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MSR Dragontail Review

Tunnel Tents Tutorial and State of the Market Report - Mini Reviews

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by Roger Caffin | 2012-04-24 00:00:00-06

This is a mini-review to go with our series on tunnel tents. It reviews the MSR Dragontail. Some of the illustrations are from the manufacturer's web site, used here with acknowledgement.

Introduction

MSR Dragontail Review - 1

The MSR Dragontail is one of two tunnels we know of that are made in America. First, the specifications.

Brand MSR
Model Dragontail
Poles 3, DAC
Skins 1
Fly Fabric 40 denier PU/silicone nylon, 1.5 m head for fly,
10 m for groundsheet
Entries 1
Vestibules 1
Persons 2
Listed Weight 2.53 kg (5 lb 9 oz)
Tent Weight 1.64 kg (3 lb 10 oz)
Pole Weight 0.65 kg (1 lb 7 oz)
Stakes Weight 11, 0.19 kg (6.8 oz)
Stuff Sacks 175 g (6.2 oz)
MSRP ~US$450

Extras include guy ropes, a spare guy rope toggle, and a pole repair sleeve. It should be noted that MSR has not been able to resist the massive overkill syndrome on the stuff sacks, especially on the tent bag. This can be pruned down of course.

Details

This is a single-skin tunnel designed for winter use. There is an inherent contradiction in this claim of course, and users have reported that the inside surface does get a lot of frozen condensation on it which can be brushed off onto the occupants. The tent is well made, but is not without some deficiencies.

MSR Dragontail Review - 2
There is an ingenious ventilation arrangement visible in the first photo: there is a sort of tunnel through the tent at the top. It can be closed off with zippered flaps at each end.

If you have both ends open, there is a mesh floor to the tunnel that prevents insects from getting in. There are zips in both ends of the mesh tunnel floor to allow you to access the zippered exterior flap - in case the weather changes. There are also mesh doors inside the tent to keep out insects. However, the zip on the mesh front door goes down one side and then turns a sharp corner at the bottom before running across at floor level. In sub-zero conditions, that tight corner in the zipper may present real problems if the zip gets wet, then freezes.

The way the rear end can be closed up does present one unexpected problem. If you follow my recommendation to roll the tent up from the entry end to the rear end, there can be a bit of an issue with getting the air out of the rear end of the tent at the end of the rolling. You need to make sure there is not much air left in the tent before you start rolling. However, the stuff sack they supply is huge, far bigger than needed, so I guess you could pack the air away too. Or make a smaller stuff sack for field use.

MSR Dragontail Review - 3

Somewhere along the line, MSR changed the design of the Dragontail and how the poles are fitted. The early versions (see below) had the poles threaded into sleeves, making the tent fairly robust and making the fabric quite smooth when the tent is properly pitched. But, on later versions, (see above) the poles are not threaded into the fly; rather they are connected to the fly with a small number of clips. Was this change to make it easier to pitch the tent, or to reduce the cost of manufacture? I fear the latter, as the effect of the clips is to make the fabric surface look quite crinkled, as shown above. I could not get rid of this crinkling. I think someone at MSR lost sight of what a tunnel tent is meant for. I far prefer the threaded pole version, but you can no longer buy it.

MSR Dragontail Review - 4
My thanks to Ray Estrella and his friend Dave for this excellent photo of his tent in a storm.

On both versions, (old and new) there are a couple of fabric loops at mid-height and the top of each seam. These loops are of a length that could take the poles. When I first erected the clip version of the tent I automatically threaded the poles through these loops, but the official MSR photos show them lying unused. I think I misunderstood these loops, and that they are really meant to be guy rope attachment points. In the photo above you can see that Ray put a guy rope onto one of these loops on the far side of the tent, because of the wind direction.

