Garmin inReach Mini 2 – a real world review

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The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is a satellite facilitated tracking and text message communication device. It is small and light and designed to be used in combination with a Bluetooth enabled smartphone to act as remote keyboard and larger viewing screen. As the name suggests it is the second incarnation of this device. I bought one of these earlier in the year to give my family peace of mind when I was on an eight day solo wild walk across the Cairngorms.

Executive Summary

I found the unit easy to use and my family found messaging me and following my location using the tracking page straight forwards when I was in the field. The battery life was excellent, it would have lasted 12 days between charges using the configuration I chose. The reassurance of having a ‘Daddy Tracker’ was highly appreciated by the family and I benefited from getting messages and MWIS summaries sent from home. It gets a thumbs up from me.

What does it do / why might you want one?

By linking to both the US GPS, international GNSS and Iridium satellite networks it can pinpoint your location anywhere in the world where you have sight of the sky. Then by using its connection to the Iridium network (which is what powers satellite phones) it can broadcast your position back to your support team / loved ones via a Garmin hosted webpage. It does this at a frequency anywhere from once every two hours to as often every two minutes.

Using the Iridium network it allows the transmission and receipt of 160 character text messages. These can be sent to a mobile phone, received as an SMS message, or sent to an email account. A link within outgoing messages allows recipients (e.g. home base) to reply to the inReach via a web based messaging portal or via SMS to a dedicated pseudo mobile phone account at Garmin.

Finally the unit has an SOS button which will transmit an emergency call and your location to the local emergency services and also your chosen two primary contacts. Thankfully I’ve not tested this, but once in contact with the emergency services you can share text messages to fill them in with your status, nature of your emergency/injury etc.

I got one so that my family could be assured that I was OK and we could keep in touch with each other for the long periods I was without mobile phone network coverage (in my case for 5 ½ of the 8 days of my trip).  I was walking alone.

How easy is it to use?

DSC_2647After a couple of short test walks I was able to consistently and easily use the unit. Whilst it can be used on it’s own, if you want to send bespoke rather than just preset messages this is MUCH easier when you link it (via Bluetooth) to your phone. The unit itself has only four buttons, so typing on it would be a very slow process. However, you can read even long messages on the unit itself with ease.  The screen looks like that on a Kindle. Linking to the dedicated app on your phone is quick and easy. Reviews I read ahead of buying it all suggest that the Mini 2 user interface is much more intuitive than the original Mini 1. I have a 10 year old Garmin GPS Map and know that I can attest that the Mini 2 much easier and more intuitive vs. the older style of Garmin interface.

When I used the manual on / off tracking mode I found I could easily turn off the tracking by mistake. I never did work out what I was doing wrong. My solution was to set it to auto-tracking which meant I never accidentally turned off the tracking. This worked flawlessly.

Sometimes in deep valleys, or where there was tree cover it flagged a ‘poor satellite connection’ and asked if I would like to delay sending my message until it was guaranteed to sent without any errors. I opted for the ‘wait’ option and found that it never needed to wait more than 30 seconds before sending my message – a delay of no relevance as far as I was concerned. In the manual it suggested that messages may take up to 20 min to arrive with the end recipient (or get from them to me). On two occasions I had a back and forth text conversation with no perceivable delay.

Battery life?

There is always a difference between the optimal values quoted by manufacturers and real world performance. In the case of the Mini 2 your battery life will depend primarily on four main factors:

  • The frequency you opt to send your location back to your Garmin web page
  • How many messages you send / receive in the day
  • Whether you leave the Bluetooth link on all the time or actuate it ‘as needed’
  • Terrain / tree cover impacting satellite coverage.

In my case these factors were as follows

  • My location was set to ping once every 30 minutes
  • I sent around 10 messages per day and received 2-4
  • I only turned on the Bluetooth when I wanted to send a bespoke message
  • I was only rarely in deep narrow valleys or under trees
  • I had the unit switched on for around 8 hours per day
Picture showing how I carried the inReach Mini 2

inReach Mini 2 – clipped and strapped to my shoulder strap for good reception and easy of use

With the above settings / conditions I consistently used 8% of the battery life per day over my seven full days of use. Thus I could have got just over 12 days of use from a single charge of the internal Li ion cell. This seems excellent to me and all most people would every need. The unit is charged using a standard USB / phone charger (USB C) and thus can be topped up in the field using a power bank. The internal battery is 1250 mAh, so around 40% of a modern smart phone for comparison.

