How many times have you bought lower cost, lower quality gear and ended up replacing it with higher cost higher quality gear? The history of my kayak camping gear comprises a litany of examples of this behavior. Recently I swore I wouldn’t buy cheap gear again, I promised myself to research and buy or build the best gear, and do it once.
I recently decided it was time to buy my last tent. I mean this literally; I wanted to replace the ones I had with one that will last a lifetime of camping trips. I had a shortlist of features that I required; four seasons, free standing, two person, fast to put up and tear down (even in rain), good ventilation, must fit in the kayak and not weigh too much.
Four Seasons. I have previously owned tents from the following brands; R.E.I., Mountain Hardware, Big Agnes, and Mountain Safety Research (MSR). I have been particularly impressed with the innovations in the MSR tents. If you live in Minnesota, as I do, then few companies sell tents that can truly claim to be four season. It gets cold in Minnesota, it gets windy and snowy. Most tents designed for these types of conditions were originally conceived of as mountaineering tents. During my paddle trips I have experienced temperatures as low as 0F ( -18C) and winds gusting as high as 60 mph (97kph), these are not unusual conditions in the winter months.
As the Swedish say: Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder. There is no bad weather, only bad clothing. Perhaps by extension only bad tents? At least that is my hope.
Free Standing. Have you ever camped on rock where no pegs can be inserted? Or on sand where pegs pull straight out? In both these situations a free standing tent comes into its own. Using rocks or horizontal buried pegs attached to guys a free standing tent can be made very secure even on the most inhospitable surface.
Two person. I generally camp independently, I rarely end up sharing a tent. It only took a couple of trips with a one person tent to understand how nice it is to have the extra room to spread out that a two person tent provides. This becomes especially true in colder weather where you need more clothes around and the bulk of your sleeping gear increases. Having a tent large enough to wiggle into a dry suit without acts of contortion is a luxury that I don’t want to be without when the temperature drops.
Fast to put up and tear down. When you arrive at camp late in the day during the winter the sun is plummeting downwards towards the horizon, and taking the temperature with it. Getting the tent up, then the fire lit are generally my two priorities. When it is raining or snowing it becomes important to be able to put the tent up without the insides getting soaked. When cold and wet I will inevitably be wearing gloves so nothing can be too fiddly to set up. Tearing down in the early morning when it is dark needs to be fast so that I can get afloat and make the best use of the daylight.
Good ventilation. Both cold and warm weather camping require good ventilation. In cold temperatures condensation becomes a problem, especially if there is insufficient movement of the air, and during the warmer days the tent can become a furnace if the air cannot move freely into and out of the tent. During the colder days I tend to keep my drysuit and boots in the tent to prevent them from freezing solid, this can increase the amount of condensation.
Size and weight. I use kayaks with both round and oval hatches. It is important to me that the tent fits easily inside all the kayaks and does not require a large opening. Separate bags for poles and the tent fabric helps, compression of the tent fabric can also help minimize the space needs. I don’t know that there is an ideal weight for a tent but it is important that its weight does not restrict how you can pack and stow it in the kayak. If it is too heavy then it cannot be placed near the ends of the kayak without affecting it moment of inertia.
Why the Tarra? My research identified several contenders for my ultimate tent, anyone interested in reading a detailed review of several of the contenders can do so here . My research extended beyond the web pages of the internet and included conversations and emails with many people who have travelled widely by sea kayak. Getting paddler’s feedback on tent performance was invaluable as most online reviews are written from the view point of hiking and mountaineering, but few are written from the paddler’s perspective. The tent I chose was the Tarra from Hilleberg the Tent Maker. My decision was sealed when I discovered that Justine Curgenven (“This is the Sea” videographer) had used one extensively on a series of trips in many different climates and loved it.
Hilleberg has three classifications for their tents strengths, the Tarra is in their black label series. The Black label tents are constructed to be very strong, the outer tent uses 18 kg/40 lb tear strength fabric some of the strongest tent fabric on the market, the poles are all equal length 10mm again the strongest on the market, the guy lines and zippers are all very heavy duty. The outer tent goes all the way to the ground for all season protection, multiple vents high up offer ventilation even if the tent is dug down into the snow. The interior is designed to offer the greatest usable space.
The Tarra has an exoskeleton, what this means is the poles go on the outside of the fly. By placing the poles on the outside of the fly, the inner tent can remain connected to the fly when packed. This allows for a completely dry assembly of the tent in the rain, with the fly keeping the inner dry at all times. The assembly starts by pegging out the tent, then inserting the poles. The poles are all the same size, this makes them interchangeable and so no thought is needed, you just grab a pole and fit it. Each pole slides into long reinforced fabric tubes, the tubes are color coded so you can easily match the poles with the correct tube holes. The fly is then attached to the poles using large plastic clips. The optional guys are wrapped around the poles and then linked together providing a very strong method of reinforcing the tent in strong winds.
The tent is symmetrical. Each end of the tent has a large vestibule, ideal for storing paddling gear. Each end of the tent inner has a larger entry door which can either be no-see-um mesh or covered up with breathable fabric to decrease drafts. The inner tent is very spacious, if necessary three adults can sleep in it. The walls are high, the poles hold the tent walls vertical for the first couple of feet and then they curve into the apex, I can easily sit up without my head touching the roof making it very comfortable to hang out it, and get changes. The roof of the tent has a very large vent that can be unzipped, the outside is protected by a snow shield that allows the vent to work even in the harshest of snow and rain. Running along the length of the tent is an adjustable rope for hanging gear. I found it convenient to hang my lantern and gloves.
The tent weighs in at 9 pounds with all the gear. The bags allow the poles and tent fabric to be stowed separately. The tent fabric bag does not have any compression straps and so it appears bulky. I intend to fit two lateral compression straps and one longitudinal strap to the bag to facilitate compression. In my NDK Explorer I stowed the poles in and the tent in the bow just in front of the forward bulkhead, they easily fit and the weight was offset by gear stowed in the stern hatch.
In use/livability. The first time I used the tent was a real test. Temperatures dropped to an ambient 17F and with wind chill were below 0F. The wind speed was a steady 30mph with gusts to 56mph reported. The tent could not have cared less. There was no wind buffeting, there were no drafts and there were no condensation issues. I kept a water bottle inside the tent with me and it did not freeze during the night. I found the double ended design nice as I was always able to choose a sheltered end to enter and exit through. During the night there was sleet and snow and the tent shed it all. My gear stored in the vestibules remained dry. Along the two side walls are four large net pockets that provide a large amount of storage space. The 42” head room inside the tent was wonderfully roomy, and the 83” length was ample for my 6’ frame.
Currently I am very impressed with this tent, it excels at build time and weather resistance (wind, temperature and snow) the next test will need to be in warm weather to see if it can cope with the other extreme conditions. It is not cheap, but I feel it is worth every penny. I can see why people say that you have bought a tent for life when you own a Hilleberg, it is built like a Rolls Royce.
If you are interested in learning more about the Tarra you can check it out at Hilleberg.com.