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Adventure Magazine

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Gear Guide
Ultralight Tents

Shopping for a backpacking tent? "Go ultralight but not ultrastupid," says adventure expert Steve Casimiro.

Below we compare three featherweight options and examine the ultralight ethos.

All prices in U.S. dollars

• LIGHT: Mountain Hardwear Approach
Price: $315
Weight: 4 pounds, 12 ounces [2.2 kilograms]
Web: www.mountainhardwear.com

The Approach strikes a nice balance between compact design and livability. Headroom is 35.5 inches [90 centimeters], max width is almost five feet [1.5 meters]. Big mesh panels keep weight down while letting the tent breathe, yet there's plenty of nylon for privacy.

• LIGHTER: The North Face Slickrock
Price: $239
Weight: 4 pounds, 1 ounce [1.9 kilograms]
Web: www.thenorthface.com

An interesting half-fly protects you from moderate weather and significantly cuts ounces but exposes you when it's really wet and nasty. Dual doors are an excellent touch for such a small shelter. DAC Featherlite poles are 15 percent lighter than the company's standard equipment.

• LIGHTEST: MSR Titanium Zoid 1.5
Price: $400
Weight: 2 pounds, 13 ounces [1.3 kilograms]
Web: www.msrcorp.com

This is Slim-Fast weight reduction on display: The walls are all mesh, the ultrathin fly is coated with titanium dioxide, the stakes are titanium, and the floor space is micro. But the tent is for short stays only—think Motel 6, not Marriott Suites. Still, it boasts two doors and a vestibule, at an unbelievable weight.

* * * *

Ultralite … Not Quite
Steve Casimiro on the Biggest Trend in Outdoor Gear

Lying in a puddle under a picnic table, wet from head to toe in a sopping sleeping bag, with thunder crackling about and sheets of rain pummeling my thin plastic poncho, I was beginning to question the whole fastpacking concept.

I loved the ultralight ideas articulated by Ray Jardine's 1999 book, Beyond Backpacking—go lighter so you can go faster or farther, with more enjoyment—but I was learning once again that my obsessions can lead to costly extremes.

In fact, I've been stupid at both ends of the weight spectrum: I once carried 80 pounds [30 kilograms] on a weeklong backcountry ski trip—not including the sled full of food I dragged behind—and most of the (ridiculously expensive) lightweight parts I've put on my bike over the years have broken.

So I'm of two minds about the biggest trend in outdoor gear. Common sense tells me that light is right, but just how light? When does ultralight gear jeopardize the rewards of being out there—and perhaps your safety?

My conclusion, forged in the crucible of forgetfulness and bad decisions, is to go ultralight but not ultrastupid. I'll use trail-running shoes instead of boots and buy the lightest pack that still has suspension. But I won't leave myself exposed if conditions turn sour.

The biggest factor in my past misery has been picking the wrong shelter—I've needlessly spent many claustrophobic nights inside a one-pound [0.4-kilogram] bivvy sack when a four-pound [1.5-kilogram] tent would do—so that's where I'm focusing.

Every major tent manufacturer now has an ultralight series or model, and many companies are retooling their entire lines. For instance, two years ago, Mountain Hardwear tackled its whole tent line and achieved a 20 percent weight reduction across the board. You'll find no shortage of lightweight choices.

There are times when a bivvy or single-person tent is appropriate, especially when traveling with snorers, but I say get the smallest, lightest, three-season, two-person tent you can live with. (Forget about tarps, which can weigh less than a pound [0.4 kilograms], and mountaineering tents, which can run ten pounds [four kilograms]; both are too extreme for most situations.)

Traditional versions of these tents tip the scales at six to eight pounds [2.2 to 3 kilograms]; ultralight models run four [1.5 kilograms] or even as low as three [1.1 kilograms], and they're not as cramped or wimpy as you might think.

Yes, you'll lose 15 to 20 percent of the space; you'll be shoulder to shoulder with your tent mate—but how much time do you actually spend in the tent? The idea is to be outside.

Besides, compared with the 18 or so square feet [1.7 square meters] of my bivvy sack, an ultralight's 30 or so [2.8 or so square meters] feels palatial. Just make sure you get double doors: The smaller the tent, the more important it is to have separate exits.

There are other trade-offs. An ultralight's fabric may be less durable—though the difference is small. DAC Featherlite poles, common in ultralights, are 15 percent lighter than some poles but are just as strong, so there you come out ahead. You might have to make do with fewer pole grommets or guyline points, but most people will never notice. And though weather-worthiness will diminish a bit, if you're camping in places with truly wild winds, you don't want an ultralight anyway.

I'm sold: Ultralight tents have a clear edge on their heavier brethren. The trade-offs are slight. And extra tent space is overrated. Carrying less weight, however, isn't—just as long as your minimalism doesn't strand you under a picnic table, shivering in the rain.

—Steve Casimiro

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August 2002:
In the Magazine | Excerpts | Peyote Photos | Wildland Firefighting | Iceman Runneth | Forums | Gear Guide: GPS | Gear Guide: Ultralight Tents | Adventurer's Handbook | Travel Calendar

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