Tent Fabrics – an objective summary of the 21st century options

MSR Wet fabric - header

Having written a comprehensive review of tent design, several people asked if I could write something similar about tent fabrics. This was a subject, at the outset, which I knew rather less about. However having spend eight years as a material scientist working with powders I have been pleasantly surprised how this skill set has transferred and been valuable when reading around the topic of tent fabrics. As with my original article my aim is to present the facts objectively and without bias. I am simply a hill walking & backpacking enthusiast of long standing with a background in chemical and material sciences but no professional or financial interest in the tent industry.

Definitions / Glossary

I am going to limit myself to the fabrics used with modern backpacking tents, if you want to know more about cotton canvas, this is not the article for you. Let’s start with some definitions to help you read the tent makers specifications and sift out the facts from the hype.

Denier – This is a comparative measure of the thickness of the fibres from which a fabric is made. It is the mass, in grams, of a 9000 m length of the fibre. The definition stems from the fact the 9000 m of single fibre of silk weighs one gram. If all else is equal, then the higher the denier the stronger the fabric. By definition, higher denier fabrics are heavier. But as we shall come to see, fibres made from different materials have different strengths.

Thread Count – This is the total number of threads (total of vertical and horizontal) within a square inch. Again if all else is equal, the higher the value, the stronger the fabric. Thread count is not universally quoted with tent fabrics.

Tensile strength – the force required to rip a sample when force is applied to opposing ends of the sample. This is a more useful measure than either Denier or Thread Count when comparing tent fabrics.

Specific strength – The tensile strength per unit weight of a material of the same dimensions and critically, thickness.

Ripstop – this is a fabric which periodically has a stronger fibre added into the weave with the aim that any tear be unable to propagate beyond that fibre.

ripstop

HHeadHydrostatic head (HH) – It is measured as a length, representing the maximum height of a vertical column of water that could be placed on top of the fabric before water started seeping through the weave. Whilst a HH of > 3000 mm may seem extreme at the outset, remember that HH is really a measure of pressure and the pressure on a tent fabric can be increased by wind-speed on the fly, or weight applied to the groundsheet.

Coating – a second material applied to the surface of fabric to change its material properties. In the case of tent fabric this is usually something applied to make it waterproof. Whilst historical fabrics such as canvas were intrinsically water resistant, modern fabrics rely on the coatings applied to make them waterproof, both polyester and nylon fabrics are not in themselves waterproof.

Base fabrics

Today’s tents are generally made from one of three fabrics, polyester, nylon or DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabric). Each have their good and bad points. If you are looking for a lightweight backpacking tent in 2021 you will find that most are made from nylon with just a few made from DCF.

PolyesterPolyester has a lower specific strength than nylon, so to be of the same strength it needs to be thicker and thus heavier. Whilst it is slowly degraded by UV light it is less susceptible than nylon. It’s highly significant advantage is that it does not stretch (significantly) when wetted. Traditionally cheaper tents has been made from polyester as the fabric itself is cheaper, but this comes at the cost of extra weight. The main reason it is cheaper is the scale on which it is made for other applications.

Because of it’s lower specific strength the lightest polyester fabric readily available is 20 denier. By contrast, 7-10 denier nylon is common.

Screenshot_2021-01-29 Hilleberg tent materialsNylon has a higher specific strength than polyester, is more flexible / pliable and is thus easier to pack down to a small volume. However, it does stretch when wetted (Nylon 6,6 by 2.5%) and holds more water within its structure and thus gains more weight when wet than polyester. It is also slowly degraded by UV light, but in fairness today’s buyer would be more likely to change their tent because of an improvement in design than due to fabric degradation. Where UV damage is more of an issue is at high altitudes, above 5000 m, where UV light is a stronger component of the light spectrum. This can be mitigated by choosing a fabric colour which absorbs less UV light. Apparently green and brown fabrics should be preferred over red or orange.

DCFDCF, Dyneema Composite Fabric or Cuban Fibre is not strictly a fabric because it is not woven. Now I’d headed the etymologists off at the pass let me tell you what it actually is. It is a non-woven mat of UHMWPE (a type of polyethylene) sandwiched between two layers of polyester film. Typical of all composite materials it marries the qualities of two materials , the UHMWPE is a very strong but flexible fibre and the polyester film is both waterproof and water impermeable. A very similar composite material called Ultra is now being used for some tents made by Terra Nova.

The specific strength of DCF / Ultra is far higher than polyester or nylon fabrics. So for comparable strength DCF can be significantly thinner and approx. 35% lighter for the same strength. It does not stretch when wetted as it does not absorb any water at all. Thus it both dries quickly and does not get significantly heavier when wet. It does not stretch under strain either so anchor points have to be stronger as they take all the force, it is not dissipated across the body of the fabric. DCF seams are commonly bonded rather than sewn, eliminating any need for seam sealing.

So is DCF / Ultra the fabric of our dreams? That depends on your application and your budget. It is considerably more expensive that Si-nylon (200-300%) and whilst it has a very high tear strength, because of it’s nature and thickness (or the lack thereof) it is far more easily punctured than the other options. It also has a lower abrasion resistance because it is a film rather than a fabric. It can be very easily field repaired, but that is likely to be required more often than you might hope.

Fabric coating options

Both polyester and nylon need to be coated to make them waterproof, DCF does not. The same coating options exist for both.

Polyurethane (PU) coating

This is usually applied to the inside of the fabric and bonds to it’s surface. A significant benefit is that seam tape can be stuck to the PU and thus the seams can be readily sealed. PU hydrolyses with time (reacts with water to break down) and this will eventually cause it to delaminate and fail. That said my Si coated / PU lined Solar 2 flysheet lasted 15 years before it started to fail.

