Zpacks Free Duo Freestanding DCF Tent Review

The Free Duo tent is an exciting addition to a well-regarded line of ultralight Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) shelters from Zpacks.  With this tent, the company goes where none in the cottage industry have dared to dabble: into the realm of freestanding shelters.  Traditionally, this has been the purview of big brand manufacturers.

The Free Duo combines over a decade of cottage industry DCF knowhow with the practicality of a traditional freestanding shelter.  The result is a tent that promises to be supremely user-friendly while maintaining the benefits (and premium price) of DCF.  I’ve had my frustrations with both trekking pole shelters and old-school tents, and the idea of the Free Duo gets me more excited than I care to admit.  

The Free Duo carries a significant weight penalty over similarly sized trekking pole shelters (11 ounces over the Duplex).  But it’s impossible to quantify the benefits of a freestanding shelter on weight alone. Ultimately, my question is this: how well does the Free Duo combine the best properties of traditional and ultralight shelters?  Is it an overweight ultralight shelter?  An overpriced rehash of an old design?  Or does it combine the best of both worlds? Let’s see if Zpacks gets close to the “this one’s just right” middle ground, or if this hybrid struggles to find its place in a crowded gear market.

free duo

Two worlds collide. Zpacks combines the pole structure of the old world with the single-wall, DCF design that makes their shelters popular with thru-hikers.

Zpacks Free Duo At-a-Glance

MSRP:  $699
Stakes Required?:  No, but you probably want at least two
Materials:  DCF tent, carbon fiber poles
Weight*:  30.15 ounces (my measurements: 17.05oz tent, 13.1oz poles)
Packed Size:  7” x 13” tent, 2.5” x 20” poles
Capacity:  Two people + gear
Number of Doors: Two
Vestibule Area:  4.8 square feet each
Floor Size:  42” wide, 90” long
Peak Height:  42”

Country of Origin:  USA

*Not including stakes: Ultralight titanium stakes from Zpacks (0.2 ounces, $2 each).

free duo

Two ‘H’ poles provide structure for the Free Duo. The tent will stand with zero to eight stakes. Here, I used four.

Intended Use

The Free Duo is designed to be a home to those hikers who like to explore places that reject highly tensioned tent stakes such as granite, slick rock, sand, snow, packed dirt, concrete, or pavement.  For the weight penalty of the added pole structure, hikers who opt for the Free Duo over a trekking pole shelter will benefit from the increased versatility of a tent that can handle high winds and pitch virtually anywhere.  It’s also a great choice for anyone who prefers not to hike with trekking poles at all.

Zpacks Free Duo Features

free duo

Behold the ‘H’ poles responsible for the Free Duo’s stake-free freedom (pictured: 2 stakes used for vestibules).

DCF:  The Free Duo is constructed using a combination of DCF and bug mesh.  The canopy is .55oz/sq yd DCF while the floor is 1.0oz/sq yd DCF, which is rugged enough to survive a thru-hike without an additional footprint.  DCF is an excellent material for tents because it is fully waterproof and does not absorb water, so it dries quickly and does not sag.

Freestanding: More on the features of a freestanding tent later, but the Free Duo differs from all other Zpacks shelters in that it employs dedicated tent poles for structure rather than trekking poles.  That means that it stands without stakes, although two are required for the vestibules.  This is what makes this tent special.  It goes places trekking pole shelters can’t.

‘H’ shaped poles: The pole structure of the Free Duo is unique.  Instead of poles that span the entire length of the tent, two separate ‘H’ sections attach at the floor corners and tent peak.  Clips attach the canopy to the two horizontal sections.  Similar to other pole designs, they are a bit unwieldy to handle solo. They’re neither revolutionary nor disastrous.  With minimal attachment points, they keep the tent amazingly taught.

free duo

The arms of the ‘H’ poles high-five at the peak of the Free Duo.

Two rainbow doors:  Big zippers in the bug mesh allow for each wall to open entirely for easy entry/exit no matter which way you’re facing.  This is the same design found on the Duplex, but the Free Duo misses the trekking poles blocking the center of each door for a much more spacious feeling.

