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Reviews > Shelters > Tents > Black Diamond Skylight Tent > Owner Review by Richard Lyon

Black Diamond Skylight Tent
Owner Review by Richard Lyon
December 12, 2011

Personal Details and Backpacking Background

Male, 65 years old
Height: 6' 4" (1.91 m)
Weight: 205 lb (93 kg)
Email address: Montana DOT angler AT gmail DOT com
Home: Dallas, Texas USA

I've been backpacking for 45 years on and off, and regularly in the Rockies since 1986.  I do a weeklong trip every summer, and often take three-day trips.  I'm usually camping in alpine terrain, at altitudes 5000 to 13000 ft (1500 - 4000 m).  I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp, but I do my share of forced marches too.  Though always looking for ways to reduce weight, I'm not yet a lightweight hiker and I usually choose a bit of extra weight over foregoing camp conveniences I've come to expect.

Product Details

Skylight openThe Skylight is a dome-style tent in Black Diamond's "Superlight" tent line.  Black Diamond (BD) describes the Skylight’s capacity as “ample room for two people and a very friendly fit for three,” a more modest and much more accurate statement than its claimed three-person capacity when this tent was introduced in 2006.  Like its Superlight siblings BD bills the Skylight as a three-season tent.

Manufacturer: Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd. (BD)
Website: www.blackdiamondequipment.com
Year of manufacture: 2006
Year of purchase: 2006
Materials (my tent): Maize EPIC™ by Nextec tent body, light grey/olive silnylon floor
Materials (current version): NanoShieldŽ has replaced EPIC and the tent is now pale green (“wasabi”).
MSRP: Tent, $399.95 US.  Optional ground cloth, $44.95 US.
Includes: Tent, three color-coded DAC Featherlight shock-corded poles, sixteen aluminum stakes, 21.1 yd (6.5 m) guy line, separate silnylon stuff sacks (same color as the tent floor) for tent and poles and stakes; tube of Silnet seam sealer, syringe for seam sealing, booklet (in six languages) on BD's Superlight tents, and set-up instruction booklet.

Statistics

Listed dimensions: 88 x 69 x 42 in [224 x 175 x 107 cm]
Measured dimensions: 87.25 x 63.25 x 45.5 in
[222 x 161 x 116 cm], with width measured at the front.  At the back I measured 53 in [135 cm]; at the widest point 68.5 in [161 cm]. See Product Description below.
Weight, tent and poles, listed 4 lb 2 oz [1.9 kg], measured  4 lb 8 oz [2.0 kg] (See note below about the added window.)
Packed weight (
tent, poles, stakes, guy lines, and stuff sacks), listed "average 5 lb" [2.3 kg], measured 5 lb 6 oz [2.4 kg]
Vestibule area, listed: 0.93 m˛, 10 sq ft
Floor space, listed: 36.6 sq ft [3.4 m˛]
Vestibule: Trapezoidal; 56.5 in [144 cm] wide at the tent body, 31.5 in [80 cm] wide at the vestibule door, 30 in [76 cm] from tent door to vestibule door.  Vestibule exists only when tent canopy is rolled down (see Product Description).

Product Description.  As with other Superlights, BD has based the Skylight’s design on one of its Bibler mountaineering tents, then constructed the tent body of a lighter weight fabric than those four-season tents. With its canopy rolled down and staked out, the Skylight looks somewhat like a Bibler Fitzroy.

As noted above, my first-generation Skylight is made of EPIC. The current model uses NanoShield instead of EPIC but is otherwise virtually identical to mine.  Listed weights and measurements are the same as when I purchased mine too.  An inquiry to BD’s Customer Service confirmed that the only thing that changed from the original version was the fabric.
 
How the Skylight Works.  The Skylight is unique among the Superlights in two respects: a built-in vestibule (rather than an optional clip-on attachment that BD uses in other Superlights); and its hybrid single wall-double wall construction.  The rear two-thirds of the tent is traditional BD single wall in EPIC, but the front, down to an EPIC panel seven inches (18 cm) wide above the floor seam, is no-see-um mesh.  An EPIC canopy that is attached to the tent body where the EPIC meets the mesh can be rolled up and tied off in fine weather for a large screened front porch, or rolled out over the mesh and staked in front for protection against precipitation and wind.  When rolled out and staked the canopy provides a small vestibule at the front of the tent.