Silicone coating

Silicone coatings soak into the weave of the fabric and actually increase it’s strength. This is true for both polyester and nylon. They are far more chemically stable than PU and thus have a greater lifetime. The only downside is that because of their ‘slippery’ nature they cannot accept seam tape*. Brush-on seam sealant is available but is usually expected to be applied by the buyer rather than the manufacturer. Some tent manufactures overcome the seam issue by designing the seam positions to reduce the water loading onto the seam. Hilleberg uses specially cooled needles for flysheet seam sewing which leads to holes small enough not to allow water to pass through them.

*Thanks to recent development work at Vaude a way to apply seam tape to Si-Nylon has been developed, but is currently (Feb-20) unique to them.  In parallel with this they have also started offering bonded rather than stitched seams on a couple of their flysheets which they describe as seamless.  A bonded seam does not, in theory require secondary sealing it should be fundamentally water tight.

Silicone coatings are more expensive than PU as you might imagine, and designing out the seam issue comes also at an added cost. However, if your budget allows, silicone is the superior coating because it adds strength, allowing for lighter base fabrics and has a longer service life.

Dual coatings

Some manufacturers apply PU to the inside of the flysheet and silicone to the outside. I’ve read extensively and can see only one reason why this might be considered technically superior. That is that it allows for factory seam taping. I cannot help but think that the primary driver is cost.

Practical considerations

The groundsheet of a tent needs to be more robust that the fly and this is achieved by both higher denier fabric and the application of a greater number of layers of waterproof coating. The groundsheet does not need to have a 5-10 meter hydrostatic head for the purpose of keeping the water out, but this comes as a bonus once you’ve made your floor robust enough for it’s duty.

The inner tent fabric is something that is little discussed, but experience has taught me that it is advantageous for this to have some form of water repellent coating (DWR). A fabric that wets less easily will dry more quickly (because the water transport coefficient of a material is proportional to contact angle since you asked!) and this can be very handy if you have a damp inner tent because you have packed it next to the condensation left on your fly. I favour ‘all in one’ pitching / striking and find it takes ≤ 20 min for my inner tent to become totally dry post a re-pitch. Having reviewed the websites of a wide range of manufacturers I only found one which claims this feature. Others may offer it, but they certainly don’t shout about it. Perhaps spraying your inner tent with Nikwax Direct would be worthy of consideration?

Conclusions

So what is the best flysheet option? That depends on your planned application and your budget. When choosing a tent I would be guided primarily by design, Unless you are buying a ripped off design made in the Far East you should expect a well designed tent to have an appropriately specified materials. A strong fabric with poorly re-enforced guying points which are badly positioned will not make the most of even the best fabric. Once you have chosen the design that fits your application, then your choice of manufacturer is likely to be primarily influenced by your budget and weight target. It is an eternal truth that less is more! Some manufacturers offer different ranges of the same designs with cheaper heavier models and more expensive light-weight versions.

[] If you are fastidiously careful, want to travel very light and have very deep pockets then you might well consider DCF / Ultra as your tent fabric.

[] If you favour peace of mind and longevity then silicone coated nylon is probably for you.

[] I hope that if you are buying on a budget that this article will allow you to see the strengths & weaknesses of cheaper materials and ensure that your chosen supplier has compensated appropriately. 70D polyester in place of 40D nylon for example. Remember that the lower price is a strength if it is what makes your adventure possible.

Finally, the research behind this article suggests that there is a gap in the market for someone to develop a stronger low denier polyester fabric. There are a couple of niche manufacturers who offer 20D Si-polyester based flysheets (TrekkerTent, The Tent Lab) which may offer you the sweet-spot between weight, strength and a nice taut pitch.

MSR Wet fabric - header

 

Double Pegging

Double pegging / back staking

I am indebted to Shamus McCaffery for reminding me of a technique I used when staking out the summer fete marquee’s when I was a Scout some 30+ years ago.  That is to ‘back stake’ a peg with a second peg.  He nicely demonstrated that it more the doubles the force required to pull a peg out from the ground by a simulated guy line.  A quick shake of the internet suggests that whilst this method is still common with marquee pitching it is not commonly spoken about within the backpacking community.   It’s a cheap, simple and effective solution as you just need a couple of extra generic V pegs.

It works most easily if you have a cord loop on your pegs, if you don’t then most pegs made in the last five years can have cord added.

The one thing I’d add is from recent experience is that this method isn’t just good for guys, it is also ideal for your first two peg placements when you are pitching solo in a strong wind.  Even if you don’t carry spare pegs, at this point you will have plenty.  Then, once you have most of your pegs in place the load will be shared across them and, if necessary, the initial back stakes can be removed and used elsewhere.  I wish I’d thought of this ahead of my Storm Bella test pitch, but both you (dear reader) and I will know for next time.

Soulo

Trusty Soulo at the top of Buckden Pike

Backpacking Tents – A Comprehensive Design Review

sketch

I searched on-line book sellers and shook the internet to find a truly comprehensive summary of lightweight tent designs and was left wanting. Thus I thought I’d pull together my 35 years of camping and backpacking experience, add some up-to-the-moment literature research and write my own. A major driver to my inspiration has been Shamus McCaffery’s YouTube channel “Outdoor Inspiration” where he takes an experienced, evidence centric and practical look at various pieces of backpacking equipment.

Tents are like most sporting equipment – no one design is ideal for all applications. I would not want to race ride the Tour de France on a mountain bike, nor would I take a carbon road bike to the skate park. I could, but neither would allow me to enjoy each activity at it’s best. So it is with tents which you plan to carry or use as the base camp for weekend adventures. So let’s look at all of the designs which are out there, their design principles and their pro’s and cons. My aim is to cover what always used to be called ‘Hike Tents’ not the fabric versions of the Albert Hall used for family holidays, though to a point the same principles apply.  Whilst I will make reference to specific manufacturers, this is just to give real world examples and should not be taken as a recommendation of the maker.  The aim of this article is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each design type to aid you in producing an evidence based shortlist suitable for what you plan to do, where you plan to pitch and in which season.

