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TarpTent Virga, TarpTent Squall, and TarpTent Cloudburst

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by the Product Review Staff | 2003-09-29 03:00:00-06

Left to right: Cloudburst, Squall and Virga Tarptents

See how this shelter rates with others in our Comparison Review of Tarps and Other Floorless Shelters

Introduction

As the Tarptent name implies, these shelters have a blend of some of the best features of a tarp and a tent. Like tarps, they are light, have good ventilation and give you a great view of your surroundings. Like tents, they provide rain protection and a bug free haven.

There are three versions of the Tarptent, the Virga, Squall, and Cloudburst. All are catenary cut silnylon tarps with integrated support poles that shape the shelter. All use a hooped rear pole. The Virga (one-person) and Squall (two-person) are identical except for size. Both use a single pole front support (provided, or you can use a trekking pole). The Cloudburst uses a hooped front pole. On all shelters, noseeum mesh is suspended from the perimeter of the tarp edges for complete bug protection. The front of this mesh has a floor to ridgeline zippered door opening. All Tarptents have front and rear beaks to keep most (but not all) precipitation from getting into the shelter. The Cloudburst has additional flaps that roll down over the side mesh panels and a larger front beak for more rain protection. Tarptents come standard without a floor. For a nominal fee you can order a sewn-in ripstop nylon floor on any of the Tarptents listed.

Features and Specifications

Fabric and Materials. All Tarptents use 1.4-oz silicone coated ripstop nylon. The optional sewn-in floor (untested) also uses 1.4-oz silicone coated ripstop nylon. The rear hoop poles, front poles (Virga and Squall) and front hoop (Cloudburst) are 7075 aluminum sections. All shelters use noseeum mesh for front, rear, and side panels. The Cloudburst's additional side flaps are also made from 1.4-oz silicone coated ripstop nylon. Guylines are 2-mm reflective cord with a kevlar core, Kelty Triptease Lightline™. Stakes are 7" long titanium and weigh 0.4 ounces/stake. Henry Shire's also sells Tyvek groundsheets custom sized for each of the shelters.

Weight. We found all Tarptents weighed within an ounce of the manufacturer's claims. The weight includes absolutely everything required to pitch the shelter. This includes shock corded rear hoop and front poles, four (titanium!) stakes, pre- tied and attached Triptease guylines and a silnylon stuff sack. These packages easily represent the nicest setups we've seen for a shelter.

Virga claimed 20.5 oz - measured 20.4 oz

Squall claimed 24.5 oz - measured 24.0 oz

Cloudburst claimed 32.0 oz - measured 32.9 oz

All Tarptents require a minimum of four stakes. We recommend carrying an additional two stakes to stake out the sides for additional interior space and to increase stability in high winds. Two 6 in, lightweight, titanium stakes and additional guylines only weigh 0.5 oz. If you want to shave a bit of weight you can replace the four 0.4 oz titanium stakes provided with the shelter with 0.25 oz titanium stakes. We found the manufacturer's included Tyvek floor for the Tarptents to be overkill (heavy). We used a 5.5 oz groundsheet for our testing.

Performance Review

Squall Tarptent at 11,000 feet in the Sierras. The benefits of a catenary cut ridgeline: an almost perfect pitch with minimal fuss. Great for weathering those high altitude winds.

Setup and Pitch: Tarptents have some of the fastest and easiest setups of any shelter we've tested (Well, maybe not as easy as a bivy sack!). It takes only four stakes and as little as 1½ to 2 minutes to pitch a Tarptent. Put the rear hoop into its sleeve, put a single stake in for the rear of the shelter, put the front pole in its grommet, stake out the ridge line, and finally stake out the two front sides. We recommend using two additional stakes for the center-side tie-outs to increase interior volume, and improve stability in high winds.

Note: Pay special attention and stake out the rear of the shelter per the diagram in Shire's instructions. Put the rear stake only through the ridgeline (center) of the three rear cords. Also, the bottom of the rear hoop has a tendency to scoot forward and loose a bit of side tension for the shelter. A suggestion for Shires: Attaching the side rear guylines nearer to the hoop bottom or possibly adding an option to stake out the hoop bottoms would improve the pitch of the Tarptent. Also the rear hoop sleeve was a bit tight. Getting the hoop in is a bit of a trick. Getting it out is a bit more difficult. A more generous sleeve would make things easier.

We encountered some difficulty in getting a taut pitch on the Cloudburst. Tensioning the ridgeline was fine but we had problems with the lower edges. The front configuration of three guylines coming straightforward and anchored well above the bottom of the front hoop made it more difficult to get tension along the bottom sides of the shelter. The front hoop of the Cloudburst suffered some of the same hoop bottom creep of the rear hoop on all the Tarptents. Even if bottom edge of the pitch was not quite as taut as the Virga or Squall, the Cloudburst with its front and rear hoops, is defiantly the strongest and most rigid of the Tarptents.

