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Freestanding Tents vs Floorless Pyramids: Winter Bakeoff

Black Diamond First Light Tent Duomid Tarp in the Snow

Black Diamond FirstLight Tent and a very stealthy MLD cuben fiber Duomid


Sub-pound. floor-less pyramids are very lightweight, but free-standing tents pitch in minutes. Which is the right choice for winter backpacking and mountaineering, when pack weight and space are at a premium?


Last weekend, I spent a few days camping in the White Mountains at the foot of Mt Crawford and on the banks of the Saco River, albeit testing gear behind a friend's cabin. There's been a ton of snow up there, with frigid single digit temperatures (F), making for great outdoor sleeping in my -25 Western Mountaineering Puma sleeping bag.

This was a dress rehearsal with my Duomid, after a more urban test session on my front lawn down in Boston, the week prior.  I was also testing my entire winter sleep system including an 18.5 oz Integral Designs Micro Bivy, a KookaBay Down Air Mattress, and super light nylon Exped Snow Anchors, used to pitch the mid. The results were mixed.

Mountain Laurel Designs Tarp on Snow

Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid

Pitching a Pyramid Tarp On Snow

Pitching a floorless pyramid on snow takes time. In my case, I did it after an exhausting solo climb up Mt Avalon where I had to break trail in snowshoes, by myself. So, suffice to say, I was knackered when I began setting up the Duomid, starting 90 minutes before sundown at 3:00 PM.

I started by finding a fairly flat pitch in lightly wooded forest near the river and stomped down the snow with my snowshoes to form a platform. The platform wasn't completely level so I piled some more snow on top of it with my avy shovel, and dug some anchors while the platform area started to harden. This is one nice thing about winter camping; weather permitting, you can alter the landscape, but still conform to LNT principles, because your structures will simply melt away.

Snow conditions were not optimum however. After wading for hours in thigh-high snow on my climb, the snow in the woods where I set up my shelter was only 6 inches deep. My snow anchors stuck fine, but they were not as deep as I would have liked, and they took about an hour to firm up after I pounded the snow down around them. The snow was also very granular, almost like sugar, and was resistant to clumping. I was lucky that I wasn't  in a storm, because waiting 60-90 minutes for anchors to harden seems like a dangerous delay.

Once the anchors had set, I pulled the guylines taught and the pyramid was solid from then on. I dug a shallow body-length pit under the tarp to cradle me and keep me from thrashing out from underneath it at night, and lay my bivy, sleeping bag and down air mattress in it.

I slept fine that night although we had quite a lot of snow and it covered most of the tarp by morning. But the snow slid right off with a little shake of the mid skin. Internal condensation was pretty heavy, but the frigid temperatures kept it from dripping inside the tarp, and it wouldn't have mattered anyway since I was cocooned in a bivy with an eVent fabric top.

Black Diamond Firstlight Tent

Black Diamond Firstlight Tent

Pitching a Freestanding Tent on Snow

I've owned a Black Diamond FirstLight tent, going on 3 years now. Although I personally consider it my car camping tent, it is a very respectable lightweight, 4 season, single wall tent, made out of a breathable fabric called Epic (also called ToddTex and NanoTech). Weighing just 2 lbs 11 oz, it compresses down to the size of a loaf of bread and comes with two DAC collapsible poles. Since it's freestanding, it doesn't need to be staked if it's not windy, and I can set it up in under 5 minutes in the dark with a head torch.

Last weekend, I did just that, after a grueling 7 hour snowshoe up Mt Jackson and Mt Webster. I didn't even bother stomping out a platform. I just laid out the tent, set up the poles, and the tent settled into the snow in a perfect rectangle. I left the tent door open, and experienced zero condensation, despite heavy snowfall during the night: the FirstLight has very steep tent walls that prevent snow accumulation, even on the front screen door.

While I slept in a bivy bag in the tent, I technically didn't need it, for warmth or to prevent condensation from wetting my sleeping bag.

Safety vs Weight Trade-offs in Winter

These are still preliminary conclusions because I haven't tested the mid in wind above treeline and in heavy wet snow. However, the experience of waiting around for over an hour for my anchors to harden was sub-optimal.

Further, when you factor out the added weight of a bivy bag required to sleep under a tarp in winter (17 oz mid and nylon anchors + 18.5 oz bivy) vs. a freestanding lightweight tent (43 oz tent only), the weight advantage of a floor-less pyramid doesn't obviously trump the delay associated with pitching it on snow.

Food for thought.

Especially when you consider that using a flat tarp under similar snow conditions, above treeline, takes the same time to pitch.

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  1. Matt,

    A thought. I've spent some winter nights under a Gatewood Cape. Big Agnes insulated air-core & Gossamer Gear Nightlite pads. WM 10 degree bag. Toasty. Pads combined are R-6.35. Until I roll off. Then it's R-.005 as I wake up with my feet on the ground and my head lying outside the Cape with snowflakes idly drifting down on my face.

    Just saw in Backpacking Light report, MLD is making a 4-ish oz. bivvy. Very breathable top, not suitable for serious rain, but good DWR.

    Would hold all gear in place, including me and Mont Bell pillow which tries to escape each night and which I have to grope outside the Cape to try and retrieve.

    Cost is somewhere in the high 6 figures plus your firstborn, but may be worth every penney.

    No doubt Earlylite will have this one tested when they come out in spring and will report if the bag is breathable enough to prevent moisture buildup in cold conditions.


    Marty Cooperman

    looking forward to floundering in some fine breakable crust and bottomless snow up in Dolly Sods this weekend.

  2. I'm going on strike against the extortionist pricing at MLD. It's out of control. You can't buy an ultralight philosophy.

  3. 2/3'rds of my big three are now MLD. (Exodus pack, Spirit Quilt) It would be all three as I had my eye on a Patrol shelter in Cuben fiber. I ended up sewing my own version out of sil-nylon but it ain't the same.

    Why is everything MLD makes so perfectly executed?!

    Hey Earlylite you should get a pro-deal since your reviews no doubt sell lots of MLD gear.

    This is a valuable site for information!

  4. Excellent review, and just in time for the arrival of another winter season. One minor point of clarification – Epic, ToddTex, and Nanoshield are three different fabrics, not different names for the same material. Nextec Epic is of course well known as a siliconized nylon fabric with water-resistant and breathable properties. ToddTex is actually a full-on waterproof/breathable 3-layer fabric with a light nylon or polyester outer face and (last time I saw it) a thin, water-trapping inner face. I always thought ToddTex must be an off-label use of Gore's Gore-Tex technology (just like the 3-ply TegraTex used by Integral Designs for their tents), but I could never get Todd Bibler to 'fess up. But compare the First Light to the similar-sized iTent – the iTent weighs more and is waay more expensive. That's the Epic/NanoShield vs. ToddTex. NanoShield is an unspecified fabric using some sort of nanotech coating to improve the water resistance while retaining the breathability of the fabric.

    I have an old ID MK3 tent that's been used everywhere from cold and dry (Bolivia in summer) to summer thunderstorms to at least one sustained storm system. No leaks and no significant condensation issues. Nonetheless I'm very interested in the First Light for the light weight (the Mk3 weighs 6 lb, more if we take the vestibule) and the breathability. Thanks for adding some very useful information to my thinking.

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