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Welcome! Ultralight backpacking is my passion, and keeping up on new technologies, gear, and techniques relevant to UL backpacking is what floats my boat. I'm always looking for the lightest, most functional gear to improve a lightweight or ultralight backpacking kit, and report my impressions and field testing results here. For hikers wanting to keep up on the latest and greatest ultralight backpacking gear, this is a good place to hang out. Also, there is a lot of information here (and on our informational website Southwest Ultralight Backpacking) on useful techniques and backcountry etiquette -- food for thought for hikers wanting to lighten their load and their impacts.

My goal for Ultralight Insights is to understand, test, and report on new technologies and gear of interest to lightweight and ultralight backpackers. It's a passion after all, so we just plain enjoy talking about it. I hope readers will add their own wisdom and comments, respond to my questions, ask their own questions, and correct me if I get something wrong. Happy hiking! Will

Saturday, April 9, 2016

GEAR REVIEW: Six Moon Designs Deschutes Cuben Fiber Tarp Shelter



By Will Rietveld

Six Moon Designs calls it a tarp, which may deter some hikers because they don’t want a tarp, they want an enclosed shelter. But this is an enclosed shelter, albeit floorless like a tarp. Some call it an enclosed tarp or shaped tarp. And it is also similar to a Mid (short for pyramid), but it’s six-sided rather than four-sided. Confused? Just look at the photos below.

Deschutes Tarp at 12,500 feet in the Southwestern Colorado Mountains.

The beauty of the Cuben Fiber version of this shelter is it provides reliable shelter for one person and weighs just 7 ounces. Just think of the weight savings compared to any other 1-person shelter! It’s also available in silnylon (13 ounces, $165) and silnylon with perimeter netting (16 ounces, $175, formerly the Wild Oasis), and as a two-person version called the Haven Tarp (10 ounces, $475).

There is no question that the Deschutes Tarp is very, very lightweight, but how livable is it, does it provide adequate protection from weather, and how much protection from bugs does it provide? I will address those questions in this review.

Specifications and Features

Manufacturer
Six Moon Designs (sixmoondesigns.com)
Model
Deschutes Tarp (Cuben Fiber)
Materials
Cuben Fiber 0.74 oz/sq yd
Included
Shelter, guylines, stuff sack (stakes not included, requires 6)
Protected Area
44 sq ft
MSRP
$330

Description

The Deschutes Tarp is 6-sided (the backside is one panel, but it divides into two sides when the shelter is staked out; and the entry doors each comprise one side) and requires one trekking pole and six stakes to set up. The trekking pole can set between 45 to 49 inches; the shorter height provides more protection but less headroom, and the taller height provides more headroom and raises the edges of the shelter above the ground for more ventilation.

The Deschutes Tarp is fast and easy to set up: lay it on the ground in the desired location, stake the four side corners, insert the trekking pole’s handle into the tent’s pole pocket at the peak, stake the backside, and stake the vestibuled entry side. I use four titanium hook stakes for the sides and two aluminum tubular stakes for the front and back.

Entry is through a zippered vestibule that is now nearly full height for easy entry/exit. My test shelter in the photos is an earlier model with a shorter zipper that required more stooping over, so the longer zipper is a good improvement. The updated current shelter also has a vent at the peak.

The back side is one panel that divides into two sides when it is staked out

Since the shelter is floorless, you also need to carry a lightweight groundsheet fitted to the tent; I use one made of thin cross-linked plastic. The complete shelter, with groundsheet and stakes, weighs 10.5 ounces.

Field Testing

My testing consisted of several summer backpacking trips in the Southwest Colorado Mountains, and fall backpacking trips in Canyonlands and Grand Canyon National Parks.

These were very diverse conditions. Camping above 12,000 feet is often cool and breezy at night, so I often pinned the edges of the shelter to the ground for more protection. For warm calm nights I raised the edges of the shelter above the ground for more ventilation. For calm rainy nights or afternoon bivouacs I pitched the shelter higher to provide more room inside and lessen contact with condensation on the inside of the shelter. When camping on sand I put rocks on top of the stakes to make them hold, and at one campsite in the Grand Canyon I had to put rocks on top of the guylines to secure the tent because I couldn’t get a stake into the ground.

Livability  

I’m right at 6 feet tall, and found that entry/exit required me to stoop way down and crawl into or out of the tent, which was cumbersome. Fortunately that issue is now overcome with the lengthened zipper on the vestibule. With the edges of the shelter raised up, interior roominess is no problem; 44 square feet of protected is a lot for a 1-person shelter. A typical 1-person tent has only about 18 square feet of floor space for comparison. However, when the edges of the shelter are pinned to the ground for more weather/bug protection, headroom and footroom actually depend on how thick my sleeping pad is. The orange pad in the photos is 2.5 inches thick, which results in brushing my head on the sidewall of the tent when rising up, and headroom is limited too. Using a thinner sleeping pad makes a noticeable difference under the same conditions.

