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 3GT is from Hilleberg’s four-season-plus Black Label range. Features include 10mm poles, 3mm Vectran and polyester guys, heavy duty zips, Kerlon 1800 fabric with an 18 kg/40 lb tear strength, alongside the tentmaker’s most robust inner tent and floor fabrics. Total overkill for our modest family camping. But a good tent performs in mild conditions as well as awful and the quality of this tent shone. I bought it second hand, used it frequently for a decade and sold it on for many hundreds of pounds to a grateful recipient. In 2022, I see a new Keron 3GT costs £1500.
Hilleberg tents, despite their refinement, are simple to use tents. Easy to put up, easy to live in, easy to take down. This robustness can come at a cost however, and that is weight. Weighing 4.9kg, this was no lightweight. So good was this tent that it was followed by a Hilleberg Nallo 3 GT (again, second hand), possibly an even finer piece of work. This was from Hilleberg’s Red Label range, still made for four season conditions, just slightly less than mountain tops in the worst of snow storms or trips to the Poles. Obviously, it was well up to our camping trips to Scotland, the Lakes, Dartmoor and the Peak District. The Nallo 3GT has a slightly lighter weight Kerlon 1200 outer tent fabric, with a 12 kg/26.5 lb tear strength. Also slightly lighter weight inner tent and floor fabrics. Though I confess to never noticing any difference. This had slightly lighter 9mm poles. The same guys but lighter weight zippers. While still remarkably robust, the slightly lighter elements and dipping ends (meaning less material) reduced the weight to 3.1kg. In 2022 these tents cost £1130.
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 Kerlon 1800 fly of the Keron 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. The Hilleberg tents are not cheap options but I never regretted either purchase as not a single elements of either tent ever failed on me.
Neither of my Hilleberg tents were light enough to really consider taking backpacking. But of course backpacking wasn’t what they were purchased for. As Miss Three Points of the Compass grew and became slightly less enamoured with the prospect of camping holidays, I gravitated back to solo-backpacking trips.
A move to lighter weight 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 at less than a kilogram is perfectly acceptable when used for two occupants, if a little heavy for just one now that there are so many lighter weight options available. Pack size is about 150mm x 450mm. The interior is positively cavernous, it is even possible to stand inside, albeit in hunched posture. Something I really appreciated over the minute proportions of some lightweight backpacking tents I have clambered in and, with great difficulty, turned round and promptly clambered back out.
When solo camping with this tent the full size inner often stayed at home and I used 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 cheap Chinese made one-person inner just to stop most of the draughts and raise the temperature inside a little. However, at 684g, the Hex Peak V4 single person inner nest was not a particularly lightweight option when combined with the fly.
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 midgie 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 midgie evening 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.
Memories …. Still have my Mk 2; just set up and posted today’s pic on my Twitter account @DartmoorTramper. I take it everywhere and use my (mil) Softee trousers, jacket and gore text waterproofs as a make do sleep system and gore tex bivi. If necessary it can be pegged out on the ground in less than a minute and used as a survival bag or I use just one walking pole and put the point through both eyelets and quickly have a basic, though effective, shelter with an A shaped opening. I could go on…. Regards
Some of those early tents were great pieces of kit. I also seem to recall another one where the bicycle acted as the poles, dedicated for cycle tourists. I suppose the closest you get these days is the various tarp sets ups. Not that I do cycle touring these days. Must admit though, I have been very happy with using my two Pacer Poles as the uprights. How is your Marathon tent material holding up with the UV exposure?
Rather later than intended! Have to admit, these days, the Marathon is firmly at the bottom of my tent box. I have too many tents and I am undergoing an exercise in ‘archiving’: Robert Saunders Satellite, ditto Spacepacker, Karrimor Marathon, Fjallraven Everest 3 (bought 1979 – it’s in excellent condition) and Tiger Paws 1 person tent (a terrific tent, approx. £24 in early 2000). I cannot justify buying any more tents, I am older and a heavier tent, over a shorter distance route / leg is the new norm for me. Weekend tent is the Karrimor X Lite 1, several days is the Wild Country Aspect 1, A week or so is the Wild Country Solace (my favourite tent). Arduous conditions etc it’s my North Face Tadpole (purchased new in 1988). Anyway, back to the Marathon (tent), it needs to have the flour ‘serviced’ – abrasion has affected the floor material and it will allow water to enter. To be honest I could and would use the Outry Waterproof Multi-Purpose Tarp (Amazon). I have drawn the outline of the Marathon floor on to it, sewn on various tape loops (it already has grommets on it) and all problems sorted. Will I use the Marathon again? Probably not but I am reluctant to throw it out (or sell it). Finally, the Outcry Tarp (I bought two) makes a very good lean to tarp / shelter and it is ideal for all my tents as a footprint. Apologies for rambling on. Best wishes, Jon
Thank you for all that information.
