Tent Review: New-School Shelters

Slash weight, not weather protection, with this year's top new ultralight tents.

Ultralighters know that the fastest way to shed serious pack pounds is to downsize the shelter. But the traditional solution--sleeping under a tarp--leaves you vulnerable to storms and bugs. Lately, though, superlight materials and new tent configurations have helped designers produce a backpacker's Holy Grail: a livable two-person, three-season tent that weighs less than 4 pounds. We spent more than a hundred nights testing models that meet these requirements, and we found four top performers that are perfect for everything short of rainforest and Himalayan basecamping. Read the reviews carefully to see which one is right for you.

Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2

Score: 4.1

Freestanding, sturdy, and barely more than 3 pounds--tents like this are as rare as bikinis on Everest.

It just doesn't get any lighter than this, not without sacrificing weather protection. The Seedhouse's single-hubbed pole/clip system sets up quickly without guesswork, and the taut pitch offers impressive stability. The solid pole structure, boosted by a few well-placed external guy lines, helped the Seedhouse stand strong in gusty winds from Washington's Goat Rocks Wilderness to the southern Appalachians. The all-mesh canopy reduces stuffiness in warm weather, and allows horizon-to-horizon stargazing on clear nights. Interior space is adequate for two average-sized campers who care more about saving weight than hanging out. But like all the shelters we tested, there are minor tradeoffs to get the weight so low. Sloping walls take a bite out of usable headroom, and the length is cramped for 6-plus-footers. Vestibule space is also tight-fine for boots and small packs, but not for cooking or changing clothes. And while ventilation is adequate in most weather conditions, the close quarters and absence of fly vents caused condensation on cool, windless nights in Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness. Bonus feature: Pitch it rainfly-only with the footprint ($50, sold separately), and you get a slightly roomier shelter that shaves another 12 ounces. $299; 84"x52"x38"; 3 lbs. 3 oz. (877) 554-8975;www.bigagnes.com.

REI Quarter Dome UL

Score: 3.9

This is the only sub-4-pound tent we've seen that's both freestanding and has two doors.

When one of our testers handed his partner this tent, the skeptical buddy asked, "Are you positive this is a two-person tent?" He's a believer now. Little bro to the award-winning Half Dome (Editors' Choice, 4/02), the Quarter Dome nicely balances space to weight, weather resistance, and ventilation. The two-pole design pitches in a couple minutes the first time--even if you're alone--thanks to dead-end pole sleeves, color-coded fly straps, and easy-to-adjust stake loops. With the help of external guys, it withstood strong winds from Idaho's White Clouds Mountains to the Mojave Desert, and another tester stayed bone dry through torrential rains in the Queets Valley of Olympic National Park. Mesh walls and a vent aid airflow; another tester had no condensation even with his wife and two toddlers sardined inside. Best of all, you can pick up the Quarter Dome for a price--$219--that should give competitors night sweats. At this weight, of course, there are sacrifices, mainly headroom and length for campers taller than about 6'2". Twin doors and (small) vestibules are a luxury, though we'll nitpick a design that allows rain to drip inside when the outer doors are open. $219; 82"x52"x40"; 3 lbs. 12 oz. (800) 426-4840;www.rei.com.

GoLite Eisenhower Tunnel

Score: 3.1

This single-wall doesn't scrimp on sleeping or storage space.

Like most hoop-style tents, the Eisenhower has an excellent space-to-weight ratio. My 6' partner and I never so much as bumped each other while sleeping; only the Tarptent Rainshadow has more floor space. Headroom is more limited; the ceiling's sharp slope allowed us to sit up only at the door. Though it's not freestanding, the Eisenhower pitches nearly as fast as the Seedhouse and Quarter Dome, thanks to its single-wall construction (no fly to affix) and dead-end pole sleeves. And its aerodynamic shape (plus 13 guyouts) helped the two-pole shelter ride out violent thunderstorms in Colorado's Indian Peaks Wilderness. A highlight is the vestibule--by far the test's biggest--with room for packs and boots or careful cooking. On the downside, a storm-stable pitch requires 13 stakes, and it still flaps in wind and needs occasional restaking to maintain tautness. Ventilation is good for a single-wall, thanks to full-length side mesh panels and two hooded vents, but on calm, near-freezing nights, we saw significant condensation. The poles are tight in their sleeves and grommets, so taking down the tent can be a wrestling match. And the tent suffered some wear and tear: The mesh at the foot sustained a 2-inch hole, and the reflective taping started peeling off the webbing loops. $300; 84"x60"x42"; 3 lbs. 10 oz. (888) 546-5483;www.golite.com.

Tarptent Rainshadow

Score: 3.0

The lightest tent in this field is big enough for three.

We almost used a smaller version of this tent, then realized we could get the three-person model and still carry less than 3 pounds. The floor is the test's longest and the widest, letting one hiker sleep comfortably inside with his wife, toddlers, and 70-pound Lab. Headroom is impressive considering the nonfreestanding design, but the entrance is the only place to sit up straight. Pitching the single-wall requires practice; do it in your yard a couple of times first. And use a trekking pole to prop up the front; it'll be stronger than the pole provided. The Rainshadow's guy system requires only six stakes, and the tent didn't leak a drop during a 24-hour deluge in Pennsylvania--despite a skimpy awning and plenty of ground-level mesh. Just be sure to pick a site that drains well, because it doesn't have a bathtub floor. Biggest complaints? There's no vestibule; condensation collected on cool, calm nights; and there's little protection from chill drafts. The mesh door hangs loosely, making its tiny zippers a hassle to find in the dark. And overall construction is inconsistent, as evidenced by a couple frayed seams. In the end, this tent is best for hikers who crave space over weatherproofing, or tarp fans who want bug protection. $265 (with

sewn-in floor); 93"x92"x48"; 2 lbs. 9 oz. (650) 743-7148;www.tarptent.com.