That said, note in the photos that there are tie loops on the two sides of the tent, so you can attach a guyline to the sidewall and connect it to your second trekking pole to pull out the end of the tent where your head will be. Simply run the guyline from the shelter to your trekking pole and then to the ground. That feature provides enough interior room so my head doesn’t brush against the sidewall when I sit up. Overall, I still wished for a little more interior room.

Each side of the shelter has an attachment point (black square) where a guyline can be attached to extend the sidewall above the sleeper's head to provide more clearance. It is shown tied out in the second photo.

The entry vestibule is a really nice feature. It prevents wind-driven rain from entering the shelter and is big enough to store all of my gear and keep it dry. Note the short zipper on my test shelter; the zipper on the current version is 10 inches longer and the peak has a vent.

Weather Protection 

Many people fret about the adequacy of such a minimalist shelter in stormy or windy conditions. It all gets down to experience. I have previously tested Six Moon Designs’ Gatewood Cape and Wild Oasis shelter in the rain on many occasions, and was impressed with their stormworthiness. The Deschutes Tarp is basically the same design and is just as secure. So, I didn’t begin this review with any skepticism; I already knew from past experience that the Deschutes Tarp would do the job. It kept me dry through all night rains and wind-driven rain and hail from thunderstorms.

It’s always best to orient the back of the shelter to the direction that storms are most likely to come from, but of course you don’t always guess right. Calm rains are no problem, and you can even use a high pitch if you like. But for wind-driven rain, or just wind, it’s important to stake the bottom edge of the shelter to the ground. In that situation I don’t use the guylines, I stake directly to the loops on the shelter.

Bug Protection 

This is where my review of the Deschutes Tarp is less definitive. Bugs are usually not a big issue in the Southwestern US. In the few occasions over the years where I did have a bug issue, I noticed that mosquitoes and flies do not readily come in under the bottom edge of a floorless shelter. It doesn’t absolutely keep them out, but not enough of them get in to make it a problem. Also, I note that the mosquitoes usually go away when the temperature drops under about 40F, so the bugs are gone by bedtime in the mountains. So, for me, I get by quite well with a floorless shelter.

However, I realize that is not the case everywhere. For situations where bugs, mice, and other creepy crawlers are a real problem, SMD has their Serenity NetTent (11 ounces/$175) which fits inside the Deschutes Tarp to make it a double-wall shelter weighing 18 ounces. The combination provides a lot of versatility.

Assessment

It would be hard to find a fully enclosed shelter as light as the Deschutes Tarp. Weighing just 7 ounces (about 10.5 ounces with groundsheet and stakes), the Deschutes eliminates a huge amount of weight from one’s gear kit.

It also provides plenty of rain and wind protection to enable a good night’s sleep, which is important on strenuous backpacks. I personally don’t care to sleep under a regular tarp anymore because nighttime breezes go right through it and it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep. The Deschutes is more like a tent, it’s fully enclosed and you can keep breezes out.

For locations where bugs are an important issue, the SMD Deschutes Tarp pairs with the SMD NetTent to create a bugproof double wall tent weighing just 18 ounces, which is still a weight that is hard to beat.

As mentioned above, overall I found the Deschutes to have adequate interior space for minimalist backpacking, but I often wished for a little extra interior volume so I could avoid brushing against the sidewalls when they had condensation. That was especially true when I used a thicker sleeping pad and had the shelter pinned to the ground. Another option that will appeal to many hikers (including me) is to move up to the SMD Haven Cuben Fiber Tarp. The Haven is a 2-person version of this shelter that uses two trekking poles for support, has 2 doors, and weighs only 10 ounces. That’s right, just 3 ounces more. The Haven would be a delightfully roomy shelter for one person, and accommodates two when you camp with a partner. It would also be a great choice if you hike with a dog. However, at $475 it costs $145 more.

Overall the Deschutes is a perfect shelter for a super-ultralight gear kit for backpacking in the mountains, where more protection is needed. It is well designed and constructed, and fairly priced for a Cuben shelter. The only drawback I found is the tight quarters inside under certain conditions, but moving up to the Haven easily solves that issue, and provides more versatility to boot.

It sure would be nice if the cost of Cuben Fiber (now Dyneema Composite Materials) would finally come down. It has proven itself (in terms of durability and longevity) for lightweight backpacking to reduce weight, but it comes at a big price. The Deschutes is $330 and the Serenity is $475, which is the typical cost for a Cuben Fiber shelter. Only a select few avid backpackers are willing to plunk down the money to buy a Cuben Fiber shelter, and that’s unfortunate.   

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