Tents are a fundamental tool for camping and hiking. They're used across the world for recreation and for survival, and there's no more iconic symbol of man's experience with nature.
Originally, tents served as homes, and used in a variety of environments for keeping dry and safe. With the rise of agriculture, permanent fixtures gained popularity, but tents were still common with moving armies and nomadic peoples.
The design of the modern tent
is still quite similar to what the original tent probably looked like: a piece of fabric draped over some poles. However, tent materials and features have changed dramatically over the last several decades, with new features and materials greatly improving its basic functions.
The First Tent
We can never really know where the first tent was invented due to the simplicity of the concept.
Every person needs to stay warm, dry and safe, and when there weren't any good places to hole up for the night, people had to improvise. A few large leaves strung over some sticks would suffice, and technically, that simple construct would be a basic tent.
However, we do have archaeological evidence of some early examples of sophisticated tents. Scientists recently found tent ruins in Russia from about 40,000 B.C., easily the oldest tent ever verified by carbon dating.
We also have descriptions of tents from historical texts, including fairly specific descriptions in the Bible. Isaiah 54:2 indicates how important the tent was in early societies:
"Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of your habitations: spare not, lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes."
Biblical writers might not have known exactly what a "guy rope" is, but they clearly used similar constructions as other early tent-makers. All early tents consisted of hide, leather or another material, wooden supports, ropes and wooden stakes. For the first 50,000 years or so of human history, the tent rarely deviated from this basic design, and people often spent a large part of their lives in tents before eventually relying more on permanent constructions.
Not surprisingly, armies drove many of the innovations in tent technologies up until recreational tents became popular in the 20th century. Military leaders needed to keep their soldiers healthy and strong, so they experimented with different materials that wouldn't break down easily after months of packing and unpacking. Guy ropes also received some revisions, since soldiers had to be able to quickly set up and break down their tents.
Roman soldiers used tents frequently and may have spread some design innovations as they traveled from city to city. They frequently used larger tents such as ridge tents and marquee tents where soldiers could meet, fraternize and discuss battle plans. The great Roman thinker and army commander Pliny the Elder wrote about using calf skins to make tents. Interestingly, he also used the phrase "sub pellibus" to describe living in tents--literally translated to "under pelts."
Much later, early American soldiers used similar tents when fighting the British during the American Revolution. Their tents were usually made from hemp, and traveling armies often employed smaller camouflaged tents to wage guerrilla warfare with the invading British. The Americans' tactics revolutionized modern warfare, and their use of the environment as cover played a major role in their eventual victory. Without the tent, the Americans certainly would have had a tougher time striking from the deep, frigid forests of the East Coast.
Tents also played an important role in the Civil War, where generals frequently met in large marquee tents before battle. Soldiers, on the other hand, used tiny sleeping tents that they derisively called "pup tents," claiming that they weren't even fit to house a full-grown dog.
Traveling circuses also began using large tents in the beginning of the 19th century, quickly developing extremely large coverings to protect performers and audience members from the elements.
While tent sizes varied extensively, they still used basic guy ropes and stakes. A group of Roman soldiers probably wouldn't have any trouble putting up an American military tent. However, stake placement was critically important, particularly when putting up tents in high winds. The introduction of the recreational tent led to some serious changes.
The Modern Recreational Tent
Manufacturers like the Eureka! Tent Company
popularized the recreational tent
in the first half of the 20th century. Americans had more money and time after the Industrial Revolution, and exploring the great outdoors with "survival tents" became a popular national pastime.
Tent materials changed drastically in the 20th century. Rigid support poles weren't made from wood anymore. Instead, manufacturers used steel and eventually plastic. Flexible support poles eventually gained favor with campers and guy ropes became less common. Some newer tents can be set up in a matter of seconds, and with the introduction of materials like nylon, tents became more resistant to the elements.
Tent camping exploded in popularity in the 1960s. Manufacturers introduced poles made of fiberglass or aluminum alloys, allowing for a greater range of shapes and a lighter weight tent to transport. Zippered tent doors replaced the traditional flap opening.
Over the last few decades, tent designers made a number of adjustments to the basic style of the survival tent. New designs included:
- Tunnel Tents - As the name implies, these tents are shaped like tunnels, which allow for more interior space than a traditional pole tent.
- Inflatable Tents - These state-of-the-art tents use inflatable beams and are easy to transport and store. However, inflatable tent owners have to keep air compressors on hand when camping.
- Geodesic Tents - The criss-crossed beams of these tents make them extremely hardy and well-suited for use in snow, sleet and even hail.
- Pop-Up Tents - Campers who don't like driving stakes appreciate pop-up tents, which use a series of hoops to set up almost instantly.
The tent has come a long way. It was once a dwelling, a form of protection, and a means of separating human beings from nature. The modern tent serves the opposite function: t allows us to experience our surroundings and regain a natural connection by going out into the cold, crisp air of the night, building a fire and removing ourselves from the distractions of modern life.
Tents have improved thanks to new technologies, but they're not Bluetooth equipped or Wi-Fi capable. And that’s a good thing. Regardless of how they're constructed or what they're made from, they serve a fundamentally basic need and desire--they allow us to share the same feelings that our ancestors must have felt when they drove in the stakes of the first tent countless ages ago.