A successful camping trip starts and ends with having the right equipment to keep you warm and dry at night. When it comes to camping gear, however, one important item stands above the rest: a tent.
In the world of modern camping tents, gear manufacturers are always out there with fancy new technology, trying to wow us with the next big thing. These days, one of the most exciting advancements in tent technology is the pole-less tent.
Yep, that’s right. You can now get a pole-less tent (a.k.a. air or inflatable beam tent) for all your adventures.
But, is an air tent really the right option for you? Or should you stick to the traditional pole tent?
Up next, we’ve set up the ultimate air tent vs pole tent match up to help you decide which type of shelter is best for your needs. In this article, we’ll do a deep dive into the pros and cons of both of these shelters so that you can decide which one is right for you.
Let’s get to it!
Air Tent vs Pole Tent
What Is an Inflatable Tent?
An inflatable tent, or an air tent, is any type of camping shelter that can be pitched without traditional aluminum poles. These shelters look and act much like any other tent you might buy, but they use inflatable beams—rather than poles—to stay upright.
Air tents were introduced back in the 1980s, but, since then, companies like Vango have taken them to a whole new level.
While early inflatable tents were a bit temperamental and unreliable, modern models are designed to hold up in a wide range of summertime weather conditions.
How Inflatable Tents Work
While many people instantly equate air tents with bouncy castle-like structures, contemporary models are decidedly durable.
In fact, they’re constructed from the same rugged materials that you’d find in a pole tent. However, instead of using poles, they have large pillar-shaped air storage chambers that are sewn to the outside of their rainflies.
When it comes to pitching an air tent, the process is straightforward. To set up your shelter for the night, you simply unpack your inflatable tent, unfold it, and pump it full of air.
Then, when it’s time to pack up at the end of your trip, you just deflate your tent, roll it up, and hit the road.
Why You Should Choose an Inflatable Tent
Although they’re relatively new in the world of camping, inflatable tents offer some great advantages over traditional pole models.
The single greatest benefit of an inflatable tent is its ease of use. As we’ve discussed, air tents can be pitched in just a few minutes, as you simply need to pump them full of air.
That means you can wave bye-bye to the frustrating days of trying to figure out which pole goes where when pitching your tent.
The other major benefit of an inflatable tent is the fact that they’re pretty darn difficult to break. Because they don’t have any poles (which are normally the weakest link in a traditional tent), inflatable camping shelters can withstand a surprising amount of pressure and wind.
Oh … and when you camp with an air tent, because they lack poles, it’s more or less impossible to accidentally leave part of your tent at home.
This makes inflatable tents a nice choice for car camping adventures in which convenience and ease of use are key.
The Downside of Air Tents
Like any piece of gear, air tents have drawbacks. While there’s a lot to love about an inflatable tent, there are a few key areas where they don’t quite impress as compared to traditional pole models.
One of the main drawbacks of purchasing an air tent is the fact that your options are limited. Unlike pole tents, which dominate the outdoor market, inflatable shelters are a relatively new phenomenon.
Thus, your choices are generally limited to a few dozen models. This could mean that you don’t quite get the tent you need, especially if you like winter camping.
Your options are also fairly limited if you’re looking for a large tent, as most models can accommodate only 4 to 8 people.
Furthermore, though they don’t have poles, air tents tend to be quite heavy. A lot of this extra weight comes from the fact that manufacturers must make these tents with extra-burly materials so they don’t puncture and fail in foul weather.
It’s also worth pointing out that you’ll need to carry a pump to inflate your air tent, which adds weight and bulk to your camping gear.
Plus, air tents are naturally quite bulky when packed, so they’re not ideal for the backpackers among us.
Finally, because air tents are still fairly niche as compared to more readily available pole tents, they can be quite pricey. This means they’re not necessarily a great option for campers on a budget.
Air Tents - Pros And Cons
- Simplified set-up process
- No risk of poles breaking in the wind
- Can often be pitched in a few minutes by a single camper
- Impossible to accidentally leave poles or other tent parts at home
- Generally heavier than pole tents
- Usually quite expensive
- Bulky packed size
- Need to carry a pump for inflation
- Not ideal for wintertime use
- Limited interior space
Final Thoughts On Inflatable Tents
Air tents are fantastic pieces of gear when used in the right context. Due to their ease of use and simplicity, inflatable tents are a popular choice for car camping trips.
However, for more remote adventures or any situation in which weight savings are important, you may be better off with a pole tent.
What Is a Pole Tent?
Pole tents are the traditional style of shelter that most people are accustomed to using while camping.
This type of tent has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They were traditionally used to house troops at war and to provide shelter in many Indigenous cultures around the world.
As the name suggests, pole tents are made with, well, poles. Unlike air tents, pole tents rely on aluminum (sometimes steel) poles to provide structural support.
These days, there are hundreds of pole tents to choose from depending on the number of people you’re camping with and your preferred adventure style.
How Pole Tents Work
Most pole tents are designed to be relatively easy to set up, though some are more challenging than others.
