Since I will spend around 90% of my ~150 nights in a shelter of some kind it is important that it be well suited to my needs as any problems will soon become difficult to live with. I was looking for a shelter that weighed as much under a kilo (2.2 pounds) as possible and that meant a shelter supported by one’s trekking poles, a classic multi-use trick employed by long distance hikers to save overall system weight.
After much consideration I decided I preferred a traditional floored tent as opposed to a floorless tarp. The ability to completely close the fly down for privacy was also attractive over a tarp which would not be very private on what is sometimes a busy trail. The AT is also very wet, muddy and ticky-y and I just ended up leaning towards a tent. I was never near to considering a hammock in case anyone thinks of asking. I read a comment just this week by an AT thru-hiker from the class of 2013, Acorn, who swapped from a hammock to a tent part way through because it had started to feel like a coffin!
I decided early on that cuben fiber would likely be my fabric of choice since it offers the best strength and waterproofing rating for a given weight. It was first used on the sails of the winning vessel in the 1992 America’s Cup. Practically no mainstream manufacturer or retailer offer cuben shelters, and nobody in the UK does at all, so I turned to the wonderful specialist cottage companies that are abundant in the US, far more so than in the UK. I really did my research here and eventually found one tent that ticked all the boxes.
The final chosen tent, from yet another US cottage company, is a Lightheart Gear SoLong 6 in cuben fiber, 0.74oz canopy, 1.22oz floor plus two doors and no awnings. It has no poles of any kind, it is fully supported by just your trekking poles. I estimate it will weigh less than 600g.
I eventually decided against the awning option as I felt the benefit would be felt only occasionally on a backpack trip and it would more useful only camping trips so the extra material would be wasted weight. The exact options available for cuben weights vary from time on Lightheart Gear’s website, but mine are medium-towards-heavy. I actually sat down and calculated the weight differentials between difference fabric weights and decided on something towards the sturdier end of the spectrum, preferring more peace of mind regarding robustness over saving what was actually a small amount of weight.
I had considered the somewhat similar Six Moon Designs Skyscape X but decided it was too small for a long hike, though it would be perfect for a week or so. The SoLong has around 30sqft of floorspace and good head height too. No unusable low corners or apexes here. Without simply buying a 2 person tent and carrying that extra weight for 2200 mountainous miles this is about as spacious as it gets.
In my living room I set out various sheets and blankets and to represent the competing options on my shortlist and was therefore able to see 2 or even 3 at the same time. In the photo below I’ve just got the SoLong sketched out (it’s with the pale blanket plus small blue one at the head end, ignore the red rug!) with a sleeping bag liner for scale. So when I say, ‘spacious’ I don’t mean actually ‘spacious’!
The color options for the SoLong also vary but at the time I placed the order (late Sep 2013) there wasn’t much choice. I took spruce green for the canopy, all the better to stealth camp and generally not draw any unwanted attention, and black for the bathtub floor – that was a Henry Ford choice unfortunately as I would have preferred white (it makes it easier to find your gear in bad light).
There were a few competing tent options around which required quite a complicated pitching procedure. Some need to be pitched correctly with regard to wind direction, some needed 10 stakes, some needed trekking poles to extend or contract to heights my poles, or any replacements, might not be capable of, and some just had a footprint requirement out of proportion to the useful living space provided. Still others required you put up inner tent before the (separate, annoying) fly which sucks in the rain. The SoLong only requires 6 stakes in total and is just one integrated unit.
Pitching looks, from what I have seen online, to be simple. You just stake out the two ends loosely then duck (ok, crawl) into the collapsed body of the tent and carefully insert your trekking poles into the patented center bar in the roof pushing them up until the poles support the whole tent. Now you go back outside and re-stake the ends to get a taut pitch. Two more stakes for each side sides and you’re done. I am assured it can be done in under two minutes. On a pitch-black night in a storm when you have been hiking for 12 hours and your hands are numb from the cold, you do not want a big palaver.
You can fasten back the fly over any or all of the four diamond facets revealing four panels of mesh to keep out bugs while providing ventilation and views. I love the way it scales from utterly private and storm-proof with the fly all the way down, up to something little different to a pure bug-tent. With the wide variety of camping situations encountered on the AT, from open vistas in summer to tight spaces in dense forests, to busy public tent sites, and with sometimes little choice in exact pitch location, I felt the SoLong would be flexible enough to do a good job each night. I opted for 2 doors so I can always change to a different door if, say, a big puddle appears outside one during the night. Or I can spread the strain on the zippers by not having to use the same door every time.
I haven’t yet seen it (it got delivered to my support person in the States in mid-October and she will consolidate it with other items and forward them to me in one package in November) but I expect it to weigh around 550-600g, or the same as a pint of milk. Pretty incredible.
It also came in at an eye-watering $704. I know. I justify it by thinking about it will by my home and also how much the rent is on the apartment I share with my girlfriend that I have to keep on paying for 6 months while on the trail.
So it’s potentially a great tent. Functional, spacious, simple, light and strong with an efficient use of space.
Here is a video of famous hikers Balls and Sunshine setting up the SoLong for the very first time before hitting the CDT to complete their Triple Crown:
While the Lightheart Gear SoLong tent comes with first-party guylines I do have some high-visibility reflective 2.4mm cord from Lawson Equipment which I I may hook up in order to prevent night-time tripping incidents (both myself and anyone passing by). This is the same cord I may use for a bear-bagging line.
To stake out the tent I will take a variety of different stakes in order to cope with the ever-changing conditions encountered each night. One of the principal stakes though will be the Lawson Equipment Red Titanium Hook Stake which is high visibility, very light at just 6.5g per stake and has an especially pronounced hook end to keep the guyline from pulling off. I may take 6 of these.
In addition I may take two v-shape stakes for better holding power in soft ground. For example, the Vargo Titanium Ascent stake is 6.25 inches long and weighs 10g.
I will also take one small nail stake for making pilot holes, such as the Vargo Ultralight Titanium Nail Peg at 9g.
And later on in the trip, when I reach the Massachusetts, I will carry 6 eye screws for ‘staking’ out the tent to the wooden tenting platforms found occasionally in New England to preserve the environment and reduce the impact of tenting.