Vestibules:  Two vestibules provide plenty of protection for shoes and gear for two people.  These are classic Zpacks vestibules taken straight from the Duplex.  Each has two storm flaps that open individually or at the same time for ventilation in good weather.  Even with these flaps completely stowed, a slight overhang in the canopy keeps drips from splooshing inside in the calmest precipitation.

Ease of Use

free duo

The Free Duo is easy to setup. Single-wall DCF eliminates the need to mess with another fabric layer.

The Free Duo is the most user-friendly tent I’ve used.  The freestanding benefits are well represented, making it quick and easy to set up just about anywhere, including in the basement to dry after a wet night.  The single-wall construction also shines.  Setting and packing it up are easier than a traditional two-wall tent because there is no added labor needed to manage a fly sheet.  Ditto for a footprint.  In this regard, the Free Duo adopts some of the best features of the ultralight trekking pole shelters, which go a long way to making it simple to use.

In addition to that simplicity, the structure of the Free Duo folds in the benefits of traditional tents.  Despite having a peak height six inches less than the Duplex, it feels roomier with more functional space above the head and feet when prone.  The poles pull the canopy outward so that it creates a more concave interior than the Duplex, which is essentially an A-frame.  This difference is noticed as more shoulder room when sitting up, and much more airspace above the face and feet when lying down, which reduces contact with condensation on the inside walls.

The concave interior provides tremendous usable space, and helps keep face and feet free of condensation.

Other sweet features of the Free Duo are carried over directly from the Duplex.  The dual doors are great for partners, and the vestibules provide plenty of space to store gear and shoes.

Pros

Freestanding:  The Free Duo can be pitched on virtually any surface with a minimal stake requirement.  That means reliable weather protection in more awesome places.  It also makes drying it out in your basement a breeze.

Quick setup:  Pitching the Free Duo is dead easy.  No need to guess at stake placement or adjust trekking poles.  Just snap together the two poles and insert the tips into metal rings at the floor corners and center peak.  Two clips attach to each pole at the ‘H’ crosspiece, making the canopy tight like a drum.  Add one stake for each vestibule and, voilà, all done.  On my first try, this took five minutes.  Importantly, it will be this easy almost anywhere and on any surface.

All closed up. With minimal experience or effort, the Free Duo provides full storm coverage for two hikers plus gear

DCF: This fancy fabric is strong, lightweight, waterproof, and relatively durable.  It’s an excellent fabric for tents and Zpacks makes full use of it with the Free Duo.  The thin DCF canopy keeps weight down while the thicker bathtub floor provides durable protection without the need for a separate groundsheet.

Can divide weight:  This two-person tent is easy to divide between two people.  One can take the poles, the other carries the tent body.  Share the load.

Lightweight:  DCF, carbon poles, and single-walled construction make the Free Duo functionally the lightest two-person freestanding tent available.  It’s not as light as many non-freestanding shelters, but the dedicated poles provide some very real benefits for the weight penalty.  Some semi-freestanding tents also claim a lower weight on the stat sheet, but I’m skeptical of their durability.  To mitigate this, a footprint is recommended, which adds around six ounces to the total, eclipsing the 30-ounce Free Duo.

DCF is 100% waterproof, at least when it’s new.

Long-lasting:  The Free Duo is built to last.  While my tent has yet to stand the tests of time, my partner’s Duplex, which is built using the same DCF materials, made it through the entire PCT and CDT without major issue.  Even when cowboy camping, the flattened tent served as the groundsheet.  Puncture resistance is a weakness of DCF, but the 1.0oz/sqryd floor is burly and small holes were easily repaired with DCF tape.

Groundsheet not required:  Continuing the last point, it’s sweet that, per Zpacks, “a separate groundsheet is NOT required for this shelter.”  Just one less awkward sheet of fabric to mess with.

Concave interior:  The canopy of the Free Duo clips to the poles, which creates a concave, dome-like interior.  This adds a ton of livable space versus trekking pole shelters, which usually feature straight lines from peak to foot.  The Free Duo has way more airspace above the head and feet when compared to the Duplex despite slightly smaller floor and peak height dimensions.

