Caring For Your Lightweight Tent
Modern lightweight tents are awesome! The fact that you can carry a shelter as little as 1kg on your back that will not only let two people sleep in it, but will have the room to dry yourself off and get changed, store your gear and wait out a multi-day storm is incredible. It wasn’t long ago that that if you wanted a shelter under 2kg you were bound to a bivvy coffin. Which, mind you, still have their place, but are becoming more specialist. With technology expanding in fabrics, poles and design, we are enjoying a freedom of movement like never before. You can hike faster and for longer with a skip in your step while still knowing you’ve got adequate shelter with you. Like everything though, the new breed of tents come with their own quirks or limitations to be aware of. But just being aware of them and making sure you do a couple of things will mean you should see good life from your lightweight tent.
Fabrics are becoming more complex - We no longer just have canvas. We’ve got different weaves of Polyester and Nylon with different coatings or laminates bonded to them, sometimes more than one and then there’s DWR (durable water repellent) treatments on top of that. What these new fabrics have is amazing strength-to-weight and waterproof properties.
The first thing to note about fabrics is that Nylon isn’t just Nylon, and Polyester isn’t just Polyester. The weaves make a huge difference to the strength-to-weight as well as properties like “Ripstop”. Good tent manufacturers spend a long time choosing the right weave. We are seeing a trend more towards just Nylon in the last couple of years. This is because of the ongoing quest to make things lighter. Nylon has a better strength-to-weight ratio but this is because the fabric has some “give” in it and stretches a little. When a big wind hits, it can absorb more pressure as it stretches, then return back to normal.
The Nylon or polyester on its own is not waterproof enough for use as a shelter so it needs to be coated with something. This is usually Polyurethane (PU) or Silicon. There are different methods for this, like a PU laminate (think laminating your school books in film), spray on coating which dries (more like spray paint) or with Silicon, impregnating into the fibres (don’t think about that one too much) which actually makes what we know as SilNylon. Because these are bonded in some way to the main fabric, they come with their own characteristics and their own set of care instructions.
Nothing kills lightweight tent fabrics like UV rays. UV will first kill the coatings, and if bad enough will start to effect the fabric itself. MSR state that “A tent that lives in extreme conditions at high altitude, such as Everest Base Camp, may only last a few months, while a well taken care of tent, used occasionally under normal conditions, can last for many years”.
Lightweight tents are intended to be carried and moved around, not set up and left up for weeks at a time. If you have to do this consider pitching a cheap tarp over it as protection.
This is the big one that is worth knowing. PU laminated, coated or Silicon impregnated fabrics don’t at all like being stored damp, even for as little as 24 hours. Now I’m guilty as I’m sure many others are, that while having every intention of airing out my tent as soon as I get home from a big trip, when I finally get there I’m so tired, hungry and sore that I eat, shower and go straight to bed. Three days later, or the following weekend I get around to drying out the tent then storing it. Even over a day or two if stored damp in a hot car, mould can start to form. This, in the long run can begin to break down the PU or Silicon treatment.
The tip here is that even if you’re completely buggered when you get back from a trip, take your tent out of its stuff sack and hang it over a railing or some chairs. It’s fine to leave there until the following weekend when you can be bothered storing it correctly. When you finally store your tent long term, it should be completely dry. Sometimes this means that you have to air it out over a number of days but it’s worth it.
The long term effect of leaving a tent stored even slightly damp is a process called hydrolysis. This a chemical break down of the PU or silicon and makes the fabrics sticky to touch. While mould is a sign that something “might” be happening and if caught early enough can be stopped, a sticky fly is not good for much and can’t really be re-treated or brought back to life. Make sure your tent is absolutely dry before storing.
Also to help this situation, don’t store the tent in its tight stuff sack. If you have the space to store it hanging in a cupboard - do that. If not, stuff it loose into an old pillow case or something “breathable” (us outdoor people like that word don’t we!) and don’t seal it up in a plastic bag.
