Home on the trail.
Let’s continue the search in part two of three of The Big 3 as I curate my PCT 2021 gear list. I am calling this a tent guide, and not a shelter guide. There are other solutions out there like a hammock, tarp, or tarp and bivy. I am used to tent camping and think this offers the most convenient, all around solution for providing me with comfortable shelter for the entire length of the PCT. A hammock doesn’t seem to make sense for the desert section, like the lack of trees. A tarp will not work for me once the bugs start to invade come summer time. I hate mosquitos with a passion. No, I choose not to sleep in a bivy sack, or what I call a nylon coffin.
There are two major schools of tent designs, free-standing tents and trekking pole tents. Both have their pros and cons. I have only personally used free standing tents, but I am intrigued by the simplicity of a trekking pole tent.
Free Standing Tents
These tents come with their own poles for setup and are usually double wall shelters with an exterior rain fly and an inner mesh wall attached to a bathtub style floor. You could technically pitch these tents without staking them down, although you are much better off pitching them with the appropriate stakes, especially if faced with wind and precipitation. The typical double wall design also offers better condensation management, keeping you and your sleeping bag dry inside your tent. If condensation does form, it collects on the rain fly layer. Should you brush up against the inner mesh layer, you are less likely to knock the condensation down, getting you and your gear wet.
Trekking Pole Tents
These tents have continued to grow in popularity as more companies are making them with varying configurations, better designs, and improved livability to pick from. These tents require one or two trekking poles and multiple stakeout points to pitch them. If you are already hiking with trekking poles then you can save the weight of the proprietary poles that free standing tents require. This means your shelter will take up less room and weigh less in your pack while you are hiking. Trekking pole tents require more skill and adjustment to get a good pitch, but with some practice and done properly are as good as any free standing tent during inclement weather conditions.
The difficulty pitching in soft or sandy ground compared to free standing tents is that they rely on tension to give them their structure and shape. The stakes will want to pull out of the soft ground from the tension on them, and the shelter will collapse.
These tents are also commonly single-wall or partial single-wall designs, which could result in condensation build-up inside your tent and get you and your gear wet if you are not careful. There are ways to manage the condensation build up by maintaining good ventilation with the rain fly doors open as weather and conditions allow.
So what tents am I considering to call my home for five months? I am pitting three options against each other.
Top 3 PCT Tents
I’ll refer to these tents going forward as the TT, SMD and DXM, respectively. As in my Backpack Guide, a subjective point will be awarded in each category according to which tent best meets my expectations.
My list of tents are designed and used for backpacking and specifically thru-hiking long distance trails. All three of these manufacturers manifested from long distance hikers searching for functional, lightweight shelters that didn’t yet exist. They began making their own gear and their passion turned into these tents I have found today. Tarptent has innovative designs, and at a very competitive price they are being constructed domestically in Nevada City, CA. Six Moon Designs is another company born out of necessity. The founder, Ron “Fallingwater” Moak, began sewing his own lightweight gear for the PCT and Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Now they make various lightweight, quality and affordable tents and tarp shelters. Dan Durston is a PCT, Great Divide Trail (GDT) and Bob Marshall Wilderness Open veteran, and began designing the X-Mid 1P tent, X-Mid 2P tent and Drop 40L backpack after he saw the need for gear that he wanted. +/- 0 points
Trekking Pole Setup
The SMD is a single trekking pole tent design, in a hexamid footprint. The SMD requires 6 stakes and one pole for setup. The SMD can be set up in under 2 minutes if you are well practiced. Both Tarptent and Six Moon Designs offer tent poles if you prefer or are not a trekking pole user.
The DXM uses two trekking poles and 4 stakes to pitch. The DXM uses an offset pole setup to maximize the interior space. The DXM doesn’t claim any speed records on setup, but due to the same trekking pole and stake design as the TT, it should be very quick once you have practiced a bit.
The TT is a trekking pole tent. It requires 4 stakes and two trekking poles to pitch, as with the DXM. Tarptent claims this tent can be pitched in about 1 minute - obviously with some practice. +1 point TT
A tent’s footprint and volume are just two considerations in estimating the livability. I need to keep in mind this is not just a weekend trip, but 5 months I will be living out of this tent. Many thru-hikers opt for the two person version of a tent due to the extended duration of the PCT. I am 6’4”, and some tents are too short for comfort either laying down and/or sitting up. The slope of the walls plays into this selection. The more vertical the walls the more volume inside, and the opposite is true as well. If a tent has severely sloped walls, I might only be able to sit up in a single spot in the tent without rubbing my head on the ceiling. Additionally, when I add the 2-3 inches of the sleeping pad height, that brings my head closer to the sloped sidewall when I am laying down.
The TT has a floor area of 15.75 square feet and due to both the dual trekking pole setup and their patented Pitchloc corner strut system, creates an efficient interior space, especially for taller hikers. It has a peak height of 42 inches.
Next, the SMD boasts the most interior floor space with 26.25 square feet. The hexamid design also makes it the tallest tent on this list. The height at the peak is 48 inches.
