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Gear: Tents 101
Half a century ago, campers needed a car-top roof rack to lug their home-away-from-home to the backwoods. And more times than not, they'd leave the tent at home in favor of saving pounds of shoulder weight. These days almost no one sleeps without a tent, because backpacking shelters are lighter, stronger, drier, and roomier than their predecessors. Your only concern is which model to choose. There's a bewildering array of tent options available, including hundreds of three-season tents and specialized models built for hot deserts, Arctic summits, and steamy rain forests.
WHAT ARE YOU USING IT FOR?
Your first consideration when choosing a tent should be whether it will suit your seasonal backpacking needs. Here are your options.
This has always been the most popular tent category for backpackers because these shelters are designed for the seasons most of us like to camp: spring through fall. These tents can handle a little surprise snowfall in early spring and late fall, and most have plenty of ventilation options to let in cooling summer breezes. They typically are held up by two or three poles, and some are even sturdy enough to handle mild winter conditions.
In the old days, the only way to see the stars was to sleep with the bugs. Most modern summer-only tents feature wide swaths of netting that let you be almost one with Mother Nature's elements rather than with her critters. If the sky clouds over, just pull on the fly and you'll stay dry during a downpour. Beware, though, because strong windblown rain can get up under the typically scant rainfly. Likewise, the tent won't do much to keep you warm if an
early fall frost settles in during the night. Desert travelers can use these tents for midday sun shelters because the light-colored fabrics are good at reflecting heat.
Think of these as ragtop Jeeps; they'll take you just about anywhere and adapt to almost any climate. Like summer/screen tents, convertibles have large vent panels for stargazing and breeze-catching. But when the weather turns foul, fabric panels seal up the screen to trap heat and seal out blowing rain or snow. The rainfly provides full coverage and often features more guy-out points than you'd find on a rainfly designed for mild three-season conditions. Of course, all the extra lines and stakes mean this type of tent can take longer to set up, but in bad weather it'll be extremely stable.
These tents, also known as four-season tents, will stand up to whatever comes your way. The price you pay for such all-weather toughness isn't measured simply in dollars, but also in increased weight and sometimes reduced ventilation. The design often employs four and sometimes more poles that crisscross for strength, and maybe even an extra pole to prop up a large vestibule. The fabric is beefy, and ventilation panels may be skimpy. Some mountaineering tents are made with a single waterproof/breathable wall, rather than typical double-wall construction. The single-wall design reduces weight but elevates price because of the special fabric used.
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