When I started looking for a suitable tent for my hiking adventures in Europe and New Zealand, I naively thought it wouldn’t be too hard to find one. A few months later, having finally bought one, I thought I’d offer my thought process in case it might help anyone else in a similar position. Also, my housemate no longer wants to talk about hiking gear.
- Lightweight. Weight is always an issue with hiking kit, and too heavy a pack can quickly run down the chirpiest of hikers. I was hesitant to stray into the ultralightweight category as I believe this a process. I need to experiment to find out in which areas of kit I can accept the trade offs between weight and comfort. I also need the skills to be able to be safe with ultralightweight kit, and I don’t feel like I’m there yet. But, I’m willing to pay a little more to get lighter materials.
- One man, but not a coffin. There are some very light one man tents available, but if I had to spend any length of time in them I think I’d go crazy. This depends on your hiking style. If you’re walking 10+ hours every day then you may place more importance on weight than comfort. If you’re going to be spending time in the mornings and evening in camp, then you might want a little more manoeuvrability. Also, if some bad weather comes in and I have to sit it out, I’d like to be able to at least sit up properly inside.
- UK weather capable. Many of the blogs with the loudest voices about hiking gear are American. And many of the experiences which their advice is based on comes from hiking the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. The weather a hiker is likely to encounter on these trails, whilst anything can and does happen, is typically more restrained than the variable weather we can get on this island, and in New Zealand. So whilst some very lightweight tent brands have a large fan base in the US such as MSR, Six Moon Designs, Big Agnes and Nemo, I was unsure of their suitability for harsher weather. Generally, weight savings is a trade off against robustness.
- Doesn’t break the bank. I was willing to spend a decent amount on a solid tent that would last me some years. But unfortunately my adventure fund isn’t bottomless. A Laser Ultra 1 I would not be getting.
The short list
After scouring the internet for reviews and blogs, asking friends and the Tough Girl Tribe for recommendations, and scrutinising product specifications, I came up with some frontrunners.
- Tarptent Scarp 1. Tarptent are a small US manufacturer that I initially dismissed as I’d only seen their tarp style shelters, and thought they’d be too flimsy. But the ‘Scarp’ kept popping up in my searches, so I took another look. At 1.45kg it won’t win any ultralight awards but it’s the reviews about it’s bombproof-ness that attracted me. It’s 1 man but has two porches, meaning you can use the favourable one according to the direction of the wind/rain, and have plenty of space for storing wet gear or cooking. It also has about 10cm more headroom than the Akto. The addition of the optional cross-poles make it a true 4-season tent.
- Hilleberg Akto. Hilleberg have got a solid reputation with their tents, and I’d heard good things about the Akto. It has some excellent reviews for sturdiness and quality – there’s youtube videos of people testing it in very high winds. It’s the heaviest of the tents I considered at 1.6kg and also the most expensive – I found it the cheapest at Ellis Brigham for £490. It’s also the largest pack size at 58cm x 17cm, compared to the Scarp’s 46 x 10 and the Power Lizard’s 35 x 10.
- Vaude Power Lizard 1-2. Marketed as a ‘1 to 2 person’ tent, it basically means a spacious 1 man or making a very good friend. It’s the lightest of these three at 1.05kg and the middle of the price range at £400 from backpackinglight.co.uk. It looks to me like a roomier version of the classic Terra Nova Laser Competition 1, which seems too much like a coffin for me. It appears to suffer from condensation issues however, and getting a tight pitch can be awkward.
I guess the title of this post gives it away, eh? The Tarptent Scarp 1 won due to the combination of size, robustness, flexibility, price and weight. The only awkwardness was that it had to be shipped from the US, but I got it posted to an American friend’s address (thanks, Tyra!) to save on the import duty. I opted to get it seam-sealed by Tarptent, as the default is that it comes unsealed. I also went for the cross-poles to give me the option of increasing the sturdiness and making it freestanding, and the tyvek groundsheet. It sounds like the cross-poles aren’t needed very often, but I think for shorter/weekend camps the freestanding option might be useful despite the weight penalty. I opted for the solid inner rather than mesh, as this apparently can make quite a difference to the warmth inside.
