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Reviews > Shelters > Tarps and Bivys > Tarptent Contrail > Owner Review by Michael Dax

May 05, 2010


NAME: Michael Dax
AGE: 23
LOCATION: Old Faithful, WY
HEIGHT: 6' 3" (1.91 m)
WEIGHT: 210 lb (95.30 kg)

I grew up hiking, backpacking, and cross country skiing in the Northeast including New York, New Hampshire and Maine. For a short while I lived at the Grand Canyon and I now live in Yellowstone. I am not fanatical about light weight hiking, but I am starting to be more mindful of my gear.


Manufacturer: Tarptent
Year of Manufacture: 2006
Manufacturer's Website:
MSRP: US $200
Listed Weight: 24.5 oz (695 g)
Measured Weight: 32 oz (907 g)
Other details:

The Tarptent Contrail is an ultralight (and I mean ultralight), single wall tent for solo backpackers. The tent with the stakes comes in at roughly 32 oz (907 g). That does not include the weight of your trekking pole or the tent pole that is the major structure of the tent. If you choose to use the tent pole which you can buy from Tarptent, it is listed as weighing 2 oz (56 g).


The tent has two plastic poles that are about 14 inches in the length that are secured at the two corners at the base of the tent. These two poles form the structure of the base of the tent, and the tent can be as tall as 14 inches or as low as two or three. The poles have adjustable straps on them so you can secure the tent lower to the ground during windy conditions. Also, by adjusting the straps all the way to the ground, the floor length increases from 84 inches (213 cm) to 91 inches (231 cm). Each pole is secured into the ground and staked out. The poles stay erect from the pressure that is put on them from all the other stakes and not because they are dug into the ground

From these two corners, there are two seams that run towards the front of the tent and meet in a center apex. At this apex, the trekking pole or tent pole is secured into a grommet which forms the third base of support for the tent. This is what determines the height of the tent. If you place the pole at an angle, which would allow better access through the door, the tent will be slightly shorter. If you adjust your trekking pole to 45 inches (115 cm) as is recommended and secure the pole so that it is vertical, the tent will be at its maximum height. The front corners of the tent extend in diagonal angles from the center pole and are staked out. There is also an additional spot to secure a guy-line next to the grommet. This fifth stake point is for increased stability which is recommended if you use the tent pole instead of the trekking pole.

On the sides of the tent are two loops where additional guy-lines can be attached. If these points are staked out, the width of the tent increases from 42 inches (107 cm) to 49 (124 cm) at the top and from 30 inches (76 cm) to 37 (94 cm) at the base. However, by increasing the tent's width, the ceiling of the tent is brought down which decreases the ceiling's height from the middle of the tent down to the base.

The door of the tent unzips on two sides making a very large doorway. However, due to the placement of the trekking or tent pole, at least part of the doorway is blocked making the actual entrance into and out of the tent slightly difficult.

The front flap of the tent can be secured using a hook and loop tape that runs the length of the flap. To leave the door open and increase ventilation, the flap can be rolled up and secured with another hook and loop strap. The vestibule space created when the front flap is closed 10 square feet (.9 sq. meters) and is large enough to fit a backpack and a pair of boots.

The inside of the tent is a bathtub floor that is about two inches (5 cm) tall. If the tent is staked out on the sides and the ends of the tent to increase its length and width, the bathtub floor is pulled down to the ground. In between the bathtub floor and the tent is a seven inch (17.5 cm) section of mesh that stretches around three sides of the tent which provides ventilation. When the tent is staked out to provide maximum width and length, the mesh becomes part of the floor of the tent.

The Contrail is not seam sealed so this must be done by the owner upon purchase. The silicone product used for sealing can be bought from Tarptent.



Even though the tent is primarily a backpacking tent, my first experiences with it were on a road trip where I was car camping along the way. This road trip took me through the deep south, across Texas to Big Bend National Park and then up into Northern Arizona and Southern Utah where I hit the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce. Naturally, because of where I was, the soil for staking out the non-freestanding Contrail was going to be an issue. Another factor that became apparent that I was not initially aware of was wind as the vast wide open landscapes of the desert are prone to some pretty good gusting.

