This is a continuation of Monday’s post about the dozen ultralight tents and shelters I’ve owned over the past six years that explains why I bought them and why I eventually sold most of them.
Here’s the entire list. I cover shelters 1-6 in Twelve Ultralight Tents and Shelters: Part 1 and shelters 7-12 below.
- Tarptent Squall 2
- Six Moons Lunar Solo
- Oware 1 person cuben fiber tarp
- Hennssey Hammock
- Jacks ‘R’ Better 8 x 8 silnylon tarp
- Black Diamond FirstLight tent
- Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Duo
- Tarptent Scarp 1
- ZPacks Hexamid
- Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid
- Outdoor Equipment Supplier 10 x 10 Square Silnylon Tarp
- Tarptent Notch
Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Duo Tarp
The MLD Grace Duo Tarp was my first foray into the world of tarping. This tarp was a holiday present from my wife, so I asked her to buy me one made out of Spectralite .60, a precursor to the cuben fiber that Ron Bell uses at Mountain Laurel Designs today. It was a big 8′ x 7′ x 9′ tarp with a gentle catenary cut, more square-shaped than curved, weighing 6.8 ounces. MLD still makes it today, but in a heavier version of cuben fiber with slightly larger dimensions.
When I got the Grace Duo, I was systematically section hiking the Vermont and New Hampshire sections of the Appalachian Trail, so the conditions I used the tarp for were very similar to the ones I’d used my 8×8 silnylon tarp for on the Long Trail. On the AT, I was hiking along a heavily forested and mountainous National Scenic Trail with shelters, although the shelters were nowhere as frequent or nice as those on the Long Trail. I was therefore more interested in camping under my tarp, except when I could get a nice shelter to myself.
But getting used to tarping, especially the fact that I was exposed to the weather and bugs from all sides (including below) was an abrupt transition for me. Tarp tents are much cushier in comparison.
I ‘softened the blow’ by buying a full length MLD bug bivy and then experimented with a number of different bivy sacks to address the issue of rain splatter, when rain hits the ground and bounces back under the tarp, especially at the open ends.
I figured out that campsite selection could make a huge difference in the degree of exposure to wind or rain under a cat-cut or flat tarp and taught myself how to find stealth sites that were large enough and soft enough to sleep on comfortably. There’s no doubt in my mind that switching to a floorless tarp made me much better at finding well-drained and protected camp sites than if I’d stuck with a tarp tent. This is a subtle and complex skill that can only be acquired with a lot of practice.
But after finishing the Vermont and New Hampshire AT, my hiking and backpacking interests broadened considerably. Thru-hiking or section hiking on the Appalachian Trail is a very specialized form of hiking if you think about it. You follow a well-blazed trail that has shelters or well-defined camping areas, and the amount of food you need to carry between towns is relatively small, never exceeding a week. This is why thru-hiking is a great fit with ultralight backpacking because it emphasizes speed, distance, and endurance over more general purpose backpacking skills and navigation. Most people aren’t thru-hikers, though.
I found myself becoming less interested in long trail hiking and much more interested in hiking in mountainous terrain: first in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and then later in Scotland. It took several years, but my entire hiking focus slowly switched away from ultralight backpacking and trail hiking to include winter mountaineering, bushwhacking/off-trail navigation, and longer un-supported trips over greater distances. If you’ve been following SectionHiker for a while, you’ve probably noted that my ultralight backpacking emphasis has diminished over the years and now includes a much broader selection of skills, gear, and trip types.
While I used the Grace Duo for two seasons of trail hiking, it got eclipsed by my preparations for backpacking across Scotland in the 2010 TGO Challenge. I eventually sold it because I’d stopped using it and wanted the money to buy something else, although I can’t remember what now.
Tarptent Scarp 1
I started preparing for Scotland’s TGO Challenge in the late fall and the winter of 2009. Henry Shires of Tarptent.com had just come out with a new bomber double-walled tarptent called the Scarp 1 which was taking the piss out of the Hilleberg Akto, then the most popular tent used by UK and Scottish hill walkers. The Scarp is much easier to set up that the Akto, it’s lighter weight, and has two side vestibules to the Akto’s one. The Scarp 1 proved to be as wind and storm worthy as the Akto, more comfortable, and much less expensive.
