Why Cuben Fiber
There are four things that lightweight backpacking tents are made of:
- Treated Nylon
- Treated Polyester
- Polycyro (window film).
Nylon is the most common. If you look at a mainline tent, such as one by REI, Big Agnes or MSR (Mountain Safety Research) they are made of coated nylon. Much lighter than the traditional canvas tents, generally accepted as tougher than Polyester.
The weakness is that they absorb water. They wet out in the rain and then the water runs down them to the ground. As long as you have an inner layer (usually made of bug netting), you won’t come in contact with it. Many thru-hikers have hiked with one of these tents.
Popular tents are:
I’ve hiked with a Copper Spur. With most of these tents the 1p (one person) is too small for one person, and the 3p (three person) is just right for two people. An REI Half Dome 2p is perfect for two people but too heavy for backpacking (though I’ve used one for short week long or so hikes).
Hiking with a tent like this is why I started carrying a tarp to set up the tent under and to keep the rain and the dew off of the tent.
Polyester turns out to be strong enough for the weight and is hydrophobic so it doesn’t absorb as much water. Ok, doesn’t absorb water at all, which means they don’t sag when wet. On why polyester. On how it is more durable too.
Lightheart Gear used to make the most common polyester tent. Now it does not show up on their web site. Now it makes the Firefly instead.
Otherwise, Black Diamond has a quasi-tent/quasi-tarp, the Beta Light. I remain unconvinced, thought it is an approach that might work on the Appalachian Trail.
Dyneema — basically lighter, stronger and completely waterproof. Also very expensive.
Polycyro — even lighter, by far the least expensive, just feels fragile. I’ve been happy with polycro tarps (I’ve instructions on how to make one on this blog). But you can make a tent out of it.
Complete instructions, with video. I’d just hesitate to use one where I needed protection from bugs or where I was going to not be able to make repairs or find another place to sleep if something went wrong.
Dyneema Tents on the Market (List)
Currently Dyneema tents are available from the following:
- Zpacks (the most common — and used to be the only one). (We own and have used a Triplex for about two thousand trail miles).
- Tarptent (classic designs).
- Big Agnes (fragile tents that are considered “stupid light”).
- Hyperlight Mountain Gear (until recently, more aimed at extreme conditions). They have a new tent out aimed at thru-hikers that is a heavier and more expensive Duplex. 28 square feet.
- Durston (what I am currently using)
- Gossomer Gear–I’ve used some of their gear (not the tent) and was happy with it. Their two person tent is barely over twenty-five square feet.
- Six Moons (a tarp/bug bivy solution).
- Samaya–small, four season, $1,500.00.
- Etc. (everyone seems to be getting into the market).
Dyneema Tents, a Discussion
There are really three brands and several tents to choose from for a thru-hiker.
Zpacks is widely known for the Duplex, one of the most common thru-hiker tent on long trails, when used by one person. It is really too cramped for two people and the vestibule really isn’t that useful. The Triplex vestibules aren’t much better, but the tent is a palace for two people and your gear will fit in the tent.
For one person, they brought the Altaplex back out (they had discontinued it) and we saw a lot of that tent on the PCT — especially used by people getting better or faster miles than the average hiker. In theory it is a “tall” version, but the truth is that it is just the right size for normal sized single hikers.
While they have freestanding versions of some of their tents, after you’ve hiked a while freestanding isn’t worth the extra weight over a tent that uses your trekking poles to set up.
All tents, even freestanding ones, function better if they are staked out. Once you get used to that and always staking your tent out, by a thousand miles or so down the trail, freestanding is just extra weight.
Tarptent makes several tents, all of which you will see on long trails now. The Dipole (about 32 square feet, 28.7 ounces including tent stakes) has extra stays for better interior volume, the Double Rainbow Li is free standing (using your hiking poles) and a neat design (it is a tent I’ve almost bought), and the Stratosphere Li is a neat tent, just small. They make great tents. The Dipole looked good on the trail, especially the way it vents.
The X-Mid 2 pro is the tent to focus on from Durston. 20.4 ounces (not including stakes). 30 square feet. Very, very usable vestibules with zippers. Top vents (which Hyperlight Mountain Gear also has). More than a hundred dollars less than the Dipole. Much more useable vestibules. Have I mentioned the vestibules? Without those it would not be large enough, with them it is great.
If you are sleeping with your head and feet in the same direction as your partner, one of you (i.e. me) will have the tent closer to their face. Not bad though. No need for pole caps to pull the sides out, only needs six tent pegs and two poles to set up completely.
Yes. I can recommend tents from all three providers. The other tents from the list that I did not discuss I could recommend to four season users and to marketing departments.
First, if you haven’t done much long-distance hiking, I would suggest that you rent or buy used and try hiking first. Too many people discover that it really isn’t for them after they’ve spent too much money on gear. Do a shakedown hike of 190 miles on the Pinhoti Trail (Flag Mountain just before the start of the long road walk) or hike Springer Mountain, Georgia to the NOC.
Second, get a feel for how much space you really need. My wife and I found that for an overnight or short trip the Copper Spur was just fine. Any longer and we started to feel cramped and looking for someplace else to stay. Moving to the Triplex we suddenly felt just more comfortable with the tent.
Third, make sure you have time for a thru-hike. I’m retired and have the time. But if I didn’t, I’d probably been looking at a Quarter Dome (the Half Dome is just too heavy, though a great tent otherwise).
Finally, go to Trail Days (either the one in Damascus or the one in Cascade Locks) and see the tents set up. Crawl in and out of them. See what is for sale that has a blemish (a cosmetic flaw that doesn’t affect performance) or used. Get buy-in from your partner.
Honestly, crawling in and out of tents really made a difference to me in terms of what we have bought. In addition, a tent you are willing to use will save you money. I keep seeing people who can’t wait to spend a night in a hostel or a hotel instead of their tent. We often caught showers places that did not require us to spend the night or that let us camp for free or cheap once we had the larger tent.
I think Dyneema tents are worth it if you are hiking a thousand miles or more at a time. The combination of toughness, lighter weight and waterproof is huge. Which Dyneema tent is best is like asking which shoe or which pack — a question of what fits you and what suits you best that doesn’t have an abstract answer.
Why n0 Big Agnes? If you don’t just want to take my word for it on the Big Agnes Dyneema tents, here is a real life review. I’ve also set the tent up and looked at it and it is as fragile and looked as prone to rip as Skurka reports it being. I liked the Copper Spur and we still have it (even though I’ve sold/passed along a lot of other tents). I’ve got lots of out of date advice too as well as the updated advice on this blog.
Things have changed since 2017-2018.
For tent stakes/pegs, on the Appalachian Trail with the Triplex I used titanium shepherd hooks with a couple v-stakes (for better holding power) I bought off Amazon. The cheapest brand works just fine. They are really, really light.
The PCT has tougher, rockier soil and the shepherd hooks had problems and the v-stakes bent and broke. On the PCT I moved to MSR groundhogs. They are a great tent peg that has good holding power and penetrates tough soil without bending or being destroyed.
Tarps and groundsheets. For a non-Dyneema tent I also recommend a polycyro tarp to go with it and a polycyro ground sheet. You can DIY (do it yourself — make your own) those. For a Dyneema tent, a Tyvek ground sheet works pretty well for some extra protection and for laying down on for mid-day naps when avoiding the heat of the day.