You know what? I’ve got a backlog of trips to write up, but I can’t do them in every successive post. I mean, who do you think I am? This loosely put together blog has a main theme about the outdoors, but now and again I’ve got to forget about outings and talk crap about gear. Would you believe the ‘gear’ tab on the top of my home page is the second most popular thing in my blogs viewing history? What? Yes, I’m afraid so, but even though it’s well attended, I pity anyone going there to find some wisdom about outdoor products.
So, I’ve decided to do a post about the complex world of outdoor shelters I’ve used over the last few years. Hopefully you won’t nod off, but how about some empathy for the bloke writing this? A gear post is a lot easier to write when you’re off your face. Sadly, I can’t seem to find some decent medication in my medicine ‘chest’ (which happens to be a blue reusable shopping bag). Where’s my morphine prescription? I thought I had another one, but I can’t find it anywhere.
Where do I start? First of all I’ve settled for what I want (I think). Being 189 cm tall and of a ‘generous’ build, I’ve always ended up feeling a little squeezed in solo shelters which invariably are a compromise between size and weight. Not any more, I’ve decided I need room to move when I’m relaxing in a tent. How much room? I’ll show you. I got my mate Rubens to paint a picture of the inside of my shelter during a typical bushwalk. He captured quite accurately what goes on in my tent, but I don’t think he made it clear which figure I am in the painting.
Outdoor shelters. It really shouldn’t be that complicated should it? Unfortunately it is when you think about it. Tent? Tarp? Single skin? Double skin? Groundsheet? Bivy bag? Bug netting? Which season, winter, summer or spicy? Sil-Nylon? Cuben fiber? You know what? That’s just off the top of my head and no one in their right mind can expect to try out every different configuration. Who’s got the money and who can be bothered? Don’t forget, the problem with lots of choices is it’s always harder to make a decision.
Well, I reckon I’ve used five different shelters over the past four years and I’ve never really been happy with any of them for some reason. It has struck me a while ago though that it’s a never ending cycle and I’ll just aim to be happy with what I’ve got. Spending money over and over again just to go outdoors? It’s madness and I’ve reached a point now where I’m actually pretty comfortable with what I already own.
I’d contemplated a lighter weight solo tent for quite some time and the options are endless. Really, it’s mental how many types of shelters exist for something like bushwalking, which in theory should be quite simple.
Anyway, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t started out walking with anything other than ‘traditional’ gear that’s certainly durable, but heavy. I’m no different and over the last few years I’ve ditched kilos of weight only through knowledge rather than suddenly waking up screaming in the middle of the night shouting, “Oh my god! I need to be an ultralighter! Where are my cuben fiber underpants?!”
I’ve had to do a bit of research about this shelter caper, but am I any wiser? Sort of, but then again, there’s always something you don’t know. One thing I’m fully aware of which can be a bit of a problem and that’s I think about walking, hiking, photography and writing every day. Every day? Bloody hell, when I think about it, my job is so dull I’m thinking of the outdoors every few minutes. Even when I get home I can’t seem to get out of ‘walking mode’. Ben took a photo in the lounge room whilst I was relaxing.
When I first began to contemplate lighter gear the first port of call was the shelter. I was walking around with a Mountain Designs, three pole, four season tent that was so insanely over-engineered I reckon it would’ve been handy in the Himalayas rather than the casual hiking I was doing. I’d give you a link to it, but it’s long superceded. All I know is that it was 3.5 kgs plus which kept me dry at night, but come on, that’s ridiculous.
So, my first thought to drop a substantial bit of weight was to invest in a bivy bag. I wanted something a lot lighter for my week long Croajingolong National Park hike and I settled on an Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy. My criteria was a simple one; waterproof and a hoop to keep it from draping across my face.
It certainly did its job, as the night I spent at the camp in the photo above was during the heaviest rain I’ve experienced during my bushwalking revival. It pelted for hours on end and I was certainly glad of the Gore-Tex which kept me dry. In fact, it was the start of three days of constant rain and the bivy came through with flying colours.
It was well and truly a compromise though. Dry? Yes. Comfortable? Not bad it you have fantasies about being buried alive in a fabric coffin. The thing is though, what was I going to do if it rained when I needed to cook? Well, I was aware of that before I went and decided to just ignore the thought and see what happens. If need be I’d get wet and I ended up being pretty lucky in avoiding rain during all the meal times on the trip. I knew this wasn’t ideal though and I’d have to look at another type of shelter, but the bivy bag is light for what I had at the time, so I continued to turn to it including on my last Great Ocean Walk hike.
In fact the bivy suits the Great Ocean Walk perfectly as each camp site has a timber kitchen/shelter to sit at during meals, so the worry of rain at dinner is not really a problem. That’s of course if the campsite doesn’t keep getting overrun with a group of about 15 people which I had on my last trip there along the coast.
Anyway, I continued to dabble with different shelters and finally ended up with a tarp. Yeah, it’s light, but I’ve never really gotten into it. Part of it is due to a mental problem on my behalf as I started to get flashbacks. About a million years ago when I was in the army we always used tarps when on exercise. We never called them tarps, but ‘hoochies’ instead. I’d give you a link, but I just read an online dictionary that defines the word ‘hoochie’ as, ‘girls who will have sex with anyone’. What?
Then again I checked with my teacher (Wiktionary) who informs me that the correct Australian Army spelling of said shelter is, ‘hootchie‘. Well, I never ever saw it written with a ‘t’ in it, but that may have been because most of us were illiterate.
Now, I can remember lying in a summer weight sleeping bag in the middle of freezing winter nights under a ‘hootchie’ and cursing why I was dumb enough to join the military. Hang on, isn’t this post about hiking and shelters? Remember there isn’t a whole lot of democracy in a blog, so I’m heading off onto another tangent for a moment to purge some army memories.
