Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Hiking gear reflections - Tents

 So, it's been five years since I hiked the PCT, and I've been trying to go through and clean up my blog entries from back then and reposting them to Facebook.

A couple friends have asked about gear, partially from the long distance aspect, but also just for shorter adventures.

So, here are some thoughts, I'm starting with tents.

Sorry if this is a bit rambling, I do tend to go off on tangents. Okay, I rethought. More general ideas up front, personal and PCT related ramblings later.

To start, a hiking tent is fulfilling different needs than a car camping tent. Obvious, but people sometimes forget that.

Car camping, pick almost anything. If it rains and the tent leaks, run to the car. If it is windy and the tent falls down, run to the car. If it...run to the car.

If you're backpacking and more than a day's hike away from your car, you get uncomfortable.

On the other hand, if you try to carry a bomb proof tent while hiking, that's going to make you uncomfortable because the thing is quite likely going to be heavy.

Look for a tent that's less than five pounds for two people, probably three if you're going solo.

Modern tents in that range are easy to find, a quick search of REI finds 12 two person tents in the 3-5 pound range. There are even lighter tents, but the prices go up exponentially as the weight goes down.

Keep in mind that these tents, while plenty strong to stand up to wind and rain when properly set up, are delicate things. sticks will poke right through, and please don't walk on the floor in your shoes. (also try to remove pokey things from the area where you are setting up the tent on.

As far as features, I'd recommend side door(s). A door at the end of the tent might make for a lighter overall tent, but a door on the side, or two doors for a two person tent, is much more usable.

Other things like sewn in pockets and such might be handy, but I view them as mostly unneeded. On a backpacking trip your tent is there to keep rain and bugs off you while you sleep.

For the money, something like this REI tent would be great:


I also like the Big Agnes tents, and they were probably the most numerous of the big manufacturer tens on the PCT.

In the five years since I hiked the trail, the selection of ultra-light tents from these bigger companies has greatly increased.

If you want to spend the money, you can get a sub 2 pound tent with room for two people.

But, there are small makers who can do better, but with trade offs, keep reading below for my adventures through three of them.

Keep in mind that the tent weight listed by the manufacturer is a best case weight. That is, the tent with the absolute minimum of tent stakes and nothing else.

Real weights include extra, better stakes. Plus maybe longer guy lines (I used much longer lines so I could wrap them around rocks and such when pitching in sand).

And, of course, a ground sheet.

Some people don't use ground sheets, but I always have. They keep the bottom of the tent from getting dirty, which is really nice when you're packing the tent up in the morning. They also provide a little extra abrasion resistance and maybe keep some sticks or whatever from poking through to the floor of the tent.

On this trip I experimented a bit with ground sheet material.

I started with some super thin but strong plastic, but I never felt great about it, and it was so light it was a bit tough to work with or keep in place when pitching the tent.

Then I went to a piece of Tyvek, which worked great, but was a bit heavy.

I eventually ended up using a piece of silnylon, a very lightweight nylon that is pretty much waterproof.

Silnylon has the disadvantage of being a dust magnet, but a quick shake and snap in the wind and the dust mostly flies off. It also stuffed into a stuff sack very easily.

The other source of extra weight are tent stakes. Most tents come with some junky aluminum stakes that are very light, but will also bend hopelessly if you look at them wrong.

In the past I've used aluminum stakes that have sort of a Y profile to them. They work okay. On the PCT I used some titanium wire stakes. They don't look like much, but they penetrate hard ground well and don't bend easily.

In sand, almost all stakes are hopeless. Put your stake in and push it all the way into the sand. Then find the biggest rock you can and put it on top of the stake.

Or, do like I did and tie a couple extra feet of line to the tent guy lines and wrap that around the biggest rock you can move into place.

I like to use reflective cord, like this: https://www.rei.com/product/829843/msr-ultralight-utility-cord

It's easily visible in your flashlight at night, and also lightweight and plenty strong for tent lines.

Looking at the major manufacturer tents, they all now seem to have at least one vent at the top, which is vital for ventilation.

Ventilation? It's a flimsy bit of nylon, why does it need ventilation? Yep, ventilation. It's what keeps the inside of the tent dry(ish).

