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Reviews > Shelters > Tents > MontBell Thunder Dome Tent > Test Report by Richard Lyon
MontBell Thunder Dome 2 Tent
Test Series by Richard Lyon
Initial Report October 1,
Personal Information and
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.
The Thunder Dome 2 is a two-person, double-walled, canopy style freestanding tent with a single door. Campers sleep parallel to the door rather than from the front to the back of the tent. MontBell says that the Thunder Dome is its "lightest freestanding 3-season tent" and "functions nicely on the occasional weekend camping trip, but at a hair over 4 pounds this tent is ideal for your longer backcountry adventures."
MontBell Co., Ltd.
Tent, $299 US. Ground
sheet, $25 US.
OUT OF THE BOX
Two features of the Thunder Dome immediately caught my eye: the top two-thirds of tent body above the bathtub floor consists of no-see-um mesh, and this tent employs what I'll call a hub-and-spoke pole system, four arched poles that are connected into a "hub" at the peak of the tent body. The shock cords in the poles extend into the hub; there's no means of disconnecting them and no need to screw them in each time I pitch the tent. That's why MontBell refers to "the pole," in the singular. The pole forms a base over which the fly is stretched. The tent body has small metal clips (attached to nylon loops) that hook around the pole.
The tent body and ground sheet have identical fabric strips at each corner. Each strip has two grommets and the female end of a quick release (called a "Fas-tec" by MontBell) buckle.
MontBell says that the Thunder Dome is completely seam-sealed. When I examined the seams I couldn't detect any evidence of solvent, but I'll begin testing taking the company at its word.
Pitching the Thunder Dome. Both illustrated instruction booklets contain in difficult-to-read (very small type) but easy-to-understand directions for pitching the Thunder Dome, and the tent's design makes set-up easy and swift. Each pole arm ("spoke" in my earlier phrasing) has a "mushroom shaped" end cap for securing the poles in the grommets. After connecting the pole sections I align the pole with two small hooks at the top of the tent body dome, connect these to the pole, and secure each corner pole cap in a grommet. Connect the remaining hooks (three on each arm) and stake out the corners, and the tent is ready. Drape the fly over the pole, connect the corner buckles, and stake out the front and it's ready for foul weather. The male ends of the buckles on the fly have pulls for micro-adjustment, a very handy feature. About halfway to the top on each corner angle of the fly sits a reflective loop for a guy, and MontBell supplies pre-cut guy lines, each with a plastic slider for adjustment, to thread through these loops. Each staking loop – one on each corner of the tent body and one in the middle of each side but the front on the fly – has a pre-threaded loop of cord. The cord used for guys and staking loops is bright, reflective neon green for nighttime visibility.
Extending and staking the fly creates a vestibule that is large enough for two pairs of boots and one large pack. The vestibule door is about two-thirds the size of the tent door – large enough so that I had no difficulty crawling in or out. The tent door has double zippers, the fly door a single zipper with a storm guard.
Features. The Thunder Dome has few frills. A large trapezoidal (12in / 25 cm wide at the top, 15 in / 36 cm wide at the bottom, 7.5 in / 19 cm high) mesh pocket is sewn on far left (when facing the tent) of the front and rear walls of the tent body, just above the floor, and the interior has five small loops for hanging a flashlight or clothesline, one at the dome and one about ten inches (25 cm) down from the dome along each seam. MontBell sells (MSRP: $20 US) a mesh loft for its dome tents that could be attached to the seam loops.
The ground sheet is sold specially for the Thunder Dome. Its material is noticeably stouter than tent floor.
First Impressions. After my initial inspection I'm impressed. All stitching is clean and tight, with no loose threads. The fabric, though lightweight, doesn't appear flimsy. I appreciate the seam-sealing; with my regular tent supplier I'm accustomed to having to perform this tedious task myself. I got a very taut pitch even in my living room, without staking, thanks to the integrated pole system and Fas-tec buckles with adjusters. Based upon my laying out two of my sleeping bags inside the tent it looks to be large enough for a big guy (me) and another adult, plus some gear. The high side angles maximize usable space, and I can sit up comfortably inside.
I like the mesh tent body, and not just because it reduces weight. Most of my three-season hiking takes place in drier climes, and weather permitting I like better ventilation, daytime views, and midnight star gazing. Testing will tell if the mesh means more condensation at cooler temperatures.
The Thunder Dome's very lightweight. I had no problem setting it up or taking it down, and I especially like how easy it is to set the fly. Because I've got to affix the pole into the tent body before draping the fly, however, I don't think that I can pitch this tent in the rain without getting some precipitation inside the tent. Without a rear vent in the fly I expect to be dependent on the fabric's breathability for ventilation in a storm.
Now the Thunder Dome must prove itself in the field. I intend to look especially closely at ventilation in the rain, storm-worthiness, and overall durability.
