Review of the Contrail Tarptent

New backpack, sleeping bag, pad and the Contrail Tarptent, set up along the AT.
New backpack, sleeping bag, pad and the Contrail Tarptent, set up along the AT.

I’m preparing for a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, so I’m mildly obsessed with gear, particularly with the weight and functionality of the gear.

UPDATE October 2013: This review was written before I had to spend a night in this tent in the rain. There is no possible way to stay dry in this tent and one of the stakes broke in use. The netting just invites the rain in and even if you manage to avoid that, you will still roll off the floor of the tent onto the netting and get your sleeping bag wet. In short: POS. Henry Shires would not take the tent back nor replace the broken stake. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS TENT NOR THIS COMPANY. I PLAN TO NEVER USE THEM AGAIN.

The Contrail TarpTent replaces my beloved Hennessey Hammock. With extra-large rain fly, two sets of Snake Skins and Four Season Insulation System, the Hennessy tops out above 4 pounds. I’ve spent a fortune on this system and I’m loath to abandon it, but I must be practical. A tarp tent will almost always weight less than a hammock system made for outdoor camping, and the Hennessey is the top of the line. But the real problem with a hammock is not just the weight of the system. The problem is that you end up carrying redundant gear. I still have to carry a pad and ground cloth for nights I stay in an AT shelter, which I expect to be more than half the time. I also carry tent stakes to convert the tarp into a tent, in the event there are no trees or the weather is just too cold and windy. I hate carrying redundant gear and frankly my body can’t take it. I’ve done an initial review of the Contrail below, for geeks who care. It cost roughly $200. This is my first use of the tent, a single night along the AT last weekend. I’ll be updating as I learn more.

This shows the netting at the bottom of the tent. It extends on all sides and back. Great ventilation, but can I stay dry? TarpTent website
This shows the netting at the bottom of the tent. It extends on all sides and back. Great ventilation, but can I stay dry? TarpTent website

Review New Shelter System, Contrail TarpTent

My Contrail TarpTent is easy enough to set up, though it took a couple trials at home to get it taunt. It’s advertised as weighing 24 ounces, but frankly that doesn’t include everything. That leaves out the stuff sack, a footprint and a central pole to hold up the tent (you can use a hiking pole but I purchased a light collapsible pole from TarpTent). It does not come seam sealed either (grrrr). When I set it up I quickly realized that in order to be stable in high wind or heavy rain, the tent would need 6 more stakes and guy lines. Obviously the company thought so too because they supply the tie down/attachment points on the tent. For a short backpacking excursion when the weather forecast was good, I might not take all the additional stakes, but for a long distance hike, I’d need them. The additions put the tent at 2 pounds. That’s half a pound more than advertised and on the high end of true Ultralight camping.

From inside the tent, you can see the netting adds lots of ventilation. That flap in the back will fold down. You can see the "bath tub" flooring, but in use the elastic can't keep this taut enough. TarpTent website.
From inside the tent, you can see the netting adds lots of ventilation. That flap in the back will fold down. You can see the “bath tub” flooring, but in use the elastic can’t keep this shape. At all. From TarpTent website. My tent never looked this good.

Pros/Likes

  • Ventilation: Being a single walled, solo tent (There is not enough room for a second adult, though there is room for some gear), my usual concern is condensation. That won’t be an issue. There’s a tremendous amount of ventilation in the form of no-see-um netting. There’s netting in front that zips open and shut. The netting extends along the bottom and back of the tent as well. There’s a small Velcro flap that you can lower to cover most of the back netting section. The supports in back will lower to reduce the side netting exposure.
  • Vestibule: The front flaps close to create a vestibule large enough for a backpack and shoes to stay dry. The flaps don’t quite reach the ground, which probably improves ventilation during the rain. I used my rain gear as a ground cover for the pack.
  • Insect Protection: One of the big advantages this has over a simple tarp is the excellent bug protection while still getting good ventilation.
  • Elastic bands keep ground cover (mostly) in place: There are elastic bands at each corner of the black flooring that lead to the corners of the solid tent wall. The flooring is also sewn all around to the netting at the bottom of the tent. The elastic forms the floor into a bathtub shape, but it won’t hold its shape. It’s still easy to roll off of.
Back of tent. The middle stake is a suggestion, not something it comes with. TarpTent website.
Back of tent. The middle stake is a suggestion, not something it comes with. TarpTent website.