When you are in the tent, you are breathing, and when you breath out, you exhale a fair amount of water vapor. Your body also warms the air inside the tent, so the walls of the tent are almost always going to be colder than the air inside, and that leads to the water vapor in your exhaled breath to condense when it hits the tent wall. Thus those little drops of water inside the tent.

To minimize that condensation, you need some air flow. Putting a vent at the top of the tent lets some of the warm air out, and hopefully some air enters at the bottom edges of the outer layer of the tent. That movement of air will carry some of the moist air away before its water vapor is deposited on the tent fly. And if there is enough air flow, everything can stay nice and dry.

So, when you pitch your tent, if possible it's good to put the vent facing away from the wind, and leave the bottom of the fly up off the ground  in the windward direction so the air can flow in low and then out high. This isn't always possible. But in general it's best to leave as big a gap at the bottom of the rain fly of your tent as possible. If it's pouring down that might not be possible if rain drops are splashing water in, but in a steady rain you're just going to have to deal with condensation no matter what kind of ten you are in. A bandana or some other small towel comes in handy in those cases.

Most of the tents that you might find at an REI are what's called double wall tents. That is, they have a tent body made up of a nylon floor and nylon and netting walls and ceiling. Then outside of that goes a nylon rain fly. The nylon on the walls and ceiling of the tent body are not coated, and thus water vapor from exhaled air in theory should be able to pass through the inner layer and condense on the outer layer, or rain fly.

In practice things are a bit more complicated, and really how much condensation there is on the inside of the tent depends on how humid the air is and if there's a breeze through the night and if the tent is positioned to take advantage of that breeze.

Conversely, most of the cottage industry that is centered around ultra like weight gear has settled on single wall tents, where there is no inner/out tent, just the tent, with obviously, one layer or wall.

More potential for condensation near the occupant, but also a whole lot less fabric needed, or for the same weight, much stronger fabric useable (Some mountaineering tents are single layer using waterproof/breathable fabrics, but those are for special people).

I used three different tents on the trail, all from small cottage industry companies, basically because I like to tinker.

I started out with a two person tent this: https://www.tarptent.com/product/motrail/

The Tarptent Motrail is a pretty light tent with a generous amount of room for two people, and tons of room for one.

It weighs a little over two pounds, plus whatever you use as a groundsheet.

You have to use your hiking poles as the tent poles, so if you don't use hiking poles, you're out of luck, or you add weight by carrying some dedicated tent poles.

I got this tent well before the hike, so I had time to seam seal it. Most tents that you'd buy from, say, REI, come seam sealed from the factory, but most tents from small cottage industry outfits require that you do your own seam sealing.

Seam sealing in this case requires that you use a thinned silicone to coat all of the exposed threads along the sewn seams of the tent, inside and out. This takes a little time, and a fair amount of space.

The Motrail is made out of a material called SilNylon. It's basically ripstop nylon, you know, that thin nylon with a square pattern in it, that's been impregnated with silicon. Most waterproof nylon for tents and such is coated on one side, usually with a thin membrane of polyurethane. Without that layer, the nylon isn't particularly waterproof. This sandwich also requires that the outside nylon side have a coating so the nylon doesn't absorb water, this is sometimes called a Durable Water Repellant coating, or DWR. When the fabric gets dusty or dirty, this doesn't work so well, and water will then stop beading up and running off, and instead be absorbed into the fabric, getting the nylon wet even if it doesn't pass through the inner waterproof coating.

With Silnylon, the nylon is coated from both sides. The resulting material is very slippery, and sheds water very well.

Silnylon does tend to relax a bit when wet, or even if the humidity goes up, but that's a trait of the nylon, so all tents that use nylon tend to sag a bit when it rains. A quick adjustment of the tension lines will pull everything tight again.

There are other fabrics that don't sag when wet, but the trade off is that either they are expensive, or that they lack the elasticity or durability or nylon. 

At the time, I thought I'd have someone else sharing the tent for the first week or so of the hike, so it made sense to carry a two person tent. Unfortunately that didn't happen, so at Mount Laguna I went into the outfitter, just to browse...

An aside, one of my hiking partners, Share Bear, used a different Tarptent model, the Rainbow. She was very happy with that tent, and I suspect that I would have been too.


