Review: Tents Designed for DofE

Updated: Mar 10

Access Kit first came to our attention last year, whilst researching potential suppliers for clients. We contacted them with some specific questions about how their products perform and they couldn’t have been more helpful. In fact, they sent us some samples to try out for ourselves. As a result of getting our hands on, and testing, their gear, we’ve been happily recommending Access Kit products to clients running DofE, particularly at Bronze level, for the last few months.


Lockdown tent testing: in the garden

Our intention was to post detailed reviews of all the different kit Access sent us but, due to Covid restrictions here in Spain, we’ve not been able to actually go out in the real world and use them very much, either personally or with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award teams we work with daily. There is, though, light at the end of the tunnel - expedition season might actually be able to start soon. So, with an eye on regulation relaxation, we thought we’d post our first impressions and some of the reasons we recommend this gear for schools and youth organisations. We’ve got other kit to get through - rucksacks, cook sets, sleeping bags and more - in future posts but, for today, let’s stick to our initial ideas about the Endurance range of tents Access Kit sent to us to try.


Access Expeditions market these tents as having been designed specifically for the demands that schools or youth groups, and therefore certainly DofE organisations, place upon tents. Mass-market tents are, we’ve found, usually cheap and unreliable, expensive and delicate or affordable and good quality but heavy, and are continually being replaced by newer models so finding replacement parts is hit-and-miss at best. We’ve owned and used many different makes, models and types of tents between us over the last 40 years or so - my personal supply store alone currently contains 8 tents or shelters - from tarps and ultralight sil-nylon one-person tents, all the way the up to our enormous family glamping tent. However, the universal approach to these tents has always been to use them carefully, look after them, store them correctly and make them last. Hardly the approach of a typical, inexperienced teenager.



Pegs get lost, poles get snapped, flysheets rip, zips jam. DofE compatible tents are best if they’re simple to erect, built to last and easy to get replacement parts. These are the three tenets around which Access designed the Endurance range and we couldn’t agree more with this design philosophy:


Of course, we are reviewing these tents from this specific use case - if you’re not planning on buying tents to use for DofE, scouting, schools or other youth groups, then these probably aren’t for you.

Endurance tents on test - practice pitched by our Bronze DofE students (alongside 'other' brands)

So, how simple did we find them? Access usefully supply instructions and demo videos on their website so we handed over one of the Endurance tents to a pair of Silver level DofE students with minimal prior experience and gave them no further instructions than the link to the Access Expeditions website. 15 minutes later they had, more or less, correctly pitched it and took only 5 minutes to pack it away again.


Features to aid simple pitching and striking include pole sleeves which only open at one end, poles of all the same length, or colour-coded to the corresponding sleeve - with model name and position engraved on each pole, guy line pouches to quickly stuff the guys away (we really like this feature), and oversized tent bags to get them back in easily, even when poorly rolled.

Of course, simplicity means fewer mistakes and therefore a reduced likelihood of damaged tents - cold, tired, frustrated teens trying to make incorrect poles fit through brute force can easily lead to ripped fly sheets, for example. However, the robust nature of these tents is also in other design features.

For example, single zippers means doors can’t be opened from the top and clumsily clambered through. These zips are YKK and this quality of material is evident in the thick webbing used to reinforce pole sleeve ends and corner pegging points, as well as the heavy duty rip-stop outers with a hydrostatic head of 5000mm and the thick bungees used for peg loops. Even the supplied pegs are hexagonal in cross-section to make them tougher to bend.


It has to be said that these alloy pegs are tougher than the round wire steel ones which come as standard with many cheaper tents, but are still far from indestructible - my four year-old did some decent damage even in soft ground, armed only with a rubber mallet - but for their very light weight they are noticeably sturdy items and they bent back again without visible damage (aluminium pegs often snap when over-bent).


When things do break, and they will, it’s important that our investment (often painfully begged and scraped together over several years) doesn't have to go in the bin. Few schools willingly shell out for new tents on a regular basis and most voluntary organisations are woefully underfunded. So, in steps the third virtue of Access Kit - their spares are guaranteed to be available for at least 5 years and are actually very reasonably priced.


There’s more to be said though, about the ways in which the Endurance range has been designed for youth organisations, as the people over at Access have thought as well about us, the staff and leaders, and the everyday realities of keeping kit stores organised.

Poles, flys and inners are clearly labelled with their model and size so they can be quickly matched in stores, bags are universal across models and each element of each tent has a handy little plasticated label window to note whatever information we wish - such as which students we loaned a tent to and when. Access even offer downloadable, free to print label pro formas designed to fit these windows.


Of course, no one solution suits every need. As such the Endurance range contains 6 different models. There are two tunnel tents - the basic Crag and then the Plateau which has a very large porch. They also offer 3 semi-geodesic tents, of which two, the Refuge and the Altitude, represent the mid-range and are our personal picks of the bunch, as well as the two we’ve spent most time with. The Summit, the other semi-geodesic, sits alongside the fully geodesic Ravine as the two more serious expedition options, the first smaller and lighter, the second heavy and seemingly bomb-proof, likely only to be used by Gold teams in challenging environments.


The virtually freestanding Refuge was able to be tested indoors during lockdown conditions!

