Sierra Designs Elite Cagoule review

I’ve been putting off writing this for a month or more, until I had it on through a good solid half+ day rain.  But walking out earlier this week in two hours of steady rain, I realized that due to terrain and preference I just don’t hike in that sort of thing very often.  Maybe once a year, on average, and therefore the half dozen or so occasions I’ve had the Elite Cagoule on in 2-4 hour spells of precip are for me quite adequate for evaluative purposes.  If I lived somewhere else or went on more multi-week trips I’d likely have a different opinion, and if you the reader are a consistent deluge hiker you might want a different reviewer.

I discussed and photographed the fundamentals of this anorak here.

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Strong points of the Elite Cagoule are the construction quality and venting features.  It is well put together, the fit is good (save for the hood volume, see below), and details like the elastic and velcro cuffs are dead on.  The armpit vents work astonishingly well, impressive given that I was all but convinced they’d prove a gimmick.  The combination of the mesh backed kangaroo pocket and open “skirt” provide more air circulation through the chest than one would expect.  The neck opening, which closes with three snaps, is just deep enough to use that venting while still keeping your chest protected.  The chest pocket, with no closure mechanism save gussets in the bottom corners, securely held things like maps, yet never let water in.  Overall, Sierra Designs has found an approach that, for backpacking, works much better than any pitzips I’ve ever used.  If function trumps hype and the market of non-core hikers are willing to buy something which won’t be seen in any mountaineering ad, this approach should become the standard.

The Elite Cagoule is a backpacking and hiking specific rain coat, and the same features which work so well while hiking with a pack make it unsuitable for most other wilderness pursuits.  The armpit vents can’t be closed, for one, and vent well enough that in cold wind they hemorrhage body heat.  A 20 minute hail storm with strong upstream winds, endured in a packraft during the Bob Open this year, made that very clear.  This can also be a liability in shoulder season alpine environments.  The skirt, which “closes” with velcro dots and a single pair of snaps at the hem, doesn’t seal up reliably, and if it did wouldn’t provide enough room for a full stride.  This renders it flappy in high winds, unusable on a bike, and a nuisance when paired with a packraft sprayskirt.  I no longer bring the Elite Cagoule on any packrafting trip, or biking trip, or any trip up near treeline where I might really be pushing the warmth boundaries of my clothing system.

None of this is a condemnation of the Cagoule itself, just a reminder that it is a niche rain coat (albeit the biggest niche around).  Sierra Designs also made a few choices which just irritate the hell out of me in all circumstances.  The hood is well shaped, but lacks a rear cinch cord and more seriously is too small.  When I have a hat, hood, or both on under it, and pack straps further constraining fabric mobility, I can’t look too far up without forehead pressure.  More egregiously, the two hood cinch cords on either side of the face are routed inside the garment, which is for me totally unacceptable, and something I just cannot understand.  After initial adjustment I only need to further cinch my hood when the weather really gets nasty, so why the hell would I want to unbutton my coat and let weather in to do that?  The enhanced appearance this gives a puffy coat I can understand, but in a shell it is unjustifiable, common practice though it may be.  The DWR also seems a bit weak, though in truth I haven’t used and washed the Elite Cagoule nearly enough to say anything meaningful on that subject.  I also think the skirt opening should be moved further back.  As mentioned the velcro closure dots are all but useless, and they have to be open to allow for full leg movement anyway.  By being positioned towards the front they’re pushed open with each stride, allowing more of the thigh than seems necessary to get wet.

Overall, the Elite Cagoule is a well built and (with a few small yet serious flaws) functional piece of rain gear for hiking and backpacking.  It takes venting seriously, which is fairly unique amongst WPB rain jackets, and as Sierra Designs conclusively demonstrates is a very effective approach to the problem of sweaty raingear.  With a few tweaks the Elite Cagoule could be even better, and darn close to a faultless jacket for backpacking.

 

Treated v. hybrid down; don’t believe the hype

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For the problem with down jackets and sleeping bags has never been with external moisture (precip, or otherwise).  Modern shell fabrics are good enough, and sticking things in drybags on under raingear or mitigating shelter condensation simple enough, that getting my insulation actually wet this way hardly ever happens.  The only memorable instances involve me failing to screw a canyon keg down tight (Heaps, 2004) or putting a pack with a non-dimension polyant bottom down in a puddle (New Zealand, 2015).

