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Innovative and inspiring tents

Features | November 1, 2012 | By:

Small tents push the envelope with high-tech materials.

Ultralight backpacking has gained enthusiastic and nimble participants, even faster than its innovative minimalist gear’s weight has dropped. Tents, usually the heaviest but most critical system carried by backpackers, have been one of the first places to cut weight. At this year’s annual Outdoor Retailer Market in Salt Lake City, Utah, equipment supplier Sierra Designs answered our question “How ultra can you go?” with its newest two-person ultralight space-age shelter, the Mojo UFO. To dramatize the otherworldly Mojo UFO’s scant 0.76kg (that’s in Earth gravity) weight, the prototype display tent hovered midair in Sierra Designs exhibit, gently suspended by a small cluster of helium balloons.

This freestanding, singlewall tent is made from an American-made nonwoven laminated fabric using Dyneema® (sometimes called Cuben) fibers, bonded to Ultra-High-Molecular-Weight-Polyethylene (UHMWPE) film and is structurally tensioned by just three elegantly arced Easton carbon fiber poles. If you’re a hiker with the weight obsession of a supermodel and the budget of an America’s Cup yacht (where Cuben Fiber laminate is also the sailcloth of choice), you will be able to pack your own world-class Mojo UFO for just $1,799 starting in 2013.

Pumped to go

Most small camping tents still require internal or external structural frames assembled from pieces of rigid or semirigid aluminum tubing. As efficient as this semimonocoque pole system may be, it presents several problems: multiple and breakable parts; sometimes complicated setup (especially for nontechnical users, or at night); and inflexible packing requirements. One innovative technique to overcome these problems—maximizing strength and durability and speeding tent setup—is to completely replace tent poles with integrated monocoque air-beam supports. A simple hand pump inflates the bladder-filled fabric beams in minutes.

Midwest Mountaineering, Minneapolis, Minn., camping manager Will Rettig notes that “Innovative tent designers NEMO Equipment Inc. [U.S.] and Vango AirBeam [U.K.] have for several years offered a number of successful inflatable models, and now other mainstream tent sellers like Kelty are catching up.” Currently available, inflatable tents are unlikely to meet all the high-performance criteria of the ultralight packers. Thus far, inflatables’ biggest drawback remains weight and some shape limitations. Consequently, the air-supported niche is mostly advantageous to car campers and specialty or more casual users. Inflatable frame tents are also getting a design and technical boost from the popularity of kitesurfing, now a booming sport worldwide whose powerful airfoil wings are supported by similarly arched air beams.

Keep watching for new developments. Inflatable beam tent designs haven’t yet reached the limits of their possibilities.

Note: For an overview of larger air-supported structures and vehicles see “Surface to Air”.

Opera goes silent

Stretching the upper definition of a camping tent, one of the rarest and most dramatic pieces of fabric architecture possibly seen in any campsite is the Opera travel trailer. This stunning fabric pop-up approximation of the Sidney Opera House was first designed and built by a Dutch startup company Your Suite In Nature to rave reviews in 2010. Unfortunately, its extraordinary outside-of-the-box design couldn’t overcome the out-of-reach $40,000 price to produce duplicates, and they ceased making reproductions in 2012 after only nine Operas. Still, it deserves applause and a theatrical award for its soaring fabric sculpture.

Tents become playful canvases

Most of the time, if they’re not mixing it up at IFAI’s annual Expo, most industrial fabrics people seem to keep to their own camps and to traditional aesthetics. The graphics people can print anything a client wants on signs, banners and awnings. The tent people generally choose the safe solids, thank you. So what might happen if a busload of creative artists, designers and entrepreneurs were set loose in a English tent factory? We aren’t sure that’s the exact backstory, but the result might be something like the online catalog of comic tent canvases offered by a cheeky Brit start-up, FieldCandy.

While its manufactured-in-England basic camping tents are uniformly dressed in a proper and breathable cotton under-tent, the outré outer polyester rainflies explode with creativity and color!

More than a dozen artists have created nearly 50 limited edition designs so far, with names like “What a Melon,” “Animal Farm,” “Fully Booked” and “Get a Room,” each one an outdoor art piece guaranteed to be “Outstanding” when seen—in any field.

Although we’re not expecting to see one of these 7.4kg tents atop K2, they’re sure to provoke giggles and guffaws among otherwise proper campers—and, just maybe, inspire some outrageous awnings, truck covers, boat biminis, etc., in your field of business.

Tents illuminate England’s “Peace Camp”

Sometimes a tent’s primary purpose isn’t shelter, but art. Most notably, as here, when 500 simple domed tents became softly illuminated life-forms, glowing from within as if they were bioluminescent. Director Deborah Warner and actress Fiona Shaw created the site art project “Peace Camp” in conjunction with the London 2012 Festival and the traditional Olympic Games. Described as “a coastal installation celebrating love poetry and landscape,” the event was staged at eight remote sites around Britain, including the cinematic ragged ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle. Visitors were encouraged to wander among the glowing creatures’ brief encampments, while recordings of love poems emanated from many of the tents.

Perhaps there’s a reminder for us here, too. Sometimes fabric architecture’s primary impact is to deliver innovation and dramatic inspiration. Fabric architecture is capable of both sheltering and stirring the emotions enfolded within us all.

Glenn W. Strand is a design and marketing consultant based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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