How the messaging works

The message payment model works as follows:

Preset messages

You can set three ‘preset messages’ via your Garmin Explorer web portal. These are fixed messages each sent to a (potentially different) fixed group of recipients. All and any aspects of these messages can only be altered via the web portal. Once set on the web you sync to your device either via USB or via the app on your phone / Bluetooth. You can send as many of these preset messages as you like at no extra charge. You can choose to include a location link within them.

Bespoke messages

Each message is up to 160 characters. These can be composed on the unit if you really have to and have a lot of patience (it has only four buttons) or are more readily composed on your phone then relayed via Bluetooth to the inReach and then up into the deep dark reaches of space. You can choose to include a location link with your message if you wish.

The cost of bespoke messages and location pings depends on the level of subscription you decide to pay for. Each subscription package includes some complimentary messages / pings and then you pay per message / ping after that. Since these costs will likely change with time best that you look here on the Garmin site for more information. This third party video is good too.

Both outgoing and incoming messages count towards your quota and will cost you once this quota has been exceeded. (Currently £0.50 / message).

Once you message someone, they can message you back.

Weather information

You can pay to have a weather forecast sent to you, it is multi-day forecast and can be standard or premium. I didn’t use these services so cannot comment. I arranged for Mrs W to send me a summary of the MWIS mountain forecast every other day. This service proved excellent!

Web portal configuration

This is very important as the settings on the portal will determine what your audience will see and what functions they will have available to them. You share a URL with them of the form https://share.garmin.com/xxxxxx. You can password protect the page if you wish and choose whether you want it to be possible for friends to message you from here. But note that you pay for incoming messages too.

On the portal you input your emergency contact information (two people). Via the app, you can populate a contacts list with their mobile / email details, these can be easily imported from your phone’s address book.

Costs

Again, look at the Garmin site for up-to-date costs, but their model has three levels of package further split into whether you opt for a monthly or an annual plan, so six options in total. There is an annual subscription fee too which is lower for an annual plan than a monthly plan. One thing that was not clear on their website is that if you buy a month’s usage this appears not to be 30 days, or from the Xth to the Xth of the month, but is instead for the calendar month. Worth noting if you plan to use it in the early part of the month, don’t subscribe until the 1st of the month at the earliest

I would suggest however that you would want to be able to familiarise yourself with the unit and check you can configured the settings on the web portal correctly before you head off into the wild and allow 2-3 days for this before you first use such a device.

Final thoughts

I’ve written this review after my first use of such a device, but it was a very comprehensive eight day trial – it was used ‘in anger’ so to speak. I could not fault it for either ease of use, robustness or battery life. From what I’ve read the Mini 2 has an easier interface and slightly longer battery life than the Mini 1. Mrs W was greatly reassured to be able to track me and get “I’m OK” messages at the start / end of the day and at each rest stop. This was the longest and most remote wild walk I’ve done so far and I was concerned I’d start to feel lonely after 4-5 days, but thanks to knowing I could communicate from absolutely anywhere (and you can send / receive messages from inside a tent without an issue) was probably a major reason behind this not being the case.

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The subscription is relatively expensive at £35 pa plus £35 per month used (middle level plan) but if it facilitates an adventure, as it did for me, it feels well worth the cost. My original plan was to sell the unit straight after my trip (cheaper than rental according to my sums) but rental is an option. However Mrs W has asked me to keep hold of it, so there’s a commendation right there.

HydraPak Stow – One litre soft bottle / bladder – A review.

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I’ve never liked the idea of all the extra hassle which goes with the use of a water bladder. However when I moved to the use of a water filter rather than iodate tablets I needed a ‘dirty water’ supply container which would collapse as the liquid was removed so that I could use my filter. You’ll find many posts on the use of single use water bottles as the feed reservoir. If you want a source bottle you can squeeze this seems to work for many people. But I figured that if I was going to have a bladder type bottle then I might as well go the whole hog and get one that I could use with a drinking tube. When I walk as a part of a pair, we pass water bottles between each other, but on my solo walks having a drinking tube means I can rehydrate without having to stop / take my pack off.

I started with a CNOC water bag / bladder. This was really easy to fill because you can open the whole base to fill it, then roll and clip to reseal.