The Ridge Tent

Vango Force 10

Probably the earliest example of a ‘light-weight’ tent is the ridge tent. Epitomised for me by the Vango Force 10 (above). This design is supported at each end either by a single pole or an inverted V. Variants exist with and without ridge poles, the latter being lighter but normally less strong.

Vertical upright, ridge pole designs, unless made from very strong (and thus often heavy) materials are generally, in my experience, only suitable for summer use. Since they rely on the rigidity of the poles, these tend to be heavy and thus the overall weight of a strong structure is high. They require pegs & guys to keep them upright and thus need to be pegged securely to handle strong winds.

ridge tent

Where this design works well is with the Vango Force 10 (top), which has inverted V uprights which gives an almost free-standing design of considerable strength. However, that strength comes at the expense of weight. Even a Force 10 with a coated polyester fly weighed in at 7.0 kg. The original cotton version weighed 8.3 kg. (3 man)

Another version of the ridge tent which can work well is where there is no ridge pole – what I will refer to as the soft-ridge – sometimes walking poles are used for the uprights. If you are already walking with poles, then the weight of the tent components you need to add becomes very low. Examples of this design would be the the Trekkertent Stealth or the Tarptent Notch.

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The Stealth is very similar to Saunders Jetpacker which was my first ever backspacing tent which I used from 1987-1997. Lightweight for its time, but far from comfortable. Transverse soft-ridge (twin apex) designs tend to offer more space and headroom

Pro’s : Simple; Trekking pole designs can be very light but are only designed for 2-3 season use; V pole designs are very strong but heavy.

Con’s : Very limited area with good headroom, usually cannot sit two people at the entrance (transverse ridge designs are better); Usually heavy; Lightweight versions can be ultralight but are mostly very small inside; Not free-standing.

Teepee / Pyramid Tent

Pyramid

This is another very old design into which new fabrics have breathed fresh life. This design uses one central pole and then relies on pegs / guys to form it’s shape and structure. These have gained popularity amongst the ultralight backpacking / through-hiking community. They are simple and potentially as light at 460 grams for just a single skin shelter. Add another 600 g if you want an insect proof inner / groundsheet. Because of their symmetry they handle wind from any direction. To maximise the area of reasonable headroom the designs tend to slope gently which means a relatively large footprint, compared to say a tunnel or geodesic design. If you want the lightest rain shelter you can buy and insects are not an issue to you this is where this design could win out. You must be able to peg it out for it to stand, so not ideal for kayak tourers who often need to pitch on rock slabs.

Pro’s : Simple; Potentially ultralight; Quick to pitch; Plenty of ventilation

Con’s : No lighter than more refined designs if you add an inner tent / groundsheet; Large footprint; Not free-standing; Plenty of ventilation!

Tunnel tents

tunnel wild country

The tunnel tent was first commercialised by Helsport in 1971. However, the design did not become common in the UK until a lot later. A tunnel tent is commonly formed from two / three semicircular poles which provide structure to a fabric tunnel which is tensioned at each end. The big advantage of this design is the space / weight ratio. Because the walls are steep this provides a very large area of good headroom, so ideal for multi-person occupancy. It is a design found in the catalogue of nearly all tent manufacturers today from budget models to top end high-priced versions. Because it relies on fabric tension to retain it’s shape the quality of the flysheet fabric will determine how well this design will stand up against the wind. Three pole high end designs have proved themselves in the harsh conditions of the Arctic. That said they do tend to flap in the wind which is enough to keep some people awake, so they are not ideal for light sleepers.

A more recent variant on the tunnel tent is the single hoop design. This design lends itself to a lightweight three season shelter. Whilst the lightest tents on the market are commonly of soft ridge and pyramid designs, once you have added an inner tent they weigh the same as many lightweight single hoop designs. These come in both longitudinal and traverse arrangements, the latter being by far the most common today. Perhaps the most beloved longitudinal design was the Phoenix Phreeranger. Whilst Pheonix is no longer in business you can still buy something very similar to the Phreeranger from Trekkertents.

Tarptent Rainbow

Tarptent Rainbow – another example of a longitudinal single hoop tent

There are too many examples of the transverse design to list here. The main differentiator is where the pole is placed along the length – centrally or bias to the head end. Head end pole designs give a large entrance door but only a small protected porch. They open up most of the inner to rain on entry / exit.  They are nearly always lighter though so popular for competition use.

Terra Nova single hoop tent - offset

Single hoop – off centre design from Terra Nova

Mid pole designs give an adequate entrance but a larger protected porch area.  I now use a centre pole design for solo backpacking. I had been sceptical about the wind-worthiness of tunnel tents for many years but seeing the reviews of Hilleberg tunnel tents being used in extreme conditions made me think again. My single hoop tent has been used in an exposed position with 35-40 mph winds and performed well, but for me that probably represented the ‘comfort’ limit of its performance.

DSC_1308

Hilleberg Enan – plenty of protected porch from centre hoop design.

Good tunnel tents are trivial to erect even if you have to do it alone. Also their porches remain structurally strong with the door open.  This is true for both side and end opening designs. This is great for cooking in windy weather. Good multi-pole designs will handle snow, single hoop designs are not designed to do so.

Pro’s : Best amount of headroom of any design  (2-3 hoops versions); Excellent space / weight ratio; Very easy to pitch; Single hoop designs are the lightest two skin tents currently available; 2-3 pole designs can have two entrances; 3 pole designs handle snow well.

Con’s : Can be noisy in strong winds; Not free-standing; Rely on the strength of their fabric, so wind-worthy-ones are expensive.

Dome Tents

Dome tents have two or three poles which cross at a central point. They have relatively steep walls so can offer almost as much usable headroom as a tunnel tent. They are free-standing and the fabric is held taut between the poles irrespective of how you well you are able to guy them out. They are strong against the wind and quiet. My first base-camp tent was an Ultimate Designs Phazor Dome. It stood up to conditions which broke and collapsed other tents. Three pole designs tend to have larger porches – but the third pole in modern designs may be a shorter ‘roof pole’ as used in the Hilleberg Rogen or MSR Zoic.

