I’ve been intrigued by tipi-tents since I first learned about them years ago. I’m an absolute sucker for the stories of exploration and settlement of the North American continent so the concept of a time tested, portable shelter combined with modern materials really struck a chord. As many of you know these tents don’t come cheap and as much as I wanted one, every year I managed to convince myself that I didn’t really “need” one. Through years of trial and error and the fine-tuning of my kit, I finally decided to pull the proverbial trigger late last year.
In the past I’ve personally used everything from a Hilleberg Nallo 3 GT to a number of ultralight 2 – 3 man backpacking tents. The Hilleberg was an impressive piece of kit but didn’t solve the problem I was looking to solve in terms of a fully functional early to late season backcountry shelter. It was very packable and had an incredible vestibule but without a heat source it just felt like too much tent for its size. On one particular Northern BC elk hunt we had a couple days of single digit temperatures and heavy rain and although the Hilleberg stood up to this weather without issue, I found myself dying for a heat source. For my annual Northern hunts I needed more versatility than the Hilleberg could offer.
On the flipside, the no-frills ultralight tents I’ve used from brands like MSR, Big Agnes, and even MEC have been for the most part disappointing. After years of using a number of models in a variety of applications and conditions I consider them to be too specialized to qualify as a standalone option in your gear locker. For early season backpack hunts they have their place but for the high North, especially for hunts that occur in September or later a bigger floor space and a heat source is a must in my opinion.
On our sheep hunt this past September we used JOMH Senior Editor Matt Thompson’s Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3, and it performed incredibly well. It’s an unbelievably light tent for its size and if you’re looking for an ultralight tent that’s just the right size for two guys and a bit of gear it should be on your list. Nonetheless, by the midpoint of that trip we were both wishing we had a stove and a fire. This experience was really the last push I needed to bite the bullet on a tipi-tent.
Last year Backcountry Hunters & Anglers had an unbelievable offer on the table for signing up as a Life Member. If you joined for a certain amount they’d send you a 6 man tipi-tent package from one of, if not the best in the business, Seek Outside. It was too good an opportunity to pass up and I jumped on it. A few weeks later, my 6 man tipi-tent, liners, pole, stove and stovepipe arrived in the mail.
Now to be clear, I made this decision before I spoke with Kevin and the folks at Seek Outside about joining us as a site sponsor and frankly, it wasn’t until after my tent arrived that I felt compelled to reach out to them. The whole kit was so lightweight I honestly thought they’d made a mistake and forgot to send some of it! I knew they were light but I was blown away and decided the day I received the tent that they were a company I really wanted on board as a sponsor and after a few phone calls and emails a deal was done. I believe strongly in bringing on sponsors I believe in and there was no question Seek Outside fell into that category of company.
I normally get out for a couple mule deer hunts in October and November but this year I skipped those in favour of a late December goat hunt in the North Coast mountains of BC. This would be my first field test of the tipi-tent and all signs pointed to it being a true test as were heading into some steep, cold and snowy country where the footprint versatility and stove were going to be especially applicable. We had no idea just how much of a test we were in for.
The plan was to hike roughly 7 KMs (around 4.5 miles) up a valley to the base of some bluffs we hoped would hold goats. There were three of us on the trip, the perfect number for a 6 man tipi when you include our gear in the floor space. We managed to divide the tipi and stove and stove pipe between just two of us. As we were only heading in for 4 days I didn’t go as crazy with the compression sacks as I normally would and easily could have compressed the tipi itself down to half the volume it took up in my pack. Two guys can easily carry a 6 man tipi and stove and stove pipe for trips in the 5-7 day range if not longer. If you’re a horse man but don’t have a full pack string at your disposal the tipi-tent could be easily carried by an extra pack horse, mule or llama without sacrificing much carrying capacity, something that cannot be said for wall tent set-ups. If you regularly do fly-out hunts where weight and volume is always an issue, the tipi-tent is a no brainer.
If you’re not familiar with the North Coast country of BC it is renowned for its rain and in the winter months, its snow. Some of the most well-known backcountry sledding films are shot not far from where we were hunting. In this country flat ground is hard to find and moisture in all its forms is a given. The hike-in started easily enough at the trailhead on our snowshoes but within a kilometre or so we were out of the snowshoes and down in the creek bottom climbing over rocks, side hilling along steep cut banks and constantly crossing from one side to the other over ice and snow covered terrain. It took us 6 hours to cover the 7 KMs. Needless to say it was slow going.
As the light faded we began evaluating our options for a campsite and there weren’t many. We were surrounded by bluffs and cliffs with the odd steep, snow filled draw mixed in, and not one of us was interested in breaking trail up one of these draws for what was likely to be a fruitless recon. There was a point of land jutting out into the creek that looked reasonably flat and sheltered by some big conifers so we aimed for this as dusk settled. I reached the point first and climbed the cut bank and poked my head over with high hopes.
It was without exaggeration, the worst camping spot I’d ever seen. The “flat” area was a mix of hollows, bumps, roots, ice and snow. All covered in devil’s club and ringed by dead, rotten logs frozen into the ground. But it was getting dark fast, the temp was dropping and we were out of options. We set about cutting down the devil’s club, laying down some branches to try and fill in the hollows and getting the tipi set-up. The usable area was barely big enough to accommodate the tipi and we had to get creative with the stakes and guy-outs to keep the tipi pulled taut. We managed to find firm ground by using a climbing axe to dig into the snow and ice for some of the stakes but for others we literally used the cut-off devil’s club stalks as tie-out anchors. Amazingly, we got the tipi set-up with minimal fuss and, to be clear, none of us had set-up a tipi-tent before. Not even at home before the trip. It was damned cold, near dark and the furthest thing from an ideal site and yet we had a shelter ready before it was dark enough to need our headlamps. We unpacked the stove, which for the record literally packs flat, and had the ingeniously simple stove pipe rolled out and ready within minutes. All in all it was an incredibly efficient set-up from start to finish. I was beyond impressed.
Over the course of the hunt, we experienced snowfall and some damned cold temperatures and the tipi performed perfectly. For the brief period during which we had a fire (that’s a whole other story) the stove and stovepipe were flawless. In summary, given the conditions the tipi-tent lived up to all my expectations and then some.
Looking back on the hunt, I realized that if we hadn’t had the tipi and each been running single man tents we would have been royally screwed. The floorless versatility of the tipi-tent was the only reason we were able to make due with the barely suitable campsite. Inside, our sleeping arrangement was as creative as our tie-out job and we did a decent job of configuring ourselves so that each of us was mostly flat. This would have been impossible with the fixed floor configuration of a standard tent.
Although this was my first test of the Seek Outside 6 man tipi, and I have yet to apply it within a true alpine environment I could not be happier with my decision to finally bring a tipi into my kit. When I look back on the numerous mountain hunts I’ve been on where I’d wished I’d had a stove there isn’t a single one where the tipi wouldn’t have been applicable. For the backcountry hunts I tend to go on, the tipi will be my go to shelter without question. If you’ve been on the fence about one, don’t wait, and if BHA has the same Life Member offer available in 2016 take advantage of it! You’d be supporting a great organization doing great things for public lands and wild places and getting a backcountry shelter that will serve you well no matter the conditions or the campsite.