Some people float through their entire lives in the mountains, deserts, and backcountry without ever using a tent. They prefer to sleep in the Great Outdoors, under the stars, basking in the moonlight as they get their shuteye. Not us.
Call us amateurs, but we prefer the safety and comfort of a nice warm tent. Sure, we’ll star gaze with the best of them (especially on warmer nights!) but we also like retiring to a comfortable abode in the wild. And, seeing as we have had quite a few adventures around the world, we have had quite a few tents. So much, in fact that we were inspired to sit down and write about them, starting at the very beginning, before we even knew each other.
MAT’S FIRST GREEN NORTH FACE LENTICULAR
This tent was purchased for around $200 at the North Face Outlet on GIlman and 6th. Any budding outdoorsman worth their weight in GORP must stage a pilgrimage to this outlet as a rite of passage moving to Berkeley. Today it is overrun by Hipsters and out-of-towners, but back then it had recently emerged from a niche mountaineer’s spot into the mainstream.
The Lenticular was heavy, a real mountaineer’s tent – tons of guy lines and an asymmetrical design for strength in snow. It was probably at least 7-8 pounds, but that seemed like no big deal to carry around when you had such a bomber guaranteed shelter. Stability was traded for sheer mass at a period in Mat’s life when he didn’t care about how much he was carrying or how fast he was moving – it was all about the journey.
The Lenticular was so bomber we once left it set up in the HIgh Sierra a few days ahead of an incoming party for their upcoming northbound trip. It went on our debut Lost Coast “backpack” together in 2001, as well as many trips to mountains and deserts up and down California. It even kept Mat safe and secure during Phish’s 1999 Big Cypress New Year’s Eve blow-out in the Everglades.
Demise: Sold for a decent amount ($155?) on Ebay when it was deemed too heavy for our use.
THE NORTH FACE ONE PERSON BLUE TENT
After we spent our first five months in India in Dehli, the Narmada valley, and practicing yoga with Raghu in Cochi, we took a “break” by going to Thailand. We had just received a couple of thousand dollars from our tax return and literally had USD burning a hole in our pocket. We eventually navigated to the Great Mall in Bangkok where we were overjoyed to find a North Face brand name store. What if we stocked up on mountain gear and returned to the Indian Himalayas to start walking and exploring?
We left the store in the mall with down jackets, rain jackets, pants, backpacks, sleeping bags, and a one-person tent. Surely we wouldn’t want to haul any larger of a tent across mountains so awesome as the Himalayas. We left Bangkok and headed for the mountains, feeling as if we had won the lottery when we collected our 7% VAT on the gear as we left the airport.
It was then that we headed into the biggest mountains of the world for months on end, 10 day stints at a time. We would take multi-day bus rides through the foothill towns and villages, working our way along launching points up different valleys to the North. We hiked to the border of China on a massive glacier, followed by militants with guns solely because they were bored. And day after day we put up our miniature blue tent.
We hung our clothes on a make-shift clothes line down the center of the tent before we went to sleep, only to find them just as wet as they began in the morning. We spent full nights wide awake, taking shifts holding up the single pole design in vicious crosswinds when we slept on ridge-tops because they were the flattest place around. Perhaps ignorance really is bliss, because this tent got us through without a hitch, better than many much more expensive, modern tents that would come further on down the line. Perhaps they used to make gear better back then. Or perhaps we were just a bit younger, tougher, and dumber.
Demise: Not sure what happened to it. Possibly sold for $40 on Craigslist when we moved back to the Bay?
THE REI HALF DOME
This was the second tent we bought together, and unlike the joyful spontaneity of the abovementioned one person tent, this one reeked of commitment. We were buying this as a light-weight backpacking tent for adventures in the US mountains – not as one person or one person plus a guest, but firmly has a couple. It had to be light, it had to be sturdy, but most importantly it had to sleep two people comfortably.
This was the classic first generation REI half-dome. It was the original well-constructed, no-frills tent. It was like a Walmart tent for folks that might actually be caught in storms, the people’s backpacking tent. And it did its job superbly well.
This tent took us on many trips through the Sierras, including our early 10 day trips with Donna, Dave, JP, and Mike. Despite much of our pack contents never making the cut during Donna’s pre-takeoff vetting, the tent always came with us. It stayed dry in the rain, weathered many a storm, and never ever let us down.