A small no-see-um vent at the top of the rear wall (which cannot be covered) and the top front of the canopy have wire-reinforced eyebrow-shaped awnings to reduce the risk of rain blowing in.  The front awning allows me to open the top of the canopy door to get a cross-ventilation when the tent is buttoned up.

Skylight rear windowI have added (through Rainy Pass, a company expert at such things) a small window in the rear EPIC panel; it’s made of no-see-um mesh with an EPIC panel on the inside to keep the rain out.  This window added six ounces (170 g) of weight.

Guys and Stakes, and Other Mechanics.  There are four staking loops along the base of each side wall, each attached to a patch of reinforcing Cordura-like material sewn on to the tent floor.  Each wall has a stitched-in loop for a guy line, and there's a reflective grosgrain ribbon loop for a guy line just above the wall - floor seam in each corner.  (In the front there are separate ribbons on the tent body and canopy, allowing guying in either configuration.)  The tent body has a single mesh door in front, and the canopy has an EPIC door of the same size.  Each door is C-shaped and has a double zipper; the doors open along the right side as one faces the tent.  When rolled out the canopy is secured by small S-shaped hooks that attach to the staking loops at the front corners of the tent body, female connectors at the bottom rear of the canopy that clip to male units just forward of the second (from the front) staking loops, and its own staking loops on either side of the entry.

Three adjustable toggle-and-loop tie-offs at the end of the single-wall portion of the tent roof hold the rolled-up canopy in place.  The mesh tent body and the canopy have single toggle-and-loop tie-offs for stashing an open door.  There are three small Velcro patches on the canopy door that mate with similar rectangles on the fabric adjacent to the zipper.

Two of the poles are black and straight and the third (slightly shorter) is silver and arched.  

Pitching the Skylight.  Years of using Bibler tents meant that I needed only a little practice before I could pitch the Skylight quickly and easily.  (The first few times I pitched my Bombshelter, however, it was very frustrating; it only became easy after much practice.  I urge anyone who's not familiar with BD's design and the interior poles to practice at home before taking any of these tents, including the Skylight, into the field.) Typical of BD single-wall tents, all poles seat inside the tent, the two black poles running from corner to corner diagonally and the curved pole canted forward to form an inverted U with its arch at the front of the mesh, just over the door.  With at least one corner securely staked (see next section), I lay both long poles through the door, then (one at a time) bend and set them into grommets in each tent corner.  Velcro loops along the inside of the roof, each with a small tab to facilitate pulling it open, hold the poles in place.  I then set the ends of the arched pole in small pockets located at the base of the tent wall and sewn to the reinforced square for the second (from the front) staking loop, and cant the pole forward into place.  This pole is similarly secured with Velcro loops; there are double-sized Velcro ties at the points where poles cross near the front corners.  The Skylight, like the Fitzroy, has something of a mummy shape to it – wider in the front than in the back, and widest at the point where the arched pole's pockets are located.
 
Complete pitching and staking of the Skylight take me no more than five minutes in normal circumstances.  The mesh ceiling at the front, however, may belie BD's claim that use of interior poles permits set-up of its tents in the rain without getting the interior soaked.  With my two Bibler tents that's definitely true; in fact I think the easiest way to set the poles is with my back flat on the tent floor and legs with boots extended out through the door.  I use that method with the Skylight too, but to keep the interior dry when it's raining the canopy corners must remain attached to the front staking loops throughout the pitching process.  The S-shaped hooks on the vestibule's corners come loose too easily for the tent to be stored this way, so I must (a) pull down the canopy immediately after unrolling the tent, (b) set the hooks in the loops, and (c) stake out all four corners, starting with the front, before (d) crawling inside to set the poles.  Even if I can do this all quickly enough to keep rain from penetrating the mesh before step (d) – and I couldn't when I met with rain - a hook can (and did) work loose from manipulation of the main poles, stretching the arched pole to seat it properly, a gust of wind, or, it sometimes seems, mischief from the local tent gremlin.  Replacing these hooks with male-female connectors, like the ones at the rear of the canopy, would really help.