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But for my solo walks it was simply too large at two litres. Although it fitted reasonably well to the side of my pack, the water inside this large volume container sloshed around leading to both undesirable noise and an instability to my pack. Thus I shook the internet to see if I could find a one litre option which was well reviewed. The bladder I tried next is the subject of this review, the HydraPak Stow.

The Stow soft-bottle has gone through several iterations. It is important to avoid the first DSC_2229version for two reasons (1) The one I tried leaked badly around the cap seal (2) The neck thread is not the 28mm size which you need to fit directly to Sawyer and similar water filters. Version one is easily identified as the lid is a matching colour to the bottle. Later versions have a grey cap irrespective of the bottle colour. For these reasons it is a version 2 (or later) that you should go for.

I’ve used mine for five multi-day trips so far and I’m very pleased. I don’t have a bladder pocket on my rucksack so I strapped mine to the top of the lid of the pack. I started using a mesh of elastic cords, but I found that once the bottle reduced in volume it became loose and fell off. The sharp whack on the legs took me my surprise a few times. My next (and current) method is putting the bottle into ‘hip belt pocket’ which I strap to the same attachment points on the lid of my pack. Whilst this isn’t perfect it works pretty well. I really recommend the pack makers who made my pocket, Aiguille. They will do bespoke modifications too, so I’m considering sending them a picture of my lid attachments points and getting them to make something with clips in the right places. I have a 10 litre bum bag from the same people and it is excellent.

But back to the bladder / soft bottle. I carry two, and it’s handy that I can roll up the second one until I need to fill it at the end of the day. At this point I make use of its haul loop so I can secure it to the side of my pack with a karabiner. As for the hassle of cleaning, I found that I had a trick up my sleeve in the form of the no-rinse sanitizer that I used when brewing. Once I’ve flushed it out at the end of a trip I put 20-30 ml of this into the bottle, shake and them empty and seal it and this keeps it free of new life forms with reasonable ease. As a commercial brewer I use 100 ppm peracetic acid solution, but the more easily obtained StarSan would be another good option. As a final tip, if you carry two like me, get two different colours so you have a clear distinction between your dirty and clean water container. If you draw some water from a clean source (i.e. a tap) or want to filter some water in advance then this makes for an easily tell which is which. For example, I’ve found that pre-filtering is necessary if you plan to use such a system below ca. -2 C when the filter is prone to freezing. Once filtered you can sleep with the clean water in / close to your sleeping bag so it’s liquid and ready for a brew up in the morning.

Final comments

Whilst the CNOC bottle is easier to fill, I’ve never yet found a water source that I could not harvest with almost the same easy with the HydraPak Stow. The one litre size is really convenient and having two smaller bottles rather than one larger one is working very well for me. I’d happily recommend them as a water reservoir solution to use with a filter like the Sawyer or Katadyne.

*This post is not sponsored.  It was simply written to give back my experiences to the walking / wild walking community.

Hilleberg Enan – long term review

I’ve now owned my Enan for just over a year. It was bought originally just ahead of the initial lockdown relaxations in the summer of 2020. Now 16 months on I’ve used it for 20 nights in a wide range of weather conditions and temperatures. Now I think I have the evidence and experience to give it a proper review.

User Requirements Specification

No tent is perfect for all conditions and all duties, that is why there are so many designs out there. I bought the Enan as a lightweight, three season backpacking / wild-camping tent which would shelter me against anything other than snow and storm force winds, I have a Soulo for that duty. So how has it shaped up against my requirements?

Space (Score 4½ /5)

I am 5’ 11” and the length and height of the inner works very well for me. In terms of height, there is just enough for me. If you were above 6’1” you might find the headroom too limited, but for me it’s just fine even when sat on my new 50 mm thick Thermarest. The length for sleeping is generous and allows me to sleep with my feet at one extreme end and still have around 300 mm of length above my head. This allows me to have my face at a point where the ceiling is higher meaning no issues with claustrophobia. In wild weather I put my jacket around the foot of my sleeping bag as a guard against any condensation transfer, but I’ve not yet seen more than a few drops on my jacket but I’ll keep doing this as a great protection against cold feet.

Pitched behind The Crown in Shap on the Coast to Coast

The porch space is generous allowing me to put my boots and 55 L pack and any wet waterproofs in the ‘closed’ half leaving space for all my food, water bottles and cooking gear in the ‘open’ half. Having a porch to allow this is important to me and one reason I moved on from my previous Niak to the Enan. I could not commend cooking with the door closed, but should you choose to do so, you would find you have plenty of room to make a cup of tea from bed.