Some manufacturers will even go as far to say that if you aren’t using their tent regularly then you should take it out and air it every couple of months. This, I admit does seem a little drastic but we all have to accept that if we want a two person tent for 1 kilo then something on the tent has to be getting thinner. As it turns out, the fabrics and coatings on the tents are constantly getting thinner and like most things, the lighter they get, the more care they need so one goes with the other.
To be honest you shouldn’t really have to “clean” your tent too often. If it has dirt or mud on it, usually the pressure of a hose and maybe the wipe of a cloth will get things off okay. I find it sometimes easier just to set the tent up and hose if down if it’s particularly bad, or you could hang it on the clothes line and spray/wipe it down.
If your tent actually stinks and there is something that you just can’t get out - the best thing to do is hand wash it in the bath tub with warm water. Don’t use harsh detergents but rather a technical wash like you would a GoreTex or eVent jacket. Detergents can strip any DWR treatment off the fabric.
I know it can be a really hard to buy another product just after you’ve forked out for your prized tent but can I stress that a footprint is really worth the investment. Usually on a tent, the floor is the first thing to go, having a footprint will dramatically extend the life of a tent and you’ll get much more out of it in the long run.
Yes on super-light trips you can leave it behind, but on all the other stuff it is great not only to protect your tent, but many will extend into the vestibules and keep your kit out of the mud.
Some of the lightest tents have very thin floors. Some have a waterhead ratings as low as 1500mm. This in normal conditions is fine but if you know a lot of rain is forecast you need something under it so help stop water pressing through from kneeling on it.
Lightweight tents are amazingly strong when set up correctly. It still baffles me that a 2kg, 2 person shelter can withstand 100km/h + winds and not die. However they are only strong when set up and tensioned correctly. The fabric and poles rely on being taught, and tensioned for optimal strength.
I know the following points can seem a little obvious, but I often get lazy or just give up after a hard day and do the bare minimum thinking it’ll be ‘right. So I also have to remind myself of these.
- Peg out all floor pegs tight
- Peg out vestibules - don’t leave any flappy bits
- Use guy cord! Especially if you know there is wind coming. Guy lines are amazing and do a super job of holding your tent down in high wind, take the extra couple minutes to set them up correctly and in years to come you’ll thank yourself.
For people with SilNylon tents - SilNylon has an amazing strength to weight ratio and tear resistance. Some tent manufacturers say that it is over twice the strength to PU coated polyester. But it does have its quirks… The reason it has so much strength is because it stretches. This is emphasised in the wet. Wet Silnylon will stretch a little, then contract back as it dries. If you have a SilNylon tent and it starts to rain, tension the guy cords nice and tight, otherwise it will start to sag and wet out further.
What has happened to me in the past as well is that it rains overnight, so I tension it up nice and taught. The next day I head off on some little adventure in the fine weather to return with a dry tent that is as tight as a djembe drum. So what I do now is that if I’m leaving a wet tent, but I know the weather is going to be fine, I’ll just loosen it off a little in advance. As it dries, it becomes tighter again and returns to normal.
If your tent came with factory tape seam sealing, I wouldn’t get too worried if it eventually starts to come off. The tape sealing that manufacturers use is the easiest way for them to seal the seams on the production line, but it isn’t as long a lasting as the “paint on” method using products like Seam Grip (for Polyester Tents) and SilNet (for SilNylon tents).
If your tape is starting to come off, try to remove as much as you can by hand or maybe in some warm water. Then use Seam Grip or SilNet to seal the seams up again. This process will last much longer than the original and if you do ever spring a leak you can just dab a bit on that area and fix it up; no more big sealing jobs again. These are also the same products that you use to do repair patches and the like so you will be all set.
Having an awesome lightweight hiking tent gives you so many option with how you choose to spend your outdoor adventure time! You’re not confined to being a certain distance from a car, or you don’t question its ability if you’re out and some weather rolls in. If you’re travelling long term it opens up many more possibilities that you wouldn’t have without a tent. Taking good care of it and even just knowing about some of its characteristics will mean you will not only enjoy it more, but also enjoy it for longer.
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