Hi, all. I come to you again for guidance in my quest to acquire the right gear. My girlfriend and I have been using our car-camping tent, a 6-pound, 10-ounce Alps Mountaineering Chaos 3, for the summer, our first season as backpackers. We've found that this tent works well when bringing along our two dogs, but we would like to invest in a durable, free-standing, lightweight 2-person/3-season tent for when it's just the two of us. With that out of the way, any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance!
I will try to break it to you gently - free standing is overrated, and not really ever true... you need to always stake down a tent lest it become a box kite.
You can shed weight by opting for the LightHeart Duo or one of the Six Moon Designs, or a two person Tarptent double wall - they are all good quality gear. When the LightHeart Lady comes home from her long hike you could even ask her to custom make your tent in the colors you like.
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki
First of all, there is no objectively "right" gear - there is only gear that is best for your preferences and the conditions you'll be encountering. What's right for me may not be right for you.
Having said that, and making the assumption that you're looking for a 3-season, temperate climate tent, there are a couple of options. As with most gear, you can choose two of the following: light, cheap, high-quality.
If you're looking for affordable, good quality tents, look at Kelty, Sierra Designs, and REI's house brand. They will be at the heavier end of the scale, but they'll be good quality at a reasonable price.
For a good balance of the three qualities, look at MSR and Big Agnes "regular" lines - they'll be a bit pricier, but not much, be high quality, and a bit lighter.
If you're looking for light, high quality tents, look at MSR's Carbon Reflex series or Big Agnes tents with "UL" after the name if you're interested in double-wall tents; look at Tarptent or Six Moon Designs for single-wall tents that are even lighter. You'll gulp twice at the prices, but you'll get the lightest, highest quality products in this group.
Also be prepared for the fact that, in two-person tents, one way they get lighter weights is to sacrifice interior floor space and headroom. If you find the ultralight two-person tents are too small, look at the three-person models (at which point you'll want to compare them to the 2-person Kelty, Sierra Designs, or REI tents - you may be back at similar weights for similar room, at which point cost will be the determining factor.)
One other thing to remember when you're looking at tents: make the clerk show you how to take down the floor model and set it back up. I've generally found my ultralight tents pitch more easily than the Sierra Designs tents I used to use; however, I've not looked at their more recent models. Don't underestimate ease of pitching - unless you are sure you'll never need to set it up in the dark, while it's raining. You absolutely will curse when you have two sets of poles that are two inches different in length, and you thread the wrong one into the wrong pole sleeve (by the way, look for clips instead of pole sleeves - makes setup much, much easier.)
Don't worry if you end up feeling like you fell through the looking glass - you can compare gear forever. At some point, just make a decision as to which tent "feels" best for the two of you, and go with it.
I agree with Lori - freestanding is highly overrated. There have been only two times when I was glad I had a "freestanding" tent (and it wasn't raining either time, so I didn't have to deal with a fly and vestibule that couldn't be staked out.)
The first time was when, arriving at the trailhead late at night, I had to spend the first night of the trip in a public campground that had raised, tamped-gravel tent pads that I could not force a stake into.
The second was one night when I camped on an open sandstone ledge, where there was also no way to sink a stake. (I won't say where this was; suffice it to say when I posed a theoretical question to a ranger, he smiled knowingly and said, "Sometimes it's easier to grant forgiveness than permission.")
Beyond that, I've always staked a tent down. I have seen one tent, pitched in freestanding mode, get blown into a pond by a gust of wind. (There was no gear in it to weight it down.) The entertainment value of watching the owner wade in after it was quite high.
We have a MSR Carbon Reflex 2 and love it, it's very easy to set up and well made. We also have a Big Agnes UL1, which is almost exactly the same weight as the MSR tent, and is also easy to set up and very well made. We have slept 3 in the MSR, one adult and 2 kids and 2 in the Big Agnes, 1 adult and one kid, so generally speaking these two particular models have a reasonable amount of room in them as compared to some UL models that have very limited floor space.
Loc: San Diego CA
Just a comment. You mentioned durability as a criteria. It's been my experience that people who are hard on stuff tend to poke holes and be a little hard on their expensive, ultralight tents when they first get them. The materials used in the UL tents are strong and the tents are well made, but to get them light the material does tend to be thinner than the cheaper models along with other weight saving techniques such as more screen and less zipper length. Just a heads up.