With all new tents, setting it up can definitely prove to be difficult, but like any new tent, I quickly became more efficient as I set it up more frequently. When setting up the Contrail, the directions tell the user to stake the back poles first, then secure the trekking or tent pole, and finally secure the front two or three stakes. The major difficulty I found was keeping pressure on the back two stakes once they were in the ground so that I could successfully stake out the front of the tent. If I didn't keep the loops going from the back poles to the stakes taut, they would come undone and I would have to start over.

As I had feared, the soil conditions of the desert Southwest provided another difficulty. Because the strength of the tent relies on the users ability to put a lot of force on each stake and guy-line, it is definitely necessary to have good soil to put the stakes into. In some cases, the ground was so hard that I needed to pound the stakes into the ground with rocks. This was a good solution until I broke one of the stakes. However, after this goof-up, I made sure to be careful when pounding stakes into the ground and not to hammer too freely. I have not had a problem since. The bigger problem was when the soil was too sandy to hold a stake that had a lot of force on it. I tried to hold these stakes down by placing large rocks on them, but in using this method, I was never able to make the tent stand as stable or taut as I was when it was staked out in good soil.

Finally, if there was ever any wind, setting up the tent and keeping it set up was a task that would sometimes take the entire evening. The Contrail is so light that even the slightest breeze will send it flapping and twisting with the breeze, which makes it especially difficult to lay out and set up. I often found myself running to one end of the tent to lay it down to only immediately have to run back to the other end of the tent to catch it from the wind. At times, I found myself frustrated to epic proportions.

I am not a trekking pole user, so I bought the tent pole from Tarpent when I purchased the tent. It is just like a normal tent pole in that it comes in sections and is narrow. I found this piece fairly flimsy. The end of the pole that was secured in the ground was no larger that the butt of a pen and it bent with any significant breeze. By the middle point of my trip, the pole had a significant bow in it that made it even more susceptible to bend with each gust of wind. The flimsiness of the pole greatly contributed to the difficulty I had keeping the tent standing during windy weather.

Despite these initial difficulties, once the tent was set up out of the wind, it was great. It is extremely roomy for one person, and the vestibule had plenty of space for any odds and ends I kept out with me. On warm nights, I was able to keep the front flap open which provided plenty of ventilation. On two occasions, I was able to take it on backpacking trips. One was down to Grapevine Creek in the Grand Canyon and the other was in the Kolob Canyon in the northern section of Zion. Packing it into my pack went well. Laying the tent horizontally in my pack worked, but I had to keep the tent pole out of the tent bag and pack it vertically in my pack as it was just slightly too long to fit comfortably in my pack. At two pounds (900g), it was very light weight to carry.

There were a couple more odds and ends that I discovered throughout my trip. The first one was that I had to pay very close attention to the fall line when I set it up. Due to the shape of the tent, there is only one way to sleep in it, and because it is non-freestanding, I could not simply pick it up and rotate it if I found that it did not sit on the fall line well. I quickly became good at detecting subtle slopes when I was setting up the tent although I still spent a couple of uncomfortable nights sleeping at odd angles. Secondly, it is not particularly easy to clean dirt and other accumulated pieces of debris out of the tent because I could not shake it out as I would be able to if it was freestanding. However, I did develop a system of picking up the back two poles and shaking the tent from that point while the front was still staked out. This method proved fairly successful. Finally, packing up the tent in the morning is quite easy. The back poles are slightly shorter than the tent bag, so by tightly rolling the body of the tent around the poles, I was able to quickly and easily take down the tent.

