Black Diamond Firstlight Tent: Bombproof, Featherweight

Posted on: November 10, 2007


MSRP: $299

Weight: 2 pounds, 11 ounces

Early this summer I began testing the Black Diamond Firstlight Tent, from the Vedauwoo desert to the alpine flanks of the Grand Teton. I was pleased with its versatility—it seemed the perfect tent for any summer conditions. That worried me. The ultra-lightweight, single-wall shelter is marketed as a four-season favorite, but I feared how it would fare against the wintry precipitation and cold so common from October through April in the Rocky Mountain West. Yet now, in the middle of November, having weathered significant snowstorms and cold rainstorms in the Firstlight, I'm eager to sack up in this dome no matter the forecast.

The Firstlight is one of Black Diamond's two-man "Superlight" tents. Its materials, durability and design features aside, this tent is staggeringly light and small, and therefore ideal for climbing in the alpine (or any application where weight is regrettable). Its 2 pounds, 11 ounces is lighter than many bivies, and even sans compression sack, it packs down—aluminum poles (DAC Featherlite, whatever those are) and all—to a size comparable to a single piece of outerwear.

I first set up the tent in the dark, no acquaintance with its design. Once I deciphered that the poles went inside the tent, it went up like a breeze. The tent popped into place with one step: fitting each of the two poles, crossed, into opposite corners. The end of each pole sat in a button-like circle of metal surrounded by a pocket of burly fabric. The fabric allowed me to jam the poles in haphazardly—a great asset, considering my impatience—and then slot them into the buttons once I was inside. The other "inside job" is to lock each arcing pole into place with four small Velcro tabs.

Wintry bonuses: the tent is equally easy to set up from the inside, and I found the design so basic and brilliant that wearing gloves did not impede the process (except for fastening the interior Velcro tabs). The tent can transform from "packaged" to "prepared" in under two minutes.

The sleek aluminum stakes pound easily, stay in the ground and are easy to pull or pry out. I suggest using them if you're ever leaving your site, as this featherlight toy has a predilection for flight (I learned this the hard way). When staked out, however, the hatches are battened, and even very strong winds are of little concern.

Having never owned a single-wall tent previously, my initial trepidations regarding the Firstlight's multi-season versatility were exacerbated when I reached the moraine in Upper Garnet Canyon below the Grand Teton. There I met two not-yet-familiar faces backdropped by familiar yellow (the pleasant, glowing color of the tent). That was enough to spark conversation, and then it came out.

"They don't seam seal these things."

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"Really?" I asked.

"Really. Guess it's a weight-saving technique."

Having grown up in the Northeast, a non-seam-sealed tent was two things: laughable and annoying to seam seal. Although Black Diamond offers online instructions on how to seam seal the tent, I opted to avoid the tedious weight-adding process. When three consecutive days of rain and snow arrived in Utah's high country in October, I discovered that I needed not seam seal the watertight cocoon unless I moved back east. Even after sixty hours of precipitation, not a single drop penetrated the fabric—including the floor (a ground cloth is unnecessary, but available for $34.95).

Despite the significant humidity encountered during that trip to Utah, I never woke up to condensation build-up, nor have I since. One reason is the finely meshed door (good bug blocker) and a very small meshed vent on the opposite side that allows for minimal cross-ventilation. Although I'm generally pleased with the air circulation, two design elements could improve. Going light, Black Diamond decided to use one zipper each for the mesh and nylon doors. The result is a relative lack of control regarding ventilation (compared to having two zippers for the nylon door, which would allow for an "any-size vent" at the top of the door). Also, the wires that arc over the vents are so malleable that they get bent into undesirable shapes when stuffing the tent, and it's frustrating trying to get them straight again to serve their purpose.

The most notable potential drawback is the tent's size. I find the "cozy level" perfect, but I'm 5'9". Anyone 6' or taller will have a difficult time... fitting... in this tent, unless they: 1) are alone and can sleep diagonally; or 2) purchase the optional vestibule ($129) and stick their legs out the open door. The height, however, even for taller folk, is spacious, ideal.