This concludes my Initial Report. Check back in early December for first results of testing. A big thank you to MontBell and BackpackGearTest.org for this testing opportunity.
Prior to taking the Thunder Dome into the field I pitched the tent in my yard in MontBell's "Light and Fast" configuration, using the ground sheet as a floor. I believe that MontBell intended this (though it's not included in the contents listed on the website), as adding the weight of the ground sheet almost exactly corrects the discrepancy between its listed and measured weights in my Initial Report. Also the webbing strips on the ground sheet's corners, identical to those on the tent body, can be used to set the poles. In this set-up the guy lines are helpful in maintaining tension on the fly.
During this exercise I noticed one design detail I missed when preparing my Initial Report. The underside of the fly has four small hook-and-loop fasteners, one for each arm of the pole. These allow me to secure the fly to the tent poles in the Light and Fast configuration. When the tent body is used its hooks make these superfluous. The fasteners are sewn on to small fabric tabs which in turn are sewn to the tent seam, presumably to reduce the likelihood of condensation seeping through the seam and onto the pole and to allow a bit more flexibility when attaching the tent pole.
I've taken the Thunder Dome on two two-night backpacking trips, using it as a two-person shelter in the Texas Hill Country in late October and as a solo shelter in the Kiamichi Wilderness in Oklahoma in mid-November. On both occasions I used the full tent, with stakes and ground sheet. I followed MontBell's ground sheet instructions by placing the shiny side down with the small MontBell tag in the front. The favorable conditions prompted me to stake only the corners of the tent and the left side of the vestibule (two stakes), six stakes in all, making a hybrid between the full tent and MontBell's "minimum weight."
We had wonderful backpacking weather in the Hill Country, with daytime temperatures that didn't exceed 70 F (21 C) and chilly evenings at 40 F (5 C), very light wind, clear and dry weather, and a full moon. This was an easy two mile (3 km) hike and we set up camp in a meadow at the edge of a small forest. Our tent site was on flat grassy ground. With the cloudless skies we added the fly only when we were ready to retire for the night, and removed it in the mornings at breakfast.
In mid-November I did a three-day, two-night backpack on the Oklahoma section of the Ouachita Trail, from Pashubbe trailhead to the Arkansas state line, starting at about 1000 ft (300 m) with a net 1200 ft (350 m) elevation gain over fourteen miles (22 km). It was overcast the entire time in camp and on the trail, with occasional pockets of ground fog. Also it was warm and humid, up to 80 F (27 C) during the day and not much below 60 F (16 C) at night. We had two brief rain showers the second night. On this trip I used the Thunder Dome as a solo shelter, pitching it on dirt with a small amount of leaves and forest duff.
A non-backpacking night in the Thunder Dome is addressed under "Condensation" below.
Size. The Thunder Dome provides enough room for two adult campers and a moderate amount of gear. Though my hiking partner on the Hill Country trip had car-camped and was used to sleeping in a tent, she is new to backpacking; this was why we selected a short and easy route. She carried only a day pack, which we stored inside the tent. Also inside, in addition to our sleeping pads and bags, each of us had a rain jacket, a small stuff sack with spare clothes and socks, a water bottle, and a book. We weren't unpleasantly cramped sleeping side by side; there was sufficient room even at the shoulder point not to require head-to-foot arrangements. The vestibule was used to store my pack and boots and her hiking shoes. I think my 6'4" (1.91 m) height may be the maximum for comfortable two-person use, though, as my head or feet occasionally brushed a tent end through the night. A very little bit taller and I'd have had to do some poaching. Even at this limit, though, the high side wall angles meant that the side of the tent didn't extend over my face. I'm mildly claustrophobic but didn't feel at all confined.
On the Oklahoma hike the Thunder Dome was spacious for one, with weekend pack, boots, and camp/water shoes in the vestibule.
Design. The two-man tent that has been my favorite for ten years has, like the Thunder Dome, a canopy design, a term I use to describe shelters that have a door along the "long" side. Also like the Thunder Dome, that other tent has only one door. This makes me all too experienced at sleeping parallel to the door and, when necessary, climbing over a prone colleague at night to get outside to answer nature's call. If my backpacking partner is another guy, I exercise owner's prerogative to sleep next to the door but, gentleman that I am, I yield pride of place to a female companion as I did in the Hill Country. Not that it matters much in terms of disturbance. Speaking as one also experienced in being climbed over in these close quarters, it's a rare occasion that the inside camper's leaving his sleeping bag and carefully crawling out of the tent can be done noiselessly enough to avoid awakening his tent mate even if actual physical contact is avoided. So it proved to be in the Thunder Dome, even though we carefully chose to sleep with our heads at the end of the tent corresponding to the open side of the vestibule and left the vestibule door open. The large tent door and relatively high vestibule ceiling made this task as manageable, but it remains an inconvenience.