However, all the official MSR photos show the tent without any guy ropes attached. I find this amazing. Does it mean that MSR does not expect the tent to be used under high wind conditions? Or was there a disconnect between the designers and the marketing team? I did find that the tent sways sideways quite a bit in a light side-on wind when there are no guy ropes. I also noted that the fabric does belly a bit in a side wind. I am quite sure the tent will need guy ropes in bad weather. Anyhow, the tent I received had four 3 mm guy ropes with plastic Nite Ize Figure 9 toggles - all with MSR logos as well. Since I can see not four but eight guy line attachment points, I was a bit disappointed by this shortfall. I would add that 3 mm cord is awfully heavy for guy lines (gross overkill actually), and that you don't need any toggles on string this thick, just use a taut line hitch.

The tent comes with a handful of 'groundhog' stakes. These are the common Y-stake, but they have nicely rounded corners. I find these Y-stakes rather hard to insert compared to a tubular stake, and much harder than a Ti wire, but at least they didn't hurt my hand. Each stake has a loop of the 3 mm guy rope cord to help you extract it. A lighter cord would have been adequate.

I had better add here that the tent supplied came with no guy ropes at all, which seemed strange. I inquired about this and was told that the designer had played with it, and he had forgotten to replace the guy ropes in the bag! Also I received only 11 stakes, although the specs say 12. They did send some guy ropes later, but I don't know whether they sent the full compliment. These things happen.

MSR Dragontail Review - 5
There is only one vestibule on the tent.

The 'vestibule' space at the rear of the tent forms part of the groundsheet space. The front vestibule is not large, but it is adequate for gear and cooking with a little squeeze. It has only one access zip however: you need to make sure you’re not facing the wind on that side of the tent. Curiously, the zipper has two sliders. Exactly what one uses the top slider for is not clear to me. (I suspect a manufacturing mistake myself.) Once the door has been opened (unzipped) it can be held out of the way with a toggle at the pole seam. This is good. There is a matching toggle at the other side of the tent, and it seems to be totally useless to me (there is no zipper there).

MSR Dragontail Review - 6
The interior of the tent has reasonable floor space for two, and very reasonable headroom. The ends of the tent do not slope down to a useless tapered region. The sides go straight up. There are pockets at the sides for light gear during the night. This makes the tent quite livable. The vestibule has enough room for cooking, although two packs would be a squeeze at the same time.

MSR Dragontail Review - 7
The ground anchor points provide both a neat fabric loop and a cord tightener. I am not sure one needs both, but they are there. The method of attachment looks strong enough too.

The fittings at ends of the poles are called 'feet.' On most tents, the feet are designed to slip into a grommet or something similar. That applies here too, but (like some other companies) MSR has done something silly with the feet: they have knobs on the end. The usual explanation is that the knob helps keep the foot in the grommet, but that is not a sensible explanation. The pole foot is going to stay in the grommet regardless of any knob. What the knob usually does is to jam the pole foot in the grommet if there is any mud and grit around, and that did happen here. I had trouble getting the pole foot out during testing. I normally slim all the knobs down on a lathe before taking such a tent out. It makes life so much easier.

The poles fold up into a tidy bundle provided you get the bend at the top right. I am not going to explain how to do this: you need to have the poles in your hand. Anyhow, some neat design work here.

Summary

Despite the deficiencies listed, this remains a well-made tent that will serve nicely in the snow when not subject to extreme conditions (like really bad weather above the tree line). Add some permanent guy ropes to it for sure. Do up the windward ventilation window and it should take a fair bit of wind, although, being a single-skin, condensation (water or frost) then becomes a bigger problem than normal. The vestibule is not large, but one can cook in there.

Disclosure: The manufacturer provided this product to the author and/or Backpacking Light at no charge, and it is owned by the author/BPL. The author/Backpacking Light has no obligation to the manufacturer to review this product under the terms of this agreement.

Citation

"MSR Dragontail Review," by Roger Caffin. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/tunnel_tents_2012_msr_dragontail.html, 2012-04-24 00:00:00-06.

