It is doubtful that any of the small choice of ‘lightweight’ backpacking tents available to those with limited funds in the 1970s and ’80s could pass muster against the more reasonably priced tents available today in terms of durability and weight. When Three Points of the Compass infrequently set forth in to the back country as a teenager, I would either pass the night beneath an army poncho spread between trees or cowboy camp (usually to be awakened by rain in the middle of the night). Progress into the army at the age of seventeen simply saw me using a better class of poncho.
My first full time job at sixteen meant that I was in possession of a half decent wage. I looked around and selected a tent that stood me well for some seven or eight years. This was a nylon Robert Saunders Backpacker. It had two poles at the front giving a good clear doorway with no centre pole obstructing the way, something today’s designers could learn from. The inner was around a metre high at the front and sloped toward the rear where there was a single pole. The floor also tapered toward the rear.
It was a fairly similar tent that followed me into the army. That was the single skin Karrimor Marathon Mk II. Beside using it on my own adventures this also went on the occasional military exercise. Frequently two of us would squeeze into its limited interior, the envy of my army colleagues below dripping, windswept tarps.
My stint in the Forces coincided with the issue of ’58 pattern ponchos, though they actually dated from the mid 1970s. It was a rectangle of proofed nylon with a hole and hood in the centre- NSN 8405-99-132-1639. One side was shiny, the other had a matt finish. A drawcord round the hood enabled it to be cinched up if the poncho was used as shelter/basha. These were really good pieces of kit. They had multiple tie-out points and poppers to enable the sides to poppered up when worn, or alternatively, multiple ponchos could be fastened together to make a larger shelter.
One weekend I went out on a wander around Hampshire. I had no real destination and simply wanted to get away. I eventually walked in to the night in an attempt to find somewhere away from habitation suitable to wild camp. In the dark I found what appeared to be a low hedge, pitched in its lee, brewed a cup of tea and climbed into my sleeping bag, exhausted. I was woken by an approaching drumming on the ground. It ceased briefly as horse and rider cleared both jump and my tent before continuing down the course. I think the time in which I packed up and left Tweseldown cross country race course is still a record for me today.
I lent the tent to a friend while I was posted overseas, on my return it had vanished, I mourned its loss.
Whilst in the army, adventure training in the Lake District in 1979 was a memorable occasion. Taking over the entire end of a sloping field, my troop was issued a large canvas ‘shed’ with no windows and a tie down flap door, the whole of which was stretched unwillingly over a near indestructible framework. Our days were spent running up and down the local fells, interspersed with sailing on the local lake. They were interrupted by one of the worst storms the area had encountered. At midday on day five our lieutenant called a halt to our activities and we returned to our camp site. He retreated to his personal and expensive tent, a Vango Force Ten if my memory is correct,. We retreated to our dark cavern to wait for night in an increasingly sodden field, clutching cans of Tennants, our shouted conversation drowned out by the constant flapping of the soaked canvas and screaming gale. I drifted off to sleep at some point to be wakened by half daylight and what I thought was someone pouring a bucket of water over me. The water turned out to be rain, our tent had been bodily lifted from the ground and went sailing off into the unknown, never to be seen again. We piled into the four- tonner and drove into the nearest town to be put up in the local boozer. The extended lock-in didn’t last more than a few hours though. The river rose and burst its banks and we spent the next three days filling sandbags in a largely successful attempt to save every household we could. Such are the dubious joys of organised camping, when organised by someone else.
We still get extreme weather but the tents available to us now enable us to withstand adverse conditions that would have sent us scurrying back home only a couple of decades ago, unless your name was Scott or something similar. Modern tents are light years ahead in materials and design terms from what we had back then.
Despite advances in design, and there are some very clever tent designers out there, my belief is that what is simplest is probably best, as there is less to go wrong. Where the true progress has been is in materials. Gone are the canvas ‘pup’ tents, instead we have materials that are stronger, lighter, stretch less and hold far less water. Though the problems in pitch, condensation, and damage from UV remain, they probably always will.
As to choice, well, it is down to the individual. One need only cast a glance at the myriad of tents parked on a field close to any large Cotswold outdoor store during the summer months to realise that the occasional camper need not spend a vast amount of hard earned dosh to obtain a perfectly reasonable abode. What you will invariably get though, is a compromise. Cheaper tents will be manufactured of cheaper materials; a bit heavier, a bit bulkier and more prone to wear and damage as a result. For most occasional weekend campers, camping during the summer months, these concerns need not matter. It is when you move into the shoulder months or even winter that the make and design of tent start to really matter and any shortcomings become amplified. When you have constant torrential rain accompanied by high winds. When you have spindrift, blown sand, midges. When you camp above tree line or engage in surreptitious wild or ‘stealth’ camping. When you actually have to carry the damn thing, rather than loading it into the boot of a car, that is when quality becomes apparent.