Ease of pitching (Score 5/5)

I’ve been a life long sceptic concerning tunnel tents, I’ve never liked that they rely on their pegs for structural stability. But that is a theoretical concern and not something I’ve found to be a problem in the reality of actual use. And if I need extra assurance, I double peg (details here) my longitudinal guy lines. The big pro with the tunnel design is that pitching is both fast and trivially easy. This is of especial importance in a solo tent and one I wish to pitch on fell tops in the wind. The fact that the inner and outer go up together speeds the process up yet further. When it comes to striking camp, Hilleberg’s practice of slightly over-sizing their tent bags makes it trivial to pack away even when wet.

Weather worthiness (Score 5 / 5)

So far I’ve had this tent out in 40 mph winds on an exposed fell top, in heavy rain on the North Yorkshire Moors, in calm warm weather all around NW England, during hot summer nights in the Lake District and even in winter temperatures down to -7C. The ventilation on this tent comes from two mesh ‘ends’ not by passing underneath the fly. These mesh ends are inclined steeper than vertical so no rain run off ever enters them.

These can be covered in the event of really foul weather, but so far I’ve only needed to use these covers once. I cannot speak of how it holds out in torrential rain but I found my Niak to be faultless in the foulest weather possible and this used the same fabrics and same seam construction technique. Remember that this is a three season tent, and I’d consider it fully capable of anything within that weather envelope. I’d not want to pitch it in an exposed position in 60 mph winds as has just one pole, but if I were to encounter such weather I’d seek an sheltered position, as indeed I did when I walked the Cleveland Way last autumn.

It is important to pitch it correctly vs. the wind direction, both for strength and ventilation. If the wind moves around during the night the rain will still be kept safely outside, it’s just that you will see more condensation on the inner of the fly on a cold night. And on that topic…

Ventilation / Condensation ( 3 ½ / 5)

If people have cause to complain about Hilleberg tents it’s normally either about condensation or the price! With the Enan the amount of condensation depends strongly on the conditions and I can only compare against other tents in Spring / Summer conditions as up until recently I’ve not camped frequently through the winter months, well not since the 1980’s!

With night time temperatures in the 10-14 C range I’ve experienced either extremely little or no condensation with wind speed determining the difference. When the temperature drops to 5-10 C and the wind is light then a modest level of condensation formed, even with the top of the door open as well as the end vents. Comparable with Terra Nova and Vango tents which I’ve owned. When I do see heavy condensation is at sub zero temperatures when I seem always to get a good skin of ice on the inside of the fly, even with a 20 mph wind. At -7 C I got the most modest amount of condensation (ice) on the inner directly above my head, the immediate condensation of my breath; the only time I’ve seen condensation on the inner itself.  The inner door is 100% mesh, but because that mesh is perpendicular to the airflow through the tent it doesn’t less in excessive drafts and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the tent is in winter temperatures even with a good wind blowing.

Moon rising over the Calder valley

Moon rising over the Enan

From this I conclude that the condensation issues often talked about in connection with the Akto have been largely – but not totally – solved by the end vents of the Enan. What could make it even better would have been if Hilleberg had included the same design of vent cover at the top of the door so that this could be opened more widely (The Akto has two zips at the top so you can open a segment not strip a narrow strip). This should encourage a chimney effect. I have adopted a low tech clothes peg solution! (see RHS). But is this condensation actually a problem? It is modest enough to mean you never get anywhere even close to it dripping on you. Also the DWR finish on the inner means that when you re-pitch it damp, on day n+1 of your walk that it dries out* in around 20 minutes. I guess the aspect you might choose to take issue with is the additional weight of that water which you are lugging with you after a cold night. I imagine it could easily be in the 100-200 g range. I know I observed much less condensation in the Niak at similar temperatures but this might simply be down the higher volume. My summary would be that it was not a problem, and is probably no worse than any other tent of the same size.

Footprint (Score 5 / 5)

As a solo tent which is not oversized, the footprint is small and I’ve been able to pitch the tent in the tightest of spots. Given my newfound love of wild camping this is an excellent characteristic.

