Originally published July 30. Revised November 10.
My coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2018 begins with Big Agnes, which revealed new editions of three existing tent geometries:
- Fly Creek 1 Carbon ($800, 1 lb) and Fly Creek 2 Carbon ($850, 1 lb 2 oz)
- Tiger Wall 2 Carbon ($1000, 1 lb 9 oz)and Tiger Wall 3 Carbon ($1200, 1 lb 14 oz)
- Scout 2 Carbon ($700, 11 oz)
This new family also includes two new products:
- Onyx Tarp Carbon ($500, 8 oz), a 8.5′ x 8.5′ square tarp; and,
Flower Wall Bivy Carbon ($TBD, 6 oz)
These “Carbon” models are made primarily of Dyneema Composite Fabric (aka DCF, and formerly known as Cuben Fiber), which is lighter, more waterproof, and stronger than the more conventional 15d and 7d nylons that Big Agnes uses in its UL and Platinum editions. So the point is not lost, I will repeat that: DCF is a better shelter fabric in all key metrics, and it weighs less.
Of course, DCF comes at a price. The prices of Carbon models are 1.5 to 2.6 times more expensive than the UL and Platinum equivalents. For example, the Tiger Wall UL 3 (my review) costs $450 and weighs 2 lbs 11 oz (for its trail weight, or fly + inner + poles). The new Carbon version weighs 13 oz less and will retail for a staggering $1200, or $57 per ounce saved.
Read more about the performance and price of DCF.
Cottage manufacturers like Hammock Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs, and Zpacks have been successfully making DCF shelters for over a decade. So the Carbon tents are not unique in this regard. But they are still newsworthy:
1. Big Agnes is the first wholesaler to make DCF tents, and it’s possible that Carbon models will be available in Spring 2019 from Backcountry.com and your local REI. Is DCF about to go mainstream? Will more widespread use translate into lower prices for DCF?
2. The Fly Creek and Tiger Wall are the first semi-freestanding DCF tents in the marketplace. Many backpackers are unwilling to fuss (even a little bit) with shelters that are supported with trekking poles, so this demographic now has DCF options.
Per Big Agnes, the tent flies are made with 12 g/m2 (0.34 oz/yd2) DCF; the floors, with 18 g/m2 (0.51 oz/yd2). I’m not a DCF expert, and I’m hopeful that Big Agnes extensively tested its Carbon lineup, but these seem like bold selections. Just ask the experts:
According to Zpacks, which uses a LOT of DCF, the 0.34-oz is, “very thin and does not take much to puncture. We use it for our limited use/emergency shelter, the Hexamid Pocket tarp.” And Ripstop by the Roll, which sells DCF for DIY projects, describes it as being, “best for super ultralight tarps, tents, flys, and light duty stuff sacks. Note that this variant is the lightest, least abrasion resistant DCF variant on the market. Extra care is needed to ensure longer life of your project or product.”
The 0.51-oz variant is the default weight for Zpacks tarps and tents. “It has high tensile strength, but only moderate abrasion and puncture resistance due to the thin membrane material.” Ripstop says it’s best for, “ultralight tarps, tents, flys, and light duty stuff sacks.” And Mountain Laurel Designs, which also uses a LOT of DCF, reports that it, “will have a shorter service life [than the 0.75-oz version]” but that, “it is good for 3+ season use.”
What does all of this mean?
- Treat the Carbon products extremely delicately.
- If you need a shelter that will endure a few hundred nights, consider one made of heavier 0.75-oz DCF or a premium sil-nylon with a 3k+ hydrostatic head rating.
- Use a ground sheet made of polycryo to protect the floor from abrasion.
DCF is the headline, but the Carbon tents have another unique spec: carbon fiber poles, instead of aluminum.
It sounds like additional R&D will be necessary to pull this off, however. When carbon fiber poles are stressed, they break catastrophically, and a sharp-edged pole will make quick work out of a 0.34-oz tent fly. Breakage can be negated with thicker pole shafts, but at some point the weight and price will make aluminum a better option.
BA’s PR rep ended the conversation by saying, “There is a possibility that there will be some tweaks” to the Carbon tents between now and Spring 2019.
Update: In November 2018, Big Agnes confirmed that it will use Easton carbon fiber poles. Samples were not on hand, and the media contact was not familiar with the testing that had been done to make them field-ready.
The Fly Creek Carbon and Tiger Wall Carbon models are jaw-droppingly priced, but they’re unique and there’s probably an audience for them.
I think the single-wall Scout 2 Carbon is the most interesting. At just 11 oz, it’s a lot of tent for one person, and technically big enough for two.
I’m struggling with the the Onyx Tarp and Flower Wall Bivy. The former does not stand out among the competition (it’s just a simple 8.5′ x 8.5′ tarp), and it’s priced much higher. In comparison, look at the Zpacks 7 x 9 or 8.5 x 10 tarps, which cost about half of the Onyx.
Meanwhile, the bivy is made completely out of DCF, which is a non-breathable fabric, so moisture (from insensible perspiration and damp clothing) will remain stuck in the bivy. It might be okay for FKT-style sufferfests, but I don’t see it as being a sustainable shelter choice. The Flower Wall Bivy has been dropped from the line, per conversations with Big Agnes in November at Outdoor Retailer. The explanation was murky, but it was likely due to performance concerns realized in-house or raised by dealers and/or media.
The Carbon products remind me of the Osprey Levity/Lumina. On one hand, I’m excited to see respected and influential wholesalers being innovative and pushing limits. On the other, I’m nervous for them: Do their customers really understand the limitations and care requirements of these items? And would they be better off as-is, by selling Exos/Eja packs and Fly Creeks by the pallet at REI, and leaving the fringe stuff to cottage manufacturers that attract a better educated customer and that have business models better suited to low-volume premium goods?
Questions about the Big Agnes Carbon line? Leave a comment.
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