Black Diamond FirstLight Tent Review

Black Diamond FirstLight Tent Review

The Black Diamond FirstLight Tent (updated for 2019) is a two-person, freestanding, single-wall tent for winter backpacking, backcountry skiing, and mountaineering. Weighing 3 lbs 1.3 oz (after seam sealing), it has a wind-resistant wedge shape that sheds snow well and packs up small. Since it’s freestanding, you can pitch it anywhere without having to anchor it first, on snow, rock, or a wooden tent platform. That means you can get into it faster, out of the weather, and into dry clothes which is a much bigger deal in winter than the rest of the year.

Black Diamond FirstLight Tent

Comfort
Ease of Setup
Weather Resistance
Durabilty
Weight
Packed Size

Freestanding Lightweight Winter Tent

If you’re looking to buy a winter tent, I recommend the Black Diamond FirstLight. It’s not perfect, but its low weight, freestanding architecture, steep snow-shedding walls, and packability make it an attractive option for four-season use.

Specs at a Glance

  • People: 2 (a 3-person model is also available)
  • Type: Freestanding, Single-Wall
  • Min Trail Weight: 2 lb 12 oz, Packaged Weight: 3 lbs 3 oz
  • Actual Weight: 3 lbs 1.3 oz (seam-sealed, no stuff sacks)
    • 2 lbs 4.3 oz – tent body
    • 13.o oz – poles
  • Doors: 1
  • Windows: 1
  • Hydrostatic Head (waterproofing):
    • Floor: 3000 mm
    • Walls: 1500 mm
  • Claimed Dimensions: 82″ x 48″; Actual interior dimensions (80″ x 42″)
  • Peak height: 42″
  • Materials: DAC Featherlite aluminum poles, polyester floor, Nanoshield walls
  • Vestibule: Sold Separately

Freestanding Tents

The FirstLight is a freestanding tent. Freestanding tents are worth their weight in gold in winter, especially when the ground is frozen and it’s too hard to pound in tent stakes. Not only do they go up fast, but you can simply reposition them by picking them up and moving them to a different spot if the one you chose isn’t comfortable or turns out to be unsafe from falling branches and debris. Cleaning out the inside is also easy: you simply open the front door, pick up the tent, tilt it forward, and shake out the snow and any debris before packing it up.

The Black Diamond FirstLight is a Freestanding Tent
The Black Diamond FirstLight is a freestanding tent making it easy to pick up and move around.

The FirstLight comes with two collapsible aluminum poles that crisscross inside and can be inserted while you stand outside the tent. The pole ends lock into metal fittings in the tent corners. Once the poles are inserted, you need to crawl inside the tent and line the poles up with velcro tabs that position them relative to the tent seams and lock them in place. The velcro tabs have small fabric loops that you can use to hang laundry lines or suspend a headlamp to light the interior.

Can you use the FirstLight outside of the winter months? Absolutely, although it doesn’t have the best ventilation and airflow, so you’re likely to be warm and experience some internal condensation. However, I do use the FirstLight when car camping, usually the night before a big hike in a far-flung place, because it’s so easy to set up in the dark and tear down the next morning. It’s really hard to beat the convenience of a freestanding tent.

The Firstlight has two aluminum poles that cross under the roof
The FirstLight has two aluminum poles that cross under the roof. Note rear window with storm flap.

A Single-Wall Tent

The FirstLight is a single wall tent that must be seam-sealed to prevent it from leaking water in the rain. The walls and ceiling are made with a siliconized fabric that Black Diamond calls Nanoshield (more on this below), while the floor is made with polyester and is seam-taped, including the corners where the tent poles terminate. When you purchase the tent, it comes with a tube of silicone seam sealer and it’s an easy process to seal the seams. See How to Waterproof a Black Diamond FirstLight Tent for complete instructions. The process is identical to seam-sealing a silnylon ultralight tent.

Seam seal the seams over the arched poles and around the front door and rear window beaks.

