I’ve been a big fan of single-wall tents since I scored a BD Bibler I tent in the mid-’90s, finding I could put up with its shortcomings - space and condensation - in return for a tiny footprint, ease of use and weight (1.95 kg). Before that, I’d just done what most UK climbers did when climbing mountains and made use of huts, snow holes and Gore bivvy bags, which at the time weighed in at around 700 g. This meant that bivvies were open, which was fine in good weather, but often ended in curtains for your climb if it got stormy, your down bag soon wetting out and snow getting into it when you tried to cook, or meant you couldn’t cook at all (which killed the psych to go on for most climbers). Come to think of it, the very first single-wall tent I used was Paul Ramsden’s homemade bivvy tent (based on the same Troll tent Andy Perkins and Brendan Murphy had used on Cerro Kishtwar), which although it eventually got ripped open during a hellish storm on Fitzroy, showed me how much protection a simple tent could provide - well until it disintegrates).
The use of a tent that could fit in the same space as two sleeping mats meant that if a ledge could fit two bivvy bags, it could fit a Bibler I, something that had been demonstrated on the hardest Himalayan routes on the planet (in the 1986 K2 tragedy seven people somehow squeezed into one Bibler tent). The ground area of a tent might not seem that important when you’re looking at the stats, but when it’s 1 am and you’re hacking away at an ice slope it means everything.
The problem was that on technical alpine routes you often don’t have even room to lie down, and no snow or ice to cut away, so climbers ignored such tents, seeing them more for the greater ranges, plus they added more weight when bivvy bags had to be carried as well. What was overlooked in the past was the huge advantage these tents provided of being able to escape the weather. They meant you could sit out bad weather, keep your kit dry, cook, and even use a lighter bag, sharing body heat, advantages that could not be ignored for long (soon climbers began using nylon tarps to achieve some of these benefits).
The best way to have it both ways was to take one bivvy bag and one tent (the Fowler method), so both climbers could sleep in the tent, but when they had to sleep sitting up or had to sleep apart, the tent could be used as the second bivvy bag. The tent could also be used like a Zdarsky sack or bothy bag, just pulled over both climbers (standing or sitting), as a way of giving them some temporary breathing room from the elements (people often bail at the first snow shower, but find the sun comes out five raps down). This method also coincided with improvements in sleeping bag shell materials, such as Drylite and more water-resistant Pertex materials, that made bags more snow proof.
The condensation problems with the Bibler were never really that bad, as the tent has that old school first generation Gore style brushed inner, which helped to capture the condensation (this would still collect on poles and drip, however). At night this would collect, but running the stove in the morning would often help to dry things out, and turning the tent inside out before packing, allowing the moisture to freeze, then shaking it out, sorted the rest.
I always would recommend taping a tie-off (3 mm cord) to one end of each pole, as they can easily be dropped when packing or unpacking in tight spots (they just slip away), and it allows them to be clipped off to the belay before being packed away. Also make sure you don’t forget a repair sleeve, as there is a high chance of breaking a pole, and tape to fix it in place.
I began to use my Bibler both for climbing expeditions and general camping and dirt-bagging because I just enjoyed the ease of use and speed you could throw it up, so small you could pitch it anywhere; the bushes of French motorway services, inside a derelict building, on a picnic table (I also remember camping in the Llanberis pass once with the kids, forgetting my tent pegs and using our cutlery instead).
One downside with using it for general camping was at the time the Bibler had no porch, which is OK on short very technical climbs, but a pain on longer routes, that require non-technical multi-day approaches and descents at lower (wetter) elevations. Later, Black Diamond would bring out a removable lightweight porch that greatly improved its usability for around 600 g extra weight, and being modular, could be removed before the climb.
Strength and longevity wise, I’ve found the Bibler has stood up well to heavy use, in fact, I’m still using it twenty years on, which could be due to its simplicity, with few seams and only five panels (floor and 4 walls) meaning any holes can be fixed easily, outlasting several double-wall tents I’ve had.
The next single-wall tent I had was a Macpac prototype that featured a porch, which was great for approaches, but ended up being a hassle on tiny ledges as the porch material would just hang down the wall and flap around. A modular porch was the way to go.