I am considering buying a duplex tent which is both very light but also quite pricey.
From the « September 18 » chapter, I understand that you practiced this tent during 5 months that is around 150 nights or less. I am annoyed how worned out it seems after. You also mention that it is not a mountain tent.
Could it be that the design combining single wall + open door (to ease air flow and prevent condensation) add special stress to the holding points of the tent under windy conditions, that tent being better suited for quiet air conditions ?
Or may be according to your tent experience (mine is very limited to a single model used less than 30 nights) 100 nights is a quite decent score ?
Bernard, the Z Packs Duplex is a fantastic tent. Lightweight and roomy are the most obvious benefits but I also appreciated many other aspects. Cuben doesn’t soak up water so doesn’t sag when wet. I spent dozens of nights in wet weather and the tent, with a shake in the morning, went away weighing little more than when dry. It was quick to pitch, even when being buzzed my midges and speed of the essence. Some people have reported it as needing a level pitch, however I had no difficulty pitching it on lumpy ground, sloping ground, rocky ground, tussocky ground etc. Fact is, when wild camping, a site is often imperfect, provided I could find somewhere large enough for the large footprint of the Duplex, I could invariably put the tent up, however, as mentioned, I was wary of exposed areas. The Duplex has high sides (to aid in mitigating condensation) and these can pick up the wind causing quite bad strain and buffeting. As always, it pays to spend a little extra time picking a site suited to the quirks and requirements of a particular tent, with the Duplex, I tried to stay away from exposed ridges and if necessary, pitched it low and double pegged on the wind side. I believe Z Packs guarantee their tents for one through hike, or around 2500 miles. I did some 2000 miles with mine and didn’t use it every night. But still, after some 100 nights of often poor weather, tie out points were EXTREMELY strained and I had strengthen or reinforced most of them with repair tape. The guys connected to the centre of the two end panels DO put too much strain on these areas and with my next Duplex (I will not hesitate to buy another) I will be putting a length of shock cord on those two guys from the outset. One of my end tie outs ripped a hole in the side that I had to tape over. Every tent has its faults, the Duplex has some, not being able to pitch it continually in high winds is simply the most obvious. On my hike I was often in exposed ares with windy nights frequently encountered. For most of those windy nights, the tent was fine. It is when wind speeds are pretty high or very high that damage begins to occur. For me, its benefits outweighed, by far, its downsides. My Duplex is completely worn out and I wouldn’t trust it on another hike, of any length. That said, when I can afford to, I won’t hesitate to buy another despite the high cost. And I live in the UK so the cost is even greater
Thank you very much for your answer. I ll probably go for it because of its weight although I do not use treck poles but I am still building my opinion comparing to the Hogan from Vaude and the Nemo from MSR which are both heavier and not so roomy. As you said every tent has its downsides.
I understand that the end panels you refer to are the door panels ?
I saw on the net people using the loop for the toggle of each door to set another guyline. This should give more strength. But it seems that the door panels do not reach the ground anyway which means that air goes underneath even when not desired giving stress to the structure instead of simply running over the tent ?
Bernard, you misunderstood my poor description. What I call end panels could also be referred to as side panels, i.e the two large sloping sides of the tarp tent, as opposed to the four storm doors (what I called ‘high sides’). I never fixed additional guys to the doors, I suppose you could but I found that using a large MSR groundhog peg (stake) on each side, and mini MSR groundhogs for the corners (usually) was enough in itself. It is the two very large, unsupported end/side panels that are the issue in strong winds, that is a large expanse of material exposed to the wind. I didn’t like to pitch with doors facing into the wind, preferring to put one end/side into the wind instead. I always felt it a bit more streamlined like that
Thank you very much for your answer and sorry for my misunderstanding. Having not experienced the duplex, I had thought that the natural winward side was the door side with its soft slope. May be such a configuration is too unconfortable (too much air) in windy conditions.
If I understand it well, your advice would be to reinforce the holding points of the end walls (those without doors) adding for instance extra loops (sold by zpacks) to allow extra guylines on these walls and lessen the stress on the others points ?