Dancing Light Gear Ultralight Brawny Tarptent REVIEW

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by Ryan Jordan | 2004-10-22 03:00:00-06

Overview

dancling light gear ultralight brawny tarptent - field shot
The low profile of the Dancing Light Gear Ultralight Brawny Tarptent does not necessarily make it particularly wind-resistant. Lack of structure makes the tent behave more like a tarp in windy conditions, with significant flapping and bellowing in winds greater than 10 mph.

One of the lightest tents for a given surface area, the Dancing Light Gear Ultralight Brawny Tarptent warrants serious attention as a solo shelter for certain conditions. Appalachian Trail through-hikers and others that enjoy three season backpacking below the treeline will love the Ultralight Brawny Tarptent's weight, ease of pitching in the rain, and simplicity. The tent is not without its flaws, of course, and backpackers venturing into more severe climatic conditions may question its stability, stormworthiness, and condensation resistance. We put the tent to the test in high winds, heavy rain, and enough snow to see it flatten.

Specifications

• Tent Type

Modified A-frame single wall tent with floor; uses single (optionally, two) trekking pole for support

• Fabric Description

1.4 oz/yd2 (47 g/m2) silicone-coated ripstop (30d) nylon, no-see-um mesh door

• Weight Full Package

As supplied by manufacturer with stuff sacks, stakes, guylines, etc.
Note: no stakes included.

Backpacking Light scaleManufacturer claim
1 lb 7.1 oz (0.65 kg) for tent body only1 lb 4 oz oz (0.57 kg) for tent body only

• Weight Minimum Package

Includes tent body and fly, minimum necessary stakes and guylines, no stuff sacks or extra hardware.
Note: 0.25 oz (7 g) titanium stakes used because none were included.

Manufacturer suppliedBackpacking Light
8 stakes (our recommendation)*, 6 ft (1.8 m) guylineSame as Manufacturer Minimum but with 0.25 oz (7 g) titanium stakes and and 0.004 oz/ft (0.37 g/m) Aircore 1 Spectra guylines.

8 stakes (our recommendation)*, 6 ft (1.8 m) guyline
1 lb 6.6 oz (0.63 kg)1 lb 6.0 oz (0.62 kg)
*Note: we recommend adding a minimum of eight lightweight titanium tent stakes (the manufacturer recommends five) so the back and side walls can be staked out to improve stability and increase headroom to prevent a 6-foot (1.8 m) sleeping bag from rubbing against the interior walls of the tent. Shorter persons that use 5.5 foot (1.7 m) sleeping bags can get by with six stakes.

• Dimensions

Backpacking Light measured Manufacturer claim
Floor Area35.0 ft2 (3.3 m2)35.0 ft2 (3.3 m2)
in (cm)in (cm)
Length (trapezoidal)108 (274) back wall, 74 (188) front wall108 (274) back wall, 72 (183) front wall
Width56 (142)54 (137)
Height39 (99 cm)Not given

• Floor Area / Minimum Weight Ratio

1.59 ft2/oz (5.23 m2/kg) using Backpacking Light measurements

• Vestibule Area

3.0 ft2 (0.28 m2)

• MSRP

$165.00; $195.00 for a model with a 10 x 7 x 4.5 ft (3.0 x 2.1 x 1.4 m) trapezoidal floor

Features

Ease of Setup

The Dancing Light Gear Ultralight Brawny Tarptent sets up easily: four stakes in the corners to pitch the trapezoidal floor taut, insert a trekking pole into a PVC end cap in the peak, and stake out the front guyline. When rain beckons, this ease of setup is very welcome.

However, if any sort of wind greater than a breeze is expected, or you are a hiker that uses a six-foot sleeping bag (longer bags are not recommended in this model, although the company makes a slightly larger version as well), you'll want to stake out the back wall and both side walls. These stake out points require additional trekking poles or sticks to work most effectively. The angle of a guyline going straight to the ground creates conflicting tension stresses that result in walls that do not pitch taut. The angle of tension from the side or back wall must be near-perpendicular to the wall to prevent the lower wall from collapsing, therefore the guyline must be secured off the ground using sticks or trekking poles. Because the tent is designed to be pitched with one or two trekking poles (one for the peak and one for the back wall), adding two additional poles to ensure a taut sidewall pitch and to increase interior headroom is somewhat of a limitation. Two lightweight carbon fiber tent poles, or frame stays from a backpack (modified to hold a guyline in place at one end) should be considered if you are camping in places where sticks may be sparse.

