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How to Build a Family-Sized Camping Tent

Updated on February 1, 2014

How to Build a Family-Sized Camping Tent

(An exercise in temper restraint and judicious language)

If you would like to know the best way to erect a family-size tent then I'm sure you'll find many useful websites on the internet.

This isn't one of them. But, as it is you're here reading this so you might as well stick with it.

What follows is my personal working experience of building up large canvas tents for a campsite in the Italian holiday trade. But you never know you might find some practical advice in here that'll help the next time you're on a budget holiday.

Putting up a 6-person tent is an experience in itself. An exercise in pain, blood, sweat, tears, frustration, fumbling, swearing, organised chaos, dirt, more dirt and then mud when it rains, then back to dirt again when it's sunny, more swearing, jammed fingers, blisters, lumps, bumps, thumps, bruises, scrapes, scratches, skint ankles, bashed elbows, lots more swearing, fatigue and hard, heavy, demanding, physical work.

But it can be fun.

Start the poles in position

First thing you do is organise your tent frame by placing all the aluminium poles flat on the ground and decide by scientific guesswork and sheer luck which bit fits where. It's sensible not to leave them out in the sun too long as they get hot, so gloves are recommended but they do make very useful hair tongs. The poles need to be facing the right way, which was hard for a novice like me to work out.

Luckily there were little tiny crossbars at the joints which are shaped like arrows. These always point forward to the front of the tent except when they don't, such as when I had a tent with a cannibalised frame made up of bits taken from other tents. Total confusion reigned as everything was pointing this way and that but our boss kept us right and we pieced it together.

So, you connect all your poles to make even bigger poles until you have your roof laid out on the ground.

Then the fun starts as you insert half the legs underneath the frame and secure them with a 'nipple' attachment into little holes.

This is fairly easy to do if you have long nails with which to push the nipple down while you insert the half-leg. So while you're pushing down you're also pushing up at the same time.

For me, with short nails, this meant that the bloody things would bite back as I jammed the tip of my thumb resulting in a throbbing blood blister accompanied by lots of cursing and blasphemous roars.

On the older poles the nipples could be rusty which made it even more fraught with danger, other times you couldn't get it in the right hole and you would stand there twisting the pole one way then the another wondering where the fiddly nipple had disappeared to.

Putting skin on the bones

Now you've got half your tent frame erected it's time to put on the 'skin', as it's called, which is the tent canvas. Problem with this is that I can never tell which side is which when it's rolled up and fresh out of the bag, and neither can anyone else. So we often end up on the wrong side of the frame then have to turn the whole skin round the right way.

It's pretty heavy, sags in the middle, always catches on the frame and if your not careful you trip over loose poles lying around. Once the skin is hanging on the frame you need pairs of folk to work in tandem, one on the outside and one on the inside.

The outside person pulls down hard on the skin at the top of each leg (this is starting to sound really obscene what with legs, nipples, skin etc.), while the person inside secures it by tying a little white ribbon like you might have on a ballet shoe.

Sounds delicate and petite but in reality you can scrape your knuckles on the canvas as you reach behind the pole and tie the knot. As it's so small in there I usually banged my head on the frame at least once a day, knelt on a concealed rock or tripped over more loose poles lying around. Knee-bone to rock especially is not recommended.

On a warm day it was like a Turkish sauna and you'd start sweating in under a minute and swearing in under half-a-minute but not in Turkish.

On a wet day you'd go in and not come back out until discovered by your hard-working colleagues.

So lots of muffled cursing would emanate from the confines of this semi-built dungeon on a regular basis.

Unless, that is, you're having a day off from the 'industrial language' in which case you'd often hear a sound equivalent to Dr Frankenstein's creature roaring from inside. Not sure how you spell it, something like;


I may have missed a couple of 'R's' in there somewhere but you'll get the gist that it can be a really frustrating exercise that turns friendly campsite couriers into re-animated monsters. But to be sure grunting and growling could actually be a useful communication tool given the mix of regional accents in our team.

We have lift off

But back to the tent. Now you've got the canvas fitted it's time to lift the tent and secure the bottom half of the legs so that the tent is at its full height.

