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Ted's House
GEAR REVIEWS

July 22 , 2010
Taking Camping into the 21st Century

I took a break from motorcycling and camping back in 1999. With the addition of a new (to me) BMW K75RT motorcycle this year I hauled all of my camping gear out of storage and gave it a good, long look. Laid out before me was an LL Bean 2-man dome tent, a North Face 20-degree Cat's Meow sleeping bag, a Thermarest 3/4" self-inflating pad, and a Gaz Bluet 470 stove and lantern combo.

2-Man Mototouring Tents

I bought LL Bean 2-person Dome Tent back in 1994 when Beans had Moss Tents making its in-house tents, before they decided to redesign (poorly in my opinion) and outsource everything to China. It is an incredibly strong tent and has withstood fierce lightning storms on Prince Edward Island as well as flash floods in Hiawassee, Georgia. Unfortunately it is big and heavy when packed, uncomfortablly warm on hot nights, and has fiberglass poles which are known to break at the worse moment. As I prepared for new motorcycle camping adventures with the new K75RT in the stable first on my list was to find a new tent that packed smaller, did not require the use of guy lines, had more mesh for hot nights, and was durable and well-built. One thing to note - over the last 15 years the definition of "2-man tent" has been adjusted a bit, a better term might be "shrunk a bit." Each of the following 2-man tents was noticeably smaller than the LL Bean tent, enough so that each comfortably fits one person with all his gear but not much else. If you plan on sharing a tent, you might look to bigger 3-person tents.

Tent 1 - Marmot Limelight 2

After a lot of looking around I bought the Marmot Limelight 2 tent from REI on sale for $140. It is well-built, spacious and came well under my $300 limit. On the plus side the tent is sturdy with excellent fittings and beefy components. In addition, it is easy to set up and take down, has generous interior space, and provides an excellent full cover fly. On the negative side, I was dissapointed that it has only a single door, and the fly design and less than generous use of mesh made for another tent that did not have decent airflow and was a bit uncomfortable on warm nights. One neat thing unique to this tent, the fly has a clear plastic "porthole" over the top of the door so one can look out without having to unzip the vestibule. As most of my camping is during the warmer summer months I decided to see what else was out there. Of note, Marmot makes a $330 tent called the Aura that uses all mesh uppers and has a similiar pole and 2-door design to the REI Quarterdome - unlike the Quarterdome however the rain fly vestibules rest against the doors unless staked out.

Plug for REI - I finally joined REI when I bought the Marmot tent, with the 10% annual dividend check the membership would have paid for itself. Returning the Marmot couldn't have been easier, and in the process the sales person mentioned the regular members-only REI attic sales where all returned merchandise is sold at drastic savings, often 70% off new. I decided to put off buying another tent until the next attic sale, conveniently that coming weekend.

Tent 2 - Big Agnes Seedhouse

I bought the BA Seedhouse because it was only $60 at the REI sale and looked like it might be just what I was looking for. Note that at the attic sales things go very quickly, if you hesitate to consider a purchase chances are someone will quickly beat you to it.

On the plus side it is very well made, and quite lightweight packing down to a size smaller than the Marmot and easily less than half of the LL Bean tent. It makes use of all-mesh upper panels for excellent airflow, and comes with sturdy and strong components. The fabric seemed to be the beefiest of the bunch and the excellent build quality is immediately evident. In addition, the floor "tub" is seamless so no need to seam-seal or worry about leaks - very clever! On the negative side, it too has only a single door and with sloped sides seemed to be a bit confining. In addition, I found it more difficult to set up and did not like that the fly rested on the tent in several places if the guy lines were not used, particularly at the doorway.