More living space in the Free Duo means more comfort for furry friends.

Moveable:  Pitch the tent, then pick it up and move it where you want it.  Is there a root in your back when you lie down?  Not a problem, just move.  This is also helpful for getting the most comfortable orientation on an angled slope.  This is difficult to dial in with a trekking pole shelter.

Small footprint:  The Free Duo requires less space to pitch than the Duplex or similar trekking pole shelters, where the required guy lines and stakes extend the footprint significantly in each direction.

Unobstructed doors:  The poles of trekking pole shelters like to hang out in doorways.  They’re easy to work around, but often get in the way.  By subtracting the trekking poles from the Free Duo, Zpacks subtracts door obstructions, letting us live free with views unhindered.

Cons

 

free duo

The poles of the Free Duo are heavy and bulky even though they’re carbon fiber. Even the lightest poles will sink a freestanding shelter.

Price:  $699.  Ouch.  That’s a big number no matter how you look at it.  However, it’s a fair price relative to the market.  DCF is an expensive material to source and work with, and so will demand a premium price for the foreseeable future.  Of course, the Free Duo also includes carbon poles, which justifies the higher price relative to the Duplex.

Stakes not included:  For that price, I think stakes should be included.  Sure, hikers might already own stakes or prefer a specific type, but I would hate to shell out another $20 for a set on top of $700.  I also think that stakes are an important factor for an apples-to-apples weight comparison between tents.  For reference: I carry eight 6” titanium shepherd hooks ($16, 1.4oz total) for my staking needs.

Heavy:  While the Free Duo gets kudos for being a super lightweight freestanding tent, it is undeniably heavy from an ultralight perspective.  The poles balloon the weight to 11 ounces heavier than the Duplex.  The Free Duo is a fundamentally different tent, so much so that it almost feels ridiculous to compare the two weights.  Yet I foresee that 11-ounce gap immediately disqualifying it from the wish list of many aspiring thru-hikers.  Ounces are ounces.  The benefits of the Free Duo are harder to quantify.

There’s just no coming back from the weight of the poles. The Free Duo is heavy relative to trekking pole shelters.

Bulky poles:  Besides being useless for anything but setting up the tent, the Free Duo poles are rather bulky.  The aluminum hubs at the connecting joints of each ‘H’ hold the carbon sections awkwardly far apart, meaning that they do not nest tightly together.  Carry them on the outside of your pack to minimize the impact.

No trekking pole setup:  With the Free Duo, you’re stuck with the poles, and if one breaks, you’re screwed.  Trekking pole shelters are more flexible and can be used with either trekking poles or other appropriately-lengthed straight things, even sticks, if the inspiration strikes.  For even awesomer flexibility, the Duplex Freestanding Flex Kit turns a regular Duplex into a freestanding shelter.

Condensation:  Collecting interior condensation is a classic issue for just about any shelter.  This affects occupants of single-wall tents more acutely because it’s nearly impossible to avoid brushing against the damp interior.  When the weather permits, sleeping with the vestibule doors open will minimize condensation collection.  Campsite selection can make a big difference too.  Here are Zpacks’ tips for reducing condensation.

Final Thoughts

Zpacks has created something beautiful. Not as beautiful as Mount Hood maybe, but it’s worth a look.

Zpacks accomplished what they set out to achieve with the Free Duo.  It is a shelter hybrid that combines the strengths of both freestanding and trekking pole tents.  With a robust pole structure, it can pitch anywhere. The single-wall DCF construction simplifies setup by eliminating entire layers of fabric and lightens what’s left by replacing it with super-strong Dyneema.  The result is the lightest two-person freestanding shelter on the market.  Other semi- or freestanding shelters come close in weight, but they lack the simplicity and the benefits of DCF.  Trekking pole shelters beat the Free Duo on the scale, but they are more difficult to use.

