The Outside Blog

Skiing and Snowboarding : Camping

Pitch This: 5 Alternatives to the Tent

Yes, tents are an institution in the gear shed, but (gasp!) they’re not always the best option. Dozens of alternatives exist, many of which weigh less, are more comfortable, or simply work better in certain conditions. With camping season now in full swing, it may be time to try something new and leave the pitching to baseball.

Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp Shelter ($199)

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Pros: Hikers obsessed with ultra-light options (and Boy Scouts) caught onto this secret a long time ago: With a good roof, you don’t need a floor. A tarp is lighter, easier to set up, and can be used in most bad weather situations.

Sea to Summit’s Escapist would surely get the Boy Scout seal of approval, weighing in at just nine ounces. It’s waterproof and has eight tie points to ensure stability even in windy conditions. It can be pitched with hiking poles or without, and the company offers a few minimalist mesh shelters that fit under the tarp if you need protection from mosquitoes. 

Cons: In a severe rainstorm, you're going to get wet. 

Therm-a-Rest LuxuryLite UltraLite Cot ($219)

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Pros: Sleeping under the stars is the most romantic part of camping. But you'll need good weather, the right campsite, a killer view—and the proper bedding. 

While sleeping on the ground is always an option, cots add a level of comfort that turns a good starry night into a great one. But temporary beds are typically clunky and they’re rarely portable—or durable—enough for backcountry travel.

Therm-a-Rest aims to reconcile cot complications of the past with its LuxuryLite line, which is easy to set up, sturdy, and light enough to toss in a backpack. The low-profile cots can hold up to 325 pounds and will keep you four inches above the ground.

Cons: The LuxuryLite UltraLite still weighs about as much as a plush inflatable pad. And you’re going to need great weather if you plan to use the cot without additional shelter over your head.

Black Diamond Spotlight Bivy ($219)

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Pros: There’s something inherently adventurous about the ability to throw down your sleeping bag, whip out your bivy sack, and crash just about anywhere. On the side of a mountain? Sure. Suspended on a big wall? No problem. Bivy sacks are one of the most versatile shelters you can buy. 

Black Diamond’s Spotlight Bivy solves the traditional bivy problems (condensation on the inside and no headroom) with a single hoop pole that keeps the shell material from rubbing on your head and dousing you with raindrops. There’s also a large mesh panel with a zip-over awning for increased ventilation.

Cons: Bivy sacks are small and will limit movement. If you toss and turn in your sleep, you might find feel a tad confined. 

Clark Vertex Hammock ($599)

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Pros: Like ultra-light backpacking, duck hunting, and coffee brewing, hammock camping has its own fanatics. And for good reason. Hammocks are light, easy to set up, and comfortable. And in recent years, there’s been a big movement to improve the classic design.

Clark Outdoors has risen to the challenge, designing innovative two-person, four-season hanging shelters that resemble bunkers more than hammocks. Features include insulating pockets, a waterproof rainfly, mosquito netting, and an integrated hanging system that can hold more than 300 pounds.

Cons: Some people don’t sleep well in the curve of a hammock. And, no matter what, you’re going to have trouble hanging one of these things in the desert.

Sylvansport GO Trailer ($8,495)

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Pros: Tent trailers sit on the lavish end of the blue-collar-camping-equipment spectrum. Yes, they offer some comforts you won’t get in a tent, but they’re typically utilitarian, not luxurious.

But Sylvansport aims to change that. The company has revamped the tent camper, ditching the usual hard-shelled, canvas-walled pop-ups. The GO features a fold-out aluminum frame and a rip-stop polyester shell. When not in use, the tent folds neatly on itself and the trailer can be used to haul gear.

Cons: Though the GO has 13 inches of clearance, you won't get too far off the beaten path towing one of these trailers. And the price tag may have you running for shelter in your much more affordable tent.

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The On-The-Go Camp Food Showdown

For campers and backpackers looking for the best pre-prepared backcountry meals, Good To-Go is the new contender in town. Co-founded by chef Jennifer Scism, the Maine-based company aims to make lightweight gourmet meals that outdo typical freeze-dried fare.

Scism, who co-owns Annisa in New York's Greenwich Village and has cooked at four-star restaurants, decided she needed better food options after planning a seven-day backpacking trip with her husband. So she pulled out the dehydrator and started making the kinds of meals she'd be proud of in her own restaurant. 

My fiancée, Paige, and I eat a vegan diet, and she's gluten-free. That limits options for camp food. But thankfully Good To-Go has three gluten-free flavors, two of which are also vegan (they're labeled vegetarian). We wanted to see how they stacked up against the other big names out there—Backpacker's Pantry, Mountain House, and MaryJaneFarms—so we worked up our appetites and dug in. Here are the results: 

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Good To-Go Three Bean Chili

Gathering firewood and setting up camp on the Chama River in northern New Mexico left us hungry. Good thing we'd brought snacks. Because Good To-Go is dehydrated rather than freeze-dried like most backpacking meals, it requires almost double the time to absorb water—20 minutes—compared to others. Expect that going in, and you're, well, good to go. When it was ready, I opened the resealable packet, and the chili was still piping hot.