Tent 3 - REI Quarterdome T2

I also grabbed this at the REI attic sale, for $55, and was pretty much won over before I even finished setting it up. Like the Marmot and BA tents it is extremely well made with strong and sturdy components. Set up is a breeze as the three poles are attached to each other forming a single backbone, and all attachment points on the fly, tent and footprint are color-coded. Due to the unique pole design the tent has near verticle side walls creating great interior space, though the headroom is just a hair less than the Marmot. Even better, the T2 is designed with both sides having a mirror-image vestibule and large door, with the vestibules able to be folded over and secured for a dome appearance if the camper prefers to only guy out one side, or even none. Lastly, like the Seedhouse, the portion from the "tub" up is entirely mesh making for a very lightweight tent that packs down to the size of a loaf of bread yet provides excellent airflow on warm nights. The T2 is unique in that it has adjustable vents in the rain fly that can be opened and closed from inside the tent that further encourage air flow yet are well protected in case of rain. My only real dissapointment with this tent is that the door zipper pulls are smaller than the beefier zipper pulls used in the Marmot and Big Agnes making them a bit harder to use.

I packed up the RT for an overnight trip after checking out the T2 and Seedhouse tents side-by-side in the back yard. I made it to the Big Meadows campground after dark and even with only a headmount LED on a moonless night with rain threatening, found the T2 a breeze to set up. With the unique pole design holding the fly out over the doors I did not have to bother with stakes and guy lines and after opening the fly vents to full was soon resting comfortably inside. During the night a terrific rain storm passed through, not a drop of rain made it through the tent or the vents and I was quite comfortable even with the warm and humid aftermath. In the morning take-down was equally as easy with the single pole structure again proving its smart design.

I am truly impressed with the Quarterdome, though the Big Agnes and the Marmot Aura, both coming in at over $300 new, are excellent competition.

Sleeping Pads

My old Thermarest 3/4" pad has proven to be a truly reliable workhorse. That said, in the intervening ten years I felt it was time to move up to a newer, thicker pad and there are several excellent candidates including new, rugged manually inflatable pads. I stopped in at REI and compared the Thermarest 1.75" pad, the REI-brand 1.75" pad, the Big Agnes inflatable 2.5" mattress and the Exped 2.5" inflatable mattress.

Between the Thermarest and REI self-inflating pads there appeared to be no difference whatsoever, except the Thermarest pad was $30 more expensive and did not come with a stuff sack. Not only does the REI version come with a stuffsack, it adds velcro straps to make rolling up the pad much easier. Both seemed to have exactly the same design and construction, both have non-slide surfaces to prevent sliding off during the night, and both pack up to the same width and length. With all four laid out, the two mattresses were without question more comfortable and packed down much smaller than the two self-inflating pads. The $190 Exped mattress has a very clever 2-handed panel that inflates the mattress with an interior bellows system, though it is by far the most expensive of the bunch. The $55 Big Agnes had no such design and though less than a third of the price of the Exped would require blowing up - something I was wary of having to do every night at the end of a long day's ride. Both the Exped and the Big Agnes are deceptively rugged and hearty in design, and both pack down to less than half the size of either of the self-inflating pads.

Price eventually won out and I bought the REI 1.75" pad for $45 using one of the 15% off coupons REI sends me every few weeks. A week or so after I bought the pad I was talking with a friend and mentioned wanting the Big Agnes mattress but not being happy about having to either blow it up or having to buy and carry an electric pump. He asked me if I had heard of the Big Agnes Pumphouse - a $20 waterproof stuff sack/dry bag with a nozzle at one end that when empty serves as a big air bellows. I quickly ordered the Pumphouse and a BA Aircore mattress and was truly impressed! It inflates a 20" wide, 70" long, 2.5" thick mattress in under a minute, can hold a sleeping bag and folded air mattress, compresses down with the dry bag folding closure (instead of a pull cord), and lastly, makes for a great pillow.

With my sleeping pad solution firmly (and comfortably) in place I moved on to the next item, the sleeping bag.

Sleeping Bags

I have spent many a night in my old, reliable Cat's Meow sleeping bag. Being a 20-degree bag however I was always fighting with it as all of my camping is in 50-degree plus weather. In addition, it is not exactly compact and takes up much of the space in my huge 70-liter dry bag.