Co-ordination and timing are of the essence as you need a person on each corner so the tent is lifted up straight.

This is followed by furious tapping of metal on metal as the hollow half-poles that have been standing in the ground get clogged with dirt, or worse, with mud.

So with one hand you precariously hold your corner of the tent up and with the other you grab a spare pole, peg or anything heavy to bash the dirt out of the hole. The cacaphony of sound is akin to Lars Ulrich's infernal drumming on that dire Metallica album 'St.Anger', except that we were far more rhythmic and tuneful. I think he played with plumbing equipment on that album.

We're almost there now as it's time for tent-pegging. We don't use guy ropes as they trip up holidaymakers which would be far too much fun. No, we just put lots of pegs round the edges secured to the canvas with small bungee cords. Once you've got your guideline down you place your pegs in the ground lined up straight like tin soldiers all standing to attention.

Once you're satisfied that they're all in a straight line then the violence can be unleashed. With mallet in hand you proceed along the line, pulling them down 45 degrees and hammering them into the ground. Pummelling them into a dark, subterranean existence until October at the latest which is when they get yanked up after the season is over.

However, many reluctant ones hit upon rock and bend in half. They're chucked in the rubbish and you try another at a different angle, hopefully free of rocks.

Hammering home the point

One particularly rebellious and insubordinate little shit was in league with the bungee as every time I hit the peg, the tension in the bungee would pull it back up again.

It became a battle of wills;

"Bang!" would go my trusty mallet

"Boing!" would go the bungee

"Pop!" would go the peg


"Bang!" again would go my mallet

"Boing!" goes the bungee

"Pop!" up with the peg


And so the farce continues;

















"Bang!" "Bang!" "Bang!"

"Boing!" "Boing!" "Boing!"

"Pop!" "Pop!" "Pop!"


"Bang!" "Bang!" "Bang!" "Bang!" "Bang!" "Bang!" "Bang!" "fuckin' Bang!"

"Boing!" "Boing!" "Boing!" "Boing!" "Boing!" "Boing!" "Boing!" "Boing!"

"Pop!" "Pop!" "Pop!" "Pop!" "Pop!" "Pop!" "Pop!" "Pop!"

By now I'm at my wits end, "Don't you defy me! Get in there you bastard!!!!, I bellow in fury, "Get bleedin in there!!!!" I scream for added encouragement




"RIGHT!!! THAT'S IT!!!" I was in full Basil Fawlty mode now. Like the time when he took a branch to that broken-down Maxi in an apoplectic rage and gave it a public flogging. I'd had enough messing around with this stubborn lump of mass-produced metal and his rubberised accomplice. It was time to show them who was boss.

I stretched my arm back as far as my aching sinews would allow, mallet held aloft in my quivering hand ready for the mother of all downward swings. The sort of tremendous force that would take first prize at the fairground 'Ring the Bell' sledge-hammer attraction and rival the Mighty Thor himself.

A billion pounds of pressure per square inch came to bear on the inch-wide head of that blasted peg, all the pent-up agonies and frustrations of a mornings tent-building were piled onto that tiny platform in a split-second as I vented my spleen and discharged my fury in one uncontrollable burst of rage.



Steaming droplets of sweat flew from my fevered brow and I looked down to see that the peg was gone. Had I buried it deep beneath the ground? Had I emerged victorious? Was it submerged inglorious? I did think so for a brief nanosecond before I quickly realised that the bungee was hanging there in mid-air. So! Where was the bloody peg?


Question quickly answered as a sizeable object hit the ground a few feet away. The bungee had launched the bugger into the air like an inter-continental ballistic missile and judging by the couple of seconds that it took to come back to earth it must have shot about 15 feet up. If I had been standing over it, it could have shot my eye out into the bargain.

I know when I'm beat. It doesn't pay to get personal with a tent peg, especially when it's in league with a bungee.

goldberg @ Flickr
goldberg @ Flickr

Doing the soft-shoe shuffle

After the drama surrounding the tent-pegging incident everything else pales into insignificance.

