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Second Look at a Firstlight

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Subject: Second Look at a Firstlight
Posted: 02/12/2006 22:47:15 MST by Michael Martin (MikeMartin)

At 43oz, the Black Diamond Firstlight is over a pound lighter than "parabolic wedge" tents of similar size from any other manufacturer.

Add aftermarket Fibraplex poles, and the weight drops to only 37oz. Sounds like the perfect solo ultralight Winter mountaineering tent, right?

Well, there are a few problems that I've been attempting to address recently:

1) The tent is too short for anyone over 6' tall.

2) The tent has a reputation for not handling wind and snow loads as well as some of its competitors.

3) The fibraplex poles, seductive for their light weight, have had some mixed reviews on BPL and forums. Though I have not experienced it myself, others have reported wind/snow load failures with these poles.

Ok, so what can be done? I've been noodling around trying to find solutions to these problems lately, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts.

The Short Length:

Well, I think I've solved the first issue without even having to modify the tent. What's needed is just a little system integration. I'm 6'2" tall, and both my head and feet brush the end walls of the tent -- even when lying diagonally. But, my Winter kit already contains an Integral Designs eVent jacket, and a RAB Neutrino Endurance shelled down parka. So, while sleeping, I wear the parka under a Nunatak quilt. The hood touches the tent wall near my head, but the Endurance shell protects the down from any condensation that may form on the tent walls. For my feet, I drape the ID jacket over the foot of my bag for the same reason. (By the way, I've also had great success draping a DriDucks WP/B shell over my head or feet as needed for rain protection when using a too-short tarp for three-season hiking.)

The Fabric:

The wind and snow load issue is an interesting one. The PTFE membrane on other manufacturers' single wall tents stabilizes the fabric in all directions, increasing the structural integrity of the tent under load. Conversely, the EPIC fabric on the Firstlight stretches considerably along the fabric bias (diagonally to the weave). This, combined with the lack of a pole attachment point at the apex of the tent, causes the tent to flex under wind load or an asymmetrical snow load. This flexing may actually allow the tent to deform and spill wind gusts which might otherwise snap poles in a more rigid setup. At this point, I'm not sure whether a flexible or rigid design would have the greatest resistance to wind failure, though I'm fairly sure that a rigid structure would be superior under snow load. My suggestions below are all aimed at increasing rigidity, possibly at the expense of being able to spill wind gusts. Gear designers using EPIC may want to consider sewing diagonal reinforcements to the fabric. Because of my meager sewing skills, I opted instead for the guyline arrangement described below.

The Poles:

Fibraplex specifies a 30" minimum bend radius for their poles; the apex of the Firstlight tent forms a...30" radius. This means the poles are stressed pretty highly just pitching the tent, leaving little bending strength left to handle wind loads which would flex them into an even tighter radius. The guyline arrangement I suggest below is designed to reduce the bending stress on the poles under windload. This (hopefully!) will extend the range of conditions in which Fibraplex can be used. [Note: I have not tested the Fibraplex poles to failure. This is all theoretical as of the time I write this post.]

One nice thing about purchasing the Fibraplex poles is that you now have three different weight/strength options to choose from depending on the expected conditions:

Lightest but Weakest: Fibraplex Poles (6.8oz poles, 38.0oz total)
Middle Ground: Stock Poles (13.3oz poles, 44.5oz total)
Strongest but Heaviest: Use Both Poles! (20.1oz poles, still only 51.3oz total)

The Firstlight's velcro tabs and reinforced corner pockets easily accommodate doubled poles for the most stormworthy configuration.

The Apex Attachment:

As mentioned earlier, the Firstlight does not attach the poles to the tent at the apex. In an attempt to increase structural rigidity, I sewed a short length of guyline to the apex of the tent where it can be tied to the poles. [Note this may reduce the tents ability to flex under wind load and "spill" gusts.]

The External Guylines:

Taking a page from "Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book" and another from their "...Really Cool Backpackin' Book", I use a single guyline at each corner to both secure the corner *and* reinforce the side of the tent. I run a 7 ft. guyline from the corner tieout under a buried stick deadman (simulated by the boot in the photo) and tie it off with a slipped half-hitch to a loop pre-tied on the side tieout. This approach has many advantages: No stakes to carry or dig up; Only four deadman provide nearly the stability of eight stakes; With EZC guyline and the pre-tied loop, the slipped half-hitch is easily tied even while wearing gloves.

The Internal Guylines:

When conditions warrant, I plan to use an internal guyline arrangement to mitigate the stretch of the EPIC fabric along the bias. I use four 7ft lengths of EZC line with a pre-tied loop at one end. I use a girth hitch on one end and a trucker's hitch on the other. The combined weight of the internal and external guylines is 1.0oz (eight 7 ft. lengths of EZC line). Lighter, pure spectra guylines could be used, but the EZC is easier to handle with gloves and/or cold hands. The internal guylines are worthless when used by themselves. But, when used with the external guylines described above, diagonal loads are transferred from the poles to the deadmen, greatly increasing the rigidity of the tent structure. [Again, I have not tested this to failure. It's experimental. Try it at your own risk. Etc.]

The Backup Plan:

Should the poles on the tent fail in spite of the reinforcements, the EPIC body and Silnylon floor of the Firstlight should make a nice, roomy bivy sack! ;-)

The Credits:

Thanks to Mike Clelland for the external guyline idea.

Thanks to Dan Goldenberg for the double pole idea.

Thanks to Kevin Davidson for pointing out the limitations of the Fibraplex poles.

Thanks to anyone else I forgot to thank. ;-)

The Disclaimer:

I am not a climber. I intend to use this tent for Ski touring and camp below tree line. The modifications and techniques suggested here are experimental. Try them at your own risk. Don't blame me if your ultralight tent gets shredded on Mt. Rainer.

This post was edited by MikeMartin at 02/13/2006 09:45:28 MST.

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