An InTents Experience
In Search of the Ideal Tent
By Tamia Nelson
July 12, 2011
A few weeks back I found the quarterly Campmor catalog in my mailbox, and I enjoyed thumbing through the pages as I ate lunch. I'm always favorably impressed by Campmor's minimalist approach to marketing: newsprint pages, line illustrations, and not a single glossy portrait of an implausibly well‑groomed outdoorsperson to be seen anywhere. I was also impressed by the selection of tents on offer — 20 pages or more. We've come a long way from the day when GI shelter halves and elephantine umbrella tents designed for families of car campers were just about the only options.
Which is a very good thing. A tent is a home away from home, after all — a refuge in storms, a sanctuary during mass attacks by biting flies, even a guarantor of privacy in crowded campsites. So it's not surprising that most paddlers own one or more tents. Usually more. And the most common reason for that is the difficulty of making a choice. Confronted with so many alternatives, it can be hard to decide which one is right for you. I'm not immune. Over the years I've acquired something like a dozen. All have served me well, though none was perfect for every clime and place. Living in the field for weeks at a time in a fixed survey camp is very different from high‑altitude mountaineering. Still, even when the intended use was well‑defined, the final choice was always difficult. Luckily, a systematic approach makes any task easier, and selecting a tent is no exception. Just begin at the beginning, with a clear‑headed understanding of …
What's Most Important
Buying a tent is a lot like buying a boat. No tent does everything. So you'd best begin by deciding why you want a tent — and what you want it to do. Then list the relevant qualities in order of diminishing (or increasing) importance. Here are the things I consider, though in this case, they're in no particular order:
- Price (Unless you've had a lottery win lately, that is.)
- Weight, including tent, fly, and poles (You'll be carrying it more often than you think …)
- Packed Size (… and you'll need to find a place for it in your boat.)
- Capacity (If there are four of you, you'll find a "two‑man" tent mighty cramped. In fact, you may discover that even a "four‑man" tent is pretty crowded.)
Fabric (Polyester flies typically last longer than nylon in sunny climes.)
Pole Length (That's stowed length. If the shortest pole segment is more than a couple of feet long, the pole bag will be mighty awkward to stow.)
Design (Just about anything goes nowadays, from simple pup‑tents to elaborate stressed‑fabric pavilions. You pays your money and you takes your choice.)
Number of Doors and Windows (More is usual better.)
Headroom (It's nice to be able to stand up inside, but …)
Stormworthiness (… the lower the tent, the less the wind has to get hold of.)
Insect‑Proofing (No‑see‑um netting is great, but it keeps out cooling breezes, too.)
Freestanding or Stake‑Out? (Remember that freestanding tents still have to be staked down. I've seen more than one untethered dome blow into the river.)
Color? (Subdued colors are probably best, particularly in well‑traveled areas.)
This list isn't complete, of course, and it never could be. Manufacturers are forever inventing improvements, some of which really do improve a tent's performance. Nor does it include such amenities as gear lofts, LED nightlights (no kidding!), and roller blinds. But I'll leave the job of inventorying and evaluating such vital minutiae to you. In fact, I'd encourage anyone contemplating the purchase of a tent to draw up her (or his) own list of must‑have features. Use my suggestions as a starting point, by all means, but it's what you want that really counts.
Then, once you've made your list, it's time to …
Hit the High Street …
Or log on to your favorite online retailer's website. A case in point: My last‑but‑one tent purchase followed from the pressing need to find an alternative to our roomy‑but‑heavy "four‑man" tent. (In my experience, a four‑man tent is just about right for two canoeists and their gear. Food, of course, should never be stored in your tent. Unless you fancy entertaining large, hirsute guests with uncertain table manners at midnight, that is.) Since most of my backcountry jaunts are now "amphibious," combining cycling and paddling (and sometimes climbing), I have to haul my boat and gear to the put‑in behind my bike. This has shifted the balance of priorities from "roomy and comfortable" to "compact and lightweight." I also wanted a tent that would suit occasional spur‑of‑the‑moment solo getaways. Once again, compact‑and‑lightweight trumped roomy‑and‑comfortable. But the tent still had to sleep two, and not bear too close a resemblance to a coffin. Short pole segments were a must, as well. (Rucksacks and bike panniers don't run large.) Yet the tent also had to be reasonably stormworthy. And cheap.
