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Designing the Perfect Tent

posted Oct 6, 2011, 9:28 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Oct 10, 2011, 3:23 PM ]
Back in 2009, I wrote another article on my idea of what a perfect touring tent would be. My list of requirements included:
  • Tall enough to sit in
  • Fly-first pitch, or single wall
  • At least one large vestibule
  • Equal length poles
  • Free standing
  • Pole sleeves - not clips
  • No bright colors - specifically, GREEN!
  • Relatively light
  • 3/4 season
  • Stability in wind
I recommended the Exped Auriga Mesh in the previous article, which I've been using on this trip since southern California after a very disappointing experience with an REI brand tent. After travelling with the Auriga Mesh for around two years, I can honestly say that I've been very happy with it, but as with any product there is room for improvement, and there are features that I would find useful, that might not be useful to other bike travelers. To the list above, I would add the following, some of which may be surprising at first:
  • No floor
  • No zippers on bug net
  • Snow/dust flaps
  • Nothing rigid attached to rainfly
  • Pole tensioners
No floor? Yes, really. The problem is you don't just end up with one floor in a tent like this, you end up with three: a "footprint" layer, the floor of the tent itself, and the pad that you sleep on. The footprint generally serves two purposes - it helps prevent abrasion of the tent floor, and it adds an extra waterproof layer. Since the footprint is in contact with the ground, it gets all the abrasion and is essentially disposable. I've used a footprint with a reflective layer that is meant to reflect heat, which was great at first until the layers started separating and water would get trapped between them. In Perú I changed to a relatively thick plastic "tarp", that I purchased for about 80 cents in a market. After time it too started to get holes, and after all this time there are the inevitable holes in the floor of my tent. So, my opinion at this time is that I'd be better off with no floor at all - who needs them?! 

Another perceived advantage of a tent floor is to protect an inflatable air mattress from sharp objects on the ground. Sure, they might help a little, but the material of the air mattress is almost definitely more puncture-resistant than the footprint and tent floor, which aren't going to do much to save your mattress. If you want to keep your air mattress clean, carry a piece of shower curtain, cut to the size of your mattress. If you want something that actually could help prevent punctures, it will need to be thick more than anything else, so get one of the corrugated windshield reflectors that people use to keep their parked cars cool. They're light, will be a good barrier between your mattress and the sharp stuff, and will reflect your body heat a bit as well. You could also consider the interesting-looking LuxuryLite Cot to protect your air mattress, or just use a closed-cell foam mattress instead - the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite looks pretty nice.

No zippers on the bug net? You bet. I'd like to have a tent with no zippers at all, but zippers on the fly might be unavoidable. Since the bug net doesn't have a floor attached to it anymore, you would just have to lift it up when climbing in, and drop it behind you. Additionally, zippers have possibly been the biggest problem for me during this trip. Even the best brands only come with a one year warranty, and there are ways to stretch their life a little (pinching the ends with pliers), but they eventually wear out and you end up with a bug net that you can't close. Just like with the tent floor, it's not long before they're unable to serve their intended purpose - get rid of them!

Snow/dust flaps? Yeah! On a trip like this, you're camping in every possible condition. I've camped on dirt in heavy rain and had the mud splash under the rainfly and into my tent. In cold weather the cold wind will blow in, making you colder and requiring you to carry a heavier sleeping bag. When camping in a sandy place, the tent will fill up with sand every time the wind blows. A perfect tent would have the normal amount of airspace under the fly for airflow in hot-weather camping, with optional flaps that could be unfurled and pegged into the ground when conditions are less than ideal.

Nothing rigid attached to the rainfly? Yep - having even short, rigid poles or the plastic bands that hold the air flaps open make packing the tent just a little more difficult. I have told fold or roll my Auriga instead of stuffing it because of this, adding a few minutes to my packing time. Don't need 'em, don't want 'em!

Having pole tensioners is also important. The Auriga Mesh has this and I've really seen how the length of the tent fabric changes over time and in different conditions. People riding through the salt deserts in Bolivia always comment on how much their tent has shrunk because of the salty air. In order to deal with these conditions, pole tensioners are required.

With all these simplifications, what you end up with is little more than a tarp and bug net - which would be fine if there was always a place to tie your tarp to! Most times, you will still want a free-standing tent, so poles are required, and I still think two equal-length poles with pole sleeves are the best. I would prefer that the poles ran inside the rainfly though - like with some of Exped's other tents, than outside, as with the Auriga Mesh. This would require a little less fabric and will make the tent better in the wind.

I also still think a two-vestibule design is best. Most times I cook from inside my tent, so it's good to have my gear stashed in the vestibule behind me, while I do my cooking in the other. It's also partly for security, when I don't want to leave anything on my bike, and partly to keep everything dry in the rain.

Well, that's my latest idea for a "perfect tent". Maybe some day someone will make it, or maybe some day I will. If after reading this you're inspired to make one, I'll be more than happy to test it out for you.