Field Gal Gear

Itsy Bitsy Teeny Tents

*All gear marked with an asterisk is gear with which I have no experience. I base my review on what I know from using similar gear.

You can’t think “camping” without thinking about tents. It’s like thinking about peanut butter without the chocolate, or gin without the tonic. Some things just go together.

When you’re carrying EVERYTHING on your back, you need to maximize your stuff and minimize the weight in your backpack. It’s less of an issue if you’re paddling or being shuttled by helicopter to your outdoor destination. Sure, there are still weight restrictions, but you have more room to bring stuff. More room for luxuries like a big four-season tent.

Nunatak 1
Older model MEC Nunatak 3-Person 4 Season Tent.

The MEC Nunatak …wait. This version is no longer available? Dang! The Nunatak is our go-to tent for alpine and sub-alpine work. I haven’t had the need to purchase the newer model of the MEC 3-Person 4-Season Nunatak because the older model has held up SO WELL! Seriously: our Nunatak is a decade old! I would expect the same performance from the new model of the Nunatak:

  • Sturdy against strong mountain winds and snow (yes, it snows in the mountains in July and August)
  • Holds in your heat when the night temperatures drop to around 0°C
  • Two entrances with large vestibules for storing sodden and muddy gear
  • Enough room to hold two people plus all of their gear comfortably
Nunatak 2
Newer model MEC Nunatak 3-Person 4 Season Tent*. It looks even more sturdy than the previous version! I like the skirt along the bottom of the vestibules!

Pro tip: when you see the person-capacity listed for your tent, that capacity is for people WITHOUT their gear. Count your gear as taking up the space that half a person would, especially if you’re camping in a very cold or wet environment. More weather, more gear.

Being both large and sturdy, this tent is NOT what you want to have in your backpack (or two packs, or three packs) when you have to haul yourself up a mountain or along boulder-strewn terrain. When you only have your arms and legs to power you, you start to look at small, lightweight shelters.

  1. Two-Person Tents

My husband and I have three solutions to lightweight, hike-it-in shelters. One is a two-person tent. The MEC Tarn 3 is our active two-person tent.

Tarn 3
MEC Tarn 3 3-Person Tent. While discontinued, this was perfect for two people and our gear.

Since the Tarn 3 (and the slightly smaller Tarn 2) are no longer available, I started looking at other kinds of two-person tents. Here is my mental checklist when I browsed the new tent models:

How cold is the area you’re camping?

There are small tents that are super light, but the top of the tent is all mesh, like the Big Agnes Seedhouse Superlight 2-Person Tent*. Tents like the Big Agnes and other tents described as “super-light” will have large mesh panels in the fabric. The upper part may be completely constructed of mesh. The fly will not be enough to hold in your body heat, so this is a tent for warmer climates, or if near-freezing temperatures won’t be an issue for you. Don’t just use tent weight as your deciding factor: you might end up sacrificing your warmth for weight.

If I needed to buy a new 2-person tent for cool weather camping in the alpine, I would go with the MEC TGV 2-Person 4-Season Tent*.

 

TGV
MEC TGV 2-Person 4 Season Tent* with rain fly. 

The TGV has mesh doors, but the rest of the tent is constructed with 40-denier polyester. This, combined with the fly (a.k.a. the tent cover or rain cover), will help hold in your body heat.

TGV 2
MEC TGV 2-Person 4 Season Tent* without the rain fly. The less mesh you see in the tent body, the warmer the tent will be.

Pro-Tip: Denier lets you know how see-through polyester products are. 30-denier and higher means the fabric is opaque. That’s it! That’s all it means!

How windy is the camping area? The TGV is wedge-shaped, so you can set up the pointy end against the prevailing wind. Point the low end of your tent towards the direction that the wind is coming from. The wind will have less surface area to smoosh. Winds on mountain tops are STRONG. Winds will plow your tent over or bend (or break!) your poles if you bring up a tent that is meant for a low-altitude campground. Dome and box tents will get smooshed…with you inside. I have stories.

Where will your gear go? There’s a roomy vestibule for storing your boots and pack out of the weather. The entrance flaps can be fully closed for extra warmth, or you can use just the mesh flap for ventilation. Although designed to stand up to foul weather, the TGV is still lightweight at 2.75 kg.

Use a tent footprint (no question).