Ideally, the awning would have been designed to capitalize on the same angle as the peak guyline, but the manufacturer slightly missed the mark. To keep the awning taut, an additional guyline to a stake point is needed, or at least a short guyline tied from the awning tie out to the peak guyline and hitched with an adjustable tautline is needed.

Usable Features / Options

Components:

Tent body 30 denier silicone nylon body and floor; same fabric also used in tent pole loops, stake-out loops
Guylines0.25 inch nylon parachute cord included
Stakes tent has capacity for ten, eight recommended, none included
Poles none included - requires one trekking pole for setup, three additional short poles (18-24 inches) for rear and side walls recommended for optimum pitch
Stuff Sack30 denier silicone nylon (1.1 oz) with drawcord and cordlock

There are no zippers or poles which makes this tent supremely field repairable, simple, and light.

A full-front no-see-um mesh door is long enough to seal from the inside by laying gear across the bottom, and can be rolled away and secured with mitten hooks on elastic bands in a configuration that works surprisingly (easier, faster) better than the toggle-and-elastic setups used by most major tent manufacturers.

Ventilation is controlled only via adjustment of the no-see-um mesh front door.

No ditty pockets are sewn inside the tent - the addition of one or two would greatly improve the ability to organize small gear inside the tent.

dancling light gear ultralight brawny tarptent - awning
The front awning of the Dancing Light Gear Ultralight Brawny Tarptent provides some protection from overhead rain entering the tent, and it's an ideal design for laying in your tent while cooking your evening or morning meal. However, it does not provide enough protection from wind driven rain, and lack of a peak vent limits its ability to vent humid air via the chimney affect, resulting in significant condensation on cooler, still nights.

Weight / Sizing

The Brawny Tarptent's strength is its area to weight ratio: it's one of the lightest tents in this review suite, for the surface area it provides. We found that the tent had ample room for a solo hiker and their gear. Headroom is a little short at the peak (39 inches), especially considering that the long side of the tent where the sleeping bag will be located slopes down from there.

Given the layout of the tent, I found that the best configuration for sleeping was diagonally - with the head of the sleeping bag towards a front corner of the tent. This minimized the chance that the foot or head ends of the sleeping bag brushed against the walls, while keeping condensation to a minimum by exhaling near the door.

Flexibility of Pitching

There is only one way to pitch this shelter.

Usable Space

Floor space is 35 square feet, however unless the rear and side walls are staked out, usable floor space (area that allows a sleeping bag to rest on the floor without contacting wall surfaces) is dramatically decreased.

Performance

Stability

The Dancing Light Gear Ultralight Brawny Tarptent does not offer a significant amount of wind stability, a result of its simple, flat-panel, modified A-frame design. Pitched with the manufacturer-recommended five stakes (e.g., no sidewalls staked), the tent flaps significantly even in slight breezes. Staking out the back and two side walls improves wind stability dramatically. When we took the tent to our field-testing grounds at Southwest Montana's Flathead Pass (Bridger Mountain Range), where we measured wind speeds in excess of 40 mph, the Ultralight Brawny Tarptent blew down several times when pitched with the manufacturer-recommended five stakes, plus a sixth stake and second trekking pole for the back wall. The reason for this limitation is the very large surface area of the tent, relative to its lack of structure. Under normal use, in typical three-season weather found in protected temperate areas, the Brawny Tarptent should serve the solo hiker well in moderate winds less than 15 mph.

Storm Protection

Protection from overhead rain is sufficient in the Brawny Tarptent. Wind-driven rain easily enters under the awning and through the front door, if you are not careful (or get unlucky with a wind direction change) to pitch the rear of the tent into the wind. In one field test, where we were camped in an April storm in Montana's Madison Range foothills, so much rain entered the front door that puddles formed in the tent. Because the tent lacks a solid-fabric front door as an emergency provision in case of exceptionally stormy conditions, the astute hiker should consider a conditional plan, such as rigging a poncho or very small tarp to extend the vestibule (recognizing that this will significantly decrease the tent's condensation resistance).

Because the design does not result in taut side panels, significant temperature changes in the nylon fabric (which is more sensitive to temperature than polyester), as might occur during a cold night, or in response to a cold rain or snow, result in a shelter that sags dramatically in the morning. Hikers might consider a guyline rigging system that can be adjusted quickly if needed to keep the tent taut.

The lack of structural support and shallow roof pitch make the Brawny Tarptent wholly inappropriate for snow greater than a light dusting. In temperatures near freezing (wet snow), snow accumulates on the tent roof significantly, reduces the temperature of the nylon, and tremendous sagging occurs. During a storm that brought 6 inches of snow to our campsite while we were out on a day hike, we returned to camp to find the tarptent side walls (they were not staked out) completely collapsed, resulting in a very wet sleeping bag.