The game-changer for climbers was the Black Diamond Firstlight, a stand out pure alpine tent that made few compromises. The web is full of praise for the Firstlight, with its pack size and weight (1.28 kg) something climbers a generation older would have thought science fiction. The Firstlight allowed climbers who had rejected the ‘Bibler I tent + bivvy bag’ system to play around with it on all but the steepest routes, the Firstlight rapidly replacing the Bibler on the hardest climbs around the world (the I tent has now been replaced by the slightly larger Eldorado).
I never found the Firstlight material (epic at the time) as predictable as membrane fabrics (myself and Paul Ramsden once woke up below the Harlin with our sleeping bags soaking wet beneath our BD bivvy bags made from the same stuff), but the weight advantage made up for it, and although it seemed gossamer thin, it kept out wind and snow and mank. Robustness wise, like all super-light products, the tent was not really designed for heavy use over many years, and probably had a heavy usage limit of maybe 50 days, which would translate into three or four years of good use.
I modified my Firstlight by cutting out the groundsheet and sewing in a groundsheet that was drawcord closed. This allowed the tent to be used like a portaledge flysheet and more easily pulled over two or three sitting people (this is not as easy to do otherwise, as the door gap is not as wide as you’d imagine, and puts a lot of strain on the zippers). With this modification, you could also open up the groundsheet inside and cut a hole in the snow where you could cook, put your feet in so you could sit, etc, and it allowed you to increase the size of the tent space (by increasing the ground surface area and lowering the roof height).
One of the best lessons in using single wall tents, with or without bivvy bags, is to try and move the dewpoint beyond the inner or outer layer of your bags in order to stop them wetting out, as well as protect your bags from condensation and ice showers from the fabric above. This is best done by spreading your shell and belay jackets or any spare clothing over the top of your sleeping bags (rather than wearing them). Having matching clothing (say you both have DAS parkas) is great as you can zip clothing together to form a larger piece (right zipper on one jacket to left zipper on the other) or you and your partner could sew some small 5 cm velcro tabs behind the zippers, or connect clothing via velcro patches on the wrist, toggles etc. Lie down in your bag and lie the items over yourself remembering that heat rises, so you don’t need to focus too much on the sides, but pay close attention to your feet, or anywhere where you’re pressing against the walls of the tent. This approach not only keeps your bags much drier - vital on multi-day climbs - but also adds a great deal of warmth. This is also a good approach when cooking in the tent, which can produce a lot of condensation (try and avoid any kind of rolling boil, and read up on carbon monoxide poisoning, especially with Jetboil/Reactor style stoves). Any wetness or ice you get into your clothing using this method will just dry out once you wear the clothes.
Last year I was given a new mountain tent by MSR called the Advance Pro 2 (reminds me of the story of two guys outside a cinema, going to see that cheesy climbing classic ‘K2’, and one of them saying ‘I never saw K1’).
The tent seems to be a bridge between the Firstlight and the I tent, adding a handful of features that make the tent a little easier to pitch, a little more solid. Weight wise the tent still comes in at a very light 1.3 kg, and features the same two-pole system all these tents have, the poles, in this case, being Easton Syclone poles, which are “virtually indestructible” (I’ve added the inverted commas as I did manage to break one).
The difference with the Advance Pro 2 is that the poles are attached to each other, which both aids stability, and also eliminates the chance of dropping one pole while you’re inserting the other. The tent, unlike the Firstlight, has exterior poles, with a mix of sleeves at the back and clips at the front, allowing the tent to be pitched in seconds without having to crawl inside and battle with little fiddly clips or velcro tabs (not nice at -30 degrees). With all such push sleeve designs it’s vital you have the ends in place fully before bending the opposite free ends into their place, as any dead space can see the poles break. The clips are easy to clip in place (even with mitts on), and you could use a karabiner or thread the poles through the webbing if the clips did break (this would only happen if you stood on them I guess).
The fabric (20d ripstop nylon 2 ply breathable 1000 mm) of the tent is a membrane that stands up to bad weather well, and although you will get frosting or wetness it can easily be shaken out or wiped away in the morning, the material itself not wetting out. The groundsheet (30d ripstop nylon 3000 mm Durashield) is very light, and like most such groundsheets is really designed for use on snow, otherwise, you need to employ some form of protection for it.