Hilleberg Rogen

Hilleberg Rogen with a short ‘roof pole’ extending the size of the porch

Unlike my Phazor Dome, today’s dome tents tend to to be elongated rather than centrosymmetric and thus have a preferred direction to be pitched into the wind. Dome tents are my favourite design, offering a good compromise between space:weight ratio and quiet weatherproofness. The strong roof structure can support snow with the cut of the bottom of the flysheet determining if they are 3 or 4 season tents. Picking a design where the pole is tensioned after it has been inserted rather than as part of the original insertion makes them far easier to pitch. Pitching my Phasor Dome was a test of upper body strength, not true for most of today’s designs. They tend to take slightly longer to pitch than a tunnel tent, but not as long as a geodesic design.

DSC_1174

Pro’s : Good area of headroom (but not quite as good as a tunnel design); Strong; Quiet in the wind; Free-standing. Many handle snow; Three pole designs have large porches; A great compromise between strength, weight and space; Usually erect outer first.

Con’s : Intermediate space : weight ratio; Two pole designs tend to have small porches.

Y-Hub Tents

In 2004 MSR came up the first truly ‘new’ class of tents since the introduction of geodesic tents in 1975, the Y-Hub tent. Hubs were part of early family frame tents, but it using them in a lightweight tent in combination with flexible poles which is novel.  To enhance the space still further both MSR and Big Agnes use a roof pole to a give larger, steeper walled porch like the Rogen or Phreeranger.

The hub allows for a Y shape pole arrangement at each end, flexible poles mean that tension is introduced via the poles yielding a stronger, light, free-standing and spacious design. If MSR Y-Hub tents didn’t go up inner first (see section below) then I would be very tempted.

The Y-Hub design is an enhancement on the longitudinal hoop design as it offers a slightly greater area of good headroom and a free-standing structure. This is the one tent design I’ve not had personal experience of so I spoke with people who own both the MSR and Terra Nova versions of this design.  This guided me to understand where the two designs sit relative to other constructions.  The MSR can be viewed as an enhanced longitudinal hoop design, with a better area of headroom and stronger if pitched ‘Y into the wind’ (and the wind doesn’t swing around in the night).  The Terra Nova Southern Cross should be viewed as an enhanced two pole dome offering a greater area of headroom and better wind stability than either a dome or the MSR variant as it does not just have a roof pole but a full second hoop.  This is well illustrated by looking at the inner area : weight ratio (m2 / kg) of these four designs (all based on the two man versions):

Y Hub data table as pic

Pitching inner first and being made from lighter weight fabrics the Hubba design is firmly in the three season camp, the Terra Nova just crosses the boundary to be four season, with it’s strength midway between dome and a geodesic structures.  Both the MSR Hubba and the Terra Nova Southern Cross tents comes in solo and two man versions. A key difference with the Southern Cross is that it pitches outer first / all in one.

TN - Southern Cross 2

TN Southern Cross 2 (Four Season Y-Hub  tent)

It will be very interesting to see what other manufacturers make using this concept.  The Big Agnes Copper Spur range used to use this pole design, but the latest versions are now two pole domes.  It would be interesting to know why Big Agnes moved away from the Y-Hub design.

Pro’s : Excellent area of good headroom; Good size : weight ratio; Free-standing; Terra Nova version erects outer first. Southern Cross pitches outer first;  Two entrances on both 2 man versions.

Con’s: MSR is reported to be a little noisy in the wind like a tunnel tent.

Geodesic Tents

Terra Nova Quasar

The Iconic TB Quasar, in it’s element on top of Blencathra

A geodesic tent is one where the poles cross each other more than twice. To be strict, if the poles cross a total of five times (or more) the tent is geodesic, if they cross three or four times this is classed as semi-geodesic. There is no stronger tent design, if you are heading high in the Himalayas or want to do a winter wild-camp on top of Cairngorm then you want to be in a geodesic tent. Most geodesic tents have four or more poles so they tend to be relatively heavy, but like a tunnel tent they have steep walls and thus offer a big area of excellent headroom. They are quiet in the wind and can stand a good dump of snow. The classic tent design of the 1980’s was surely the Terra Nova Quasar, a geodesic design. They are fully free-standing and only need pegs to stop them blowing away, not to hold them up / in shape. I’ve pitched one on volcanic ash in Iceland, a material so lacking in cohesion that it is worse than dry sand. We tied ours to our mountain bikes and to rocks for security since the ground had all the holding capacity of candyfloss.

Hilleberg Tara pitched on volcanic ash in Iceland

Hilleberg Tara pitched on volcanic ash in Iceland

You would not choose to carry a geodesic tent in your pack unless you really had to (TN Quasar weighs 3.5 kg, Hilleberg Tarra weighs 4.3 kg) but carrying a semi-geodesic tent for a winter wild-camp is a practical option.  For example, the TN Voyager weighs in at 2.2 kg. But if you want a base-camp tent which you know will stand up to anything, a geodesic tent would be an excellent investment. Most have two entrances, meaning either two of you can get out of the weather at the same time, or at other times you can opt to enter / exit / cook at the leeward end with your wet gear / boots all stored in the other porch.

TN Voyager

TN Voyager, a classic semi-geodesic design

Pro’s : The strongest tent design yet made; Geodesic tents offer offer as large an area of excellent headroom as tunnel tents. Semi geodesic designs have a lower area of good headroom; Quiet in the wind; Handle snow very well; Free-standing; Most geodesics have two entrances; Full five season capability.

Con’s : Heavy (semi geodesics less so); Expensive.  Slower to pitch compared to other designs.

Pitching Method – inner or outer first?