Ventilation/Condensation Resistance

With a full netting door on the front face of the tent, one would assume that it would be fairly resistant to condensation for a single wall shelter. However, lack of cross-flow ventilation, the most important design feature for condensation resistance in single wall, nonbreathable tents, results in significant condensation in the Ultralight Brawny Tarptent. In still conditions, where cross-flow is not an important factor contributing to condensation resistance, the tent suffers because of a lack of a peak vent at the awning, so significant condensation occurs on the roof of the tent, especially as the relative humidity rises and the outside air temperature drops.

Working for the design is its lack of structure - in high winds, we found that a "bellows" effect pumped out moist air from the tent, and we observed little condensation.

Insect Protection

Lack of a zippered door did not impact the Tarptent's bug protection. We found that it was easy to enter and exit the tent simply by sliding under the no-see-um mesh door (it lifts high so you don't necessarily need to "slither" like a snake through the bottom slit of the door!). However, lack of cross-flow ventilation in warm conditions makes the Ultralight Brawny Tarptent a warm shelter to hang out in with the midday sun beating down on it.

Durability Field Observations

The only durability problems we had with the tent were the guyline tie-out points: they are made of silnylon, and when using angle stakes (as we did in soft soil conditions), the silnylon loops began to show significant wear after several nights in the field. We'd prefer the durability of nylon grosgrain webbing.

Value

At $165, you'll be hard pressed to find a fully-enclosed, single-wall, solo tent with a higher area to weight ratio than the Dancing Light Gear Ultralight Brawny Tarptent. It occupies an important niche among lightweight shelters, and despite its limitations, it makes a functional shelter for trail hiking in not-too-hot (the design doesn't have enough ventilation to keep you cool), not-too-cold (the design doesn't have enough ventilation to resist condensation at colder temperatures), not-too-windy, and not-too-stormy conditions. When we think of the ideal venue for the Ultralight Brawny Tarptent, it would be the southern Appalachian Trail in May or October.

Recommendations for Improvement

  1. Increase tent height by a few inches to improve roof pitch and make the tent more resistant to collapsing in response to a light snowfall. In addition, this would provide significantly more headroom and enhance livability.
  2. Replace silnylon guyline loops with grosgrain webbing to improve durability.
  3. Add one additional lower panel to each of the side walls to optimize the pitch of the tent without extra poles. Ideally, the side wall mid-wall guyline point and the sidewall perimeter loop could be staked to a single stake.

Addendum to Dancing Light Gear Ultralight Brawny Tarptent Review
November 10, 2004

After publishing our review of the Dancing Light Gear Ultralight Brawny Tarptent, we received a letter from Ms. Carol Wellman, the manufacturer, with some very helpful feedback, and we'd like to take the opportunity to address her concerns and share the dialogue with readers who either may be interested in purchasing the product or current owners that would like some additional guidance in using the product, and to clarify issues that I feel I did not do an adequate job of explaining in the original review, of which I am the author and primary product reviewer.

Carol Wellman writes:

The photo (editor's note: the first photo in this review) shows how you used a guyline from the outside loop (which is a hanging loop, used to suspend this shelter from a branch if one does not use a hiking pole. This tarp is designed to be guyed out from the loop which has the PVC pipe end tied to. This allows the beak to be staked out taut as well, with just the one guy line. Your photo showed you needed two, which is a mistake on the users part. We use an inexpensive guyline and tie it to the correct loop when all of our shelters, including the tarptent, are shipped. We know many people replace guylines with their own special lines, but we do this to insure proper placement.

Ryan Jordan responds: To clarify to the readership, the shelter is shipped with a short section of PVC pipe with an end cap, with a hole drilled into the end cap, through which a string is inserted and knotted to keep the PVC pipe in place. A loop underneath the awning, at the ridgeline peak (opposite the hanging loop on the outside of the tarp), is provided, and as Carol mentions, is to be used for the main guyline attachment, when a trekking pole is inverted and a tip is inserted into the PVC pipe end.

When the shelter was guyed out very taut, excessive stress on the force "joint" where the PVC pipe sits (at the shelter's peak) caused the PVC pipe to move out of the joint, because only a single cord was keeping it in place and friction between the PVC pipe cap and the fabric was not sufficient to keep it in place. The result was that the pipe would not sit vertically and it shifted out of position, often causing it to detach from the knotted end of the cord securing it in place. We remedied the detachment problem by replacing the stock cord with a thicker cord and creating a bigger knot. However, the PVC pipe would still not remain in place when the tent was under high tension because there are no opposing forces - only friction - that serves to keep the PVC pipe in place.

