Review, April 1997
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.
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.
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
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