That said, I've been very favorably impressed with the Thunder Dome's design. There's little wasted floor space and every one of the tent's few features is useful and easy to use. High walls angles and a 40+ inch (1 m+) ceiling mean ample room for two people to sit up comfortably, even to change clothes inside at the same time. I used the loop at the top of the dome to hang a battery lantern. The storage pockets are large and allow each camper to store numerous small and oft-needed items in one place. The pocket on the front of the tent can be used to stash the door when it's unzipped. If I haven't completely staked out the vestibule I can stow its short section (on the right when facing the tent) between the two walls.
The mesh tent body makes a great sitting or napping area during the day – views, breezes, and bug protection. I'm looking forward to taking advantage of this next summer for a screened sleeping chamber.
The single pole has been no more difficult to assemble than any other shock-corded pole, and it makes pitching the Thunder Dome a snap. No fumbling to screw in sections or frustration from color-coordinating or other gimmicks that require more than my limited mechanical skills and more patience than I usually have. Even when I had to do it at night on the Oklahoma trip I was able to pitch the entire tent in a very few minutes. Because it's so easy to attach the fly with the buckles I have had no worries leaving the fly off for daytime ventilation when I'm in or near camp. So far the pole has shown no signs of bending out of shape and the arms bend easily to fit into the corner grommets.
Ventilation/Condensation. Really good. No condensation between the walls when used for two of us at 40 F (5 C), which was below the dew point, or, more surprisingly, with the rain and humidity in Oklahoma. The second rain shower woke me that night at about 2.00 am; four hours later the tent was dry, inside and out, without any help from the sun. Some of my fellow campers with similarly-sized tents complained of condensation. This speaks well of the fabric in the Thunder Dome. On both trips I left the vestibule door unzipped, but as noted in my Initial Report with the fly attached I am at least partially dependent on the fabric's breathability for evaporation.
Taking advantage (?) of a rainy Saturday night at home in December, I slept in the Thunder Dome in my backyard to see how well the fabric breathed in cooler temperatures, a low of 36 F (2 C) to be precise, with a few scattered rain showers. I was by myself (having yet to find anyone else who'd pass up a readily available warm, dry, indoor bed for backyard camping in the rain). I left only a couple of inches (~5 cm) of the outer door open at the top. My night's sleep was undisturbed by any leaks in the tent thanks to MontBell's seam-sealing. When I awoke at about 5 am I noticed a thin film of condensation on the underside of the outer tent wall, none of which had reached the beading stage or fallen on to the mesh of the fly. I left the tent up while I gave my dogs and myself breakfast and a walk. At 8 am, temperature up a few degrees, though the morning remained muggy the film was gone.
This staged overnight disabused my expectation, stated in my Initial Report, that I could not set up the Thunder Dome in the rain without getting some precipitation in the tent. Because the pole goes between the fly and tent body I cannot store the two walls connected. Some indoor practice led me to an acceptable alternative that worked on the rainy Saturday night: pitching the fly with just the ground sheet, taking the tent body inside and then, starting with the ones at the dome, attaching the hooks to the poles. This was actually fairly easy to do once I aligned the tent body with the fly. There's enough room under the fly to clip the hooks on three arms of the pole without leaving shelter. I then stepped outside to attach the hooks on the front right arm. Once the hooks are connected I can move the pole ends from the ground sheet grommets to the tent body grommets and then stake out the tent. There are several inches/centimeters of open space between the hem of the fly and the ground, allowing me easily to switch three connectors from inside the tent, saving the right front one for after completing the hook connections. I couldn't figure out a way to manage a dry floor without the ground sheet, whose buckle receptacles are needed to hold the fly in place while setting the tent body.
Size. I'm a big man and my habit of using two-man tents when solo camping has spoiled me; I like to stretch out in a tent. So it's a real compliment when I say that a two-man tent suffices for two.
Weight. A true shelter for two at just over four pounds (1.8 kg) including ground sheet.
Mesh tent body.
Exceptionally easy to pitch and strike.
A means of avoiding the midnight crawl-over. Now that it's turning cooler a pee bottle should reduce this problem. A second door would solve it but add the weight of two long zippers.
I like to be able to see out. There's no visibility if the vestibule door is closed. If not a door on the rear wall, I'd like a window on the fly.
* * * * * * * * *
This concludes my Field Report. Check back in late February for my Long Term Report. Thanks again to MontBell and BackpackGearTest.org for the testing opportunity.
LONG TERM REPORT
Field Conditions. Great snow in the Rockies these past two months has diverted my backcountry attention from hiking to skiing, but I have taken the Thunder Dome on one more two-day, two-night backpacking trip in Oklahoma, in early February. Two of us used the tent on a fly fishing-focused trip near Broken Bow, in pleasant February conditions: down to about 40 F (5 C) at night, 65 F (18 C) during the day, moderate winds, and low humidity. We camped in a wooded area, on ground strewn with fallen leaves.