But I was looking for something lighter.

And thus I talked myself into trying the next tent.

Well, they don't make it anymore, but it was basically this: https://www.sixmoondesigns.com/collections/ultralight-tents/products/skyscape-trekker

But made out of a material called Cuben fiber.

Cuben is, well, google it. It's basically a waterproof, super lightweight, super strong fabric.

Unfortunately it also costs a lot and isn't easy to work with when sewing fancy shapes like a tent needs.

At any rate, the new tent weighed a pound. Yep, just a pound.

But, it was also smaller, so at night my pack had to sit outside. I had a silnylon pack cover, so not s huge deal, but still, it's nice to have the pack under cover and not just laying in the dirt next to the tent.

Interestingly, the new tent, although smaller and lighter, didn't pack down as tightly. Not a huge problem for me, as I had a generously sized backpack.

The Skyscape actually worked pretty well, at least as long as it wasn't raining. 

One of the problems is that it just didn't have enough venting up high to adequately disperse the moist air that I breathed out as I slept, leading to quite a bit of condensation on the inside of the roof of the tent.

At some point people who were interested in making their gear lighter started looking at what they were using for shelter, and decided that they could ditch heavy double wall tents for something lighter.

For example, here's a tent that my family owned a couple of, and used for canoe camping: https://eurekacamping.johnsonoutdoors.com/tents/backpacking/timberline%C2%AE-2-person-tent

The Eureka Timberline. A typical tent before dome type tents took over the market. Nice tents, and worked well for us, especially since when canoeing, the longest portages where we had to carry packs (and the canoes) were on the order of a couple kilometers.

The minimum listed weight was something close to six pounds. Add some more for stakes and a couple more if you had the optional vestibule (nice to have to keep your boots dry) and you're looking at quite a bit of weight.

So, long distance hikers wanted lighter shelters.

The ultimate would be to just toss the tent out and sleep under the stars. At least until it rained.

Some people go with just a tarp. Not a blue plastic tarp, but one made out of the same stuff as a tent would be. Nylon of some type, or on the ultimate end, Cuben fiber. Weight? Maybe half a pound. Excellent, we're done!

Well, not everyone likes to live with all the critters, so sometime people add in a net shelter under the tarp, and we're on our way back to a tent.

On the trail there were the whole spectrum of shelter choices, but in general people tended toward shelters that weighed around three pounds or less per person.

My hiking partner, Mighty Mouse used a tent from Big Agnes, I think it was some variant of the Copper Spur.


A very nice tent, coming in right around the three pound mark.

If I were a smarter man, I probably should have gone with something like that, and would have been perfectly happy.

But I didn't.

And so, with my very light, but very small inside, tent, I encountered snow up on the ridge on the north side of Big Bear Lake.

And this tent was never meant to shed snow, so I had a restless night, having to kick snow off the foot of the tent all night, since the weight of the snow was pushing the tent fabric down onto my sleeping bag.

After that I began to look into different tents.

As I said, I probably would have been happy with a tent like the one Mighty Mouse had, but I wasn't sure that I'd fit unless I got a bigger one, and then the weight would go up.

That's another thing. If you're small, you can get comfortable in a small tent. Sounds obvious, but it's a consideration. Especially if you're looking at things like dressing or undressing in the tent, while sitting on an inflated air mattress.  Mighty Mouse had plenty of room in her tent, but I don't think that I would.

My next, and final, tent ended up being a variation on the tarp plus bug net idea.

A Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid: https://mountainlaureldesigns.com/product/duomid/

Basically a pyramid shaped tarp, with a single pole in the middle. I used one of my hiking poles with a carbon fiber extension to make it long enough.

Then inside that, I hung a mosquito net inner tent that had a silnylon floor. That gave me half of the tent as an enclosed area with a floor to put my sleeping back in, and the other half to keep my pack and other gear in at night.

Yes, weight increased, but much more room, and funny enough, this packs smaller than the lighter tent, due to the silnylon packing down better than the cuben.

This is the tent setup that I used for the bulk of the PCT.

I guess there are a few downsides. 

