I'll take two! 2015 tents for the backpacker and car camper

It's a tale of two tents. Check out the latest tents and shelters coming to outdoor retail in 2015.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2014 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 6 – 9. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

It’s music to an outdoor retailer’s ears. As the economy recovers and activity needs vary, customers increasingly are looking to buy two tents instead of one — no more middle ground.

For their backpacking trips, they want lightweight, yet roomy tents, as we continue to see a lot more 3- and 4-man versions for the trail, in addition to a rise of spacious, ultralight trekking-pole shelters.

On the flip side, car camping has exploded, and just not at the state park — everything from music festivals to finding a site off a remote National Forest road are attracting sales in this segment. No longer is the spot around the fire ring just a launching point for backpackers, but rather it’s a central, social gathering station for a diverse range of outdoor activities, including hiking, climbing, biking, kayaking, fishing, hunting and even tailgating. At the end of the day, everyone regroups for some drinks, food and conversation at base camp.

While the middle ground seems to be shrinking between these two diverse categories, there is common ground. The biggest is the push to open up head and shoulder room for increased livability — no more crouching to play cards. It’s all spurring new designs beyond the x-pole and challenging brands and retailers to educate customers beyond just footprints sizes.

The most eye-catching new designs are coming from a notable resurgence of ultralight trekking-pole tents. New for 2015, Sierra Designs uses what it terms “tensional integrity” to provide structure and strength at lower weight in its Tensegrity Elite tents. The design creates more space with a configuration that is wider at the top than the bottom, alleviating the typical cramped quarters of these tents. Large drop down doors open up the view and remain uncluttered with vestibules on the ends. Two trekking poles, an extra spreader pole and seven stakes are all it takes to set up the two-person model (MSRP $490), which weighs in at 2 pounds, 2 ounces. MSR similarly shaves off ounces with tension and trekking poles in its FlyLite (MSRP $350) tent, weighing in at a scant 1 pound, 9 ounces. Four, awning-covered vents promote airflow in the single-wall construction, and a vertical-wall design provides ample head and elbow room.

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The move to use more tension and trekking poles in tents (Big Agnes, Sea to Summit and Brooks-Range made introductions in the space, a year ago) is being driven by an ultimate goal to reduce the amount of poles, which end up accounting for much of the weight and cost, designers said.

With that objective in mind, the Nemo Equipment Blaze (MSRP $450) presents a more traditional-looking and functioning x-pole tent, until closer inspection reveals there’s just a single main pole for two corners, while the other two are staked out to complete the structure in this non-freestanding design. The result: A two-person tent at just 2 pounds without compromising space and luxuries, like two doors. Plus it’s a much more familiar set-up than trekking pole tents.

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Other new tent models at Summer Market are popping out space at all angles. The theory that tents should be these perfect symmetrical designs isn’t functional, said Wade Woodfill, category manager for equipment at Marmot. As many taller campers know, a tent’s footprint rarely tells the full story. The encroaching pyramid structure most tents ultimately squeezes Paul Bunyan in. Marmot targets that 12 inches above the sleeping area as the most important in its new Tungsten tents (MSRP $199; 2p), giving its poles a new bend to expand the space out before pitching back in. The new design includes varying mesh/fabric mixes and unevenly spaced clips to maximize space. Mountainsmith employs a hexagonal shape in its new Mountain Dome tents (MSRP $240; 2p) pulling out the footprint on caddy corners to create nooks for taller campers’ head and feet, or space for a pack. On the outside, the tents feature separate poles that can interlock to maximize upper space without having to deal with “a crazy, permanently hubbed octopus pole” that can intimidate entry-level customers, President Jay Getzel said. An included footprint adds the ability for a fly-only setup.

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Alps Mountaineering steepens the walls in its new Gradient series of tents (MSRP $229, 2p) for more room up top to accompany its larger than typical footprints. The design also creates a taller side door for easier entry. On the opposite side, in the two-person version, a small zippered entry through the mesh allows for quick access to gear in the vestibule. Speaking of steep walls, check out the Wild Country by Terra Nova Zephyros 3 tent, a three-person model you can stand up in. Elsewhere, The North Face Triarch 3’s (MSRP $470) dome gets pulled out in every direction for more room at all levels of the tent. Also to note is the use of multi-toned mesh in this and in other tents at Summer Market. White and gray mesh is being used in areas where campers want more privacy (it reflects more light, making it less see-through from afar) while dark mesh is placed in areas such as the roof for maximum star viewing.

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In the solo-tent world, Hilleberg brings its recent three-season shelter designs to a single-person model with the Enan (MSRP $625), featuring a new proprietary, triple-coated silicon nylon fabric for durability, a staple for the brand. It’s not the lightest solo tent at 2 pounds, 7 ounces, but it might be the toughest.

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Out of the wilderness and back to base camp, the trends quickly are moving to evolve with a changing consumer. There’s thought being given to everything from electronics and lighting to bug protection.

Big Agnes takes a chance with the rising use and acceptance of electronics outdoors, introducing its MtnGlo technology — a string of rechargeable led lights built into some of its new tents or separately sold with others. No more fumbling for the headlamp, just hit the switch. The Gilpin Falls Powerhouse 4 (MSRP $600) showcases the new tech, and comes with a lightweight Joey portable power device for recharging. MtnGlo is also available in some smaller and lighter backpacking models like the Tumble 2 (MSRP $249). Wenzel targets bugs as a big complaint of many campers and takes a cue from the apparel market with its new integrated bug-repellent tent. The Ridgeline Insect Armour 3 (MSRP $99) uses permethrin in the fabrics to repel mosquitoes, chiggers and other biting insects. Even Mountain Hardwearsticks its toe into family camping with a 6-person version (MSRP $399) of last year’s Optic tent, with two doors on an adjoining side and end of the tent for wide-open views.

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As outdoor music-festival goers turn to the industry for tents and shelters, we’re also seeing a wave of instant tents that easily and quickly set up in one piece for those who might not be as familiar with poles and stakes. One example is the Lightspeed Outdoors Stowe 4-Person Instant Set-Up Tent (MSRP $129),and we’ve seen other models from Wenzel and Kelty (the latter employing an air-filled structure) on the show floor.

While its evident that tent manufacturers are responding to changing consumer habits, there’s still a lot of evolution ahead for the category, said Mark Hrubant, senior brand director of consumer camping at Johnson Outdoors. The parent company of Eureka plans for several “ethnographic” studies in which it will invite real users out to camp with their own equipment.

“We want to see what gear they bring, how they set up, how they’re using electronics outdoors and, in general, what they do at camp,” he said. “As avid users, we in the industry sometimes take things for granted and forget to watch what people are actually doing.”

--David Clucas

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