Hilleberg Soulo – long term review.

If you’ve watched any wild camping video’s on YouTube you will be familiar with the Hilleberg Soulo, as alongside the Tarptent Scarp 1 it is one of the two most popular solo tent designs which feature. I’ve now used mine through two winter seasons.

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Why did I buy one?

I returned to backpacking in 2017 after a 25 year gap and was drawn back by Alastair Humphreys descriptions of micro-adventures and by wanting to explore the Forest of Bowland after seeing an enticing track wiggle up into the hills. After a couple of years of weekend walking / wild camping adventures from Spring to Autumn, I decided I wanted to expand my rediscovered hobby into winter and to be able to camp on fell tops in the coldest or wildest of weathers.

Space (4/5)

There is a good area of excellent headroom in the tent thanks to it’s semi-geodesic design, I am 5’ 11” and am very comfortable. The length of the inner leaves space for your next days clothes at your feet and the steep side walls means that when you are sleeping there is plenty of space above your head even at the end of the tent. In strong winds my preference is to sleep with my head at the leeward end where the slope of my pitch allows this.  The pentagonal footprint leaves good space next to the middle of your sleeping pad for a book, map, torch, water etc. There is a single pocket for watch, phone, matches and the like. The porch is just about big enough for all my wet gear and cooking stuff.  For me the ideal porch space is 0.7 m2 per person and the Soulo offers 0.6 m2. The steep walls of the fly do mean you can make the most of this space and the other features of the tent make this sacrifice acceptable.

I would not want to spend more than a week in a tent of this size, but I doubt I’d ever go on a solo walk of longer than four days in conditions that justified such a design. For base camp use, I would choose something larger.

Ease of pitching (4/5)

The Soulo is easy to pitch, but having three poles means it it takes 10-15 min to get set up, 15-20 min if it’s really blowing a hoolie.  The poles are attached to the fly with clips with a short sleeve at the base of each pole.  This design aids pitching in strong winds as you can firmly fix the base then gradually pitch the fly higher up each pole in turn. One very big plus is that it goes up ‘all in one’ which means once the fly is pitched, the job is complete. Having a fly first, or ‘all in one’ pitch design seems essential (to me) if you are planning to use your tent in extreme weather. In today’s market place the large majority of tents pitch inner first which is not want you want in a tent for the 4th season.

One thing I learnt on my first ‘foul conditions’ trial was to double peg the first two peg placements – for more info click here. You don’t actually need extra pegs for this, as once you have the geminal points pinned down and a couple of guys in place you have spread the load over 8 pegs and can remove the ‘doubles’ for use on the remaining guy lines. If you are planning on pitching at above Force 6 having a few extra pegs is wise anyway.

Another thing I learned was to mark up the windward end pegging points with some bright cord so it’s easy to know which end is which in wild pitching conditions. The porch has a fixed and an opening section and in bad weather you’ll want the fixed section at the windward end.

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All the guys out and double pegged – High winds on the Howgills

The Soulo comes with 12 guy lines, six sets of two. However it is only supplied with enough pegs to mean that by design you peg each pair of guys to one peg. The weak point of a guy is usually the peg placement and unless you are willing to carry the extra pegs you might as well remove some of the lower guy lines in my view. I have removed four (to save weight and to simplify) as for single night use in even poor conditions I can only see the point of having double guys at the windward end. I carry extra pegs so I have one per guy.

Weather worthiness (5/5)

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Trusty Soulo after a cold night

This is where the Soulo is in a league of it’s own. So far I’ve used use it in very strong winds, heavy rain, driving horizontal rain, low temperatures (down to -6 C) and on very poor ground. I’ve spent a relaxed, warm, dry and secure night in each case. The only ‘4th season’ condition I’ve not tested it in is heavy snow fall. The covered high level vent keeps out spindrift and the heaviest of rain, so long as that rain isn’t horizontal. The semi-geodesic design should be easily strong enough for a high snow load.  When I did have horizontal rain and had to close the vent, the wind coming under the (down to the ground) fly was enough to prevent any condensation.