Internal moisture, on the other hand, has been the bane of down insulation, down coats especially, such that a while back I swore them off entirely, save for one massive parka for deep cold.  In Montana the normal range in which I use a moderately warm coat is 40-15 F, temperatures which occur 10 months a year, and where sweating is inevitable.  I need a coat that I can put on over damp, if not wet, baselayers and both stay warm and get dry.  A standard down coat, especially the light ones with 2-3 ounces of high-fill, can do this 1.5 times before they’re just about useless.

On the other hand the compactness and snuggle-factor of down are both high.  Additionally, on the vast majority of trips I bring not one, but two insulating layers.  One is for staying warm while moving slowish, when it’s really nasty, or in a packraft.  The other is for breaks, camps, glassing, and a little extra safety margin.  Every time I don’t use fleece for the first application I end up disappointed, so last year I went back to experimenting with down to maintain the integrity of my two-part system without the whole mess taking up a ton of pack space.

First up was the Sierra Designs Better Vest, which has decent specs as well as being from the company that pioneered DWR down (and claims to have the superior product).  I was not impressed, both with an absurdly  slim fit, and with down which didn’t resist wetting out from inside any better than standard stuff.  The Dridown did dry out faster, but even if the fit hadn’t been whacked out I was still unimpressed enough to move the Better Vest down the road.

Next was the BD Hot Forge hoody, whose fit and detailing I continue to be impressed by (hood excepted).  The insulation, Primaloft Gold, is 70% treated down and 30% “Primaloft ultra-fine fibers”.  I wasn’t expecting to be all that impressed with Gold, compared to normal down, but the way it manages internal moisture has nothing less than shocked me.  In this respect performance is so far above pure treated down that I find it hard to see the purpose of the later.  For example, on the first day of our August trip my baselayer and windshirt got pretty close to soaked, first because of drizzle and then because of sweat inside a rain coat while hiking uphill with a heavy pack.  Camp was at 7000′, it was still drizzling, it was dark, and Little Bear had finally fallen asleep after a lot of crying we choose to just hike through.  I didn’t have the luxury of drying out or paying much attention to my own needs.  After dinner and getting the tent up I stuffed a hot water down my coat, got into my sleeping bag, and went to sleep.  When I woke up a few hours later, my shirts were dry.  Not dryer, dry.  The Hot Forge had matched a full Primaloft coat in what is for me the most important test.

In summary, I’m pretty skeptical about the utility of treated down, and very impressed with Primaloft Gold.  Even if Gold breaks down in a few years and I need a new coat sooner than I would a pure down coat, it will probably still be a worthwhile compromise.  For the last few years I’ve been running a head-to-head comparison between standard and treated down, via the standard 800 fill which came in my stock Vireo Nano, and the 3 ounces of treated down I added to the upper third.  Simply put, I haven’t noticed much of a difference.  There have been plenty of claims about the virtues of treated down, but I think most of them are based on situations which are of little practical importance.  As far as a I know no one makes a down blend sleeping bag in premium materials.  It’d be an expensive experiment, but one in which I’d be very interested.

Infant outdoor clothing

LB shown below in Patagonia Baggies jacket and pants, and Patagonia Micro D crew.dsc00854

If you’re going to do a bunch of outdoor stuff with your infant or toddler, it’s worth getting them some primo or near-premium outdoor clothing.  Given how fast they grow it can seem absurd to spend serious money on something which is grown out of in months, but a few key pieces make the backcountry a lot easier for the parents, and safer and more comfortable for the kid.  Not too many companies make such clothing, with Patagonia having by far the largest selection.  Therefore, Little Bear has been Patagucci’d since an early age.  We live in a posh mountain town with several used gear stores, but baby clothing doesn’t pop up too often.  I think most people horde it, either out of nostalgia or for the inevitable next kid.

There seems to be nearly as much variability with kids as with adults, but since he was 4 months I’ve been impressed with how easily Little Bear keeps himself warm.  Bundling him up in massive layers has rarely been necessary.  That said most of the time he’s along for the ride in either the backpack or the trailer, and needs more insulation than the more active adult, though riding in the pack does take some effort and generate some body heat.

