ESSAY: Gear Love: The saga of finding a four-person backpacking tent

Big Agnes Lynx Pass 4

New tent in ninja mode.

> Highlights my odyssey for a 4-person backpacking tent for car camping (make sense)?
> Compares the North Face Double Headed Toad, REI Half Dome 4, Marmot Hideaway 4P and Big Agnes Lynx Pass 4.

A four-person backpacking tent is a tough find. And understandably so. The concepts, “four-person free standing double wall” and “backpacking” are not exactly as compatible as say, gin and tonic. No, they’re more like John and Kate.

First and foremost, size becomes an issue. The last thing any backpacker wants is the burden of carrying Rosie O’Donnell across a scree field. Not only does a heavy pack grow pretty damn annoying, it can lead to injury. In fact, NOLS is in the process of doing an extensive study on the ratio of pack weight to the number and types of injuries students report during expeditions. Anyway, weight is an important issue.

There’s no way you’ll get a solid shelter to protect a crowd of four and stay under five pounds with body, fly, stakes and poles. Granted, you can go with tarp shelters, like MSR’s Twing or Black Diamond’s Mega Light. Both are great options for the fast and light crowd. I’ve slept in this type of shelter with four people and find them adequate. You just need to be prepared to adjust things when unsavory weather rolls in.

My goal here was to find a relatively light but higher-end tent for car camping that could be used for backpacking.

If I needed to, I can always separate the load by dividing up stakes, poles, fly and body among the group. Consequently, this demands that the group stay together or stakes and poles will arrive at camp while tent and fly are still casting for cut throat three miles back. Or wandering off route into cougar den.

Anyway, all these thoughts and quite a few more went through my head in the last couple of days while searching for a new tent to take on the multitude of car camping trips we execute every year. As reliable as it’s been, the “how-to-get-to-know-your-tent mate-in-one-night” size of my REI Half Dome 2 (first gen) just wasn’t filling the base-camp needs of my wife and now thirteen-year-old canine, Al. So, it was time to add some elbow, er, panting room.

I wanted a tent under 10 lbs that had a full-coverage fly, fly-only option and plenty of venting. (I tend to be a warm sleeper and can produce condensation even if staked out in Death Valley.) Oh, and price? Under $300. And the last catch is that I wanted it to be carried by REI because, well, it’s dividend season.

I tracked it down to North Face’s Double Headed Toad 44, REI’s Half Dome 4, Marmot’s Hideaway 4P and Big Agnes’ Lynx Pass 4.

While plenty light, the Double Headed Toad jumps over my budget and has a bit too much screening. Remember, car camping typically means crowded campsites, an unfortunate byproduct of the frontcountry camping world that does not sit well with a woman trying to change out of her sports bra in a fully-mesh tent.

I was attracted to Marmot’s option at $299 because it includes a footprint and gear attic. The Half Dome 4, at about $50 less, does not offer those options. So in the end, cost became a wash, even though there is no way I’m ever paying for a ground cloth anyway. (Poke around at that option’s cost and I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s the backpacking industry’s equivalent to the car salesman’s rust-proofing.)

I liked the REI option quite a bit because of how well it’s younger sister has performed for me. Sorry. I meant that the Half Dome 2 has been a great tent. However, I became fixated on the Marmot. (Really? Sorry.) Anyway, the tent sold by the company named Marmot emerged as my preferred option primarily because it’s entry options are more convenient. (Again, car camping.)

REI’s Half Dome line has tighter entrances when the fly is attached because of it’s angular side openings. I don’t mind it but for frequent in and outs, it’s not completely ideal.

I cruised down to one of my three (yes, three) local REI branches to see these options in action. (Yes, I’m getting to the Big Agnes option.) However, my closest store had neither tent in stock because of the Half Dome’s market immaturity and the Marmot seems to be limited to online purchase and in a few select stores on the West Coast. Awesome.

But wait … “You have the Lynx Pass 4. Can we set it up?”

A couple of minutes later I was sitting in what was going to be my new four person backpacking tent. It had all the best tent qualities, such as steep interior walls, easy fly attachments, quick set-up options and even storage in every corner. No gear loft or ground cloth though. But a good balance of venting and privacy as well as only weighing, all in, around 8lbs. And, it matched all of my primary parameters.