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Tunnel Tents Tutorial and State of the Market Report - Part 3: The Mini-Reviews
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Tunnel Tents Tutorial and State of the Market Report - Part 3: The Mini-Reviews on 04/24/2012 14:48:59 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Tunnel Tents Tutorial and State of the Market Report - Part 3: The Mini-Reviews

Edited by addiebedford on 04/24/2012 16:10:05 MDT.

Inaki Diaz de Etura
(inaki) - MLife

Locale: Iberia highlands
Warmlite 2R front upper vent on 04/24/2012 16:15:52 MDT Print View

Loads of super-interesting info to digest! This is really fun. For the moment, just a comment on that weird front upper vent in the 2R:

> in bad weather you won't get much ventilation

The design is unusual but it works, maybe not any better than the most typical hood covered vent but it works. The hood is actually there but inside the main, mesh covered wall instead of outside of it. It can be left open in bad weather unless the wind blows horizontal rain/whatever in.

It takes some inside room but the exterior is more streamlined and the hood needs no stiffener.

Stuart Murphy
(stu_m) - MLife
Mini review not as thorough as your usual reviews -- but I guess that's why it's called "mini" on 04/24/2012 17:59:36 MDT Print View

You didn't show the versatility/variety of ways the front vestibule can be configured. Shame on you :)

Not up to your usual methodical high standard (eg. you mention the Nallo 2 can be double-poled, neglect to mention that the First arrow can too, neglect to consider that the velcro attachment of inner to outer for the Olympus is fiddly at best -- far easier to separate and reattach the inner in the First Arrow, so for me the value of the mini reviews is limited).

Point being, these mini reviews are just that and I'm not sure that they particularly give much information beyond what a little experience and erecting the tent in a shop and looking at it would yield which is a little disappointing (not everyone gets access to tents they can play with in the field).

That said, I did learn a few things (including on tents I am unlikely to have the chance to play with like the Stephenson) so appreciate your review.

I know Vango don't market the Tempest as 4 season, but wonder whether you can speculate why it is less robust than other 2 pole tunnels like the Nallo (yes the fabric will have a lower tear strength... who cares to a degree... and the poles are probably not quite as high quality but do you have a feel for whether this is significant for the majority of conditions likely to be encoutnered)?

Disclaimer: I do not recommend the use of this tent for 4 seasons just as Vango do not market it as such. Just curious as to where you think corners have been cut that really would impact performance in wind and snow.

Cheers
Stuart

Edited by stu_m on 04/24/2012 19:15:45 MDT.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Mini review not as thorough as your usual reviews -- but I guess that's why it's called "mini" on 04/24/2012 20:32:31 MDT Print View

Hi Stuart

Yes, these are just MINI-reviews, to go with the Survey & Tutorial. They are as much examples or illustration as anything else. I was hoping the pictures of each tent would give a bit more info, beyond the basic specs.

Double-poling. Frankly, I suspect this is another one of those great ideas which never get used in practice. My winter tent was fine with single 7 mm CF poles in that storm.

Velcro attachment fiddly: yes, but I think one would have to be nuts to even contemplate ever separating the inner from the outer on any light-weight tent. There is just no point. The only time I might do it would be to wash the inner tent!

Vango Tempest 200 - can it be used 4-season? Well ... it is not a bad tent, despite the very low price. I think it is aimed more at wet weather with wind than serious high-altitude snow - and at DoE kids. Just how well it would survive a serious snow storm might depend rather a lot on the skill of the person in finding a site with a little protection and in pitching the tent. You would not expect DoE kids to be camping on top of the Ben for instance.

