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Reviews > Shelters > Tents > MSR Dragontail > Test Report by Ray Estrella

MSR Dragontail Tent
Test Series by Raymond Estrella
May 26, 2008



NAME: Raymond Estrella
EMAIL: rayestrellaAThotmailDOTcom
AGE: 47
LOCATION: Orange County, California, USA
HEIGHT: 6' 3" (1.91 m)
WEIGHT: 200 lb (90.70 kg)

I have been backpacking for over 30 years, all over California, and in many of the western states and Minnesota. I hike year-round, and average 500+ miles (800+ km) per year. I have made a move to lightweight gear, and smaller volume packs. I start early and hike hard so as to enjoy the afternoons exploring. I usually take a freestanding tent and enjoy hot meals at night. If not hiking solo I am usually with my wife Jenn or brother-in-law Dave.


The Product

Image courtesy of MSR

Manufacturer: Mountain Safety Research, Inc. (MSR)
Web site:
Product: Dragontail
Year manufactured: 2008
MSRP: $449.95 US
Size: 2 person
Packaged weight (complete) listed: 5 lb 5 oz (2.42 kg)
Actual weight: 5 lb 7.3 oz (2.47 kg)
Minimum weight (body & poles) listed: 4 lb 6 oz (1.99 kg)
Actual weight: 4 lb 8.5 oz (2.06 kg)
Interior height listed: 41 in (104 cm)
Length listed: 90 in (230 cm)
Width listed: 50 in (130 cm)
Packed size listed: 20 x 7 in (51 x 17 cm) Verified accurate
Warranty: (quoted from company web site) "MSR warranties the materials and workmanship in every MSR tent we make to the original owner. If your MSR tent has received proper care, but fails due to a defect in manufacturing, the tent will be repaired or replaced at our discretion.

Image courtesy of MSR

Product Description

The MSR Dragontail is one of the company's Expedition Series tents. They claim that it is "the epitome of ultralight, single-wall protection for extreme conditions". It has just been added to the company website listed above, and all listed numbers came from said site.

The tent arrived with everything packed into a very nice 4.8 oz (137 g) stuff sack. The sack has a draw cord closure with a cord lock and also has two sewn-on compression straps running around it, as can be seen in the picture at the bottom of this report. The stuff sack has the assembly instructions printed on a piece of Tyvek-type material attached at the front. Also attached to the draw cord is a three-piece hang tag with info about the tent.


Inside was the main tent. This comes in a single piece as this is a single-wall tent and therefore has no separate fly. The canopy of the Dragontail is made of Sunset Orange 30 D polyurethane and silicone coated ripstop nylon, while the red floor is made of 40D ripstop nylon with a much thicker coating of only polyurethane.

Each of three DAC Featherlight NSL aluminum poles is made of nine shock-corded sections and fold up to make a separate bundle 15.5 in (39 cm) long that is 2 in (5 cm) in diameter for all of them. (I usually carry my poles apart from the tent body.) They came inside a 0.78 oz (22 g) storage sack. A smaller 0.53 oz (15 g) sack holds 12 stakes, two pieces of guy-line and line tensioners along with a tent-pole repair section and an owner's manual.

The red aluminum 7.5 in (19 cm) long stakes weigh only 0.56 oz (16 g) each and are tethered Y-type.

The set-up of the tent is like all hoop-style tents I have used in the past. The tent is laid out and the four corners are staked out. All of the stake loops are quite large (which I like). This lets the tent be staked with ice axes, skis and snow pickets if need be. (Yes I have used skis as tent anchors before.)

The poles are assembled and then threaded through the fabric sleeves at three points across the body. The poles have one rounded end that slides into the sleeves from the left side (facing it head-on) and seat themselves in a reinforced fabric pocket at the right side. They are then carefully pushed to flex into a hoop shape. Once it is flexed all the way the other pole end goes into a grommet on the near side. Once all the hoops are in place the two ends must be pulled taut and staked. Doing this is what keeps the tent upright as it is not free-standing.