Today, my own preference is to do a little homework and not be afraid of buying quality, even if the price is severely inflated as a result. Car camping over the past decade has seen me quickly progress from our family tent purchased in April 2006. It was enormous (both when erected and packed) but provided the buffer zone of comfort required by a dubious wife and child. Despite the PU coated polyester having a hydrostatic head of 3000mm, airflow was so poor inside the tent that it often appeared to be leaking. Our Coleman Columbus 8, weighing some 25kg, was changed to a much more respectable Hilleberg Keron 3 GT within a couple of years. This was only possible once I had convinced ‘she who must be obeyed’ that this camping malarkey was a ‘good idea’.
Hilleberg make some damn fine tents- real genuine quality, they are made to travel to the poles of the earth, or even the Lake District. The Keron (bought second hand) was followed by a Hilleberg Nallo 3 GT (again, second hand), possibly an even finer piece of work.
Both of the Hillebergs are of a tunnel design with a door at each end. This provides a lot of interior space and was perfect for me, my wife and daughter to stretch out in. The inner tent is bright yellow which gives a cheery interior light, particularly on dull days, something that green and blue coloured tents fail miserably at, things appearing very dull and gloomy in these. The GT on each of my Hilleberg tents refers to the extended vestibule. This provides extra room for stowing muddy or wet gear and, with extreme care, the potential for cooking inside. Something that is not recommended or supported by any manufacturer but we have all done it, haven’t we!
The fly of the Keron was made from Kerlon 1800 which has a hydrostatic head of around 3000mm. The Nallo fly was made of Kerlon 1200 with a hydrostatic head of around 2000mm. Both materials are fantastically tough.
Neither though, are light enough to really consider taking backpacking. The Keron weighs 4900g, the Nallo weighs 3100g. But of course backpacking wasn’t what they were purchased for. Making room in the gear cupboard and realising that I hadn’t actualy used the Keron in a number of years, I put it up for sale on Gumtree. I got a couple of hundred quid, the buyer got a bloody good tent.
A move to lightweight tents
For backpacking, which required a smaller, lighter tent, I did a bit of research and eventually Three Points of the Compass went old-school, to one of the oldest designs of tent there is, the single centre pole, pyramid shaped Eureka Wiki-Up SUL 3.
The Eureka Wiki-Up SUL 3 is based on the Golite Shangri La-3 (itself modelled on their Hex tent). The fly is 20D siliconized ripstop nylon with a hydrostatic head of >2000mm. There are three hooded vents at the peak. I had heard of complaints of horizontal rain being driven in these but I have never experienced that. The fly weighs 782g. The pegs (126g) that came with the tent were rubbish so I swapped them out for my own pegs. These are six aluminium Y clamcleats at 15g each and six 3mm titanium shepherds hooks at 5g each, total 110g.
Just one single centre pole is used with this pyramid design of tent. This is a lovely piece of kit that weighs 324g, but right from the outset I planned on using this very infrequently. Instead, the pole can be left at home and my two walking poles can be joined together with a central alloy walking pole extender bought from Backpacking Light, this weighs 46g.
The inner is 20D breathable nylon, this comprises of ‘solid’ walls with mesh for the top third. It has a built in bathtub floor made of 70D PU coated nylon. This has a hydrostatic head of >4000mm. The weight of the inner is 948g which takes it out of the extreme lightweight bracket for one but is perfectly acceptable when used for two occupants. Pack size is about 150mm x 450mm. The interior is positively cavernous, something I really appreciate over the minute proportions of some lightweight backpacking tents I have clambered in and, with great difficulty, turned round and clambered back out.
My intention when I purchased the tent was to buy a bespoke inner made by cottage industry Oookworks. This would have weighed between 300g and 490g depending on the size of inner I purchased. However my emailed conversation with them sadly became a one-way affair and I was unable to place my order. Instead, when solo camping with this tent the inner stays at home and I usually use a piece of tyvek for a partial groundsheet (143g) and a huge Katabatic Bristlecone bivvy bag (305g). In cold winter months I also used a cheaply made Chinese one-person inner just to stop most of the draughts and raise the temperature inside a little. This is not a particularly lightweight option however.