Of almost as much importance as the design / structural shape of a tent is whether it pitches inner or outer first. Depending on your preference you can find most of the above design types available in either form simply by choosing a manufacturer with that bias. For use in the UK I  actively favour an ‘outer first’ pitch system.  Trying to pitch an ‘inner first’ tent in heavy rain either means a wet inner or feeding in the poles blind with the fly resting over the top of what you are trying to erect. There is a reason why key hole surgery is a specialist field!  Additionally most outer first systems offer the option to pitch all in one which is very fast.  All this said, when it comes to striking camp is is likely that you will have some condensation on the fly which will transfer to the inner if you drop both skins together.  There is no reason why you should not drop the inner separately to the fly if you see this as a problem.  My experience is that the condensation that soaks into the inner tent dries out in 30 min post re-pitch.  That will be aided by the water repellent finish on my inner tent which is not something used by all tent manufacturers.

In warmer drier countries I can see that being able to readily pitch just the inner as insect protection might be just what you need. Living and travelling in Europe and having owned both styles, today I would always opt for outer first. However, if you review the market you will find that the majority of tents pitch inner first, and I guess this comes down to cost. Adding strong clips or water tight pole sleeves to a flysheet is more expensive than sewing mesh sleeves to an inner tent. Most Scandinavian tents pitch outer first or all in one, but for one of these you will need deeper pockets.

Single or double skin?

With the advent of breathable waterproof membranes came the availability of robust single skin tents. For me this seems to be a concept whose time window has passed. Now that materials technology has brought us two skin tents which are lighter than single skin models and designs which allow two skin tents to be pitched all-in-one I cannot help but feel that breathable membrane tents have been superseded.  Ultralight ‘fly only’ tents need to let the wind pass through them if heavy condensation is to be avoided and as such are really more of modified tarp than a tent.  They certainly have their place but it is more niche than mainstream.

Other things to consider

Once you have decided which design type looks like working best for you there is no substitute to seeing a tent ‘in the flesh’ before you make a purchase.  Good retailers will have space to pitch the tents inside the shop for you to take a good look at.  As well as assessing for size look also for the build quality especially the stitching.  Consider also the position of the guys and how they are anchored to the tent.  The attachment points should be strengthened and most of them should be attached to a seam as the ideal arrangement of the main guys of any tent should be running out in line with the flysheet seams.  If there is a big area of fabric between the poles on the rear of the tent it’s can be good to have a guy in the middle of the face of the fabric at this point, but the vast majority of the guys should be on the seams.  Some five 4 / 5 season tents allow the guying points to be wrapped around the poles for greater strength still, thus spreading the load still further.

Ventilation is important too.  Except for winter use it is best there is a gap between the fly and the ground and the ability to vent at a high point on the tent too – this allows convection to draw air through the gap between the fly and the inner and keep any condensation to the minimum.  Look at the design of the high vent on the tent, good designs allow for the high vent/s to be left open even in the rain.

Conclusions

To cover the topic of tent fabrics will take a lot of research so I’ve not included that within this initial article.  Once I’ve done the necessary research I plan to publish an article on fabrics here.  In this article I aimed my focus was to pull together was a comprehensive guide to the different structural designs available. I hope now that you can see that no one tent design is ideal for all uses. It’s up to the user to decide which features they value the most for the locations and seasons they plan to camp. But whilst each design has it’s strengths, the advent of the flexible aluminium pole has largely resigned ridge and pyramid tents to history unless you are an ultralight tarp camper. Tents that rely on the strength of their fabric more than that of their poles will be more expensive than a like for like pole-centric design.  But they can be excellent if your budget can stretch that far.

If I could choose only one tent what would it be?  It would certainly need to pitch outer first.  As for the structure I think it would be a dome tent like the Hilleberg Rogen or possibly a Y-Hub Terra Nova Southern Cross 2. These two designs offer a good compromise of strength vs. weight vs. headroom.  As it is I am fortunate to own more than one tent.  I have chosen a single hoop tunnel for the better months and a semi-geodesic for wilder or winter conditions.

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I’d love to hear about your favourite tents (be that current or historical) in the comments section below.  Also any additional pros and cons for the Y-Hub design, the one type for which I don’t have personal experience.  Is there a design class I have missed?  If so tell me about it so I can add it to the second edition!

A final taste of freedom – A two day wild walk via Buckden Pike.

Rumours abounded that Lancashire was going to become yet further restricted and trips outside the county were not just ‘advised against’ but actually illegal. I’ve no moral qualms going for a wild walk against ‘advice’ a little away from home… …because by design I keep within the spirit of the (wise) guidance as I’m well away from other people – the idea is to be not just ‘socially’ but splendidly isolated!  However I’m no law breaker so I wanted to grab the last chance for a micro-adventure before COVID Tier 4 / 5 came into force.

The air was clear, the amount of sunshine exceeded the forecast and there was a good amount of snow above 300 m so I’ll keep my words brief and allow the pictures to tell the story of the glory of the Yorkshire Dales on a clear winters day.

My Route

My route, starting / ending at Kettlewell

Day 1 (Kettlewell to Buckden Pike)

Day 2 (Buckden Pike to Kettlewell)

  • Soulo
  • Sunrise
  • Fire & Ice
  • Wharfdale & Old Cote Moor

Lessons Learnt

  • My Grivel Spider micro-spikes were excellent for these conditions – full review here.
  • My water reservoir didn’t freeze but the filter did.  Must prepare enough water for the following morning next time
  • I should upgrade my Thermorest for a thicker model for next time My Prolite 3 is good down to single digit temperatures, but if I’m to get the best from my -15 C bag I need a mat to match it.
  • Grabbing opportunities like this one is well worth the effort.

Grivel Spiders – a review

This is a review* of the Grivel Spider, a flexible, lightweight set of microspikes whose aim is to act rather like ‘junior’ crampons and can fit to almost any shoe or boot.

