Monday 9 April 2018

Tents and tarps I've used for long-distance walking over the decades

In the Wintergear Voyager on the Continental Divide Trail in 1985

A few weeks ago I posted about the packs I've used on long-distance walks. As that proved popular here's a round-up of the various shelters I've chosen over the years.

Starting out with ridge tents I then went to domes and hoops as curved poles became standard and then back to ridge tents when designs arrived that could be pitched with trekking poles. Most recently I've abandoned tents altogether and gone for shaped tarps. The tents I used in the early days would still be fine now though. What's changed is the materials. Modern shelters weigh less for the same space whilst being tougher and more durable.

My first backpacking tent was a single-skin ridge tent with no vents and no porch. The condensation was horrendous! I never used it on more than two-night trips. Next came a Saunders Backpacker II sloping ridge tent which was double-skin and had a big porch. I took this on the Pennine Way in 1976. Whilst it performed okay the sides did bellow in and out in strong winds as they were unsupported.

The Ultimate Tramp on a winter camp in Snowdonia

Wanting a more stable tent for my first really long walk, Land's End to John O'Groats in 1978, I chose another sloping ridge tent but one with side guylines and an A-pole at the front, the Ultimate Tramp. This proved excellent. I wasn't a photographer when I did that walk - my cheap compact camera broke in the first few weeks - so I have no pictures of the Tramp from it. I did find the photo above in a box of old prints, taken a year later, by which time I'd acquired another camera.

Both those ridge tents weighed around 1.8kg and had polyurethane coated flysheets that weren't that durable. As I didn't think the Tramp would last another long walk I looked for something else for my next trip. I also admit to being seduced by the new flexible pole hoop and dome tents that arrived around 1980 and which gave more space for the weight and it was one of these that I chose for the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982.

Wintergear Eyrie, Pacific Crest Trail, 1982

The Wintergear Eyrie was a two pole dome tent with a third pole for the porch. It was also single-skin and made of Gore-Tex. In the dry conditions of most of the walk it worked really well but in rainy and snowy weather in the Cascade Mountains near the end of the walk there was rather too much condensation for comfort. It was quite heavy at 2.26kg but very roomy and easy to pitch. The tent didn't last much longer than the walk though as soon afterwards it leaked badly in a Scottish downpour. It was the only time I ever used a single-skin tent on a long walk.

Wintergear Voyager, Continental Divide Trail, 1985

I used another Wintergear tent, the Voyager (still available from Terra Nova), on the Continental Divide Trail. This three-pole semi-geodesic dome was very stable and roomy but also quite heavy at 2.7kg. For the first 500 miles it housed two of us as my friend from the PCT Scott Steiner accompanied me. After that I had to carry it myself. It was the first time I'd used a tent that pitched inner-first, which was useful on nights when I wanted shelter from bugs or a breeze but rain was unlikely. Using just the inner there was never any condensation.

The Phoenix Phreeranger, Canadian Rockies walk, 1988

For my next two long walks, the length of the Candian Rockies and the Yukon Territory south to north, I chose a tent from a new British company, Phoenix Mountaineering, the successor to Ultimate, whose Tramp I'd used a decade earlier. This was the first single hoop tent I'd used and I liked the space, the weight (1.8kg) and the stability, even if the nine guylines could get tangled. The Phreeranger is the only tent I've used on two long-distance walks. I really did like it!

Phoenix Phreeranger and all my gear, Yukon walk, 1990

After four North American walks I returned to Europe for my next one, the Scandinavian mountains from south to north. Appropriately I chose a Scandinavian tent for this, the Nallo 2 from Swedish company Hilleberg. This two-pole tunnel tent weighed 2.2kg and was very roomy and stable. It needed to be the latter as this was by far the stormiest long walk I'd done so far. (It was soon to be surpassed). Like other tunnel tents it was best pitched rear to the wind for stability. There was one night when the wind changed and started pushing the sides of the tent against me and flexing the poles alarmingly. I got out into the black wetness and turned the tent ninety degrees. The shaking stopped and I went back to sleep. The Nallo 2 was the first tent I used with a silicone nylon flysheet rather than a PU coated one. Every shelter I used after the Nallo 2 was made from this light durable material.

Hilleberg Nallo 2, Scandinavian Mountains walk, 1992

I loved the Nallo 2 and I was impressed with the quality but I did wish it weighed less. At the time it was the lightest tent Hilleberg made. However not long after my Scandinavian walk the company introduced a solo tent that has been one of my favourites ever since, the Akto. This single-hoop tent weighed 1.7kg (the current version is made from lighter materials and weighs a little less). I chose it for my walk over the Munros and Tops and really tested it as this was even stormier than the Scandinavian Mountains walk. The Akto came through fine and I've since used it on many Scottish walks, including several TGO Challenge coast-to-coast crossings of the Highlands.

