UL Tents: What You May Be Thinking But Were Afraid to Say

“Don’t you just love that tent?” asked a bearded hiker as I walked by him on my way to fill up water bottles at a stream near the fully packed Laura Woodward shelter on the Long Trail.

It was the last night of my wife’s and my end-to-end hike, and I was tired and not in the mood to talk about gear, especially not about my failing ZPacks Duplex two-person Cuben Fiber tent, which had a zipper that wouldn’t close and leaked when it rained.

“Not really,” I unenthusiastically offered.

He had the same tent, camouflage colored, set up behind the shelter. It looked brand new. It was clear he was excited about his 21-ounce masterpiece of a shelter. And at $599, I certainly couldn’t blame him.

His newly acquired tent was sagging in the front, pitched on a slant, and the Cuben Fiber material was slack. I’ve seen a lot of non-freestanding tents pitched this way over the course of my 8,000-mile-plus hiking career. From experience, if conditions were to escalate, such as high winds or hard rain, a tent pitched in this manner was going to need some major readjustments in the middle of the night.

Two-person Duplex.

As I came back from getting water, two other hikers had shown up. They peeked into the packed shelter and looked disappointed when they had to set up their tents outside in the rain. They both had Cuben Fiber tarps and thin plastic painter’s sheets for ground cloths. They spent a long time trying to find somewhere to pitch their tarps, meticulously adjusting and then readjusting their setup. The thin, plastic sheets blew away in the wind every time they tried positioning them on the damp ground, and I could tell they were nearing their wit’s end.

“This really sucks,” one of them said to the other, wiping rain from his eyes.

As I crawled into my own Cuben Fiber enclosure, I thought long and hard about the justification of ultralight gear. I wondered at what point was it better to use something cheaper, more structurally capable, and easier, than something that was lighter, more expensive, frail, and complicated?

 

Why all the Hype on Ultralight?

The quest to go ultralight is nothing new. Type “ultralight backpacking” into Google and a billion articles and YouTube videos show up. As a new backpacker planning my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2011, I was absorbed in all the gear talk and hype, complete with my own spreadsheet obsession and gram counting. This was at a time when the ultralight cottage industry was starting to get more visibility, and companies like TarpTent, Zpacks, Mountain Laurel Designs, and GoLite (rebranded as My Trail Co), were increasingly becoming more popular as backpackers documented their experiences on YouTube and online forums like Backpackinglight.com and Whiteblaze.net. This new gear was something you would never see in a national publication, so it was kind of like a cool secret at first. Cuben Fiber was still relatively new in the industry at that point, but it was clear that this was the future and there was a lot of buzz and excitement about it.

I didn’t see a lot of these cottage brands on my AT thru-hike. A few people had some interesting things, silnylon tents from TarpTent mostly, and a Six Moon Designs combination shelter and poncho, but these users were few and far between. I met only one person who had a Cuben Fiber shelter during my nearly four-month walk, and when I saw it in person, I knew it was something I just needed to have.

Finally, in 2013, with one thru-hike completed and preparations for another on the Continental Divide Trail well underway, I decided to pull the trigger on a ZPacks Hexamid Solo-Plus Cuben Fiber tent. The hype had sunk its teeth in and wouldn’t let go. It set me back $450 (plus an extra $175 for the groundsheet and poncho combination), but with a total shelter weight of 22.8 ounces (which included rain gear), I thought I was hot stuff.

Fast forward to the actual CDT, where on several occasions I wanted to throw the tent in the garbage and light it on fire. I would mostly get frustrated when the conditions were less than ideal, which happened to be nearly a third of the nights. I couldn’t get the thing to pitch the same way twice, and forget about having a quick and easy time setting it up in moderate wind, something that is one of the biggest challenges of non-freestanding tents. My hiking partner on the CDT used a Big Agnes Fly Creek one-person tent. At 33 ounces it was heavier than my ZPacks, but it stood up on its own and was structurally sound. Many nights during thunderstorms I lay awake gripping the trekking pole that held up my paper-bag castle of cards as the elements unleashed their fury, wondering if this was the night my tent would finally rip apart.

