Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Stephenson Warmlite Tent

I first bought my Stephenson Warmlite tent 2 years ago. But I never did get around to using it because all my trips had not required a tent of the caliber. Here were the big features I got it for:
  • Weight: 3 pounds for a full size, 2 person tent
  • Roomy: far bigger than any of our existing 2-person tent
  • Quick setup (this was advertised, but I wasn't so sure about it)
What do you get for your money? A tube of seam sealer, laser-printed instructions on how to setup your tent and care for it and seam seal it, 2 sets of fat (but light) poles shock-corded together, the tent of material, and some swatches of material, including 4 bags attached to cords. The important missing ingredient here? No tent pegs. Given the price of the tent, I was shocked that even normal tent pegs weren't included, let alone lightweight aluminum or titanium pegs.

It took Lisa and I about half an hour to setup the tent the first time for seam sealing. Most of it was spent searching for the entry-way for the poles! Then it took us another hour or so to seal it, all the while sliding around on the slippery mylar that made up the inside of the tent, including the floor. Interestingly enough, in use, the slipperyness never became an issue, while we thought it would be a major issue unless the tent was perfectly flat.

Setting up the tent involves assembling the poles. These lightweight aluminum poles are so light that you are urged not to allow the cords to snap them together, as this could damage the structural integrity of it. It also doesn't take much to dent the tube, and I've already put a ding on mine, and consistent with all other dings I've ever had on bikes, I don't know how the ding got there. Then you find the pockets to slide the poles in. The first couple of times you do this, it's extremely hard to find the pockets, but if you're doing this every day it becomes extremely fast. The first few times we set it up, I didn't realize that you could put the entire pole into the tent, and had a bit sticking out, which looked funny. After a few times, the poles settled in and what we had looked much better. Finally, you stake down the tent ends (only 3 pegs required), and tension the cords and the tent raises itself up like magic.

Setup is extremely fast. So much so that even by myself, our tent was always the first up and the first down when doing the Overland Track. There really is nothing to it. I didn't know whether I wanted to believe this piece of marketing, but it really was true.

Once the tent is up, you have several options, depending on which tent you bought. We bought the version with 2 windows. You can either roll up the windows on the outside, granting maximum ventilation but no rain protection, or apply the corded pockets mentioned earlier to the loops at the end of the window, and use rocks or some other weight to stabilize the window covers to the side. This provides some ventilation, as well as rain shelter, but you better use heavy rocks or any kind of hard rain will cause the window to flap back into place. Finally, you can keep the windows zipped up if you're expecting snow or it's going to rain all night.

If you manage to get the ventilation right, this tent stays dry, but on our first test in California winter, it was too cold to keep the windows open, and we got condensation inside the tent. Stephenson would claim that we should just keep the windows open and dress appropriately. In the rain, despite having open windows, we still would get condensation in the tent, so I conclude that the marketing on condensation is just marketing, though Stephenson would probably say that we need to buy some of his vapor barrier clothing.

How robust is the tent? We used it for about 8 days in Australia and it stood up to that fine, except for the ding in the pole. We had strong wind one day, and a bit of rain for a few days here and there, but the one day we had a torrential downpour we chose to use a hut instead of camping out for an unrelated reason, so we did not get a chance to test it. It does feel extremely fragile, but I think it'll withstand regular use if you follow directions. And as for weight, no one had a lighter tent, no matter where we go, and folks were quite impressed by the large windows and the good ventilation as a result.

One big negative compared to our other tents was the lack of ceiling attachments --- it's impossible to attach a candle lantern to the inside of the tent. You have to use a floor lantern if you want light, or just wear a head lamp. You also can't hang wet clothing to dry or anything like that. On the other hand, the tent is so big that you can easily stick your packs in there.

How do I feel about this tent? Given the price, I'm not going to use it for car camping. I have other tents more appropriate than that. For a single person, I would investigate the use of a camping hammock. However, for a couple that's cycle touring or backpacking, this is probably as good a set of compromises as you can get. I'll call this a cautious recommendation --- it's worth the money, but it's not a no-brainer tent --- you really do have to treat it with care and respect.
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