25

I have a workhorse of a tent, an Alpine Meadows, (described in this answer) that I really like. We bought it 30 years ago, and at first we just had way more stuff than we should, and eventually we had two small children (and their stuff) in the tent with us. There were times when I read stories to five children at a time in that tent. But now, it has more space than we need. And it's 30 years old, and tent technology has really changed. So we're thinking of replacing it with a tent that weighs less and takes up less room in the pack. (We canoe camp primarily, and create extra bedrooms at a cottage every few years.) I understand I will have to give up something I really like about the Alpine Meadows: I can stand up in it, which makes dressing much easier. I accept that modern 2 and 3 person tents are all generally shorter inside, and I'll take that in exchange for the weight and the pack room.

Step 1: go to a 2 or 3 person tent instead of a 4. No problem. Step 2: enjoy the lighter materials even ordinary tents come in (example). No problem. Step 3: what about an ultralight (example)? Wow, one-third the weight of a regular tent! That's amazing. I'm ready to buy one but hang on, why do they still make regular tents? What's the downside here?

I'm comparing floor area, peak height, and so on and don't see significant differences. I have several hypotheses:

  • a tiny difference is huge. You can endure 1.2m peak height but not 1.12.
  • fabric thickness and material affects durability and I need to pay attention to the numbers and whatnot in that area
  • ultralights can't be 4 season (don't care: I never winter camp.)
  • there is some other important difference that isn't included in specs that keeps many people away from ultralights
  • the only difference is the price

I'm really hoping it's that last one. At 30 years per tent, $600 doesn't seem like a big deal. But I worry that it's actually something else and I just don't know about it.

Here is what a tent is for on my trips:

  • keep the rain off us while we sleep and provide a rain free refuge where it's possible to move around a little while reading, or to play cards etc
  • if it is cold (for a summer definition of cold) keep us warm. We have sleeping bags and clothes of course, and the very coldest we've ever camped was a morning we woke up to -1C. That is nowhere near the norm. The norm is 18C nights.
  • keep the bugs off us while we sleep, and provide a bug free refuge once in a while
  • guaranteed shade when I want it (I sunburn incredibly easily)
  • keep our stuff from blowing away when we are away from camp
  • provide a little privacy when traveling with others, whether to change clothes, or just to be alone for a while

I would never consider a tarp-only or tarp-and-hammock setup. A tent to me is a place to put stuff and a place to hang out if the weather is bad, not just a place to sleep or a way to keep rain off me. There will be two adults in this tent. Also, we camp during high bug season - blackflies, mosquitos, horseflies, you name it. We never cook in the vestibule - we set up a kitchen tarp across the campsite. We keep lifejackets, empty packs, shoes, and coats in there. It's also a place to put your shoes on while you're exiting the tent, and to take them off while you're entering.

We're quite capable of carrying our current tent, but I won't deny looking forward to carrying 8 pounds less on every portage.

  • 2
    I guess the major drawback has to be the durability (long-term and also the robustness against tough conditions) while being light, similar to high-end jackets. – Wills Jul 5 '14 at 19:21
  • What kind of usage is it for? Car-camping? Backpacking? – whatsisname Jul 6 '14 at 4:26
  • As it says in the question, Canoe-camping – Kate Gregory Jul 6 '14 at 5:33
  • Looking at your use, I think a good balance of space, weight and price might be this: rei.com/product/845482/rei-half-dome-4-tent – requiem Jul 7 '14 at 18:49
  • 2
    This is one of the best written questions I have ever seen on stackexchange. – sixtyfootersdude Jul 8 '14 at 16:42
19

I wouldn't buy an ultralight tent if you're going to put the tent through severe trauma or require significant space (e.g. to use chairs inside). I do think the main difference in buying is cultural; unless you are poking it with sticks tents shouldn't experience that much damage. The modern ultralights should be good for most any weather outside of snowstorms and severe windstorms.

One trend is to cut tent weight by replacing the inner tent with ever increasing amounts of mesh (compare the BA Seedhouse to the BA Copper Spur linked in your example). The REI (a US equivalent to MEC) Half Dome sold today is almost entirely mesh compared to the one I purchased almost a decade ago. I don't mind this, as it gives you the option to sleep under the stars in good weather, and if you're using the rainfly there's really no need for a waterproof inner wall.

