Thursday, 30 June 2016

Tarptent StratoSpire 1 - First Look and Long Term Review

Tarptent StratoSpire 1, StratoSpire 2 and Notch tents became available in January 2012.  A bit of shakedown time had elapsed, a few improvements to the early models implemented such as panel lifters, vestibule/pole guy attachments along with the availability of a solid fabric inner option and the Aussie $ was high and so it was time to look at them. 

UPDATE: The new Tarptent Stratospire Li, at 800g and US$700, may be of interest. It is sized between the SS1 and SS2 which strongly suggests it will be comfortably large enough for two persons. Not bad for 800g + poles.

After the windstorm. Clockwise from top left: Tarptent StratoSpire 1, StratoSpire 2 and Notch

Technical Information
Tarptent StratoSpire 1 with solid fabric inner 1100g ($A305 at time of purchase) Postage was about $A70 for 2 tents.
6 Easton 9" stakes and 2 longer guys supplied.
Owner's manual/Pitching instruction sheet supplied.
Pitchloc guys fitted. Stuff Sack supplied. No repair swatches supplied.

Sil/Nylon "high tenacity, 30d, 1.1-ounce/yd2 rip-stop nylon, impregnated with silicone", fabrics on fly and inner floor. 

There are 3 pitch sequences: Integral pitch, fly first, and inner first.
StratoSpire 1 suits 1 person or 2 in a pinch.
Non self-supporting - uses trekking poles or dedicated poles available from Tarptent.

Also available are the optional 70g 122cm (48") Easton Substitute Poles for the StratoSpire 1, or the 127cm poles for the StratoSpire 2. These could be used for the panel tie-outs in strong winds, or for tent support in lighter winds.

Tarptent also have the stronger 120g Easton 12.4mm Vertical Support poles in sizes for both StratoSpires: 122cm for the StratoSpire 1 and 127cm for the StratoSpire 2. These are worth considering for base camp use or for using as panel lifters. The Vertical Support poles are shock cord folding, not telescopic.  The thinner Substitute poles are not recommended for snow loading or severe winds.  I suggest getting all these options along with a few extra 8" Easton stakes since they are competitive (check A$ exchange rates) with local availability and prices for similar items.

Pole Handle Adaptors are available that permit placing the pole tip in ground, rather than in the fly grommet.

I also used a  MYOG Tyvek groundsheet 250g shown in some photos.
First pitch. Groundsheet helps to keep condensation down.

The mix of solid and mesh on the inner is right for cooler conditions.  The solid ceiling stops condensation falling from the fly.  All tents can have condensation problems and a solid inner ceiling will prevent drops and misting from the fly reaching you.  Good ventilation helps but it is not always successful in managing condensation, especially in still conditions.

Fly can be set low on a flat site. I immediately replaced the short vestibule guys.

One quibble I have is the lightweight floors, not that I've had any problems with them on what have been fairly dry thick grassy sites, but on wet sites there may be seepage.  I turned the burden of an accompanying Tyvek groundsheet into an advantage by extending it in to the vestibules and modifying it for tarp shade. On the plus side it should be noted that the floor has no major cross seam. This is the first tent I have seen to have gone to the trouble of using a one-piece floor.  

Both StratoSpires have big vestibules.  There is a small extension of the fly beyond the inner to act as a small annexe in gentle rain.  You can also partially zip up the vestibule door to extend this.

Note: The extended groundsheet restricts the ground source of condensation under the fly, but my working hypothesis is that exhalation is the major cause of condensation.

The Pitch
You must get the trekking pole height right and pegs do need to be firmly in place, especially those that draw out tension in the ridge line.

Set pole height about 122cm for the StratoSpire 1 and about 2" more or 127cm for the StratoSpire 2. Remember those numbers.
First pitch: on a flat site with no wind.

The MYOG Tyvek groundsheet proved a bit slippery on the pole handles.

This is not a tent for rock shelf camps as all fly perimeter pegs are critical and they have limited siting potential. You could still tie on to loose rocks with spare cord which you always carry, right?  Platform setup may also be a bit tricky but not impossible, and for loose sandy sites you will need either sand or snow pegs, buried bags or sticks.

The other question with tent designs supported by trekking poles is how suitable they are for base camping where you want to take your trekking poles with you for a day trip. Again think about extra poles and the weight penalty. There are 6 perimeter pegs, which are all required to be present to secure the tent in wind.  In addition I do not regard the 2 vestibule guys as optional.  The pole guys should be used at all times.  So this tent needs a minimum of 8 pegs outside your lounge room or sheltered backyard and 10 if you guy out the panel lifters. Again think of the weight penalty you invoke.  I chose 23cm Y type.  Loss of 1 peg in strong wind places this tent at immediate risk.