Weight vs. Robustness (Score 4/5)

The Enan weighs 1.2 kg. For those of us who can remember carrying half of a 7 kg Vango Force 10 that’s amazing! There are lighter tents out there, but they either compromise on robustness or space. If you were to consider the Robustness : Weight ratio I’d say the Enan was at the top of its class. I could have a TN Laser at 1.0 kg but would have less ventilation and a pole sleeve cover to faff about with. I could have a Nordisk at 700 g and not be able to sit up, or I could have a Cuben Fibre tent which I might have to accept needing to repair once or twice a year. I think the only design out there which would give me the space, strength (when new) and stability would be the MSR Hubba NX but I bet I’d not get 10 years of hard use out of an MSR tent. If anyone would like to lend me one to try and review then I’d give it a go and let you know how it compares!

Summary

I love my Enan. It’s got nicely more than the bare minimum amount of space and is comfortable for solo touring for a week. It is both trivially easy and quick to pitch and strike. It stands up to the wind better than I imagined (sound at 40 mph, probably not good at >50 mph), better still if you add two additional guys to the ready-for-use guying points on the windward end. It comes with good pegs that stay where you place them. You can sleep soundly with the assurance that it will definitely keep the weather out, even if that’s wind driven heavy rain. If no snow is forecast it’s comfortable in sub zero winter conditions. It’s not the lightest solo tent on the market, but I think Hilleberg have got the robustness : weight ratio spot on. If I wanted to loose 400 g from my pack weight that would be better lost from the pack animal than the tent! I think it’s only weakness is the lack of a hood / cover over the top of the door to improve the weatherproof venting a little further.

Overall score comes in 27/30 – making me a happy wild camper!

*The higher the contact angle of a material, the faster it will dry.

Thermarest ProLite Apex – a review

Executive Summary : 4/5 – very comfortable and certainly works well at -7 C* and probably good to -12 C. *Updated after my first night away post lockdown 3.0!

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Detailed Review

Comfort : At 5 cm thick and with a foam core the ProLite Apex is supremely comfortable.  I like to sleep on my side for some of the night and find it excellent for this with no hint of my hip or shoulder grounding out.  The wide end it is exactly the same width as my current regular ProLite pad.

Warmth : Sad to say I had to camp in the garden to test out my new pad, otherwise with the current lockdown limitations I’d not have had chance to try it out ‘in winter’ for another10 months.  I spent a night at – 3 C and another at – 1 C and found the pad clearly kept me warmer than my regular ProLite pad (R 2.4).  My best comparison is far from perfect, but I know that on my old pad at -5 C I needed the hood and shoulder baffle of my sleeping bag tightly cinched to keep me comfortably warm.  On the new pad at – 3 C I only needed the only the shoulder baffle and opened up the hood in the wee hours to cool down. i.e. the difference in insulation is very obvious in practice, not just on paper.

Practicality : The Apex pad does not self inflate as well as the ProLite 3.  It needed 8-10 breaths in the former after allowing it 20 min to self inflate and only 2-3 in the latter.  However in comparison to having to carry and mess with an inflation sack or pump this is still an easier and more convenient task.

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The Apex is fitted with the new ‘Wing valve’ which is an improvement on the original valve design.  The incorporation of a one way valve option makes inflation simpler and the larger diameter makes deflation and rolling up much easier than my equal thickness (old valve type) Basecamp pad.  Only time will demonstrate the longevity of the valve, but it is backed with a lifetime guarantee from a company whose customer service is excellent in my experience.

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The only major downside for me was the stuff sack which was provided.  This is no longer a simple drawstring bag but incorporates two compression straps.  Why?  I don’t see how you can compress further something which you have squeezed flat with all your weight!  Thermarest seem to have dropped the ball here.  The extra weight of the oversized, overcomplicated bag is simply unnecessary. Not only do the straps add weight without adding value, they also catch on other items in my pack when getting in and out.  Thankfully I reasoned that since the bag for my original 1987 pad was slightly larger than my 2007 ProLite 3 bag and might be the right size.  It was!

Conclusion : So far, so very good.  The Apex pad meets my requirements for warmth, size, comfort and practicality.  Air inflated (i.e. NeoAir) pads can be lighter and warmer, but I cannot imagine improving on the comfort of the Apex and it has proven to provide a good level of insulation for a British winter and should in theory work well down to – 12 C.  For me it’s a superior solution to a NeoAir pad at slightly under half the price.  What’s not to like, apart from the stuff sack that is…

History : I bought my first Thermarest back in 1987 when they only had one product and your only choice was the colour.  That pad is still working well, albeit with a patch on it after an ill advised pitch too close to a gorse bush.  Roll forwards some 20 years and when it came to buying a pad for Mrs W what reason did I have to look beyond Thermarest’s latest lightweight offering at that time?  After all, the first one had performed well for over 20 years. We bought what was called a ProLite 3 at the time, now simply called the ProLite.  Roll forward another 10 years and now Mrs W prefers our camper van to a tent, so when I go solo backpacking I pinch her pad because it’s lighter than my original and just as comfortable.

