Last weekend we went camping on the Rio Chama in northern New Mexico. This wilderness canyon is one of our favorite places in the Southwest, and we figured it would be one of the last warmish weekends of the year. Time to sneak in one final night under the stars before winter.
It was snowing in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains the morning we left, so we debated bringing our 1961 Airstream trailer. We have a tumultuous love/hate relationship with the Airstream. I love it once we get to where we’re going, but Steve hates towing it. Something’s always falling off or breaking, and it’s an absolute bear to get up the driveway. Steve jokingly named it the Broken Capillary after he burst a blood vessel in one eye trying to back it up the gravel hill. In the year and a half since we got it, we've taken it on (mis)adventures in Marfa, Crested Butte, and Colorado, and at some point during every trip Steve threatens to put it on Craigslist.
This time, though, because we were only going for a night, it seemed far simpler to leave the Airstream at home and bring the next best thing: the new Big Agnes Wyoming Trail 4 tent.
At first glance, the Trail 4 is unlike any other family tent you’ve seen. It looks like a tiny two-bedroom condo with a covered patio in between. On either end are two separate two-person tents, each with their own zippered door, connected by an enormous vestibule/gear garage. The garage doesn’t have a floor, but it’s protected on three sides by the rain fly. You can roll up the fly on two sides to create an airy pavilion during the day, and then zip them shut at night to keep out the wind and cold.
When it comes to family camping, we don't skimp on size. Before we had kids, Steve and I loved our 1992 Sierra Designs Meteor Light two-person tent to death, but after two zipper replacements and the birth of two daughters, we retired the trusty standby and upgraded to a six-person behemoth with two rooms, separated by a flimsy nylon “wall.” We put the girls on one side, and we slept on the other. It’s roomy enough to fit two backcountry cribs, piles of dry bags, and our three-legged lab, Gus, who comes with us on all our adventures. We’re not big co-sleepers, so the illusion of privacy suits us. But now that our daughters are growing into seasoned campers, we’ve been wondering when they’ll be big enough to sleep in their own tent. We long to sleep small again.
The Trail 4 seemed like the first step on the road to camping independence. The girls would have their own personal sleeping compartment, connected to ours yet separated by the seven-foot-long patio. We could stay up late reading by headlamp in our tent while they zonked out, undisturbed, in theirs. Gus would sleep in the middle, which was plenty big enough for a small mountain of gear and his very own Mountainsmith K9 bed.
When we pulled into the Rio Chama Campground, 12 miles up a rutted dirt road, the sun was sinking and it was almost dinnertime. Clearly everyone else had decided it was too chilly for camping, because the place was deserted. During the peak summer rafting season, it’s almost impossible to get a spot here on a weekend, so to have the place to ourselves was an unexpected bonus.
We took the choice site, of course, in the shade of some gnarled old pinons, with wooden steps down to the river and views across to the peachy cliffs this canyon is famous for. The Rio Chama is dam-released, and it was running at a trickle of its normal flow; you could walk across it by hopping on all the exposed rocks. We’d brought the girls’ bikes and after an hour and a half in the car, they were itching to explore, so the three of us rode laps around the campground while Steve unpacked in peace.
By the time we rolled back into camp, Steve had set up the Trail 4, and it stood beneath the trees with a view of the river like a miniature mobile home: two cozy cubbies and a long hallway in between. On the drive in, I’d watched the temperature drop on the truck thermometer and wished we’d brought the Airstream, but the sight of the tent was instantly reassuring. There it was, a beacon of shelter and warmth.
Being a guy, Steve pitched the Trail 4 without reading the instructions. He said he couldn’t find them but also claimed he hadn’t needed them. It went up on the first try, which is saying a lot for a tent this size (though it was probably easier because I wasn’t there to bicker with him). For starters, there are only four poles. Two long diagonal poles with a locking mechanism in the center where they cross connect the individual tents, and 2 smaller poles support the sleeping compartments. The poles attach with clips, not sleeves, which makes set-up even speedier. It took two of us to sling the rain fly on, which attaches easily with buckles to the base of the tent, and then he and four-year-old Pippa pounded in a few stakes.
The Trail 4’s sleeping compartments look small—32 square feet each—but they turned out to be deceptively roomy. We managed to fit our todder’s portable Phil & Ted’s Traveller Cot in on one end and still had room for our four-year-old’s Paco pad on the other. In the Airstream, they sleep head to foot on a small foldout bed, so this seemed roomy by comparison. On our side, we blew up our cushy inflatable double air mattress and wedged it in snugly, stashing the stuff sacks and headlamps into two mesh pockets, one just above floor level and the other just below the ceiling.