When you factor in groundsheet, extra pegs and extra poles weight might you be better off with another tent choice?

There are a few ways to setup. The recommended way is to layout the tent, place the 4 corner pegs in a rectangle, then insert poles to erect the fly and fully insert the vestibule pegs at this time since there is considerable tension across the ridge line in a taut pitch. Adjust all pegs and guys. Guy out the poles last as this really puts tension in the top.

I have set it up in strong winds starting with the 2 Pitchloc corners at opposite ends.  This also gives a rough longitudinal about 30 deg to the direction of sleeping.  Then insert 1 pole, preset to the correct height and set the door peg.  Do the same with the other pole and then do pole guys and the other corner pegs.  Then make adjustments so all edges are taut. If the fabric curves in near the hem then that means you need to increase the pole height - but loosen off pegs first or you put stitching at risk.

Two doors allows breezes through and is a great feature, allowing for wind changes and gear access. This is a 3 season tent, but for cooler conditions the solid inner will be warmer and may keep out sand and dust.  The mesh inner will be cooler in hot conditions as it will allow breezes to flow through.  I have tried setting up a Tyvek tarp over the top (using the panel poles) and this gives a lot more shade and UV protection.  The inner can be removed (march flies allowing) and doors opened for a larger volume under shade.

Since the fly is sil/nylon, in bright sunlight you might want to rig the groundsheet on top as UV protection and shade. I fitted grommets to a Tyvek sheet to accommodate this. It turns out that Tyvek is brilliant as a sun shade. It reflects most light and heat and feels cool to touch.  You'll need a larger than groundsheet size and 2 extra poles if you intend to shade the entire fly.
First pitch looks good.

There were a lot of seams to seal. It helps to have a taut pitch when doing this as many long seams form unsupported ridges.  Allow about an hour for the StratoSpire 1 and 90 minutes for the StratoSpire 2.  That may be 2 batches of silicone/turps mix which gives you a break in the middle. I didn't bother to do the hem stitching except where it was near to tie outs.  I also seam sealed some small seams in the corners of the floor.  This was a tedious job.


Fitting the poles with handles upright was tricky as they tended to slip out of the shallow pocket.  You may need the optional handle adaptors for this, although you may be able to get away with a fudge using a bit of cord.  I ended up using the "tip upright" mode.
PitchLoc corner. Put peg through the loop in guy line and set at 45 degrees. Stingy cord lengths become a real problem when servicing in strong wind. End knots jam in the Linelocs.
Pole tip fits in to fly grommet. The tip pokes through to touch the black support patch. Care needs to be taken when setting up that this doesn't slip out. Check before tightening down on the guys!
The peg tie out points all have shock cord loops except for the PitchLoc corners. This will keep tension on the fly when the Sil/Nylon gets wet and stretches. I fitted pull cords to all 6 Easton pegs.
I fitted light shock cord loops to the 4 panel tie-outs. This should be a standard fitting. Later I added a connecting cord linking the 2 tie-outs on each panel.

Additional guys and pegs, and poles are required for the 2 pairs of panel tie outs. They are found on the central seam just above each Pitchloc corner.  There are 2 of these tie-out points close together on each top panel. 1 long guy, 1 peg and 1 pole to act as a lifter is needed for each panel. So where does the extra pole come from? For the StratoSpire 2, perhaps the second occupant has a set.  If you are solo in a StratoSpire 1 you may find a suitable stick or else you will need poles. Use these tie-outs in windy conditions - they keep the inner off the fly and shutdown excessive flapping. 

Note the super strong shock cord loop provided for lowering the inner in order to fit 2 sleeping pads. Looks over-requirement and 2.5mm might have been enough. It's easy to replace though.

Velcro fly tieback. Works well but I prefer toggle and loop.
Elastic tieback requires 2 hands and comes undone unless a knot is tied. Many tents use a toggle and loop.
The supplied pole/vestibule guy lines seemed a little short at about 1.6m. I immediately replaced these with 2.4m X 2mm Liros dyneema on examination at the first pitch. These also slip in the Linelocs in high winds, so I upgraded to even longer 3mm Lawson cord for all the guys.  This extra thick and high friction cord plus using a toggle near the knotted loose end adds enough friction to stop slipping in strong wind. 

I attached one of the original shorter guy lines in to the inner roof between the poles as a short clothes drying line. Attachment points are provided.

