Going light

As my boys grow up, I’m able to do more and more with them – at least with my eldest lad, Jake. He’s nearly 8, and finally he’s able to walk (a bit!) without too much encouragement. When he wants to.

So to add some adventure, we’re planning an overnight backpacking trip in the Spring – just the two of us.

An overnight trip means we’ll need decent kit, and decent kit which will need to be shared between one adult, neither very fit nor very strong, and one 8-year old – ditto but smaller. So my hunt for a selection of suitable kit started. If it is to be any fun at all, it needs to be light.

First up, stoves. I already had a backpacking stove, from Coleman bought many moons ago but rarely used (you’ll spot a recurrent theme here), which looks light but the scales say it’s 239g. The MSR Pocket Rocket gets rave reviews, is 86g, and is decent value. I found the best price was The Outdoor Shop which happily is not that far from us, at Stoney Stratford near Milton Keynes, and well worth a trip. Their price is good even though it’s gone up since the sales.

Cleanly and safely contained in a little plastic case (which is surprisingly hard to open, even for shop assistants), the Pocket Rocket is certainly a nice piece of kit. I think in general I prefer remote stoves, which don’t sit on top of a gas canister, as they can have greater stability, but they are mostly heavier and/or more expensive. If you’re able to dig the canister into the ground a bit then actually there’s little difference and perhaps the canister version is even a little more secure. Obviously digging isn’t always an option. I looked at alcohol stoves, which can be bought very cheaply (or you can make your own penny stove) from army surplus or any outdoor shop. I decided against the extra faff but might reconsider for a longer trip. For fuel, I already have a 100g canister.

Next, sleeping. I already have a three-quarter length Thermorest, the lightest (I think) at the time. Yes, it’s also from a long time ago  and has seen little use (hey, I got married and had kids!). That will do fine for Jake, so for me a Thermorest Prolite (regular size) went into the bag. At 460g it’s about the same weight as the older mat (at 464g).

With a few other bits and pieces – basic lidded cups from Blacks, some MSR “Deep Dish” plate/bowl things, a neat little salt and pepper shaker (it was too cute to pass up) – that’s the bulk of the buying done. Except for the most important part, the tent.

Another old but little used (OK, unused) item in my stash is a one-man Terra Nova Solar tent.

Terra Nova Solar

Terra Nova Solar – Mine’s in green

I pitched it in the living room. It’s too small. It’s not luxurious for one, but it’s titchy for two, even if one’s a little ‘un (it was advertised at the time as a 1.5 man tent I believe!). There’s also little in the way of porch. At just over 2kg (I weighed it as 2038g) it was ultralight in its day but great strides have been made since with materials.

Queue much research.

There are a number of lightweight two-man tents on the market, at a vast range of prices, and having done some digging there were a shortlist of contenders. But first, what are the criteria for my tent?

Firstly, of course, weight. With a one-man tent weighing in at 2kg on my shelf, psychologically I didn’t want to go above 2kg. It needed to be robust, but aside from reviewer comments its pretty hard to gauge that without a decent trial – it at least needed to look well made. A decent amount of floorspace would be a bonus, as would the ability to sit upright in it. Finally, porch space for storage and potentially cooking. Although our first outing will be a tame overnighter and we’ll schedule for good weather, the hope is that many trips will follow. I certainly didn’t want to fork out on a one-night-stand. There is a good selection of tents on cheaptents.com for easy comparison.

It’s possible to go really light by sacrificing your skin – well, one skin of the tent at least. Double-skinned tents suffer far less from condensation than twin-skinned tents do, and I’m not a great fan of a damp tent so nothing single-skinned made the grade.

The shortlist? The Vaude Power Lizard, Vaude Taurus Ultralight, Vango Helium 200, Terra Nova Laser Competition 2 (actually there are several Terra Novas I considered), and Robens Mythos Duo. The table below gives the key facts and figures, but without the layout diagrams (which you can find for yourselves by following the links) the significance of the shape of some of these tents is not obvious. Due to strange shapes, effective space inside is reduced – in the case of the Power Lizard I’ve given the minimum rather than the maximum width because that minimum is maintained for much of the length of the tent. Similarly, the porch space is not shown as it’s hard to quantify. In truth, the best option would have been to try every one of these – and perhaps some of the others on the market too, even though they’ve not made it into my shortlist here.