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If you are winter climbing in Scotland, sometimes you can have the good fortune to be climbing up the frozen crust of a 50 cm depth of snow which is not quite steep enough to require you to cut steps. This is where a pair of crampons is a great aid. However is is far more normal in a British winter that you’ll find yourself alternately walking on 1-2 cm of frozen compacted snow, soft powder then frozen turf. Under these more common conditions, what can you use to prevent you from over use of that noted climbing manoeuvre, the flying buttocks arrest?

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As I get older I find myself becoming increasingly cautious on slippery descents. I guess I now have the wisdom to know that I am not indestructible! I love walking in the snow, but this winter I have often found myself on sections of path which have been well walked, and thus compacted, by others. This can make descents frustratingly slow as I found on my ‘pre-tier-three’ trip to Buttermere a few weeks ago.

DSC_1793Enter the Grivel Spider. I bought a pair of these over a year ago to aid me on the most treacherous terrain I have ever tackled in UK, the pavement between home and work! These simple light weight spikes fit the instep of anything from trainers to full blown winter boots. On a more recent walk I remembered I had the ‘Spiders’ and took them with me just in case. Advantage One : They allow for this as they are small and light. As I got higher on my climb I found myself on a path covered with the aforementioned thin layer of compacted snow so I stopped and pulled on the Spiders. Now I found I could walk onwards with complete confidence. It was indeed just like having a set of junior crampons.

A big plus for me was being able to walk at my normal pace without fear of slipping or falling over. Advantage 2 : They stopped me falling on my arse.  Once I was up on the ridge I found no hindrance in continuing to wear them as I walked through the powder, nothing clumped on them. Then they really came into their own as I descended – again I could walk at a good pace a free of fear of slipping. Now to look at a downside: The flexible plastic plate becomes a lot more rigid in the cold and I found it hard to get the fit truly tight when fitting them in the field. Twice in six miles one of the spiders fell off – so I found I did need to do a visual check every few minutes to prevent a long walk back to find the errant item. What I did find is that they got easier to tighten with time, not because the plastic became permanently more flexible, I think it just warmed up through flexing. Thus the next day I chose to stop and re-tighten the straps after 15 then 30 min of use, after which they were then secure enough not to need checking for the rest of the day.

How do they compare to the competition? In comparison with a range of shoe grips on the market they are more robust that many.  Advantage 3 : You can keep them on ‘til you are fully clear of the ice and snow, knowing that walking over (snow free) rocky ground will not harm them. This sets them apart from those based on elastomer skeletons like those from Petzl or Yaktrax. I cannot give you a side by side comparison to alternative options but I’d love to try either a pair of Grivel Ran’s or Hillsound’s Trail Crampon, should either company like to lend me a pair to review 😉

DSC_1790Finally, Advantage 4 : One size can fit to any shoe or boot, so I can swap the same pair of grips between my boots and my run-commute trainers, so that’s less clobber in my cupboard and more cash left in my wallet. I’d hesitate to make a full blown recommendation of the Spiders until I could compare them against some Grivel Ran’s but I do know they make the tricky, trivial and have facilitated a few really great walks on my my local fells without once needing to employ a flying buttocks arrest.

*This review is not sponsored, I bought the kit and now I’ve shared my views. All I hope to gain from this exercise is to help other hillwalkers.

Bella 0 Soulo 1 (a tent review)

Storm Testing my Hilleberg Soulo

When I snapped-up a pre-loved Hilleberg Soulo my goal was to have a wild-camping tent that would stand up to almost anything. I took it out for it’s maiden voyage earlier this month but whilst I had a great weekend, the tent was far from tested by prevailing weather. When I saw that Storm Bella was due to hit the UK this gave me an inspired / propitious / crazy idea (delete as you deem appropriate). Projected gusts of up to 47 mph had been forecast with an underlying speed of around 25-30 mph. Unfortunately, but I guess typically, this was to be paired with heavy rain. The idea was to head up a hill that could be easily reached / bailed out from to make the best of the testing conditions. Rough Hill, the Western Satellite of Pendle seemed an ideal choice, the same place I chose to try out my three season tent in the Spring.

After dinner with the family I drove up to the Nick of Pendle and set out for the 20 min tramp to the trig point on the top of Rough Hill. This is what it looks like in Spring / daylight >>

As the wind gusted on my walk-in it did ‘impede progress’ a sign of the wind being at force 8 and thus on par with the forecast. I found a good level spot and started to pitch the Soulo. This actually proved to be the most challenging part of the exercise. The use of two single pegs at the windward end was not enough to hold the tent down and the pegs simple ripped out of the sodden, yet stony ground (next time I’ll initially double peg these germinal points (see below). A brief lull in the wind allowed me to put both pegs and a guy in place which then gave me the time to get all the ground pegs placed and start putting in the poles. As you get more pegs in the load is shared and things quickly become easier.

The Soulo is not symmetrical and has a narrow end designed to be pitched into the wind. In this position the porch is sheltered. It proved harder than I hoped to work out which was the narrow end in the dark, despite me having rigged four guys on this end and just two on the other. Ahead of my next outing I will tie some bright coloured climbing cord to the narrow / windward end pegging points to make them easier to identify. I was at serious risk of loosing the tent into Yorkshire as I rotated it. Cutting to the punchline, it took me 40 min to get the tent pitched.

I was really grateful for the advice I gained from Shamus McCaffery, a former member of the British Antarctic Survey Team, on his ‘Outdoors Inspiration’ channel on the use of double pegging of guys. This looks something like this:

Double pegging; pegs left extended to help illustrate the point.

…and is extremely effective. After watching his video I recalled that I’d used this method on a marquee many years ago, but had long since forgotten. So thanks to Shamus for resurrecting a very effective and cost effective solution.

So how did the Soulo (and its standard issue V pegs) cope with the wind? Very well indeed. The tent was royally buffeted but shimmied only modestly.

