Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cheap Tent - a Fairweather Friend

Your tent is a critical piece of gear when camping - you depend on it for shelter against the elements, so you don't want something you can't count on.  However, for summer camping during overnights or short weekend trips, when you know that the forecast is clear, inexpensive tents can sometimes fit the bill.

Several years ago I picked up this Northwest Territory Sierra Dome Tent at K-Mart.  I was between tents at the time and was heading out for an overnight backpack trip in the Pine Barrens.  The tent was on sale for between $20 - $25, and was small enough to easily stow in my 30L pack.  The weather was warm and there was no rain in the forecast, so I was primarily interested in protection from mosquitoes for me and my son.  I wasn't expecting much - but I was pleasantly surprised.

The tent is a freestanding dome style, with two fiberglass multi-section shock-corded poles, plus a short pole for where the fly overhangs the door.  The tent sets up very quickly, in less than 5 minutes - the poles slide through pockets in the top of the tent and fit in pins at the corners.  The connection sleeves on the pole sections can catch on the sleeves a bit, but it still goes together easily even with one person.  The tent comes with eight thin steel pegs, which are not very sturdy - they work in the sand of the Pine Barrens, but bend easily in anything harder.  The tent has a 9' x 7' footprint (with 49 sqft of interior space), advertised as 2-3 person; it actually fits two people roomily (with gear), and three people would be okay in a pinch (without gear).

The tent has one D-shaped door, with a top and bottom zipper.  The zippers can catch on the surrounding drip-flap; but with attention it opens easily (and it hasn't failed after a dozen or so trips).  The door also has a separate zipper to open a large mesh window.  The roof of the dome is also mesh, which provides very good ventilation.  The tent comes with a flimsy, mesh gear loft (which could hold your wallet), and a top hook for a lamp.  There is a single interior pocket, which is convenient for a flashlight, watch, and cellphone.  An interesting feature is two small gear vestibules located on either side of the entrance that have separate zippers - which is handy for stowing your boots, or grabbing small gear without having to open the whole door when the bugs are swarming.  There is also a built-in mat at the tent entrance, which is useful when donning or doffing boots.  Nice bonus features for such a basic tent.

Construction-wise, this tent has held up well also.  It is single wall construction, of 600 mm polyester taffeta, with a mid-weight polyester binding floor (think yard-tarp).  The floor material is pretty tough, and as long as you watch out for sharp sticks or rocks, chances are you won't damage it.  The floor has stayed dry in damp ground conditions, but I have not tested it in any significant rain.  All of the seams are sewn well, with double or triple stitching - no sealed seams on the tent body, but the fly actually has sealed seams (which is funny, because the fly is just large enough to barely cover the roof mesh).  I would never take this tent out when rain is in the forecast - the walls are too thin to hold up for long in a downpour, and any wind will blow rain right under the fly and through the mesh roof.  I have had this tent out in a mist and in a light unexpected drizzle and been fine (and dry); but I had my fingers crossed.  Ventilation is great for a single walled tent - I've been caught by a surprise cold front before that dropped the temperature down to 31-degrees F without a hint of condensation...however, this light/open tent provides little in the way of insulation - bivvys are warmer. 

This tent is not a substitute for my Terra Nova Wild County Duolite tent (4-season, 5 lb, double walled, semi-geodesic); but it does still get regular summertime use.  A tent like this can have a place in your kit - as long as you know its limitations.  This is far from a 4-season tent - it's hardly a 3-season tent - and you'd be crazy to count on it in a storm; but in fair weather, this ~4 lb shelter has never done me wrong.

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