Monday, July 6, 2009
How low can you go? Budget backpacking, Walmart style...Tents and pads.
A lot of people have told me they would love to get into backpacking, but they need time to buy all the gear. I understand this sentiment. It took me 8 or 9 months to accumulate the gear to go on my first trip, and that was with a budget. However, time and experience has taught me that, while you really do want to get that nice, expensive gear for the perfect lightweight experience, there are some corners that can be cut if you want to go now instead of waiting until next March.
Last fall, while packing our gear after car camping in Northwest Georgia at a caving weekend, one of the people in our group came over to a few of us and told us to feel his tent. It seemed like an odd request, but I picked it up and it felt lighter than my backpacking tent. "Walmart, $20.00," he said. I was intrigued, and, incidentally, at Walmart the next day after work purchasing the Junior Dome Tent from Ozark Trail.
This led to a battery of tests which concluded this weekend on a car camping trip in Bryson City, NC. How can a seasoned backpacker trust a $20.00 backpacking tent?
First, the weight test. It felt light in the store, but what would it be next to my $70.00 coffin of a backpacking tent? The Eureka Solitaire is approximately a 2lb, 9oz tent, both lighter and cheaper than anything I have seen at REI in recent days. I went through a very scientific process while comparing the weight of the two tents: I picked them up. The Walmart tent felt lighter. Grade: A+
Second, the space test. The Solitaire, while awesome in many ways which will be described in a subsequent post, is small. I refer to it as my coffin tent because you can't really sit up in it. It's that small. The Junior Dome Tent is 6' x 5'. I pitched it in my living room and laid inside this tent, which I should mention was recommended by a man who is 6'1" tall. It was like my own little backpacking condo. I could sit, stand (hunched over, anyway), hang out... The recommended way of sleeping in this tent, if used solo, is diagonally, however. It's a tad short otherwise. Beyond that, huge. Bonus: If you don't want to carry the stakes, the tent stays up fine without them, and you can save a few more ounces on the weight. Grade: A-
Finally, the weather test. This was where I was concerned. A thin-materialed $20.00 tent that weighs less than the majority of high rated backpacking tents I have researched? You can be sure I would not take it out in the winter. I won't lie about that. However, I decided to take it out this weekend for the final test, in a situation where I could just throw my stuff in the car if the tent was too leaky. I got my test yesterday morning, when it poured down rain on us for a solid 4-5 hours. I was not surprised to find that the tent leaked at the seams after 3-4 hours of heavy rain. What I was surprised by was how little it leaked relative to the amount of rain we actually got (and it should be noted that several others on the trip commented that their other tents leaked at the seams as well). The troubleshooting guide on the inside of the tent recommends seam sealer, which I purchased at the Nantahala Outdoor Center for $4.50. So, yeah, you get what you pay for, to an extent. My stuff was not completely dry. But it was dry enough that I would definitely use the tent again, on a real backpacking trip. Would I check the weather when choosing between that and one of my more expensive, slightly heavier tents? Probably, but if it were the only tent I owned, I don't think I would really hesitate. Grade: B-. Grade post seam sealer: TBD.
Budget option #2: The pad. While laying in my living room on my roommate's foam exercise pad (Walmart, approx $18, see example), it occurred to me that it was quite comfortable and might do as another budget backpacking option, so I brought it out with the tent for the second element of my experiment. I was not wrong. While it hasn't passed the winter test yet, the foam exercise pad was as soft as my thermarest with less slipping and sliding off the pad. It is also as light or lighter in weight than my Thermarest. Added bonus: no inflation and deflation! Any good backpacker knows how tedious the process of blowing up and deflating your pad can be. Grade: A.
For the beginner backpacker who is ready to let their cheap and lazy side shine through, this tent and pad option is a must-buy. The tent can be put up with two poles and no stakes, and the pad requires no inflation and deflation. The total cost is under $40.00, perhaps just over $40.00 with the seam sealer and optional water-proofing spray to protect the dryness of your gear in a torrential downpour.