Fleece and quick dry base layers have been his foundation, and well worth the investment.  Babies drool a lot, snot a lot, spill food all over, and occasionally overwhelm their diapers.  Poly garments dry fast, which makes drool less chilling and backcountry laundry more expedient.  LB always has a complete change of primary and secondary layers along on multi-day trips.

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Capilene has served LB well.  The daily capilene long and short sleeve shirts (equivalent to Capilene 1 or silkweight Capilene) are nice for sun protection in hot weather, while the Capilene onesie and pants set (equivalent to Capilene 3) is warm and versatile.  None of the stuff in Patagonia’s winter 16/17 line up is what we’ve used; it’s all listed as 88/12 poly/spandex which is too much lycra for good dry times.  They do sell the Capilene pants separately now, which is good.  These pants are bug proof, but the pajama style stays put better than normal pants on the non-waist of infants.

Microfleece has been LB’s bread and butter, and the Micro D crew (still sold) is a must-have item.  We’ve had three different ones as he’s grown, and all have been used heavily.  Full zip, hooded fleece jackets are also good, in a variety of weights and ideally sized big enough to fit over the Micro D.  Hoods defeat, most of the time, LB’s hatred and intolerance of all hats.  The North Face makes a good one we’ve used a bunch, as does Patagonia, though we found a perfectly serviceable microfleece hoody in 12-18 month at Old Navy.  Fleece pants are, naturally, a good idea as well.

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The most crucial piece of infant clothing has been Patagonia’s Baggies jacket and pants.  Made of supplex nylon, they’re tough windbreaker-type garments, and in addition to repelling wind and light rain, are mosquito proof.  The pants especially were the only ones of their type we could find, and even then they had sold so fast we got stuck with what turned out to be very charming pink/salmon numbers.  The double knees provide a little padding while crawling, and the hood helps keep sun off. We haven’t invested in proper rain gear just yet, because with a rain cover on either the backpack or chariot it just didn’t seem necessary, and Baggies works enough during fair weather packrafting.  I would not have wanted to have gone through this past summer, especially a few buggy trips in August, without these.

The last piece of the tech clothing puzzle is insulation.  We splurged early and bought LB a Hi-Loft down coat from Patagonia, and auntie Kate got him another for his birthday.  At retail this is a silly expensive and not very utilitarian item, but the style and packed size is very nice.  Infants are a lot harder to hold in a slippery down coat, and the added warmth only seems to rarely be necessary.  When they’re little a far more practical item is the Patagonia fleece bunting with dual access zips, and leg zips which combine both legs into one (sleeping bag or seal mode).  Sadly these amazing items seem to have been discontinued; we bought aggressively from the use market this spring.  Buntings are less pragmatic for older kids, as the integrated booties don’t walk well, and from 9 months on LB found them too confining.

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The last mandatory item is socks, specifically wool socks from Smartwool. You cannot have too many of these, as they are both dead useful and tiny (and forever getting lost).  They stay put better than any proper shoes we’ve found, are warm when wet, and make fantastic gloves.  I’ve taken to stuffing a spare pair in each of the two hand pockets of his down jacket, better to keep track of them on dayhikes and backpacks.

Last, and certainly not least, it should be noted that we only purchased a modest amount of all this stuff.  Most of it has been provided to LB by grandparents, aunts, and friends, who have done a fantastic job of making sure he is well outfitted.  If you have an outdoors-inclined family member or friend who has an infant or is expecting one soon, get them some infant outdoor essentials.  They’re the sort of thing which gets used constantly and is the best way to hope to the top of the list of best relative/friend/etc.

The Spyderco Dragonfly 2 and the Esee Candiru

This time last year I discussed the Candiru, a knife which does a remarkable job presenting a durable hard-use package in a tiny size.  It does so at the expense of easy sharpening and precise cutting, two things which the similarly sized and shaped Spyderco Dragonfly 2 does very well.  After a year of using both it is worth elaborating on the comparison.
img_0821I carry the Dragonfly on a daily basis, as well as on almost every trip I’ve taken into the woods in the past year.  As a folder with a good pocket clip (once I took it off and made the bend more aggressive), it’s just easier to carry and access than the Candiru.  The thinner blade, and steel which holds an edge far longer, makes it more suited than the Candiru for the things I most often ask of a knife: slicing apples, packaging, and the like.  It cuts easily enough to gut a fish, or even a squirrel, though the moving parts make it harder to clean.  The needlessly abundant texturing on the handle and corrugations (“jimping” in pretentious knifespeak) on the blade significantly enhance this crud collecting tendency, without providing much real world function.  I can see corrugations for the thumb on the upper part of the blade, but like those on the Candiru they should be spaced further apart.  The Dragonfly handle should be smooth plastic, though presumably it would then look a little less cool.  These niggles aside, it’s an ideal pocket knife; being just big enough to get things done, with good ergonomics, light weight, and a reasonable price.

