Solo Tents for Campers
In the tent world, the coolest and cutest are the solo tents. Small, light, with all of the features of the big boys. But how many people actually go backpacking solo? For two people, one 2-person tent is lighter and more compact than 2 solo tents.
But in our world, mainly the woods and hills of the northeast, we use solo tents more often when we're going out in twos or threes than when we're going solo. That may seem odd, but think about the immediate advantages of solo tents.
First, you can separate yourself from the snorer of the group, or the others can separate themselves from you. Second, nobody's equipment gets mixed together, avoiding that disconcerting "where the heck is my headlamp?" syndrome as you pack for the next trip . Third, simply, is privacy. Want to take a nap, read a book, work on writing an article. You can disappear into your solo tent and nobody bothers you. Or, think about mosquito season in the lean-to shelters so common on the Appalachian Trail, Long Trail and other popular campsites in the northeast; if there aren't too many people using the space, a small tent, without the fly, can often be set up right inside the shelter to protect you from the little biters while you sleep.
|With rain coming in, having small solo tents that we could put up in thick woods was a huge help on this trip. (David Shedd photo)|
But, a solo tent really shines when you leave trails behind and go bushwhacking in the backcountry in search of that undiscovered overlook or hidden trout stream.
Trail camping is easy, since most have established campsites. There's usually plenty of space and big 2- and 3-person tents go up easy. But finding space in the backcountry isn't always that easy. Trees, roots, rocks, bogs, puddles, and uneven ground all make it hard to find a spot where a 2- or 3-person tent can be pitched easily and give comfortable sleeping spots for more than one person.
Take a little solo tent, and you can pretty much put it up anywhere that there's room for your sleeping bag. We often find spots where the center of the tent is wedged between trees. There's room for our bodies, and room at the front for our gear. Life is good and the stress of finding a campsite is dramatically reduced. It opens up the world for us: We look at a map, find a hill with a couple of streams or ponds around, grab our solo tents, a fishing rod and off we go.
|Side entry tents have larger, easier to use vestibules, while front entry tents have a narrower, smaller footprint. (David Shedd photo)|
In the good old days, solo tents were limited to mostly unpalatable choices, such as tube tents. But, as with the rest of the backpacking world, new materials and designs have created a plethora of high-quality options, often at surprisingly reasonable prices.
From a design standpoint, there are really two major choices. First, freestanding or not? Second, front entry or side entry? There are advantages and disadvantages to each, depending on your needs.
Freestanding tents have the advantage of being easy to pitch in all conditions, especially on rock, snow or inside a shelter. Non-freestanding tents offer lighter weight, due to fewer poles, and less bulk.
Front entry allows for maximum flexibility in placement; you really can stick it between two trees and just slide into it. Also, front entry tents are generally lighter and pack up a little smaller. However, getting in and out requires more gymnastics than a side entry. Usually, front entries require backing into the tent. Also, the vestibule on a front entry tent tends to be small, and every time you get in and out you have to move your stuff out of the way.
The nature of front entry design causes another problem. When it's raining, the front door slope of the tent allows some rain to drip inside. You need to get in and out quickly, and pull anything like your sleeping bag back into the tent to avoid getting it wet.
Side entry tents have the advantage of ease of entry and better vestibule storage space, but most have a significantly bigger footprint when fully pitched with the rainfly. And, you obviously have to have more open space to get at the long side for entry-exit than with the short side of a front entry tent. If you camp a lot in the rain, though, you may want consider side entry to avoid the water drip issue.
|Size and weight aren't necessarily related; these are arranged from lightest (left) to heaviest (right). (David Shedd photo)|
The choice is yours. Front entry clearly will work in places that side won't, although we honestly haven't found too many places where we couldn't find a spot large enough for a side entry tent.