Cheers

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Re: Tunnel Tents Tutorial and State of the Market Report - Part 3: The Mini-Reviews on 04/24/2012 20:37:48 MDT Print View

Kind of a anti climax as Part 1 started a furor. A big project. Thanks for all the time Roger.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Warmlite 2R front upper vent on 04/25/2012 04:25:03 MDT Print View

Yeah, I pretty much agree with the front upper vent not working that well. I have used the Stephensons in some really wet conditions in the NE part of the USA (including one ten day trip that rained solidly for 3 days and every day we were out paddling.) The vent itself is simply too small and is the ONLY high vent in the entire tent. I believe it needs more, high ventilation to provide a proper chimney effect. So, except in winds greater than 30mph, it really doesn't work that well. Most of the time, we easily find some sort of wind shelter, often a grove of trees, a larger rock or bushes, to hide the tent from major winds. I have asked the wife to put a second vent in below the first. The style seems good. We *did* have a minor leak at the base of the vent (the bottom of the "V".) I seam sealed it again and it went away. This was the only downside to the vent design.

The tension does not appear to be a problem. In fact, it seems to accur as a product of the angle to the ground. So, the three basic stakes are enough to do the job. In higher winds, four others are needed, at each hoop end, of course. I also use 16" guy lines on the window awnings leaving about a bit of vent clearence on the bottom. These also supply additional stake points for the canopy leaving a total of 11 staking(pegging) points on the tent. It does NOT move.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
"Tunnel Tents Tutorial and State of the Market Report - Part 3: The Mini-Reviews" on 04/25/2012 04:51:11 MDT Print View

Roger,
Exped dropped the Aries tent from their offerings this year.
The Sirius has been gone for a while, 2006 or so? But, this included a light, fabric inner tent. Good in windy conditions. The vents are all zippered to allow adjustment of the outer vent hood from the inside. Overly elaborate....

Stuart Murphy
(stu_m) - MLife
Separating inner and outer on 04/25/2012 06:17:05 MDT Print View

I think I have occasionally done it for drying. Never for load sharing.

For temporarily enlarging the vestibule I think it can be useful (the attacjment on the WE tents is very quick and easy and I think from memory vango may use a similar system). Also to take the outer alone, which I did once and have learnt my lesson (trip turned into a sand pit, with plenty of rain and even mosquitoes one night (the last two not expected at all as advised by park rangers pre trip)... probably never again.

Also if the weather was particularly not very nice (edited due to possible profanity) to be able to pack up dry. I'm not sure I've ever had to resort to that though.

Taking fly only allowed me to take a nice heavy camera however, so once the memory of that trip fades, maybe I'll give it another go...


I guess one liveability thing against the Vango in winter is the vents which can't be closed.

Incidentally, the bracing Vango (so called TBS) uses on the poles - they specifically do not claim this increases wind resistance (though it obviously should increase stability in cross winds, i.e. liveability but this is not to be confused with an increase in the upper performance limit of the tent in a crosswind I think - in fact I would not be surprised if it actually reduces it by concentrating forces). Anyway, I'm interested in the concept. With luck maybe such a system will appear in the wind testing project BPL is doing for lightweight tents.

Cheers
Stuart

Jeremy Osburn
(earn_my_turns)

Locale: New England
A bit of a let down on 04/25/2012 11:01:18 MDT Print View

The qualities of the reviews aren't the let down, the product on the market is. I have skimmed the mini reviews and looked at the comparison table. I can't decide if it is writer’s bias or truly lame designs available on the market. All of the tunnel tents on here don't seem to hold a candle to the Caffin designs... Either you pay a large weight penalty for high quality or you pay a size or quality penalty for weight.

Except of course when you look at the two Caffin tents that have seen years of service, are still going strong, and are substantially lighter than anything else available.

What do I do now, I had decided about a year ago that a tunnel tent was in my future for strong conditioned winter climbing but none on the market seem to be reasonable.

I may just have to look into making one.

How much effort and sewing skill go into making the Caffin Winter Special?

How much math and physics are in the design?

What are the approximate material needs for the Caffin Winter tent?

