Tents and Sleeping Bags, Backpacker, April 2013 (Gear Guide)

GGS13coverSmlFor the past five years, I've produced key sections of Backpacker's annual Gear Guide. Tents, sleeping bags and pads were my focus in the 2013 toy catalog, for which I wrote 67 reviews and related sidebars spanning 20 pages of the magazine.

EXCERPTS:

long and light

Big Agnes Slater UL2+

Tall campers usually face an unhappy compromise when it comes to shelter: either fold like origami in ultralight tents, or pay a weight penalty for XXL comfort. Happily, the 96-inch-long Slater offers a no-settle option. A colossal front door allowed our lanky testers to enter without jackknifing, the 40-inch peak height let our 6’3” guinea pig sit fully upright, and the 37-square-foot floor offered sufficient room for two hikers and their 40-pound canine companion. Yet this freestanding, double-wall dome weighs just two and a half pounds, thanks to a pole-trimming geometry and snug dimensions at the foot end, where the 26-inch ceiling doesn’t feel confining. Its taut pitch proved unflappable on California’s Tahoe Rim Trail, where a thunderstorm hammered it with 30-mph winds. Minimal mesh makes it ideal for chilly shoulder seasons or higher elevations year-round (a fabric panel can seal off the mesh door to boost warmth). But ventilation is still good—testers had no condensation problems—thanks to mesh panels strategically placed at the head and foot ends. The 8-square-foot vestibule proved big enough for cooking or gear (though it blocks exits). Bonus: Exceptionally compressible fabrics (using a unique fiber construction that Big Agnes claims is lighter and stronger than comparable 20-denier material) enable the tent to pack down smaller than you might expect, to about the size of a large baguette. $390; 2 lbs. 9 oz.; bigagnes.com

bargain

Eureka! Midori 2

Most tents this affordable can’t be trusted to handle real weather—but the Midori earned our respect in stormy Tasmania. “The taut pitch kept the fabric from flapping,” reports one tester who slept contentedly through 25-mph gusts and rain showers that raked breezy Cape Pillar, on the Tasmanian Peninsula. With the low price and high protection, we expected the Midori to be either cramped or heavy. But it’s neither (comfort specs: a 33-square-foot floor and 45-inch peak height). The ounce-saving trick? There’s just one side door, so plan to draw straws for the inside position. But that’s the sole tradeoff with this livable, freestanding dome. All-mesh walls and a vent on the fly eliminated condensation even in humid conditions. An 8-inch strut pole props up the perimeter of the broad, 10-square-foot vestibule to make it more voluminous than most. Two crossing poles make setup quick and simple, and 75-denier polyester fabrics require no TLC. And although the back-wall occupant has to climb over his partner to reach the door, budget-minded testers deemed that a “small inconvenience for reliable shelter at this price.” $140; 4 lbs. 7 oz.; eurekatent.com

Tentsfreestanding ultralight

GoLite Imogene UL 2

Here’s a rare find: a two-person tent at this price and weight that still delivers freestanding, double-wall performance. It’s a bit small—no surprise—but the ounce-saving dimenstions (best for sleeping, not lounging) worked just fine for our long-distance-hiking testers, who used the Imogene during a 400-mile Appalachian Trail trek through Maine and New Hampshire. The shelter held firm in roaring rainstorms that forced hikers in lesser tents to flee for the lean-to, and the weight-saving, 10-denier fabrics (20-denier for the floor) survived the journey intact. The Imogene packs down small—the size of a 1-liter bottle—and setup is speedy, using one hubbed pole. There’s just one door (at the head end), which requires careful exits to avoid disturbing a companion. The 39-inch peak height allows even 6’4” campers to sit upright. But the length and width proved “cramped for two big guys,” reports one tester, who calls the 30 square feet “just big enough for sleeping.” And we wished for better ventilation in humid conditions, when condensation collected. $300; 2 lbs. 7 oz.; golite.com

sheltered view

Marmot Pulsar 2

Like to sit under cover and see more than nylon walls? During windless rain in Vermont’s Green Mountains, one tester rolled back the Pulsar’s vestibule and stayed dry while enjoying a pleasant river view, thanks to a drip line that extends well beyond the tent’s single side door. In bigger weather, just batten down the hatches and it’s “bombproof,” as one tester declared after an unusually stormy week in California’s Eastern Sierras. Assaulted by icy rain with temps in the mid-30s, he found this freestanding double-wall to be a dry, stable refuge with sufficient elbow room. Although the 53-inch width isn’t overly generous, steep walls provide spacious headroom. Even the corners feel roomy (which testers appreciated when lying down), thanks to poles that push the walls to near-vertical. The 8-square-foot vestibule just fits two packs. Ventilation is good—no condensation collected during soggy nights—thanks to all-mesh walls. But testers griped about setup, which is fussier than most: Color-coding guides the orientation of the poles, but a bevy of fly connectors makes achieving a taut pitch a tedious process. $349; 3 lbs. 6 oz.; marmot.com

Bagsbargain warmth

Kelty Ignite DriDown 0°

Insulation is like computer RAM—the more you want, the more you’ll spend. Usually. This rule-breaking bag features 600-fill DriDown, which is more water-resistant (and faster-drying) than regular feathers. The treated down helped our tester survive a soggy night at Big Sur beneath a tarp: “The bag got plenty wet, but loft didn't suffer, and I was impressed by how quickly the damp spots dried,” he reports. During a wind-chilled, 11°F night on the Grand Canyon’s rim, he enjoyed consistent warmth without cold zones. A plump draft collar and zipper tube sealed in heat whether testers slept on their sides or backs. The microfiber lining feels warm when entering the bag, and the cut earned props for being both efficient and comfortable. “There was plenty of room for my shoulders, but not so much space that it was slow to heat up,” reports our 6’2” tester. The 600-fill down (cheaper and bulkier than the premium stuff) and low-cost construction techniques (like using simple box baffles) keeps the price low. (Down migration can be a problem with box baffles, but Ignite testers reported no issues.) Minor gripe: Shoulder space is tight when the draft collar is fully cinched. $260; 3 lbs. 9 oz.; 0°F; kelty.com