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Q&A

How do I determine if a tent can handle strong wind?

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I'm considering to buy a light-weight backpacking tent. My current tent (Hilleberg Staika) is very solid, but also quite heavy (4 kg). I'm looking at various Big Agnes tent models, such as the Slater SL1, Fly Creek UL1, Copper Spur UL1, Fish Hook UL1, or Seedhouse 1 SL. They seem quite similar. The local outdoor store doesn't have them in stock, so I can't go and actually look at them. Based on the specifications, how can I determine which ones will be best for handling strong winds?

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Lightweight shelter selection is all about tradeoffs

In general terms, for wind-worthiness you're looking for strong poles, small panels, a low profile, plentiful peg-out points and flies that pitch close to the ground. But this is only a starting point.

Choosing lightweight shelters is tough, even for the experienced, and it's all about making the right tradeoffs for your particular requirements.

  1. Space and liveability
  2. Storm-worthiness and durability
  3. Light weight

You can have any two of three.

So how much storm-worthiness do you really need? Because if you want something genuinely bombproof you're going to have to pay in terms of weight or liveability.

How much wind-worthiness do you really need?

If you camp in sheltered spots below the treeline you probably don't need to worry too much about wind. Most of the higher-end manufacturers will ensure that a 3 season tent can survive up to 30 mph (Force 6: Strong Breeze). So focus on weight and liveability.

If you camp above the treeline in exposed spots it's another game entirely - you want something that can survive upwards of 50 mph in case you get caught out, and most shelters simply won't deliver.

How to choose a tent for exposed camping?

There are two issues here - design and construction quality.

For design, there are two broad categories - peg-supported and self-supported.

Peg supported designs include the Pyramid, A-Frame, Single Hoop and Tunnel. They can all work well, but rely entirely on finding enough good peg placements. Pitching can be finicky as you have to achieve a good stretch on the panels, and the pegs have to do double duty holding up the tent structure and bracing against the wind. Many designs have a big footprint, and if a peg pops in a storm you have a problem.

Walking poles are stronger than any lightweight tent pole, so if you carry them you could save weight with a shelter designed to use walking poles for support. There's quite a choice these days, from mainstream brands such as MSR and Black Diamond to cottage manufacturers like TarpTent, TrekkerTent, MLD, Six Moons and Yama.

For difficult pitches on sandy or rocky soil "freestanding" designs using flexible poles can be more robust. (They're not really freestanding - they still require a few pegs, but that's how the marketing departments describe them). The poles hold up the tent and stretch most of the panels, leaving the pegs with the single duty of bracing against wind. But poles are heavy so these benefits come at a cost. A true geometric is impractical in a solo lightweight tent, so you are restricted to a two-pole crossover design or to something using connection clips like the Big Agnes range.

Personally I'm wary of the clip designs in a serious bad-weather tent as they look vulnerable to failure. Makers like Hilleberg who design for serious bad weather don't use them.

But with the classic crossover, design restraints mean that you are either looking at something quite heavy like the Hilleberg Suolo at 2.2 kilos, or something tiny like the TrekkerTent Bivy at 1 kilo.

The second issue is build-quality. I've always thought of the single-hoop design as quite limited, but here's a video of a Hilleberg Akto doing fine in a measured 85mph (Hurricane Force 12) wind! Quite a testament to good materials and construction. So if you're looking for serious storm-worthiness, focus on companies like Hilleberg, Trekkertent, Tarptent (their Scarp 1 and StratoSpire 1 in particular are good in wind) and Mountain Laurel who have a reputation for bombproof build quality. Some manufacturers cut corners with flimsy materials and poles to achieve lightness at the cost of durability.

So to sum up...

As you can see, it's all about making the right tradeoffs for the conditions.

For sheltered camping you can prioritise weight and livability. Don't push your luck with the weather and pick your campsites with care.

