All the Tent You Need

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Review, April 1997

All the Tent You Need

For most people, most of the time, a super-light shelter for two is just enough
By Doug Gantenbein

Tent Pampering

Backcountry truism: Your tent is only as good as the care you give it. So...

Pitch it properly. Always spread a ground cover, such as a polyethylene sheet, under your tent. Granted, the tent's floor has a waterproof coating, but that's precisely why you want to protect it--sand or rocks will easily rub it off. And if you're making camp for several days, try to pitch the tent in shade, since prolonged sun exposure can harm nylon; or simply leave the fly on during the day, sacrificing it to old Sol before the pricier canopy.

Keep it clean. You're communing with nature, not wallowing in it. Try to keep the tent out of the dirt while setting it up, and the dirt out of the tent once it's up. Grit can bind the tent's zippers, so never lay the folded tent zipper-side down. And wrap those nasty boots in plastic if you must bring them in.

Store it dry. Once you're home, set up the tent one more time, inside. Sponge the tent clean with warm, soapy water, and let it dry. Then pack it in a breathable cotton bag--a pillowcase works well--to prevent mildew. Finally, add a touch of silicone lubricant to the pole joints. But don't lube the zippers--that will only attract dirt.


I blame Julia Child. "Buy a big, heavy pot," she would squeak out in that blackboard-scrape of a voice, "so it will be suitable whether you cook for one or ten." Thanks to this advice, I purchased a mother of a tent--ten pounds and roomy enough for a Twister party--which for years I lugged throughout the Washington Cascades on balmy summer days, when the absolute worst my partner and I might have faced was a drizzle.

This was, to be sure, before the epiphany: Tents are not anything like cookware. What I actually needed was a light, compact shelter that could house two for an easy night's rest, not some monster structure ready for a snowbound week. So I dropped the weight.

Given the fine array of super-light, two-person tents available, there's no reason for you to shoulder unnecessary burdens either. A scant five pounds or so of such tent can generally shelter you from spring through fall--assuming you're not looking to bag Denali--which is dandy for 90 percent of the backpacking that most people do. If you go the tiny tent route, there will be decisions to make: Do you want a door at the end, which makes it easy to exit without disturbing your partner, or a side door, which offers better ventilation? How important are interior pockets for eyeglasses and such? But otherwise things are pretty simple. About the only major distinction here is configuration, since the lighter hoop designs, which use just two tent poles and thus need to be staked out, aren't quite three-season tents. Three-pole designs are heavier, but they're freestanding and are sufficiently sturdy to hold fast should your outing be interrupted by a freakish summer blizzard.

Bibler Pi˜on
For a not-insignificant $575 Bibler offers a single-walled tent, which means instead of using a fly to ward off wind and rain, as most two-season tents do, it employs a waterproof-breathable laminate.