Demise: Zipper busted while Mamie and Papy tried to zip up a too large double-air mattress inside while re-supplying us during our 35 day Sierra High Route traverse. Received a proper burial at the Lake Sabrina campground on our first re-supply of our thru-hike on Roper’s Sierra High Route.
THE REI QUARTER DOME
Lighter, smaller, and quicker moving than the Half Dome, the Quarter Dome was ours (and REI’s upgrade) to the Half Dome. I think we originally got it for our Sierra thru-hike, which would make sense if we were using the Half Dome as a car camping tent for Mamie and Papy. It was certainly lighter, and had plenty of room for 2 backpackers, but it had a strange condensation problem and an unfortunate seam placement that would drip water right on our heads while we waiting out a storm in the tent all day (which we did quite a bit thanks to some rainy days and long afternoons at camp) In retrospect it was a pretty solid tent, and never was shaken in the wind or high altitude storms. It’s likely the only reason we had criticisms was that we literally slept in it for an entire summer in some awesomely exposed High Sierra locales.
Demise: I’m pretty sure we still have it on our tent shelf in the garage.
REI HOBITAT 4
In 2009 our lives changed when we had our first kid. We were both totally ready, and also both determined not to let our new family additions low down our exploration of the outdoors. We immediately started scoping the monthly REI garage sales for a tent worthy of our future family adventures. In 2010, for the price of around $230, we acquired the first generation REI Hobitat 4. It had 8 total poles – a double four-pole, cross in the middle design. It had a tiny bonnet of a rain fly that covered just the top, because the walls were a thick single-wall design. There was no vestibule, but there was plenty of room inside for you to bring all of your stuff, including your kid.
Its first trip was to Colorado for the Telluride Phish shows in 2010, via the Sierras and the Southwest. It survived a rain and lightning storm at Monument Valley without even flinching, and went on to withstand days of rain in the San Juans of Colorado without ever really getting wet on the inside.
Demise: Not sure. Did it eventually rip? I don’t think we have it anymore.
BIG AGNES FLY CREEK ULTRALIGHT 3
The next summer after our trip to Colorado we went big in every sense of the term. We travelled to France with Sage, then 20 months old, and walked over 300 miles from Geneva and Lac Leman to Nice and the Mediterranean coast. We were literally carrying a human and enough stuff for three people on our backs, buckets and cloth diapers included. Weight was at a premium as was volume in our backs. The Big Agnes fit the bill perfectly – a small three person, ultra-lightweight (at the time) backpacking tent, it had been described as having enough room for 2 large adults, which meant it fit two small adults and a baby just fine.
It is, in my opinion, the most perfectly designed tent we have owned. It was extremely sleek looking, a sexy tent that even the Europeans admired. It was made out of a light-weight material far heavier than modern, ultralight tents, which meant that it was the perfect mix of light and durable. It had a reasonable sized vestibule that could fit your packs and also have enough room to cook dinner in. It shed rain and vented condensation like a champ, which was especially important because there were multiple weeks where our weather was far from perfect (think all-day rains and snow and July).
It was our tent for our backpacking days with one kid, and still occasionally makes an appearance on single-parent camping trips.
Demise: Still in light, situational rotation. On the tent shelf in the garage.
REI HOBITAT 6
Ahh, Hobitat 6, how we barely knew you. In Summer of 2012 we had Devin (kid #2) and our need for space while sleeping outdoors jumped up another notch. I think we found this at an REI garage sale, and we were so elated with our previous Hobitat that we decided to give the six person model a go. Unfortunately it never came close to its predecessor.
It was a fine tent for our purposes and most notably had an auxiliary vestibule that we purchased that could be zipped onto one door of the tent and effectively doubled the already massive amount of space. It gave us a living room outside of our tent, which at the time was very important for raising our family outdoors. Its inaugural trip was to Grand Teton National Park, up through Wyoming and Montana, across Canada, and back down. It then went on our car-powered camping trip and mountain exploration journey to France in 2013 when Devin wasn’t even a year old. And finally it accompanied us South of the Border on our December 2015 trip to Playa de Coyote in Baja Mexico. There, on our last morning on the beach before heading North, the vestibule got ripped to absolute shreds by a gust of wind in the early morning while we were packing up.