The front of the tent is held with the vestibule which pulls out from the main tent at a downward angle. The door is in this vestibule. At the back, the tent itself (floor and body) continues past the rear pole angling downward and narrowing in width.

The front-entry single door is made of light breathable uncoated ripstop nylon at the bottom half and mesh netting fabric at the top. A double-ended zipper travels around the tent. It does not open along the floor. The vestibule entry is a single straight zipper on the left side (facing it from outside).

One of the most interesting things to me about the Dragontail is the "flow-through ventilation system" MSR has come up with. At the top front of the tent above the vestibule is a wire-rimmed flap. It can be seen open in the top two pictures. Three toggles run through buttonholes to keep the flap (mostly) closed. A 2 in (5 cm) storm guard covers it here in the event of rain. By popping the toggles out the flap opens up to let air come into the tent. Above the rear pole hoop is another flap vent that opens the same way. To keep bugs and other airborne traffic out of the tent by these openings the entire run from front to back is connected by netting. If there is no concern for bugs a zipper at each end can be opened letting the air straight into the tent without netting.

This concludes the Initial Report, the following is the results of the first two months of real life use. You know, backpacking! Please read on.



The Quick Nitty Gritty

So far I am finding the Dragontail a pretty nice roomy tent that works great in heavy snow and harsh conditions. Use in powder leaves me wishing it was freestanding though. Read on for the whole story.

Field Conditions

Here are the details for the 6 nights of use the Dragontail has seen so far.

I used the Dragontail two times for overnighters in Minnesota. Once was at Maplewood State Park the other was at Buffalo River State Park. The temps there were between -3 to 8 F (-13 to -19 C) in snow from 5 to 12 in (13 to 30 cm) deep.

I used it in San Jacinto State Park for a two-night trip that saw us hit by storms each night. The lowest temperature we saw was 22 F (-6 C) and had winds to 50 mph (81 km/h). Both nights were spent at the same location at an elevation of 8900 ft (2713 m). The tent was set on packed snow that was about 5 ft (1.5 m) deep.

The next two weekends Jenn and I used it together for over-nighters in the same Park. We stayed at Round Valley at 9100 ft (2774 m) elevation, on snow again and with temps down to 25 F (-4 C). The second trip saw the temps climb to near 50 F (10 C).


Setting up the Dragontail is pretty straight forward. The only problem that I have is threading the poles through the sleeves when it is very cold and I need to wear gloves. They stick quite badly inside the sleeves. During one of the trips in Minnesota I inadvertently put the forward pole in backwards. As I went to bend it and place the end into the grommet I saw that I had the rounded end. Argh! I had to take the others back out to get it to lay down enough to pull the pole back out.

I can get the poles into the grommets OK, but it is a very tight fit. And using the stake loops is great. I have had no problems using my aluminum snow stakes to keep the tent in place. The snow is so dry in Minnesota because of the extreme cold that I have to stomp the snow down around the stakes until they freeze in.

Taking it back down is simple too, with a bit of hassle getting the poles back out of the grommets. I could not do it with my gloves on as I could not hold the pole securely enough to get it out without having it slip. So I took one glove off to pull them out. The poles want to separate as they come out of the sleeves even though I try to be careful to push rather than pull them. A funny result of taking off the glove was that I picked up some moisture from the poles hitting the snow. After I folded them up and stuck them in the storage sack I grabbed the nearest aluminum snow stake and, presto! I had it frozen to my fingers. Oh well at least it was not my tongue.

As the Dragontail falls over once the stakes are out it is hard to get the unavoidable snow out of the tent. I am used to picking up my entire tent and shaking it out the door.

Using it alone resulted in condensation only on my sleeping bag near my face. None was apparent on the tent walls. Of course there was so much wind that I would have been surprised if this were not the case. The wind did force me to keep the vent flaps closed as I tried leaving one open and had snow blowing inside.

We got a little more condensation when using it for two. There was condensation on the walls at the side of our heads. We placed them at the door end to get the most ventilation and that worked well.