Power Lizard Taurus Helium 200 Laser Competition 2 Mythos Duo
Weight  1.1kg  1.8kg  1.35kg  1.25kg  1.88kg
Internal Width  90cm min  130cm  120cm max  105cm max  120cm
Internal Length  230cm  220cm max  210cm max  230cm max  210cm
Internal Height  95cm  100cm max  95cm (est max)  95cm max  95cm max
Price  £280  £190  £224  £269  £179

However, the upshot of all this was that I opted for a tent which I could find little about on the net, the Robens Mythos Duo. Most tents have been used and abused a fair bit and the outdoor community have shared their views, which can be a good thing or bad depending upon their needs, price range, weather situations and expectations. Sometimes, reviews don’t help as much as you’d think. Perhaps the lack of real world feedback helped make Robens this sale, but the features – especially the nifty addition of a porch each side – for the price looked good. Cotswold had the Mythos Duo on sale at a decent price (it helps planning these things during the sales) and though bought on-line would accept for a refund at any store. So if it proved poor, it could go back.

Robens Mythos Duo

Robens Mythos Duo

Delivery was a little slow, but actually rather faster than they told me it would be so no problem there. When it arrived around Christmas it wasn’t a good time for a field test so it went up in the lounge (just).

First impressions were good. A decent size for the weight (a tiny bit under 2kg on my scales). The double porches were pretty cool, the quality  of both fabric and poles felt good, with neat little “techno pegs” which look a bit useless but later proved fine. The attention to detail is good, with reflective guys and tensioners on the pegging-out straps. With a double skin and decent features, at a reasonable price and good weight, I opted to keep it.

Basically the tent is a single hoop design much like my Terra Nova Solar (current Solars seem to have been re-designed with a more complex pole), but with a central bar at 90 degrees to the hoop to put some width into the tent at the top. The hoop pole goes on the outside, plugging into a hole at each end of the tent which is then hooked onto the pole with plastic hooks which go on (and off) really easily. With the inner already attached to the outer (it can be removed, it’s attached with standard webbing and clips) the bulk of the work is now done. The cross bar attaches to the tent by plugging its ends into two clear plastic sockets attached to the tent, which to me look like the weak point in the design, then all that remains is to peg it out. However, with the tent on the hoop any wind makes the pegging awkward so I can see that two people will be required if it’s particularly windy. There was some moderate wind and I managed OK, and in truth this isn’t the only tent which suffers from wind (sorry, poor joke).

There are plenty of guys and the right number of pegs, which as I mentioned earlier I’ve christened “techno pegs”. They weigh almost nothing, and are short v-shaped affairs with a minuscule amount of a notch for the guys. They don’t look like they should work, but they seemed fine. There are also some additional webbing loops on the tent which I presume are for extra guys in bad weather, although Robens do not sell this as an extreme tent.

There is a porch on each side, which is not terrible big – I’m not sure whether cooking will be feasible or not – but a nice touch for those frequent occasions where the wind changes direction 5 minutes after you’ve pitched your entrance away from it. Also handy to have a porch for kit and a porch for getting in and out, or even a his-and-hers arrangement for getting to the toilet.

Inside, it’s not huge and I’m certainly glad I’m short. However, it’s roomy compared to some lightweight two-man tents and it’s certainly got sufficient space. There are plenty of pockets, but they are mostly in the ends at the bottom and weight the inner down considerably when there’s anything in them. In fact, if there’s a fault with this tent it’s that the ends slope from the ground immediately rather than having a vertical section first – so the effective length of the tent is reduced as even your feet like some height. Some of this may have been down to pitching, but if so I didn’t discovery a way to improve it even though I tightened everything up and adjusted the geometry after it had been pitched for a couple of days.

So when just recently I finally got around to field-testing it – or rather “garden-testing” it – thankfully it lived up to expectations.

The story goes like this. We had nice weather, dry, and I had some time available. So up it went, and duly became a playhouse for the day for the kids. But come evening my youngest, Nathan, decided he was going to sleep in it. Maybe I’m planning a trip with the wrong boy? (I’m not – Nathan is currently rubbish at walking any distance). Perversely, Jake didn’t – he didn’t want to sleep out there, just him and Nathan. I can understand that, but it’s a small two-man tent and 3 into 2 doesn’t go – at least not with any comfort at all.

Well, the upshot was that Nathan and I shared the tent (I crept out around 11pm and found him fast asleep – he really did go through with it on his own).

So it was an unintended real test of both the tent and my Snugpak Black-on-Black 2 season bag (as far as I can tell the same as a Softie but black, aimed at military users). The tent passed with flying colours, as did the Thermarest (I somehow ended up with the shortie) – although I’m aware that a thicker mat would have kept me warmer. But the bag didn’t quite live up to my hopes.

Despite warm clothes, I did not pass the night snugly. It wasn’t a terribly cold night – probably around 6 degrees C – but probably colder than we’ll experience on our trip. Even so, I’m seriously reconsidering my bag now. Originally I’d intended to supplement the Snugpak with a TS1 liner to up the temperature floor, but to be honest the idea of a liner doesn’t much appeal – mummy bags are bad enough for tying you up, surely a liner is just going to make that worse? Well, we’ll see – for now the Snugpak is under review.

More on my lightweight experiences to follow…