The benefit of a single wall tent is reduced weight. However, the downside is internal condensation transfer because there isn’t an inner tent to shield you from contact with the outer walls where moisture accumulates. You can reduce the amount of condensation build-up by opening the front door and rear window to promote more airflow. Both the door and window have overhanging beaks, so you can still keep them open partially if it raining.

The front door has an inner screen door and a solid outer door. Both have two bi-directional zippers, allowing you to unzip the top half while leaving the bottom half closed and zipped. When I use the FirstLight, I always try to keep the outer door open, since the inner screen door can still prevent snow from blowing into the tent. This really cuts down on the amount of internal condensation which forms as frost inside the tent in cold weather. I also sleep with my head at the door, so the moisture in my breath can be quickly vented through the screen.

The FirstLight’s floor is made with polyester and is seam-taped
The FirstLight’s floor is made with polyester and is seam-taped

Black Diamond Nanoshield

The upper part of the FirstLight is made with a siliconized fabric that Black Diamond calls NanoShield, while the floor is made with polyester. Both are waterproof, with hydrostatic heads of 1500 mm and 3000 mm. Black Diamond claims that NanoShield is a breathable fabric that improves the performance of the tent but they have never provided any breathability metrics to justify that claim. In my experience, the NanoShield fabric is no more breathable than the silnylon used by other lightweight tent manufacturers and I don’t feel that it’s an important reason to buy the FirstLight.

Previous versions of the FirstLight used other breathable fabrics, called Epic, and before that ToddTex, when the FirstLight was made by Bibler Tents, which Black Diamond acquired. I also own a 10-year-old Epic FirstLight and was never impressed by its “breathability” performance either. However that Epic FirstLight also weighs 2 lbs 11 oz seam-sealed, or 6 oz less than the current model.

I keep the solid outer door open and the inner mesh door closed. This allows good airflow but prevents snow and spindrift from entering the tent.
I normally keep the solid outer door open and the inner mesh door closed. This allows for good airflow but still prevents snow and spindrift from entering the tent.

The value of the FirstLight is not in the fabrics it’s made with but in its light weight and freestanding ease of setup. When I pitch the FirstLight in winter, I simply locate a site that’s free of falling debris and underlying voids, insert the poles, and get inside. Unless I’m in a really windy and exposed site, I don’t even bother to stake it out since my gear is heavy enough to hold it in place if I step out for a moment.

Pitching a non-freestanding tent in winter is much more complicated. First, you have stomp out a platform the size of your tent’s base and rainfly with your snowshoes or skis and let the snow harden, a process called sintering. This can take 10-30 minutes depending on snow density and moisture content. Then, you have to bury tent stakes or anchors in the snow surrounding the area where you want to pitch your tent and let them freeze in place, which also takes time. All the while, you’re standing around in your damp baselayers getting cold while the guy with the freestanding tent has already changed into his dry sleeping clothes, put on his puffy down pants and down parka, and started melting snow to make a hot dinner.

The FirstLight can be staked out using skis or snow tools. Grommets are also provided for attaching deadman lines, since guyline tensioners have a tendency to freeze up
The FirstLight can be staked out using skis or snow tools. Grommets are also provided for attaching deadman lines, since guyline tensioners have a tendency to freeze up, and your tent anchors have to freeze in place before you can attach them to your tent

Tent Dimensions

While the FirstLight is sold as a two-person tent, it’s a tight fit for two people and your sleeping bags will come into contact with the sidewalls and the condensation that forms on them. While I have shared the FirstLight with others, I far prefer to use it as a single-person tent, so I can position my sleeping pad in the middle of the floor, away from the sidewalls. When solo, there’s plenty of space to sit up in the FirstLight, spread out your gear, or change your clothes, without giving someone else a black eye. While the specs that Black Diamond publishes for this tent state that the interior floor is 82″ x 48″ in size, the actual usable dimensions are 80″ x 42″. That’s a big width difference.

Packed Size

When packed, the body of the FirstLight makes a nice compact bundle that’s about the size of 20-degree sleeping bag. I can fit the tent body into the exterior crampon pocket of my winter backpack, while the tent poles are easily packed vertically inside my pack or strapped under my external compression straps. With all of the gear I need to carry in winter, having a compressible tent like the FirstLight helps me get away with a smaller and lighter weight 66L winter backpack.

