What's in a tent? (besides me)

As of May, 2022 I have bought precisely one tent in my life, my trusty Vango Banshee 300 which has been my roving home since 2017 when I bought it for my seven month cycle-circumnavigation of Australia. I carried that same tent for another four months while walking the length of Aotearoa, and on numerous overnight and week long tramps in the Southern Alps and other parts of New Zealand since.

My Banshee has endured both countries’ varied extremes of climate and terrain admirably and I really do adore it’s unassuming green silhouette. I don’t wish to part ways, but the niggling thought that my Vango has begun to constrain where I can go is forcing my hand.

At almost 3kg (6.5lb) the tent is… not light. And having a 3kg tent that consumes around 16 Litres of available pack volume when I’m solo-hiking feels increasingly daft, especially as I intend to do more week-plus food carries in the near future, and a few multi-week-no-resupply trips in the not-too-distant future as well. It was big and cumbersome on the bike, it was big and cumbersome on a through-hike when it was home to two people, continuing to carry it on my back on trips where it will be home only to me is increasingly meh. Though I do not need, I certainly do want a less limiting shelter.

Like a proper little gear nerd I’ve spent all of the intervening years since my last shelter purchase hammering out what my perfect tent would look like, and like the proper frugal bastard that I am, refuse to buy anything that doesn’t tick all the boxes

May settle for 95% of the boxes…

Now, there’s an element of futility here, no shelter will be perfect in all environments. Trips in arid but temperate tundra permit cowboy camping – using no shelter at all. In high Alpine regions taking anything less than a high-visibility, high-strength tent that can survive sustained snow-loading could be fatal (ie. not good), in spite of the additional weight. In a rainforest a single-walled tent could become unviable due to excessive condensation and lacklustre exclusion of creepy-crawl many-legged creatures. Depending on how you travel, packed volume may be far more important to you than packed weight, or vice-versa. etc. etc. etc.

So there is no perfect tent, but I think I can arrive at a better one for my needs with a simple three step process inspired by The Feynman Algorithm:

  1. Write down the problem (see above)
  2. Think really hard
  3. Open my wallet

Tent, tarp, hammock?

I have spent alot of nights in tents and a similar number cowboy camping with nothing between me and the night sky. I have used tarps, and I’ve spent a handful of nights in hammocks, my experiences so far have showed me that tents are the shelter for me.

Hammocks, while undoubtedly the most comfortable backcountry sleep system, are the least versatile as a multi-terrain shelter. I love forests, where hammocks thrive, but I also love beaches and barren deserts, mountain tops and scree slopes. Hammocks find themselves out of sorts in all these places. Hammock systems are also the heaviest of the three once you account for a tarp and a bottom-quilt, both of which you will need in anything but a California-esque climate.

Tarps are marvellous too. Even the lightest of tents can never be as light, compact, and simple as a tarp. They’re also the most dynamic of all shelters. If the weather is good and you only need shade, pitch it high and flat. Expecting heavy rain, pitch a steep tipi over a hiking pole, low to the ground for maximum warmth and rain deflection. Tarping with a friend? Pool your tarps and make a mega shelter. With a tarp you have a lot of options, but in some key situations they lack the comfort a more complete shelter can offer.

I like being able to confidently camp on ridgelines and exposed areas without having to worry about sideways wind and rain. I like being to be able to sit up and move around under my shelter without being bitten to death if I’m in bug season/territory.

So it’s a tent I want. But which one?

Context of use

My ideal tent would be suited to a wide range of terrains, conditions, and journeys, with the notable exception of deep winter alpine expeditions for which no 3-season shelter would do. Deserts, jungles, the alps in summer. Through hikes of established trails and untrodden landscapes alike. Baking sun, heavy downpours, moderate snow-loading, strong winds. Overnight trips and months long journeys. Backpacking, bikepacking, pack-rafting, kayaking.

Non-negotiable requirements

  • Lightweight – Less than 1.25kg/2.75lb
    Originally I was targeting a sub 1kg/2.2lb shelter weight but raised this cap to include the Tarptent Double Rainbow DW because it ticks more of the remaining boxes than any other tent I’ve come across. I do not take this extra 250g lightly though ;)

  • Stealth/visually unassuming
    I stealth camp. I do so respectfully, always observing the principles of Leave No Trace, but that alone cannot alter the fact that in many places it is illegal and a bright tent that attracts attention is bound to… attract attention. Beyond that, I don’t love the incongruity of seeing a brightly coloured tent contrasted against the backdrop of mother natures beauty. This alone rules out a number of big name manufacturers: Big Agnes, MSR, Zpacks, Nemo. Zpacks make some of their tents in green but even still the lightweight Cuben Fibre (DCF) fabric they use is reflective and draws attention. The other three, and tent manufactures in general, make highly visible, often fluorescent shelters. No good.

