Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The others. We have convergence here.

"The One" by Gossamer Gear was my first subject. That got me thinking. This isn't the only light and small shelter on the market, but it illustrates a trend. Tents are getting smaller, lighter, and less tenty-er. Some of them.
AntiGravityGear TarpTent

Since this blog is called The Ultralighter, let's skip hexagonal domes that sleep eight people and two dogs, and shrug off antarctic gales. Leave them to companies with budgets in the millions, and paid reviewers. I'm talking about appropriate technology for a single person (or two) wanting small, light, and cheap shelter. So let's get on with it.

First, a disappointment, sort of. Besides getting smaller and lighter, ultralight shelters are generally getting more expensive. That's not surprising. When I got into ultralight backpacking about eight years ago it was more like the lunatic fringe, and you really had to want it. You had to hunt for the clubhouse door, and then knock like crazy before anyone let you in.

There were some early manufacturers that you could barely call manufacturers, and one or two of them are still around, but they ran small operations, made simple products, and had to live frugally on meager profits. No one was really buying.
Oware Alphamini

One of my favorite companies, at least for inspiration, was Dancing Light Gear, run by Carol (Brawny) Wellman and David (Rainmaker) Mauldin.

Carol's designs were frighteningly innovative and amazingly simple if not always the most sophisticated or practical. The early companies were like that, and I don't mean this as a criticism. Anyone who can design a nine ounce pack around two concentric stuff sacks and then use it to hike the Appalachian Trail immediately goes onto my list of geniuses.

I've played with her concept of the seamless one piece shelter, and made a couple on my own. Every idea has limitations and these do too, but simple creativity can keep you coming back for another look, year after year. The Dancing Light Gear shop is now closed but Wellman and Mauldin's personal web site is still up (Trailquest), and still full of useful information. I recommend it.

Jonathan McCue at Moonbow Gear has had good ideas about shelters but I understand most of his success is with the Gearskin pack. (I have one of those too.) He was one of the leaders in light shelters, even if others have lately run farther downfield with the ideas. (See his Rocket and Wedge tarp tents, and his PowerPac system.)
The key manufacturers on my list today are Six Moon Designs,, Mountain Laurel Designs, and Gossamer Gear. Throw in Oware and AntiGravityGear for fun and you just about cover all cottage manufacturers making small and light shelters today.

Mountain Laurel Designs and Oware products lean toward tarps. specializes in relatively complex shelters. Six Moon Designs and Gossamer Gear strive hardest for the lightest fully enclosed shelters, but Six Moon Designs and are most similar in concept. Gossamer Gear wants to have the lightest you can get aside from tarps. Mountain Laurel Designs and Oware offer sophisticated simplicity at low weights because that's how tarps and near-tarp shelters work. AntiGravityGear is continuing Carol Wellman's concept.
This sounds pretty confusing. It is, with your eyes closed.

You need to visit their web sites and see their products and specs to get a good idea of what's going on. BackpackingLight is a great source of information too, especially for its hand-on reviews. It's worth paying $25 a year for full access to their gear reviews. Don't forget about BackpackGearTest either. It's free.
Six Moon Luna Solo
Here's a rough comparison giving manufacturer, name, weight, and price. Note that most of these shelters are either too small for two people, or good for only emergency doubling up. (Weights rounded up to the next ounce, given as ounces/grams. Some of these guys also have several products of one design but different materials too.)

Weight Manufacturer/Product/Price
------ ------------------------------------
05/142 Oware/CatTarp1.1/$76
06/170 Mountain Laurel/Patrol Shelter/$120
08/238 Oware/Alphamid/$400
09/255 Gossamer Gear/SpinnShelter/$195
09/255 Gossamer Gear/SpinnTwinn Tarp/$175
09/255 Mountain Laurel/Monk Tarp/$85
10/283 Oware/FlatTarp1.5/$51
11/312 AntiGravityGear/Basic Tarp/$139
11/312 Six Moons/Gatewood Cape/$110
12/340 Mountain Laurel/SuperFly Shelter/$255
13/369 Six Moons/Wild Oasis/$175
17/485 Gossamer Gear/The One/$275
18/510 Mountain Laurel/Spinntex MID/$375
20/567 AntiGravityGear/TarpTent/$229
23/652 Six Moons/Lunar Solo/$235

24/720 Mountain Laurel/Silnylon Mid/$270

I still prefer a hammock when I can use one, but as I said there's a trend. The trend is that single wall shelters are in. Makers are more inventive about size and shape, using custom wands as does, or designing around trekking poles (which you might be carrying anyway). The current watchword is ventilation.

Without ventilation a single wall shelter is nasty. Get a cool night and a high dew point together and you got indoor rain. You'd be surprised how slimy you and your sleeping bag can get from brushing against dripping walls on a dry night. Dry outside that is. You can get sopping wet from dew. So ventilation is what folks are perfecting these days.

What I like to think of as "horizontal entry" or maybe "parallel entry" is also part of the trend. Maybe there's a better term for it. What I mean is, instead of crawling into a long, narrow tent from one end, you enter on one of the long sides. More like rolling in.

The front is one of the long sides of the shelter, and the door is usually full width. You get a wide and high vestibule for eating breakfast in, or dressing. You get a good view out, in case you need to check on something, and you can basically open up one whole wall for ventilation. Better all around.
Tarptent Contrail
Some of these shelters are more like traditional tents and some more like traditional tarps, but they're converging toward lightness, compactness and ease of use. And less crawling to get in and out. Prices are also going up, but...

Nothing new there. Spinnaker cloth and Cuben Fiber fabric are really expensive, and the shelters made with them are too. You get more, it works better and it's way lighter than in the past, so the expense is worth it. And if not, there's last year's miracle, silicone coated nylon (silnylon), which is heavier, more durable and still expensive, but also way, way lighter than the old urethane coated nylon was.

And as always you can make your own. No really. I recommend Ray Jardine's tarp book, or just examine a shelter and copy it. There's lots of good info at Thru-Hiker as well, or on BackpackingLight.

See you later.

Gossamer Gear
Moonbow Gear
Mountain Laurel Designs
The Ray-Way Tarp Book
Six Moon Designs