Ventilation / Condensation (3 / 5)

This is the one weakness of the Soulo. In colder weather, unless you have a moderate wind ( > ca. 15 mph)  wind you will suffer moderate levels of condensation on the fly. In sub zero conditions I’ve had small amounts of ice on the inner tent too. For me this has never been more than an inconvenience and extra weight to carry the next day. However, for some users condensation is a real issue, to the point of their sleeping bag getting wet. Perhaps I respire less water overnight than average, or maybe I have less of an issue because I never pitch my Soulo in a sheltered position on a cold night?  One of the inner doors can be zipped open to reveal a mesh panel to aid ventilation of the inner, I always have this partly open.

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If you want a tent which will keep out wind blown snow you will have to have a flysheet that comes down to the ground, in the past snow skirts were also used. This is almost certain to lead to condensation in a (low volume) solo tent. I know I see more condensation in the Soulo than my two man four season tent under comparable conditions, presumably because of the lower volume per person and thus ease of reaching the dew point. Also, two man four season tents tend to have two doors and thus a cross venting option.

My conclusions are these:

  • The Soulo is a tent for the 4th season and is not ideal to use all year round in the UK.
  • I get a 5-6 C temperature differential in the Soulo in winter, higher than the 2 C differential of my Enan – this is welcome when it is below zero outside.
  • You are best not to pitch the Soulo in a sheltered position, make use of the breeze to reduce condensation.

If you only feel comfortable pitching in a sheltered position and don’t want heavy condensation then a 3 season tent is probably the best choice for you. It will vent better, be lighter and usually cost less to buy. A good 3 season tent will cope with most UK conditions all year round. Only if you are fool enough to want to pitch your tent on a fell top in a gale or somewhere with heavy snow fall then the Soulo would be something to seriously consider. These are the reasons I have one and I’m when I do use it I am delighted to have it.

Footprint (Score 5 / 5)

As a solo tent which is just the right size, the footprint is small and I’ve been able to pitch the tent small spaces. Given my renewed love of wild camping this is an excellent characteristic. Also, because it is free-standing you can pitch it well on ground which is far from ideal – say on top of heather, or even somewhere you cannot use all / any of your pegs. I once used a mountain bike as my tent anchor when I pitched on volcanic ash which would simply not hold a peg securely.

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Weight vs. Robustness (Score 4/5)

The Soulo is unarguably robust. In terms of design, geodesic tents are the strongest, if you push down on the roof and feel it spring back you get a good sense of this.  The materials are very strong and the construction excellent. I have the Red Label version – for an explanation of the colour system click here. A Black Label – even stronger – version is now also available. However, from my experience the only place I feel this would add value would be for group use / commercial / hire situations.

At 2.4 kg it cannot be considered a lightweight tent by today’s standards. I have carried it for 2-4 day walks, but would not want to carry it for a week. If the weather is simply cold (below -3 C is cold in my books) but not wild I’m better to carry a warmer sleep system and a three season tent as I did here. However if I am expecting strong winds for an elevated camp I am delighted to use the Soulo. It was ideal on my recent winter traverse of the Dales Highway with high elevation pitches on Ingleborough and the Howgills

Summary

If you want a totally reliable 4th season solo tent, and you are happy to own another tent for milder conditions, the Soulo should certainly be on your shortlist.  For such a need I would always choose a geodesic / semi-geodesic / dome design – to understand why read this article. It’s not a good idea to choose a tent from it’s statistics alone, I’d always draw up a shortlist on paper then go and see these options pitched at a local stockist and have a good poke around. If I had the chance of a month’s trial ( If you are listening Terra Nova! ) with other models in place of my Soulo those I would seriously considered would be:

