Tent wisdom from the Recession Vacation Laboratory

Categories: Outdoors

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There was a different tent for each night of the Recession Vacation Research Lab--three in all. We went for large tents only, and we crammed four adults, a toddler and two dogs into each tent, each night.

Of the three tents we tested, a clear winner emerged. More on that later.

Shopping for a tent? Here is some RVRL wisdom, gleaned haphazardly over a 72-hour period:

1. Buy tall, even if you're not. Tents you can stand in: this is the future of camping.
2. If the tent looks cheap, it probably is.
3. If the tent looks great, it's still probably cheap.
4. Don't buy it just because it lights up (this dovetails nicely with a broader life lesson: don't be a sucker).
5. If it says it sleeps eight, it sleeps six. If it says it sleeps six, it sleeps four. You catch my drift?

On to the tents, in order of appearance:

DAY ONE: Eureka N!ergy 1310, $269
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The good people at Eureka force us to consider a question of great import: is the world ready for an electric tent?

After 24 hours with this tent and all of its wired-in power outlets, I don't have an answer. We broke the tent straight-away, and in a place a tent just shouldn't break, no matter the camper.

Here's what happened, one of us (I'll not embarrass the guilty party here) tripped walking into the tent. We've all done it. There's always that four inches or so of tent at the bottom of the zippered flap. Eureka made the apparent cost-saving decision not to reinforce that little camper-tripper. And it ripped...and ripped and ripped. C'mon Eureka, seriously?

Do you know about the mosquitoes we have here? What if this thing had ripped on a North Woods camper? Jesus. Death by bloodsucker--for serious. No way.

Clumsy campers, you say? Surely we are not alone.

Another insult: there was a warning about shrinkage we didn't see on the other tents. Don't we have enough problems in the treacherous outdoors? Now we have to worry about unpacking a shrunken tent?

But it has power outlets you say! So what. I admit, I was excited about this at first. But anything that tent can power with its sold-separately power pack and plug-in tent goodies...well...we'll get to those a little further down.

You know what though? I really liked the windows, which were huge and well placed--very breeze friendly. And it was a nice space--big and square with a seven foot ceiling. If you are a gentle camper, this tent just might work for you, but I'm not making any promises.

We're rating these tents by snores because a good tent means a good sleep, and that means deep-sleep snoring (a known bear repellent). I give this tent one-and-a-half out of a possible four snores.

DAY TWO: Gigatent Katahdin Cabin Dome Tent, $150
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Now this is a tent. First thing: the floor is made of tarp material and that means I can get away with no ground cloth (I always forget) and the dog can come in. Oh, and I don't have to worry about my two-year-old jamming a stick through the floor. He doesn't have toys, just sticks. This is a recession, friend!

And oh my--the view! It's like the whole top half of the tent is screen (there is what seems to be a perfectly sufficient fly to cover the tent if a storm rolls in). I did a lot of laying on my back in this one.

That part we broke on the Eureka tent? On the Gigatent, it's reinforced--as it should be.

Four out of four snores. Well done, Gigatent.

Coleman Montana Big Sky Tent, $130
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Good lord, this thing is like a sea vessel. It's 16 feet long! We were betting on a difficult pitch, and we bet right. Granted, this was the only tent we pitched after a couple of drinks. But there were five of us and two were completely sober. The previous nights' tents were pitched by two sober people only and in less than 30 minutes. This one must've been 45. It was painful.

It's a funny thing to call this the "Big Sky" tent. If there were a big sky over head, you'd hardly notice. The small windows on the walls and ceiling don't favor sky watching--and forget about a breeze.

It seemed a fairly sturdy tent, and big enough for a friendly game of catch, but I can't say it was worth the debacle of pitching it.

Two-and-a-half out of four snores.

By the way, wondering what's happening to the tents and other lab gear now that the Recession Vacation lab has closed its doors? Charity. More specifically, an organization called Minnesota Inner-City Outings.

I told you I'd get back to the Eureka powered-tent goodies, and here we are. There's a power pack and you can charge it at home before you go or in the car. It looks like this:

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It's built to power Eureka products like this vacuum/air pump:

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Or this fan/lamp:

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We kept this stuff in the tent with us even after we packed up the N!ergy 1310. The juice held. Also, the way my kid took to that vacuum, it was like having a Roomba for your tent.

We tried some sleeping gear too. First, a note about mattresses:

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We had a Coleman mattress, but it doesn't have to be Coleman. The key here is mattress split in two. We set this thing up to be a king-sized bed (two twin mattresses zippered together). The benefits of the design are simple: your mattress-companion can toss and turn or even jump up and down, and you'll still be asleep--steady resting on a separate bag of air. There is a drawback, however: snuggling (if you're into that sort of thing) is tough. But a sheet or mattress pad over the dreaded crack can help. Jamming the mattress against a wall of the tent can help too.

Then, of course, there are the sleeping bags. We tried two classic and two newfangled bags.

The classics were by Cabela's. I don't know about you, but it just isn't camping for me without plaid lining. It's usually the cheap bags that get it, I know. But still.

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We tried the Mountain Trapper and it was sturdy as it was warm--we probably should've saved this one for Fall.

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Then there was the Pine Ridge bag. Good for cool nights and deserving of extra points for the hat tip to the Oglala Sioux of South Dakota.

Our other bags were Columbia bags.

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There was the Yorkstone II--a double-wide (queen-sized)--and the Bugaboo II. And best we could tell, after pulling all the zippers we had like six different sleeping bags. There are removable layers and we turned the Yorkstone into three blankets--there was one for every leg of the nighttime temperature ride. I need to plan another weekend to re-assemble the damn things. It'll be worth it.

Sleep well, campers.


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