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The Dragonfly is not a hard use knife, as the chips I’ve put in the blade show.  I can’t recall what I did to snap the last millimeter of the tip off (I’ve done this twice, actually), but I know it wasn’t prying.  The largest chip furthest down the blade was inflicted during some aggressive and targeted whittling of a 12″ larch, in order to extract a broadhead after a missed shot on a deer two days ago.  Clearly, a task for which the Candiru would have been better suited.  Even if one is reasonable and stays far, far away from the often ridiculous world of bushcraft, prepping, and zombie hunting, it’s easy to indulge in a hagiographic, almost paranoid desire to have a knife with which one could do anything up to and including build a crude cabin.  And this desire is rooted in fact, albeit a fact I encounter perhaps every 18 months, or roughly 50-60 field days.  For this reason I’ve occasionally brought the Candiru along on trips where the potential for things to go wrong seemed higher (or where fear was simply more abundant), but the lighter weight, convenience, and usually more pragmatic attributes of the Dragonfly has meant it has almost always been the knife in my pocket.

Ideally, I’d like one knife which combines the slicing and edge retention of the Dragonfly with the abuse-ability of the Candiru.  The Bark River Micro-Canadian has been the number one candidate for some time, but it violates my no-knives >100 dollars policy.  A year from now I’ll probably have purchased one, and will hopefully have glowing things to write about it.

How to backpack with an infant

Taking your infant backpacking is both not as hard and exactly as hard as you probably imagine it to be. The following is an aerial view of the major concerns we’ve encountered in the past year, hoping that others (especially new and expectant parents) may find it useful.  Though plenty of sweat and suffering were involved, backpacking trips have been some of the brightest of the many start which have illuminated our first year as parents.

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Preparation for backpacking with an infant needs to start not only before said infant is born, but well before said infant is even conceived (mentally or literally).  To take an infant backpacking you must be skilled at backpacking, a strong carrier of packs, and most importantly comfortable in the field.  Infants eat up your mental and physical resources under familiar circumstances, so it’s ideal if the mechanics of setting up camp, doing chores, cooking, and packing are as routinized as possible.

We did well in all but one aspect of this.  With plenty of trips in a variety of environments our systems were very familiar.  I’m currently between 700 and 800 nights in the woods lifetime, and often sleep better on a Thermarest than I do at home.  M isn’t quite to that level of comfort, especially in bear country (two issues discussed below), but was familiar enough.  Our preparatory shortcoming was M’s almost total lack of background carrying packs heavier than 20 pounds.  With good gear, and with being both a faster hiker and quite a bit heavier than her, it made sense for me to carry more stuff to equalize our speed.  This put us on the back foot when we had to add 30-40 pounds of infant and infant stuff.

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For the first three months backpacking with an infant is not recommended.  Their immune systems are fragile and straying too far from definitive medical care could be dicey.  Day hikes with a front carrier (below) and infant insert are the order of the day, with time to get used to feeding and diaper changes out in the woods.

Depending on the pace of their development, between 3 and 4 months infants will be able to hold their heads up, and themselves erect to a certain extent, for a decent stretch.  Backpack carriers are out, but soft front carriers like the Ergobaby Performance (non-cotton) are a good option.  We used a wrap which was effective but fussy and slow to deploy.  We should have bought the Ergo sooner.  Little Bear loved hiking at this age, but fatigued after a solid half day.  We did minimal backpacking, but a lot of dayhiking, which I do think was enormously important in conditioning him to love being in the backpack later.  Had we lived in a warmer climate without so many bears leisurely backpacks on trails or easy terrain, with plenty of time in camp, would have been really nice.  At this age infants can’t crawl, or even turn over, and are easily amused.