The morning after…

I did have to fully close the (covered) roof vent because some of the horizontal rain was sneaking through (this is not an issue under more normal conditions) but I remained completely dry and out of the effects of the wind. The temperature dropped to 1 Celsius overnight.  I was snug and slept very well despite the noise of the wind, in part (I’d imagine) because I felt secure. In the morning I woke to much calmer conditions and blue skies between light snow showers. The tent was nearly free from condensation despite the low temperature. It seems that if the wind is strong enough to need to close the roof vent that the ventilation just under the low sidewalls of the fly is good enough on it’s own!

When I got out in the morning none of the pegs had shifted significantly and all the guys were tight. The ‘double pegged’ pegs had not moved even a millimetre. I would say that the Soulo acquitted itself very well and lived up to it’s reputation as a true five-season tent. As I covered in my earlier post it is ideally proportioned wrt space and headroom. Now I have first hand experience that makes me very happy that this shelter will extend my wild camping into the winter and will handle almost any weather that the UK can throw at me.

Limited daylight, limited distances, unlimited satisfaction – a two day winter wild walk.

As I was reviewing the year in preparation for the writing of our family Christmas letter I realised that I have walked and / or wild-camped in each month from April to October of 2020. I came to this realisation at the end of November realising that this would be the first month to break the pattern. Almost coincident with this I came across an advert for pre-loved Hilleberg Soulo at a very reasonable price, well reasonable for a Hilleberg!

After a test run in the garden, I felt the urge to try it out in conditions to justify its design. I set off for Buttermere on a Friday evening and slept in the van overnight to facilitate a good early start the following morning. Being December the days were set to be short, with under eight hours between dawn and dusk. At 0810 on the Saturday morning, as the sun rose, I strode purposely out of Buttermere village and set off for Red Pike.

Looking back across Crummock Water

My proposed route would take me along the High Stile ridge to Green Gable and then over to Black Sail Pass to camp next to Cloven Stone Tarn as I have great memories of camping here on my first Coast to Coast walk some many years ago. The amount of snow on the ridge was rather greater than it appeared from down in the valley. OK, only 4-6” but enough to make it fun and enough to justify an axe for the final ‘drift filled’ gully to the summit of Red Pike. A number of hills have the epithet ‘Red’ but Red Pike truly is red with the scree composed of iron rich syenite. The views from the ridge were excellent.

By the time I got to the steep decent of High Crag the sun had warmed this West facing end and started to melt the snow. My decent was painfully slow. The shallow snow was now extremely slippery but nothing like deep enough for crampons to be employed. Over lunch I noted my average speed of the morning has been only 1.8 mph. I could probably still make it to Black Sail Pass before dark, but not if the descent of Great Gable turning out to be anything like that from High Crag. As I started down the far side of Haystacks I concluded two things (i) That Weston Junior would love the gentle scrambling at the top of this peak and (ii) The temperature was dropping very quickly. Today had been slow, tomorrow would likely be similar so I opted to stop early which would shorten the following day as well.

Since I had my Sawyer ultra-filter with me this gave me complete confidence to source water from Innominate Tarn and I found a suitable, if bumpy pitch which afforded a great view of Great Gable.

There was little wind, and so no real justification for my five season shelter. However, it’s geodesic design was really helpful in helping me find the best pitch of the bumpy plateau I had chosen as my stopping point (NY 208,123). I found the next morning if I’d walked a little further (209,119) I’d have had a much smoother pitch with as good a view. The temperature was soon below freezing, and whilst in my youth that would have made a gas stove problematic, the pre-heater tube on my Alpkit Koro did what it was designed for and it cooked my dinner without a hitch.

The following morning was overcast with the cloud base around 700 m. That I was at 600 m and did not have to re-traverse Great Gable in the cloud was a blessing. Today’s route would take me to Honister Pass then up onto the ridge on the Northern side of the valley. My descent of Grey Knotts was again slow, justifying my change of plans the day before. My slow descent dampened my spirits so I sought to re-state my manhood by setting a good pace up to the top of Dale Head. Getting there 10 minutes ahead of plan re-ignited my mojo and whilst I was now well and truly in the cloud I set off with gladness along Hindscarth Edge. I can only imagine this section of the walk affords amazing views down into the valleys on either side and is somewhere I plan to return in better weather. In fact I would love to do the whole walk again, but in the absence of snow to get all the way to Black Sail Pass to relive my experience of umpty diddly years ago

Where they were afforded, the views from Littledale Edge where super and I found myself descending back to Buttermere just in time for sunset.

The Soulo, whilst not in any way challenged, proved to be a fine shelter. The porch is just big enough for my liking (space for rucksack, wet outer gear, boots and space to cook (not that I could ever commend cooking with the door closed dear reader). I look forward to taking it out again when I can test it’s true metal. I would not seek to carry it in the summer, but in bad weather I can fully believe that it lives up to its reputation. And how many other one man geodesic tents are there out there? Now my wild walking can continue all through the winter when and if Mrs W affords me another weekend pass.

GPX route files can be downloaded from here and here.

Covid diaries : Month 8 : “The Circle of Life”

So here we are – out the other side of Lockdown 2.0 and as a real ale brewer I find myself furloughed for the second time, at this point for six weeks. Even with this period of house arrest at an end here in Lancashire we are back to tier three as is most of our customer base. This time however the schools are open so I was able to look for temporary work and was very fortunate to find some. Not only will this top up the missing 20% of my income, but at least as important, it will also provide the routine and camaraderie which form part of the unspoken skeleton to my well-being. What is better still is that it is part time so I can continue with this even when I get phased back into work at the brewery when our local COVID tier drops and business picks up again.

And here we see my working life come full circle. Back in 1991 between the second and third years of my chemistry degree I found a work experience placement in a water analysis lab. Scroll forwards almost 30 years and my new temporary role is analysing the water released from a local chemical site to demonstrate compliance to their discharge limits. Whilst I’d rather be brewing, I find myself in a friendly team and learning how to run instrumentation beyond the wildest dreams of my colleagues in 1991.

