Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tarp Tent Contrail

Throughout each backpacking year, I often switch between a tarp and fully enclosed shelter. I make this change depending on where I’m backpacking, the weather conditions, the temperature, and even who I’m hiking with as sometimes privacy is nice.

For quite awhile I had been eyeballing Henry Shires Tarp Tent Contrail ( It was extremely light at 24.5 ounces and quite honestly I thought it was a pretty fair price at $199 considering other tents on the market. Set up requires four stakes, one trekking pole, and with that it is possible to achieve 45” on headroom entrance, 84” of length, and 42/30 inches of width (it tapers towards the feet).

The Contrail represents Shire’s best selling tent which he attributes to the fact that it is extremely lightweight and a fully enclosed shelter for one person. I had held off buying it for about a year because I simply didn’t think it would be big enough for me at 6’6”. To be quite honest, I was waiting for Six Moon Designs to come out with their redesigned version of the two-person 16 ounce cuben fiber Refuge-X or even SMD’s new solo tent for taller hikers known as the “Vamp”. But, design and production were delayed and the previously scheduled release date of fall 2009 was tentatively pushed to spring/summer 2010. I had also been trying to figure out if Gossamer Gear’s The One would fit a person my size and the results weren’t promising enough to buy it. The only other shelter I was looking at was Gossamer Gear’s Squall Classic which was essentially a Tarp Tent/Gossamer Gear joint venture which resulted in a Tarp Tent made of spinnaker fabric that brought the weight down considerably. Unfortunately, it also brought the price up fairly substantially and I didn’t want to buy something that was so expensive which wasn’t guaranteed to work. In the end, it was worth it to me to give the Contrail a shot.

Worth mentioning is Shire’s continued excellent customer service and impressive quality. I’ve always appreciated his product because of his dedication and being quite humble about it. Simply, he is exactly what the lightweight backpacking cottage industry needs. Within just a couple days of ordering, the Contrail arrived and I remain pleased that Shire’s keeps a stock of his products to prevent customers from waiting for their gear to be made.

I immediately set the Contrail up in my basement to quickly assess whether it would fit someone my size. I used a couple of dumbbells to act as tie-outs which are uniquely designed to be completely and easily adjustable which makes it extremely easy to get a taut pitch. If it didn’t immediately fit me size, I was going to return it and Shire’s was plenty fine with that. After setting it up I was pleasantly surprised by the well engineered lines of the structure and the general appearance of quality. Without being overly descriptive, it is exactly what the name implies – a “tarp tent”. It is literally a tarp with a small amount of mosquito netting on the sides, front, and back for ventilation which is attached to a silnylon floor. It has a couple of pockets on the inside, a small vestibule on the outside, and a little flap by the footbox which can be opened or closed to achieve more ventilation or to seal it up in foul weather. Flatly, it is pretty ingenious.

To my surprise, I fit lengthwise and there was actually plenty of elbow room near the entrance. I could sit up at the front, albeit hunched over a bit, with minimal contact to the pitch of the ceiling. Being that this is a truly minimalist shelter, for what it represents, I honestly think would be a perfect shelter for an average-sized camper and a tolerable shelter for bigger folks. If there was a little more height at the front and foot end, I actually might think it was perfect. Pitching it on a level surface meant that all conditions were highly controlled. On a hill, I would likely find the length a bit tight if I slid during my sleep, but this could be mitigated by both finding good tent sites and adding some sealant to the floor to make it a little less slippery. Having done both, I haven’t had a problem yet with the length.

With that, I decided to add the Contrail to my backpacking shelter arsenal. I seam sealed it in the manner suggested by Shires, although it does look like Helen Keller and Stevie Wonder may have tag-teamed the effort. Over time I realized that the single trekking pole necessary to maintain the height at the front entrance could be pulled off to the side. My second trekking pole could be pulled off to the other side which would then create an unobstructed entrance with equal or greater stability and it would also ensure I didn’t accidentally role over my other trekking pole and break it or otherwise allow it to be available to critters who might choose to nibble on the salt in the handstraps.

