don’t worry, it’s a round.” Round tents provide a curved profile to the wind, no matter which direction it comes from, allowing it to go around and over the tent without catching the wind and turning into a sail. Slanted walls increase this stability. Rounds can be made in just about any size, and if the number of stakes is increased as the tent is scaled up, the larger rounds are no less stable than the smaller ones. These tents add to the overall appearance and pageantry of a camp more than just about any other style of tent. When rigged with perimeter poles or an internal spoke wheel, they have a small footprint as well. A round also allows you to have your door or doors any place that you like. The lack of corners also allows the round to be squeezed into tight spots in encampments near natural obstacles like trees, boulders, and streams where rectangular tents just can’t be made to fit.
The limitations of the round are generally found in space efficiency. Because they have a round base, rounds do not extend into to the corners of the space footage allotted to them, and waste that space. This is exacerbated on the interior of the tent, as beds, tables, and chests all generally have square sides and generate “dead space” behind them that cannot be utilized. Most generally also require a tall center pole. For example, the smallest round available in the Panther catalog requires an 11’ 6” center pole. Medieval illustrations support the use of both the spoke wheel and perimeter rope only pitch. It would appear that if the tent has attached walls, the spoke wheel design is adequately stable, even in heavy weather, but rounds which do not have attached walls call for the additional stakes for which the perimeter rope or perimeter rope and pole designs call.
Depending on the size, the Round is suitable for any number of people, as long as you have allowed for the right amount of square footage. In tight encampments such as Pennsic and, increasingly, Gulf Wars, rounds may become less welcome, as the space they use becomes more precious, particularly rounds with no internal support, as they have to extend the perimeter ropes WAY out. The smallest of the rounds has around an eight-foot diameter, and is only suitable for a single person for any length of time. The center pole means that the bed can only be about 4’ wide. If you are going with the spoke wheel design for the smaller footprint and more medieval appearance, I recommend the one-piece design, for stability. If you are getting a medium sized to large round, in excess of 12’ in diameter, I recommend going with perimeter poles and short ropes. Once you get larger than 12’ in diameter, a one-piece round starts to get quite heavy to load, unload, and pitch.
This tent can be found in square, rectangular, and oval configurations, and is my favorite tent style. It can be easily documented for most western European cultures for much of the medieval period.
The square marquee has a single center pole and a canopy that slopes down to a square footprint. This design shares some of the features of the round. Somewhat easier to pitch than the round due to the corner ropes, the square marquee makes more efficient use of the square footage taken up by the tent. At its smallest, the square marquee is where the rigid frame pavilion really shines. The relatively low number of poles, small canopy size, and small number of stakes allow a rigid frame square marquee to be pitched fairly quickly by one person. Further, the lack of any center pole means that interior furniture can be arranged in any configuration that suits the owner. These tents make idea weekenders in most weather, only suffering in extreme winds. Typically a square marquee of small to medium size can fit into three medium-sized tubs that can be moved by one person conveniently.
The biggest disadvantage of the square marquee is that it typically provides a flat profile to the wind, and is vulnerable to strong winds. Again, this problem is alleviated by smaller sized tents which provide a reduced profile. Stylistically the square marquee suffers, tending to look like a giant box of candy with a pointy lid. This is worst on rigid-frame style tents. This can be minimized by decorative dagging, colored canvas, and custom paint jobs.
The rectangular marquee has two center poles with a ridge pole between them and a canopy that slopes down in all four directions. This is where it differs from a wall tent, whose uprights are at the end of the tent, like a wedge. This design shares many of the advantages and flaws with the square marquee. It makes for an efficient use of space in camp, and is not very difficult to pitch, although you will have to have help raising the ridge pole due to the two center poles. The perimeter poles with which most rectangular marquees are pitched can provide locations for interior hooks for hanging things for storage. This is perhaps the least stable of the marquee designs. When pitched with straight walls, it provides the widest possible profile to the wind, and a sudden heavy gust can put it on the ground. This is where the soft wall design shines most. A soft wall rectangular marquee can stand much higher winds than a rigid frame, due to the additional stakes and tent ropes that hold it up. This, though, brings up another disadvantage: it requires more stakes, and more pounding to pitch this tent.