Knowing I needed a bomb-proof shelter for Scotland, I bought a Scarp 1 and tried it out in the White Mountains on autumn and winter trips. But I wasn’t that impressed. I found that the Pitchloc corner leg system was a bit fussy to set up (especially on snow) and that the tent suffered from heavy internal condensation despite being double walled (Henry has since made substantial design changes to the outer fly to mitigate this). On balance, it didn’t seem like a very good fit for what I wanted for Scotland or New Hampshire, so I sold it and decided to try pyramid shelters instead.
I bought a ZPacks Hexamid because I thought it might be a good tarp for backpacking in Scotland during my first TGO crossing in 2010. Pyramid shaped tarps are very good at shedding wind and I hoped that the Hexamid would inherit those properties. I was also seduced by its light weight – just under 8 ounces – I am still not immune to this. I got one of the first ones made, ordering mine before Joe Valesko publicly announced the shopping cart page for the product at ZPacks.com.
I quickly figured out that the Hexamid wasn’t going to work for Scotland because it simply wasn’t wind or weather proof enough. There’s absolutely no tree cover in Scotland and the winds there can be insane. Add in sideways rain and you get the picture.
The problem with the Hexamid was that an entire side is open to the weather. That’s fine for well-protected campsites and mostly dry weather but it’s not a structurally sound shelter architecture for high winds. What you really want is a pyramid shape with solid walls (or doors) running 360 degrees around the shelter from the apex down to the ground. When staked out, the seams of a pyramid shelter provide reinforcing tension for their adjacent walls, making the tent more resistant to panel deformation in high winds.
There was also the issue of rain splatter in the Hexamid, which Joe subsequently addressed by providing an optional door that hangs in front of the opening. That still didn’t address the fact that the Hexamid might fly aloft in a gale, but by then I’d sold mine and fell in love with a cuben fiber Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid.
Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid
If I had to pick a favorite ultralight shelter, it’d definitely be my Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid (click for a recent long term review about it). I got one shortly before leaving to backpack across Scotland in 2010 and also used it in during my second coast-to-coast trek across Scotland in the 2013 TGO Challenge, this year. It’s not a perfect shelter for all conditions, but I’ve never doubted its ability to shield me from the elements.
The Duomid is a two-person, floorless, five sided pyramid that pitches with a center trekking pole. It has a zippered front door and a top vent in the apex to vent moisture in bad weather. The zipper runs down the middle of the front door which can be rolled up for better ventilation in good conditions or zipped tight in wind, rain, and snow. I owned one of the earliest cuben fiber Duomids (12.6 ounces with guy lines) that Mountain Laurel Designs made, back when they still sewed the seams together. They’ve since switched to gluing and taping cuben fiber shelters which eliminates the need to seam seal them before use.
Why cuben fiber? It was a present to myself on my 50th birthday. On hindsight, the weight savings provided by cuben fiber Duomids are probably not worth it, but it was my version of a little red sportscar and I enjoyed using it.
Pitching a Duomid well requires a fair amount of practice and good site selection skills are important. The shelter has a fairly large footprint so it works best in open, unprotected areas where there’s plenty of room and a flat surface to pitch on. Whenever possible, you want to maintain an air gap between the ground and the bottom of the walls for better ventilation although this can be problematic is there’s a cold wind blowing all night and you can’t pitch behind a land feature that will shield you from it. When pitching, it’s also very important that you understand where water will drain in the event of rain because you don’t want it to flow under the mid’s walls.
I owned my Duomid for 3 years, which is a pretty long time compared to the other ultralight shelters I’ve purchased over the years. But I sold mine after returning from Scotland this year because I knew I wouldn’t be able to use it very much in New England because of our forests) and because I won’t be doing any major hikes in Scotland for at least another 2 years. I was also significantly less comfortable on this last coast-to-coast hike in the Duomid than in 2010, because we had such colder and wetter weather this year.
Maybe it’s a sign of maturity, but I am a lot more interested in being comfortable in camp than I used to be and although the Duomid is a palatial one person floorless shelter, it’s not as comfortable as a shelter with an inner tent or a bathtub floor. While I don’t mind sleeping in a bivy sack with an integrated screen over my face (an MLD superlight bivy), I did object to having to stare at the Duomid’s ceiling just an inch or two above my face. Smaller pyramid-shaped shelters such as the Duomid suffer from reduced interior space because the walls slope down at fairly flat angle above one’s face and toes. This is much less of an issue in bigger pyramids that have higher angle walls (see The Problem with Pyramid Shelters.)
