Coffin-sized solo tent may work for ultralight camping, but beware of claustrophobia

One-man tent, set up. There's just enough room for me and a small backpack.
One-man tent, set up. There's just enough room for me and a small backpack. | Source

I like to camp, and I usually go with minimal gear. So, by rights I should love those smaller one-man tents and bivy sacks.

I should, anyway.

Not long ago got to test one out on an overnight trip with a short five-mile hike near Awendaw, South Carolina. This wasn't planned; the original idea was to string up my usual tarp with ropes and stakes, calling that a tent. That was the idea, anyway.

A quick look at the campsite showed a shortage of trees, a real necessity if you're going to go the tarp route. In truth, the tarp works better in wilder country than where I was; this campsite was pretty tame. To give an idea there, the family camping next to my group brought their kids, bicycles, fancy firestarters, and a small generator. Roughing it. Sorry, folks. That's not camping.

Anyway, my friend Derek planned ahead here. He brought a one-man tent if I was interested in trying it out. This was the Eureka! Solitare, which is pretty representative of one-man tents. In fact, take this article as a guide to the type of tent, rather than a specific brand.

The tent comes in a narrow stuff sack less than a foot and a half long, and it weighs next to nothing. It shouldn't take up much room in your pack, which is a good thing.


If you're going ultralight

The truth about tents

I should mention something about tents. On most models, the capacity will be noted on the box. Whatever it is, take it with a grain of salt. A small 7x7 dome tent, for example, is advertised to sleep four. Which is possible, if you lay everybody in there like cordwood. It's a tight fit, and when one scratches, everyone else has to move. And I pity the fool who has to visit the head in the early hours; he has to scrabble to get out without stepping on one of his tentmates. I think the 7x7 will sleep four if they're heavily sedated, but forget it if anyone stretches, snores, farts, or belches in the night.

But the one-man tent, as advertised, sleeps one. Reasonably comfortably, in fact, as long as a few things are taken into consideration.

If you have a whole lot of gear, plan on stowing at least some of it outside. The Solitaire has just about enough room for you and your pack. This may be plenty, but maybe not. You need to be the judge there.

Getting in and out of the tent is an interesting trial. To get in, you crawl in. Backwards. Butt first. There is not enough room to turn around in this thing, and it's a little hard to backtrack when you realize you screwed up and forgot this fact. But once you back in, get yourself situated. Then grab your pack, drag it in behind you, and set that near the entrance. This is important and I'll explain that part in a minute.

The tent is perhaps long enough for yourself and a medium-sized pack (I'm a tick under six feet tall and reed-thin, so your mileage may vary here). You may find room along the sides to stow some gear, or perhaps not. But you may not want to have your equipment too close to the walls; I'll explain that eventually.

Putting it inelegantly, this one-man tent has about as much interior room as a standard coffin. Now, I've never slept in a coffin and don't plan to do so for a long long time, so don't count me as an authority on that subject. But you get the point. This thing is small.

Claustrophobia

While bedding down for the night, it took a few minutes for me to adjust to my new environment. As I mentioned, getting in requires some careful thought, and placing your gear takes some planning.

At one point during the night I woke up feeling panicky. I tend to move around a lot in my sleep, and I inched up toward the head of the tent. I basically woke up with a face full of tent fabric; not a good way to sleep if you get claustrophobic as I do. Obviously, this is not going to work.

I made some adjustments. Edged myself and the sleeping bag down to the foot of the tent, placed my pack at the head, by the door, and settled back down. This seems to have solved the problem, although the one-man tent is still a lot closer quarters than I find remotely comfortable.

Setting up

If you know how to set up a dome tent, the one-man version is fairly easy. You may need to lay it out first to see how everything comes together, as the Solitaire has a screened top and a long rain fly that fits over the whole thing. But you lay the tent out flat, stake down the corners and sides (see, it's even shaped like a coffin), and raise it from there. The one tent pole actually forms a hoop, lifting the widest, highest section up to accommodate you.

Condensation

This was a chilly night, so I opted for the rain fly. There's always a trade-off here, because as you exhale in any well-sealed tent you will expel water vapor. Even camping solo in a 7x7 tent you will get some condensation on the walls during the night. But because there is less room in a one-person tent and you will expel the same amount of water vapor, this condensation problem is intensified.

So, unless you like having all your gear soaked by your own breath, I'd suggest some sort of ventilation. Even opening the rain fly slightly should do it if you can get away with it.

Final take

These one-man tents such as the Solitare will keep you reasonably warm and dry when you need to be. It won't weigh a lot or take up much room in your pack, so it has its charms.

But it's best for ultralight travel, particularly on reasonably short trips. If you're partial to sleeping under the stars, this will make a nice backup if the weather turns ugly. It's also nice if you want to forego the rain fly and just keep the no-see-ums and snakes out of your sleeping bag. If you plan to use this nightly on a long trip such as through-hiking the Appalachian Trail, forget it. This is too much to ask. A mini-tent isn't the most rugged thing in the world, and after too many nights of staring at the too-close walls and getting drenched in your own condensation, you might just freak out and claw that one-man tent to shreds.

Other than that, it just might work.

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