Edited by earn_my_turns on 04/25/2012 11:16:16 MDT.

peter michaloski
(summitjunky)

Locale: alaska
tunnel tent on 04/25/2012 11:03:44 MDT Print View

So Roger if you don't secure a manufacturing contract in the next so long say 6 months could we expect you to be selling patterns and instructions on making your own ? Or maybe a kit for making your own?

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: "Tunnel Tents Tutorial and State of the Market Report - Part 3: The Mini-Reviews" on 04/25/2012 15:23:09 MDT Print View

Hi James

> Exped dropped the Aries tent from their offerings this year.
> The Sirius has been gone for a while, 2006 or so?
I think you may be looking at the USA web site? Try the Swiss web site - their home country. Both tents are still current there.

Cheers

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: A bit of a let down on 04/25/2012 15:35:31 MDT Print View

Hi Jeremy and Peter

> selling patterns and instructions on making your own ? Or maybe a kit for making your own?
If the commercial deal does not go through I will be again helping people MYOG. But bear in mind that the 'instructions' are NOT a hand-hold job! They are MY guide, so much study is required.

> How much effort and sewing skill go into making the Caffin Winter Special?
A lot of effort. Yes, it is a long project. Sewing skills required are medium: it is just about all straight stitches. Much study of the plans and instructions needed. Careful pinning up and sewing is what makes it. Some tools required.

> How much math and physics are in the design?
The design is totally mathematical. It is based on parameters like height, width and lengths of sections, pole curvature, tilt angle ... Its a full 3D parametric model.
There is some physics as well, but more concealed in the design and model. Pole curvature for instance: limited to 1800 mm to avoid breakage, fabric stretch (a %) for tension, etc.
What comes out are the fabric patterns.

> What are the approximate material needs for the Caffin Winter tent?
Um ... roughly 8 m of silnylon and 4 m DWR fabric, plus netting and arrow shafts for poles, and string. Zippers are #3 coil. Some 20 mm hook&loop tape. Eyelets of 2 sizes. Also elbows - the difficult bit as they need a lathe, and pole feet.

Rest assured - I will update the status when I can.

Cheers

Edited by rcaffin on 04/25/2012 19:07:59 MDT.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: A bit of a let down on 04/25/2012 15:54:03 MDT Print View

> The qualities of the reviews aren't the let down, the product on the market is.
That may be a little unfair to the commercial tents. Some of them are good, even in extreme weather.
The problems you are seeing come in several places:

* Range of customer requirements: not everyone is stupid enough to camp on a snow-covered saddle in a 100 kph storm. Many people genuinely need something a little lower in performance.

* Cost of manufacture: always higher for this sort of tent, even via China. The high quality tent has to be able to sell in competition with cheaper tents. And the manufacturer usually cannot afford to make a really wide range to cover every eventuality. He has to compromise a bit.

* Range of customer experience: let's face it: commercial products get bought by people of various skill levels. A mass-market tent has to be able to handle some misuse by novices in the field. The expert user pays for it.

* Retail resistance: unless you sell via the web, you have to placate the retailers as well. They don't like things which take a lot of explaining, and they really don't like things which novices break and return. This is a generic problem for the whole UL sector - which is why the cottagers sell via the web. Roll on web sales!

Yes, my tents are ultra-light, and yes they provide extreme performance, but they could be trashed by novice mistreatment. They have lasted so long because I care for them.

But maybe you have unfairly condemned the commercial tents anyhow. The Macpac Olympus is widely regarded as legendary in this part of the world. The other European tents are designed for European weather - which can be bad. You do have to pick the right model though - a Hilleberg pop-up is still a pop-up, even if well-made. The American tents seem less favoured: both suffer from design faults and one of them has very poor manufacturing quailty in my humble opinion. YMMV.

Cheers

Edited by rcaffin on 04/25/2012 19:09:25 MDT.

