When I was a kid, I used to keep a calendar above my desk that read: “_____ days ‘til camp.” Much to my mom’s dismay, I usually began this countdown the day after I returned from that summer’s session.
While I no longer torture myself with that particular ritual, the excitement I feel for what I think of as “prime backpacking season” is much the same. Flush with such childlike thrill, I went a little wild while packing for my first trip of the season earlier this summer. Inflatable pillow. Watercolor kit. Lightweight chair. Probably a pound of Swedish Fish. Oh, and two whole books (neither of which I finished). Am I an optimist? Am I a masochist? Friends, I am both.
Eleven sweaty, yet happy miles after strapping it to my very angry back, I offloaded my 60-liter albatross and dug out my tent. My stoke faded a bit, however, when I discovered that sometime between my last winter overnight and that very moment, the shock cord inside of the pole structure had gone kaput, morphing into something of a crusty rope with zero spring. As the show must go on (and the weather forecast looked iffy), I wedged limp wads of cord inside the pole ends before joining them, while simultaneously praying to the backpacking gods that my tent would stand tall throughout the night.
I knew then that I was finally ready for an upgrade.
Well, some people would probably fight me on the semantics of “upgrade.” I had been living large in a palatial Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2, you see, but in an effort to lighten my base weight, decided to snap up Gossamer Gear’s The One, an ultralight, non-freestanding, single-person tent that would require both of my trekking poles (and probably wits) to stabilize.
If I’m being honest, I had buyer’s remorse the second I completed my order. Though true ultralight tents are notoriously expensive, it wasn’t the cost, which was actually less than the sticker price of a brand-new Fly Creek (plus, I planned to repair those poles). I just wasn’t sure I’d actually like being in a smaller, single-wall tent. Would it take forever to properly pitch? Would I wake up with condensation dripping on my face? Would I feel like I was slumbering inside a very elaborate silnylon coffin?
The day my tent arrived, I picked up the box and shook it a bit—despite feeling like it contained nothing more than a receipt detailing the cost of my poor choice, there was definitely something in there. And then—oh, wow. Packed in its stuff sack, this thing was roughly the size of a Nalgene on steroids. I immediately got excited thinking about how much less space this tent would occupy in my pack. Then I immediately wondered what it would feel like to have it collapse on my face in the middle of the night.
Nevertheless, I unfurled the contents and laid everything out on the lawn before studying an informative YouTube video where a hiker-influencer very clearly and thoroughly demonstrated how to set it up. It looked easy. And then I tried it. And it was easy. Like, it took me maybe three minutes to set up easy. Perhaps I made a solid choice after all.
Of course, my tent’s maiden voyage occurred just as every mosquito in the Sierra Nevada had been hatched into existence. Oh, and there was a wind advisory that evening. Ah, and my very exhausted buddy chose a campsite that was, shall we say, aggressively bad.
Despite all of those strikes against it, I was able to get the whole thing up in about five minutes, even if it required me to sort of splay my body across the fabric while planting the stakes in all four corners of the bathtub floor.
The real test, of course, was whether I had a panic attack once tucked in. I blew up my air mattress, then slid it inside, thrilled to discover space on either side, at the foot, and at the head. I could actually bring all of my gear—backpack included—into the tent. Magic! But I didn’t have to, because the vestibule was downright grand. I could even sit up inside and change clothes without touching any of the walls. Absolute wizardry! Mostly satisfied, I popped back out to perform one final test—shaking the whole thing in place, earthquake-style. The sucker held! What sorcery was this?!
Lest you think—Woman, that was one single outing, how can you be such a quick convert?!—I will let you know that during our second trip together, I was marooned inside for a solid two hours during a wicked thunderstorm. I played Solitaire on my phone. I read half a book. I changed my clothes, then changed them again. My trekking poles didn’t budge. The stakes held. The pitch stayed (mostly) firm. Not a damn thing got wet, including all of the crap I stowed under the vestibule out of curiosity. And never once did I feel claustrophobic.
Sure, I’m still hanging out somewhere on the learning curve for this thing—but it’s a surprisingly short one. Okay, silnylon sags a bit when it’s wet. You can alleviate this issue by staking out all available points or springing for a pricey cuben fiber version, but you can also just shake out or wipe down the sides, then crank everything down after the rain moves on.
And yes, site selection is more crucial. You want the shortest, strongest point facing into the wind, you’ll need to pitch on ground that will hold stakes well (or get skilled at using guylines and rocks), and you can lessen condensation by using all available ventilation and avoiding lakeside camping or pitching low in valleys or gullies filled with moist, cold air.
But remember the tradeoff: It’s the size of a Nalgene on steroids—and almost as light as one that’s only half-full.
I have a long trip coming up in just over two weeks (not that I’m, uh, counting) and am downright giddy to take my new buddy along for the ride. Maybe it’s because I finally leveled up my backpacking game and learned that trekking pole tents aren’t so scary. Or maybe it’s just because now there’s more room in my pack for all of the other stuff I like.
• BUY: $300
More ultralight shelters we dig
The REI Co-op Flash Air 1 Tent is a double wall, but still light at 1 pound 4 ounces and can be erected with just trekking poles. $249
If you can forego a ground covering, the Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp Shelter is awesome. Weighs only 9.5 ounces and is strong and durable. $200
The Sierra Designs High Route 1 is palatial and reliable and still weighs less than two pounds. $300