Ground sheets, or tent footprints, are essential. They keep moisture from seeping through the tent bottom and into your sleeping gear. Footprints are usually sold separately. Each tent brand and model should have a tent footprint available specifically for that tent. Bonus: the tent footprints have grommets that fit the ends of your tent poles, and WILL HAVE THE SAME COLOR CODING AS YOUR TENT POLE GROMMETS. You don’t have to worry about setting your footprint down bass-ackwards!

Here’s the footprint for the MEC TGV 2-Person 4-Season Tent.

TGV footprint
Footprint* for the MEC TGV 2-Person 4-Season Tent. Look at the color-coded pole straps!

Waterproof your tent fly and tent base (also no question).

Seriously. You can get away with an unwaterproofed tent for a couple of uses, but you will notice seepage and leaks over time, especially on the tent floor. Talk to the store from where you buy your tent to see what they recommend for waterproofing products.

What If I’m Not Sharing A Tent?

You may want your own sleeping space. You’re in luck! You have a few options for one-person shelters.

  1. One-Person Tents

If I was to buy a one-person tent that would suit my needs for cool weather camping, I would check out the MSR Elixir 1-Person Tent*. At 2.16 kg of packed weight, this tent has great features for its price ($255 CAD). The Elixir has a full polyester top, which is great for holding in your sleeping warmth. The rain fly has a roomy vestibule for storing your pack and boots outside of your sleeping space. This is necessary: there will be no room in your tent for both you and your pack.

MSR Elixir

MSR Elixir 2
MSR Elixir 1-Person Tent* with rain fly (top) and without (bottom).
  1. Bivy Sacks

Maybe you want a super small, super light, but still super weather-proof shelter. Enter the bivy sack!

I am a claustrophobic sleeper. I cannot abide blankets covering my head and face, no matter how cold it gets. This was a real struggle for me when I was a little kid: it was hard to hide from bedroom monsters if I couldn’t sleep completely under the covers!

Blanket snorkel
The Far Side, by Gary Larson

My husband (also claustrophobic) tried a traditional-style bivy during his fieldwork. The bivy was similar to the North Face Assault Bivy*. He said it was a bit like sleeping in a body bag. The bivy fabric was RIGHT THERE AGAINST HIS FACE. I was NOT excited about the idea of dropping serious money on a bag that would give me smothering feelings.

North Face bivy
North Face Assault Bivy*. It’s light and compact!

But I was still enamored with the IDEA of itsy bitsy shelters. I did a week-long geology field trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota during one of my undergraduate geology courses. Our lab section’s graduate teaching assistant had this awesome looking tent that was so much smaller than a tent, but larger than a traditional bivy bag. I was intrigued, but completely too self-conscious to ask her about it. Her shelter represented what I wanted my camping to be.

In 2010 my husband and I went on a week-long rafting trip. Space and weight were limited: we could bring what would fit in our backpacks. We started looking at one person tents, but at the time they were pricey. Then we saw the Outdoor Research (OR) Alpine Bivy.

Bivy 1
Outdoor Research (OR) Alpine Bivy. I love this bivy sack!

It’s like a sleeping bag and a tent joined forces. LOOK AT THE HEAD ROOM!

The whole packed OR Alpine Bivy takes up as much space as a one-liter water bottle, and weighs a little less (564 grams). There is a mesh screen for when you want to sleep with the lip open. When it rains – and it rained on our rafting survey…heavily…every night – the lid is supported by two small tent-style poles that hold its shape. It feels like sleeping in a tent! You can zip yourself up like a caterpillar in a polyester cocoon! Confession: I snapped the poles in place backwards so my lid couldn’t fully open, but I STILL had a completely dry and comfy sleep!

bivy 2
Outdoor Research OR Alpine Bivy with the opening closed against rain. Don’t you want to put googly-eyes on the lid? I know I do!

One thing that took me a few moments to get used to was that I could FEEL the pressure of the raindrops on my back and legs. After I got over the few second panicked feeling of “AAH! I’M BEING RAINED ON!” I thought of it as a gentle massage and fell back asleep.

The expanded head space had room for my clothes (I used my clothes as a pillow), field book, and electronics. There was NO ROOM for my pack and other gear. I made sure that the rain cover for my pack was snug before going to bed, and my pack made it through the night bone dry!

But what if you want to go even lighter? So light, in fact, that you want to forgo using a tent at all?

That’s MADNESS, you may say, but it’s done and I’ve done tent-less camping! On my next post I’ll talk about the gear I used to make my tent-less camping trip a comfortable success! I’ll also show you some gear that I would be very interested to test for tent-less camping!

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