All 6 models are available in two or three person variants and the Refuge comes in a four person version as well. This should cover every combination of team sizes and gender groups but we usually suggest buying just 3 person tents for Bronze or Silver DofE - the extra weight difference from a two person is usually negligible for just two to carry and the extra space is always appreciated by inexperienced campers, yet three can easily fit in these generously-proportioned tents, with all models having some storage outside the sleeping area.


So, almost everything above could have been gleaned from the Access website or a conversation with their very friendly sales team. You’re reading this because you want to know if their claims ring true in the real world, with people who actually use these tents in the way you will. What do we think of the Endurance range?


We said it up at the top. We’ve been actively recommending these tents to our clients and our own Award participants, encouraging them to spend their money on Access Kit Endurance tents. There’s no more resounding endorsement of a product than advising our customers that, in the years of experience for which our clients trust us, this is the best product we’ve found for their specific needs. We’ve pitched and clambered into the Refuge, Altitude, Crag and Plateau models with our students and our kids. We’re impressed. They do, to borrow an old marketing phrase, ‘what they say on the tin’. They seem tough, are simple to pitch, organise and store. A seven year-old and a four year-old managed to pitch the semi-geodesics almost unaided. Even the tunnel tents were pitched quickly and easily by Bronze Award students with no prior knowledge.


Our pick: The Refuge 300

Which to buy? There’s six models and 3 sizes because there’s no one solution to every organisation’s individual needs. We avoid tunnel tents with Bronze teams as they can be trickier to pitch well. The two most expensive models are overkill for most Bronze and Silver expeditions. We whole-heartedly recommend the Refuge as the best solution for most cases. It couldn’t be simpler to pitch, is almost freestanding (important on rocky, sun-baked Spanish ground), has 3 poles of the exact same length, two entrances with storage in each of the corresponding vestibules, comes in 3 sizes and weighs and costs slightly less than the Altitude.


Our tip? Order the optional orange inner-tent bag for each tent you buy - it makes splitting the tent components between team members much easier.


Although the Endurance range is, we feel, very fairly priced, especially viewed as a multi-year investment, Access also offer the Terrain range - the Neos and the Kudos are more affordable versions of the Endurance Crag tunnel tent and the Endurance Refuge, respectively. Whilst these are designed to a budget, we have used the Terrain Neos in 2 and 3 person variants and found it still feels like a very good quality product, comparable with most decent-quality mainstream manufacturers like the mainstays Vango and Coleman, and yet with many of the young-person-focused benefits of the Endurance range as well. Indeed, the key difference is the weight of fabric used. The blue Terrain outers are noticeably thinner than the green Endurance but not so much that they feel flimsy. Indeed they seem strong and durable - like a good quality tent, which is perhaps testament to just how tough the Endurance has been built!


Our Gold participants pitch the Terrain Neos alongside a competitor - the OEX Bobcat

This thinner fabric has an added bonus - we recommend them for Gold teams. Why? Golds are likely more careful and more experienced with their kit but also, on longer expeditions, the Terrain tents are much lighter and more compact packed, yet the same size when pitched as their Endurance counterparts. We also recommend them for Leaders, both because they are lighter to carry and simply to keep the total cost down by saving money on tents that will likely be used more carefully.


One caveat, though: we do feel it’s worth the few extra quid for the optional alloy poles over the fibre-wrapped plastic poles which come with the cheapest version of the Terrain tents. We haven’t tried these side-by-side but have seen plenty of broken poles over the years and know that alloy is less likely to snap and can often be bent back into shape.


For those reading this outside the UK: we can confirm that we’ve received multiple deliveries from Access Kit and all were speedy and problem-free, with the added bonus of being UK tax exempt. This was, however, in 2020 and therefore pre-Brexit. We’ll reach out to our friends at Access and find out what the situation is at present, then report back.


We’ll be sure to come back and update this post (hopefully very soon) as we get more information and more opportunity to use these tents.



EDIT:

We spoke to Iain, Product Advisor at Access Expedition Kit, regarding shipping from their UK warehouse to the EU, in this post-Brexit world. Here's what he said:


"DHL will charge us for the normal shipping cost... as before. They will also charge us an extra £20 administration fee...


DHL will then charge the customer for the following directly:

1. [Country of destination] tax/VAT

2. Duty on the goods which varies depending on category (12% on tents, 2.7% on compasses, 3.7% on sleeping bags, 2.7% on rucksacks, 0% on first aid kits)

3. Any further DHL small admin charges


DHL will almost certainly need payment of these things from the customer before delivering the parcel. They might contact them upfront and send an invoice or they might just turn up with the goods and ask for a cash payment...


The Duty rates are set on government websites, and are the same rates as we pay for rest of world purchases, but now we have to pay them within Europe as well. "



More Access gear to be reviewed...


Feel free to ask questions in the comments below!


Disclaimer: We were sent free samples of two Endurance tents from our friends at Access Expedition Kit. These were sent for our testing, in order that we could make informed recommendations to our clients. All other tent models tested were purchased by us, our clients or our students. We were placed under no obligation to recommend Access Kit, receive no commission on sales and have no contractual obligations to them. This post has been written and published entirely at our own behest and with no prior agreement with Access. All opinions expressed here are our own, objective decisions based on real-world testing and years of comparative experience of other brands and models.


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