Hilleberg Akto, Munros and Tops walk, 1996

After two wet and windy walks I wanted to go somewhere warm and dry for my next trip. I'd really enjoyed the desert sections on the PCT and CDT so a return to the SouthWest USA seemed a good idea. After the Munros and Tops walk I did a two-week trip in the Grand Canyon with the Akto and realised that excellent though this tent was it wasn't needed for a desert walk where rain was very unlikely and I could sleep under the stars most nights. Also, I was now using trekking poles regularly and wanted to use them as tent poles too to save some weight. Designers hadn't caught up with this idea yet. So when I decided to walk the Arizona Trail I looked for a tarp rather than a tent and ended up with a shaped one called the Kathmandu Trekking Basha-Tent, which could be pitched as a pyramid. With a groundsheet and pegs the weight was 1.2kg, far lighter than any tent I'd used yet it was also far roomier than any of them too. I used it to keep off the wind on quite a few nights, which it did very well, and just once some rain and wet snow.

Kathmandu Trekking Basha-Tent, Arizona Trail, 2000

Having enjoyed using a tarp I took another one on my next walk, a 500 mile circular walk through the High Sierra starting and finishing in Yosemite Valley. I didn't reckon I needed the space or stability of the Basha-Tent so I took an even lighter tarp, the GoLite Cave. The weight with pegs and a groundsheet was 794 grams. Most nights I slept under the stars but I did pitch the Cave a few times when it looked like rain.

GoLite Cave, High Sierra, 2004

Using trekking poles for pitching the tarp was a success so I was determined not to carry tent poles on future long walks. However my next long walk, the Pacific Northwest Trail, went through country where it could be wet and windy and where mosquitoes could be a problem. I wanted something with doors I could close so I went back to a tent, a sloping ridge tent in fact that looked very like the one I'd used on the Pennine Way over thirty years earlier. However because it was made of silnylon and could be pitched with trekking poles the GoLite Shangri-La 1 only weighed 963 grams.

GoLite Shangri-La 1, Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010

The Shangri-La 1 had an inner, the Nest, that could be pitched on its own, which I did at camps where mosquitoes were biting but there was little chance of rain, the first time I'd had a tent that enabled me to do this since the Voyager on the CDT 25 years earlier. As the Nest was made of mesh rather than solid nylon it was even better than the Voyager inner as it meant I could see out whilst safe from the bugs.

GoLite Shangri-La Nest, Pacific Northwest Trail, 2010

I returned home for the next long walk, the Scottish Watershed. This high exposed route could be very wet and windy (it was) so I wanted a shelter that would stand up to big storms. I remembered how good the Basha-Tent had been in strong winds so I looked for something similar and found the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, which is amazingly stormproof yet very light. Knowing midges were likely I paired it with an OookWorks mesh Nest, which could be hung inside. The total weight was 1.16kg and like the Basha-Tent the room was more than I needed. At times the weather was as wild as on any walk I'd done and I was very glad of the Trailstar's wind resistance.

Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, Scottish Watershed, 2013

After the storms of the Watershed I fancied another dry walk so my next one was from Yosemite Valley to Death Valley. I hoped to sleep under the stars most nights and I didn't really need a storm resistant shelter like the Trailstar. I took it anyway as it had become a favourite and it was so light. As I wasn't expecting mosquitoes I dispensed with the mesh inner and just took an ultralight Tyvek groundsheet. The total weight was just 801 grams. I did have some big winds in the desert that made the Trailstar worth carrying but overall I could have managed with an even lighter, smaller tarp like the GoLite Cave.

Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, Yosemite Valley to Death Valley, 2016

Whern I wrote this piece I ended it "my next walk? Probably the Trailstar again". It was, on the next two long walks in fact.

The first was 400 miles on the GR5 through the Alps from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea. Again I was expecting mosquitoes as it was another autumn walk and I took the same setup as on the Yosemite to Death Valley walk. The weather was wetter and windier than on that walk though and I used the Trailstar every night.

Trailstar on the GR5 after a thunderstorm, 2018

The second was another 400 mile walk, this time through the southern Colorado Rockies on the Continental Divide Trail, a section where I'd been forced to take a lower route by blizzards and deep snow on my CDT hike in 1985. I took the mesh inner because there were likely to be mosquitoes early on, as there were, but only for the first week.

Trailstar in the Colorado Rockies, again after a thunderstorm, hence the drying waterproofs, 2019


  1. Again very interesting to read! It looks like you've really settled for the Trailstar now because you have chosen it for the wet and stormy as well as for the desert.

  2. That first photo of you is great Chris!

    1. Kristina Gravette10 March 2020 at 01:31

      It is a great photo! - and it was taken by me, Chris's cousin, Kris!

    2. I think you took it when you came and joined me somewhere in Montana when there was a big forest fire? My mother had it on her mantelpiece, which is why it's so faded.

  3. Friar Rodney Burnap9 April 2018 at 18:07

    Chris have you ever done a bicycle tour...

    1. No. I do have a bicycle but I only use it for short local trips. I like walking!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. How come you didn't mention the Scarp 1, I thought that was one of your favourites.