If you're on a long expedition with loads of gear that must be stashed inside, I'd opt for a larger tent; however, I can attest that a nice pile of tricams makes an extraordinary pillow.

All materials and craftsmanship on the Firstlight have impressed me, and I expect this tent to survive for the better part of a decade, if not longer. I recommend this tent highly for any normal-sized, weight-saving alpinist. This bombproof dome gets five solid stars.

Pros: Ultralight; packs small; strong; more waterproof and warmer than expected; easy and fast to set up (can be done from inside); stands up well to wind; top-notch materials and craftsmanship; color and opacity result in a warm glow on the inside.

Cons: Short in length; does not come seam sealed; ventilation design could be better.

Rating:



Comments
jmmorford

A tent has a clear primary job—keeping you dry. The Firstlight fails miserably at this job. BD describes the fabric as “water resistant” which is an overstatement. In an extended light rain or even a short downpour, the fabric wets out and wicks moisture inside. Because it’s a small tent, your sleeping bag, cloths and lots of other things you care about will be in contact with the wet tent walls and soon your entire kit is soaked.

I’ve used the tent for around 30 nights. Most of those were dry, but on a recent trip in the Bob Marshal, we got rain every evening. And did we get wet! We kept a pack towel in the tent to dry the walls and our gear. On our last night, I started keeping track of the amount of water wrung from the pack towel. We soaked up more than a cup of water in a single night.

I had expected a little condensation from a single wall tent and we certainly got that, too. But I also expected the tent to protect us from rain. It does not. Even after painstakingly sealing the seams, big droplets from on the poles and drip on your face. The water pours down the poles and pools in little puddles in the corners (which ironically are waterproof). I might even get passed the wet pole thing, however, if the walls didn’t get soaked, but they do.

I also am disappointed in durability and construction. The minimalist brows of the door and rear vent are supported by flexible wire. The ends of the wires are cushioned by little plastic caps, but the wire poked through one of those and wore a hole in the fabric sleeve and now sticks out.

I gave the tent a half star because it is really lightweight and easy to set up. But if it can’t keep you dry, what’s the point?

This tent is nothing more than a very small mosquito net or a very expensive backyard play tent

2010-08-16 03:44:47
weatherm

I have used this tent to bivy and basecamp in. It works great in desert environments and high humid environments because of the fabric. Really keeps the condensation from freezing inside. What really impressed me is when I had a unplanned bivy in the Rockies. It held up to constant 40mph winds and took 60mph wind gusts like a champ. Tent allowed me to come home from my bachelor party. Other than the fact you have to spend a few hours seam sealing it is a great tent. If BD did that then it would cost more.

2008-01-02 10:55:52
sowr

While seam sealing the tent flipped in a gust of wind (my bad) and was, I hate to say it torn in multiple places, especially the corners where the poles created tension. This tent uses yes, lightweight, but very fragile material.

2007-12-15 18:35:14
michaelj

I've owned the Light House version of this tent for three years and I've been very happy with it most of the time but... It sucks in a real rain. Four or five hours in a hard rain and the epic fabric starts dripping, seamsealed or not. And durable it is not. Granted I might be a bit hard on my tents but after three years I had several small rips in the fabric and blew out both zippers. Still, I replaced it with the same thing.

2007-12-08 19:31:16
jhump

Like Armin, I have had the Firstlight for 3 years or more. Great tent. It is really the only tent I'm willing to carry. However, frozen condensation is an issue. I have heard the Epic fabric has gone through a few updates in the past years. Is this true? If so, this could be the reason the reviewer has no issue with the moisture.

2007-11-20 12:09:43
armin

I own a BD Firstlight since almost three years and have used it on a number of occasions. I do not agree fully with the review. First, when temperatures drop below freezing, the condensation seems to freeze inside and block evaporation to the outside, making it even more humid inside. The ventilation mechanism is not sufficient in this case. Second, the fabric might be enough water repellent for rain without wind, but when the rain is blow is against the tent walls, water penetrates quite substantially. We were able to use it as a source of getting drinking water actually, as is was literally dripping down on the inside.

Other than that, it's a great tent and the only real lightweight option out there.

a

2007-11-17 17:00:30
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