Later in the summer, I took the Contrail on a backpacking trip to Heart Lake in Yellowstone. This time I was with my new girlfriend (YAY!) who is a trekking pole user. Setting up the Contrail with two people is significantly easier than one. Once the back two poles were set up, one person could hold those in place while the other person secured the front pole and stakes. This time I was also able to use her trekking pole instead of the tent pole. Once again, there was significant improvement in how stable the tent was. The wider base of the trekking pole not to mention the wider pole itself made a much strong crux than the tent pole did. (Tarpent also recommends a trekking pole). I am 6'3" (1.9 m) and my girlfriend is 5'7" (1.7 m) and we had no problem fitting into the tent with is technically listed as a 1+. Granted we did not mind being forced to be close to each other which is definitely a must when squeezing two people in the Contrail. Unfortunately, the night did not end nearly as well as it began. A huge storm blew in with massive amounts of rain and wind. At one point during the night, one of the front stakes came undone which caused the tent to collapse on me. After re-staking the front of the tent, I spent the rest of the night holding one of the walls off my face as the wind was blowing the tent to the extent that the wall bearing the brunt of the wind blew into my sleeping space. In the morning, I had a puddle at the bottom of the tent, and I can say, with some confidence, that it was the worst night I had spent in the woods. Although it did not bother me, my girlfriend found the sides of the tent blowing in the wind quite noisy, which made it hard for her to sleep. To the Contrail's credit, after a short while in the breeze of that sunny morning, it was bone dry.

Because the Contrail is a single wall tent, rain can be an issue. When I was sleeping in the tent by myself, it was roomy enough that I was not touching any of the walls of the tent, so the sagging that ensued from the tent becoming wet from rain was not an issue. However, when sleeping two in the tent, we were forced to touch the outside walls and when they were wet, the single wall was not able to keep us from becoming wet.
At the end of the summer, my girlfriend and I took off on the John Muir Trail (JMT) for 19 days and over 220 miles (354 km). For the most part, my results varied little from my previous experiences, but there were some new things that became apparent. Over the course of the 19 days, we spent 17 nights in the tent and became experts at putting up the Contrail, and finally reached a point where the tent was as taut as all the pictures on Tarptent's website have it looking. Any difficulty and frustrations that I may have experienced in the beginning had all dissipated once I gained the proper experience. Secondly, the soil in the Sierras and the lack of wind provided great conditions for the Contrail. There were some nights where we had to pound the stakes in with rocks, but there was never an instance of soil that was too soft to hold the high-pressured stakes. Next, over the course of the 19 days, we never once had a difficulty with any lack of space. On some nights we staked out the sides of the tent to create a little more floor space, but for the most part, it was plenty spacious which is significant considering how badly we smelled. It rained only one day on the entire trip, and never did it rain at night. We had one morning outside of Tuolumne Meadows where we woke up to a hard frost that had successfully permeated the single wall structure. However, most nights we were able to keep the front flap open and avoided any significant condensation. At some point, a tiny hole developed in the zippered mesh door. I do not know what caused this, but after about 40-50 nights spent in the tent, this was the only evidence of wear and tear. Over the course of the 19 days, the Contrail held up great and being able to carry a two pound (900 g) tent for two people could not have been better.



The Tarptent Contrail is a great tent with some reservations. Set up can be difficult for one person, but with a little bit of experience (or an extra person to give a hand) it becomes significantly easier. It is a single wall tent so it is susceptible to many of the pitfalls to which all single wall tents are susceptible. It did not keep me sufficiently dry from condensaton and did not hold up well in the one significant rain storm to which it was exposed. When the front flap is kept open, I have had little to no problem with condensation as the mesh door provides plenty of ventilation; however, with the front flap closed, condensation can become an issue. It is extremely roomy for one person and comfortable for two people as long as those two people do not mind getting pretty close to each other. I would not recommend the Contrail for non-trekking pole users. Finally, the most significant thing to be wary of when using the Contrail is the surroundings in which it is going to be used. A multiple day trip when rain is in the forecast would not be good. Trips to the desert in which the soil may not be sturdy enough to the stakes or a place where the user may want to camp on rock slabs would not be good places to take the Contrail. When looking for ultra lightweight gear, there are obvious concessions that must be made, and within that context the Contrail serves its purpose.


Quick Drying
Comfortable for 2
Roomy for 1


Need good soil for staking
Hard to Clean Inside
Difficult Set up
Not Good in Rain


Michael Dax

This report was created with the Report Writer Version 1. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

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