The size is great for two people. I like to go one size up with all my tents. My regular two-person tent is billed as a three-person, and I use two-person tents solo. The Dragontail worked fine for my wife and I. Jenn especially liked the way that the side walls are so vertical. It makes it much roomier. (Or as she describes, less claustrophobic.) She says I have to keep this tent. (I guess that means I am…) Below is a picture of the Dragontail with our 0 F (-18 C) bags inside. Mine is a Men's Long and it still has room in front of it.

Bed-time for 2

On the trips in Minnesota I had a lot of trouble anchoring the tent. This is not a ding on it at all, just a fact when setting up on snow that is so cold and dry that it will not pack down enough to hold. I was using curved aluminum snow stakes there and did not have the larger, flat, spade-type snow anchors we have in California. (I can't have two of everything, darn it.) The stakes kept pulling out as I set the tent up, but once I re-staked (a few times…) it held fine after they froze in.

Using it on the heavy snow in California went much better. On the three-day trip we knew a storm was coming and found a protected spot to set up. (And no, not in an approved camp spot, sorry Ms Ranger. Yes, I got yelled at.) I shoveled a platform and set up on the resulting half cut, half stamped down spot. The snow anchors held it very well even when getting blasted from the side by very heavy winds. Here is a picture right after I set up with the storm hitting. (I lightened the pic so it looks better. It was actually quite grey.)

Before the storm

The next two weekends saw the snow first settle, and then melt down severely. On the last trip with Jenn the snow was down to no more than 3 ft (1 m) depth and very packed. I used the snow stakes and had to pound them in with my shovel. (No ice axe on these trips.) They held the tent great and I never had to adjust anything. A shot of it and my lovely wife (that's got to be worth a little something…) is at the end of this report.

Jenn cooked one time in the vestibule. While I am always nervous firing a stove up inside, it was fine. The Dragontail's vestibule is big enough to cook in with no worries. The hot apple cider was yummy. (OK, it could have used some brandy…)

Jenn in San Jac


Quick & Dirty Nitty Gritty

This strong light-weight hoop-style tent shines on packed snow and windy conditions, but gets a bit moist in still conditions, and does not like powder. Pole Pockets Rule! Read on for the details.

Field Conditions

1: Jenn and I used the Dragontail on a two day trip to Joshua Tree National Park (JT to climbers). This trip was hiking and rock climbing. The temperatures were about 53 F (12 C) or so for the low with some wind.

2: Jenn and I went to San Jacinto for an overnighter and set up camp in Lower Chinquapin at 9000' (3000 m). The low was 38 F and the high was 54 F (3 to 12 C) but felt warmer because of the bright sun. We had some wind come up late at night, they said at the station that it was 25 mph (40 km/h) there but I think it was less where we were. There was still a lot of snow and even though we set up on dirt there was moisture just under the surface.

3: This from my hiking log: Dave and I went to Fish Creek trailhead and took the Pacific Crest Trail to the top of a ridge north of the Whitewater River and back. It was a grueling 30 mile (58 km) trip. 6000' (2000 m) of downhill in new boots with a too-roomy toe-box made for some bad blisters. We found a pretty nice camp site on Mission Creek, the low only got down to 57 F (14 C). It was pretty hot, 86 F (30 C) and the climb back with 10 miles (16 km) of almost uninterrupted climbing was torture. We crossed creeks and springs 78 times in two days.


I did not care for the pole sleeves in frigid weather as they bound up on me in the cold. But once I was in warmer conditions it was much easier to set up. Either I am more used to it now, or, because I was wearing lighter gloves that let me grasp the poles better, it went a lot smoother. I had no problem with it on the trips mentioned above. (I also figured a better way to do it, read on.)

