The Alpinist Mountain Standards reviews apply Alpinist's tradition of excellence and authenticity to gear reviews by providing unbiased, candid feedback and anecdotal commentary to equipment tested (hard) in the field. Our panel is comprised of climbers who use the gear every day as part of their work and play. Only the gear they would actually buy themselves, at retail price, qualifies for the Alpinist Mountain Standards award. The five-star rating system is as follows:
One Star = Piece of junk.
Two Stars = Has one or more significant flaws, with some redeeming qualities.
Three Stars = Average. This solid piece of gear is middle-of-the-road on the current market.
Four Stars = Better than most comparable gear on the market. It has one or two drawbacks, but still 90% positive.
Five Stars = Is there such thing as perfection? An Alpinist Mountain Standards award-winner.
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Black Diamond Firstlight Tent: Bombproof, Featherweight
Posted on: November 10, 2007
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."
"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.