The consistent first response was, "Mmm." The chili packs a lot of flavor, and it's spicy, but not over-salted like most brands. Perfect texture, too, just like you'd expect at home. At 100 grams per serving (a more realistic serving size than most offerings), the chili made for a hearty meal, the kind you want after a long day outside. ($6, 3.5 oz)

Calories: 340
; Protein: 16g; 
Carbs: 64g
; Fat: 5g
, Sodium: 360mg

Overall Rating: 9.5/10

MaryJanesFarm Outpost Lentils, Rice, & Indian Spice

Part two of our Chama dinner was also dehydrated, but took half the time to hydrate. Nonetheless, the rice was a bit chewy, and though the flavor was good, it didn't stand out after Good To-Go's excellent chili. MaryJaneFarms does get props for all-organic ingredients and eco-packaging that you can burn when you're done to eliminate waste. Unfortunately, the lack of insulation and no reseal option (you fold the top down while hydrating) means you lose heat for a lukewarm meal. ($6, 4.3 oz)

Calories (per pouch): 435; Protein: 16.5g; 
 Carbs: 90g; 
Fat: 2.3g
; Sodium: 780mg

Overall Rating: 8/10

Good To-Go Herbed Mushroom Risotto

After a 3.5-mile quad-busting hike to 11,400-foot Nambe Lake in New Mexico's Pecos Wilderness, I needed fuel. So after boiling water, I chomped into an apple and let the risotto soak. Twenty minutes later, I dove in, and I admit I didn't waste much time reflecting on every bite. But my first impression was the risotto's texture—I felt like I should be eating this on a plate at a restaurant. The mushrooms popped satisfyingly, and the flavor was subtle, but good. I was mostly satisfied, but while the serving is ample compared to other brands, I'd probably already burned most of the 410 calories it gave me just getting here. I was left wishing for just a bit more. ($6, 3.4 oz)

Calories: 410; 
Protein: 13g
; Carbs: 64g ; Fat: 10g; Sodium: 420mg

Overall Rating: 9/10

Backpacker's Pantry Katmandu Curry (for two)

Paige and I had just come back from a late-night music session, and we thought we'd save time by boiling up this curry dish at home. In the backcountry, a certain psychology and physical necessity tends to make your taste buds forgiving, so it's true that our home environment could have skewed the results here. Still, Backpacker's Pantry has long been my go-to when opting for freeze-dried backpacking meals, so I'm familiar with it in its proper setting.

In both scenarios, my biggest complaint is the over-salted flavor. Otherwise, it would stand up to home cooking. True, you need electrolytes after a long hike, but I found it was excessive here. And I'd normally eat the whole pouch myself, which gives me 2440 mg of sodium (ouch), yet only three grams of fat—a key requirement in the backcountry. The curry was a tad watery, too. Extra points for clear gluten-free and vegan labeling. ($6.50, 6.6 oz)

Calories (per serving): 340;
 Protein; 18g 
Carbs: 64g ; Fat: 1.5g; Sodium: 1220mg

Overall Rating: 7/10

Good To-Go Thai Curry 

This one has milk and anchovy, so I gave it to Paige's brother Pete for testing. He found the rice to be quite tasty, full of Thai flavor. His only complaint: the spices were a tad too sweet. But he declared it good to the last bite, which came a bit too soon to fill him up. Bring on dessert. ($6, 3.4 oz)

Calories: 380; Protein: 10g; Carbs: 56g; Fat: 14g
; Sodium: 500mg

Overall Rating: 8/10

Mountain House Fire Roasted Vegetable Blend

Mountain House doesn't have any full-meal options for vegans, so I opted for a side dish. While the food smelled like it was going to be very tasty, when I drained the excess water (it's in the directions, but it feels like wasting precious liquid) and ate a spoonful, the meal was bland. That's fine if you want to customize your flavor, but I didn't.

Nonetheless, I added some much-needed salt and garlic powder, but it still didn't hit the mark. Something else was missing, too. Rice would have been a good touch. The veggies were flaccid and not particularly appealing, while the beans were unremarkable. True, this is a side dish, but it's made to be self-contained, and yet I found it only works in tandem with something more flavorful. ($4, 1.5 oz)

Calories: 150
; Protein: 7.5g
; Carbs: 30g; Fat: 1g
; Sodium: 13mg

Overall Rating: 5/10

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Onewheel Electric Skateboard

Segways are so 2001. The future belongs to the Onewheel—a one-wheeled electric skateboard that’s self-balancing and battery-powered.

The rider leans forward to accelerate, back to slow down, and side-to-side to turn. The skateboard can reach speeds up to 12 mph, and has a range of up to six miles. And if you invest in the “ultra charger,” you can charge the Onewheel in less than 30 minutes. (The standard charger takes about two hours.)  

Like every other gadget these days, the Onewheel will soon be app-ready, too. The company estimates the product will ship this December. 

Pre-order for $1,499 (includes ultra charger), rideonewheel.com

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Turn Your Cabin Inside Out

Massive windows, sheltered decks, and rooftop seating are all features you might expect in a house that celebrates nature. But sliding glass walls and slatted wood screens aren’t exactly standard.

That said, this is no ordinary cabin. The 2,700-square-foot cottage, which overlooks an estuary in Brittany, has two levels with bedrooms and baths cantilevered over an open living space below. On the ground floor, three poured-concrete walls carve into the wooded slope. And there are windows everywhere, including narrow clerestory ones set in the back wall. But it’s the walls of sliding glass up front that blur the lines between inside and outside.

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Architects used low-maintenance materials when designing this house. Stone slabs in the interior lead outside where they meet concrete pavers, while wood planks cover the ceiling and the simple kitchen island. On the top level, two light shafts flood the kitchen and living area with natural light. The central stair is surrounded by horizontal wood slats supported by vertical black limbs—an artistic and practical setup.

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Then there’s the private upper level, clad in untreated chestnut planks. Cork bark cushions the floors of the bedrooms and baths, and the sleeping spaces make you feel like you’re in a private tree house. Catch a glimpse of the estuary through the screen of vertical wooden slats that rest on black steel pipe.

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