Around six months, give or take quite a lot either way, infants will be large enough to securely fit in, and strong enough to sit upright in, a good backpack carrier.  This is when backpacking with infant starts to really be game on.  Properly acclimate your kid to the carrier, and to the rhythm of backpacking, and don’t push their core and torso strength too much too soon, and you can do some very ambitious trips during this period.  They’re as light as they’ll ever be, love the changing scenery of hiking as well as being up at adult eye level, and before they start crawling are much, much easier to watch in camp.  LB was in this phase when we did our Honaker-Slickhorn trip, and in retrospect I kick myself that we didn’t prioritize another keystone backpacking trip during that phase of his development.

At some point your infant will start to crawl and then walk, and more significantly will emphatically want to be out under their own power exploring the world.  Preemptive, extended breaks while backpacking are vital at this phase, as is taking those breaks and making camp in areas which facilitate safe infant wandering.  Steep sidehill trails, cliffs, talus, and tall brush are all no good.  Meadows and beaches, especially those that gradually slope into a still body of water, are ideal.  This past week we got into a decent cycle, hiking 4-6 miles (2 to 2.5 hours), then taking a 30-60 minute break.  Obviously daily mileage takes a hit.  At some point in the near, but yet to be found future LB will want even more time on his feet, and presumably we’ll drop daily miles drastically as he slowly transitions towards hiking more and more on his own.

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Kids are heavy, and fairly soon after they can ride all day in the pack, they’re strong enough to hurl their weight sideways to get a better look at that one boulder or patch of flowers (colors….).  In an ideal world one parent would carry the kid, the other everything else.  In a really ideal world the gear load will dip close to or below the kid load as food is eaten, though diaper weight makes this happen much more slowly.  Then the parents could swap, as a 28 pound kid load (22 pound 10 month old, plus 6 pound carrier) often feel close to a 35 or 38 pound pack, when said kid is active.  As I alluded to above, M was not able to carry LB in the Osprey, due to both her lack of weight training and hipbelt incompatibility.  Thus the evolution of the rig seen above.  On our recent trip I had all our camp gear plus dinners, stove and fuel, as well as 6 days of diapers in the cargo pocket of the Osprey.  Probably 45 pounds, including kid, but due to the less than ideal leverage it feels like 60 (at least).  I’m in good hiking shape, and good pack carrying shape, and our first day (17 miles with a 3000′ climb at the end) wrecked me like I’ve rarely been wrecked before.  In short, our system works, and will continue to work, but it has pretty high demands on the adults.  Not having to frankenstein a cargo rig would be much better.

This is also a good place to note that any non-backpacking you can do while backpacking is very welcome.  Base camping, which we’ve resisted out of principle thus far, seems pragmatic.  Packrafting adds significantly to the load, but the value of time off the feet can hardly be overstated.  We had heavier packs and did almost the same overall miles in the same amount of time on Honaker-Slickhorn as our recent Glacier trip, but with the later being all hiking and having much more elevation gain and loss made it quite a bit tougher.

This is also the time to point out that traveling to seek out the ideal route, with ideal weather, camps, and terrain, is worth the effort.  Backpacking with an infant is a lot, lot more fun when the sun is out, it isn’t too hot or cold, and there are great places for wiggle breaks.

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Feeding backpackable infants when they’re still totally or mostly nursing is dead easy, provided the weather and bugs aren’t bad.  LB has been slower than many transitioning to solid food, and his reduced nursing and reticence/distractibility made our recent trip a bit more complicated.  A snack cup attached to the pack proved effective, though the snacks needed to be varied from day to day.  Our food bag was bulkier than usual due to the high volume and low cal/oz baby foods.  On days LB’s food intake was a bit low, he made up for it with midnight nursing.  Fine for his health, less fine for M’s sleep.  Being proactive in this area makes a big difference.

Sleep in the backcountry has been quite variable with the kid.  LB set what is still his personal best for continuous sleep on his very first backpacking trip, but most of the time he sleeps less deeply and with more interruptions than at home.  Unfamiliar circumstances?  We can only assume.  He’s always slept in our bed, first in a bassinet and from six months on just between us.  Friends whose infants are used to cribs have had a harder time with occasional outings in a tent.

