Pre-ProTrail Li life
Do I really need another shelter?
There’s a reason I didn't buy a 1 person tent sooner. Between the two of us we already have:
- A 2.5 person, 2.8kg tent Wild Country Aspect (which we use for car camping)
- A 3 person, semi-freestanding, 1.7kg Alpkit Ordos (which we use when we are walking together, e.g. on our Snowy River trip)
- A Rab Siltarp 2 flat tarp and two Alpkit bivvy bags (often used in conjunction for solo or duo overnight walks in the UK)
I wanted something:
- Really light - lighter than my current tarp combined with a separate bug net
- Simple - not many things to go wrong, no extra struts needed, a design I could understand
- One piece - no pitching an inner then an outer or vice versa
- Pitched with hiking poles - a simple way to save weight, and I’ll always have them on me if doing a long walk
I also wanted to try something in Dyneema (aka DCF, aka Cuben Fibre). Dyneema has really taken off in the USA with hikers and in the cottage industry of ultralight gear as it is super lightweight, tough and extremely waterproof. It doesn’t sag in the rain, which is one of my pet peeves with pretty much every shelter I’ve used, and it doesn’t wet through.
For ages, I’ve been looking at all the Zpacks tents on hiking YouTube and pondering the pros and cons of designs. The Duplex is kind of a classic, and I thought I might eventually go for that. I held off because it was so expensive and because Zpacks customer service has an … uneven … reputation, which is not something I wanted to deal with if I was having issues with a tent while in another country. And then I heard whispers that Tarptent was now doing Dyneema versions of their tents. I headed over to their website and the ProTrail Li (ProTrail = the design, Li = Dyneema version) immediately caught my eye. I’d been saying to Dan that what I wanted was “basically a tarp with bugproofing”, and this seemed to be it.
Because the ProTrail Li is a relatively new tent and lots of people have been in lockdown since it came out, there aren’t that many detailed, longer-term user reviews. I specifically sought out critical reviews to help me understand the issues I might encounter. It’s an extremely expensive tent (for me), so I wanted to be sure. Here are the things people mentioned and/or that I specifically worried about, which you might want to consider when making your decision.
- Length and height. A lot of taller people worry about this, but I did not. (I am short - approx 165cm - and this is one of the only hiking-related benefits! The rest of the time, it’s all trousers/leggings/rain pants that are 30cm too long, rushing to catch up with long-legged friends, raincoats made for Mr Tickle… Oh, but I can just about curl up on a ¾ length sleeping mat, so that’s fun, too.) Anyway, I figured that I’ve spent enough time sitting under tarps at hiking pole height that it will be fine to sit at the front of this tent.
- Width. I didn’t see this mentioned as often. I’m a side sleeper who moves around a lot, and I was concerned that I would end up hitting the walls with my knees and feet and getting my sleeping bag wet with condensation. One reviewer said they sleep on their side with their arm outstretched and they had plenty of room for their arm at the wide/door end. This was helpful, but I was more concerned about the narrow/foot end. In fact, this was probably my biggest concern when buying the tent (having not seen it in real life).
- Livable room. Really a combination of the above, but also consider things like: if I’m stuck in the tent for a whole day and it’s absolutely pissing down, would I be comfortable? How will I get dressed/undressed? Is there enough room for everything I want to bring inside/under the vestibule? Can I cook while remaining sheltered from the rain? Where will I hang my socks to dry? Is there a pocket for my phone/book/glasses? The appeal of the ProTrail design is its simplicity and weight, but in comparison to something like the Duplex, you are getting less liveable space and fewer storage/hanging options.
- One piece set up. As noted, I wanted a tent that did not require separate erection of an inner and a fly - it’s easier, quicker, and less likely to get wet when put up in the rain. However, this means less flexibility in the pitch and no bug-net-only pitches for watching the stars!
- Condensation and ventilation. People say that condensation is more of an issue with single wall tents. I think it’s only more of an issue because it’s easier to hit the wet inside walls of the tent without another layer (of net or fabric) in the way. All the double wall tents I’ve slept in have had mesh overhead and ended up with just as much condensation on the inside of the fly/outer wall… only it’s harder to reach to wipe down. The ProTrail has a small-end storm window, which should help with ventilation, as well as having the net sides between the bathtub and wall. I’ll probably also keep the vestibule open when possible as I like to be able to see outside.
- Front/end entrance. Some folks have a very strong preference for a side entrance, a door that runs alongside your sleeping position, rather than an opening at the end. This is not a dealbreaker for me, especially if I’m solo and not having to negotiate entry/exit with another person, but if you're less flexible you might find it awkward.
- Packability. While Dyneema is super light, it doesn’t actually pack down as small as the same quantity of, for example, Silnylon. This can be an issue when you are carrying a smaller pack. TarpTent suggests that by folding and rolling the tent carefully, it will fit horizontally in most packs. We'll see!
