Home Away From Home

Posted September 1st, 2002

While the idea of shaving weight off the load in one’s pack is appealing, many hikers balk at the thought of upgrading (often synonymous with downsizing) their time-tested tent. On the trail, your tent is not only one of the comforts of home, it is your home! And it is usually the heaviest single item in your pack.
Hardcore hikers have gone whole hog in shaving weight for years, sawing handles off their toothbrushes, wearing sneakers instead of hiking boots, and making their own stripped-down shelters. Their persistence has finally set the trend, propelling mainstream manufacturers to develop ultra-lightweight fabrics that wear well, and to rethink how to provide backpackers with greater functionality and comfort in all their gear.
The tents we review here are leaner than any I’ve ever hauled on my back or on my bike. Each is innovative in its own way. Integral Design’s George Tarp is floor-free, but you can still seal out the bugs, and it’s the lightest weight, per person, around. Go Lite’s Hex 3 and Nest use trekking poles for support, cutting both weight and bulk in your pack. The solo-person Hennessy Hammock eliminates poles and sleeping pad to make it the lightest shelter I know of. If your adventure calls for a freestanding shelter, the Zeus Exo pulls its weight with an innovative coated-nylon single-wall design. The OR double bivy is the only bivy that’s built for two, complete with hoops and mesh that make it so roomy I forgot what we were sleeping in! The MSR MicroZoid is a twist on the classic two-pole tube tent, a more traditional design for the solo traveler.
The criteria for the tents in this review are: waterproof, bugproof, and able to withstand the varied weather conditions of three seasons in Vermont, from wet, humid heat to equally wet early- and late-season snows. All shelters weigh in at between one-half pound and three and a half pounds per person, and all shelters reviewed exceeded our expectations.
Hex 3 and Nest
New for 2003, GoLite’s three-person, four-season, teepee-shaped shelters take a time-tested design and bring it into the 21st century. The Nest is a full mesh upper sewn to a seam-sealed floor to keep bugs out while allowing maximum ventilation. Simply stake the octagonal floor and support the peak with GoLite’s lightweight collapsible pole, your own trekking poles screwed together, or a paddle, and voilà, you have a home. The Hex is a silicone nylon-impregnated shell that fits over the Nest or stands alone to keep water out when the storms roll in. Two adults will bask in the palatial comfort of the Nest and/or Hex, but couples should note that the center pole, which my husband and I nicknamed the “birth control pole” on our last camping trip, can make cuddling a challenge. GoLite reports that soon, a longer pole and larger tent footprint will make this shelter couple friendly and suitable for up to four people. The only four-season shelter we tried, the Hex, goes solo in winter: dig a hole in the snow and use the Hex as a roof for a snow cave with headroom.
Hennessy Hammock Ultralight Backpacker A-Sym
As I hastily pulled my Hennessy Hammock from its bag, the rumble of thunder told me a storm was rapidly approaching. Set-up directions are printed right on the hammock’s stow sack… helpful, since I had never set up the hammock before. I followed instructions and quickly lashed the ends of the hammock to two trees with the handy tree hugger straps (no harm to the tree bark). Within moments the asymmetrical fly was attached to the end straps of the hammock, and barely a minute after that I had staked out the fly for maximum coverage in a potentially windy storm. I climbed in through a narrow slit that Velcros together at the foot end of the shelter and found myself in a bugproof, windproof, rainproof, cozy cocoon, complete with gear loft. Huge mesh panels running the full length of the hammock on top provide a sense of spaciousness and the perfect amount of ventilation, and would be a great way to see the stars on a clearer night.
By angling myself to follow the asymmetrical cut of the hammock (9 feet long by 4 feet wide), I could sleep comfortably on my back, my side and even my belly. There are other Hennessy Hammocks that are even lighter, but the A-sym will comfortably sleep adventurers up to six feet and 200 pounds. I was gently rocked into a sound sleep despite the wind and rain.
It would be handy to practice a few knots before heading out with a Hennessy Hammock. Putting up the hammock was simple, but I found the recommended knot printed on the instruction bag slightly confusing, and substituted trucker’s hitches and slip knots. It took me a little longer to take down the hammock than to put it up because the unbelievably thin guy cords that secure the shelter to the tree require agile fingers and good eyesight to undo. Once I started tying slippery hitches (ending my knots with an easy to undo slipknot) breakdown became a cinch.