You lay down a plastic groundsheet which you have to get as flat as possible.

This involves much tugging and toing-and-froing with the occasional soft shoe shuffle to even things off.

This is best done barefoot as your soles stick easier to the sheet and comes as a relief to me anyway as my little right toe had been given me gip inside my training shoe.

Then it's a case of filling up the tent with all the essentials and acessories needed for a good holiday experience, electric lights, pots, pans, dishes etc and attaching the 'inners' which are square-shaped mini-tents that serve as bedrooms. These can be a pest to attach as they have plastic hooks, often linked to the dreaded bungee, that clip onto the frame.

Curtains R us

But for me personally curtains were the worst. Complete pain in the arse so they are and with a floral design with strange flowers that at some angles resemble 'screaming pumpkins' as they're nicknamed by the couriers. Good band they are, Billy Corgan is such a talented baldy.

But the more you stare at them the more alive they become. I'm glad they don't hang in the kids bed area as it would frighten the life out of them. I'm only grateful that I don't have some in the inners in my tent. I'd have nightmares, 'The Attack of the Screaming Pumpkins' at a cinema near you, curtains up time 12 midnight accompanied by vile, blood-curdling screams since I'm still trying to hang them.

But actually getting them up and stay up is the problem.

If you're lucky the runners will be open at the side which means you can slide the curtain pegs along from the end, which is simple.

Otherwise you have to clip them on and since the runner is thicker than the gap in the peg it leads to a frustrating afternoon.

I figured out that if you turn the peg so that the corner hits the runner first then it's easier to clip on.

Any more information than that and you'll start thinking I'm a pathetic loser getting enthusiastic about interior decorating, so I'll let that subject rest.

Hey! what do you mean you thought I was a pathetic loser anyway?

Any more of that and I'll bad-mouth you to my friends on the 'International Corrugated Iron Appreciation Society' website, you see if I don't.

USACE Europe District @ Flickr
USACE Europe District @ Flickr @ Flickr @ Flickr

The furniture bites back

But now my friends we must go on to much more serious matters.

The equipment we supply with the tents come in two categories, bloody heavy or friggin awkward.

Everything is perversely designed and manufactured to be either one or the other, or in the case of fridges it can be both.

On one occasion, after lifting stuff all day through the morning and afternoon I could hardly lift the double bed frames into the van.

I tell you, I certainly felt my age that day, boy was I knackered, I had hardly any strength left in me poor old aching bones.

Outside tables were another, really heavy and the folded up legs were liable to catch your fingers in their vice-like grip.

Small cookers, about a quarter the size of normal household ones(if you ignore the overhead grill) were light enough but the bottom would cut into your hands

More especially if, like me, you showed off and tried to carry two at a time thrusting extra weight into the palms of your hands.

But for me, sun loungers were my pet hate, not too heavy but definitely cumbersome with an adjustable section for the headrest that flapped about and could give you a sore one if you weren't careful. You holidaymakers out there don't realise the suffering that goes into providing you with your creature comforts.

Fun with foam

I must admit though that you can have great fun with foam mattresses. If you're stuck for a Christmas present for the kids in December then just buy them loads of foam mattresses.

They are certainly in the awkward category as they decide to go in 17 different directions all at one time when you're trying to carry them. Because they're so light you usually take them three at a time which affords triple the fun and games.

Transporting them is a laugh then but it's the loading and off-loading where the problems occur as they stick together.

This is infuriating when you're trying to ram the last one into the van and it just won't budge because it's clinging to the one underneath. Velcro doesn't have a look in. But they are handy for keeping the hardware from crashing around in transit.

Where the fun stops is when you have to put covers on the mattresses, not so much for the single beds but certainly the doubles. This involves bending the mattress longways into a 'U' shape and jamming it tightly between your legs. Not for those of a nervous disposition afraid of losing their bearings. You then frenetically tug the cover over the foam until it reaches the end and goes "Ba-bing !" or tears itself asunder you. Or perhaps vice-versa.