Cons/Concerns

  • Will it hold up in the rain? While this is good protection from insects and excellent ventilation, what happens when it rains? You can “lower” the height of the tent in back, thereby bringing the edge of the solid wall of the tent so that they almost touch the ground. This exposes less of the netting at the bottom and reduces the chance for rain getting in. In theory. The video indicates you can lower the sides too, but it doesn’t work on my tent. Honestly without the extra rope and stakes, this won’t be good enough. Again, I’ll have to have additional stakes and guy lines, but the tent has the attachments already. But will this be enough in a heavy rain since the floor is attached directly to the netting. There are elastic bands at the four corners of the floor to keep it in a bathtub shape, but that’s simply not enough if you roll off the edge. And everyone rolls off the edge sometimes.
  • Warmth With all that ventilation will I be able to stay warm in this tent when it’s cold and windy? Same issues/possible solutions as above.
  • Seams The seams don’t come sealed. I’ll have to do that if I keep the tent. I hadn’t noticed that in the fine print before I ordered the tent and if I had, I might have kept looking at tents or at least have paid extra to have it done. And that will add to the weight.
  • Are the Pros worth the extra weight? That’s really the question, isn’t it? I could use an existing tarp (Silicon impregnated Nylon, but this tarp needs some modification to really work well), existing drop cloth (Tyvek), existing stakes and cord. Using trees and/or hiking poles I could fashion a tent. I could certainly keep the weight at 24 ounces. But it would have almost no protection from bugs, it would be harder to set up alone when using hiking poles, and I’d have huge issues with condensation anytime I shut it up to keep out wind/rain/bugs.
  • Will I roll off the floor onto the netting?: The video shows a bathtub floor, but honestly it held by a little bit of elastic. The floor is small and attached directly to the netting.
  • Do these pockets work at all?: They are attached to the wall at the top of the netting. Looks like anything inside will get wet in the rain.

For now I’m going to keep the tent. Nothing is perfect. But I’m not yet satisfied.

June backpack: Testing new gear and methods under the super moon

 

Isn't this quite the view? This is what I saw outside my tent this weekend along the AT, in the Blood Mountain Wilderness.
Isn’t this quite the view? This is what I saw outside my tent this weekend along the AT, in the Blood Mountain Wilderness.

I’m preparing my gear and my body for a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. Right now, I’m fairly obsessed with gear and the weight of everything I’m carrying. As part of this effort, I’m going on a weekend backpack monthly to check out new gear and techniques.

AT hike June 2013, 3This trip I was checking out my new backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and—most importantly—my new tent. I’d timed the hike to coincide with the beginning of Summer and that “Super Moon” that’s been all over the internet. Bonus!

I went hiking last weekend in the Blood Mountain Wilderness area and had a particular spot in mind. The exposed rock outcropping at the top of a mountain gave me a good view and I thought it’d be the best test of the tent if it got windy or started to rain (it didn’t).

Overall experience

The site I picked is about 3 miles from where I park the car, mostly straight up a mountain. I’m in better shape than a month ago when I hiked this same mountain. Plus I’ve dropped my pack weight by almost 5 pounds. Those changes really made a difference. And the moon was lovely! The breezy spot kept down the mosquitos, but the tiny flies were pretty bad. I had to resort to bug spray. Never seen so many Daddy Long Legs, though. And they were really attracted to my tent.

New backpack, sleeping bag, pad and tarptent.
New backpack, sleeping bag, pad and tarptent.

New Gear

The Contrail TarpTent replaces my beloved Hennessey Hammock. With extra-large rain fly, two sets of Snake Skins and Four Season Insulation System, the Hennessy tops out above 4 pounds. I’ve spent a fortune on this system and I’m loath to abandon it, but I must be practical. A tarp tent will almost always weight less than a hammock system made for outdoor camping, and the Hennessey is the top of the line. But the real problem with a hammock is not just the weight of the system. The problem is that you end up carrying redundant gear. I still have to carry a pad and ground cloth for nights I stay in an AT shelter, which I expect to be more than half the time. I also carry tent stakes to convert the tarp into a tent, in the event there are no trees or the weather is just too cold and windy. I hate carrying redundant gear and frankly my body can’t take it. I’ve done a full review of the Contrail, for geeks who care.

