I could call myself somewhat of a pro at living in historical tents, or more accurately, sleeping bad and freezing in historical tents… Therefore, I present to you a guide on how to choose your tent and live comfortable in that!
(This turned out to be a really long blog post- I have apparently missed talking to you. I marked all my personal thoughts and anecdotes with cursive, for easier reading)
Different models are based on finds from different periods, so if you are going on viking adventures the Geteld or A-frame models are most often used. For medieval adventures, Getelds and Pavilions are good choices. Small shelters called “Soldier’s tents” are also often used.
When looking at websites selling tents, many will show you models that are not based on finds or pictures but called “historical” anyway. The openings could be placed in new ways, the seams made to save fabric widths or moved to be able to sew on a machine. The poles and ropes holding the tent up might be done in different ways that can not be seen in manuscripts and so on… These tents may still be good tents, but it is always good to know what you buy, and what it is based on for the future. If you are unsure about a model, ask!
What says finds and historical pictures?
Viking type tents are based on ship burials which have included a tent with a wooden frame and canvas. We don’t really know if people actually slept in these on land as well, and they probably did not bring them to different markets all summer… But what to do, when you are a modern person wanting some comfortable living?
Medieval type tents are seen in numerous manuscripts and paintings, both used by nobility and commoners. Brightly painted, large tents are used for festivities, tournaments and for avoiding that pesky sun, while small sleeping tents and shelters can be seen in military settings. A quick search gave me this board.
Where are you going?
Many events have lists or recommendations about what tent models are allowed on their events. Mostly, you can bring Getelds and A-frames to viking events, as well as small canvas pieces as simple roofs. To medieval events, Getelds are often allowed, as well as square, round and oval-shaped Pavilions. Materials may also be advised to be linen or wool.
The event organizer will want to have as pretty a camp as possible, but at the same time, they know tents are really expensive and that guests will stay at home if their living investment is not allowed. The same is true with market tents; most of them are not strictly historical since a modern seller will need light loads to carry and transport, as well as a big enough tent to be able to bring enough products to earn a living. Not everyone can sell jewellery and candy, so some will need big, bright and roomy tents.
Other things to consider are the campgrounds; is it rocky and hard to put down tent pegs? Then an A-frame tent might be good. Is it often stormy and windy, then perhaps a smaller tent with a sturdy frame and long tent pegs is a good choice. Have you ever seen a jumping A-frame tent in a storm? I have, they can really get quite far…
Cotton, linen or wool?
Cotton is by far the most common tent canvas today since it is cheaper, lighter and easy to come by in the right thickness and waterproofing. I use cotton in my Pavilion to be able to lift the canvas pieces myself and to have a tent that is bright enough for customers to see my products, even if it is rainy outside. But oooh, my old linen pavilion was prettier!
Linen is heavier but more resistant to mold, and unbleached linen will keep your tent cooler and darker. Perfect for sleeping in, not so good if you are a market vendor selling fabrics. Linen gets bleached over time in the sun, giving the canvas a really good look.
Wool is mostly used in A-frames and a good, felted wool fabric will keep you dry, cool and comfortable in all kinds of weather. May be waterproofed with modern products, or with lanolin (wool fat) which is more historical.
Consider this when choosing your model:
- Packing space available (how much space do you have in your car for a tent canvas and wooden frame?)
- Storing space (where will you keep the tent off season?)
- How many people and how much stuff do you need to fit?
- Is it important that you can put up the tent fast?
- Is it important that the tent is easy to lift/carry? (consider a canvas in several pieces)
- Should the door be big (welcoming/good shop) or small at one edge (more sleeping space)?
I have always been partial towards Geteld models since they are often economical, easy to transport and fast to put up and down.
With that said, after living for weeks in this model you will get really tired of the sloping walls, giving you almost no space to hang clothes for drying (except in the middle). Storing all your things around the base of the tent will save lots of space to allow you to walk around in the middle, but it will also mean you crawling around on your knees looking for things every day.
