Post-Script: Thoughts On Gear – Tents

Well, now that my trip is over and I’ve had some time to rest (read: gain all of my pre-trail weight back and then some, and whine about not having a job), I’ve decided to reflect a bit on gear.

Before I started the trail, I obsessed over what kind of gear I was going to take with me and fretted that I was going to end up with the wrong things and ultimately suffer some horrible fate because of it.  So did everyone else in the PCT  Facebook groups, by the looks of it.  But by the time I was a month in to my hike, I realized how very simple I wanted my setup to be and that I had wasted a bunch of time needlessly complicating it.

So that anyone reading this might benefit from my trial and error and maybe avoid hours of research, I’m going to give my brief opinions on some of the gear that I used and didn’t use on the trail.  I’m going to split the posts up into categories, such as tents, packs, shoes (I went through so many shoes!), etc, so I don’t end up with mind-numbingly long posts that make you want to punch yourself (or me) in the eyeballs.  I’m also just going to talk about my experience with this gear on the PCT and not in general because I know that you can google any of these items and find a hundred detailed reviews of each.

By the way, I totally get that gear is a very individual choice and that not everyone is going to like the same things I do (some people’s level of hatred for certain gear is legendary – like Fluffy and his raging contempt for Altras, for example), so if some of my ideas ring false for you, that’s fine.  Hike your own hike, right?

So, without further ado…

TENTS

If I could have cowboy camped every night on the trail, I would have.  There is something liberating

My favorite way to camp.

about waking up in the middle of the night to an expansive star-crammed night sky, and remembering that you have the biggest bedroom in the world.

Unfortunately, bugs, rain and snow made that impossible to do all the time, so I used a shelter often.

I tried three tents on my hike, in this order – 1) the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 with MtnGLO (yes, I took the lights, and yes, though I loved them I realized my folly and sent the battery pack home), 2) the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 and 3) the ZPacks Duplex.

The Copper Spur

The Copper Spur, minus the fly, below the peak of San Jacinto.

Of the three, in general I liked the Copper Spur the best.  It is roomy, super easy to set up, freestanding, handles rain and wind well, has two large doors and roomy vestibules, and the mesh upper allows me to see my surroundings when I don’t have to use the fly.  I’m a bit claustrophobic, so that’s nice.

This tent held up admirably in a windstorm on Fuller’s Ridge, and I appreciated that I and all of my gear could hang out in it comfortably for an extra few hours.

It is truly freestanding.  In the Sierras in June, where our camping surface options were limited to snow or granite, I was able to set it up without having to use any stakes.  

It is heavy by thru-hiking standards, however, and the farther I hiked, the lighter I wished it was.  In hindsight, I might have opted for the Copper Spur UL1, but I didn’t think of that at the time.  So I hit up an REI near Cabazon, California, and bought myself a Fly Creek.  I had zero experience with this tent, but it seemed to be the most popular “free-standing” tent that I had seen on trail up to that point.  I thought I wanted a free-standing tent because the thought of setting up a tarp with just my hiking poles intimidated me.

Also, I’m a lemming.

In my defense, I found a ton of great reviews online that also influenced my purchasing decision.  Backpacker magazine, for example, named it their Editors’ Choice winner for 2010 for “ultralighters”, asserting that it’s “freestanding” with “bomber weather protection” and “plenty of room for 2 people.”  Now, I question whether anyone at Backpacker actually set foot inside it.

The Fly Creek

I can sum up my feelings about the Fly Creek thus:  I hated nearly everything about it.

I hated the front entry.  It was awkward to get into (I couldn’t just sit and swing my legs around and into the entryway like I could with the Copper Spur’s side entrances).  It angles toward the back of the tent as well, which meant that I could stand up outside and still have my feet on the floor of the tent, but it also meant that any rain, hail or snow would come dumping down into the tent every time I unzipped the door.  The rain fly helps with this a bit, but I didn’t like how far I had to extend out of the tent in order to open and close the fly door.

I was baffled by the mesh placement next to the doorway, which provided an easy way for sand, dirt and freezing rain to blow right in as it did in Swarthout canyon one night.  Even with the fly on.

About to get soaked in Swarthout Canyon.

The tent tapers toward the back and my feet brushed up against the fabric, exacerbating my tendencies toward claustrophobia and ensuring that any condensation would soak right into my quilt.  The narrow footprint and small area of headroom made it less than ideal for hanging out in during that Swarthout storm as well.

The single-ridge pole was also extremely frustrating, because it required that I use nearly all of the ten or so stakes, especially on the “foot” end, in order to be sure the tent wouldn’t collapse on me.  During one windy night at Bear campground outside of Lake Hughes, I spent 20 minutes connecting glove hooks, pounding in the ridiculous number of stakes, and trying to get guy-lines and tension just right so the pole wouldn’t collapse, and it collapsed anyway.