I added short 2mm cord zip pulls to all 12 zip pulls. These were made from the other short guy line.  Melt the ends to avoid fraying and use figure 8 knots. This makes operating the zips a lot easier and reduces snagging. The line has a reflective thread too. If this is going to increase the cost if done by the manufacturer, perhaps a bit of cord could be supplied for the end user?
Longer dyneema guys were the first mods. A Trailstar with Pitchlocs might look a bit like this from the side.

Allow at least 3 hours in 2 sessions to do all the mods: seam sealing, UV Proofing (a quick spray and wipe with Tent and Gear SolarProof. This should be replaced after rain events),  replacing all guys with 3mm cord and toggles, adding zip pulls, cut and insert hanging lines, shock cord loops on panel lifters plus prepare cord (add extra pegs) and peg pulls. A Tyvek groundsheet/tarp with hems and grommets is another 2 hours.

The Design

Both StratoSpires have a similar design, varying in just dimensions.  I discovered one way to derive the flysheet panel geometry is to start off with making a 2 pole version of the MLD Trailstar.  I drew 2 overlapping hexagons showing the 10 equilateral triangle sections (2 sections are shared in the overlapping portion). The poles are at the centres of the hexagons.  Now remove one triangular panel from each diagonally opposite end and draw the remaining panels together and join the gaps with zips. By gathering the panels together in this way you add the third dimension to the structure. You end up with an 8 triangle panel structure with an elongated hexagonal footprint. Logical and elegant.  From that point the design gets scaled, various dimensions get adjusted and so on to give any number of shelter variations. Pitchloc corners are then added to the 2 main roof triangle panels to lift the ground contacting vertices for more useable volume.

Completing the design circle, we may ask could we take the 5 panel Trailstar and include 4 or 5 Pitchloc corners? This would address the issues of its large footprint and unusable space near the edge. I would really like to see one built.
Fly is close to ground

The fly appears symmetrical in 2 planes.  The tent inner base is located asymmetrically within the fly to avoid having passive space in the Pitchloc corners.  Each Pitchloc corner in the fly is the location of a diagonally opposing corner of the inner. The fly ridgeline straddles base of the inner at an angle when seen from above. The inner roof is also suspended at the same angle to the base.

In terms of interior space the StratoSpire 1 compares favourably with the One Planet Goondie 1.  There is plenty of elbow space for getting dressed.  Don't forget the inner is removable if you are using it as a shelter from sun or rain.

If with another, the StratoSpire 2 is an obvious choice as it doesn't weigh much more. It has room for 2 or 3 and a much bigger footprint.

Pitches nicely on the flat. Elegant style.
Overhead view shows substantial coverage of the fly.

Nice wide doors make entry and exit easy.  A nice feature of the asymmetrical design is the poles are not in the centre of the side but about 2/3 of the way down, making larger doors both sides.

For packing, remove poles, pegs and sort out guys, grab the Pitchloc struts together, fold in half and roll up.   The stuff sack was large enough.
Main Range camp after field repair after pitching on an uneven site. Testing some upgraded panel guys here.

There are many peg sequences for pitching but having the poles at the right height is criticalNote: Adjusting the pole height higher requires easing adjustments in guys and peg placements first.

The more hemisphere-like in the case of a tent, the more usable volume you will have for a given surface area of fabric.  I think the Pitchloc corner is an important innovation.  It reduces footprint, fabric area and maybe weight in the drive to increase usable internal volume. 

Main Range camp with 3mm longer guys. A toggle also assists in providing line friction with the 3mm orange Lawson cordage.

I have now used it twice in very windy and strong gusty conditions (50+ kmh) on the Main Range, almost losing it twice after pegs popped, one taking some time to locate when it flew off 10 metres.  Never again. I found the challenge is to keep it anchored with a taut pitch.  Points to watch for in wind: the Pitchloc guys and vestibule guys can slip, but first check if wind pressure has collapsed the telescopic trekking poles.  Bringing the pole back to correct length in windy conditions under sustained pressure can be difficult.  Using longer 3mm high friction cord with toggles really helps with cord slipping.  This tent has large under-supported areas of fabric that can act as bulging spinnakers.  The fabric and construction took a walloping and survived undamaged. Don't skimp on substantial long pegs and always seek sheltered sites with this tent.  Always use the panel lifters with shock cord loops in high winds. Get the extra poles for this. It flaps noisily in wind even under taut pitching. The diagonally opposed low ceiling panels (one is seen in picture above on the left) will be a problem in wind and tend to push down on your face.  Always use the vestibule guys and replace the originals with 3mm cord at least twice the length provided by the manufacturer.  I also employ toggles to give extra friction from slippage through the Line-locs.