Rhian vK @ Flickr
Rhian vK @ Flickr

Laying down the line

I must admit the best part of the whole tent installation for me was reserved for near the end. Whilst the rest of the crew were undergoing the torture of tent inners and 'Curtains R Us', I was assigned to lay the electric cables for the lighting.

It was like a day at the beach as it brought out the big kid in me. Great fun, digging trenches in the dirt and laying lines like a sparkie, then filling them in.

Yeah! this is what it's all about. I really enjoyed that, apart from the Green Hell of struggling through thick shrubbery at the back of a couple of tents.

On one campsite we worked on, instead of burying the cables I had to plant them along a hedge row behind the tents. You would run the line along the top of the hedge to check it was long enough and if so you would then push the cable down a foot. Well! I would anyway, I don't know about you, it's up to yourself, but I would definitely recommend pushing it down at least a foot to obscure it from view.

I just hope the campsite maintenance crew are careful with their electric hedge-trimmers. What I wouldn't recommend is doing all this with short sleeves. It was a hot day and I was befitted with a T-shirt which is not appropriate combat gear for jungle warfare.

nickodoherty @ Flickr
nickodoherty @ Flickr

It's a succession of battles, mostly against nature, and this was no exception as the hedge was a real struggle of man versus vegetation.

It's not a case of gently lowering the cable into the undergrowth you know, because the undergrowth fights back.

Here I go again, anthropormorphising passive twigs and leaves, but I feel a need to ascribe devilish motives to my foes. Otherwise I would have to blame my own mishaps and shortcomings for the endless struggles.

Every time you push the cable down you have to push a branch back, but such is the malevolent design of these wannabe triffid fanatics, every time you push a branch back another branch pushes forward and leaves you with a souvenir laceration to remind you not to bother it again.

I cottoned on quick though and wore my long-sleeved anorak which attracted curious stares from the team as it was a hot sunny day. When we got back to the Cook Tent we found out that we had no electricity. "Oh Oh!" I said, "Have I cut off the juice?" as I had remembered messing about with one of the power boxes earlier. Rest assured it wasn't due to my amateur electrician efforts as we were told it was blamed on some Italian tourists who were a bit liberal with the hair-dryers.

Life's a gas

Gas bottles are a chore. Not too awkward I suppose, unless they explode, which could be classed as a slight inconvenience.

In fact I seem to recall an episode of 'Jackass' were a guy sat on one and his mate hacked off the end causing the bottle to shoot forward at high speed.

I didn't think of introducing that into our campsite games-night for the tourists although the kids would have loved it seeing their dad rocketing across the forecourt of the bar and plunging into the swimming pool.

They are heavy but I guess that's the thick metal covering as I don't reckon the gas can account for all that weight.

I don't even know if it's liquid gas or what, it's butane or propane or something. It's a pity helium doesn't burn. Or does it? I don't know. It would certainly make it easier to shift the bloody things, you would just have to tie it to a piece of string to stop it floating off as you amble along. It would also make cooking a fun-filled experience with a family of 'Bluebottle' sound-a-likes chatting away as mother prepares the evening meal;

"Eeeeeeeeee!!!!! deeeneer eeeeees almost reddeeeeeeeeeeeey!!"

"Eeeeeeeeee!!!!! I don't like chickeeeeeeeeeeeen!!!!!"

"Yooooooooll eeeeeeeeett it, or yoooooll go to bed with notheeeeeeeeeeeeng!!!"

"Awwwwwww!!!, I hate yoooooooooooooooo!!!!"

"Don't yoooooooooooo dare!!! Just wait till yooor dadeeeee gets back from theeeeeee Burns Uneeeeeeeeet!!!"

And that's all there is to it! You have your tent, your furniture, kitchenware and you're plugged in to the electricity and with the gas a-flowing. All you need to worry about now is that the thing stays up during a storm, it doesn't let in water and the ants don't hold a daily parade along your floor.

Below is a depiction of the kind of tent which is by far the least you're likely to encounter on your holiday. But whatever canvas you're under you'll probably find it will be comfortable enough and built by consummate professionals like myself.

Happy holidays.


Photo by amanderson @ Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by amanderson @ Flickr Creative Commons

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