By then it was really getting cold, so we made dinner and lit a fire in the fire pit, then did a few more laps around the campground on our bikes, the girls wearing headlamps under their helmets like mini 24-hour-racers, just for good measure. It was 7:30 and almost completely dark when they both asked to be put to bed—a rarity that may have had something to do with the anticipation of sleeping in their own tent, and the fact that they’d logged a mile or so on their bikes in the couple hours since we’d arrived and had burned through a zillion calories just trying to stay warm.
We swaddled them in a few layers of long underwear, wool, and down and zipped them into their bags, each with a hot water bottle. I figured we might be in for some tears on account of the chill, but after one plaintive question about the lantern light shining it from the picnic table, all was silent. We washed the dishes, settled ourselves with our books around the fire, and watched the stars pop out, a zillion brilliant eyes peering down on us and the gauzy Milky Way arcing overhead.
By the time we went to bed, I was wearing four layers—fleece, more fleece, wool, and down. I hadn’t been cold by the fire, but I when I crawled into my zero-degree down sleeping bag—the very one that had kept me toasty on frozen nights sleeping outside at 18,000 feet in the Himalaya—I could not kill the chill. Steve was no help. He was zipped into his own bag and sound asleep, only his wool cap sticking out. I tossed and turned until I heard whimpering from next door. Oh, right, the neighbors. We hadn’t disturbed them when we went to bed, but now the girls were stirring. They weren’t cold, a voice assured me. They just had to pee.
I saw my opportunity and took it. “Give her to me,” I whispered to Steve, as he got up to help. A few minutes later, he delivered the half-asleep four-year-old to me and I stuck her in my bag—my own living, breathing, 39-pound hot-water bottle—and promptly conked out.
Next thing I knew, it was morning, the three of us lying like sardines in our little sleeping pod as outside the light grew brighter. My sleeping bag was maxed out, but there was still a bit of extra room in the tent, and I decided that in pinch, we could have crammed one more little body in our pod. Not that we’d needed to: Two-year-old Maisy had slept through the night without a peep until we saw her little fleecy head peering through the open flap in her tent. Between us in the vestibule, Gus lay sprawled on his bed, still snoring.
We brewed some coffee and lit a fire while we waited for the sun to crawl its way down the canyon walls and hit our tent. Meanwhile, we took stock. There’d been impressively little sleep drama in the night, despite the fact that it had probably gotten down to 27 degrees. It if had been much colder, though, we might have been better off pooling our body heat and all sleeping together—in which case a larger, single-unit tent would have been a more comfortable option. But on warm nights, when body heat isn’t an issue, the Wyoming Trail 4 will be a definite no-brainer. The kids can sleep in their cubby, and we’ll sleep in ours. Their side can also double as a bouncy house when they want to wrestle and romp, so we can keep our pod free of sandy feet.
The Wyoming Trail 4 has a big footprint—81.5 square feet—so you need a large level area on which to pitch it. This isn’t a problem at a more developed, drive-in campground like the Rio Chama, but it could pose a challenge on a river trip or elsewhere in the backcountry, where flat ground is harder to find. The couple times we got up to check on the girls, we wished there’d been a floor in the patio area, so we wouldn’t track dirt into the sleeping cubby going back and forth. But that’s an easy fix: A nylon footprint is sold separately for $70.
Not surprisingly, the Trail 4 is heavy at 14 pounds, so there’s no way you’d want to take it backpacking. But despite its size, it’s quick to take down and stuffs easily into its bag, which has two elastic compartments that fold in on themselves like a sandwich.
All told, thanks to the Wyoming Trail 4, we’d more than survived our first cold-weather family camping trip. We’d achieved Airstream independence and learned that with enough layers (and maybe a double-wide sleeping bag for really cold nights), we can sleep outside comfortably with our little girls in three seasons, even when it’s below freezing.
Even better, I remembered how much I love to live outside, with nothing but a thin skin of nylon between the stars and me. The Airstream may be cushy, but the Trail 4 is just as cozy, and much, much easier to haul. And no broken capillaries!
Craigslist here we come?
Big Agnes Wyoming Trail 4: 14 pounds, $499.95; www.bigagnes.com. Available at retail in spring 2013.