The White Monkey Talks Gear: Tents

Jul 1, 2012 by

You’ve hiked all day.

Every part of your body is, well, tired. Dusk is approaching and it’s time to set up camp for the night. For most backpackers, the shelter of choice is a tent.

Like sleeping bags, which I talked about in my last post, tents are like cars. You’ve got different colors, styles, weights, ventilation and so forth. You really, really need to test drive.

I would say now is the time to deal with the elephant in the room, but since I’m a monkey, let’s deal with the monkey on your back first. You’ll hear lots of people brag about how they bought a tent at the BIG BOX STORE THAT SELLS EVERYTHING, INCLUDING TIRES AND CAMPING GEAR, and only paid $50 for a tent that is as good as that $300 tent at the “WE ONLY SELL CAMPING GEAR” store.

Let’s think about that for a moment. To put it another way, you can shell out $4,000-plus for your kid’s braces, or just trust the guy who’s doing the $299 special.

And before you freak out about spending $300 for a tent – you don’t have to. Let’s look at some options, and more importantly, the rules of the game.

No. 1: Whatever tent size they tell you it is, subtract one, at least when it comes to adults. By that I mean a three-man tent is for two people; a two-man tent is nice for one; a one-man tent is a coffin. There are exceptions, which I’ll get to.

Put it this way: if you are on your Hawaiian honeymoon and decide to pitch a two-man tent on the beach, to you know, camp out under the stars with our new significant other, enjoy. If you are a couple of big guys who’ve sweated all day hiking and plan to share a two-man tent? Let’s not go there.

No. 2. It’s all about the inside dimensions. By that I mean the interior length of the tent and the interior width of the tent. Focus on the inside measurements.

No. 3. You’re backpacking. By definition, you’e carrying everything on your back. Weight matters. What’s the formula? Ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain.

No. 4. If you’e sharing a tent, get one with two “doors.” Trust me. You do not want a single-door tent where you are crawling over your tentmate. Unless it’s your honeymoon, and you’re in Hawaii.

No. 5. The lighter the tent, the more it will cost. You have to balance cost verses weight verses what’s best for your particular situation.

No. 6. If you are looking for a solo tent, you will either be in a coffin or have to spent more money for a “big” one-man tent. Your other option, which lots of people do, is to find the lightest two-man tent you can and just have a little extra room for gear.

Let’s look at some comparisons of  four very popular tents, three from REI, which is the mecca of camping, and one high-end tent from Big Agnes, which, well, makes high-end tents.

Tent                                                      Weight                                   Dimensions                                                        Cost

REI Quarter-Dome T2 Plus:         5.1 pounds                         94X 54 inches                                                     $319

REI Quarter-Dome T2                    4.8 pounds                        84X51 inches                                                       $299

REI Half-Dome T2 Plus                  6.5 pounds                        98X56 inches                                                       $219

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2        3.7 pounds                        90X52 inches                                                       $299


All over the map right?

Here’s the answer: Get the biggest tent you can at the lowest weight at the price you can afford.

The one good thing about two-man tents, especially for Boy Scouts, is you can split the weight. One guy carries the tent, the other carries the poles and rain fly. And just by doing that, you’ve cut everyone’s weight in half. That six-p0und tent, split between two, is only three pounds apiece.

Oh, that whole rain fly thing.

Most tents today have a tent and a separate rain fly, which is exactly what its name implies. Tents themselves will have mesh to help with circulation and keep the tent from being a sauna. Mesh does not stop rain, thus the rain fly.

Basically, the rain fly covers the tent like a tarp.  And here’s where you hear the word “vestibule.” The rain fly covers the tent and extends out beyond the dimensions of the tent. And that creates a vestibule, which is basically extra space between the tent and the rainfly. The vestibule is always at the tent door.

What the vestibule does is give you extra space between the tent and the rain fly. This allows you to put muddy boots, possibly a backpack or other stuff under the tent fly, but outside of the tent itself. Put it this way, you can store your muddy boots under the vestibule and they wont’ get rained out because they are protected by the rain fly, but they also aren’t in your tent getting everything, well muddy.

You really need to test drive. Go to a camping store and have them set up the tent for you. If you can’t get to such a store, take the interior measurements and outline then on the floor with a string. THEN – put in the sleeping bags and sleeping pads to see how much room you really have.

The other consideration is the height. Manufacturers will tell you the “peak” height. You are not going to stand up in a backpacking tent, unless you are me, and you’re not. A good height is in the 40-45 inch range. That way you can at least sit up.

Do your homework. Check out the various sites I’ve listed before that sell tents. Read the reviews from others of the tents you are interested in. And shop around. Some site will always have a sale on a few tents, just pick out a couple of tents you like and start checking around. And don’t forget to check their outlet sections – that’s where they are unloading stuff for the new models or won’t be carrying that particular line anymore.

The outlet sections can be great finds and you can save upwards of $100 on a tent.

Bottom line: Focus on weight and interior dimensions. Shop around.

Until next time on the trail.

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