Bag 1 - North Face 40-degree Aleutian

I stopped in Freeport early in the summer at the North Face outlet and bought a 40-degree North Face Aleutian sleeping bag for $50. At first I was quite happy that I could sleep through the night without having to adjust zippers to cool down, then readjust later to warm up. I found the "wine glass" shape (found on most sleeping bags available today) incredibly confining however especially at the lower legs and feet. I set out looking for a new sleeping bag that was rated at 40- to 50-degrees, had a modified mummy design that would allow me to move around in the bag instead of moving around "as the bag", had plenty of foot and leg room, and packed down small in size.

Bag 2 - REI Siesta Bag 30/40-degree

My first selection was the $70 REI Siesta bag, it is a big, roomy bag and has a neat "dual-temperature" feature. For the 40-degree rating one sleeps with the thinner side down, and for the warmer 30-degree rating one sleeps with the thicker side down. The bag also has dual zippers for those of us who like to poke hot feet out of the bottom, and can unzip entirely around to form a big blanket. The big negative with this bag is the packed size - it is big. As big as my big Cat's Meow, if not a little bigger, and almost twice the size of the Aleutian bag.

Bag 3 - Big Agnes Lost Dog 50-degree

If it seems like I am a big fan of Big Agnes, I am. This bag is huge and incredibly roomy yet packs down tiny! BA decided to do away with the insulation on the bottom, instead creating a pocket for a standard sized, 20-inch wide sleeping pad. Seems a bit loony but it works, and works exceedingly well. With the pocket the bag and sleeping pad are a single unit, and the bag gets all the benefits of the sleeping pad insulation with none of the need for its own. In addition, there is no more waking up in the middle of the night with you on one side of the tent and the pad on the other. The bag has a clever roll-out pocket at the top to insert a pillow and the shell is treated with a water resistant finish so water rolls off instead of soaking in. Did I mention it packs down incredibly compact, about the size of a large Starbucks cup! I have found only one real negative, the zipper has only a single pull at the top - I miss having one at the bottom as well. Big Agnes also makes a 40-degree variation called the Buffalo Park, similiar in most respects except it picks down a bit bigger, is rated at 40-degrees, and oddly enough, is $10 cheaper.

The Big Agnes pocket bag/sleeping pad combo is a clear winner!

Stove

I love my Gaz Bluet stove, matched with a small nestled Coleman Peak-1 stainless solo pot set I have never been dissapointed. That of course did not stop me from looking to see what else is out there. Enter the JetBoil. The hard-core adventurers over on ADVRider have raved about this cooking solution for some time, and with most camp food now being made with zip-loc tops so that one need only add hot water I decided to give it a try. To put it simply, it just didn't work for me. It is a very clever design with a single large pot within which the stove and fuel cartridge nestle when packed. The unit has an ignite button so no matches are needed, and boils water in less than two minutes. The design does however have drawbacks. First, I found the flame adjustment to be worthless with the flame either off or at full blast. Second, it is integrated such that it will only work with the included pot and requires an additional attachment (that does not fit in the pot when nestled) should you want to use your own pots, percolator, etc. When I put the folded Gaz stove, big fuel cartridge and cook set (3 pans, a pot, and coffee cup when nestled about the size of a CD and 3" thick) next to the Jetboil the three were not much larger but seemed so much more useful. I returned the JetBoil and kept the Gaz stove. As an aside, this will allow me to also keep the compact Gaz single-mantle lantern that fits on the same fuel cartridge as the stove, and has a flat metal top to keep a pot or coffee cup hot.

Wrapping it up

The camping industry has had some big changes over the last decade. Companies like Big Agnes have come out with some extremely clever new designs and the products available today are far superior to those of ten years ago. If you are looking to casually upgrade I would recommend joining REI and hitting up the attic sales as the deals are truly amazing.

T

1995-2016, Ted Verrill

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"Red Light Insight" is copyright Ted Verrill, 1999