Meanwhile, my friend was sleeping without a care in the world. I never told him this, but I secretly would have traded my tent for his. He had such an easy time setting it up and didn’t need to worry too much about site selection. Additionally, his tent was considerably cheaper than mine, and the thing had lasted him three thru-hikes. In contrast, halfway through the CDT, my Cuben Fiber tent was starting to stretch and tear. A few years later, he mentioned that he was always envious of my tent. Interesting.

Current Trends

One of my favorite camping spots from the Camino del Norte in Spain with the Big Agnes Copper Spur. This would have been a difficult place to camp if I had my non-freestanding tent.

Despite my poor experience with my tent on the CDT, I decided to buy another Cuben Fiber shelter for my PCT hike in 2016, the aforementioned Duplex. Unfortunately, all the same problems were there, just in a slightly bigger tent that I was now sharing with my wife.

Just as the AT in 2011 was devoid of cottage brands, the PCT in 2016 was full of them. I would say nearly a third to half of hikers had some piece of gear from a small company, usually a tent or backpack, and mostly in Cuben Fiber. It seemed the ultralight cottage gear movement was booming.

As ultralight shelters gain even more momentum, new backpackers and veterans alike need to stop and ask themselves: Why do I need this? Is there something that can do just as good of a job for less money? Do I want to fiddle with a shelter all the time, or do I want to be able to set it up and forget it? Non-freestanding tarps and tents require a lot of trial and error in order to be competent while using them in varying conditions. The two major drawbacks are that they stink in windy conditions, and don’t last as long over time as their freestanding counterparts. Make sure you know what to expect before handing over a large sum of money for something that may make you pull out your hair when you set it up.

As for myself, I’m stepping away from these types shelters for now. After using a more standard freestanding tent this past year on a variety of adventures, the ease of use and dependability of my two-person Big Agnes Copper Spur really won me over.

There is always a place for innovation, and I respect the current market of Cuben Fiber shelters, despite all my issues with them. They satisfy a particular demographic of hiker, and one that I probably don’t fall into anymore. Those looking to go for big miles will find a great home in current ultralight offerings. But as for me, the days of sleeping in an outhouse because I can’t pitch my tent outside in the wind are hopefully over. Until, that is, the next shiny new thing comes along and I can’t help myself from trying it out.

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Comments 18

  • r/Ultralight : Jan 29th

    Sounds like you need to learn how to pitch a tent before you trash it. A properly pitched & staked Cuben tent is difficult to master, but easily replicated once you know how.

    Reply
    • TrueToTheThru : Jan 29th

      For some it takes more than 8000 miles hiked. For others it takes a few pitches in the backyard.

      Reply
    • Super Scout : Feb 1st

      Nothing like some well ingrained confirmation bias. It couldn’t possible be that there is a problem.

      Reply
  • TrueToTheThru : Jan 29th

    Be on the lookout for great deals on Zpacks shelters in the near future!

    Reply
  • CK : Jan 29th

    I guess these type of articles were inevitably coming.

    Reply
  • Justin Moore : Jan 29th

    Most people pay way more than $600/mo. for rent so paying $450-600 for a trail proven shelter for 5+ months isn’t expensive. It also sounds like this guy treated his DCF shelter like a 4lb “backpacking” tent… Knowing how to set up your shelter properly and understanding gear limitation is important for when the weather turns, and if you think a DCF shelter will last as long as a Silnylon shelter you have a fundamental misunderstanding of the fabric qualities. “Ultralight” is a philosophy not just how heavy your pack is.

    Reply
  • Nate : Jan 29th

    He’s not wrong though, it goes both ways I think guys that live on the fringe of either end are nuts. Those who bring a bandaid and 8lbs of stuff are just as crazy as the ones who bring 60lbs of dutch oven and canned food. I started at 40lbs pack weight bringing lots of backups and luxuries, heavy roomy tents, etc. I’m now at 16lbs base weight with enough gear to not be miserable either hiking or at camp in crap weather. Sometimes too much of an extreme is not good.

