Evaluating Tents--A Buyer's Guide
by Paul Richins, Jr.
(revised 5/19/06)

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The importance of a sturdy tent in the face of 40 mile an hour winds cannot be overstated. Balancing weight, function and size is difficult. Expedition grade and four season tents provide bombproof protection during winter expeditions into the mountains but tend to be much too heavy. Three season tents are lighter and may provide adequate protection depending on the construction techniques and quality of the tent. Many two-person tents are small and cramped for two, especially for winter camping. If you don’t mind being shoulder to shoulder with your tent partner with your outside shoulder pressed against the frost-coated tent wall, you will find many acceptable two-person tents. However, it is a challenge to find a lightweight, four-season, two-person tent adequately sized for two.

A tent used for summer backpacking can be smaller, less sturdy, and lighter than a tent that will be used in the winter for snow camping above the tree line that could be subject to fierce winds and storms. Below are some tips when purchasing a backpacking tent. However, before that discussion, I would like to share with you my six-night experience testing Black Diamond's single-wall tent labeled the "Lighthouse".

Review of the Black Diamond Lighthouse--The Lighthouse is two-poled, 3 pound 3 ounce tent. This single-walled tent has no rain fly. Black Diamond advertises the tent as ultra breathable with a SilNylon floor and other features. On a seven-day ski tour across the Sierra Nevada in May 2006 under clear skies, Dr. Colin Fuller and I tested the tent for the first time. We were suspicious of the claims that the tent was breathable so left the door completely open or halfway open each night. When the door was left wide open it reminded me of a lean-to in the snow rather than a tent. By the second morning we had labeled the tent the "Black Diamond Rain Forest Tent". In the morning the frost accumulation on the walls of the tent was so thick it accumulated in layers and some chunks of hoarfrost fell from the side walls. The rime was so thick that it was almost measurable with a ruler. The second morning Colin put on his gortex parka and pants as soon as he got up. I asked what he was doing. He responded that he needed to keep dry from the frost laden and soon to be dripping "rain forest" tent walls. As noted above, the weather was ideal--it was was mild during the day and temperatures dropped into the 20s at night. To boot, the east side of the Sierra is relatively arid with low humidity, and we still had problems with frost accumulation inside the tent.

The two-pole tent design is not as taut as it should be or as sturdy as a three-pole tent. On the last night of our trip, a light 5-10 mile-an-hour breeze gently blew off Red and White Mountain across our camp near Big McGee Lake. The upwind side of the tent flapped in the light breeze like a flag. The noise from the flapping tent wall was annoying and interrupted our sleep throughout the night bringing into question the tent's durability in a strong wind. With this observation / experience, I would not recommend it for winter camping above the tree line. Its durability against strong winds is questionable.

The tent was narrow and confining--only 51 inches wide. It has only one door. A second side door would be a significant improvement providing more shoulder / elbow room for the camper on the inside away from the door. A second door could also possibly improve the tent's breathability. The tent is advertised for the dry season. However, we used it in dry, low-humidity conditions and it was a failure. Maybe the tent is adequate in the summer and fall but temperatures often drop below freezing in the higher elevations during these seasons as well, and the frosty tent walls would be a problem.

Black Diamond missed the mark with the design of this tent. The tent is in need of serious improvements and a total makeover. Obviously, Black Diamond did not field test the tent adequately or ignored the test results. There are better tents on the market and better values than the Lighthouse. Until new tent materials are developed, a tent with a rain fly is still your best option.

Tent Weight--Most 3- and 4-season tents weigh 7-9 pounds or more. This is too much. Look for tents in the 4 to 6 pound range. When comparing tents, take an accurate scale with you and weigh the tents you are considering at the store for an accurate weight. The challenge for the shopper is to find a tent that is roomy, sturdy and light weight. There are a few on the market but improvements are needed. The challenge for the tent designers is to cut the weight of their tents while increasing the inside volume for the shoulders and head.

Inside Space--When shopping for a tent set it up and get inside. If it is a two-person tent, two should get inside; if a three-person tent, three should get inside and test for roominess. Head room and shoulder room are critical. Shoulder room seems to get pinched on many of the designs. Simulate putting on a parka or cooking a dinner inside the tent. To provide adequate room, a tent normally needs to be at least 44 inches high and a minimum of 54 inches wide at the hips, shoulders and head area when lying down. Tents that are lower than 44 inches high and narrower than 54 inches at the head end, lack the volume necessary for averaged sized camper. If you are not satisfied with the roominess of a two-person tent, one solution is to consider a three-person tent for use by two. However, weight becomes an issue.

Tent Configuration--A design in which you sleep with your head at the far end away from the door is best. Many tent designs preclude this as the tent (height and width) is tapered from the front (door) to the back. In a storm, snow will blow into the tent whenever the door is opened. To prevent getting hit in the face with blowing snow or rain, select a tent that allows you to sleep with your head away from the door. Tents with a door at opposite ends or opposite sides of the tent provide greater flexibility and avoid this problem.

Tent Poles--Another design feature to review carefully is the strength of the tent poles and whether the tent has tent pole sleeves or not. High quality, three-pole tents are adequate for the Sierra Nevada in all but the severest of winter conditions. However, I would shy away from two-poled tents for winter and spring camping above the tree line. Additionally, some tents are designed without pole sleeves and use plastic clips to secure the poles. This method is convenient and easy to use when erecting the tent and is adequate for summer and fall backpacking. Even though the tent fly covers the poles, the poles are still exposed to the weather and each joint tends to freeze during a winter snowstorm. When taking down the tent, separating each frozen pole joint becomes a real chore. Tents with tent pole sleeves protect the poles a bit more and may prevent this freezing problem from occurring. Tents with sleeves are also stronger and more stable because the pressure from the wind on the tent is distributed evenly along the full length of the tent pole rather than at a few connection points.

Room with a View--A tent with a window in the door or a separate window that allows one to look out without having to unzip a portion of the outer fly is preferred. Most tents seem to be designed in such a manner that the fly precludes the occupant from looking outside or requires unzipping the door and then the fly/vestibule before viewing the conditions outside the tent. When confined to the tent during a multi-day storm, it is nice to be able to look outside to check on conditions without first unzipping the door and then unzipping the vestibule door to peer out.

Backcountry_Resource_Center--Paul Richins, Jr.

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