In some backyard testing I examined the Thunder Dome in its Light and Fast and Minimum Weight configurations.
Observations. This latest trip confirmed my earlier opinion of the Thunder Dome as an excellent three-season shelter for one or two person use. Results were similar to my other two-person trip, discussed in my Field Report. The tent was large enough for two adult campers and basic overnight gear in the tent itself, with weekend packs and camp shoes in the vestibule. Not palatial accommodations but perfectly adequate. A pee bottle helped us avoid the crawl-over problem noted in my Field Report. The fair weather and moderate temperatures again allowed pitching the fly only when we were in camp until just before retiring to bed. We found only slight condensation on the underside of the fly early each morning, and none on the mesh tent body, and as before the condensation evaporated shortly after we left the tent for breakfast. I tied a mesh attic (from a manufacturer other than MontBell) to the corner loops on the tent body as a platform for a small battery lantern, giving us a dome light for our Scrabble game.
I have come to appreciate MontBell's use of separate stuff sacks for tent, pole, ground sheet, and stakes. This assists efficient packing as I migrate to smaller packs that often require careful weight balancing and space management, and helps prevent an accidental puncture of the tent body with a last-minute stab of the pole into the sack with the tent. I just have to place all four items on my checklist before I leave for the trailhead.
MontBell's website describes the Light and Fast configuration as "rain fly, pole, 9 stakes, guy lines, and stuff sacks." As noted in my Field Report I believe that MontBell intended to include the ground sheet as well. I found that pitching the tent in this mode is even simpler than pitching the entire tent, requiring only assembling the pole and inserting its ends into the grommets on the webbing attached to the ground sheet. Affixing the hook-and-loop fasteners on the fly around the pole helps center the fly on the pole but isn't really necessary for a taut and stable pitch. The tabs that connects the loops to the underside of the fly serve as convenient pulls for quickly unhooking the loop when it's time to strike the tent. After pitching the Light and Fast configuration on level ground there is a gap of about 1.5 to 5 inches (4-13 cm) between the ground and the bottom of the fly, the greater distance at the mid-point of each wall where I use a staking loop for tension. The angle of the fly keeps falling rain from blowing into the tent, but puddles or rivulets trickle in fairly quickly.
I'm not an ultralight backpacker and I'm very used to sleeping in a tent that's completely enclosed. Force of habit and the bloodthirsty mosquitoes that inhabit the Northern Rockies in spring and summer are two strong deterrents to my using the Light and Fast set-up in the field. I don't mean to discourage tarp users from trying it, however, for this configuration does give a covered space that's easily large enough for two adults and weighs less than three pounds (1.3 kg).
I am far more likely to use the other half of the tent on its own, though I'll pack the fly just in case of rain. The mesh tent body without the fly should be a great screened bedroom in warmer weather. Because pitching and securing the fly is a minute's easy work I'm not worried about a drenching from a sudden shower. Even this mechanical klutz will be able to raise the roof before much damage is done.
The Minimum Weight configuration consists of tent, fly, and pole but no stakes or guy lines. From experience with another lightweight tent I had some concern with how reliably the Thunder Dome would stay in place when weighted only with minimal gear and rocks. When I set the tent up in this manner in the park next to my home I weighted each corner webbing strip with a brick and placed about twenty pounds' (9 kg) worth of gear inside, trying to approximate field use with rocks at the corners and the weight of gear two of us would leave in the tent when day hiking from an established camp. With the tent exposed to the prairie wind in an open field, on a gusty day there was some flapping of the fly, but no movement of the tent. I intend to experiment with the Minimum Weight set-up when solo backpacking. Quick and idiot-proof pitching and striking this tent mean that I can always take the tent down if I fear it may become an expensive kite five minutes after I walk away from camp. It's difficult to get a vestibule without the stakes in front, but the tent is large enough that this isn't needed when only I am inside.
Summary. This straightforward shelter has quietly impressed me more and more as the test period has progressed. It's not that the Thunder Dome has a striking new feature, revolutionary design or fabric, or other breakthrough trait. Quite the contrary, this is a plain-vanilla two-person dome tent with few bells and whistles of any kind. It's just that it's so simple to use and everything works so well. The tent scores high on living space and condensation, my two most important tent performance criteria. Hands down it pitches more easily than any other tent I've ever used. Add to that its light weight and another personal preference, a mesh tent body, and I'm approaching a rave review.
As noted in my Field Report the only change I'd make is to add a window or second door. I may investigate the cost in weight and dollars to have a window added to the fly. But this tent is definitely a keeper as is.
My Test Report ends here. Thanks to MontBell and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test this fine product.
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