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When searching for a light and low-cost backpacking tent dome tents accounted for about 90% of my search results and the rest were primarily pop-up, pup, or tiny one-man tube style tents.

I was surprised that only 1 tent out of hundreds was an A-frame and that one was specifically marketed as a "Scout Tent".

When I was a scout our troop owned a lot of these A-frames and if my memory serves I believe they were military surplus.

So my question is basically -- why are A-frame tents (apparently) unpopular with the general public, popular with scouts (and perhaps military), and what are their merits?

Tent

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Why the A-Frame fell out of fashion

Until around 25 years ago, A-Frames dominated the 1-2 person market, both for car camping and in the mountains.

Then we saw the emergence of lightweight flexible fibreglass and aluminium poles, which opened up all kinds of possibilities for tunnel, geo and semi-geo designs. In a very short period the A-Frame designs virtually disappeared from the catalogues. Some contributing factors:

  • Weight of poles: a solid A-Frame needs heavy, rigid poles
  • Entry and exit: Unless you use an even heavier double-pole setup, the A-Frame pole obstructs access to the tent and vestibule. A-Frame designs are front-loaders, and many people prefer the convenience and views of side-loading designs made possible by flexible poles.
  • Internal space: a small A-Frame tapers rapidly with height and doesn't offer much shoulder room when sitting up.

And I wouldn't underestimate the influence of fashion - the A-Frame quickly felt decidedly uncool.

Advantages and specialist applications

But all tent designs are a balance of pros and cons. Some advantages of the A-Frame include:

  • Strength: well executed, if offers great strength for weight. Chris Townsend, the well known gear reviewer has written:

I reckon the strongest tent of the many I've used - several hundred at least! - is the Phoenix Phortress, a double A pole tent that pitches flysheet first and dates from the 80s. It's the only tent I've used where I've woken in the morning, thought it was a calm day and had my head practically blown off when I stuck it out of the door...

  • Simplicity and ease of use: there's nothing much to go wrong, and it pitches quickly and easily fly-first.

Building on these strengths, there are two applications where the A-Frame still has a role.

  • Organised camping for youngsters: classics like the Blacks Force 10 are still popular with schools, Scout groups, Outward Bound and the like. They are heavy but bomb-proof, with a reliable supply of spares.
  • Lightweight tarp tents. Using your walking-poles as tarp supports overcomes the disadvantage of having to carry heavy tent poles. There aren't many architectures that work with straight, rigid poles - you're basically limited to A-Frames and Mids. Small mids have their fans, but the A-Frame offers a vestibule with an entrance behind the drip-line and lots of space above your face and feet when you're lying down. It also plays better with inners and nests, in my experience, as the internal space is unobstructed. As a result, the cottage manufacturers are offering a good choice of A-Frames these days. For example:

The Trekkertent Stealth (a relatively affordable option that weighs around 0.6kg including inner):

enter image description here

The Yama Cirriform - a high-end option using exotic materials:

enter image description here

So of you're looking for something lightweight, storm-worthy and relatively liveable the A-Frame still has a lot to offer if you walk with poles. Personally I'm working on a Make-Your-Own-Gear design incorporating the best ideas from the '80s but using modern materials. I reckon I can bring in something almost as strong as the Phortress for around 800 grams all-in.

  • f you make the design you mentioned you should link to it later. Thanks for a great answer. The traditional A-frame design definitely seemed sturdier than the other types and the (military surplus) ones I used as a kid were actually felt more roomy than the dome/geo tents. Ironically, the one I just bought as an adult is way smaller and seems less sturdy than the A-frames I used as a kid. But it uses the "modern" light (if flimsy) type of poles and only weighs 3lbs so I can take it hiking. All for <$20. – Hack-R Jun 4 '16 at 5:19
  • @Hack-R - well with that budget you are going to have to make compromises! I would stick to well sheltered sites in fair weather, as I suspect that light fibreglass poles will fail quite easily with this design. – Tullochgorum Jun 4 '16 at 9:09
  • My experience is that a modern done tent is much much better than any A-frame I used in the Boy Scouts eons ago. The interior room and stability in heavy weather is hard to beat, particularly is weight is taken in to account. I would never go back. – Jon Custer Jun 4 '16 at 14:32
  • @JonCuster- It's surely a question of horses for courses. You're not going to find a geo for much under 2kilos, I suspect, while a modern A-Frame tarp-tent can weigh in at around 1/3 of that and still take severe wind-loads. My geo is a great tent for severe winter conditions or for base-camp, but I'm not going to be using it on a thru-hike. – Tullochgorum Jun 4 '16 at 15:32
  • @Tullochgorum Oh, sorry I said that in a confusing way. I didn't mean I had a $20 budget I meant that's just how much the tent in the photo I posted happened to cost (I think). It looks like Kohl's sells it for $35 and I got it off of eBay so I am sure I paid less. But I will also buy a more expensive tent in a couple of weeks. – Hack-R Jun 4 '16 at 18:48

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