    1. It is one of my favourites but I was only writing about tents I've used on long-distance walks, which I've arbitrarily defined as ones lasting a month or more (500 miles+)and I've never used the Scarp 1 on such a walk.

  6. Great and inspiring article, Chris! �� The Trailstar really does sound alluring. When you use it in Scotland do you use a mesh inner for ticks? Shirl

    1. Thank you Shirl. In midge season I use a mesh inner made by Oookworks. I don't think they're in business anymore. MLD make an mesh inner too. In the picture of the Trailstar on the Scottish Watershed you can see the mesh door of the inner on the right.

  7. Just came across this trip down memory lane - many thanks Chris. My first tent was an Ultimate Tramp 2. Great tent but as you said, fabric was not so durable and eventually mine fell into little pieces. Photodegradable if not biodegradable!

    The Phoenix Phreeranger was another great tent, so much so that a tent inspired by the Phreeranger is now being produced by a small Scottish manufacturer, demonstrating the soundness of the design and the great strides in material technology over the last 30 years (695g with the lightest Dyneema composite).

    The tent that bowled me over at the time was the Saunders Spacepacker - my first tent with a flexible pole and the usable space seemed enormous.

    It is often hard to let go of old backpacking 'friends'. I still have a Saunders Jetpacker (with nesting poles) that I sometimes use on overnight trips, for old times sake. Perhaps another outing is called for in the near future.

    Once again, thanks for sharing your memories and for jogging mine.

  8. Thanks Bob. I never had a Spacepacker or Jetpacker. My friend Andrew Terrill still uses his Jetpacker and brought it on the two nights he camped with me on my Colorado Rockies walk last summer.

    Silnylon was the big breakthrough in materials. A fabric that was lighter than PU nylon and lasted far longer. My Tramp and Phreeranger both succumbed to the coating peeling off and the nylon cracking. My Hilleberg Akto and Montain Laurel Designs Trailstar have had far more use than either of those two tents and are still going strong.

  9. Stumbled on this blog by chance. I have an original Tramp 1 that sadly is shedding the PU backing off the fly sheet. On last trip with it a couple of weeks ago but defeated by the rain. Maybe a little project to renew the coating...20:1 mix of white spirit and adhesive!. Also have a Phreak in better condition that may be out again soon. Last but one trip was with an alp kit soloist. Van go blade needs a trekking pole at the rear to guy off to stop the single pole from collapsing in tail winds. A tbs micro 100 that is rock solid but as its in blue not much cop for stealth wild camping. Also have a tbs200 that is yet to be pitched. I also have an original quasar that is my goto standing camp tent and a back up one of similar vintage just in case hahaha.

  10. That's a good collection of tents! My Tramp went the same way many, many years ago.

  11. Chris - you'll likely be pleased to hear that Oookworks is back in business under a new owner. The TrailStar inner should be available again early in 2021.

    I have used the TrailStar on long alpine walks, largely on your recommendation. Performance in the wind is stellar, but I do find it a bit of a pain to set up at the end of a long day, and the footprint is so humungous (4x the size of a SoloMid) that I've often had problems finding a pitch.

    I used tapering A frames extensively before the emergence of the bendy-pole designs, and always liked them for solo use - they are human shaped, unlike mids. I was thinking of making myself a storm-worthy A frame for thru-hiking in the alpine, plus a large bivy that would also work for cowboy camping. Footprint would be less than half of the TrailStar.

    But then I see that you are still choosing to go with the TrailStar over an A frame, even in steep country where pitches can be hard to find.

    Can you expand a little on your reasoning?

  12. One reason I like the Trailstar is because it's so versatile bacause it doesn't have a fixed shape. I've pitched it in all sorts of awkward places - with one side up a bank, over logs, bushes, rocks, curved around trees. In some of them pitch conventional tent would have been difficult. I guess I've pitched it so often now - many hundreds of times - that it's almost automatic.

  13. Thanks Chris. It certainly has its attractions when you're pitching somewhere exposed knowing that there's literally nothing in the weight range that can handle wind so well. I know what you mean about awkward places - though I've found that sharing my living space with a bush or a boulder does take a bit of getting used to :-)

  14. Hi Chris. I'm looking for a new tent and I'm currently torn between the fjallraven abisko lite 1 and the terra nova compact 2. Do you have any experience or thoughts on these? I've heard the abisko can leak on the seams and the laser compact is atrocious for condensation.


    1. Hi Tom, I've tested the Abisko Lite 1 and the All Season version of the Compact 2 (review of the latter on the TGO website - I recommended the Abisko Lite 1 in my TGO review (not online)as I found it roomy and stable though on the heavy side. I didn't have any leakage through the seams but I haven't used it for weeks on end. The Laser Compact 2 is a good tent so I guess the Compact 1 will be too. All small tents can suffer from bad condensation. That said the Abisko Lite 1 has better ventilation options than the Terra Nova. On calm still nights copious condensation can form even if you leave all the tent doors open.

    2. i have faith in my abisko. i have faith i wont get wet in it ..