A fully enclosed tent is a good idea with an infant.  LB absolutely recognizes and values the safe, home-like area a tent creates, away from the pokey and hard things and uneven surfaces, and enjoys playing on our sleeping mats and with our sleeping bags.  Earlier this summer we replaces M’s second leaky (for no reason) Big Agnes IACore with a Klymit Static V Luxe.  This massive, 30 inch wide pad fits both M and LB, allowing for easy midnight nursing, and leaves a bit of room for me tucked into the corner of the tent.

Sleeping bags for kiddo has been a moving target, and not something we currently have dialed.  Early on he did well with the Patagonia fleece buntings, with feet zipped together, but since nine months or so LB finds those too confining.  He had a brief period when the louder premium nylon of the Climashield sleeping bag I made him was so loud it kept him from going to sleep, which was awesome (not).  Currently he refuses to sleep with his arms anything other than spread eagled, so sleeping in an insulating jacket, with socks for mittens and his sleeping bag pulled up to his armpits, is the best we can do.  Adding suspenders to the bag so he can’t wiggle out is top of the current project list.

Fortunately, I’ve been consistently surprised at how easily LB stays warm.  These days he needs less insulation than I do for given conditions.  He is also a 13 month old, which is to say a dirty and drooly creature.  Fleece layers, and plenty of them, are the order of the day.  I’ll address infant outdoor clothing in a separate post in the weeks to come, and just say that we’ve found technical baby clothing, while expensive, to be worth it.  Quick drying, warm when wet stuff makes backcountry baby life much simpler.  The mosquito-proof Patagonia Baggies pants and jacket especially.

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We know about a dozen other couples who’ve had kids in the last 2 years, and exactly one of them has ever taken their infant backpacking.  Most wait months, if not over a year, to even go car camping.  This is a mistake.  Because modern life insulates us from backpacking it is too easy for getting out in the backcountry to seem too hard, too inconvenient.  This even without an infant in the picture. Making backpacking, camping, and hiking with your infant a habit helps keep it as simple and necessary, in your mind, as it should be.  Make no mistake, the longer backpacking trips we’ve done with Little Bear have been physically crushing, and the aftermath would be intimidating if the trips themselves were not almost always so awesomely fulfilling.  Backpacking has been a passion for us, and sharing that with our child is for both him and us the height of necessity.  In doing this well, there is no greater satisfaction.

Sierra Designs Tensegrity 2 Elite review

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The Tensegrity 2 Elite is an exceptional tent, in many ways.  Unfortunately the most significant of those ways is not easy to convey in either words or pictures, and because of this, the unusual design, and the high price I worry that an excellent tent may not be long on the market.

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We purchased (at an industry discount) the Tensegrity specifically as a family backpacking tent; we wanted the lightest and most compact package which would provide sleeping room for two adults plus an infant/toddler, as well as enough elbow room for diaper changes and the other acrobatics that are part of camping with a little kid.  Full bug protection, full floor, and good ventilation were mandatory, while serious storm resistance was not.  I was intrigued by the unconventional design, and beyond wanting to see one first hand, was convinced it would meet our needs.

It has. The most exceptional thing about the Tensegrity is, by far, how much livable space it packs into a small footprint.  88 by 50 inches does not tell the story.  First, the head end gets wider towards the top, and the rainfly/tarp overhangs still further outside. Second, the foot pole is positioned far back, making the rear wall vertical.  At 5’11” I have excess room for gear at my head and no chance of my sleeping bag hitting the rear wall or ceiling.  Tall folks will do well in the Tensegrity, even sleeping on thick air matts.  Changing diapers is comfortably accomplished, with all our gear inside, and there is plenty of room for M to breastfeed while I organize gear or do other small camp tasks.  We’ve had three adults inside, the shortest of whom was 5’8″, along with the kiddo and there was plenty of room for hanging around away from the bugs.  I’ve tried, and failed, to take a photo which accurately conveys how comfy it is to be inside the Tensegrity.  It so far outstrips the competition in this regard that the point simply cannot be overemphasized.

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The Tensegrity is unapologetically built for three season conditions, and prioritizes space and ventilation over weatherproofing.  No other singlewall, integrated tarp-tent has as much venting.  The front and rear walls are mesh with no fabric backing, and while both are well shaded from any conceivable level of rain splash, there is by design no way to keep the wind out.  The sides, which zip fully down and open, can be closed totally by a waterproof panel, or be fully open for venting.  That one can get so much airflow, and full bug protection, while being totally protected from ordinary sorts of rain is a very pragmatic design feature.  These are the sorts of conditions most folks in most places see most often.

