Tents to match my Mountains!

A backpacker who wants to live in the mountains for 5 months is going to experience (for good and bad) everything nature can throw at him/her. For example, it simply has to be expected that the weather won’t be ideal the whole time!

For a product, like a backpacking tent, to be successful, it has to be a virtual “safe room” from all the elements common to the region or topography the hiker wants to visit. The problem for the long-distance thru-hiker is they’re not just “visiting” the backcountry for the weekend or a couple of weeks, they’re living in it for three entire seasons! The right tent for this endurance event has to be well enough designed to be roomy, functional, durable, reliable, predictable, light, and inexpensive.
Right! (with a healthy dose of skepticism!)

Over the last 40 years of running the wilderness school, Mountain Education, Inc., it was sponsored by 20 or more manufacturers providing food, clothing, and mountaineering equipment. Names like The North Face, Sierra Designs, Mountain Hardwear, Red Wing, Kelty, Asolo, Limmer, MSR, Garmin, and many others gave us product to test and use for months every year. Some items and designs worked better than others to keep us safe, warm, and protected.

Regarding the topic of tent designs for the long-distance market this year, I want to talk about a brand called “Slingfin.” Don’t know it? Read on and you will realize that its owner has been in the tent design business for a long time!

I was sponsored by Slingfin in 2017 and spent two months testing and living out of their WindSaber model while running steep snow-hiking skills trips between Cottonwood and Kearsarge Passes on the snow-covered PCT/JMT.

Martin, Slingfin’s owner and designer, worked for The North Face (TNF) with its original Buckminster Fuller-inspired dome tents to create some of mountaineering’s most durable and well-designed, portable “safe rooms” available (ever) and they are still in demand and in use. When select staff (including Martin) left TNF and created Mountain Hardwear (MH), those same tent designs were refined under the MH label to great success. When MH sold to Columbia, most of the die-hard, dedicated staff fled and Martin started Slingfin.

Now, weight is everything, these days, but to create the lightest tent, material type, strength, and function have to be sacrificed. Thus, the lightest tents are often not the most durable or reliable under repeated, nasty wilderness forces, like heavy snow and crazy winds.

PCT or CDT thru-hikers need shelters that can take anything Nature is easily able to throw at them and endure without breaking, tearing, or leaking for 150 days, straight. Sure, many of these hikers see some ideal, pristine weather with moderate temperatures and light winds, but because they are out there for so long and hiking during the bumper seasons when storms get pretty nasty, they are bound to be buffeted monthly with weather extremes that are “not fit for man, nor beast,” according to the famed, “Yukon Kornelius,” who has seen everything, of course!

How can a prospective PCT thru-hiker establish whether the tent of his/her choosing is up for the task (because their task of staying out there so long is far different from the ideal weather of summer hiking)?

First, know the forces these tents may have to survive, namely high wind, horizontal rain and snow, and heavy snow sitting on top and pressing in from the sides.

It is not uncommon for springtime and late fall to dump 1-3 feet of wet, heavy powder snow on a tent over the course of a couple of days. Since there is a lot of water content to wet snow, a stack of it can get pretty heavy. For those reading this who have shoveled driveways and sidewalks in snow country, a 12-inch stack of snow on a shovel takes some effort to heft off a path; now triple it, as up to 3-feet of snow can easily sit on top of a tent before falling off and sliding down to the ground.

How can you simulate that amount of weight? I’ve never weighed a 3-foot column of snow 12″ x 12″, though I have picked up many by hand when conducting column tests in avalanche terrain, but an easy test is to simply put your hands on top of your tent of choice, right where its poles cross, and push down “heavily.” How much does the structure resist your efforts? How far can you compress the tent, down to where your nose will be as you’re sleeping the night away inside? If so, that’s not good.

How likely is this to happen to a PCT thru-hiker? It can and has snowed heavily in the Sierra every month of the year, sometimes even just recently in June dumping 3-feet of snow on hikers at Rae Lakes (former students of mine). Then there were the 30-40 PCT thru-hikers who got stranded in deep powder in late September of 2014 and many had horrific survival stories to tell, later! A thru-hike of the PCT/CDT is a mountainous journey fraught with the extremes of nature. If you’re not ready for all it can throw your way, what’s your plan?

High winds can flatten almost any tent design, if they don’t blow it over, first! I’ve had poles get ripped apart, then spent long nights trying to hold my lightweight tents up with my back as I sat and waited for the dawn. Tents with few poles have large, unsupported panels of fabric that in high winds flap so loudly and violently you can’t sleep while expecting the whole tent to rip apart!

Some tent’s pole designs are intended to be weak so they allow the tent to move with the wind, flopping from side to side like some rabid animal, rather than resisting it. The pole joints of these designs can fail due to all this friction and motion.

Then, there are the issues of how different fabric types and strength, fly coverage, ventilation, tie-outs, and zipper materials behave in these really nasty weather conditions that you’d just rather sleep through. For example, metal zippers can freeze shut and you can’t get out, unreinforced tie-outs can rip out, insufficient ventilation can seriously contribute to condensation problems inside that can get you wet, and mosquito netting allows horizontal rain and snow to blow into and coat your sleeping area, clothes, and food.

So, now, back to the beginning…what kind of weather typically affects where you’re going and will you be ready for it with the right design of shelter?

Teaching the “Why’s” and “How’s” of the Wilderness Life, this is Ned Tibbits of Mountain Education, Inc..