All in all, it was a tall order. But a diligent search soon led me to the Eureka Apex 2XTA. It ticked all the boxes. It was light, compact, and well‑designed. Not a tent to tackle K2 in, of course. And not the best choice for a rainy, windbound week in camp. But it did the job I wanted it to do. And it was cheap. Here it is:
The Apex 2XTA has a rectangular floor that's almost 5 feet wide and a bit over 7 feet long, so it will easily accommodate two people of average height. Yet it weighs in at less than 7 pounds with stakes, poles, and fly — not superlight, but still light enough for one. It's well ventilated, too. That's a big plus in the seasons when most paddlers are out and about. Best of all, however, it has two doors, and each door is sheltered by a roomy vestibule. Now I can slip out for a quick, early‑morning pee without waking Farwell. (And vice versa.) The vestibules are another bonus. If a tarp weren't so useful in its own right, I'd be tempted to leave it behind.
Bottom line? The Apex 2XTA is a good tent for two paddlers, and it offers luxury accommodation for one. Sadly, though, Eureka dropped it from their lineup the year after I bought mine. The Apex is still around — with fiberglass poles rather than aluminum — but the XTA has been superseded by a slightly different design, the Scenic Pass. Both the surviving Apex XT (the missing "A" stood for "aluminum poles," apparently) and the Scenic Pass look good, but I've no experience with either one. Neither packs as small as my XTA, either.
In any case, I was happy with the Apex. But Farwell wasn't. He wanted something even lighter and smaller, and a bit more weatherproof, as well. The Apex is advertised as a three‑season tent, but since the large mesh panels don't have fabric "storm windows," it gets a little chilly during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, and it's not at its best in blowing snow. This isn't terribly important on most trips, but Farwell was looking for a tent for solo treks — something that wouldn't weigh him down when he wanted to travel far and fast, with little regard to the weather. Light weight and small packed size were the most important considerations. He found what he was looking for, too:
A Backcountry Star
By keeping his gear to a minimum and using a diminutive inflatable boat that fits on a bicycle's rear rack, Farwell can leave his bike trailer at home — a great advantage on poorly maintained fire roads and little‑used jeep tracks. A second Eureka tent fills this niche to perfection: the Backcountry 1. When it appeared on sale for little more than a hundred bucks, Farwell snapped it up. But the Backcountry had more than a low price going for it. It's light (less than 5 pounds in all), and it takes up no more room in pack or pannier than a smallish sleeping bag. It's not a circus tent, however. The 3 foot by 8 foot floor plan limits it to solo travelers, though it can offer steerage accommodation to two good friends in a hard chance. The headroom is minimal, too. But there's an upside to this downside. The Backcountry's low stature allows it to stand up to blows that would send taller tents flying away. And the subdued color is good for places and times when you don't want to draw attention to yourself, an important consideration in today's increasingly crowded "wilderness" parks.
Now here it is, pitched next to the Apex for comparison's sake:
As you can see, the Backcountry 1 — that's it on the left — is a tidy, stormworthy package. Some of the weight advantage is lost if you carry a tarp, however — and you'll want a tarp if you do much cooking in foul weather. Not even a "man cook" would venture to prepare a meal in the cramped confines of the Backcountry's rudimentary awning. (Users of alcohol stoves will need plenty of room overhead when starting up, by the way. Although the flame is nearly invisible in daylight, it shoots up a good two or three feet, and it will make short work of a nylon or polyester fly.)
The bottom line on the Backcountry 1? It does what it says on the box, and even at today's higher prices it's a bargain for any solo traveler who hopes to travel light and fast.
Two different tents. Two different sets of priorities. The contrast serves to remind me of …
The Importance of a Critical Eye …
When you go shopping for a tent. That's especially true today, when glossy photography often substitutes for hard fact in advertising copy. Some things to watch out for:
- How many? Stated vs real‑world capacities
- How heavy? Stated vs real‑world weights
- How big? Stated vs real‑world packed size
- Freestanding? Really?
- Color my world… What?