On tree-free trips, the A-Sym converts to a tent with the use of a trekking pole or paddle. It can also be rigged up as a chair for before bedtime lounging, cooking, or eating. If you are using the Hennessy Hammock, you also save weight because you don’t need a sleeping pad. For cooler temperatures, Hennessy has handy tips on their website for rigging a Mylar emergency blanket or sewing a Mylar-fleece cradle to hang under your hammock for improved insulation.
The Hennessy hammock packs into a 5” X10” stuff sack, about the same size as three pairs of wool socks. It is an exceptionally innovative shelter. Don’t let your friends try it…they won’t get out.
Outdoor Research
Advanced Double Bivy
Bivy shelters are usually something you only want to use in an emergency. They typically lay on your face and are cramped and claustrophobic. However, OR’s Advanced Bivy, while certainly for the minimalist and/or emergency use, can also be used comfortably for an extended trip.
The secret to its comfort (beside the fact that you can go ultralight and still snuggle with a friend) is the two-pole snapping system. Plastic poles fit into aluminum sleeves with snaps on the ends. The poles fit through sleeves in the three-layer Gore-Tex Ripstop bag and snap into two different positions to keep the bivy’s mouth as open or closed as necessary. In the high position. the hood forms an awning, keeping weather out, while still providing excellent ventilation. In the low position, the Gore-Tex can be peeled back to open the bivy to the stars and fresh air. No-see-um netting zips into the bivy to make it suitable for all occasions, and zips out for winter travel and weight savings.
I found it easier to keep the hood at the angle I wanted by staking out the bivy via guy line loops sewn to the sides. The loops come with the bivy; the stakes don’t. Should you leave the bivy unattended in any windy place, it would be essential to either stake or tie the bag down so it doesn’t depart of its own accord. While the outer zipper has two pulls and can be zipped to either side, when I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I also woke up my bivymate, as I groped for the single-zipper pull in the mesh panel on his side. Gear pockets are big enough for eyeglasses but not a headlamp. Internal sleeping pad straps keep you on your side. OR has done a phenomenal job in creating a secure shelter that will serve any couple well.
Integral Designs George Tarp
The George Tarp is the only shelter we tested without a floor, and it still fits the criteria of waterproof and bugproof. And, it’s the lightest of the multi-person ultralight shelters currently available. At a mere 1 pound, 11 ounces, the George Tarp is spacious, remarkably easy to use, and it offers a multitude of configuration options suitable for up to three people, or four, if you don’t need it to be bugproof. The silicone-impregnated nylon shell stakes to the ground and two trekking poles or a paddle support the peak. In warm weather, a bug net zips into the front for ventilation and a view.
In wet weather, you’ll be happiest on a sleeping pad inside the George Tarp, because there is no floor. That also means you’ll want to be extra-conscious where you camp so you don’t wake up swimming in your sleeping bag. All in all, the George Tarp does the most with the least. It is a spacious and comfortable teepee-like tent, suitable for all but the wettest conditions.
For the solo outdoor enthusiast who will only be a happy camper in a traditional tent design, the MicroZoid by Mountain Safety Research is the answer. Two U-shaped shock-corded aluminum poles give form to the shelter, which stands when staked on either end. The fly clips to the tent with adjustable quick-release buckles, and a front vent Velcros open to keep the shelter ventilated, even in inclement weather. The MicroZoid has two huge mesh side panels and a large mesh panel in the head of the tent. Full-length side-zips on the fly and tent body allow easy access and makes the tent feel larger than it is, particularly when the vestibule is tied open.
The MicroZoid is a compact shelter that will best suit an average size individual. If you consider yourself taller or wider, or if you like to have your gear inside, try before you buy. The MicroZoid comes with eight ultralight needle stakes, a pole repair tube, guy line cords and cord tensioners. It’s a great package for a solo traveler who doesn’t want to push the envelope too far.
Zeus 2 Exo
With an entirely external frame, the single-wall Zeus 2 Exo offers the familiarity of a traditional freestanding tent with the benefits of single wall construction. It sets up in a flash with only two poles and wire gated plastic carabiners that instantly click onto the poles once the poles are in their grommets. Large mesh side panels and patented high/low vents work to keep condensation out.
Condensation is virtually inevitable in the humid New England summer, and we expected this tent to be clammy. But we were pleasantly surprised to find the cross-ventilation worked and our sleeping bag and gear were dry in the morning, though some condensation did form on the upper section of the tent. And since the doorway angles out into the vestibule, dry entry and exit are tricky in precipitation or heavy dew. Still, this freestanding tent has a great space-to-weight ratio in an innovative package. While exoskeleton tents have been popular in Europe for years, the Zeus refines the category.