Despite the clear Duplex heritage, ultimately I feel the Free Duo is an upgraded freestanding tent, and exists in a separate galaxy from trekking pole shelters.  The 11-ounce weight gap is significant.  For someone in the market for a freestanding tent, the Free Duo represents a wholesale improvement.  For ultralighters looking at the lightest trekking pole shelters, the additional weight of dedicated poles might not be worth the easy setup.  And for anyone, the price might keep the Free Duo out of reach.

The vestibule clips are straight from the Duplex and scream, “Zpacks.” Despite duplication of the details, the Free Duo is a fundamentally different tent.

For me, the Free Duo is attractive because it enables me to go where I want to go, and sleep where I want to sleep.  Above the treeline on slick granite, my tarp doesn’t cut it.  Some terrain demands a freestanding tent and the Free Duo is not only the lightest option, but it also integrates some of my favorite features from the Duplex; the single-wall simplicity, and benefits of DCF.  It might not totally replace my tarp, but with wind or rain in the forecast, I’ll gladly lug the poles in exchange for the peace of mind that comes with a peaceful night’s sleep.

Shop the Zpacks Free Duo

Similar Shelters

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Read our review of the DCF Two.

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Comments 8

  • Avatar
    Nathan ward : Feb 10th

    Hey there,

    This is probably some ultralight malarkey, but do you think it could be possible to recreate this shelter, but with a standard non-freestanding trekking pole setup? I’m only asking this out of theoretical curiosity because if so it could possibly be lighter and possibly roomier than the original duplex? The obvious con to this idea is that at that point your basically buying a duplex that’s practically $100 more for just the losing of two ounces. Once again, you guys are doing great work over there and your experience is much appreciated.

    A gram weenie,
    N.W.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Owen Eigenbrot : Feb 10th

      Hahaha, oh man. Now that’s a crazy thought!

      Theoretically it might be possible to use four trekking poles to pitch the Free Duo, I don’t see how one could do it with fewer. Two hold up the peaks above the doors, and the other two, standing vertically at the head and foot of the tent, attach with guy lines to the four clips. This would definitely require eight stakes, adjusting/adding guy lines, and a boat load of patience.

      I might try this, but would never ever recommend it. Maybe if one of the ‘H’ poles breaks catastrophically in the field?

      Thinking outside the box, Nathan. I like that! Wild ideas like this one are where innovation is bred (mmmmm, bread).

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Stephen : Feb 12th

    This was a heck of a way to find out the tarp tent lithium double rainbow had been cancelled.

    Otherwise a great review.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Owen Eigenbrot : Feb 13th

      Well, you got me there, Stephen. Tarp Tent has so far only existed on the peripherals of my awareness, to my detriment. The Double Rainbow certainly looks like a legitimate competitor of the Free Duo. That trekking pole / freestanding mod is a pretty sweet way to save weight on extra tent poles. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Doug : Feb 12th

    All things considered this is probably the best 3 season solo tent out there. But I can’t consider a 42″ wide tent a duo. I would be happy to buy a 50″ wide version of this, maybe a 48″.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Owen Eigenbrot : Feb 13th

      Awe c’mon, Doug. Snuggling with another dirty hiker isn’t that bad! But seriously, thanks for bringing up a legitimate concern. The Free Duo is on the narrow side of two person tents. It still fits two regular width sleeping pads side by side so I think it’s fair to call it a duo, but some pairs might find it tight.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Frank : Feb 15th

    Great review. I am 6’3” and fit pretty good in my Altaplex. Can tall people fit in the Duo?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Owen Eigenbrot : Feb 16th

      Hi there, glad you liked the review!

      I’ve never seen an Altaplex myself, but my guess is that you’ll fit just fine, if not better, in the Free Duo, at least when lying down. Comparing the stats, both tents have the same interior length, and the concave shape of the Free Duo will give you more airspace close to the head and foot of the tent.

      For sitting up in the tent, the peak heights are quite different, 56″ vs. 42″. You’ll notice that for sure. If you’re pretty much just sleeping in the Free Duo, you might be alright. For hanging out on a rainy day, your neck will get a workout.

      Reply

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