Don't get me wrong. I know of no tent maker who sets out to deceive would‑be customers. But — to change similes in mid‑column — shopping for a tent is a little like buying a house. A lot depends on subjective considerations. In other words, whether or not you'll be happy with a tent depends as much on how it feels as on how the numbers add up. Some examples:
How Many? If there are two of you, you'll probably start by looking at "two‑man" (or "two‑person") tents. And you can be pretty sure that any tent so labeled will indeed allow two paddlers of average height to lie down without pushing against the walls. But you can't be sure that you and your companion will find it easy to live in the same tent. To begin with, not all of us are "average." Some of us are tall. Some of us are broad. (OK. Fat. Not every paddler is an Olympic athlete.) Many of us toss and turn in our sleep. And some of us just like to spread out. So it's best to take claims that a given tent "sleeps two" with more than a pinch of salt. The best approach? Borrow or rent the tent you're looking at, and then live in it for a weekend — camp in your backyard if you can't make it to the backcountry — before you reach for your wallet. Or at least check the Paddling.net gear reviews. My rule of thumb? Unless weight and packed size are of overwhelming importance, I trade up. Until the Apex entered my life, most of my tents had been three‑ or four‑man models, and I seldom regretted having the extra space, even if it did make the portages sweatier.
How Heavy? Manufacturers are only human, and they know that weight is important to backcountry travelers. So they make sure they put their best foot forward, so to speak. I've never had tent that weighed less than the manufacturer's stated weight. And a lot of my tents have weighed more. Will a few ounces one way or the other really matter? No. But the pounds add up. So if you want to know what a tent really weighs, weigh it yourself, including all the bits and bobs: tent, fly, poles, guylines, stakes, and stuff sack(s). Stakes warrant special attention. Many tents come with the bare minimum. You'll probably want to add more, and if you do, be sure to include these in the total weight.
A last word about weight: You can only make a tent as light as the fabric that goes into it. And fabric that's too light won't hold up very long outside the showroom. If shaving a few ounces off the total weight leaves you with a tissue‑paper shelter that will come apart in the first big blow, you've struck a bad bargain. Check the reviews before you buy.
How Big? Many of the tents I've owned have come with stuff sacks that were barely big enough. (Happily, the Apex and Backcountry are exceptions.) This yields good numbers for the ads, but it makes packing up in the morning a struggle. Don't hesitate to buy a bigger sack if it makes your life easier. And pay attention to the length of the longest pole segments. This, more than anything else, determines where and how you can stow your tent. (Kayakers and amphibious paddlers need to be especially vigilant here. Some otherwise splendid tents come with brobdingnagian poles.)
Freestanding? Really? Well, almost. Yes, it's great to be able to pitch your tent on rock or sand or snow without the need to drive a stake, but unless you paddle where the wind never blows, you'll still have to anchor it. Which means — you guessed it — you'll have to drive stakes or rig deadmen. The upshot? Freestanding is nice. But it's not essential. And it won't save you from having to drive a stake or six.
Shape‑Shifting This brings us back to the "Sleeps how many?" question. Floor space is one thing. Living space is something else. Domes and wall tents have a lot more useful space for a given footprint than old‑style pup‑tent‑like A's. How much space do you need? You can't learn this from the catalog copy. You'll have to live in the tent to find out. Borrow or rent one if you can. Or at least check the reviews.
Color My World… What? If you're planning on setting up a base camp on a high‑altitude snowfield, bright is best. Bright colors also lift sagging spirits on dark days. But let's face facts: A lot of camp sites in "wilderness" parks now resemble a cross between a busy bus station and an outdoor music festival (if you're reading this across the Pond, Glastonbury will probably come to mind; if you're an American of a certain age, Woodstock might ring a bell), at least during the height of the summer season. Want to do your bit to minimize your visual impact? Then think drab. Or bring a green tarp to screen your bright tent from others' view. Drab‑colored tents also make good blinds for wildlife photography.
Is all this starting to sound complicated? It is. A bit. It's like I said: Buying a tent is a little like buying a house (or a boat). There are lots of variables to consider. You also have to live with your mistakes. But take heart. Things are better now than they were back in the day when two joined‑up shelter halves were my home away from home. And if you do get it wrong the first time, at least you won't have to take out a second mortgage to buy another tent.
Shopping for a tent is much less straightforward than it used to be, when the choices pretty much boiled down to a pair of surplus shelter halves or an unwieldy fabric barn intended for a family of car campers. But even with the hundreds of alternatives confronting today's paddlers, it's not mission impossible to find your ideal match. You just need to know what you want. It's that easy. (Or that hard!) Either way, it's an intents … sorry … intense experience.
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