That said, the Tensegrity is a single wall tent, and therefore the roof will build condensation faster on clear nights, as it lacks the insulated barrier of a double wall.  It’s tempting to compare the ~3 pound weight to the similar weight of a double wall tent like the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 and assume the later would do better when it comes to condensation management.  In my experience this is not the case, whatever advantage the Copper Spur might gain by having a double wall is given back by having less air flow and less interior air volume for occupants to expire into.  It’s worth revisiting the first point; while on paper the Copper Spur is taller, wider at the head and a bit longer than the Tensegrity, in practice the Tensegrity feels much, much bigger.  The most comparable Tarptent product, the Rainshadow 2, has sloped walls and must thus be over six feet wide to provide similar (less, really) interior space.

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Pitching the Tensegrity is not inherently difficult, unlike some of the asymmetrical tarptents which have become popular, but the setup process does not generalize well from any other tent I’ve used, and one does need to follow the instructions for optimal results.  Pole length for the grommet used is crucial, for example.  Compare the top photo, which is an ideal pitch with vertical tension along the door, with the second photo, where somewhat paradoxically too long poles prevent proper vertical tension, and thus slacken the pitch overall.  A lot of folks online get this wrong, and end up using the optional side guylines in addition to the front awning to tension the shelter.  These lines exist so that the awning can be rolled up in fair weather, and are sewn such that when you try to use them in concert with the awning they don’t add anything of substance.  The whole point the Tensegrity is that one line of continuous tension goes from the rear stake along the edges and down to the outer edges of the front awning, which in turn tensions the trekking poles and holds the shelter up.  Four additional stakes are recommended at the corners of the interior, but these don’t add much in terms of structural support.  And for fuck sake, don’t prop the pole ends on the ground, tension, and call it good.  Sierra Designs added the grommets for a reason, and the result is far superior with them in use.

This is the most substantive weakness of the Tensegrity, that these three stakes, and especially the back stake, get put under quite a bit of force.  You start the pitch from the back, and it is worth taking time to make sure that one stake is very secure.  In loose soils, equalizing two stakes to the one lineloc is probably a good idea.  Other than this, the Tensegrity performs very well within it’s inherent limitations.  It isn’t a tent for significant snow loads, and while the large, unsupported stretches of fabric do move a fair bit in moderate winds, the tent isn’t loud or unstable, and this movement seems to be part and parcel of the design.  Sierra Designs has wind tunnel testing videos on the product page which show wind resistance I consider quite adequate for three season performance.  There are lighter shelters with vastly greater wind shedding ability, but none of them provide anything close to the same amount of liveable space and ventilation.

It is worth noting that while the end to end length, and width of the front awning, are considerable the flexibility of the awnings angle makes it easy to slip the Tensegrity into some very small spaces.  In Utah this spring an ideal spot at the end of a long day had a patch of flat sand only a few feet longer than the interior.  I anchored the awning up and away a bit by wedging pebbles into cracks in the sandstone ledges and tying the guylines to them.  A bit of creativity goes a long way here, though that does add time to the pitch.

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Another significant consideration with the Elite (all silnylon) model is seam sealing, which due to the complexity of the design is a substantial undertaking.  Seams on the fly, floor, and sides all need to be sealed, and if you’re doing this in a garage during the dead of winter as I was in January at least two separate sessions (to allow the sealant to dry, before you repitch the shelter at a different angle) will be necessary.  Not what I would call difficult, but if a couple hour investment post-purchase is off putting the addition weight and poorer longevity of the PU coated (and thus taped) FL model might be indicated.

Besides vast amounts of livable space, the Tensegrity distinguishes itself from the competition (Big Agnes and Tarptent being the most obvious) by being built to noticeably higher standard.  Stitching and finish are exceptionally neat, and the details both little (linelocs with correct amount of nice cord installed, thick coated webbing on the corner tieouts) and big (#5 zippers, straight, no curved paths on the main doors) are done to perfection.  My only niggles are two; replace the two part guy lines on the awning corners with one single long piece for faster use, and make the triangle of fabric where the door zips come together stiffer so it doesn’t snag.  Otherwise Sierra Designs has hit all buttons, functional and fanciful, in a way the competition (whom I’ve slept in but never felt inclined to purchase precisely because they don’t do these things) never has.  Personally, I hope the Tensegrity does well, as this would be evidence of function winning out over hype.

