With rivers awakening and temperatures rising, spring has finally arrived. For those itching to get back to sleeping in the dirt, we dispatched longtime C&K contributor and go-to tent-tester, Rob Lyon, to put the latest light and feature-laden designs through the drybag-stuffing, off-season ringer. So check out Lyon’s feedback on a handful of compact, backpacking style picks that will be excellent companions for any backcountry overnight paddling excursion.
Reviews by Rob Lyon
Developed by veteran mountaineers, the Alpine Guide 2 features a melded design combining light weight and toughness, a smart choice for trips with both weather and weight considerations. Both the Alpine Guide 2 and its bigger brother, the AG3, are hybrid-style shelters, utilizing qualities from both single-wall and double-wall design. Weighing in at 5 pounds and 7 ounces, the front of the tent is a roomy double wall, with excellent ventilation, while the back of the tent is constructed of a lightweight, breathable single-wall material.
The AG2 feels narrow, not so much a dome, but then again, I’m used to the spaciousness of a three-person tent for livability on longer trips. I like the vertical sidewalls to maximize a usable interior. There is only a single vestibule in front but it is adequate for cooking in a pinch. Typically we use a second vestibule when we have it, to stash boots and drybags, but this is an acceptable sacrifice for a trim, bomber package.
The floor, like most tents these days, is a lighter material than provided with a basecamp-style shelter. I would highly recommend running a footprint to deal with shell shards and crab claws found on beaches. Another nod to weight saving are a lack of pockets at the single-wall end, where I would normally put my head. Small potatoes, but glasses and ear plugs are nice to keep at hand.
Setup is simple. The hybrid design means that the body and fly of the tent are connected and go up as a whole with an ergonomic clip pitch. There are plentiful windows and vents, plus the large window in the rear doubles as an escape-hatch door, if needed.
Bottom line is premium North Face quality. While not included in the Summit Series line and rubbing elbows with the VE-25 or Mountain 25, it is true four-season durability and likely more beachfront shelter than you will ever need.
When I cast a critical eye on a tent for coastal kayak trekking, the first thing I look for is hunker. Mountaintops and NorPac seashores are tough on rooted objects and while wind-shedding ability is great, hunker is of utmost importance.
When I first pitched the BM3, it reminded me of an abalone; it seemed to hug the ground. Compared to the benchmark VE-25 even, it sits several inches closer to the ground (at 44”) yet remains tall enough to sit up on a pad. Weighing in at 8 pounds and 6 ounces, it is over three pounds lighter than the VE-25 but does not sacrifice its sturdiness. The caveat here is that lightweight speaks to portability more than any other quality. As a rule of thumb and within reason, I’ll choose the heavier, more rugged of two shelters for a kayak trip and the lighter of the two if it’s riding on my back.
Right behind durability is livability, a quality more important the longer we are in the field. The BM3 has double doors with venting options on each and vents in the front vestibule. Pockets and lofts can be great organizers, keeping the floor relatively free; this one has plenty. A roomy vestibule can be a godsend if you’re stuck in your tent for any length of time — and this one has two. Put wet gear, boots and drybags in the rear and relegate the quick and dirty stove work to the front. Looking closely at the BM3, I noticed pockets on the inside of the vestibule; perfect for a few cooking utensils.
A seemingly small thing, the included Mega X stakes can be buried to serve as deadman stakes. Sand stakes are de rigueur for coastal travel and these do the trick on a deep-sand beach.
Sweet Suite is a good middle road choice for light weather, moderate weight restrictions and modest livability. For sea kayakers, having a little meat on the bones of a shelter is a good thing. This one fills the intermediate bill very well and perhaps, most importantly for summer excursions, it is entirely mesh above a protective bathtub floor.
The SS3 has two smallish doors. Double doors are a boon if you have more than one person in the tent or when the wind and rain suddenly turns 180. The vestibules are satisfactory and like the doors, there are two, making handy alcoves for beach camping.
The pole setup leverages a more vertical wall which translates ergonomically. It is an odd asymmetrical configuration, but does the job. All in all, not a lot more to say here. MSRP is a bit steep; I would definitely shop around and look for a deal. I suspect The Sweet Suite may well have a lifespan like a yeoman 20-year SD Flashlight, a good legacy indeed. Burrito Bag storage system is a welcome plus!
Frankly, I wasn’t at all expecting to be as impressed as I was when I opened the box from Eureka and slipped a neat nylon bundle from its carry bag and held it in my hands. Like a five-pound baby. A neat nylon lanyard swaddled the bundle, starting with a footprint wrapping a tent, a fly, a bag of aluminum poles, a gear loft and a bag of stakes. The instructions were printed on a waterproof tag and sewn into the seam of the stuff sack (good choice). Packed neat as a pin, all materials looked fresh, strong, light and adequately stitched.