It requires (as did all my tents on this trip) staking out, as it is definitely not a free standing tent. Then again, all tents really need staking out, unless you like to chase after them when the wind blows.

Opening the door flaps, you only have a view in one direction. Closed, there are no views. I don't see a problem here. A nice view in the morning is great, but how long are you going to stay there? If the sun is up, the tent is probably going to heat up quickly and you'll get up and out anyway.

The pyramid shape, while fine for one person, could be a trial for two, at least at this tent size. You can't sit too far from the center of the tent because that's where the head room is, especially in the netted sleeping area.

And of course, the design of a pyramid means that its footprint is quite large compared to other tents, particularly done tents where the walls are much more vertical. this meant sometimes it was tricky finding a good space to fit the tent into. However, the nature of the tent, in particular, it not having a sewn in floor, meant that I could pitch it over part of a bush or a stump without problem, as long as the sleeping area was clear. 

There are bigger pyramid tents, and in fact as met a family of four who were using a pyramid tent that the father had made. Much bigger than my tent, and it worked for them.

The upsides for me were numerous enough that I kept with this tent through the rest of the trail.

It was super stable in high winds. I camped in a bit of a wind tunnel one night. The trail wove its way through a wind farm that day, and there just wasn't much choice of where to camp. I was able to pitch my tent (stake down the four corners, crawl under then erect the pole from inside) in the wind without drama. During the night a couple other hikers had their tents pull up stakes and collapse or threaten to do so to the point where they had to get up and fix things in the night. One couple packed up and hiked out in the middle of the night because their tent collapsed on them.

Taking down the tent was easy. Since the inner net part of the tent never touched the ground (it was on top of the ground sheet) it just got unclipped from the tent canopy and stuffed into a stuff sack.

Then ground sheet would get taken out of the tent (just had to lift up a bit on the center pole to pull the ground sheet out from under it) and shaken off then stuffed into its own stuff sack.

Finally, take out the pole, then drop the tent canopy and pull up the stakes. Stuff the canopy into a stuff sack.

If that sounds like a lot of stuff sacks, well, okay, but they were silnylon stuff sacks and weighed pretty much nothing.

Rain was no problem. Steep sides shed rain easily. Plus, being able to get into the tent, then zip up the door while still wearing dirty, wet shoes and rain jacket without getting my sleeping bag wet was a bonus. On the couple occasions where it was raining in the evening I was able to sit inside the tent, with the door open and use my stove to boil water for my dinner with the stove safely outside the tent.

Snow. Hah, the thing that prompted me to change tents. Well, I didn't get snowed on again until toward the end of the trail, up in Washington. But snow isn't a problem for the pyramid shape.

Ultimately, if you are going to do a little backpacking, overnights or a couple nights, I'd get one of the freestanding semi-done tents from REI or Big Agnes or Nemo or Marmot or whoever you like and be done with it.

If you're thinking that you want to go ultralight and don't mind paying the price, go for a Cuben fiber (also called Dyneema) tent from a boutique manufacturer.  I probably would have been very happy with a Duplex from Zpacks, but they were all sold out when I was looking for gear. The small cottage manufacturers tend to run low on inventory in the January-March time frame when people are gearing up to hike the long trails.

Here's the Duplex: https://zpacks.com/products/duplex-tent

I might also look at the Cuben version of the pyramid tent that I have.

But, most people consider the Cuben tents to be good for one long trail. The material seems to wear out and be prone to tearing or pinholes after around 300 nights on the trail. Maybe more for some people, but for most of the target users, that seems to be fine.

I still have my silnylon pyramid tent (well, I have all three tents still) and I'd use it again if I did another trail. I know it works and I have no real complaints. It kept me dry, didn't ever threaten to fall down, is easy to set up and take down and is acceptably light.

Just as a note among many notes - I mentioned, way up above, tents that were single wall but that used waterproof/breathable materials. Think materials like Gore-tex, but perhaps a little lighter, as most Gore-tex tends to be combined with heavier materials. These tents aren't really designed for normal uses, they are from the mountaineering side of things, and if that's your cup of tea, then sure, go for the Black Diamond Firstlight, you masochistic crazy person. Just make sure to dig yourself out a breathing hole when the snow covers your tent.