I strike the Skylight by removing first the stakes (all but one – see below), then the poles, and folding the tent to a size from which I can roll it up to fit into its stuff sack.  There are two elastic loops on the tent stuff sack that I can use to attach the separate stuff sack for stakes and poles.  If the tent is dry I pack it with the canopy rolled up and tied off, which facilitates orientation when I unpack it to pitch it again.

Manufacturer's Warning No. 1 – Wind.  When pitching the Skylight I complete a secure stakeout using pegs and guy lines immediately after setting the poles.  While nominally a freestanding shelter, this tent is so light that even a slight breeze will send it flying.  When I first pitched the tent in my carport a gust inflated the tent body (without poles) like a spinnaker and only a frantic grab kept it from blowing away.  BD's instruction booklet has a clear warning about this, going so far as to say that this has occurred with fifty pounds (23 kg) of gear inside the tent.  This warning and my own experience prompted pitching and staking practice in the park adjacent to my house before I took the Skylight into the field.  The kite threat is especially acute with the canopy rolled up, as the wind blows through the mesh end and catches on the closed end.  The wind had less impact when I pitched the tent with the door on the leeward side or perpendicular to the wind.  Stability can't be a matter of degree, of course – I don't want to return to camp and find that my tent's not where I left it.  The best way to be sure of that is to roll out the canopy and use all sixteen staking points, though as noted below this hasn't always been necessary.  When fully staked in hard soil the Skylight is stable, and the prairie wind wasn't able to blow it away during either practice at home or windy backcountry conditions.  If I ever have to pitch this tent in sand or snow, or on a hard surface that prevents driving the stakes in completely, I shall take the poles out whenever I plan to be away from camp for more than a few minutes.

Interior Storage.  The sewn-in silnylon bathtub floor comes four inches (10 cm) up the tent walls. Along each side wall are two small mesh pockets for storing sunglasses, a flashlight, or other pocket-sized items, just above the floor–wall seam in the front and just below it at the rear. The roof has four small loops to which an “attic” (BD sells one that fits several of its tents) may be tied to provide additional storage at the top of the dome.  With or without the attic it's easy to tie a clothesline to or hang a flashlight from the loops or interior poles.

Field Conditions

This is the first tent I ever purchased primarily for its light weight, and I looked forward to field testing.  First though, as with all BD tents, I had to seal the seams with Silnet, a tedious but not difficult job.  I used the syringe supplied by BD to dribble Silnet along the seams, smeared it out over the seams with a rag, and left the tent (indoors) to dry overnight.

Since acquiring the Skylight five years ago I’ve used it in the field perhaps fifty days. I’ve found it especially suited to my service trips.  Each summer I serve as a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) or National Parks Service (NPS) volunteer on a weeklong backcountry trip.  Our crew backpacks to a base camp, from which we perform various forms of trail maintenance.  The sponsoring agency packs in food, kitchen gear, and tools, but each volunteer must carry his or her own personal kit – shelter, sleeping gear, clothes, and personal items.  Though the hike to camp may be long (more than 20 miles/30 km one year), on these trips I’ll splurge a bit on camp conveniences, as there’s no striking camp every morning as on a point-to-point backpack.  One such convenience esteemed by this claustrophobe is a spacious tent like the Skylight, just for me.  Most of my service trips have been in July or August, when rain is scarce and temperatures are as high as they ever get in the Northern Rockies.  I’ve packed the Skylight on four such trips, each seven days/six nights long, in Montana and Wyoming, at altitudes from 6000-11000 feet (1500-3500 m).  Temperatures on these trips ranged from 25 F (-4 C) at night to 90 F (32 C) during the day.  I met with rain on only one of these trips, a brief but severe thunderstorm near the Grand Teton in Wyoming.