It arrived just over 2 weeks after ordering. Due to the current state of the £ against the $, the tent, seam sealing, groundsheet and postage cost me £383.50 which I reckon is still a pretty good deal, but definitely more costly than if I’d got it a year ago!
I’m coming at camping with fairly light experience. This is my first actual tent. When I’ve been camping before I’ve either borrowed a friend’s (like for the Iceland OMM) or been with family (and having a car). And I’ve always been with someone else! So I think I provide a decent test for user-friendliness. I read the manual and watched the pitching guide provided by Tarptent about 10 times before trying to pitch it myself for fear of damaging it through user error. They also have a little video about choosing camp spots to minimise condensation which I found helpful.
My garden is half paved and at a rather jaunty angle (landscape gardener, I am not) so I opened it up in my living room for a first peak. Mmm new tent smell. The next 15 minutes saw me getting very confused, as I’d threaded the main arch pole through but couldn’t find the grommet to put the ends in. I double and triple checked the manual and pictures. Cue an email to Henry Shires at Tarptent fearing I was being moronic, and he quickly replied apologising for the lack of updated manual – in the 2016 update of the Scarp 1 the grommets have been swapped for little pockets on the webbing. Phew.
For take two I went on a little trip to the Ridgeway for the Scarp’s first proper pitch. I stayed at White Mark Farm on the edge of Watlington and tried to pick the flattest patch in the field. Pitching it was honestly a doddle. It comes with inner already attached to the outer, and I can’t see myself separating them. Thread the centre pole through the yellow band and put each end into the pockets. Stake out the 4 corners. Stake out the 2 centre end poles. Adjust when you realise you’ve made a rhombus rather than rectangle (user error). That’s it! There’s some guys that have done quite a few modifications of the tent (most extensively by Blogpackinglight) which I’ll look at another time.
I then had a play with the other features such as venting at the top in the centre, and in the middle at either end. The width of the inner can be adjusted, which I found pretty cool. You can pull it right to the edge, making a very spacious 1 man room, or push it back and make a porch. This can be done on both sides, so I imagine most of the time I’ll have it pulled out full on one side, and a porch on the other.
I had a pretty decent night’s sleep. Wind was about 3mph so no testing of stability, but it started raining about 3am. A few drops came through when I sat up and my back brushed the top, pushing the inner in contact with the outer, but no issues beside my absentmindedness. In the centre I can sit up straight – I’m 5’10” with a long torso. Also plenty of room length-wise, there was room at the end of my sleeping mat for bags. It was a bit stuffy when I first got up but I opened up the tops of the inner zips to get some air in. I had to pack it up in the rain but it went into the bag easy enough (and is now drying out in my living room).
Besides the odd night under canvas I’ve used the Scarp for four long trips so far. I lived in the Scarp for my Coast to Coast walk and had only good things to say about the tent. The ease and speed of pitching it were great. I packed it away wet pretty much every morning but when pitching in the evening a hand wipe of the floor was sufficient to remove the few water droplets. Being able to keep the inner and outer attached all the time made pitching much easier and quicker.
I took the Scarp for walking Te Araroa in New Zealand. I slept fewer nights in the Scarp than not due to the abundance of huts in the mountains. The Scarp performed great as expected, but due to the ratio of use vs being carried its weight and pack size were more noticeable. Very robust in the wind.
The third trip was the High Cumbria Way with a mix of valley and high camps. I’d cut back on a few non-essentials but with the same ‘big 3’ of previous trips including the Scarp, my base weight was 9kg which was light enough for me that I didn’t particularly notice my backpack, something I didn’t think possible with this tent.
The Scarp was my home for riding on the Great North Trail in Scotland and it still performs great. The only repair I’ve had to make is a small hole in the top of the inner.
I’ve still not used the cross poles or the tyvek groundsheet and the tent floor somehow still looks fine despite my carelessness. If pitching in the rain I do a final tightening of guylines before going to bed as the material stretches slightly in the wet.
So far, still so good.