While I thought about adding an inner tent to the Duomid, it didn’t make sense to do so financially because I could buy an entirely new shelter with better overall livability and an inner tent for the same cost. The weight penalty of adding an inner to a Duomid was also a consideration. I decided to sell the Duomid a month after returning from Scotland in 2013. Sad to see it go, but it really isn’t an optimal shelter for New England hiking.
Outdoor Equipment Supplier 10 x 10 Square Tarp
After returning from Scotland in 2010, I developed a keen interest in flat tarps (see Differences between Flat and Shaped Tarps) and in teaching myself how to pitch them in all kinds of interesting shapes (see Square tarp Pitches) depending on weather conditions and available landscape features. That interested further blossomed in 2011 and went supernova in 2012. But I was finding it challenging to make the shapes I wanted to create with my little JRB 8′ x 8′ silnylon tarp.
I decided to have a larger 10 x 10 square tarp made my the Outdoor Equipment Supplier. That turned out to be a mistake, but it was a silnylon tarp so it didn’t have as much of a financial impact as if I’d had one made in cuben fiber, which is something I’d considered. I decided against doing that because I knew there was a risk that a 10 x 10 would be too big.
The problem with a 10 x 10 flat tarp is that it is really too big for one person. That might sound obvious for people who always pitch with an A-Frame shape, but dimensions work a little differently on a flat tarp, where some of the tarp surface is “wasted” because different pitches don’t use it all. For example, you might find yourself lying on part of the tarp like a ground cloth while the rest is above you and to the sides. Still 10 x 10 was too big. Definitely.
Then there was an issue I hadn’t anticipated in the spec I’d sent to the tarp maker, which was that I needed absolutely symmetric tie-outs. He’d not made them symmetric, which is normal on a rectangular tarp, 5 on two sides and 4 on the other, but it really screwed the pooch for me, someone who thinks about square tarp pitches. It also made some of the pitches impossible to produce without clips, something I’d rather just avoid.
I wrote the entire experience off as an inexpensive lesson learned and sold the tarp to a regular reader named Grandpa, who many of you know. It’s a nice tarp, but it wasn’t what I’d been looking for. Next time I want a square tarp made, I’ll know exactly what to ask for. Exactly.
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s to have custom shelters made in silnylon, at least the first time around, so you don’t lose a wad of money if you mess up on the specification.
I bought a Tarptent Notch after I sold my Duomid. It’s a wind resistant, dual apex shelter pitched using trekking poles with an optional inner tent. I’ve only been in it two nights so far and don’t have any photos to share with you yet, but Roger Brown does, so check out these articles about the Notch if you’re interested. Roger’s input was influential in my decision to try the Notch, although the Tarptent StratoSpire was a close runner up.
I like the Tarptent Notch so far, but it’s not exactly what I was looking for – or thought I was looking for. I wanted a little bit more inner tent space than it has to spread out in the event of bad weather, but it does provide more space above the head and toes than the Duomid did and is much easier to pitch in tight forested camp sites. Still, I need to try it in warmer weather before I pass judgement on it. I have a hunch it will be good in those conditions and I’m patient enough to find out.
What Have We Learned?
I hope writing these two posts about my history of tent and shelter selection choices has been useful for you because it has been useful for me. My takeaways are the following:
- There’s never a perfect shelter. There are always trade-offs between comfort, ease of pitch, weather worthiness, and weight. That said, weight has become a less significant factor for me over time and comfort is now increasingly important, particularly as I undertake longer trips in more challenging conditions.
- I tend to buy tents and shelters to satisfy one set of conditions instead of being widely general purpose. I’m not sure if that’s financially sustainable in the long run or if that’s the result of being a 4 season hiker who really needs different shelters for mutually exclusive conditions.
- It’s probably best to avoid first generation shelters from any manufacturer until they work out the kinks in the design and other people can tell you their strengths and weakness in different conditions.
- I need a winter shelter and a 3 season shelter for forest & mountain conditions. I also occasionally need a highly wind resistant shelter for those times when I hike in very windy open country with bad weather, like Scotland. My Black Diamond FirstLight, a flat tarp and a Tarptent Notch appear to fit that bill pretty well, although there are some nuances I’d still like to optimize. On the other hand, it might not be worth worrying about it so much.
- I should mention that I bought all 12 of these shelters with my own money although I continue to try out and review many other sample tents and shelters from a wide range of manufacturers in order to educate my myself and my readers about all the design factors that make a good shelter and what designs are best for different conditions.
What have you learned about me or about the shelters I’ve chosen over the years?