Last year I also managed to pop about an inch of stitching at the top of the vestibule when pitching with an over-extended pole on some undulating ground.  My fault.  Don't over-tension the fly.  When I repaired this with some hand stitching (use polyester thread and a very fine needle) I noticed some of the original stitching had wandered off-seam a bit, so I checked the other vestibule and put in some re-inforcing there as well.  You might be advised to check same and pre-emptively reinforce. A parallel single row of stitches down the middle of the seam should do. The repair has lasted some serious buffeting. Eventually I unpicked the stitching at leisure and redid a much better looking job, using many of the same holes. Since sil/nylon stretches quite a bit, don't sew the stitching tightly, and don't stretch the fabric when sewing, let the fabric take the pitch or wind strain as it is much stronger than 2 rows of polyester stitches.  The stitches are there to hold the panels together laterally more than anything. If you want to apply a patch over the work, you need to use a sil/nylon repair kit with silicone adhesive. Neither Tenacious tape nor Stormsure patches will take to silicone. I'm not going to bother here as it is not a tear, but I will put some silicone seam sealer on it eventually.  I just don't want to open a tube for such a small job. (I have found open silicone tubes keep in the freezer.)

Lightweight gear may have compromised robustness for your intended use. I probably won't take this tent up on the Main Range again.  Given the high probability of experiencing strong wind (2 out of 3 trips with this tent) and a lack of sheltered sites, probably a tent with a crossover pole design is more suitable in this region.

Field stitching repair. Use a very fine needle and polyester thread.
So where is the right habitat for this tent?  All tents prefer good weather, especially mild winds, and a nice flat, soft, dry, well-drained, sheltered, grassy, low UV site with lots of space. Most tents can handle moderate rainfall but sustained deluges can compromise fly and bathtub floor integrity. This tent does need a bit of room to guy out, it likes flat, or at least even, sites with good pegging opportunities around the fly rim and it prefers  sheltered locations on well-drained dry ground.  High UV is also not advised and it does not offer much shade or radiant heat protection. It's not really a snow tent either since there are large unsupported regions of fly. This list of attributes may indeed describe many traditional tried and tested camp sites in the bush as written up in guides.  However, rock slabs, platforms, sand dunes, windy or high UV, cramped or damp sites may be more of a challenge. Good luck with that. Having said that, it has copped a beating, albeit protesting loudly, and survived.

The Wash Up

This roomy single user tent packs small and is light, has good ventilation and in good weather conditions is a palace which can take 2 users at a pinch.

It occupies more site space than many single user arched pole designs and it requires practice and skill to pitch correctly. Practice pitching this tent. Orienting the floor to slope so your sleeping position is right takes a little practice. Check your poles are the correct height (122cm or 127cm) and lock down tight if winds are likely.  Take care when tensioning and make sure the pole tips are in the grommets before cinching down on the guys.

The inner drapes a bit, and more thought on its suspension is needed in order to achieve the potential internal volume of the design.  A few more attachments are needed.  Winds can force panels onto your face when lying down and you will need to sit up and brace the panels and poles in gusty conditions. The tent inner does not have any storage pockets which may be because of the low support the inner has from the fly.

Wind is its enemy. The fly has 8 large panels which mostly are supported by tension, not by bracing as in arched cross pole designs. A couple more panel lifter attachments are required at each end of the inner.  By the time you add the weight of panel lifter support hardware for moderating the effects of winds, you might have grounds to reconsider your choice of tent.  For windy (i.e. above 35kmh) and exposed sites it's probably best to choose another tent. However this is not always evident in trip planning.

All guys have stingy lengths which make adjustment in wind or cold hands fiddly if not difficult or impossible. The line-locs slip under wind load and cannot be adjusted in those conditions. Just tying off is not really a good option either since the tension will make the knots very hard to undo and adjust, usually when the situation is critical.  Replace all of the guys with heavier and longer cord with high friction co-efficient and use toggles to secure the line ends unless you just intend to camp in your lounge room or sheltered back yard. The original guys can be cut up and made into much needed zip pulls. Carry extra cord. 

A 100 denier, 5000 millimetre, PU-coated HT nylon floor may be better and ultimately lighter for the user since a 250g footprint would not be required. On the other hand if your footprint can double as a shade or rain shelter this can be turned to an advantage.

The Stratospire is a brilliant design that could benefit from some more robust execution.  I hope it continues to evolve long into the future. I look forward to a version 2 upgrade.

I bought the Stratospire with my own funds and I have no relationship with Tarptent.

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