  • Terra Nova Southern Cross 1 – total weight 1.7 kg (£600)
  • Tarptent Scarpa 1 with the extra cross poles – total weight 1.9 kg (approx £620 inc. tax & duty)

I bought my first Hilleberg Tent in 2001 for a cycle tour of Iceland and was blown away by it’s quality, easy of pitching and well thought out design. They were rare in the UK back then. My original Hilleberg is still in great condition and used to this day, albeit infrequently because Mrs W is now rather less keen on camping.  In the last 20 years I’ve tried models from a number of other European makers but when it came to choosing a tent for wild walking I returned again to Hilleberg.  Whilst they are expensive (Soulo RRP is £895 at time of writing), if you plan to use your tent both frequently and to it’s limits of it’s capability I would contend that they offer excellent value.  The Soulo is not a tent for the occasional weekend on a campsite, but if you need true 4th season performance, my experience is that it does not let you down.

I’d summarise my comments by saying that the Soulo is a tent for niche applications, but within that niche it excels.

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After my ‘foul conditions’ test night – Storm Bella (Force 8 gusts) on top of a local fell.

If you have found this review helpful, you might also find value in reading my other tent reviews:

Hilleberg Rogen – a review

This is my initial review of the Hilleberg Rogen, a two (and a half) pole dome tent, designed for three season use by two adults. I’ve had searches set on several second had sale sites for over 18 months and finally I bagged a pre-loved Rogen which had (it was claimed) only been used once.

User Requirements Specification (URS)

No tent is perfect for all conditions and all duties, that is why there are so many designs out there. My requirement was for a light weight, yet robust, two man tent to use for mini adventures with my son (8 yrs) or when I go wild walking with a friend. It needed to be capable of handling being pitched on an exposed fell top and have enough porch space for the wet gear and rucksacks from two adults.

My personal preference (based on too many years experience) was for tent where the door was on the long side and not the short side / end as this enables you to sit up in your sleeping bag and cook. Also when you have two people it’s easier for both to sit in the doorway to admire the view. Porch space is very important to me and experience suggests to me that around 0.7 m2 per person is ideal.

So how is it shaping up against my requirements?

Space (Score 5 /5)

The Rogen feels like a Tardis. Being a dome it has an excellent area of good headroom. The long sides of the inner are vertical because of the two porches and each porch is a generous 1.0 m2. On a recent trip we comfortably sat three people for evening drinks, there would have been room for a couple more too. There is space for a 55 L rucksack, boots, waterproofs and cooking gear in each porch. With cooking gear put to one side each of you can enter through your own door so you can get in quickly should it be cold or raining. I’m 5’11” (180 cm) and there is 30-40 cm spare at my feet (or head) to store clothes overnight. There is a good sized pocket on each side too for phone, GPS, matches etc.

The roof pole helps to make the best use of the internal space. It gives rise to eaves on each porch which help protect from rain when you have the outer door/s open.

When I was last out in it there were periodic short showers and I was sat in the porch cooking and kept completely dry despite the door being open. Further, the eaves give rise to a steeper door angle which means you can maximise the usefulness of the massive porches. (I could sit wholly in the porch and cook with two further people in the inner tent, not bad for a 2.1 kg structure.)

Ease of pitching. (Score 4/5)

The first point to note is that the Rogen pitches fly first or all in one. I find this the most practical option for British weather. Sometimes outer first tents have a rather loose, flacid inner, but not so in this case because it is a dome structure. This is the first tent I’ve had with ‘roof pole’ and so far I’ve found this OK to insert but challenging to remove when striking the tent. I’m hoping I’ll get used to this with time. The single ended pole sleeves make putting the two main poles in a breeze and the tent can be pitched by just one person, even in a moderate wind. Striking it is far easier with two if it’s windy, but then it is a two man tent.