Also new this trip is a sleeping pad (Big Agnes, Insulated Air Core, rectangular, 20×66, weight 22 ounces) and bag (Big Agnes, Juniper SL 25F, Petite Rated to 26F for Women, weight 34 ounces). The pad slept comfortably and the bag seemed fine, though late June doesn’t give a real test of the warmth of the bag. I can say that the down bag did NOT soak up the moisture of the air like my existing down bag, which weighed about the same and packs smaller. The Big Agnes is treated to reduce moisture and I think it’s worth the investment. A wet down bag is worse than none at all.

Finally, I’ve got a new backpack, the GoLite 70L. It’s probably bigger than I need and I’ll detail it in another post.

Hiking means enjoying the things you see along the way, like this Indian Pipe.
Hiking means enjoying the things you see along the way, like this Indian Pipe.

What I didn’t carry/replaced

What you leave behind matters too, since Ultralight backpacking is all about taking only what you need. I didn’t carry my MSR Sweet Water filter pump, opting only for a liquid water treatment to kill virus/parasites/bacteria (saving another pound). And I’m using an emergency bivy by SOL to double as a ground cloth (saving a couple ounces).

I also left my fancy water bottles at home (6 ounces each), opting for two, one-liter soda bottles (one ounce each). That’s a total savings of 10 ounces.

Finally, I ditched my pack cover (4ounces). It won’t keep your stuff dry in a downpour. Instead I’ve gone to a simple, white Glad trash compactor bag (1 ounce). If it has to stay dry it goes inside the bag. Total weight savings, 3 ounces.

Another view of the Super Moon, roughly 14% larger than usual and as close as it will get to us over a year.
Another view of the Super Moon, roughly 14% larger than usual and as close as it will get to us over a year.

New Techniques

It’s important to try something new with each hike. In addition to gear I tried these new things.

Pillow: Call me a wimp if you want but I need pillow to sleep well. The usual answer is to stuff extra clothing into a stuff sack. That’s fine IF you have a lot of extra clothing and an extra stuff sack. With Ultralight camping, you don’t have extra anything. What I tried was inflating plastic Ziploc baggies about half way with air and putting them in a stuff sack. It didn’t work for me. They were flat in minutes. Back to the drawing board.

Bear Bag Hanging System: I hang my food well away from my tent at night and don’t cook near the place I plan to sleep. This keeps down all critters, but especially bear. I’ve got a terrible throwing arm, so I’ve focused on just getting foodstuffs away from me. But I have to improve this method. I used a system from Mike Clelland’s book and it worked really well. It’s outlined here, and it’s the PCT method. Easy, lightweight. The drawing in Mike’s book is better than the photos, however.

One less stuff sack: It isn’t really the sleeping bag that keeps you warm. It’s the trapped air. Every time you stuff a sleeping bag into a tiny stuff sack you force the loft down. It may or may not come back. So I’m just putting my sleeping bag into the trash compactor bag loosely. I’ve got a pack with large volume and now that I carry less, I don’t have to worry about everything being forced into such a small space. I think allowing the bag to stay fluffy means it will keep me warmer. This wasn’t the trip to test that theory since June is warm, but I can say that I have enough room to do this.

How to downsize, learning to live with less

Here’s my challenge to you: Free yourself from too much stuff and spending habits that keep you trapped.

This townhouse looks like it has two floors, but there's actually a walk out basement in the back, not to mention a deck and patio under it. How much space does one person need?
This townhouse looks like it has two floors, but there’s actually a walk out basement in the back, not to mention a deck and patio under it. How much space does one person need?

I began the journey of downsizing a few years ago, right around the time the economy took a dive. The radical move was dividing my three-floor condo into two living spaces, a duplex where the renter got 2/3rds of the space and I lived in what was left. I converted the basement into a studio apartment and rented out the top two floors of my townhouse. Though someone else now paid enough rent to cover the mortgage, I was faced with living in a third of the space I’d had.

It’s true that I had already cleared out my storage areas, lightened up the closets and even completely emptied one bedrooms and bath. But it still looked like a daunting task. At first.

I took a deep breath and tried to look at the situation logically. First define your space—the basement studio apartment is less than 500 square feet.

But how much space do you really need?

How big is a home?