A standard broadsheet newspaper would be warmer than the crap sleeping bag I was issued with. Being the army though, when I complained about it, the answer was, “Bad luck, that’s all we have”. A shrug of the shoulders was the standard response to a problem. How’s this? I remember in Townsville needing to be issued a pair of polyester shorts which was the required uniform for ‘Sergeants Mess Duty’. The thing is though, the ones handed to me ‘to keep forever as there’s no chance to swap once issued’ were about five sizes too small and when I informed the bloke who gave them to me he said guess what? “Bad luck, that’s all we have.”
So, for the week in which I worked in the Sergeant’s Mess my testicles were positioned at the back of my throat. It was so bad (and this isn’t even a joke), one Sergeant bailed me up that week and said with a serious tone, “Hey, what’s going on with your shorts? I can see your cock through them.” Every night I’d have get a can opener out to get them off and that my friends is what army life was like. Stupid one day, completely idiotic the next.
Now I’ve relived that memory, let’s get back to the the tarp saga. I’d be freezing at night under my ‘hootchie’ as without fail rain would start. In avoiding drowning I’d struggle out of my newspaper thin sleeping bag to adjust it. Trying to untie and retie little pieces of string in the dark (no lights allowed. It’s tactical!) to branches with the wind blowing the crappy piece of fabric all over the place whilst getting absolutely pissed on. Um… No. The end result is I can’t get into it again when I actually have a choice rather than being forced to. I’m afraid there’s no more, “Bad luck, that’s all we have”.
One thing about the tarp which I don’t really get and that’s needing to also get bug netting and a ground sheet. I have all that, but then I’m thinking, “Why don’t I just get a lightweight tent and be done with it?” I can understand a tarp if you’re going to do something like the Appalachian Trail where long distances need to be covered and the lightest gear makes sense. Going ultra-lightweight and heading out for the weekend? Has everyone gone bonkers? Am I the only one who’s nuts? Where’s that prescription gone?!
So, I played around with tents and I progressed to the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL1. I reckon it’s a nice tent and the one thing I like is that it’s insanely easy and quick to erect. I don’t know about you, but I hate to be dicking around with a shelter at the end of a days walking. The Seedhouse was doing the trick, but if you remember Rubens painting, I feel a little cramped with all that action going on.
I read about LightHeart Gear (what’s with the random capital letters with hiking equipment?) and the thing that interested me was their light shelters suited the ‘larger’ gentleman. So, I selected the SoLong 6 (more random capitals), took a punt and bought one. The beauty of the small manufacturers is that there’s a great deal of flexibility to get something altered to specifically suit what you might be after. What did I do? Well, I didn’t want to put too much thought into it as stock standard sounded just fine.
What else? Oh yeah, it needs hiking poles to erect, but that didn’t bother me as I always walk with them anyway. Just in case though, I ordered it with poles as well. I’ve never had much enthusiasm for seam sealing a tent and I’d pay someone $35 to do it for me. Hang on, that’s how much it costs to have it done by LightHeart. That’s easy. Now the colour and I didn’t want green. I’m over green and I’ve had yellow before, so why not something new? Okay, blue it is. How much better does it feel to see a nice blue sky? Well, I have it all the time when I’m lying in the tent. Forget the fact that I step outside and it’s pouring rain. I can just get back in again and enjoy the blue glow. Even if it is raining, there’s a 20 cm bathtub floor to keep the water out. 20 cm? That’s the sort of flood protection in a tent that Noah was looking for.
I’m not going to go into a rehash of dimensions and multiple photos, as everything you want to see about the shelter is listed in the LightHeart website.
So, it arrived and on the scales it went. Hang on, it’s lighter than the Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy?? Is that possible? A cavernous tent with floor and bug netting that’s so light?
Okay, my brain hurts a little, so I took it out to my lawn for a look. I was a little concerned to have the hiking poles on the inside of the tent as they connect to a ridge pole which in turn is velcroed to the roof. I wondered, how is that meant to work? I needn’t have worried as everything went together so effortlessly. Four pegs to square it off, hop inside with the hiking poles and up it went. Hop out and tension the line-locks and it was done.
Now, how much room is there on the inside? There’s absolutely acres of it for a solo tent from previous ones I’ve owned. I can sit up comfortably and you know what? Why am I sitting inside the house under dull interior lights researching on the internet, when I’ve got the option of a permanent blue sky? I even know what you’re thinking and that’s, “What about your bean bag though?” That’s a very good question, but not much of a problem with the SoLong. I’ll just put it in there with me.
It doesn’t have a traditional vestibule for storing gear, but what I’ve found is that my boots can stay outside (under cover) and my pack can go inside. What? Yes, I’ve never had a tent where I can just pop a pack comfortably inside, but that’s what I did on the Mount Howitt hike. It sat at the end of the tent and with my legs outstretched they weren’t touching it.
Remember one thing though, it’s my first impressions of it. I haven’t had it in either belting rain or high wind. The night at Mount Howitt was quite breezy and the tent seemed to sit fine, but it wasn’t mega windy. It can be pegged closer to the ground if the weather turns gnarly though.
All I can say is I’m pretty impressed so far and I don’t think there’s much use for my bivy in the near future. Yes, I suppose the bivy is not meant to be for casual hiking and is more suited as an emergency shelter, which it does well, but have a look at it below. There’s no room at all once the bean bag has been put inside.
So, for the hikes I’m planning this year once the weather gets cooler I’ll turn to this tent and hopefully it’ll pull through with flying colours. I mean, I don’t want to start reading about other things to buy for quite some time, do I?