In short, we felt that the PVC pipe end design is inadequate to stabilize the trekking pole in a fixed location when the tent is under a high degree of guyline tension, which is necessary for maximizing shelter stability in high winds. A design more akin to the "pole cap" of the Integral Designs Sil Shelter, or that of the Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo, would dramatically improve shelter stability. Another independent review discusses this limitation as well, noting that "because the (PVC) cup that receives the point of the trekking pole is somewhat loose, I find that the pole occasionally slips around a bit, and every once in a while, pops out of the cup. This is one of the few designs elements of the shelter that I would like to see changed - ideally to something a little more stable." The reviewer continues by noting that "this has never caused a problem once the Tarptent is tautly pitched". We do not discount that reviewer's findings, but we did observe that the PVC cup dislocated occasionally in winds in excess of 25 mph that buffeted the walls severerly, and more often in laminar but gusty ground winds exceeding 40 mph - winds high enough to make it difficult to walk. The force imbalance occurs primarily when the wind direction is coming from either side of the shelter. The resulting force transferred by the shelter side panel projection orthogonal to the wind direction transfers to the PVC cup, and friction is inadequate to keep the cup oriented in the proper configuration, causing cup slippage and possible collapse of the shelter. The user is cautioned to set the tent up with the rear of the shelter pointing directly into the wind to avoid possible instability.

My choice to attach a guyline to the hanging loop was motivated by two limitations of the manufacturer's recommended pitching schema:

  1. The need to decrease the guyline angle leading to the ground when a low peak height is desired (e.g., for additional wind resistance). With the PVC pipe, a very steep angle to the ground is required to achieve a taut pitch with proper tension on the awning beak. However, when the wind blows into the front end of the tent (as often occurs in a storm with swirling winds), a tremendous force is created on the front stake, since the wind blows into the tent and creates a sail effect. The steep angle creates very little horizontal resistance to the wind, and a skewer style tent stake can easily pull out. Attaching a guyline to the hanging loop, with a secondary guyline from the beak to the main guyline (see first photo) results in the ability to decrease the force angle and create more resistance to a front end ground wind.
  2. The need to stabilize the four tension force lines at the junction of the ridgeline, main guyline, and front roof slope lines (the intended design of the PVC pipe). To this end, an inverted trekking pole (handle up) remained relatively stable (it would have been enhanced with a higher-friction pole handle cup as present in the Sil Shelter) when the guyline was in this configuration, and in very high winds, we found this configuration to be more stable than what is recommended by the manufacturer with the PVC pipe configuration. The second guyline is there simply to improve tension of the front beak, which does not pitch tightly outside a very narrow range of trekking pole heights. The second guyline greatly increases the flexibility of the tent pitch, to keep the beak taut, despite the fact that this configuration is not recommended by the manufacturer.

I must emphasize that my choice to suggest an alternate method of pitching the tent is based primarily on the desire to improve its stability, and usability, in high winds, and to increase beak tension over a wider range of trekking pole heights. The reader must recognize that this is not the intended method of pitching as endorsed by the manufacturer. However, after spending an excess of 20 nights in the shelter, with 16 nights above the treeline and 8 nights at Montana's Flathead Pass in high winds in excess of 30 mph each night, we found that using the hanging loop as a guyline provides a more stable pitch because of its ability to maintain stability of the force joint at the peak and maintain stability in the opposing tension forces caused by the ridgeline, two front panel sloping lines, and the peak guyline.

In general, if manufacturer recommendations are followed, the Ultralight Brawny Tarptent will serve virtually any trail hiker below the treeline well, with respect to its stability, and we do not feel that the inability of the Tarptent to maintain perfect stability in high winds, especially above the treeline where winds are more laminar and place higher forces on exposed panels, is necessarily a product limitation - this is not designed to be a four-season shelter. However, it's important to note that many new backpackers seeking ultralight replacements for their heavier tents must recognize the limitations of hiking pole shelters and other tarp-style tents that do not benefit from the stability and structure of a curved hoop shelter. In addition, even hikers recognizing the limitations of using this type of shelter above the treeline must understand what can happen in very high winds, and make appropriate adjustments to maximize shelter performance, even if manufacturer recommendations must be violated in order to do so.

This author sincerely appreciates the feedback Ms. Wellman provided, and we hope that this addendum provides valuable information for the reader.


Citation

"Dancing Light Gear Ultralight Brawny Tarptent REVIEW," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/dancing_light_gear_ultralight_brawny_tarptent_review.html, 2004-10-22 03:00:00-06.

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