- Transparency. The weight and type of fabric used means that the tent is translucent. From the photos and videos, you could definitely see the general outline of what was inside the tent. You would probably be able to tell if someone was clothed or not. I am not necessarily planning to use this tent in a busy campsite, but that’s something to consider.
- Other fabric issues. I've heard that Dyneema is noisy in the wind or when you move in it. Some people say it’s not actually that resistant to piercing damage (e.g. rocks underneath, twigs falling on the walls). Anecdotally, it deteriorates when left up in bright sunlight for too long. If you're getting any kind of lightweight or ultralight gear, you need to pay a bit more attention to treating it well and understand that it might not be as durable as equipment made from other materials.
- Hiking pole setup, not free-standing. If you don’t use hiking poles, you need to buy alternative poles for the tent setup. I use hiking poles (or don’t mind carrying them anyway). There is also a good argument for using a free-standing (or semi-free-standing) tent that will go up and stay up without being staked out. This is especially true if you’re going to be in places with very hard or very soft ground, for example. Unfortunately, the price to pay with all such tents is weight and size: you must carry poles for the tent. It’s a risk I’m willing to take… let’s see how that pans out!
- Pitch difficulty. A few comments suggested that the ProTrail Li is a bit more fiddly to get right than the non-Dyneema version. “Easy to pitch, hard to pitch perfectly,” seemed to be the vibe. This is something I worried about, because I get very irritated when my shelter is not quite right. However, I’ve also spent enough nights under dodgily pitched tarps to understand the difference between a pitch that is ugly-but-functional and one that’s flawed enough to collapse. I can cope (I tell myself).
- Wind and guy out points. Related to the above, some commenters had issues with this design in a cross-wind. The long side walls can cave inwards, pushing against whatever’s in the tent (and potentially blowing the outer wall over the side of the bathtub floor, emptying the rain straight into your living space - though I’m not sure if this has ever happened to anyone). Common mitigation suggestions are to find the right site, to angle the foot of the tent into the wind and to pitch everything nice and taut. Well, that’s easy enough to say, but sometimes you don’t have much of a choice where you set up and sometimes the wind changes direction. The tent has tabs where extra guylines can be attached on the long side walls, but these are located close to the head and foot of the tent, rather than in the middle (presumably because these are the points/seams that can take the stress, whereas the mid-point has no structural support). The guylines and stakes are not provided for this, but I have plenty of cord and stakes if needed.
- Cost. It’s an expensive tent. Shipping is expensive. Customs/import tax is expensive. But I couldn’t find a Dyneema tent closer to home or for less money. (Though if you’re in the UK some people have had luck - and a long wait - with TrekkerTent.) When I went to plce my order, there was a “Blem” version available - that is, a tent made with cosmetic blemishes in the Dyneema. These are taped to ensure durability, and it saves US$50.
With all that in mind, I spent another week or two agonising over whether I should press the ‘order’ button...
ProTrail Li: first (and second) impressions
- It’s light! I mean, yes, this was one of the main draws, but it really is.
- The fabric is definitely see-through. Not transparent, but not something I would wear as clothes. It feels stronger than I expected - I thought I would feel like it was a leap of faith to trust it to hold up, but it isn’t bad. It’s also not quite as rustle-y or crunchy as I might have feared from some reviews.
- With the first pitch, it took a couple of goes to get the stakes in at an angle where the foot-end guyline didn’t slip off. These are the stakes from Tarptent. The next day, I used some of my other stakes on the corner guy lines, and they worked fine. Pretty impressive that it works this well with only 4 stakes.
- Hiking poles… one of mine no longer extends to 125cm, and the other is temperamental. Lucky only one of them needs to be that height! Perhaps this will be the push I need to finally get a new set of hiking poles. Also, while it’s possible to pitch with the rubber tips on, the poles then slip out of the grommets. Tip-free hiking poles it is, then.
- The initial pitch (first time) was pretty quick and easy. However, I never quite got it to a point where I was happy with it. I set it up side-on to the wind, and no matter how much I adjusted it, I couldn’t get it taut enough to prevent the walls from caving/billowing. I also noticed that the bathtub floor didn’t stand up all the way down the sides - it kind of rolled over with the mesh that joins it to the outer. This could be an issue if something slips out onto wet ground, or if it’s flattened out and groundwater encroaches.
- The second time I pitched the tent, I had a better idea of how the internal structure worked, and I paid attention to tensioning the bathtub floor as I set up. This resulted in a significantly tauter pitch, where the bathtub floor was much more defined (I still wish it was a bit higher all round, just for peace of mind). I also guyed out the apex point to improve the tension along the catenary ridgeline. There wasn’t quite as much wind, but the tent behaved much better with this pitch.