Famed for its appearance in medieval art such as the painting of the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520, artist unknown), the Shrine of St. Ursula (1489), and Siege of Vienna (1529), the oval marquee shares with the round the most medieval appearance. The oval marquee has an oval shaped footprint, resulting in two round sides and two straight ones. If purchased with slanted walls this tent provides almost as much stability as a round and provides almost as efficient land use as a rectangular marquee. The oval marquee also shares the ability of the round to fit into oddly-shaped camping areas more easily than rectangular or square tents. Like the rectangular marquee, the oval marquee has two center poles and a roof that slopes down to the walls in all directions. Most oval marquees come with detached walls. I have occasionally seen oval marquees with the no-pole perimeter rope rigging and I’ve seen one rigged with an internal half spoke wheel frame, most stick with perimeter poles that allow perimeter ropes to be staked down within a couple of feet of the poles, reducing the overall footprint of the tent. If you opt for the perimeter pole rigging you can utilize the poles for hooks to hang equipment on without distorting the tent.
While the oval marquee shares the advantages of the round, it does share some of the disadvantages of its rectangular sibling. The design calls for at least one center pole. Most have two, and this limits your flexibility in organizing the interior of your tent. When hit by wind from the side it does provide a wider profile than the round, although this is greatly mitigated if you include the slanted wall option. And, like the rectangular marquee, this tent requires more stakes. In fact, due to the curved walls on the ends of the tent, the oval marquee calls for more stakes per square foot than just about any other tent design.
The marquee is recommended for small families with two or fewer children. Like the wall tent, the marquee can provide a luxurious amount of space for two or three adults, but tends to get crowded once a growing family is in it. The marquee, especially the oval marquee, adds to the pageantry and medieval appearance of any camp and is recommended for people pursuing late period persona in Western Europe and in need of more space than a round can provide. These tents are also only recommended for people who have sufficient storage space and cargo capacity to store and move them.
Unusual and Unique Tents
The “Yurt” or “Ger”
This tent is just about unique to Mongolia and to the nomadic people that live therein. It is a rigid frame circular tent with lattice walls, and, of course, a canvas cover, although I’m given to understand that the traditional ger cover was of felt. When it comes to portable living quarters, the ger is just it. It has no center poles, so the inside can be configured any way you want. The “cloud collar” is a smoke-hole at the peak allowing a small brazier to be burned when the occupants are awake. (It must be put out for sleeping.) The bottom of the wall can be raised in the summer and, together with the cloud-collar, produce and updraft and a breeze, even in still air. The lattice walls allow for hanging storage and the unique profile certainly has a non-modern appearance. And finally, a ger can be equipped with an actual door. Combined with the lattice walls, this means that the ger is the only tent that can actually be locked against casual entry and theft. (A determined thief can cut the canvas and lattice.)
The disadvantages to a ger are very few, but they are pronounced. The ger is pretty much unique to Mongolia, and does not appear in Western Europe to my knowledge. That means that unless you want your camp to have a Mongolian look, it’s not appropriate. Second, they don’t go up fast. Ger experts are gonna disagree with me and tell you that you can pitch your ger in a half-hour, but that’s not what I’ve seen. The gers I’ve seen go up tend to take several hours and a ladder. Third, they take up a lot of storage and hauling space. The roof is held up by a series of ribs and the lattice walls. While they do telescope down surprisingly small, they are awkward to transport.
Unless you have a Mongolian personal AND a light truck to haul it in, the ger is not recommended. With its long pitching time, the ger is best suited for wars, not weekend events.
The Henry VIII or Field of Cloth of Gold
This tent is relatively new to the re-enactment scene and the only tent in this list that I have never pitched or camped in, so take all observations with the proverbial grain of salt. Most famous from the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520, artist unknown), this tent is also sometimes called the Henry VIII tent, although Henry almost certainly stayed in the temporary canvas and wood palace that was built at the Field for that legendary meeting. The Henry VIII is two rounds joined by a canvas hallway. This pavilion is usually pitched with a combination of spoke wheel and perimeter ropes. The Panther version comes equipped to be pitched as two separate rounds. I would think that its odd shape would make it awkward to place in camp, and the “dog-bone” footprint would be a poor use of space. On the other hand, it looks really, really cool.
My lack of direct experience with this model leads me to abstain on a recommendation here.
Some Final Observations
A medieval pavilion is a substantial investment, not unlike buying a car. If you are just starting out, it might be best to get the tent that, like your first car, is small, inexpensive, and perhaps not exactly what you want. As time passes and the type of game you play in the SCA comes into better focus, you will be better able to match a tent to your needs.
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