Bibler Pi˜on
And while logic suggests that fewer walls means fewer pounds, the Pi˜on is actually relatively heavy (five pounds, eight ounces), thanks to its tough, three-ply shell. Still, it's the roomiest tent we reviewed in terms of headroom and has a 32-square-foot rectangular floor that can accommodate two full-length sleeping pads without overlapping. Comfy. The Pi˜on offers easy access and good ventilation via two all-mesh side doors, and for good measure it has a vent on the roof. There are ample vestibules on both sides and storage space galore with 12 pockets inside--you won't be rolling over onto loose bottles of bug dope. To enjoy its amenities, however, you first have to erect it, a complicated task that requires crawling inside the pile of fabric with poles in tow and searching for their tiny grommet holes. Just don't try to set it up in the dark your first time out.
Marmot Nutshell
Marmot Nutshell
The Nutshell (five pounds, six ounces; $299) is a smaller version of one of Marmot's three-season tents. It's a freestanding design with a clever three-pole configuration that trims weight and imparts sturdiness without sacrificing much headroom. One pole runs diagonally from corner to corner while two other poles run side-to-side. It doesn't have what you'd call a surplus of space (30 square feet), but Marmot utilizes the available room quite well. Mesh forms the entire top portion of the canopy, assuring good ventilation, and whereas most flies are made of nylon taffeta, which is prone to damage from ultraviolet rays, the Nutshell's is sun-resistant polyester. Other nice touches: a door that opens to the side so it stays clean, and a unique stuffsack that works the way a tortilla--trust me here--wraps the innards of a burrito. Weight-conscious campers can even leave the canopy at home and pitch just the fly for summer shelter. On balance of weight, price, quality, and novelty, the Nutshell is my favorite among the tents we reviewed.
Mountain Hardwear Skylight
Mountain Hardwear Skylight
If luxury exists in a lightweight tent, you'll find it in the Skylight ($265). The freestanding design uses three poles to buttress a roomy dome, making it not at all a bad place to wait out a storm, although two sleeping pads overlap. There's a huge side door for quick access, and a nine-square-foot vestibule. The Skylight features Mountain Hardwear's trademark see-through fly panel, which is similar to the rear window of a convertible; you don't feel sealed off from the wilderness around you. On the other hand, if you'd rather be shut away, there's a privacy panel to cover the window. Construction is first-rate, with thoughtful features like a stiffened flap covering the fly zipper, which helps keep the fabric from catching in the teeth. Such touches add up to more weight: six pounds even. But it's a terrific design, and if you don't mind toting the extra comforts, you'll be happy with the Skylight once you've set up camp.

The North Face Lightspeed Long
The North Face makes the most--or least--of the spare two-pole hoop design in the Lightspeed Long ($195), one of the lightest two-person tents available.

The North Face Lightspeed Long
Its official weight is four pounds, ten ounces, but leave the stakes at home and jury-rig the lines and it's an amazing three pounds, 15 ounces. Despite such gossamer heft, there's incredible room inside: 97 inches long, enough to host the NBA player of your choice or simply stash your pack at your feet. It's also 43 inches tall at its peak--generous headroom for this style. Floor-to-ceiling mesh walls let in plenty of fresh air while scotching pests, and a circular mesh door speeds ventilation. The Lightspeed Long goes up easily and secures quickly, although adjustable loops on the tent lines would have been nice. One more thing: If you do happen to get caught in the rain, be very wary of the door on the nylon taffeta fly--it opens right above the canopy's door, making it all too easy to soak the inside of the tent if you don't open it with care.
Walrus Arch-Rival
Walrus Arch-Rival
Attention bargain shoppers: For a paltry $185, the Arch Rival offers much of what its more costly cousins do. It's a hoop design (very similar to that of The North Face's tent) with a generous 32-square-foot floor plan that's spacious for even tall campers, yet it weighs a mere four pounds, six ounces. An all-mesh canopy and a good bit of the gauzy stuff in the door let in plenty of cool air; should it rain, unfurl the super-tough fly, which is made of a polyester-nylon blend that strikes a balance between UV resistance and abrasion resistance. Setup is par for this design; stake out the ends, thread two poles through fabric sleeves, and then clip on and stake out two points of the fly. Pretty simple. Despite the low price, Walrus doesn't cut corners on construction, such as taped and sealed floor seams, or extras, such as abundant interior mesh pockets. So even at this bargain price, you won't feel as if you've skimped with the Arch-Rival. Plus, you can apply the savings toward a good backcountry cookbook--by someone other than Julia Child.

Doug Gantenbein, a frequent contributor to Outside, is also the Interactive Gear Guy on Outside Online.

Photographs by Clay Ellis

Where To Find It
Bibler, 801-278-5533; Garuda, 406-585-9279; Kelty, 800-423-2320; Marmot, 707-544-4590; Mountain Hardware, 510-559-6700; The North Face, 800-362-4963; Sierra Designs, 800-635-0461; Walrus, 800-550-8368

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