Aside from the height, which may be fine for smaller people, I only have two complaints. I found that my quilt touched the ceiling at the footbox when I used a fully inflated sleeping pad like the NeoAir. By touching the ceiling, it meant that my quilt would get wet. Because the sleeping area is fairly small, my top entrance bivy wasn’t something I could realistically use as there was no way I could wiggle down into it, so my solution was to put my rain skirt over my feet and that worked fine. When I used my CCF pad and pack under my feet, which is what I use 99.9% of the time anyway, this was not an issue. If you look at Shires' newest offerings, he is now using a curved stay at the footbox of most of his latest tents and I read somewhere that this feature will be on all his new tents as it greatly opens space for minimal weight. Adding a feature like this to the Contrail would be a nice option, although I'm pretty sure a tent similar to the Contrail with this feature would be sold as another tent with other minor differences.

During one hellacious rain and wind storm while on the Appalachian Trail recently, the front vestibule did blow open. The front vestibule is designed to be off the ground several inches to aid in ventilation. With this gap, it is susceptible to strong winds. I sealed it again, which is nothing more than a strip of Velcro, and had no further problems. I should mention I remained completely dry in the rain and tough winds. The silnylon fabric is susceptible to mist and such, but it does not drip down.

On Shire’s website he lists the tent as having variable width and somewhat variable height at the footbox. Essentially, the variable width isn’t realistic as he is counting area which includes mosquito netting on the sides. Obviously anyone who wants to keep their tent in good shape isn’t going to lay on the mosquito netting for any length of time. Similarly, the floor is a genuine bathtub floor which means it does great in wet conditions and can’t really be folded down to expand the width being that it is sewn at the corners. Basically, it’s wishful thinking to say the width is adjustable because it really isn’t. The footbox height, on the other hand, is adjustable. The footbox sits on struts which can be raised or lowered depending on the users preference. After tinkering with it several times, I found a spot somewhere in the middle and just left it alone from there on out believing that additional adjustments just weren’t worth it after a long day hiking.

In the end, the Contrail is a wonder and lightweight 3-season full coverage tent. My only legitimate desire is that it were a little bigger overall, but then again at my size this tends to be my wish for just about everything. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a quality piece of gear at a reasonable price.


Mark McLauchlin said...

Great round up mate.

I am also a happy Contrail owner, excellent piece of gear.


Big Coop said...

I too am a 6'6" Contrail owner. For the footbox I have found it handy to get a stick, or my other trekking pole (fully collapsed) to use the center tab at the top to pull up the back of the tent and guy it out. This opens up the foot end quite a bit. The problem would be that it makes it more susceptible to blowing rain, but then I could just take my rain gear and cover my bag if needed.

As much as I love this tarp tent, and the weight, I do still have this nagging feeling that it would not be enough space for me if things got crazy (windy, rainy and cold) and I needed to basically live from getting into camp until morning inside the tent. I do still think it would be comical for me to try to change from wet to dry clothes without touching the walls, much less trying to blow up a full length neo air. I continue to ponder and desire a tall man's version of the perfect lightweight shelter. Like maybe a MSR Hubba with an additional foot of length and 6 more inches of width and an additional 6 inches of height (maybe they call that the Hubba Hubba)

Big Coop said...

I too am a 6'6" Contrail owner. I ran into the same problem with the foot end. I ended up guying out the center (there is a loop there) using my second collapsed trekking pole or a stick and lifting up center of the back. This created the room I needed inside and got the celing off my bag. Blowing rain would be a problem, but I could just my pack or rain gear to deflect the mist.

I really like the weight/room balance of the Contrail, but do still long for a lightweight shelter for the taller set that would allow for changing out of wet clothes and blowing up a neo-air without touching the tent walls. This would only be necessary in driving rain, or cold windy conditions, but isn't that what a tent is for?

Jolly Green Giant said...

Hey Mark and Big Coop, thanks for stopping by.

@Mark - Good write-up on BPL.

@Big Coop - You are dead on. The Contrail is a minimalist shelter and really should be defined as a shelter for sleeping as really anything else wouldn't be practical for people bigger than average size. I'll be the first to admit changing clothes was extremely tough and even simply sitting down and trying to get things together is a test of patience and posture. Really, everything but sleeping wasn't very easy, but alas, hopefully that's all most of us will need to use it for.

Keep an eye out for the up and coming Six Moon Designs "Vamp" as it should work for tall folks. Hopefully the Refuge-X will be redesigned and the size with cuben fabric should be plenty big enough and lighter than both the Vamp and the Contrail.