First of all (and assuming that you are looking online) check that the website lists an acceptable level of ‘contact’ details about the seller, including a geographic address and a landline. If you can’t easily contact them you may not be able to easily get any issues resolved.
Next look for a full and complete list of tent specs. This is always a good indicator as you need to know exactly what you may be buying. (Just buying a ‘4m bell tent’ would not do it for me). If there is anything that you don’t understand, or if there is information that you cannot find, then call the contact number. This will give you a good feel of the company selling the tents. If they’re not bothered to explain and/or help you then I would find another seller.
There are a lot of people who believe that 99% of bell tents for sale in the UK are made in China and therefore ‘come from the same factory’, and as a result are identical. This is not the case (though admittedly some do). They may well be made in China, but there will be different levels of finish and overall build quality, as well as a hugely differing approach to basic component quality. We have worked hard with the details of our tent specs to provide a top quality product, even though this increases our basic production costs.
Generally the heavier the canvas weight the better the tent build. Heavier weights of canvas bell tents will be around 350-360gsm. Some canvas may be quoted as over 400gsm but it’s advisable to check whether that is simply because of the treatments applied (some proofing methods apply a coating which makes the fabric heavier).
Zip quality is an important issue to be aware of. My point here is, a lot of people generally see a zip and assume that it will be adequate for the job. But zips vary in basic quality of manufacture and then you have the added issue of ‘is it an adequately sized/specced zip’ for the job that it will have to do. And then ask yourself ‘are the zips of a reputable quality’. By the way, we only use YKK zips, which are robust and appropriately specced for the jobs they have to perform even though this costs us a lot more. Plus we use double tagged and reversible zips where this will make the user experience easier. For example, if your main central entrance zip is not double-tagged (one puller on the inside and another puller on the outside), each and every time that you want to enter or exit your tent, the chances are that you will need to grope around trying to get hold of the zip puller. Plus if you have secondary mesh doors this issue is compounded by two. And window zips – all of ours are reversible – simple!
Bell tents use quite a lot of metal eyelets – at the A-frame and on groundsheet fixings. Check these aren’t a really low-cost alternative that will go rusty after a few downpours (which also will discolour the canvas around it). Speaking of groundsheet fixings – ask whether there is one at the centre of the entrance (on ZIGs/SiGs), as this may seem like a minor thing but it really does help to keep the tent securely down.
Detailing – additional detailing is important. Our tents have zippable mesh windows, as well as zippable canvas window covers. Pukka window zips are also covered by 5cm protective storm flaps (rain often gets blown in sideways!) Secondary mesh doors come as standard plus all of our tents come fitted with an integral flue exit in the side wall.
Finally pegs, ropes and sliders. If a seller has taken the bother to offer substantial, good quality pegs, ropes and sliders with their tents, then that is another indicator that overall quality should be good.