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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 / Model||People||Doors||Min Weight||Price|
|Black Diamond HiLight||2||1||3 lbs 10 oz||$400|
|Black Diamond El Dorado||2||1||4 lbs 8 oz||$730|
|NEMO Kunai 2||2||1||3 lbs 14 oz||$500|
|Marmot Hammer||2||1||4 lbs 6 oz||$599|
|NEMO Tenshi 2||2||1||3 lbs 14 oz||$700|
|MSR Access 2||2||2||3 lbs 10 oz||$600|
|Mountain Hardwear Outpost 2||2||2||5 lbs 3.5 oz||$600|
|Big Sky Chinook 2||2||2||4 lbs||$600|
|SlingFin CrossBow 2||2||2||4 lbs 6.2 oz||$580|
|Black Diamond Beta Lite||2||1||1 lb 3 oz||$220|
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.Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the affiliate links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and some sellers may contribute a small portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.
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