Three Points of the Compass has settled on two lightweight tents for the majority of backpacking excursions. One is more suited to providing comfortable and roomy occupancy at lower levels in calmer months of the year. The other is more ‘bomb proof’, easily capable of going above tree-line and extending into the colder and wilder months.
Both are constructed of Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), formerly known as Cuben Fiber. This is a pricey material but I feel its advantages outweight the disadvantages. It is extremely lightweight, very tough, however it does not handle abrasion well, nor is it puncture proof. DCF is completely waterproof. Which means a number of points have to be borne in mind- it will not leak but is equally susceptible to condensation. So air flow in a shelter has to be incorporated and allowed where-ever possible. The fabric doesn’t sag either, so doesn’t stetch with rain or on damp nights, retaining its tautness throughout with no need to adjust poles or guys. As the material doesn’t soak up and retain water, it can be shaken off or wiped free while packing. Holes can be easily repaired with adhesive DCF tape.
There are many shelters made from DCF and it is possible to look for the size and configuration that suits the individual. My two are the Z Packs Duplex and the Duomid from Mountain Laurel Designs. The former is a two person shelter that gives lots of space for the solo hiker. I used this on my five-month 2000 mile plus hike across the UK in 2018 as well as on numerous other trails. Completely worn out after some 3000 trail miles, I had no hesitation in purchasing another Duplex, regardless of the (very) high cost. The Duomid handles winds better and with a solo inner nest extends my hiking comfortably into shoulder and winter months.
I have never been able to fathom how those tough individuals tackle and accept camping in buggy conditions. To simple stick up a tarp in midgy Scotland baffles me. I want a shelter with good bug netting in to which I can retreat away from the beasties. You can see a short piece of film of a midgy eveing on the Cape Wrath Trail on my Trails walked page.
DCF is pretty noisy under heavy rain. Here is a short film inside the Duplex taken during a thunderstorm on the South West Coast Path. This also shows just how much room there is for the solo backpacker in this cavernous shelter.
It is worth noting that weight can creep un-noticed into the pack via all the little bags used to hold items. Having said that, Three Points of the Compass has a penchant for compartmentalising gear. The only way I can do this without too much weight penalty is to use very lightweight bags and pouches made from DCF or similarly lightweight materils.
Some people simply stuff a tent into their pack, great, if that suits you, go for it. I prefer to pack away, limiting transfer of mud and damp. Also limiting further abrasion. It is worth taking the time to search out effective yet lighter alternatives to supplied bags. Pegs for example, can just be rolled up inside the tent, however there is a risk of points damaging the fabric and mud etc being transferred across. There is also the risk that they may be scattered far and wide when unfolding the tent, perhaps for a midday dry out under the sun. Three Points of the Compass uses a DCF peg bag. It has a toughened bottom to the bag to stop the points of pegs poking through and a drawcord closure, it weighs 2g.
I also use a DCF bag in which to store my rolled shelter on trail. This then lives outside the main pack in the side ‘wand’ pocket. Thereby also limiting abrasion while on trail. I don’t use pole bags with either of these as I use my hiking poles as tent poles.
Pegs / stakes
Seldom are the pegs that come with a tent up to the job. Even if they are, the peg that can handle every type of ground hasn’t been invented and it can be really helpful on trail to have just a little variety in what is carried, plus one or two spares incase of catastrphic failure (or loss) or to tackle particular ground conditions or permit double pegging in really foul weather. Three Points of the Compass looked at a variety of pegs suited to different applications. I have used them all and have my preferences amongst them.
For wilder conditions, particularly on exposed sites with the chance of strong winds, or on sandier soils, the Delta Ground Anchors can make a sensible addition to a peg selection. I took a closer look at these here-
This is one of those terms that sounds far more technical than it actually is. A material is deemed to be waterproof if it can withstand a column of water 1000mm high without leaking. This would have a hydrostatic head of 1000mm.
If a material is put under pressure or stress it will require a higher hydrostatic head to continue being waterproof. This is why tent floors need, and usually have, a higher hydrostatic head.
What can appear as leaks in a tent are frequently something else. It could be that seams are leaking, usually through the stitches. What is far more likely though, is that it is condensation on the inside of the tent. It can be a battle to ‘batten the hatches’ against the elements whilst still retaining sufficient airflow to prevent or at least minimise the problem of condensation. Cooking inside a tent only increases the problem with steam condensing on the interior.