What was funny was getting to tell my wife that I did not need help setting it up. It is always easier with two, right? Not with the cool pole pockets that the Dragontail uses. This is my favorite thing about it. (It needs to be known that after 32 years of backpacking it takes something new to excite me too much.) I wish that this were on a few of my other tents. And now I make sure to look which end of the pole I am putting in first…

I have learned that the easiest way for me to set it up is to only stake the end away from the door. I put all the poles into the sleeves and then push them into shape and hook them into the grommets, starting at the end that is staked. Once all three poles are hooked up they are laying on top of each other flat. I then just pull the vestibule forward, raising the tent, and stake it down. Only then do I go around and put the other stakes in. Taking it down is just a reversal of this process. This makes it much easier to get the poles out of the grommets than when it is staked and under pressure. Here is a shot of it as it is coming down.

Collapsed on footprint

I used the optional 7.8 oz (221 g) reddish colored footprint ($39.95 US) that MSR sent after the test started for all three of the trips mentioned above as I do not like setting up on sand or rock without something protecting the floor. It worked fine as I found no holes in the floor when packing up. (I did not use it on any snow trips as I find it a waste of space and weight when there is nice clean snow to park on.) I was wondering how the footprint would attach seeing as there are no extruding tent pole ends to go through grommets along one side of the tent as all my other footprints are held on. What the Dragontail's footprint has is a loop at each spot where a pole is located. The long stake loop on the tent body threads through the footprint loop and then is staked down. While the stake is already pulled out in the picture above the loops are still threaded. This both keeps the footprint in place and keeps it from sticking out on any side where it could allow water to go between it and the tent floor. (Ideally footprints should be slightly under-sized.)

The trip to JT saw us with plenty of space as we did not have to keep any gear except our personal items inside with us. Camping is only allowed in developed campgrounds so I took a small pack and did not have to carry the Dragontail. I did get to use the stakes which worked great in the packed dirt/sand/decomposed granite of Joshua Tree NP. While we did not have any real condensation problems there it was a bit stuffy when the wind died down. But it did better than I expected for desert camping.

The trip to San Jacinto State Park was on dirt but there was still a lot of snow around. The soil looked dry but was moist just below the surface. It got pretty wet inside on this trip, the most yet for us, but there was a lot of moisture in the air from all the melting snow. We had to use my pack towel to wipe the walls and floor at the edges. The bag I brought has very little in the way of DWR and got wet too. Here is a picture of it on this trip, my towel hanging in a tree and my bag is drying on some sunny rocks.

On dirt

I saw some condensation along Mission Creek also but not as bad as I expected. It was very hot inside of the Dragontail though as when I went to bed there was barely any breeze. Since there was a lot of bugs and we were in big-time rattlesnake country (that love the creek-sides while looking for dinner) I kept the front door closed. Some winds came up in the middle of the night that provided some relief as it circulated a bit through the high vents. I never did get cool enough to climb into my bag, but just lay on my pad with the bag half covering me for much of the night. And as my brother-in-law had a lot of dirt related problems from the wind, I guess I was happy that my vents were above the blowing sand and dirt for the most part.

When I weigh the positives and negatives of this tent I have to say that it leans toward the favorable. The strength and roominess of it make up for the hassles of the non-free standing aspect. My wife loves the sit-up room of the "Worm" as she calls it and told me it is the only winter tent she wants to use. Because of its great room-to-weight ratio I am going to carry it on a trip in July that I need to carry two tents for four people and gear for three of us in my pack.

I question the value of the tunnel, and think that some other venting options may be worthwhile for MSR to think about. If they saved the weight of the long mesh tunnel and put it into some small low vents with mesh and zipper I think that would create more draw than the top vents alone. The only other thing that I can think of to make it better (and I an NOT saying it is bad) is to use a breathable fabric for all or large sections of the tent.

I do not really think that the tunnel does much to help the tent ventilate. I think that the same effect will happen with just the two openings at the ends without the expanse of netting. Just mesh at the openings themselves would suffice to keep stuff out of the tent and would alleviate the worry of having spindrift snow stuck inside the tunnel which is hard to clear out. Unfortunately the only way I can prove or disprove my theory is to cut the tunnel out to see what happens and I am loath to destroy this fine tent.

I will close with a picture of it set up near some frozen river flats in Minnesota. I would really like to thank MSR and for letting me test the Dragontail. I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

Frozen river

This report was created with the Report Writer Version 1. Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.

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