Skylight zippedRain has happened on other trips, though.  The most bothersome was on a solo overnighter in the Lamar area of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming in May 2006, on a night when temperatures dipped only to an unseasonably warm 40 F (4 C).  A rain shower hit just as I was pitching the tent, requiring the gymnastics discussed above and revealing the only design flaw I've found in the Skylight.  Next morning included a heavy thundershower, then an hour of morning sun, then another thundershower with pellet-sized hail.  One hour after this storm in the morning sunshine at 50 F/10 C the tent was completely dry.

I’ve limited my use of the Skylight in the Rockies mostly to two seasons, spring and summer, adding a third season, autumn, when camping in the Texas Hill Country.  I have other tents that I believe handle rain better than the Skylight after August in the Rockies.

The Skylight serves me very well for three-season camping in Texas.  I’ve used it on many one- and two-night weekend backpacks, either for myself alone or with a hiking partner.  The only three-man use was also in Texas, at a trailhead campground after a long day hike.  This night it was hot, certainly not much below 80 F (27 C), and dry.  All of us appreciated the ventilation from the screened roof over our heads and protection from the bugs during a postprandial card game and a decent night's sleep.  We stored unneeded gear outside, leaving only a water bottle and a small personal stuff sack for each camper inside the tent.

Evaluation

Design.  As with my two Bibler tents, the Skylight's design makes for an extremely efficient use of space.  High sidewall angles make all the interior space usable, and the high ceiling means that several adults can sit up comfortably – even tall guys like me.  

I wouldn’t call it a “friendly” fit for three. Three adults have tight but sufficient (well, almost sufficient) sleeping quarters if all have their heads at the front, taking advantage of the additional tent width at the shoulder point.  This really isn’t a tent for three adults, though.  The vestibule is too small for three large packs (too small in fact for one large pack) and pairs of boots, and there's not much spare space inside the tent with three sleeping bags laid out.  We didn’t come to blows but one of us would have spent the night under the stars had we not faced ferocious mosquitoes and a chance of meeting a prowling water moccasin (we’d seen a few during the day).

The Skylight is spacious for two, however, with ample extra room for gear, even overnight packs.  Because campers sleep front-to-back of the tent, either may use the single door without stepping over the other, especially if the EPIC canopy is stowed.

The high ceiling means a relatively high profile in the wind, another reason why a secure stakeout is mandatory.  Once I've set the poles and staked out the Skylight I have not had a problem with the canopy clips working loose from the staking loops.

The screened porch is definitely my favorite feature – breezes, great views, and no bugs when I use the tent for an afternoon nap or the camp salon, or when the weather allows use as a screened bedroom.  The open window effect makes the tent seem larger than it is.

Even before I added the window the vent at the rear and the front door open at the top provide adequate ventilation when the canopy is down and door otherwise zipped shut.  I haven't found any condensation inside the tent on any occasion, even after the thundershowers in Yellowstone.  I should point out, however, that I've not used the Skylight in humid conditions, and I added the rear window after one year of use.  

The yellow color, though perhaps not environmentally subtle, gives a pleasant warm glow inside when the canopy is down.  That of course has changed with the new model.

Manufacturer's Warning No. 2 – Not Waterproof.  EPIC is water resistant, not waterproof, as BD dutifully warns its customers.   I haven't yet had the bad fortune to see what happens after hours of continuous rain, but rain squalls and a couple of severe mountain thunderstorms didn't result in a leak.  This accords with my experience with EPIC garments.  In my opinion the stuff is waterproof in all but several hours of continuous heavy rain.