The DXM falls in between the other two tents. It has 17 square feet of interior floor space and an exterior peak height of 46 inches. The DXM has significantly more room in the dual vestibules with over 29 square feet to store gear. The DXM provides the most volume in the upper part of the tent, meaning usable space when you are sitting up, rather than ground level volume while lying down. +1 point DXM
What do these tents feature? What do they lack?
The TT is the only one on my current list that is a double wall design and can pitch the inner mesh piece or the outer rainfly independently if desired. The combined peak vents, dual vestibules and corner vent should allow for the best ventilation options on my list.
The SMD is the no frills, no fuss tent. It has a simple, but stormworthy design, simple setup and compact packability. It is a single wall tent making it the most compact when packed up, but also will be prone to condensation buildup.
The DXM is also a double wall, double vestibule. Like the TT, it is a fly first pitch design, allowing you to keep the inner dry if pitching the tent in the rain. The DXM is the only tent of these three to come with taped seams, so it is waterproof and ready to go from the factory. +1 point DXM
TT uses 30d silicone treated ripstop nylon for all their roofing and floors. If you have the extra coin in your budget, they have premium tents constructed with ultra light Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF).
The DXM uses 20d silicone coated polyester fabric for the fly and floor. It uses beefier YKK#5 waterproof zippers on the rain fly.
The SMD uses a 20d silicone coated polyester fabric for the canopy and a 40d silicone coated polyester for the floor.
The polyester fabric has less sag or stretch in rainy conditions compared to nylon fabric, maintaining a tighter pitch, and has better longevity against UV degradation. SMD wins this point for using the sil poly fabric, with a heavier weight fabric for the floor than the DXM. +1 point SMD
Backpacker’s Holy Trinity
This is perhaps one of my biggest concerns. All I could think about after completing the JMT was getting a lighter total pack weight. There are lighter tents out there, but will cost double the price as the tents on my list, or even more.
The DXM weighs in at 31.6 ounces, including the fly, inner, stuff sacks and 8 stakes. You could pitch it with only 4 stakes, but the extra four will allow you to stake the doors and apex points if weather should warrant.
Next, the SMD Lunar Solo weighs in at 26 oz., but this does not include stakes*. Stakes are sold separately. The stake set listed on their website weighs 2.5 ounces. So the total weight is 28.5 ounces for the tent, guylines, stakes and stuff sack.
Finally, the TT Notch comes in as the lightest total package at 28 oz. This weight is listed as including the tent, stakes, guylines, struts and stuff sacks. Under two pounds for everything, is very impressive. +1 point TT
This has been a challenging criteria. Most tents are designed for a hiker 6’ tall and under. Our current couples tent is a Nemo Galaxi 2P, that is 90” in floor length. I usually am rubbing my head or feet on the inner mesh wall when lying down on my sleeping pad. This tent has a peak height of 40”, and I can sit up if I am exactly under the peak. With that in mind I have had to dismiss quite a few other great tents, in search of the most length and height to accommodate my lankiness.
The TT Notch is listed as one of their best tents for tall people. The floor length is 84” but due to their nifty strut system, it actually pulls the wall out and away from the head and foot ends. Since it’s a double wall tent, you could sleep without the inner tent if it’s not buggy, giving me plenty of space. The Notch also has a 42 inch interior peak height.
The SMD Lunar Solo makes the most out of its simple, single pole design. The interior floor length is 90 inches, making it longer than the other two tents. The pyramid design gives this a peak height of 48”, again taller than the other two. Rather than a tapering floor footprint like in the Notch, the Lunar Solo has the largest interior floor area by far. It is a sort of odd pentagonal footprint, but it provides a nice area next to you to store your inside items.
Third, the DXM falls in between the other two tents. It has a long interior ridgeline that is 43 inches tall at the peaks. The floor area is a parallelogram allowing some room at opposite corners to store small items, or a little extra room to stretch out. The spacious vestibules provide lots more room than the other two tents to spread out my gear. +1 point DXM
The sky is the limit in cost for lightweight tents. If I had an extra $795, I’d pick up the Hyperlight Mountain Gear Dirigo 2 tent in a heartbeat. To keep my budget realistic, I had to exclude any tent made of DCF.
The TT is the most expensive on this list at $314 with the mesh inner option.
The SMD is $205 in the gray option and $230 for the green colorway. You will also need a set of stakes, 6 at minimum, and 2 additional to guyout the head and foot ends. A set of 6 stakes is $13 from SMD*. Minimum total is $218.
The most affordable is the DXM at $200. The DXM is sold in batches, and sells out quickly. They do take pre-orders when gearing up for a release at the Drop. +1 point DXM
Arbitrary Point Totals:
Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo: 1 point
Tarptent Notch: 2 points
Durston X-Mid 1P: 4 points
All tents make compromises, and what you gain in one area you sacrifice in another. The Durston X-Mid has achieved the goldilocks of these variables. The DXM is a double wall, spacious double vestibule tent, that is light, packs down very small, maximizes the interior volume with its geometric design, and is affordable.
Which tent would you pick? Have you used any of these out on the trail? Do you have any other strong contenders that I should consider? Now I just need to hope I can get one of the elusive Durston X-Mid 1P tents.
Thank you for reading.
I have no affiliations or sponsors with any of the companies.