To set up a pole tent, you’ll unpack it from its carry case and unfold it onto the ground. Then, you’ll take the included poles and expand them (they’re usually collapsible for transport) before inserting them into the tent.
Depending on the type of shelter, you may need to feed your poles through dedicated sleeves on the exterior of your tent canopy. Other models have clips and color-coded buckles to simplify the process.
Overall, the process of pitching a pole tent tends to be straightforward, though some models can take upwards of 30 minutes to set up properly.
Why You Should Choose a Pole Tent
Pole tents have long been the shelter of choice for camping and backpacking because of their versatility and reliability.
There are hundreds of models to choose from, which offers several benefits to you as a camper.
First and foremost, you can typically find a shelter that’s made specifically for your preferred camping style and for the conditions you expect to face in the mountains, whether that’s backpacking or glamping.
Moreover, this variety of tent options means that you can select a model that’s ideal for lightweight trips, thru-hiking, winter camping, or anything else you can think of.
If that wasn’t enough, the sheer number of pole tents on the market makes it easier to find one that fits your budget.
It’s also worth pointing out that pole tents are a bit more efficient in terms of the interior living space they offer.
Unlike air tents, which are naturally limited in interior floor space by the fact that their beams must be quite wide, pole tents can be as cozy or spacious as you’d like. There are even multi-room models that can comfortably house 20 campers.
The Downside of Pole Tents
Although pole tents are pretty great, they’re not without disadvantages. Easily, the biggest downside to pole tents is the fact that tent poles can—and do—break.
While broken poles are, thankfully, not that common, having a tent pole snap in half while you’re in the mountains is far from ideal.
As a result, anyone camping with a pole tent should also pack a pole splinting kit, just in case their shelter breaks in the middle of the night.
The next most important downside to note is that pole tents can be tricky to set up. Although some models are very convenient to pitch thanks to their hubbed pole and color-coded designs, other shelters are decidedly tricky to set up.
Oh, and while you can certainly find budget-friendly pole tents out there, there are some very pricey lightweight and winter-specific models that will cost you a pretty penny.
Pole Tents - Pros And Cons
- Wide range of styles for different types of camping
- Lightweight models available
- Some are designed to withstand snow and high winds
- Generally lightweight and packable
- Greater variety of prices to suit any budget
- Poles can break
- Can be tricky to set up
- Possible to accidentally lose or forget a pole
- Lightweight and winter models can be very pricey
Final Thoughts On the Traditional Pole Tent
Ultimately, pole tents are a solid go-to choice for the vast majority of camping situations in which you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of convenience for functionality.
While you have to deal with the fact that pole tents can break, their versatility and quality are second to none.
Air Tent or Pole Tent – Which One Is Better?
At this point, we’ve discussed both air tents and pole tents in great detail. But, which one is actually best?
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. While most campers will find that a pole tent is more appropriate for their needs, folks who stick primarily to campgrounds might prefer the convenience of an inflatable shelter.
Which One Is Right for You?
If you’re trying to decide whether an air tent or a pole tent is right for your needs, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is convenience and ease of use my top priority?
- Am I okay with a heavy and bulky tent?
- Do I plan to camp with a group of no more than 8 people?
- Will I stick primarily to summertime campground trips?
If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, an air tent might be what you need. Otherwise, a model with poles is likely to be the better choice for your style of camping.
When to Choose an Airbeam Tent
Not sure if an airbeam tent is right for you?
Here are some of the many situations in which an air tent might be the better choice:
- Car camping is your go-to type of adventure
- You generally camp in a smaller group (no more than 8 people)
- Carrying heavy or bulky gear isn’t a problem
- Your adventures are usually limited to the summer months
- Spending 20 minutes pitching a tent isn’t your idea of fun
When to Choose a Pole Tent
If an airbeam tent doesn’t seem appropriate for your needs, a pole tent might be the right option.
In particular, you might consider a pole tent if any of the following are true:
- You enjoy backpacking or thru-hiking
- Winter camping is one of your favorite pastimes
- Weight savings and packability are priorities
- You don’t mind spending extra time in camp pitching your tent
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Outwell Tents Better Than Vango Tents?
Both Outwell and Vango are quality tent brands, so it’s difficult to say that one is better than the other.
However, in terms of brand name recognition, Vango’s extensive track record of making quality air tents is hard to beat.
Which Air Tent Is Best?
With so many excellent air tents on the market, it’s tricky to pick just one that’s truly the best in all environments.
At the end of the day, both air and pole tents are worthy of your consideration.
However, the type of camping shelter that you choose will greatly depend on your camping style and what features you prioritize in your gear.
For simplicity and convenience at the campground, air tents should be at the top of your list. Otherwise, pole tents are a sure bet for all your camping adventures.
We hope this article on air tent vs pole tent helped you decide which shelter is right for your needs.
We look forward to seeing you on the trail!
Gaby is a professional outdoor educator, guide, and wilderness medicine instructor. She holds a master's degree in outdoor education and spends most of her time hanging out with penguins and polar bears in the polar region. When she's not outdoors, you can find her traveling, reading Nietzsche, and drinking copious double espressos.