A-frame tents also seem very practical and I am slightly jealous of my friends when we are putting up camp at rocky, hard grounds. While I am sweating and swearing trying to put down the tent pegs in the ground, they simply fold their tent in place, secure the canvas by the frame and move in. I usually get my revenge when the carrying distance between car and camp is long since I can carry my poles in one go…
A-frame tents are practical, economical and if you have the storage and packing space for the frame it is a good choice. It is also considered the easiest tent to make yourself.
Pavilions often have a roof with separate walls, allowing you to open up different sections of the tent if you want the breeze to get in, or want a nice display area. Straighter walls with poles or wooden wheels mean you can place furniture along the walls, and hang clothing from the wooden frame, which is both practical and pretty. More sloping walls on the other hand might ride out storms better.
Round and square pavilions may be sensitive to hard winds and storms; during the Medieval Week in Visby you may see knocked down tents of these models, or tents laid down by choice before a storm. If the round pavilion has a sturdy roof frame, you can remove the middle pole, fold the walls and secure the roof down to the ground covering all your furniture and belongings while you wait for the storm to pass. You might not fit inside, but your tent will survive…
If you only want a sleeping place, tents called “soldier’s tent” or one-man tents might be the right choice for you. I would advise you to get a tent big enough to fit a bed inside, then you will always have a dry space, and can store your things under the bed.
Will I get wet?
A good tent will keep you dry even in heavy rains, as long as you can stay of the ground (in a folded camp bed or wooden bed for example). Also, never put clothes or bedding up close to the canvas, ideally, nothing should touch the canvas walls except the framework.
Our oval pavilions have kept out heavy rains on several occasions, with the single drop or two from a slacking corner joint between roof and wall. During one event, the rain was so heavy that small runlets formed and travelled through the tent. Everything above ground kept dry, but a turn shoe almost floated away…
Look for a tent construction that has sloping roof/walls, and a canvas that is thick, sturdy and treated with a waterproofing agent. Even so, after some years out and about the canvas may need to get additional waterproofing.
How to care for a historical tent:
Let’s start at the beginning; oil all your wooden poles upon arrival, and once a year after that (or when needed). When you put up your tent; find the right way to do so without adding unnecessary tension to the pole, canvas or ropes. The same goes for taking down the tent; do so slowly and controlled, and get some friends to help you in the beginning. Always mend loose ropes, or broken seams at once. Make sure the tent canvas is really dry before folding it away in the storage, and that it is reasonably clean since rotting mud, grass and insects may cause damage to the canvas over time. Brushing away loose bits before folding the tent is good. I also brush off the dirt from the tent pegs and ropes. The canvas should be stored in a dry space, outdoor sheds are not ideally. I can give you several examples of people having their tents destroyed by mold and rats during winter…
More tips to be comfortable in the tent:
- Furniture like a bed, table and chairs (so you don’t have to sleep and sit on damp ground)
- A heater for those chilly events (if you live in an area with cold nights and rains). We have a portable gasoline radiator (the same type you might have in a trailer van).
- A mosquito net to drape over the bed at night
- Look for opportunities to hang things inside the tent; a lantern and a rope for drying clothes make life easier.
Things to ask (or look for) when buying a tent:
- What material is the canvas made of, and is it waterproof? Treated to withstand mold? Treated to slow fire down?
- How much does the canvas weight? Does it come in 1 or several pieces?
- How long are the frame/tent poles?
- Are rope and tent pegs be included?
- How should you take care of the tent?
- If the tent canvas breaks, is it possible to buy additional fabric for mending?
Historical tents are expensive. Or at least, there is lots of money involved. The cheapest way is often to make one yourself if you have the time, space and skill. The second-hand market is also a really good choice, when people get tired of their small, practical tents and want to level up, they will often sell them for a good price. But try to inspect the tent yourself before you pay for it (ideally put up) to avoid bad canvas, mold, rips or a cracked frame.
A short sneek view over the camping ground at Double Wars; here you can see many different kinds of tents!