    Reply
  • Gil Dunn : Jan 29th

    For once, I agree with a millennial hiker

    Reply
  • bb : Jan 29th

    i thought that was a nice post and i quite agree. buying super expensive light stuff does not necessarily make it good. some balance in what you take makes and what you like for the best hike. there’s some items where ultralight is going to far, imo, and makes things unnecessarily hard just to gain a total of 150gr.

    Reply
  • homeslice : Jan 29th

    camped one night near you and your wife in Goat Rocks area of the PCT. I had the BA Copper Spur 2P. I was drooling over your Duplex and even then you didn’t seem sold on it. Couple nights later, I camped with someone else with the same tent. The next morning he had handfuls of ice from the inside of the tent. Now after reading your story I’m glad I stayed with the BA Copper Spur UL2.

    Reply
  • Notebook : Jan 30th

    Thanks for this perspective. I had Z-packs envy a lot on my thru attempt and while I know UL hikers sacrifice a lot, didn’t know it was difficult to keep these tents pitched in wind, etc. Good to know!

    Reply
    • TrueToTheThru : Jan 31st

      It’s not difficult at all.

      Reply
    • Josh Johnson : Feb 2nd

      I think you should still give them a look. This does not seem to be the majority opinion.

      Reply
  • Kerry Neighbour : Jan 31st

    Excellent comments, and I certainly respect the views of a triple crowner. Those who intimate that you still don’t know how to pitch a tent after all that, seem a bit deluded. It is not rocket science.

    I was looking at the Duplex myself, but will now forget it. I currently have a tiny solo Tarpent and it is as you describe. I was caught out in mild rain with it, and at the time I vowed to get myself a real tent as soon as possible. I would hate to be in my tarpent in a real storm. But it weighs 600g, so it is hard to let go of that.

    But I am still looking at a Zpacks backpack… haha

    Reply
  • Chris Guynn : Jan 31st

    I think zpacks is catching on to all the challenges with their non-free standing tents by their introduction of the pole mods to basically turn them into a freestanding tent with a little weight addition but your experience is very similar to others I have talked to with these tents. I myself had a soloplex which I bought for my AT hike tried setting it up a few times and decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and went a different direction. I guess with anything it comes down to how much are you willing to sacrifice your comfort for weight savings. I think all the guys who set up a tarp every night and can make it work have considerable skill but at the same time after a long day of hiking the last thing I want to do is setup a tarp and cross my fingers my trekking poles wont fall in the middle of the night after a substantial gust of wind. I saw countless trekking pole tents fall in the middle of the night due to high wind and rain while the free standing ones held strong. I have a Big Agnes tent as well and carry it along if I think the area will be void of trees for my normal setup.

    Reply
    • Ronnie Kerley : Feb 7th

      I have the duplex and love it.The self-supporting poles are a cool idea,but I probably would only use them for kayak camping and then use trekking poles in their
      usual mode to keep a gust of wind from collapsing the tent.

      Reply
  • Jim McNelis : Feb 2nd

    how is it possible for your duplex to start leaking in the rain due to a broken zipper when the only part that zippers is the mesh? you’re just making stuff up.

    Reply
  • Josh Johnson : Feb 2nd

    If you read this article and make it to this comment, i just have this to say: Please continue to consider these kinds of tents and make your own choice.

    I respect everyone’s opinion and definitely cred’ to you for your triple crown+ experience. I just want to go on record for saying that I didn’t really like the tone of the article in the sense that it comes across (to me) as if you are trying to say there is an unspoken/hidden PROBLEM with these tents. It seems more to me that even though you tried your hardest to give this tent/brand every chance, this type of gear just might be the wrong choice for you. Yes, there is a learning curve. Yes, you have to put a little more effort into a shelter that isn’t free-standing, but perhaps you should have just said “This isn’t for me” without throwing shade at all the non-freestanding shelters that may or may not be made of DCF material. Hikers are usually VERY quick to give an out-spoken opinion on gear that doesn’t work and I don’t see that at-large for these tents. I also don’t see them saturating the secondary market in a way that makes me think MOST people can’t handle and enjoy these tents. I just don’t see it. I think this should have been about your choices and not tainted with a tone of “You’ll see… these tents suck.” or “be VERY cautious you could get burned by buying this”

    Reply

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