A deep sigh from a neighboring camper is enough to blow it over if it isn’t staked out just right.  This would be particularly challenging on granite or any compacted ground that isn’t amenable to stakes.

The fact that it has to have poles, but isn’t free-standing (even though some descriptions call it that), was also an annoyance.  For me to carry the extra weight of tent poles, I should be able to use them to set up a tent without having to stake it down.

All in all, this tent was a big fat dud for me.  So what did I do with it?  I sent it home so my boyfriend could use it, because boyfriends are supposed to let their girlfriends use all the good gear and they get the sloppy seconds, right??  He took it on a Middle Sister climb and hated it as well.  So we eventually returned it.

The Duplex

I mentioned before that pole-less tent set-ups intimidated me.  I initially intended to bring a used Tarptent Rainbow on my hike, but I chickened out at the last minute because I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to stake it out right and I’d be screwed.  I’m not mechanically inclined.

Before I could send the Fly Creek home, however, I had to replace it with something, and that something ended up being the ZPacks Duplex.  I had become increasingly envious of Fluffy’s…I liked how lightweight it was and how quickly he was able to set it up.  I also liked that it didn’t require a fly and only needed six stakes.  The cost, though!  Duplexes are not cheap, but thru-hikers can be and I’m no exception.  I hemmed and hawed over the cost for a few (hundred) miles until I finally bit the bullet and ordered one.  I got a used one, so I saved about $50, which was nice.

My new home sweet home.

I picked it up in Edna, Fluffy helped me set it up on the lawn of the Hiker Hut (it’s way easier than I thought it would be), and I fell in love with it.

This is a super spacious tent.  A palace by tent standards. I can sit upright in it comfortably because of its high point in the middle, and I can fit my pack and all of my gear inside it with room to spare.  That was handy during the few storms I encountered.

It has a door and vestibule on each side, which was great when I wanted to protect all of my things but I didn’t want to keep them all in the tent with me, and also so that I had more than one option for escape in case a bear tried to get me.

The cuben fiber material (I guess we’re supposed to call it Dyneema now? Who cares, except for copyright lawyers.) is nice because it is waterproof and it stays taut when wet, as opposed to silnylon.  A storm near Sonora Pass dumped so much rain one night that it turned my tent into a waterbed, but although I was floating, the floor did not leak at all.

It does make a loud crinkling noise when it is packed up, although that only seemed to bother people who didn’t have Duplexes and liked to sleep in.  It is also not see-through, and I missed being able to lie on my back and see the stars as I could with the Copper Spur.  I did get a thinner cuben fiber, so I could see light and shapes through it.  That was a bit of a consolation.

I did have to deal with quite a bit of condensation inside the tent.  That is a common complaint with single wall tents.  I was able to mitigate this some by leaving the flaps open whenever I could, but not totally.  I just used a small camp towel to wipe it down in the mornings and that worked well enough.

My biggest issues with the Duplex center around the ventilation and sturdiness.  This is a fair-weather tent, there’s no two-ways around that.  If it rains hard, it will splash up from the ground and into the tent.  If it is windy, there will be dust in the tent come morning.  If it snows a lot, you may have your tent collapse on you causing you to have to get up at midnight to pound your stakes back in to snowdrifts with your titanium pot.  These were isolated incidents for me, though, so it wasn’t enough to make me not love my tent.

Considering the crazy low weight, the sturdy fabric and the ease of set-up, the Duplex was worth the expense.  If I were to do the PCT again, it would be my tent of choice.

Thoughts?

I know that there are a lot of options out there when it comes to lightweight tents, and I only have limited experience with a few of them.  I’d love to know what other people use and love/hate/tolerate…what is your tent of choice and why?  Leave your comments!  Also, if I left out anything major, or you have questions about my experiences, please ask!

3 Replies to “Post-Script: Thoughts On Gear – Tents”

  1. Solid shelter reviews. You need to write more.

    I’m curious if you would ever consider doing a review on spoons? For example, bamboo vs purple plastic vs polished titanium?

    Oh yeah, thanks for the plug too!

    You’ve all been Thunder Fluffed!

  2. I leapt right into the tarp style tent when I transitioned from day hiking to backpacking a few years ago, and I am sure glad I did. I have a Six Moon Designs Skyscape Trekker that is beginning to show its age. I have been curious about other tents, but I can’t get by the light weight (27 oz.), good size (enough for me, my pack, and everything else with room to spare), and low cost of the SMD Skyscape Trekker. While I want to try something new, after reading the specs, watching YouTube videos, and talking to other tarp users out on the trail and giving their tarps a good looking over, I think I will be sticking with the Trekker. I have never had any problems with it other than the current wear and tear issues that will probably mean its end after 3 or 4 more weeks of backpacking this summer.

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