The second, somewhat more recent trend, is to experiment with pole geometry. Instead of a traditional dome design or simple crossed poles, many manufacturers are incorporating Y-joints and shorter segments to increase living space while cutting weight. The BA Copper Spur is a good example of this, as it does both. Be aware that many tents have only a small area with the stated headroom, which is not so good once you have two people. The more vertical the sidewalls are, the better the livability.

The inner tent fabrics are somewhat delicate but not unreasonably so. A separate footprint will extend the life of the tent floor, and I'm not sure what would be damaging the walls of the tent. (Perhaps children falling through a partially-zipped door, but usually the tent just flexes.)

The main difference between many 3 and 4 season tents I've seen is the use of a traditional dome structure with the poles (better wind and snow resistance) as well as the ability to fully cover the mesh panels of the inner tent. (I've used the 3-season REI Half Dome mentioned earlier in winter snow during a severe windstorm; ridge gusts were over 90mph, fortunately we were down in a valley. A small problem was spindrift forced through the small air vents in the rainfly and past the mesh panels of the inner. The other issue was the two-crossed-poles design being vulnerable to snow piling up on the long sides.) The MEC Nunatak appears aimed at mountaineering and has additional features to beef it up; it is probably overkill outside of that environment.

Ultralight hikers consider even the lightweight tents from large manufacturers too heavy, although some offerings from makers like Big Agnes are now considered reasonably decent for someone getting into lightweight hiking. A multi-person shelter also helps bring down the weight-per-person. Smaller "cottage" gear makers build shelters out of materials like silnylon (most common) or cuben fiber (expensive). These can be smaller and more delicate and range from simple tarps to fully-enclosed shelters. (Keep in mind that single-wall tents have condensation issues that double-wall tents help shield you from.) Two example makers are Tarptent and Six Moon Designs. I find the Tarptent Stratospire 2 good for two people; the offset trekking pole design adds space for two people to easily sit facing each other. (Some designs, most commonly the floorless pyramids, are quite usable in winter.)

Finally, $600 is approaching Hilleberg territory. Those tents are bomber; the fabric is an incredibly strong silicone-coated nylon. I have a Jannu for winter mountaineering, but would suggest taking a look at the Kaitum 2 (or 3). At 3.1 kg it isn't that light, but it's a good trade for something more than capable of handling exposed tundra and arctic winds. Also, the tunnel tent design makes for good roominess inside; do a Google image search for examples. They turn up used on gear forums every so often; I recommend keeping an eye out. Otherwise, something like the BA Copper Spur you found should work quite well.

Edit: I glossed over the materials a bit, and it's one area where technology has improved.

Modern tent poles like DAC's lightweight aluminum offerings are made via seamless extrusion rather than sheet welding. This allows for poles that are strong, thing, and lightweight, but do cost more due to the manufacturing process. (Newer alloys also help.)

Excluding canvas, tents will come in nylon or polyester of varying weights. For car-camping family tents where weight is not an issue, a heavier-weight fabric may be used. Nylon is somewhat lighter and tougher, and comes in various weights. 70D nylon, common for floors, weighs about 1.9oz per square yard while a much lighter 30D weighs in at 1.1oz per square yard. This is an area where there's a direct tradeoff between weight and durability. The other advance is the use of silicone to make the fabric waterproof, which results in a stronger and lighter material than traditional polyurethane coatings. (E.g. a 30D silnylon may have twice the tear resistance of a 70D nylon coated with polyurethane.)

  • 1
    The modern ultralights should be good for most any weather outside of snowstorms and severe windstorms. My experience with Big Agnes makes me disagree; I quickly returned to my Hilleberg after a single weekend with bad weather. As a commentary, I also don't think Hilleberg is expensive. My 500$ Akto costs less than a transatlantic flight but lasts a whole lot longer. – gerrit Oct 27 '15 at 18:07
  • 1
    Not only does it last longer — it's also a lot more comfortable. – gerrit Oct 27 '15 at 18:30
  • @gerrit Ah, just read your story. Letting water through is a bit of a problem. I will stick with the "expensive" bit though; much of the US population is not particularly well-off. – requiem Oct 28 '15 at 0:30
  • ++ for Hilleberg tents. In my opinion there is really no need to look at any other tents if you can afford one. Big fan of the NALLO 3 GT. – fgysin Nov 4 '15 at 14:36
10

I have bought the Copper Spur 3 and slept in it now on a cottage lawn and on a backcountry campsite. The advantages (lightweight, easy to set up) are real. There are some disadvantages that I have not seen mentioned in the other answers, so I've decided to add an answer providing them. None of these are enough to make me regret buying the tent or tell someone else not to buy it, but I feel they're worth mentioning.

