The 7 Best Tents of Summer 2012

Easton Kilo 3

Sturdy, roomy, and lightweight, the carbon-fiber-poled Easton Kilo 3 flouts the two-out-of-three rule. Despite spreading a generous 43 square feet, the tent weighs a scant three pounds. And not only is the Kilo no coffin—three testers sat up inside for a hand of cards—it also beat back 40-mile-per-hour gusts on the Deschutes River. The secret? Because Easton manufactures its own poles, it can offer carbon-fiber ones for what you might normally pay for aluminum. And while the ridgepole design makes for a slightly awkward vestibule doorway, what the layout lacks in convenience it makes up for in sturdiness, with a very taut fly adding considerable strength. Three other trade-offs: the back corners must be staked out, there’s only one door, and there are no interior pockets. According to one tester, though, “Complaining about that stuff in a tent this light is like noting that a Lamborghini lacks a roomy trunk. Who cares?” 3 lbs

LIVABILITY: 3.5
STURDINESS: 4 (OUT OF 5)

NEMO Espri LE 3

BEST FOR: Keeping your options open. THE TEST: Sometimes you need a huge vestibule (see the Big Agnes Wyoming Trail); sometimes you don’t need one at all. We like that the 38-square-foot Espri lets you choose. Go with a simple door flap and save a few ounces, or zip on the mammoth 24-square-foot, trekking-pole-supported vestibule ($130) for an all-weather kitchen. And though we generally prefer double doors, a single portal can be worth the weight savings, especially when it’s as large as the Espri’s. Egress aside, the NEMO is remarkably sturdy for a tall, four-and-a-half-pound tent, thanks to a trio of ultralight poles that intersect at three spots. THE VERDICT: We liked it best as a spacious two-person tent—three was a squeeze. 4.5 lbs

LIVABILITY: 3
STURDINESS: 4

The thickness of technical fabrics like ripstop nylon, the dominant material used in tents, is expressed in denier. A standard tent floor is 70d, but to save weight the Espri employs a 30d fabric, so beware pitching on sticks or sharp rocks.

Sierra Designs Zia

BEST FOR: Family backpacking. THE TEST: Kids are rough on tents. But the Zia’s innovative structure—three hoops united by an X-shaped ridgepole—and durable materials proved plenty tough for our testers’ sand-tracking, pole-thumping children. Not that the Zia is heavy—it still comes in at just over two pounds per person—and thanks to impressively vertical walls even a posse of three big dudes and two dogs in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness were able to stretch out for a solid night’s sleep. But be forewarned: the unique architecture makes it a bit complex to pitch in darkness and rain. THE VERDICT: The doors and vestibules are smallish, but the weight and price are right for such a rough-and-tumble tent. 8.6 lbs

LIVABILITY: 4
STURDINESS: 3.5

The North Face Phoenix

BEST FOR: Drier climes. THE TEST: Single-wall tents like the Phoenix are fantastically light and can be pitched without exposing the interior to precipitation. The downside: condensation can be heavy. To solve that, the North Face crafted the tent body from a proprietary breathable fabric and gave it a pair of large mesh doors to increase airflow. It works—pretty well. Our testers stayed bone dry on cool New Mexico nights but encountered a bit of clamminess on the walls during a misty Oregon coastal camping trip and considerable wetness in the vestibule, which is cut from standard polyurethane-coated nylon. THE VERDICT: In the right conditions—say, three-season camping in the Rockies—the single-wall payoff is huge. 4.8 lbs

LIVABILITY: 4
STURDINESS: 3

To reduce flammability, most tent flies have a chemical coating, which makes them less breathable and more likely to tear. The Phoenix's DryWall fabric is inherently fire resistant, so it should have a longer life.

Big Agnes Wyoming Trail 2 Camp

BEST FOR: Base camping and festivals. THE TEST: Noting that couples often use six-person tents because they like the ample space for cooking and storage, Big Agnes built this shelter with a vestibule that dwarfs the tent itself. We stashed a pair of bikes, surfboards, and coolers under the Wyoming Trail’s 54-square-foot big top on a coastal surf trip. Meanwhile our bags, pads, and, yes, pillows stayed clean in the screened two-person sleep chamber. We loved the garage-style vestibule doorway, and the hubbed poles made setting up a snap. This version is a bit portly for backpacking, but Big Agnes offers a lighter seven-pounder, the Trail SL2, for $150 more. THE VERDICT: Perfect for multisport base camping—and Burning Man. 9.3 lbs

LIVABILITY: 5
STURDINESS: 2.5

First Ascent Katabatic

BEST FOR: Winter expeditions. THE TEST: The four-season Katabatic may be a tank (ten pounds), but it doesn’t sound like one. That’s because designers spent three years tinkering with the placement of the seven poles to eliminate the violent flapping of the fly in 80-mile-per-hour gusts. Other smart, guide-influenced touches include the fly’s bright green hue, which stands out in a whiteout (and is cheery enough for sitting out storms), and huge pockets and vestibules. The 50-square-foot floor plan is rated for two people, but because of the extremely vertical walls—credit the rigid pole segments down low and flexible ones up high—our testers found it comfortable for three. THE VERDICT: A great update to the mountaineering-expedition category. 10.3 lbs

LIVABILITY: 5
STURDINESS: 5

Stoic Arx XL

BEST FOR: Tall campers. THE TEST: Two doors and vestibules? Check. Around four pounds? Check. Under $300? Check. The Arx XL hits two-person, three-season backpacking-tent benchmarks—and adds a lot of nice details. Testers liked the roomy, no-drip vestibules and unique pole configuration, which increased vertical space. The mostly mesh body and the pop-up vent on the fly prevented condensation even on a sloppy Washington night, and the asymmetrical floor plan saves weight by reducing floor space. But one six-foot-three tester noted that while he was comfortable, Stoic’s claim that the tent is long enough for a six-foot-eight sleeper is—with apologies—“a bit of a stretch.” THE VERDICT: Great balance of weight, livability, and cost. 4.2 lbs

LIVABILITY: 3.5
STURDINESS: 3

Carbon-fiber poles, like the Arx's brow pole and those on the Gear of the Year-winning Easton, are more durable than aluminum and generally weight a third less. The downside: they cost quite a bit more and are virtually impossible to repair in the field.

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