Demise: The vestibule ended up in an oil-drum trash can in the dirt parking lot of the Playa, and without the massive vestibule it lost all value to our family. I think we gave it to Steph and Aaron when we returned to the States.
BIG AGNES SEED HOUSE 6
It was Thanksgiving 2014 and we were becoming frustrated with our inability to be able to find a family-sized shelter that was also capable of doing some actual adventuring, having already turned through the Hobitat 6 and a not-even-worth-mentioning second version of the Hobitat 4. We pushed in all of our chips and purchased a $700 tent, full price, from Big Agnes, partially because we had been so elated with the backpacking version we brought to France for the GR-5.
Its debut was at an absolutely frigid bike-in camping trip to Point Reyes with the cousins. While the design didn’t seem to get it exactly right in many places, it was a solid tent and most importantly had a 4-season, black-out rainfly that kept us warm and let us sleep in late.
It became our family tent and went on many, many trips to Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego, and the mountains. It survived 60-70 mph winds while camping over Christmas in Anza, bending and blowing but never quite breaking. And then we took it on a ten day river trip down the Green River into Canyonlands National Park.
We had just passed Mineral Bottom about five days into our journey and were camped on a big elbow, on a sandbar, in the middle of the river. The wind was starting to blow as we hauled up the raft onto shore and began setting up the tent, but it was giving no indication of what we were really in for. And then, as the sun’s final rays disappeared from the canyon walls, the wind got stronger and stronger as it was amplified and concentrated in the natural wind tunnel of the canyon.
I somehow fell asleep with the boys, physically exhausted from the colossal amount of work that characterized a day on the river. And then, after years of trying to reassure Mo during storms and winds that a tent could never blow up and go airborne from the ground, it happened. Our tent folded over completely and uplifted, the ground cloth fully separating from terra firma. We landed with a gigantic thud as I woke up on top of the boys and all of our stuff, with Mo shining her headlight so that we could grab our things and get out to safety. Mo had of course not gone to sleep, staying up to guard her boys like only a true Mama Bear would.
She took the boys and I took the boat, as with zero discussion we both understood the two vital pieces of the expedition. I hauled the boat even further out of the raging and rising river while the boys huddled to stay warm in the complete darkness of the new moon night. It is at this moment, of course, when Devin peed on Sage, forever cementing this story into family mythology that will forever be told from multiple perspectives around campfires for the rest of our lives.
Demise: Still in occasional use, especially for longer trips where we need the space. Has been upgraded with 18 inch rebar stakes and retro-fitted with adjustment straps direct from Big Agnes. Still not as perfect as the backpacking model, but it’s the best big one we’ve got by far.
REI QUARTER DOME 4 (2010 VERSION)
2018 was an even-numbered year and thus we set our sights on domestic destinations, eventually deciding on a 10 day kayak expedition on Desolation Sound in British Columbia. We literally had no idea what we were getting into, and tried to figure out the skills and nuances of kayaking while practicing wet exits in the Alameda Estuary off the docks of Jack London Square. As we sorted our gear out, we knew that we had the space on the boats to go slightly bigger than backpacking, but definitely smaller than car camping. Enter the Quarter Dome 4.
Mat found it on a clearance rack at REI as they were clearing out the old model to make room for the first revision in 8 years. Online reviews seemed to suggest that it was a small and mighty tent, and after we couldn’t locate an OEM rainfly anywhere we ordered a pre-cut piece of Tyvek off Ebay.
It turned out to be a perfect compromise for our magical trip to Powell River, Desolation Sound, and the Sunshine coast. It fit perfectly on the elevated tent pads that the park service required you to camp on, and was easy to tie down and secure without ever using a tent stake. It kept us dry throughout days of socked in rain and fog, and never collapsed despite some pretty serious winds. Later in the fall in kept us warm and dry over 10,000 feet in the back-country of Sequoiah National Park. Yeah, it’s a bit heavier than we would like and it doesn’t quite pack down as small as we would wish, but it’s a solid tent for our family and can be carried under our own power if need be.
Demise: Still in rotation, on the tent shelf in the garage.