Weather worthiness (Too early to rate)

So far I’ve only spent three nights in the Rogen. I can say that it stood up very well to 30 mph winds in an exposed position. In such winds it makes sense to make use of the extra guy points on the porch and it’s a shame it doesn’t come with spare guys for this purpose. My other Hilleberg tents with Kerlon 1000 fabric have never let in a drop of rain. The Rogen has more seams than many tents and the potential for water to pool on the top leaward end of the tent so time will tell. The design is very similar and fabrics identical to the Niak which this tent replaces and I owned for several years. I was dry and secure in both very wet and very windy  weather without the Niak missing a beat, so this bodes well. The Rogen also boasts waterproof zips on the doors.

Ventilation / Condensation ( 4 / 5 so far…)

If people have cause to complain about Hilleberg tents it’s normally about condensation. Let’s first consider the fly; The Rogen flysheet does not come down to the ground but instead has a catenary cut design – the bottom of the fly curves up between the pole ends.

As noted above, I bought the Rogen to gain more porch space on my old Niak which has the same catenary fly design. I found the Niak to perform excellently wrt condensation over a range of conditions and an improvement on my previous Terra Nova Solar 2 and my current Soulo. I’ve only used the Rogen for three nights so far and so long as the wind was not totally absent I’ve not experienced any condensation at all. That said, no tent will be condensation free in all conditions. Because the design has two doors this allows for a cross breeze to be set up. To aid this I would recommend carrying two clothes pegs so that when you open the zip at the top of each door you can force the gap to be wider.

 

Internally each door is 100% mesh which allows for excellent inner tent ventilation. The steep walls should also reduce your breath condensing on the inner on cold nights. Finally the DWR finish on the inner means that should you re-pitch it damp, on day n+1 of your walk, it will dry out* in around 20 minutes.

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

Pitch Flexibility (Score 5 / 5)

The design is asymmetric. Whilst this does not make the tent very photogenic it does impart significant practicality. The flysheet door is divided into a wide and narrow section and you can choose which is the fixed section and which becomes the opening ‘door’ depending on the conditions. Combine this with the dual entrances and you can always have a leeward entrance / protected outside cooking area. It is easy to swap the pegging point for each door so if the conditions change you can change the set up in seconds. Ideally you would pitch with one of the narrow ends into the wind, but given the size of the porches, if the wind moves around in the night there is plenty of space between inner and fly on the long side to handle this. I will be adding an extra guy (or two) to my kit to tie out the windward porch. Two tie on points are there for this purpose.

Weight vs. Robustness (Score 5/5)

The Rogen weighs 2.10 kg. This is not the lightest two man, dual entrance tent on the market but neither is it the heaviest:

  • MSR Hubba Hubba – 1.72 kg

  • Vango F10 Krypton UL 2 – 2.01 kg

  • Nordisk Telemark 2.2 – 2.2 kg

  • Terra Nova Pioneer 2 – 2.15 kg

  • Terra Nova Southern Cross 2 – 2.29 kg

If your URS is the same as mine then the MSR Hubba Hubba is certainly something to consider. The Rogen has a 50 Denier groundsheet and the MSR is 30 Denier so you should probably consider the weight of a footprint if you plan to wild camp with the latter which adds another 220 g. MSR tents tend to be like Marmite – some people love them, others criticise the robustness of the materials they choose to keep their weight / cost down. I’m keeping out of that debate.

I’ve long felt that Hilleberg’s yellow label (lightest weight) range gets the balance between weight and robustness just right if you are a regular / frequent wild camper. I’ve used by Enan for over 40 nights in the last two years and before that my Niak in some tough conditions, never suffered any damage and always sleep securely because of the confidence in my shelter.

Summary

I look forward to being able to write a long term review in 12-18 months time because I am really keen to use this tent for two person adventures. It remind me of a modern version of my Phazor Dome – for those old enough to remember this design – however because of the Kerlon fabric you have all the space of a base camp tent in one easily light enough to carry. I do find the roof pole hard to get out when it’s windy, but hopefully that is something I will get the knack of with time. My biggest complaint would be the price, currently £1030. When you can buy a Hubba Hubba for £440 or a Telemark 2.2 LW for £540 it’s hard to justify the additional cost unless you are a heavy user or have deep pockets. I was pleased to buy mine second hand, but I had to wait for 18 months for one to come up for sale – either because people love them too much to want to sell on, or more likely because of the price when new.