- The second time out, I added a few simple, non-adjustable guy ropes (bowline knots either end) to the four additional tabs. Staking these out also helped with the wind issue, but I was a bit concerned about the amount of extra tension they put on the mesh seams in the corners, and the way they pulled at the corner mechanisms of the bathtub floor. Hopefully as I get better at pitching, I won’t really need these. I’ll also swap them out for lighter cord one day! One thing I've noticed is that I also need to pay attention to the height of the main pole. If it's not tall enough (or if the pole shrinks - I really need new ones!), it really affects the ability to get a good pitch at the door end.
- There is plenty of room inside. I can sit up comfortably at the front, though I might hit my head on the sides if I was sitting on a thick sleeping pad (mine is not thick) or moving around a bit. It is wide enough to alleviate most of my fears about touching the walls - although not when the wind blows the sides in, as it did the first time. Handily, I can also fit the other way around, with my head at the lower end (though I need to wriggle/crawl to get in and out of position). This is helpful for when I need to pitch the low end into the wind, but when that also happens to be the slightly uphill end.
- I like the magnetic tie-backs on the doors. So much nicer than clips, toggles or velcro. Hope they hold up in the wind as needed.
- I love the storm flaps/end window design. It’s so clever to have the mesh on the outside so you remain fully enclosed. I’m not a huge fan of the velcro here where everything else is decent zips or cool magnets, but I think it’s to stop it popping open when everything’s tensioned to the max in a storm. Not sure what the material is on these flaps.
- The pocket is smallish - really not designed for much more than a couple of essentials. I'll take a photo in a future pitch to show how it's set up. It's easy to slip items between the pocket and the wall mesh and end up with them falling to/resting on the ground. Yes, I did this. Nice one, Jonathan.
- The floor doesn’t feel too slippery, though I haven’t put my sleeping pad and bag in to test it out. It actually feels better than the floor of our Alpkit tent, in this respect.
- I like the netting (feels sturdier than the mesh in our Alpkit tent, even though it’s allegedly the same stuff… maybe the manufacturer upgraded).
- The vestibule size is decent - it’s not a beak , but a straight-across door, which I quite like. I can see how running the front guy line under it (a hack I read in a few reviews) could help increase the space and tension (e.g. to make it quieter if needed). I didn't have an issue with the tension here, though.
- I opted for the 'cosmetic blemish' version of the tent (USD$50 cheaper) and there is more seam sealing tape than I expected. There are a couple of points that I am unsure about where it looks like maybe it should be taped but isn't. Can't really tell until I've had it out in the rain, though!
- It is very translucent in full sunshine (backlit). An exhibitionist’s delight, I’m sure. I will have to bear this in mind when around other people. This also means it doesn’t actually offer a lot of shade from the sun - not such an issue in the UK, but I might end up cursing it in Australia. We shall see! It's actually not that seethrough if the sun is behind the viewer, as the material reflects the light and the sheen helps.
- The pack down is extremely quick and easy - faster than my tarp! When I was packing outside I didn't get it down to a size that would fit horizontally in my pack, but when I did it inside and focussed a bit more on it, it was fine. Quarters at the small end is about right, but I need to fold it again at the large end to keep the width consistent all the way up. This will be trickier in windy conditions.
Life with the ProTrail Li
As promised - an update! My first overnight (technically 2 overnights) with the Tarptent ProTrail Li was in June 2021 at a well maintained campsite beside the River Rother. The weather was hot and dry during the day (good for swimming!) and very damp overnight (lots of atmospheric mist - no rain). There was a little breeze when I was setting up and very little wind after that. We were camping with friends and had the car, so I only had my sleeping gear and a few bits and pieces in the tent.
My second overnight was the following weekend when I went on a D of E practice expedition with some students and teachers at my workplace. The weather forecast was for heavy rain and thunder all afternoon and evening, but in reality we only had a couple of hours of solid rain at the end of the walk and when we were first in camp. There was barely any wind. The campsite had longer, slightly tufty grass and was beside some sort of waterway (we could hear it) and nature reserve at the foot of the South Downs. I left my wet shoes and bag in the enormous foyer of one of the other tents (could have fit my ProTrail Li in that foyer at least twice over!), but had my sleeping gear, food and clothes in with me. (I should also say that I carried the tent in my bag for the hike during the second outing, standing it lengthways in my pack - not sure if I'd get it to fit horizontally without a bit more time/energy/patience when rolling it up!)
So, I've now had the tent out in damp and rainy conditions and it's been fine. I keep forgetting that I'm used to a tarp and so most of the issues I'm encountering (e.g. making sure not to wriggle around too much and end up on wet grass) aren't new. Anyway, so far, so good.