  • Small packed volume
    My main issue with my tried and true Vango is not its weight, but its bulk. It takes up so much space in a pack or a pannier. Any replacement must be substantially more compact.

  • Comfortable
    Over the next five years I may spend upwards of 700 nights in this tent, it had better be comfortable. Primarily this means it must be long/wide enough, thankfully I’m of slim frame and not a giant so this shouldn’t be an issue. Other comfort criteria include not being too drafty, damp (not necessarily ruling out single walled tents here, but they had better be cleverly ventilated if so), low (I insist on being able to sit up), or noisy (some materials are louder than others).

  • Simple
    I’ll be setting up my tent at the end of long days of walking/cycling/running, assembly should be simple and quick. I don’t want to have to fight with it at days end, especially if it’s raining/snowing etc. This leads neatly into the next criteria.

  • Durable
    This isn’t a tent destined to languish on a shelf in a garage bursting with other eagerly-purchased-but-rarely-used outdoor equipment (just as well because I don’t have a garage), it will see regular, prolonged, and demanding use. It’s construction should be simple, sturdy, and repairable. It will develop holes, zippers will break, guylines will fray, but a durable construction will delay these inevitabilities. It should also be suited to being repaired even when far from civilisation.

Nice to haves

  • Room for two
    All else being the same, a tent that can accommodate two people is much more versatile then a pure solo shelter. A two person tent can be a palace for a solo trips, allowing me to bring my gear inside rather than storing it in the vestibule and when the weather keeps me trapped inside for hours or days, having a larger space to move around in is much more enjoyable. A two person tent also obviates the need for owning another tent for trips with my partner.

    That said, a two person tent will be higher weight and larger in packed volume than a solo shelter. No such thing as a free lunch high tech shelter.

  • Versatile
    Ideally a shelter has some accommodations for adapting itself to the environment. Examples:

    • Being able to pitch the inner and outer independent of the eachother. Putting up just the inner net on warm dry nights and enjoying an unimpeded night sky view is beyond comparison, leaning out the tent door at intervals throughout the night doesn’t even come close. Similarly, being able to just take the outer fly and leave the inner behind when venturing into those rare locations without bugs and critters is a welcome option.

    • Freestanding. Sometimes fully staking out a tent is difficult (or impossible) when in confined spaces or wanting to camp on solid rock. In such cases a tent that can pitch (freestanding) without stakes is invaluable. While being able to pitch freestanding is great, it usually comes at the cost of increased weight, and it is very rare that some sort of pitch cannot be achieved with a non-freestanding tent, so this is low priority.

  • Inexpensive
    Of course it would be grand if a great shelter could be found for very cheap, but I won’t hold my breath. Given the amount of time I spend in the wilderness I’m prepared to pay the cost of a high quality piece of kit twice in a decade.

The contenders

The company, that I’ve come across so far, that seems to tick more boxes than any other for me is Tarptent. Several of their tents satisfy my requirements to different degrees but it was the Double Rainbow DW (Double Wall) that struck me most. At 1.24kg it’s still a little heavier than I was initially looking for, but it really hits every other beat in terms of features, every ounce feels justified. I particularly like the stargazing system as I have often found myself wishing to be able to watch the night sky from within the comfort of my tent.

I also took an interest in the Gatewood Cape from Six Moon Designs. The cape and stakes alone weigh just 310g! Now you need a trekking pole to pitch it, so we’ll include that in the shelter weight because I don’t carry one normally, and I would probably pick up a net inner for buggy trips. Adding all that in, it still only comes out to around ~750g.

While the Lunar Solo, also from Six Moon Designs, mostly fits the bill, it didn’t seem like it justified it’s extra ~100g weight over the Gatewood + Net, and in fact is less versatile in how it can be pitched.

Tarptent Double Rainbow DW Six Moon Designs
Gatewood Cape w/ Net and Carbon Pole
Weight 1.24kg 700g
Color Green Green
Capacity 2 person 1 person

I had just about decided to spring for the Double Rainbow when low and behold a Gatewood Cape popped up in the local classifieds! Second hand, the cape alone (sans net) was literally a quarter the weight (310g) and a quarter of the price of buying a new Double Rainbow. So that’s settled! I’ll update this page with my thoughts once it arrives and I’ve had a chance to test it out.