So, with no further ado, here's what we found in our testing. All prices are MSRP; street prices may vary. The weights are actual measurements, not manufacturers' posted specs, and include the tent, rainfly, poles, stakes, and stuff sacks, footprints weren't included. Interior measurements were all taken with the tape just touching, not pushing against the fabric. Length and width, at shoulders, measurements were taken at ground level (L1, W1), and at "toe height," about nine inches off the ground (L2,W2).
In a pinch, most of those dimensions can be expanded; we've sat in plenty of tents where our heads push the roof up. But, these measurements are to the point where you'd start to make contact with a surface.
Side Entry Tents
|Eureka Backcountry Solo ($180; 4.0 lbs, L1-93", L2-82", W1-32", W2-29", H-38")|
If you're a member of the "big and tall" crowd, this is the best solo tent in our test for you. A palace by comparison with the others, it's a wide, tall, pure rectangle. We actually stuffed two people in it; while it wasn't comfortable, and we didn't spend the night that way, in an emergency you actually could do it. People who have a tendency to be claustrophobic will feel comfortable in here.
On one rainy trip, an editor worked inside for hours, sitting comfortably in a Crazy Creek chair with his computer on his lap. The setup is about as simple as it gets. Slide the poles through the mesh tubes, snap the ends into the feet, stake it out. And we do mean "stake it out." The rainfly has a "Flying Nun" look to it that really catches the wind. Once, we had to chase this tent when we thought it had been staked securely.
Negatives: There's no vestibule, period. It's the heaviest and bulkiest of the lot, and the fly isn't full coverage. We haven't had it happen yet, but we believe that a wind-driven rain from the back side of the tent would let water into the tent. We wouldn't recommend it for above treeline because of the wind issues, but if you want space in a package that's built like a tank, this is your tent.
|REI Quarter Dome T1 ($199; 3 lbs, 3 oz, L1-80", L2-74.5", W1-23", W2-23", H-39)|
The exact opposite of the Eureka, this is the ultimate not a "big and tall" tent. Actually, it has the slimmest and shortest space of all the tents tested. One 5-foot, 3-inch female tester complained of her elbows hitting the side in her sleeping bag, and another commented on feeling claustrophobic.
The other negative, which went away after a little practice, was the non-intuitive setup. The poles are all attached into a single unit and require some headscratching to determine how everything connects. But, once you've figured it out, the tent goes up quickly and easily, and you don't have to worry about losing a pole.
On the positive side, the REI actually had the most height of any of the tents we tested. If you can fit inside lying down, you're likely to be comfortable sitting up. Vestibule space is very good, build quality is excellent and it's one of the lightest tents in the test. It's also rock-solid and stable in wind, a benefit of the suspended truss pole design which was introduced to the industry with the REI "T" Series tents. The larger Quarter Dome 2 is one of our favorite 2-person summer tents.
Bonus points: REI includes a compression stuff sack, allowing you to stuff it easily but make it fit in your pack better. As the second lowest priced tent in the test, it's a rock solid bargain, as long as you don't mind a tent that's basically the width of your sleeping bag. We'd happily carry a few more ounces in the same design to gain some shoulder room.
|EMS Velocity 1 ($239; 3 lbs, 6 oz, L1-84", L2-79", W1-31", W2-30", H-35")|
Think of the Velocity as a supersized version of the Quarter Dome T1. Similar in shape and looking virtually identical with the rainfly on, EMS has nailed the dimensions necessary to make most people feel comfortable without defeating the basic purpose of a solo tent. A 6-foot, 2-inch tester was able to stretch out without hitting the ends, yet could curl up into the fetal position during the night and sit up comfortably without his head hitting the ceiling. His analysis was "STOKED!"
At the other end of the spectrum, a female tester took it out for her first solo backpacking trip, and found the ease of setup fantastic at the end of a long day. One small warning on setup: The Velocity uses DAC's "Jake's Foot" at the corners. While we love these, they can end up clipped onto the rainfly when you take the tent down, which means more head scratching when you try to set it up the next time.