I’ve been fortunate to try many tent designs over the past 35 years, many of which I got to borrow rather than buy and have a strong preference for the dome design for three season use. The Rogen is an extremely well designed and manufactured example of this construction which thus far seems even better in use than it appeared on paper.

 

If you have found this review helpful, you might also find value in reading my other tent reviews:

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

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.

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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.

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!

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.

DSC_1786

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?

IMG_0364

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.

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.

Rab Neutrino 200 (ultralight sleeping bag) – a review

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Recently I was seeking to reduce the weight of my backpacking / wild-camping gear by a kilogram. I knew it was possible to get a tent 1000 g lighter than my current two man Niak, but the compromises on robustness were too much for my liking. Then the idea came to me that perhaps I could lose 500 g from the tent and 500 g from another / other items. This seemed an excellent solution as it meant I could choose a tent made from fabrics I knew I could trust and yet still lose the weight. To cut a long story short, I sought a new sleeping bag and this review covers that bag.

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Pitched behind The Crown in Shap on the Coast to Coast

The Rab Neutrino 200 not only comes in at only 579g but has proved to me that their reputation of excellence in down bags is well deserved. I have been very pleased with the Mountain Hardware synthetic bag I have been using for the past ca. 10 years, but the Rab bag is just a whole level above, thanks to subtle but superb features of its design. I have now spent six nights out in this three season bag in temperatures between 6-12 C, typical temperatures for it’s expected use. Thus far I am absolutely delighted.

Temperature Rating

It is rated to -1 C “limit of comfort” exactly as the bag it replaced and a “comfort” limit of 4 C. Everyone’s personal rating varies, especially between genders, but my experience at 6 C is that the 4 C limit seems about right for me wearing just boxers and a T-Shirt. That’s perfect for UK three season use.

Packed volume

This bag is so easy to pack and comes supplied with it’s own roll top dry bag, a nice touch. A quick squeeze gets the bag to the same volume as my compressed synthetic bag. I have no need to compress further, so there is (if you seek it) another weight saving, no need for compression ends. It’s worth noting that the weight is the same as similarly rated ‘down quilts’ which seem the trendy ultra-lightweight option at the moment – that with more comfort and less hassle.

Comfort

Here comes the unexpected plus point. The bag feels like sleeping in a cushion of weightless warm air. Another simple but wonderful thing is how the zip is integrated into the bag. Not once has it snagged the lining when I’ve zipped it closed. Also, unusual for a bag of this rating, it has a shoulder baffle. Rab’s design is such that this works without having to velcro tabs together to complete the baffle integrity. I don’t know how they’ve done this, but it’s great and means none of the typical fight-to-get-out-of-the-bag in the morning, or more importantly in the middle of the night when you are dozy but need to get up for a pee.

Practicality

The Pertex Quantum outer appears to be 100% down-proof and the down itself has been treated to be hydrophobic – this for me was the clincher to take the risk with a down bag that might see some rain or condensation fall on it within a wild-camping setting in a very small tent. To reduce weight, the zip on the side only covers the top half of the bag. This has not been a problem, wrt access and egress, and since it is two-way, I could still effectively vent the bag on warmer nights. In fact venting the middle of the bag seems both more effective than at the foot and also more convenient. Finally there is the price, mine cost me £200 from Open Air in Cambridge significantly less than the £300 for the Mountain Hardware or Mountain Equipment equivalents.

Overview

This bag is fabulous in every possible aspect and seems correctly rated at 4 C / 3 season. If I was giving a star rating out of five, I’d say this is a six star sleeping bag.

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.