Comparable Four Season/Winter Tents

Make / ModelPeopleDoorsMin WeightPrice
Black Diamond FirstLight1-213 lbs 1 oz$370
Black Diamond El Dorado214 lbs 8 oz$730
NEMO Kunai 2213 lbs 14 oz$500
Hilleberg Soulo114 lbs 7 oz$735
NEMO Tenshi 2113 lbs 14 oz$700
Hilleberg Unna114 lbs 7 oz$715
Mountain Hardwear Outpost 2224 lbs 13.5 oz$600
Big Sky Chinook 2224 lbs$550
SlingFin Portal 2222 lbs 13 oz$485
Black Diamond Beta Lite211 lb 3 oz$220
The freestanding FirstLight Tent is very convenient when you have to camp on a wooden platform.
The freestanding FirstLight Tent is also very convenient when you have to camp on a wooden platform.

Conclusion

If you’re looking to buy a winter tent, I recommend the Black Diamond FirstLight.  It’s not perfect, but its low weight, freestanding architecture, steep snow-shedding walls, and packability make it an attractive option for four-season use. While the FirstLight is sold as a 2-person tent, it’s a very tight fit for two and lightweight enough that it can be used as a luxurious one-person tent. While the FirstLight is optimized for winter use, it’s freestanding capability is also highly advantageous when you have to camp on wooden platforms or anywhere where ground conditions make it difficult to drive tent stakes into the ground.

Disclosure Black Diamond provided the author with an updated FirstLight Tent for this review. The author purchased the earlier model of the FirstLight mentioned herein, 10 years ago with his own funds.

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7 comments

  1. My old Firstlight has the Epic material. I agree on the lack of breathability but love this tent in the winter, for all the reasons you mention. I am also tall, and the tent has plenty of room. I use Zpack tarptents in the other three seasons. In Winter though, the Firstlight is my go to tent.

  2. I still use my 2008 HiLight (w/ Epic .. basically same design as Firstlight but side entry) for all 4 seasons, primarily in higher elevations in CO (11k+). I have been able to manage the condensation fairly well and have yet to see any tent not have condensation during moist conditions (rain, snow, fog, camping near water, etc).

    One of the best features is the ability to be in the tent sheltered from nasty weather during the setup. The tent is very stable in high winds several thousand feet above tree-line on exposed ridges/plateaus. There have been just a few times I felt the need to use the guylines and it was rock solid.

    The spacing is awesome for one person, Plenty of room to stretch out even with my gear inside. I have spent a couple days waiting out a huge thunderstorm and was able to sit upright with my Exped Synmat 7 UL w/ chair kit. There is not a dedicated vestible but the front door overhang provides enough cover for me to boil water outside for my meals.

    I have bought, used and sold many one-person tents and for me, this tent is still my first choice to use.

  3. I didn’t get around to seam sealing the tent — live in an apartment, it’s winter — took it up to Mt. Washington, and of course got soaked when it rained … in January! Fortunately it was only a one night trip, but lesson learned. More concerning is that the stitching is already coming apart at one of the vents, after just light use. REI will take it back, or I can just slap a piece of tenacious tape on it, but now I’m torn between the Firstlight and maybe something a little burlier (and already seam sealed) like Rab Latok Mountain 2. A little heavier, but not by that much, but it lacks that netting. My Firstlight came in at 3lb 5oz incidentally, not the 3lb 1.3oz that you got.

    • What vent is that? Mine doesn’t have any….

      • Rear peak/vent/window. The wire that tensions the peak poke through the stitching. This is the latest Wasabi green model. In general I like the tent, as it’s perfect for my use as a winter backpacking crash pad.

  4. Given that you haven’t seam sealed it yet, maybe you can still trade it in with BD under warranty?

  5. Anthony Passero

    I just purchased the new Blue version of The Hilight.

    Let’s see how it goes…..

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