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Tunnel Tents Tutorial and State of the Market Report - Part 3: The Mini-Reviews on 04/25/2012 16:15:36 MDT Print View

Not sure if these have been mentioned yet http://www.integraldesigns.com/product_detail.cfm?id=898 and http://www.lightwave.uk.com/en/tents_overview.php.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Mini review not as thorough as your usual reviews -- but I guess that's why it's called "mini" on 04/25/2012 16:18:49 MDT Print View

Roger, I'm curious why you decided to review the Vango Tempest 200, which is clearly not in the same class as the other tents, as one of your worst weather scenario tents, rather than the Vango Nitro Lite 200, which was specifically designed for the same conditions as the other tents, and is significantly lighter and made of better materials?

Vango Nitro Lite 200.

Vango NItro Lite 200

Edited by butuki on 04/25/2012 16:20:53 MDT.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: A bit of a let down on 04/25/2012 16:21:42 MDT Print View

"Zippers are #3 coil"

I've been experimenting with #3 coil zippers. I haven't totally decided if they're strong enough. I like the reduced weight compared to #5.

Do you put tension across the zipper, like when you have your 100 kph winds?

Do you think a #3 coil zipper might fail?

Do you use regular YKK zippers?

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Tunnel Tents Tutorial and State of the Market Report - Part 3: The Mini-Reviews on 04/25/2012 18:21:14 MDT Print View

Hi Jason

ID Traverse 2 is interesting, but floorless. A bug liner is available. I actually have one on the floor here, but so far the company has not replied to any of my questions about some VERY strange features in the tent.

Lightwave T2 Ultra: Nice tent, love to review it. I don't remember them replying though.

Cheers

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: Mini review not as thorough as your usual reviews -- but I guess that's why it's called "mini" on 04/25/2012 18:24:21 MDT Print View

Hi Miguel

Ah, yes, I agree that the Nitro Lite is nice. But all the head office had in stock was the Tempest 200 - and I had to wait a while for that. Seems they build some of them to retail order maybe?

Cheers
PS: don't knock it too much: the Tempest 200 would be a good reliable inexpensive tent for some adventurous kids.

Edited by rcaffin on 04/25/2012 19:06:56 MDT.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: A bit of a let down on 04/25/2012 19:05:59 MDT Print View

Hi Jerry and all

OK, getting technical now.

I have never had a #3 coil zip fail in the field, and they have had a 'fair bit of use'. No problems at all - in my hands.

So why do manufacturers use #8 and #10 zips? In a word: novices. Or perhaps more accurately, careless teenage males. Every manufacturer I have spoken to about this problem has virtually cried on my shoulder about the way some kids trash their gear - and then expect free repairs. Many of them agree that #3 has quite enough strength, but they dare not.

Under storm conditions the zips at the rear end of my tents do have a lot of tension along the tape but not too much across the zipper teeth. In fact, I actually use the strength of the nylon zipper tape as part of the design. When you look at the fabric tension distributed across a zip in most situations, it is not that high.

Caution: do not use a zipper slider to pull the two sides of a zip together. that way will trash both the teeth and the slider. Bring the two sides together by hand first, then run the slider up the length.

Do I use 'regular YKK zippers'? Not sure what you mean here. I use YKK, RiRi and a few other brands available locally, and truthfully I have not seen much difference between them. The zips on my tent are not YKK: they are off a large roll of continuous-chain coil-coil #3 zip. I do use solid metal sliders.

Comment: I see some manufacturers boasting about how they use 'only YKK'. I suspect they are being given a discount for saying this. The YKK brand is not very different from the others as far as I can see, but they have great marketing.

Cheers

John Whynot
(jdw01776)

Locale: Southeast Texas
Re: Re: Mini review not as thorough as your usual reviews -- but I guess that's why it's called "mini" on 04/25/2012 19:15:08 MDT Print View

The description of the Vango Nitro Lite 200 looks good. I don't think Vango exports to the US. Too bad, it looks like it would be a good choice for a light, one-man tent for winter and bad-weather use...