When it comes to designing lightweight tents, few know more than Mark Knight, Senior Product Designer, Advanced Concepts at Mountain Equipment Co-op. As a designer at MEC for over a decade, he’s seen incredible innovations in both product design and material development. We sat down with Mark to talk about what to look for when considering a tent, and how to care for the investment.
What are the critical factors you consider when designing a tent?
The first thing to think about when buying a tent is weight, then livability and durability; it’s an interplay between those three factors. The overall space, and how it feels inside the tent is important, and the lighter the tent, the easier your life is going to be when carrying it. The challenge is in order to make that tent lighter, you’re often compromising on the livability or sometimes the durability, too.
What should consumers consider when purchasing a tent?
They should picture the next five years of their outdoor experience, and what they’ll be using the tent for. Will they be carrying it on their back, or canoeing, or car camping? How many people are going to be using it in the future? A tent isn’t a disposable item; it has to grow with you as you develop. And the lightest tent isn’t always the best; some lightweight tents are like a coffin. The next consideration is what season you’re going to be using the tent in. Is it going to be a winter tent? In that case you’ll have to look more closely at the fly and the poles. Or is going to be more of a summer tent, in which case you’ll want it to have more ventilation.
“A tent isn’t a disposable item; it has to grow with you as you develop. And the lightest tent isn’t always the best; some lightweight tents are like a coffin…We wanted to make sure it’s not just numbers on a piece of paper, but a tent you can use for a long time.”
Speaking of livability, what are some of the key design elements of the Volt 2 LT?
When we set out to design the MEC Volt 2 LT we realized that there are going to be some single-entry tents out there that will be a little bit lighter, but we really wanted to ensure the Volt was as versatile as possible. I take mine ski touring, and I’ve lived in it for a week as well. It’s most innovative feature is its near vertical sidewalls, which makes for a more livable space. Plus, there are two doors with the two-person, and enough room to actually store gear in the vestibule. It’s built to hold a couple regular sized sleeping pads. A lot of the ultralight tents support the small alpine style pads only. We wanted to make sure it’s not just numbers on a piece of paper, but a tent you can use for a long time.
I’d imagine these days most people go online, go straight to comparing weight, then choosing the lightest they can afford.
Right, and the industry is actually working on adding another factor to the online stats of all tents, like an interior volume. But even at that, some interior volume isn’t usable, so it’s hard to get a sense of the livability of a tent without actually getting inside it. The Volt 2 LT is also really quick to set up, and adjust the fly. It’s about 22 percent lighter than the previous model. We weigh every single piece of a tent as we’re designing it, and do as much as possible to shave weight everywhere. It’s quite the challenge actually. It’s such a balance between ease of use, livability and weight.
“We weigh every single piece of a tent as we’re designing it, and do as much as possible to shave weight everywhere. It’s quite the challenge actually. It’s such a balance between ease of use, livability and weight.”
What do you think the most important development in tent design has been in the last 10 years?
I think poles have come a long way; our poles are some of the strongest and lightest in the world. Our pole manufacturer is doing a lot of work on stiffness and flexibility, and they’ve even invested in their own wind tunnel in order to develop stronger poles.
And the most challenging materials to work with?
The fabricate is always developing quickly. I’d say that’s the biggest challenge. We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time developing our fabric in our internal lab here. And our hydrophobic numbers on our website are quite conservative. Unlike most of the industry, we state our numbers after use, so not just when it’s brand new. So the numbers represent more real world usage. So you can be sure that waterproofness will last for a long time. We’re really proud of our coatings, and feel like we’re leading the industry in that area for sure.
How important is the shape of the fly of a tent?
The shape of the fly is incredibly important if you’re going to encounter any snow or hard rain. A four-season tent will not only have stronger materials and poles, but the shape of the fly will allow the snow to shed off. Also, if you’re on expeditions, with a lot of gear, and hoping to cook in the tent, then the fly and its vestibule is extremely important to your quality of life.
“It’s a good idea to stuff your tent, and not fold it. If you keep on folding the tent in the same way every time, you could create a hole in the coating at those folds. But if you stuff the tent, you’re randomizing those creases.”
What about for warmer weather hiking?
Consider a tent with more mesh. The Volt LT is a great one. One thing with a lot of mesh is there’s very little condensation. Most ground, other than sand has a lot of moisture in it. And with two people breathing in there, you want that breeze moving through. You’ll be a lot drier come morning.
What are some things to consider when caring for a tent?
It’s a good idea to stuff your tent, and not fold it. For one it’s easier, but also, you’ll notice lots of seam folds in a tent, but they’re all sort of randomly placed. But if you keep on folding the tent in the same way every time, you could create a hole in the coating at those folds. But if you stuff the tent, you’re randomizing those creases. And always try to dry the tent before you pack it away for storage. A dry tent lasts a lot longer. When you set up the tent, obviously avoid putting it on sharp rocks and such, but also try to set it up in the shade, out of the sunlight, it will also last longer because UV rays really damage synthetic fibers.
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