For above the treeline, you have to trade off the costs and benefits of freestanding and peg-supported designs. And you should focus on manufacturers with a proven reputation for building storm-worthy shelters.

As for the Big Agnes designs, I personally wouldn't fancy taking them anywhere exposed - too complex and failure-prone for my tastes. And they pitch inner-first, which can be a nightmare in heavy rain...

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Trying to find a tent like this, I thought of searching in reviews, blogs and shops in countries or areas that are very windy. Youtube and amateur reviewers always help.

For example when I got my Terra Nova 1-person tent I looked for reviews all over but it was not until I saw a review from a Scottish guy camping in the highlands that I was convinced.

Believe me, up there it can be windy!

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Generally, the more times the poles cross each other, the better the wind resistance. Additionally, tents with crossed-pole designs usually have better head room. Of course, more poles means more weight and more time required to pitch and strike the tent.

How you pitch the tent is also important. Keep the doors away from the wind, put the bottom of the tent as low as possible to the ground, rig extra guy lines to solid anchors, find a small depression to pitch in..

However, I wouldn't worry about it too much unless you know you will spend a lot ot time above the treeline. I have a Great Outdoors two-pole design that has handled windstorms reasonably well on ridges here in NZ. Most of the time I am pitching it under trees, so wind isn't a worry.

http://www.completeoutdoors.co.nz/tent-info-pages-xidc30801.html http://www.outdoorgearlab.com/backpacking-tent-reviews/buying-advice

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I'd love to write a nice long post regarding this once I have time. Short answer:

  • height/profile: the lower the profile, the better off you are.
  • anchoring: tent pegs, guy-lines, these are both important, you can't peg a tent on a mountain made of granite, that's where guy-lines really help.
  • shelter: you can use surrounding geography (e.g. a large boulder) as shelter from the wind, or surround brush. When you're exposed on a mountain top you can use loose rocks to make a wall on the windy side.
  • tent material: if your tent is entirely made of mesh and the fly walls aren't low enough then all that wind will blow through, which will help your tent from flying away, but will also make it drafty and cold. I've got a Big Agnes Seed House SL1 and it's really bad for that when I'm in the mountains.
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A first consideration in considering wind-resistance should be your choice of stakes and how you use them; an improperly staked tent is largely equivalent to an oversized kite. (Of course there is no rule saying you must use the stakes that come with a tent.)

In terms of tent design, there are some factors that can only be evaluated though detailed photos or direct inspection, although some may be advertised in the specs. For example, smaller-diameter poles will be weaker than larger diameter poles, and stiffer aluminum alloys may tolerate less bending before breakage. Finally, some models allow you to double-up the poles for additional strength.

You will also want to look for well-sewn attachment points for stakes and guy-lines as well as the ability to use doubled-up poles in high wind situations. If the tent has additional tie-out points you can use them to stiffen the structure; some will even allow you to use internal guy-lines to strengthen the structure. (These are helpful against downward gusts of wind, which may happen on lee slopes or behind large rocks that block direct wind.)

When looking at overall tent design one question to ask is "how well will this spill wind?"; smaller fabric panels, kept taut, will generally deflect wind better than larger, more drooping sections of fabric. Thus, the ability to tightly stake out the tent is important to good wind resistance. Note that the design of tents like the BA ones listed in the original question appear rather vulnerable to flattening out in high winds. (Refer to the Outdoor Magazine videos for an example of what this looks like.) Another key consideration will thus be "just how strong will the winds be?", as some environments call for sturdier designs.

Finally, Outdoor Magazine conducted some wind tests of tents using a very large fan. Understanding German is not too necessary, as the videos mostly speak for themselves and should give you an idea of how different designs are affected by high winds.

My primary source for this is the (unfortunately paywalled) article "Storm Resistance of Ultralight Shelters" at BackpackingLight, which I must still recommend due to its thoroughness. Also, the comment thread below the article should be freely readable.

Additional (free) BPL resources include a few discussion threads:

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