Home sizes in the US are HUGE compared to other places in the world. According to Apartment Therapy, these are average square footage of new homes constructed since 2003:

  • US: 2,300
  • Australia: 2,217
  • Denmark: 1,475
  • France: 1,216
  • Spain: 1,044
  • Ireland: 947
  • UK: 818

These are all developed countries, so you can assume even smaller spaces in “the Third World.” Basically, others manage to get by with much less space than we Americans do. One woman doesn’t need over 1,500 square feet! I could find a way.

This is my new entrance. I just walk around the back of my unit of townhomes and my door is under the deck. I have my on patio.
This is my new entrance. I just walk around the back of my unit of townhomes and my door is under the deck. I have my on patio.

Where to start reducing

First you get rid of duplicates. In a three-floor, three-bath house you have a lot of duplicate items:

  • Vacuum cleaner/broom on each of three floors
  • Two floors had “living rooms” so I had duplicate couches/end tables/coffee tables/lamps
  • Television/stereo on each floor (I got rid of cable, so ended up giving all three TVs away)
  • Towels/bathmats/hand mirrors/cleaning utensils in 3 bathrooms
  • Office supplies like scissors/stapler/pens/paper on each floor
  • I didn’t need a bed since the studio apartment had a fold-down Murphy bed
  • I kept only one of two chest of drawers and gave away two sets of shelves
  • I had two writing desks, but I didn’t sit at either of them, so they both went
  • I pared down my kitchen items to fit my new, smaller kitchenette

I sold the furniture I didn’t need through a re-sale shop. What was left was donated to charity (always get a receipt) or gave away to friends who needed them. I could have made more money on the items if I’d held a yard sale or sold through eBay or Craigslist. (I’ve held back a few items to sell this way. hint: future post!). If I’d been unemployed and/or had more free time I would have sold some of this. And if between jobs, it would have been crucial to make money off my unused possessions. But I was (am) working a fulltime job and was running a part time business at the time (Atlanta Culinary Tours, which I’ve closed except for a few private dinners). I had very limited time.

Then I moved into the studio apartment, locked the door to the basement stairway on both sides and learned to live there. The realtor found a renter and I started reaping the rewards.

It’s had its ups and downs, but I’ve made it work. The rental income from the top two floors has allowed me to pay extra on my mortgage so that I am no longer under water! I’ve also managed pay off everything I owe except for my house and save a substantial rainy day fund. What did this hard work buy me? Freedom!

Financial freedom is a good feeling

If living within your means doesn’t sound sexy, maybe it’s time you grew up. I don’t stress nearly so much when things at work look rocky. I don’t want to lose my job, but I’ve got a safety net if I do. I don’t fret when the phone rings or the mail comes because I know no one is hounding me for money. I don’t owe anything but my mortgage. And I spend my money where I want, like world travel. I sleep well at night.

Sure times are hard, but even the poor in American are better off than most of the world. We don’t face the hardships my grandparents did in the Great Depression. We don’t have rationing like in WWII. It’s about balance. Having your needs met plus items that are useful and improve your life. Do you need every electronic toy available? Do you need a new car every two years? No.These are wants and they come after your needs are met and only if you can afford them.

So here’s my challenge: Grow up. Take responsibility. Make the hard decisions. And Free yourself.

Dad’s Garage, moving in 6 weeks: Everything must go!

“Holy moly! We move in just six weeks! But you know us — we’re  jamming all the shows (and parties) we can into June and July before we pack our bags and move to 7 Stages in Little Five Points this August! “  ~ from Dad’s latest email

Dad’s Garage is moving on. I, for one, hate to see this historic and hysterical group forced out of their home, but let’s give them a great big send off! First, their latest show:

djuicebannerMC

Buckle up for a trippy, trippy ride. Dementia Juice, a puppet-filled romp about a young grad student’s first LSD trip (AND the last scripted show we’ll ever do in this building, b.t.dubs) opens this Friday nightDementia Juice is packed full of fun and craziness including fornicating trees, a talking toilet, demonic bugs and more! This is one Hell of a show you don’t want to miss! (For realsies though… half of the show actually takes place in Hell. (Spoiler Alert, whoops.))

s18_events_garage_sale_thumb_ashxPut Our Junk in Your Trunk! Everything must go… including us! Mark your calendars for the only annual Dad’s Garage Sale — Sunday, July 21st at 8am (no, we don’t ever get up that early, so plan on getting great deals from groggy and confused improvisers who’ve stayed up drinking all night)! We’ll be selling a bunch of costumes, props, and more to help fund our move, so please come out and drop some dough!