We also had some difficulty securing the side flaps on the Cloudburst. The front shock cord tie-downs were short and hard to secure under the front hoop. Also the knots on the shock cord kept slipping out. Eventually we managed to make the cords as long as possible and tie a secure knot. Even so the front flap took a lot of force to secure. A slightly longer shock cord and a more secure knot would be a great idea.

Due to their fairly defined structure, Tarptents are a little less flexible when pitched on uneven ground than a standard tarp. This is especially true if the front and back is rotated at different angles from each other. We found a little pitching creativity usually fixed most of the problem. The Cloudburst had the most difficulty with this (but so would a conventional tent).

Entry and Exit: The entire front of the Tarptent is noseeum mesh. Entry and exit is easy through the large, floor to ridgeline, zipper. The mesh front rolls up and neatly stows out of the way with attached Velcro straps. A large beak provides rain protection for the front of the shelter and, like the front mesh, rolls up and neatly stows out of the way. With both the mesh and beak rolled up it's a bit like using a barn door to get in and out of the shelter.

Stability in Wind: In the field the Tarptents proved stable in 40 mph winds-even when the rear of the shelter was not exactly pointed in the prevailing wind direction (many times the case when you try and guess the wind direction or the wind is swirling). The rear hoop and catenary cut ridgeline substantially improve the shelter's stability over a standard tarp and more than a few light tents. Flapping was at a minimum in high winds. Using the four stakes provided and an additional two stakes for the center side tie-outs, the Tarptents suffered some deflection in 40+ mph wind gusts. Not enough to blow the shelter into your face or cause any problems with sleeping. No, they don't have the resistance to deflection of a dome tent, but they come close to something like a Clip Flashlight. As you might expect, the Cloudburst with its front and rear hoops has the least deflection of the shelters although it was harder to tension its lower side edges and keep them from flapping. Shire's claims that the Cloudburst is rigid enough to resist some snow loading. We'll need to test this out as the weather cools.

Because portions of the Tarptent's front, rear and sides are mesh, Tarptents are draftier than a conventional tent. (Not necessarily bad-in warm weather and high condensation conditions this is good!). The beaks and the noseeum netting do slow the wind down some. We found that making our best effort to pitch the rear of the shelter into the wind and then putting our packs against the noseeum netting on the windward'ish side of the shelter made for an acceptable nights sleep even in high winds. If you are willing to forgo the ventilation, you can roll down the side flaps on the windward edge of the Cloudburst and significantly reduce drafts. As with a tarp (or even a tent), finding a sheltered area (if possible) is always a good idea for windy weather.

Rain Performance Squall and Virga: Neither the Virga and Squall are 100% rainproof-nor were they intended to be. Like a tarp, for light to moderate rain that isn't too windblown, you'll stay dry and comfy. The rear beak of the shelter is fairly rainproof but if you get a torrential downpour the rain will spatter in along the sides and through the front mesh. For windblown rain you'll get even more precipitation in the shelter. The noseeum netting does slow the rain down some and the Virga and Squall will keep you a lot drier than most tarps. Like tarps, these shelters are good for light rain and occasional/intermittent thunderstorms. In this case the core center of the shelter stays relatively precipitation free. For more substantial and sustained precipitation, less hardy hikers may prefer a full tent or possibly the Cloudburst Tarptent.

Rain Performance Cloudburst: Like its name implies, the Cloudburst is the most rain resistant of the Tarptents. It is still not as waterproof as a well-designed tent but it's fairly close. The Cloudburst has side panels that roll all the way to the ground to cover the noseeum mesh sides. It also has a more substantial front beak that is similar to the rear beak on all the Tarptents. Both the side panels and larger front beak on the Cloudburst provide more rain and wind protection. The result is a much larger percentage of the shelter's floor area stays dry in driving rain-i.e. more usable living space in a storm. This is at the expense of decreased ventilation and increased condensation (see more below). The front hoop of the Cloudburst creates more vertical walls, more useable interior space, and less roof deflection and wet walls sagging down. All this makes it a lot easier in wet weather to keep your sleeping bag away from condensing shelter sides. An additional benefit is that when shelter bound there's a lot more space. Two people can sit upright in the front of the shelter.

Cloudburst Tarptent in storm mode, side view: This shows the substantial front beak and roll-down flaps that cover the noseeum netting.