  • the tent floor is extremely slippery. (As are new mats, bags etc, see my answer to Are self-inflatable sleeping pads more slippery than other mats?) I think this is a natural side effect of the thin and flexible material. I really noticed this camped on a slight slope - I had to crawl back up hill several times in the night.
  • the zippers are very thin and buckle easily. If whatever you're trying to unzip isn't tight, you'll need another hand to hold it tight while you unzip. Think about the difference between unzipping a big suitcase zipper and a delicate dress zipper. This was more of an issue on the vestibule than the doors, but on a different ultralight it might vary.
  • it's cooler in the same weather than my old Alpine Meadows. We slept one cottage night in the old tent before letting someone else have it the next night, and I felt the breeze around my ears the second night for sure
  • everything is smaller and lighter and thinner. Everything. I took far too long trying to hook a mini carabiner (with a lantern on it) through the gear loop at the peak, but it was just so damn small!
  • we had a very rainy trip in, and were looking at setting up under the tarp if it didn't stop, but eventually it did. The other couple, using our AM, could have set it up out in the rain if need be. The mesh roof on the ultralight makes that a very wet strategy.

I was able to change clothes in it although I couldn't stand up, but I'm not sure I could have done so had anyone else been in there. Luckily we tend to get up and go have coffee in what we slept in, then pop into the tent to change for the day, so this isn't an issue for us.

I was also pleasantly surprised at the effect of the two-doors-two-vestibules setup. Most of our stuff was in the vestibules - stuff sack of clothes as pillows were inside, along with water bottles, flashlights, and cameras - but sitting up, unzipping the door, and poking around in a pack in the vestibule was astonishingly easy. In the AM, the vestibule was for stuff you didn't need in the tent at all ever, and I accessed it from the rest of the site if I needed something. The experience in the CS blurred the lines between inside and outside more, and overall I think I like that.

  • Re: setting up in the rain, I'm pretty sure the Copper Spur series has a "fast fly" set-up option, meaning it's possible to pitch the fly first and then attach the inner mesh underneath, keeping the inside somewhat drier. – ppl Sep 17 '14 at 19:42
9

I see an ultralight tent as an expensive piece of backpacking equipment, with the alternative being a tarp. Compared to the tarp, the tent is slightly heaver, much more expensive, easier to set up, and keeps out bugs.

I'm ready to buy one but hang on, why do they still make regular tents? What's the downside here?

I would assume that the vast majority of the market for tents consists of people who car-camp. They want something large, comfortable, and cheap, and they don't care about weight or bulk. Then there would be a much smaller fraction of the market that is cheap, relatively heavy backpacking tents, and an even tinier fraction of the market that is expensive ultralight tents.

For the style of canoe camping you do, is the main function of the tent to keep out bugs? Do you want a big vestibule to cook in? Do you sometimes spend long periods of time confined to the tent, e.g., if it rains all day?

[EDIT] Based on the further information in the revised question, I'm surprised that an ultralight is an option for you, since I would think you'd want a lot of room. But if it's roomy enough, and you think it's likely to be durable enough for your conditions, then it probably comes down to a trade-off of expense versus weight while portaging.

  • 1
    I've updated the question to elaborate on what purposes a tent serves for me. Thanks! – Kate Gregory Jul 7 '14 at 13:38
7

I have three tents, including an ultralight Big Agnes Fly Creek 2. The others are dome tents, including a Eureka Tetragon 2 and a Big Agnes four man tent.

The Fly Creek is extremely light, but I only ever use it backpacking when I'll be the only one in it. It is too small to hang out in comfortably during extended bad weather, and there is only enough head room to sit up in near the door. The tent is widest and tallest in the front, then gets narrow and short at the rear. If you've got two people, the only way you'd both be hanging out is by lying down, and if you don't use mummy sleeping bags, you'd be on top of each other. Unless you don't mind VERY tight quarters, it's a one woman tent, with just enough room for a backpack besides. From what I've seen, this is typical of ultralight tents. Even changing clothes could be challenging if you aren't flexible.

Compared to my Eurkea domed tent, the Fly Creek is smaller in every way. The listed dimensions are slightly small, but the differences in how the tents are designed mean that the dome's space is almost all usable for things like sitting and playing cards, as well as sleeping, while the Fly Creek is designed to provide a place to lie down and sleep, and maybe keep a small backpack. The dome is also better at providing a little privacy, because it has windows you can zip up, even if the rain fly is off. The ultralight has large areas of mesh, and if you want it covered, you need to have the windowless rain fly up.