Tent wise, I personally have a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL3 and the Skyscape by Sixmoons (one-man), as well as some heavier and thrash resistant tents. Very happy with the BA UL3, semi-happy with the Skyscape.
You might look at Black Diamond for three-season, single-wall free-standers. They could do the job if you camp where humidity or extended downpours aren't chronic issues. (And yeah, they should be staked/guyed but can be used in tight spots, such as in alpine areas with little vegetation.)
"but to get them light the material does tend to be thinner than the cheaper models " the thickness of the material has nothing to do with tensile strenght nor puncture resistance unless of course it is the same material. Manufacturers that have used or are using polyester as well as taffeta nylon and siliconised nylon will tell you that the sil version is stronger, it is also lighter and more expensive. For example the SMD Skyscape Scout in polyester,34 oz, sells for $125. The same tent in silnylon , the Trekker, 24 oz sells for $225. Note that both are made in China so labour cost is not the difference. Same for other manufacturers such as Macpac and Lightwave that have produced the same shelter with different fabrics, consistently they rated silnylon to be stronger. Wilderness Equipment (an Aussie brand) called their First/Second Arrow in nylon (PU coated) 4 season tents, they now have the sil version as an "expedition/5 season" shelter.
On the other hand, polyester sags less when wet/cold and has higher UV resistance. Franco
Cuben Fiber, the tough stuff, is also lighter still than silnylon.
Folks who are concerned about durability, in my experience, really mean longevity. In which case one would not want a PU coated mass manufactured tent - once the PU coating peels, the tent is done. Sometimes that takes a few years and sometimes it takes ten (if you store it in a cool place and it doesn't see a lot of use, restuffing, etc). But once it happens the tent is done for. Silnylon can be retreated to be waterproof once again, on the other hand.
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki
Loc: Marina del Rey,CA
I have a freestanding winter tent and for that application, I like a freestanding tent, especially when setting up on snow. For 3 seasons, freestanding isn't so important as knowing how to set up whatever you have. Some tents look more like art school projects than anything else and I have no interest in those. The more panels and more parts, the more likely something will fail.
There are some UL freestanding tents. Big sky makes several models. The caveat here is that this company had major delivery problems a few years ago, so I don't know how reliable they are or if those problems have been fixed. Based on the lack of complaints, it appears so, but buyer beware. I only suggest them because their products look interesting.
I used to have one of the original SD Flashlights. I could set it up in about five minutes; there wasn't much to it and for two people, it was okay, but snug. No vestibule, which today, I would insist on in any tent I would buy.
Buying something based just on a picture is not the best way to go, but for some things, the only way you can buy them. If you can't see it in person first, at least get one you can return if you set it up and don't like it.
Don't get me started, you know how I get.
Just how many days of use is considered a tent with good longevity? Most of the tents I have used break in one way or another after about 100 days of use (2-3 years for me). I do a lot of camping at higer altitudes, so that may be a factor in UV exposure. I am very interested in tents that are "fixable". A gripe of mine with double wall tents is that the fly often wears out first (due to UV exposure) and you cannot just replace the fly.
The zipper is a weak point of a tent. The zipper on my Tarptent Moment broke this summer. I would be willing to sacrafice a few ounces of weight in order to have a sturdier zipper. Just about every tent I have owned, the zippers have broken. The tiny zipper do not seem to be able to be "fixed" with crimping, as much as the larger zippers are. I do think, however, that you can send the tent back to the manufacturer and have the zipper replaced. I think REI does this too.
Poles are another weak point. But at least poles are replaceable.
As the variety of responses to your question show, there are many opinions. I would say first of all that I personally really prefer free-standing tents. Of course you do still have to stake them down, but they don't sag as much, which is convenient, especially for camping on places like beaches. Myself, I have 2 tents (well 3: for sentimental reasons, I can't bring myself to get rid of my old one person Windy Pass aka N Face, which sheltered me for so many years, even though I never use it anymore) First, I have a one person Big Agnes Copper Spur. But for 2 person camping, I like my REI Quarter Dome: It is fairly cheap (especially during REI's sales), really spacious inside, pretty light for two people and even light enough that I sometimes use for my solo trips, especially if I'm expecting crappy weather (it was nice during a light snowstorm in Denali last year, for eg). Plus, I really like the fact that it has 2 roomy vestibules, very convenient with two people sharing it. You can get lighter tents, but it isn't that heavy.
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