At home I’ve never been so caught up on chores. Take for example our family Christmas letter this is now written and ready to send out. Furthermore, all the presents we look forward to giving, these too have been bought. This is position I have never aimed for before and will be unlikely to achieve again. Also positive is the chance to brew on my home nano-brewery once a week with the aim of optimising two beer recipes ready for Christmas. I am delighted with my raspberry porter recipe which my tasting panel say rivals the famous Titanic Plum Porter. My German Christmas biscuit beer is going to take some more work however, but there is still time.  It needs more orange zest… Every brew is a chance to learn. Another positive during Lockdown 2.0 is that I have started studying towards my IBD Diploma in Brewing, a welcome chance to exercise my grey matter and very enlightening to boot.

As I drafted our family Christmas letter I was able to look back at my multi-day walking / wild-camping trips of 2020. Another facet of my sanity skeleton is maintaining a connection to nature (link back). I’ve been fortunate that Mrs W has facilitated me spending at least one night under ‘canvas’ every month from April to October. Weather permitting I hope to get away next weekend to try out my new winter solo tent which was lucky to pick up second hand in ‘as new’ condition

They say the wild camping is cheaper than therapy, but not if you buy Hilleberg… My ‘new’ Soulo will enable me to continue to get out all through the winter and, please please, get to experience life at altitude and in the snow. Bring it on!

Sawyer Squeeze – an early review

The Sawyer Squeeze is an ultra filter designed to filter sediment and pathogens from ‘wild’ water making it both safe and pleasant to drink. Bacteria and parasites generally fall into the size range of 0.3-10 microns and this filter has a 0.1 micron absolute filtration capability.  With filters the word absolute is key, as when used in the context of a filter it means that absolutely all particles above the limit will be held back. And when it comes to removing pathogens you really do want to remove all of them rather than just most.  This filter than can achieve this with just the differential pressure you can produce by sucking, which ranges from 2-6 psi depending on the person.  Given that in my days as a Tech Support chemist (2001-14), we used to need to use a 60 psi pump to filter through a 1 micron absolute filter, this makes this an impressive filter medium.

The use of a filter sees me seeking to move away from the use of iodate tablets as a way of making ‘wild’ water safe. The aims of making this change were as follows:

  • Better tasting water
  • Carrying just one litre of water (rather than two) and topping up from en route ‘wild’ sources thus saving 1100g in initial pack weight.
  • Instant access to clean water rather than having to wait for the 35 min it takes of iodate to act and then the excess be destroyed with sodium metabisulphate.
  • Ability to use water from less ideal sources.

So now that I’ve taken it away on it’s first outing, a four day walk along the Cleveland Way, how did it perform vs. my list of requirements?

I was really impressed how it was able to take the ‘peaty’ taste away from moorland water.  As you can see my water source started looking like a single malt.  The filtered water was still ‘straw yellow’ but was totally free of any unpleasant taste.  A big test was using it to make a cup of Lady Grey tea – I found that it allowed me to enjoy all the subtle flavours within my tea, so that’s a big tick against criterion one.  I didn’t draw water from any sources which I would not normally use, other than that I can say it met all my desired requirements.  But I also benefits from an unplanned bonus.  This being that I was able to use the filter in-line between my dirty water pouch and a drink tube clipped to my shoulder strap.  I’ve never felt the desire to use a ‘hydration bladder’ before.  When I walk with someone else we are able to pass each other water without need to remove our packs.  This is not possible when you are walking solo, something I’ve done a lot of in 2020 and expect to continue with a few times a year.  On this first outing I was struggling with a neck muscle strain so hefting my ‘sack on and off less was much appreciated facet.

Two outlet connections, a straight 6mm / 1/4″ and a 28 mm screw thread (fits most common soft drinks bottles.)
Platypus drinking tube with stop and bite valves

Ahead of my walk I shook the internet looking for reviewing on drinking tubes and the best liked was that from Platypus (right).  I found it good too, but four days of use is far from a true test.  One thing I would saw is not to rely on connecting the hose to the 1/4″ connection built into the Sawyer filter outlet.  This is really only there to allow back-flushing and with it not being barbed I found my hose coming off a few times.  Since then I’ve paid the outrageous price for the in-line adapter kit which is a much better option. (If you are buying a filter I’d recommend getting the SP131 kit which comes with the adapters included)

900 ml Sawyer Bag (Left), 2000 ml CNOC Vecto Bag (Right) – the filter can screw directly to the CNOC bag.

On the negative side, most of the accessories supplied with the filter seem of very poor quality.  The squeeze bags have bad reviews a plenty, so since I would be totally relying on my feed / dirty water bag I sourced a well regarded one from CNOC.  The only place I could find with stock in the UK was Peak and Valley.  At £20 it’s a very expensive plastic extrusion, but is of considerably higher quality that the Sawyer bags.  I plan to use my Sawyer bag as a clean water reservoir as this will not have pressure applied to it in use.  As I suspected, having a clean water bag or bottle was useful on my trip.  I could use this when I was taking water from a potable source or as ready prepared water during the cooking of dinner.

What about the weight? The ‘dirty water’ bag and tube all add to the mass and totalled 215 g vs. 300 g for two 1 litre Sigg bottles which I would normally carry.  So you get all the above benefits with no weight penalty. 

Final thoughts

For me the primary aim was better tasting water, available more quickly.  This the Sawyer certainly achieved with ease on its first outing.  I am happy that on many occasions I’ll be able to ‘safely’ carry 1 kg less water, but with my CNOC bag I can carry two litres should I wish.  How it performs over time and how it copes with high levels of suspended solids in the water will take time to assess.  Other peoples reviews suggest I should be optimistic (which is why I bought the Sawyer Squeeze rather than an alternative or a Mini).  My plan would be to post a ‘long term use’ review after another year, so watch this space.