Until December 2020 I’d never done any winter backpacking / wild camping but my time on furlough led me to expand my envelope, and heading off to the Dales to camp on top of Buckden Pike in the snow and experiencing night time temperatures of minus five Celsius.  I was confident in my winter sleeping bag (which had only been used for base camp use until then) as it has a comfort rating of – 15 C.  I was surprised though that whilst warm enough, that I seemed close to the limit of the bag.  Until this point I’d never given any thought to the insulation characteristics of my sleeping pad because I’d never challenged them.  All that mattered to me was that the pad was comfortable and folded down small for packing in a rucksack, or more critically a bike pannier. I could feel the cold of the ground through the pad the following morning and had melted a pad shaped patch of snow.

Sunrise

Sunrise from summit of Buckden Pike

Winter sunrises won me round to all year backpacking and I looked to find a winter sleeping pad which could match the performance of my winter sleeping bag and tent.  When you go shopping for a pad today they come with R values quoted, a measure of the resistance to the flow of heat.  With R values, bigger means better insulated.  Manufacturers of top end sleeping pads suggest that for winter that an R value of 5 or above is required, however they don’t specify whose winter this refers to – UK, Spain, Canada, Arctic etc.  In other places, the following table is commonly referred to:

R value vs temp chart

Here in the UK it seems reasonable to think that I am unlikely to have winter overnight temperatures below -10 C.  Looked at another way, matching my pad to my sleeping bag’s rating of -15 C seems logical and thus an R value of around 4.0-4.6 for a British winter seems justifiable.  When I consider my experiences in a 1 C rated bag on an R 2.4 pad and now a -15 C bag on a R 4.0 pad the data in the table seems to be valid in my experience.  To get R values of > 5 you are looking at manually inflated rather than self inflated pads.  I love the simplicity of a self inflating pad and have bad memories of lilo’s and indoor air mattresses.  I can never get the air pressure right for a comfortable nights sleep.  Combine this with a £200 price tag for a NeoAir pad and it was not something I was keen on trying.  The warmest self inflating pad on the market is the Apex, the subject of this review.  This has an R value of 4.0* so seemed likely to meet my requirements for comfort, simplicity and warmth.  Even if I had access to a shop to see one in person I could not have tested it overnight, less still tested it at – 10 C for it’s insulation properties.  Since everything seemed right on paper, and what I was looking at was simply an upgrade of a technology already proven in my experience, I decided to buy and try one, knowing I could always return it if it did not meet its promised performance.

So here I find myself, some 34 years on from my initial Thermarest purchase happy with their latest incarnation of self inflating pad.  It is so comfortable it may be difficult to transition back to the thinner ProLite when the summer comes.

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

 

Backpacking Tents – A Comprehensive Design Review

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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.

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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.

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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!

Hilleberg Enan – A review

After 7 trips and a total of 12 nights of wild-camping in the hills I concluded that this twist to my love of hill walking was not just a passing phase and I could justify getting some lighter kit to enhance the experience still further. Swapping out my petrol stove for a lightweight gas stove last year was a good move and inexpensive. A lighter tent which would meet all my requirements was to be a more significant investment.

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These are my initial thoughts on the Hilleberg Enan, something which I see as a ‘Mark 2’ to the popular Akto. For those wanting to skip to the executive summary – after two ‘test nights’ it seems to be great tent for my needs:

  • Lightweight (albeit not ultralight) – 1200 g
  • Robust
  • Weatherproof
  • Flysheet first pitching
  • Good size inside, and it has just enough headroom
  • Really quick and easy to pitch on your own (kind of important for a solo tent!) even in strong winds.

Update : One year and 14 nights on, I’ve now written a more detailed assessment, I’m pleased to say it simply adds to and does not disagree with my initial thoughts.

What is the space like inside?

Perfect for my needs. I am 5’ 11” and find the length of the inner tent around 6” longer than my absolute needs. If I have my feet all the way to one end, then the height over the inner tent above my face when sleeping is not claustrophobic. If you are much above 6’ that might be different. I can sit up at the highest point of the tent with about 1” above my head in my normal posture. If I sit bolt upright my head brushes the inner. The Terra Nova Laser is 2 cm taller.