The tent, I found out when I had it up, is a large, airy, no-see-em’ mesh canopy above a tall perimeter sidewall with several side pockets and two full-zip doors. Mesh is great for what 90% of campers do 90% of the time. Mesh makes all the difference in hot and humid weather and weighs less than nylon. Having a breathable mesh top provides a well-ventilated rest and a view of the heavens, to boot.
Eureka has a HI/LO ventilation system with vents on the fly to dissipate moisture (which should be nominal with mesh ceiling, in any case). The two aluminum poles work together with a hub and clip system to provide a quick and easy setup. Cross them diagonally and snap in boot, clip on tent and boom, you’re done. The fly, I was happy to see, was full to ground and sported two vestibules; the front ‘bule particularly roomy.
A built-in option to travel on the skinny, other than the five-pound weight of the full-on tent, is the lite pitch mode. Poles, fly and footprint about halve the weight and provide shelter from everything but bugs.
My take on the Summer Pass is emblematic of Eureka’s intent to provide a maximal level of basic qualities and features at a minimal price. Consider that you get both a gear loft and a footprint together with everything else at a very attractive price point. I can appreciate that.
An alternative to the lite pitch option is Eureka’s Solo AL. At less than half the price and half the weight of the Summer Pass, you’ve got a full-on one-person shelter. Not a bivy but rather a comfortable solo outpost with full fly coverage that rolls back in nice weather and stiffs the bugs entirely! If you’re a confirmed solo backcountry type, you’ll want to give this baby a look.
Packing a Fly Creek Platinum on your outing is like carrying along a gossamer cocoon. While a sea kayak can easily carry a larger and more robust shelter, maybe you’re running a river in a hybrid with minimal space and this was just the thing to compliment a minimal gear, maximal adventure approach.
The Fly Creek Platinum was designed for excursions requiring the lightest load imaginable. Trail weight is 1 pound, 7 ounces and even the poles and stakes feel featherlight. I found the setup to be smooth and faultless, but the uber-thin material had me watchful of snagging it on pretty much anything. Carrying a ground cloth would defeat the functional intention, so I would be especially careful of clearing out a clean site bed.
The shape and form of the Fly Creek Platinum was also impressive. Clever pole architecture creates a maximal livable space, translating in this case to the basics: laying down and sitting up. The provision to sit up is huge in a tent of this weight class, to dress and to read, especially if you’re weathered in. A vestibule provides adequate room to handle the essentials, like shoes and jackets. And the three interior pockets are a nod to anyone wearing glasses (a crucial amenity in my book).
With a lime green mesh body tinting a translucent fly and flipper like flutes to the tapered end, it almost reminds me of a dolphin (a lovely image). There is a fine line at times between bivy and minimal one-person tents, but this falls into the latter camp. Space configuration, vestibule, full-coverage fly and the ephemeral mesh top, are very well designed and put together. Only watch out for the sticks and brambles.
When we paddled the outside of Vancouver Island on long treks there was one guy who always brought a tarp. Most of us had tents and another guy liked his hammock. Each had its merits, especially the tarp for several reasons. The inconsequential size of it to pack in the boat. The creativity/flexibility, in use, and the ambient traction it provided with the seashore surround. While I was encapsulated in my VE-25, Mike Conner had a patio seat with a view.
Enter the Escapist Tarp Shelter System, from Sea to Summit. Consisting of tarp, floor and bug tent, it’s reminiscent of the old Trekker Tarp and Bug Hut from MSR, the Escapist is definitely upscale. The stitching and perimeter work is very well done. They have even replaced metal grommets with a supple rubber-like material and reinforced button hole-type stitching; I like it. Their proprietary material, a 15 denier Ultra-Sil, is extremely light, supple and quiet. Like any ultralight fabric, I would be attentive to where I pitched it; the long arm of tree branches waving in a windstorm, for instance, could trash it.
Tarps can be pitched in a variety of creative configurations, much of the fun of flexibility. Two hiking poles or sticks at either end and six guy outs with easy-to-use line tighteners. The floor is a tough Tyvek sheet with a perimeter hem. When you think Tyvek you probably think house wrap. A versatile material, it is used by the ultralight backpacking industry because of its lightweight and durability. Not at all as quiet as the Ultra-Sil, to be sure, but light, tear-resistant and serviceable with four stake-out points. Yes, it is crinkly to lay on if you move around but crinkly like a snare drum rather than a potato chip bag (a good thing).
The bug tent hangs from hiking poles and stakes at the four corners. It has high sidewalls, a mesh upper and a zip circular door. Because it requires no poles of its own, it weighs less than a large Escapist Tarp. The tent looks womb-like and has a bit of a loose hammock feel instead of a taut fabric surround.
The beauty of all this is in the system. Ideal for desert-like river canyons, I’ll take all three bundles along (each the size of a water bottle, you dig?). Most of the time I’ll run just the tarp, quick and easy, no worries if it clouds up and dumps in middle of the night. Spring season I’ll run them both, tarp and tent. Clear skies and a lock on weather, bugs history, I throw out the ground cloth and call it good!
The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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