Manufacturer's Warning No. 3 - Durability.  Perhaps because of my longtime use of Bibler tents, the toughest backpacking tents I've ever seen, at first glance I thought the EPIC and silnylon fabrics seemed flimsy.  BD reinforces this notion with warnings about using metal objects for removing snow; from BD's description I was expecting downright fragility.  The Skylight's performance has proven that looks can be deceiving and BD is being conservative.  While its insulating capability is less than Bibler Todd-Tex, the Skylight has withstood gusts and sustained winds very well.  It handled that surprise spring hailstorm without a problem.  Despite not using a ground cloth I've had no punctures or deterioration in the floor, only the occasional (and to-be-expected) smudge or scuff.  The zippers are robust.  I have taken more care than usual to find a proper site and to remove small stones and other detritus before pitching the tent, but haven't changed my habits about bringing metal objects, some with sharp edges, inside.  With the taut pitch of this tent I do take care to reduce the consequences of aerial assault by steering clear of areas where a falling tree branch might interrupt a good night's sleep.  My comrades and I haven't babied this tent during everyday use and so far it's shown no functional deterioration.

The EPIC fabric has a pleasant, soft hand, very much like untreated nylon taffeta.  I didn't find the silnylon floor particularly slippery, a problem I've encountered with other tents, except after its soaking in Yellowstone.  

Care. I've sponged off dirt, bird droppings, tree sap, and other spot soiling with warm water.  BD recommends using McNett MiraZymeŽ for a thorough cleaning, and I have twice given the Skylight a bath in that stuff.  As with any other tent I store it at home only after allowing it to dry completely.  The Skylight's construction allows much faster drying in the morning sun while in camp than a double-wall tent, reducing the chance of having to pack a tent wet.

Quality.  The Skylight justifies BD's longtime reputation for detail and quality workmanship.  For example, the toggles on the five tie-offs are adjustable and are easy to thread through the proper loops with one gloved hand.  The pockets for the arched pole are reflective to assist pitching the tent in the dark.   Careful stitching all around.  

Manufacturer's Warning No. 4 – Fire.  BD serves up one last warning concerning the Skylight and its other Superlight tents.  EPIC is highly flammable.   For me this means no candles inside and no stoves in the tent or vestibule or anywhere near them.  That's my general rule anyway and I haven't yet awakened in the Skylight on a stormy morning so desperately in need of caffeine as to break my rule, so for me this is no big deal.  I do consider this a limitation on winter use of this tent.  The fire risk is acute enough that some states prohibit shipment of this untreated EPIC tent to their residents.

Author's Warning – Spearing.  I add my own cautionary note to those provided by BD.  This tent's very taut pitch means that it takes some strength to bend the poles to fit into their assigned receptacles.  While on my back manipulating the poles it's not difficult to poke a free end into the tent body or floor, or to have a carelessly seated corner pole work loose from its grommet.   I haven't yet had a puncture, but I've worried about it! I'm also careful to warn fellow travelers to stay away from the front of the tent while I'm flailing around inside, to avoid being struck by a pole fully extended out the front door.

Customer Service.  In my opinion the best in the business, and I say this after more than twenty years of comments, questions, complaints, and much praise.  Always friendly and always helpful.  Specific to this purchase (not made directly from BD), when I reported that I'd lost the syringe that came with the tent, BD promptly sent another and a spare set of instructions at no charge.  Regrettably BD didn’t change the canopy hooks on the new version, though I suggested they do so back in 2007.

Summary

The Skylight has proven to be a roomy, airy, easy-to-pitch, lightweight shelter for one, two, or (in a pinch, if one occupant is undersized) three hikers in spring and summer.  I do most of my backpacking in locations that usually have low humidity and infrequently have extended periods of rain, so this is an excellent three-season tent for me.  Because of the small vestibule, fire hazard, and lack of utility of the screened front in cold weather, I do not plan to use the Skylight for winter camping.  

What I Especially Like

That wonderful screened porch
Lightweight
Easy to set up (except in the rain)
BD quality

Possible Improvement

Mild claustrophobia led me to add the rear window; the rear vent is too small to see out.
I’d like to see BD replace the Velcro tie-offs with the Twist Ties it uses on its Bibler mountaineering tents.  These are far easier to attach, and more reliable.
A nitpick: The zipper on the screen door occasionally catches on the zipper cover.
Design: I really hope that someday BD replaces the canopy hooks.




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