The vestibule is as roomy as the interior; one of our "monster packs" easily tucks in out of the rain with room left for easy entry. About the only negative is that it has the largest footprint of any tent here. It's not the ideal tent if you lean towards sleeping in thick spruce forests. But, short of that, if you're willing to spend a little more for the best side entry tent we've found yet, look no further!
Front Entry Tents
|L.L. Bean Microlight Solo ($139; 3 lbs, 8 oz, L1-86", L2-78", W1-37", W2-35", H-35")|
The only non-freestanding tent in the test, the Microlight Solo is a genuine bargain. For a measly few dollars, you get a lot of space, relatively easy setup, a good vestibule and good ventilation in a small, light package.
It's far from perfect: As with any non-freestanding tent, setup requires more pegs and is more difficult on rocky ground. The drop-down door wants to get stepped on or tangle your feet. The fly and door hold-backs are irritating, at best. It comes with the cheapest and heaviest stakes in the test, and the maximum overhead height feels shorter than it really is unless you wiggle yourself to exactly the right spot. In addition, be very careful when closing the fly; the zipper loves to snag.
But, these are quibbles. We've spent multiple nights in this tent, slept well, enjoyed it and it's a cheap. It's not the best tent here, but if you're on a budget, it's a quality choice.
|Sierra Designs Vapor Light 1 ($250; 3 lbs, 4 oz, L1-81", L2-74", W1-28.5", W2-26", H-35")|
Simply put, the price/performance ratio of the Vapor Light was the best of the test, period. Want to hear the negatives first? Well, if you're much over six feet tall, it may be too short for you. And, fairly typical of Western tents, the ventilation isn't designed for day after day of 99-percent humidity.
There's one more nitpick that we can add in: This is the first tent we've ever tried where we wish the stuff sack was smaller. Ideally, we'd stuff this into REI's compression sack.
Positives? Large, light weight and the entry is the easiest of any of the front entry tents. The maximum overhead height is in exactly the right place, making it feel taller than it actually is. Shoulder and hip room are excellent. Setup is ridiculously easy, although the directions are mediocre and on paper. Learn how to pitch it, then leave the directions at home so they don't get soaked.
The stakes are great. It even looks good. And, one more small, but very functional detail, the poles and stakes go into one integrated bag, so one less thing to lose. A system that every manufacturer should go to. Put all of this into a pot, stir well, and you've got the recipe for the tent we'd most likely buy with our own money.
|Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1 ($300; 2 lbs, 3 oz, L1-84", L2-79", W1-34", W2-35", H-36.5")|
One statistic says it all, the Fly Creek UL1 is exactly one pound lighter than the second lightest tent in this test. Not one ounce, one pound. In percentages, it's more than 32 percent lighter than next-lightest REI, yet provides much more room. Big Agnes' fanatical pursuit of lightness pays off here; you can have a human sized tent with a decent vestibule for bivvy sack weight. It's also as tiny as it is light; we've carried bivvy sacks that took up more pack room.
Setup is easy as well. The only quirk is a clip that connects the side of the tent to the fly so it uses a single stake. It works, but it doesn't make for a taut, neat-looking pitch. Like the REI, the Big Agnes is a bathtub design, adding to the non-taut look. When you first put it up, it's easy to think that you've done something wrong, but don't worry, you haven't. The design works and once you get comfortable with the oddities, it works well.
It's not perfect. The maximum headroom is well down the tent, so not entirely usable, and the "Triangle Loft" accessory, which gives you some in-tent storage, uses up some of what is left. As with any tent, We highly recommend getting a footprint for this tent, given the material thinness.
And, of course, it's the most expensive tent in the test; the lightest products usually are. Still, the value is there, if your hot buttons are light and small, there's simply nothing out there like it. Plenty of room, quality materials, ridiculous weight ... this is a cutting edge tent for the early adopters out there.
Unless you're over 6-feet-4, you can find a tent in this group that will work for you. And, having one will mean more opportunities for you to get out, try new places, new trails and enjoy yourself with that good friend you just can't share a tent with. Uou're due for a new toy, give one these a try.
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