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.