Condensation Resistance: Tarptents have good ventilation since the entire perimeter of the shelter is noseeum mesh. Even so the tarp portion of shelter is non-breathable and Tarptents can suffer from condensation in the right (wrong?) circumstances. The front and rear beaks inhibit airflow. The noseeum mesh also restricts airflow (obviously not as much as a solid wall). To reduce condensation, the setup instructions for the Tarptent suggest leaving the front beak and mosquito netting both rolled up unless you need them. This is good advice. We camped one night in a damp and windless valley with the front beak rolled up but the mosquito netting battened down since the bugs were swarming. We did get significant condensation although it did not drip onto our bag. We also got blessed mosquito free sleep! On another night we were camped on a gravel bed next to a tarn at 11,700 feet. The early night was windy so we kept the noseeum netting down to slow the wind a bit. The wind died down overnight and we woke to condensation on the roof of our Tarp Tent. We were a bit surprised since we were fairly sure we were camped where we expected very low humidity.

In both instances, the condensation did not drip on us. We neatly pulled our bag straight out the front door in the morning and kept it free of contact with the condensation. Shires suggest that to reduce condensation you can use a trekking pole for the front of the shelter set at 47 in (42 is standard) to raise the sides another 5 in. This gives you more ventilation, more headroom, and less chance of wet shelter sides touching your bag.

The Cloudburst's has narrower side panels (the tarp portion comes closer to the ground, at least on our shelter) and a more substantial front beak. Both reduce airflow. With the front hoop, raising the pitch with a trekking pole for better ventilation is not an option. Because of this the Cloudburst is more prone to condensation than the Virga or Squall. Rolling down the silnylon side flaps increases condensation more. Then again, if you are in a raging storm you probably aren't too concerned with some condensation in the shelter. As with all the Tarptents, rolling up flaps, beaks, and mesh when not needed will eliminate or substantially reduce condensation.

Living Area

Cross sections of the three Tarptents

Interior Living - Virga (1 person): At 31 sq ft we found the Virga has enough of room for one and some, maybe not all, their gear. It's not the Ritz but it's adequate. Even going solo, for another 3.5 oz we'd be sorely tempted to move up to a Squall and get an additional 11 sq ft. This extra living area would be especially desirable in the rain or in high condensation conditions.

Interior of the Squall Tarptent

Interior Living - Squall (2 person): At 42 ft sq the Squall has enough room for two people under a single quilt-style bag and plenty of room for gear. There's enough room that you can stay away from condensing shelter surfaces. For two single sleeping bags there was less room for gear in the shelter and more potential to bush up against wet surfaces. With its relatively low walls you aren't going to do a lot of sitting up or moving around in the Squall. We didn't find this to be much of a problem as we only stayed in the shelter to sleep or weather a short thunderstorm.

Interior Living - Cloudburst (2 person): At 39 ft sq the Squall has enough room for two people and some, possibly not all, of their gear. It's not luxurious but manageable. The front hoop adds a lot more headroom (see "Cross sections of the three Tarptents"). Two people can sit side-by-side in the front of the Cloudburst. Since our testers mostly slept in the shelter and didn't do a lot of sitting or hanging out, we didn't see much benefit from the increased headroom. We could see its plusses if you were stormbound. The more rigid and vertical walls on the Cloudburst did make it easier to keep your sleeping bag away from condensing shelter walls-especially true for two single bags in the shelter. Most importantly, the side flaps keep rain from coming in the sides of the shelter. This does create a lot more dry/livable area when the shelter is bombarded with windblown rain.

Summary

Like tarping, the Tarptenting depends somewhat on your skill at pitching and weathering storm in a shelter that is not 100% waterproof. Unlike straight tarping, pitching a Tarptent and staying dry under it are lot easier for the novice or casual user than a conventional tarp. You pay little in shelter weight or cost for these significant benefits (e.g. a high quality 2-person tarp with 6 titanium stakes and guylines weighs approx 16 to 18 oz and costs around $150. This does not include the weight and price of trekking/tarp support poles and some form of mosquito netting.).

Our first choice for summer weather in the western mountains (Rockies and Sierras) would be either the Virga or the Squall for their simplicity, ventilation and light weight. We give the nudge to the Squall (possibly even for solo use) for its additional living space. In windy and stormy weather, the Cloudburst will certainly keep you the driest of the three Tarptents. It is also the heaviest and most condensation prone for all other climatic conditions. We recommend using it when you're fairly sure that you'll get the weather to justify its additional 9 oz.


Citation

"TarpTent Virga, TarpTent Squall, and TarpTent Cloudburst," by the Product Review Staff. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/00173.html, 2003-09-29 03:00:00-06.

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