Walkabout boat-tent


On my recent trip along the Great Glen, I slept for six nights in my boat tent. I only finished making the tent the day before I left and hadn't even had time to put it up, let alone test it. Luckily it worked, but I'm not sure the boat tent is going to be my favourite overnight accommodation. (Image © John Macpherson)


Making the tent I – more or less – followed the plans that John Welsford supplied with the boat plans.


Wooden blocks to hold the ends of the poles. I had hoped to use the rowlock sockets, but they weren't in the right place, at least not forward, and the angle of them put too much curve on the poles.


Gelert tent poles seem to be the only poles readily available on the internet. They do the job, but the curve is pretty much near the limit of their flexibility, and the elastic for threading them doesn't last long.


I used polythene dust-sheets to make the pattern. Medium duty from B&Q is tissue-thin, if I was doing this again I'd use something heavier.


Adjusting to get a good fit was tricky, especially as the poles keep flexing.

I bought all my supplies from Point North who were very helpful. I could have used a breathable fabric, but settled on coated nylon (D4 at Points North) as it was much cheaper.

I sewed and fitted the body of the the tent before fitting the doors. The doors I finally completed the day before I set off.


First night in the boat tent. One thing I hadn't thought about was getting in and out of the tent when moored against the lock wall like this! It can be done with care.

In addition to the wide doors on either side, as specified by JohnW, I also made small openings either end so I could adjust the mooring lines.

I choose a dark colour because of the short nights in Scotland, I didn't want the light wakening me. As we had little sun on the trip I couldn't test this feature too well.


Looking aft. The camera is on the part of the foredeck inside the coaming, the grey thing is my shoulder, my head's under the camera. While there's quite a lot of room, there's also quite a lot of stuff – two pairs of oars, buckets, daggerboard, tiller etc, let alone my bags, sleeping bag and so on. I didn't have any food or cooking equipment as catering was provided on the barge, Fingal of Caldeonia, I slept on two Thermarest self inflating mattresses; very comfortable.

So how was it?

In a word – damp. Not any fault of the design, but the weather. It rained heavily at the start of the trip, it was windy and pretty cold.

Putting up the tent was easy so long as I started at the windward end. The next step was to wipe the entire inside of the boat down with a sponge to remove the rain and mud. I could then put down the sleeping mats and get into my sleeping bag.


But with the combination of rain and condensation, the inside of the tent was soon covered in droplets of water. Some of this was from the seams, but I think it was mainly condensation, despite the vent I'd included at the suggestion of the helpful woman at PointNorth. And then the drops ran down the inside of the tent, and if the rain was heavy and it was windy, water dropped onto to me too. This was partly I think due to the tunnel design which means the 'roof' is fairly flat – with a ridge pole tent the water is more likely to run down the walls.

Getting into and out of the tent without creating a shower of water from the fabric was impossible. I slept with my oilskins over my sleeping bag. A couple of times I had to sponge the floor dry when I woke up in the night. Fitting guylines at each end running to the masts might help keep the fabric tight and avoid so much dripping.


Having said all this, I'm not sure I'd have been much better off camping on land in a small tent – on one bad night several of the people camping on land had their tents blow down, or at least had the walls pushed against them by the strong winds.

The tent packs up small and takes very little room, so I think it's worth taking on any trip for emergencies or for when camping ashore is not possible. However, if I was cruising where wild camping was legal (Scotland) I think I'd take a normal tent and try and find a pleasant on shore campsite if I could.


Of course, if we'd been blest with great weather, I might be singing the praises of my boat tent!



About Osbert Lancaster

Creating ripples to foster sustainability. Seeking solace & clarity on the sea by sail & oar.


  1. Scott Marckx

    I recently attended a lecture by a woman who makes boat covers, tents, etc. She emphasized starting with a breathable fabric like Sunbrella. She talked about smelling mildew under waterproof boat covers. I will be facing this issue soon enough and I’m considering making a rain fly out of Sunbrella with a big gap between it and the boat and then a "tent" below it that will probably be more mosquito screening than fabric. We’ll see… Thank you for your blog. It is very helpful.

  2. Anonymous

    Tunnel tents have to be really high tech. If not, its the worst design and your tent, (sorry) is in that category. A good norwegian tunnel tent to use in the wilderness, is very tight. Not a drop will stay in the fabric and they dont move much in wind also because they use very high quality aluminium poles. I??ve camped in a tent like that in very poor weather and it was totally dry. I??ve also had a cheap tunnel tent with glasfibre poles and it was the worst tent I??ve ever had.I think you??d do a lot better with a canadian type tent over the boom in preperated cotton or a breatheable sinthetich cloth.

  3. Anonymous

    <html><body bgcolor="#FFFFFF"><div>Anders</div><div><br></div><div>That’s really depressing, but thanks any way!</div><div><br></div><div>Osbert</div><blockquote type="cite"><div><div style="width: 600px; font-size: 12px; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; line-height: 18px;" class="PosterousEmail"><div style="margin-top: 40px; border-top: 1px solid #ccc; padding-top: 10px;"><div>

    </div> </div></div></blockquote></body></html>

  4. Anonymous

    Yeah, I??m sorry, but IMHO its a poor design. Not your fault that it looks cool on a drawing. One of these Norwegian tunnel tents are really expensive.On a boat like the walkabout you have two masts and a boom, so it should be pretty easy to make a simple tent design that works. Good quality cotton is actually really nice for tents (boyscouts) and it accepts wind a lot better than thin polywhatever fabrics.

  5. Pingback: Reflections on boat tent design | Forthsailoar

  6. MIke

    Your key issues seems to be-1 wrong material (have a look at Sunbrella is my recommendation)if it can withstand the high rain wind and UV in Nz it can withstand anything. My Sunbrella sun deck awning lasted for 8 years -up all year round only taken down in severe storms.

    2nd issues is sagging -suggest attach 3 loops to the tent by each hoop and run a low stretch polyester cord through the tabs to a multi block at base of each mast then back through each loop with the tail end close enough to adjust from each hatch .If the off centre tabs tend to pull the hoop inwards,then use 3 separate cords with the blocks out by the side decks pulling fwd not inwards.Spray the cord,loops and blocks with silicon spray so they run easily. A good waterproof tent for 2 people costs about $750 in Nz(yes you can get a cheap job for $75NZ)and a boat tent is more complicated so I would be looking to send $1000 all up to make it work properly.That’s about 350-500 pounds sterling. Sunbrella is not cheap in NZ.

    If you are not berthed alongside a dock you could fit 2 “spars” across the deck to attach guys to just like a land based tent.I’d say they would have to stick out about 18-24″?? beyond the gunwhale to have much effect.They could be like 2 piece tent poles-slip them through a U bolt (bullseye) mounted on the gunwhale/side deck. A SS saddle at each outboard end and Bobs your uncle.Run shock cord thru each pair of poles so they are self aligning and dont get lost..If you want to have 2 uses use them as a jib stick on a light weather down wind drifter that you can pull up like a spinnaker.You might be able to make use of a second hand sail from a small racing dinghy-less rowing when the wind in 2-8 knots from aft. Mike

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