If you can get to a store that sells tents, they'll usually be willing to set up a sample for you, and you can see if the light weight is worth the tradeoffs. Try it out with whatever gear you'll need to fit.

  • we're considering 3s for just this reason. 4 is bigger than we need, but I'm not prepared to go down to 2s. The Copper Spur video shows two people sitting crosslegged playing cards. It doesn't look roomy, but it might be feasible. – Kate Gregory Jul 8 '14 at 15:03
7

If you want a tent that has value for money, don't buy lightweight.

If you want a tent that is going to stay waterproof for years and years, don't buy lightweight.

If you want a tent that isn't going to break the bank, don't buy lightweight.

If you really need the performance and the weight saving, i.e. you will be spending a lot of time carrying it around, and this is your primary purpose, then go for it.

I have two tents, an everyday cheapie that does for car camping on low level camp grounds, and a North Face VE25 Expedition, 3 man ultralight mountain tent. This is reserved for carrying up mountains only. Whilst the tent is undoubtedly still very strong and stable in high winds, 2 yrs on, the water proofing of both the fly and groundsheet is now pretty poor.

Ultralight fabrics don't have the longevity that heavier, cheaper ones do, for this reason always buy new if you're going down the lightweight route. There's no point buying something that is already likely to be pretty tired.

5

An ultralight tent makes me feel unsafe.

I have tried the ultralight Big Agnes Slater UL1+, and I was not happy with it. The fabric seems really fragile. In a small space, condensation is worse than in a slightly larger space. The weekend I tried it out the weather was quite bad (rain in the Adirondack Mountains) and the tent failed to keep me dry.

The following September I took my Hilleberg Akto for two weeks on the Great Divide Trail south of Jasper, AB, Canada. Just when the land started to be wild (leaving Jasper NP), descending from Cataract Pass through the White Goat Wilderness, it started snowing heavily. It took me three days to find the way out through Sunset Pass in increasingly cold and windy weather. I was extremely happy with my Hilleberg Akto (and with my sleeping bag that is comfortable down to -15°C, survivable down to -35°C; windchills were well below -10°C).

Maybe I would have been OK with lighter gear, but I just prefer the peace of mind that if trouble strikes, I have good material. That means a tent with fabric solid enough to keep the weather out, a sleeping bag with enough insulation to keep the cold out, gear I can trust in general. Ultralight comes at a price; maybe you get regular quality for lower mass and higher price, but I prefer to spend my money on higher quality for equal mass and higher price. I feel more at peace that way.

2

IMHO. You shouldn't buy new. Throughout my attempts to find that "one great tent" I've waisted so much money buying all the "best reviewed" ones, and ones I thought would serve my needs. To be honest, the best tent I ever slept in was an old cotton canvas covered with bee's wax to repel water. But that was so heavy you needed a stagecoach to haul it. The thing you need to remember, in today's world, is that marketing is everything, where as the actual products are nothing. These tents today, are paper-thin and provide little to no heat insulations. They tend not to breath, which is why the there is mesh in the roofs, plug those wholes and it's like sleeping in a sealed garbage-bag, you wake up sweating and since the moister has no place to go, the entire inside of the tent is wet. And the taller you go the more it tends to sway in the breeze and feel unsafe to be inside. I understand the weight issue, I really do since I am an avid hiker, but when it comes to something that you know works and something you are unfamiliar with and might cost a pretty penny, you might find out that you just wasted $500+ on a house made of straw (which in my opinion would be stronger than the nylon weaves they use for tents nowadays). I can be really hard on my gear and thus, using nylon tents I've ripped holes in the sidewalls (with minimal effort, something as simple as hanging a lantern on a loop, that clearly states in the instructions that is it's purpose), the zippers buckled or broke off or just didn't zip correctly, along with any down-pour and you have a nice rain catch from the roof bowing in on itself. To me, if I have to baby something that I buy so much to keep it in good working condition, it's just not worth it. However, if you must buy a tent, I recommend a dome type (I shouldn't have to explain the construct of an arch design).

Happy Trails

  • provide little to no heat insulations. you have a sleeping bag for that. I don't know what you do with your tents, but I sleep in a tent made of very light silicon-coated nylon (1.3oz/sqyd) and the fabric is waterproof and strong. It is thin. But I can carry it and hike with it. – njzk2 Aug 28 '15 at 2:42

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