Contributing to my purchase was the fact that I needed it for a surf camping trip Easter Weekend. Thus, let that be a lesson to inventory managers everywhere. Get your stuff in stock. Still, if all three were set-up for me, I still would have chosen the Big Agnes.

Of course, let’s see how the weekend goes. I hope it goes well because who the hell wants to read 870 words about me returning a tent?

How’s your rack? Gear rack, I mean.

There is a lot to be said about organization. There are entire retail chains that sell aisles of items just to help you sort your butter knives from your rolling pins. (But if you obsess over sorting those particular items, you should be shopping somewhere else, like the pharmacy. And why on earth does a person need multiple rolling pins?)

When it comes to your outdoor gear, the importance of being tightly organized simply can’t be over-stated, especially if you’re a multi-sport junkie like myself. If you have your rain fly in with your dry flies or Nikwax next to your surf wax, don’t be surprised when it’s time to dash out for the weekend and your half-day at work turns into a gear closet caving expedition. And where the hell is your headlamp?

What I hate most about organizing is organizing. Follow that? What I mean is that to be properly in order, you need plan for it. How will you sort your stuff? In boxes? By individual sport? Or category of sport? For example, by water sports (fishing, boating, surfing) and snow sports (snowboarding, snowshoeing). Bottom line: getting organized takes time. But it’s time well spent.

After about a year of trying to create a gear closet in an upstairs third bedroom, I realized that it separated a lot essentials from their core gear. It doesn’t make sense for my bike helmet to not be adjacent to my bike. And carrying my fly rod down a flight of stairs and through the house? Yeah right; talk about how to find yourself browsing an Orvis catalog for rod repair kits. No thanks.

Thus, I acquiesced to create a gear storage center in the most common-sense component of any contemporary, mass-produced, energy-deficient suburbanite home: the garage.

Unlike most in our neighborhood however, we can actually park a car in our garage. Odd, I know. Man, people love stuff. And instead of bobbing and weaving around your accusations of hypocrisy, I’m happy to simply take one on the chin: yes, my recreational pursuits encourage the proclivity to accumulate material goods. Just wait until I start lead climbing.

However, and I’ll go into this more in-depth in future posts, I buy only after thorough research, focusing strictly on eliminating usage redundancy and regularly, despite my wife’s willingness to go in front of a congressional committee to testify otherwise, get rid of things. Which, is another terrific benefit of organizing your gear. You can finally discover the things that serve better as tests of your pack’s shoulder strap strength than viable contributions to a comfortable weekend in the woods.

I took a rather old but “man-was-it-trendy-at-the-time” entertainment shelving system holding up a Sears-bought socket set, a mismatched set of tools (sorry dad) half-filled bags of yard lime and leveling sand and a roll of what I think is landscaping fabric (wtf?) and turned it into a well-organized outdoor gear display. As of now, it seriously looks like a Yakima ad.

I organized mainly by sport with a dash of category. Above the rack itself is a wall-mounted shelf holding mountain bike items. The rack’s top shelf is surfing with a couple of snowboard items, so I’m calling that level “board sports.” Middle is climbing and backpacking where my packs, shoes, helmet, Camelbacks and other related items reside. Lower middle holds my tent, pads and bags (which are down, so they are in their larger cotton bags, un-compressed.) On the bottom is the car camping stuff, which calls home its own storage bag, which is a large, open-top duffel that holds a number of individual units, which are filled according to cooking, dining and site gear. If you don’t have one of these, here are some alternatives. They are fantastic. I also have a Rubbermaid Action packer (get one of these, too) holding an array of miscellaneous items like stuff sacks, first-aid supplies and a couple of flashlights.

I even added some old floormats from my rig and a piece of rubber garage flooring at the base of the stand as an area to sort and prepare gear as I pull it down, similar to how you would use your ground cloth to keep your pack items in one spot when packing/unpacking at camp.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: I can’t fix anything, that’s why my tool collection is sparse and now relegated to some hard-to-reach shelving above the seed spreader and below my dog’s overnight bag. I don’t need anymore grief on that topic, thanks. My friend’s six-year-old knows his way around under the sink better than I do. But he can’t reach my pedal wrench.