Space-wise the tent feels the same as the Firstlight, but at just 5.10, I cannot imagine any six-footers using the tent for more than a couple of nights.
The design features include a mesh-covered vent in the roof (mesh is for snow not bugs), and a small awning/flap to allow venting from the door. The door has two zippers and no mosquito net, meaning you’re locked in if there are bugs around (I made my kids sleep in the tent every night while sea kayaking in Croatia and they were not happy!).
The last feature is a very solid guy line set up, with both webbing and welded points. For usability, I’d swap out the two main MSR side guys (the most important ones) for less fiddly Clamcleat 4 mm reflective guys, and carry a set of their 2 mm dyneema guys for the rest in a stuff-sack (never tie knots in your guy lines as untying them is a great way to get frostbite, instead look at the Exped Cord sacks). I was unsure of the strength of the welded termination straight onto the wall of the tent, but I had one guy fall flat on his face after tripping on a guy without ripping it out, so it must be pretty good. A little detail is that there are attachment points on the inside wall as well, which means you could potentially run a cord across the middle of the tent, from one guy to another, which can increase the strength of the guys (but I’m talking Armageddon here!). Lastly, there are a few clip tabs in the roof (making your own loft would be a good idea).
So how was the tent? Well, I used it in the Alps last winter, and for three months in Africa, using it in almost every terrain you can imagine, from snowfields, talus, mud, grass, and rock ledges to hacked out ice and ice hammocks. The tent was pitched on good flat spots, on hand-built terraces, on sloping ledges, chockstones, and just about everywhere.
Setup wise the tent cannot be faulted, blink after you pull out the stuff sack (I ditched the MSR bag and used a 3-litre stuff sack), and it seemed the tent was up, with one person able to do it in less than 30 seconds. The only problem we had occurred at the point of the plastic swivel where the poles are cross-linked. We ended up once (probably knackered at midnight) not noticing that the male and female parts of one of the poles were not connected properly (the swivel can block your view a little), and so when bent, the pole split (100% user error of course, but something to watch out for). Being carbon fibre though, the breaking is a little different to alloy, and you can bind it and tape up the damage a little easier (I also think maybe it can be repaired, although I’ll not get around to it). This isn’t to say that the poles are not far stronger and robust than the older alloy ones, as I’m sure they are, only not to fall for any notion that they are almost indestructible (only Tonka trucks were indestructible).
The fabric of the tent works very well, but it is very thin, and although all tents require real care and TLC, this tent needs more. That means no standing on it, not allowing it to rub against rocks, protecting the floor from sharp stones. And yes, these things are impossible, and after a year of use (maybe 30 nights?), our tent has many small holes (granted one or two are from a mouse), mainly in the groundsheet. For alpine climbing having a groundsheet full of holes isn’t that big an issue, as your mats protect you and I mostly camp on snow, but in wet weather, or in the case of long-term placement on snow, it would be a big deal (getting your kit wet on an approach is a killer). A bigger problem is sharp objects (stones or plant needles) coming through and making holes in your mats (we use two Thermarest NeoAir Xlites that are tied together to stop slipping and cold spots with two double loops of 2 mm), which happened three times when sleeping in the bush. For this reason, I’d always use a groundsheet protector on anything but the actual climbing (I make one out of Tyvek fabric cut about 10 cm smaller all round than the groundsheet so water doesn’t pool under the tent).
So are holes a problem? No, in the short term you can just patch with tape, and in the long term, with seam grip, and damaging your kit in these ways comes with the territory, and is no different from getting punctures and broken spokes.
There were very few things I’d change about the tent as it is, but one, the biggest, is that the awning over the zipper (meant to allow some venting) is just far too small to be effective, and in anything but the lightest of drizzles, you have to zip up the tent fully, the I tent design being more effective in this case. I’d also like to have 4 zippers, so you can run your ropes out of the bottom of the door while still allowing venting, but that’s about it.
Really the biggest problem I have with the Advance Pro 2 is that at the moment it lacks an add-on porch, which ideally would come in two styles, an extended and a minimalist. So far I’ve made do with using a tarp over the front of the tent, which gives a lot of extra space but isn’t great in bad weather.
So in conclusion, I feel the Advance Pro 2 really builds on what has come before and is a tent that is definitely worth considering for those who are interested in the most exclusive of camping spots.