Osprey Poco AG review

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The Osprey Poco AG is a well executed kid carrier for day hiking and perhaps backpacking. It carries the kid exceptionally securely and comfortably, but has serious limitations for women or the long torso’d.

For detail shots of the pack, and my initial thoughts when we bought it, see here.

All photos by M.

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We’ve used the hell out of the Poco AG in the past six months.  As hikers and backpackers before anything, a good kid carrying backpack is essential, and since Little Bear hit six months and could hold himself upright well enough to ride in a pack the Poco has been our most used backpack.

The strength of the Poco is without question the child harness, and the pack structure which accommodates and protects it.  The seat is wide, padded just enough, and the harness is secure.  The height adjustment is quick and intuitive.  The padded drool pad, removable for washing, serves as a great pillow for the inevitable and frequent trail naps.  The framing which holds the kid compartment open is robust, enough that it provides a not inconsiderable amount of armoring if the adult slips on a sidehill.  (Deuter carriers are notably deficient in this regard, which is a largely academic issue for folks who don’t hike off trail.) The kickstand, deployed in the top photo, is convenient and can be extended or retracted by the wearer, with the pack worn.

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The integral, retractable sun shade is another excellent and often used feature.  We’ve yet to convince LB to wear a hat for more than one minute, and hoods are an imperfect solution, so this has been used frequently.  It also, as shown, works well for head support while napping.  The lack of a full length sleeves for the shade to go into when not is use has been a consistent annoyance.  Without this nothing separates it from stuff in the lower cargo pocket, and when that pocket is close to full snagging is almost inevitable.

The aftermarket rain cover, which cinches around the sun shade, isn’t something we’ve used often.  It is effective, and fairly easy to put on, but could be just a hair longer to better cover LB’s feet.

Overall there’s not much Osprey could do better to keep a kid secure and happy in the Poco.

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The adult side of the Poco, by contrast, has a few systemic issues, which may or may not be likely addressed in the near future.  The first is frame height.  The Poco comes in one size, and while it adjusts easily to fit shorter torso lengths, as can be seen above at 21″ I am right at the top end of sizing, and only just get shoulder lift.  By the time most infants are big enough to ride in a pack the kid-pack combined weight will be close to 20 pounds, and our current LB+pack weight of 29 is I would guess about average in terms of the useable window.  Osprey rates the Poco to nearly 50 pounds, and therefore ought to build it to carry that load, which in its squirms and lurches to grab the passing scenery feels a lot heavier than the same amount of gear tightly compressed.

With 30 pounds I could see rating the Poco for a 21″ torso.  At 50, I can’t see it being rated for anything more than 18″.  It’d be ideal if Osprey made two sizes, though presumably on a low margin, low numbers item that is financially unattractive.  It’s worth repeating (from the February post) that given the complexity of the design, 250 dollars for the Poco is a bargain.

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I’ve been impressed by the Poco’s hipbelt.  The stripped down version of the AG suspension functions like a full-wrap belt, with only a tiny amount of stretch which after a few hours requires periodic recinching.  The problem is in the stiff foam wings which provide tension and structure for the mesh which contacts the user.  As a normal, skinny-ish male with little hip curve the foam wings don’t touch me at all, as intended.  M on the other hand is a woman with around average hip curve, and the wings provide a nasty and unfixable pressure point on the bottom edge.  Every woman who I’ve spoken with about the Poco AG reports a similar issue, while almost all men like the belt just fine.

Overall, a kid carrier needs to be built with a virtually expedition grade suspension, and while the frame of the Poco is super stiff, the harness comes up short.  Greater frame height, and more adaptable belt, and cusher shoulder straps are all needed.

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Lastly, I’d love to see Osprey seriously tackle the problem of how to build a kid carrier with serious, backpackable cargo capacity.  2500 cubic inches would do nicely.  My sandwich rig with the Seek Outside Revolution gets the job done, but if the suspension were beefed up the Poco could easily carry the load itself, with some wing pockets, and slightly expanded back pocketing as well.  A niche product for sure, but one can dream.  If anything over the past six months we’ve learned that getting prepped for a backpacking trip with infant is harder than the trip itself; Osprey would do the world a favor by making the packing part a bit simpler.