There is space for a set of clothes, book, torch etc in the vertex next to the middle of my sleeping mat. Plenty for 1-2 night stop. The porch is excellent with plenty of room for my 55 L pack, boots and waterproofs in the fixed fly half and enough space to cook within the openable section. One great addition would be if I could figure a way to attach the door corner to a walking pole to stretch it out like a tarp. This is a nice feature of some Nordisk tents. I suspect something could be fashioned from a short length of climbing cord.

How does it handle the wind?

The Enan coped well with winds up to 40 mph in an exposed position. I have added two extra guys to the windward end for which there are fittings for this purpose. This helped make the fly tighter and provided reassurance for this life long tunnel tent sceptic. The tent flapped a bit, but the flysheet material does not ‘crinkle’ like a crisp packet. The benefits of silicone over PU I guess. I think this was probably the strongest winds to which I’d be keen to expose the tent. On reflection I do need to be aware that I’m used to using bombproof geodesic tents. That this single pole tunnel tent would best be pitched in the lea of a wall or a bank is the price to pay for the reduced weight. I reckon that’s fair enough.

How does it handle condensation?

Most Hilleberg tents are designed to be able to be used in snow with their flysheets coming right down to the ground. This reduces the ventilation between the fly and the inner tent and seems to lead to significant condensation for many people. So significant as to be ‘unworkable’ in a number of reported cases.  So, for me at least, it was time to think about the science. According to a variety of sources, and depending on body weight and environmental factors, people respire between 300 – 500 ml of water over an eight hour period of sleep. If little or none of that water escapes the tent then that could become a lot of condensation. Also as the temperature drops overnight so will the dew point of the water laden air within the tent. Thus I reasoned, if you choose to sleep in a tent whose volume is very small, you are likely to end up with a condensation problem whatever the make / shape of the tent.

So, was the Enan likely to reduce this issue to an acceptable level? On paper Hilleberg looked likely to have resolved the issue and asking around proved that it was people with problems who had published their thoughts, a good number of long-term Akto users were quietly very happy with their tents. The secret to reducing condensation is to have a good number of air changes within the space. Good air circulation is promoted by having a cross flow of air, ideally from bottom to top rather than just from left to right. This is how sash windows are designed to work.  Here Hilleberg have come up with an unusual but effective solution by including a mesh panel at both ends of the tent, the ends which should be aligned with the direction of the wind. [Also true of the Terra Nova Laser.]

Cunningly, these are steeper than vertical. Thus water from the fly will not run down them, nothing can pool on them either. Whilst wind blown rain will pass through them it is slowed down enough so that (in my experience) >>99% drops to the ground before it hits the inner tent. In my first pitch in an elevated exposed position, with winds of 40-50 mph and heavy rain I counted three drops of water on the inner tent behind the windward vent in the morning. No water actually came into the inner tent itself. There are rain covers you can put across the vents if the weather is really foul and thus is best done from outside the tent ahead of need, it’s very fiddly to do from inside the tent in the middle of the night.

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On my first test night I had both vents open until around 0500 when I shut the windward one. Things were getting a little wild outside! In the morning the inside of the fly was completely dry. However the overnight temperature was a very mild 14 C. On my second test night I shut the windward vent from the outset and devised an effective and lightweight way to keep the top of the door open despite it’s design.

This is where Hilleberg may have missed a trick. The Akto has a small rain hood over the top of the door and a second zip allowing you to have a segment of the door open, not just a slit which is practice is pretty much held closed by the tension of the flysheet. But if a 10 g clothes peg can reduce the condensation I have to carry in a damp tent by 100’s grams it’s an excellent investment. After the second night which consisted of heavy rain, 20-30 mph winds and a minimum overnight temperature of 10 C I had just the lightest layer of condensation on the flysheet, an amount that anyone would consider acceptable.

What next?

With pubs and campsites to open from 4th July, I think I have the ideal tent to walk a five day section of Wainright’s Coast to Coast. Thanks to the Enan and an upgraded sleeping bag, my kit will be down by a whole kilo on what I’ve had until now, and at 10 kg (excluding food and water) this is around half the weight which I used to carry 30 years ago.

Update : If you want to know what I think a busy year into it’s use then see my long term review here.