High Gear: Field review of Big Agnes UL tent, pad and sleeping bag system
There’s nothing like setting up a brand-new tent in the dark by yourself to test a company’s claims of simplicity.
For years, I’ve been hearing all about Big Agnes and its line of ultra-light backpacking gear. I’m no stranger to gear from the Steamboat Springs-based company — their line of men’s puffy coats is just as sexy and just as reliable as Patagonia or The North Face, and for slightly less cash — but I’ve never had the chance to try their claim to fame: tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads, all designed to work as a seamless system. In other words, Big Agnes stuff works best when paired with Big Agnes stuff, and if one company wants all of my business its system had better be noticeably more intuitive than anything else out there.
Let’s say Big Agnes passed the test with flying colors.
Fly Creek HV UL3 tent
Back to the tent. On a recent camping trip to Shrine Pass, I arrived right around dusk after everyone else had set up camp. Someone offered me a headlamp to set up the redesigned Fly Creek HV UL3 tent ($449.95) I brought — an incredibly light system made for backpacking with three people, which really means two people plus wiggle room — but I wanted unfamiliarity to be part of the field test. If I can’t figure out how to set up this one-pole system by myself in the near dark, then how easy can it really be?
The first thing I noticed was how flimsy the material felt as I unpacked poles, rainfly and tent body. The fly and tent floor are both silicone-treated nylon rip-stop, which means they should stand up to a beating from rocks, roots, branches and campers on the trail. Still, it all felt so … flimsy.
The second thing I noticed was how pleasant the Big Agnes pole system is. Like the Copper Spur tent (also $449.95), the Fly Creek family (with sizes for one to three people) features a single pole with two hubs — one for the front, one for the rear — and another, smaller hub for the rainfly. It beats fumbling for three or more separate poles any day, but it also made assembling the tent a breeze. I simply laid out the tent, connected the poles, placed four pole ends in four grommets, attached several plastic clips and voila — I had a simple shelter in about three minutes.
And that’s the final thing I noticed: This system is insanely intuitive. Two minutes later, I had attached the rainfly and I was staking it down with stakes that never once bent (seriously). About 10 minutes after arriving, my shelter was ready for that night’s frequent rainstorms and I was sipping a beer at the campfire. Nothing beats that.
Mystic UL 15 and Q-Core SLX
Later that night, I slid into the Mystic UL 15 sleeping bag attached to the Q-Core SLX pad. The two are made to fit like a glove — the 20-by-72 inch pad slips into a sleeve on the bottom of the bag — and I couldn’t wait to test the concept. I sleep like a dead person until I get in a tent, where the slightest slope makes me slip and slide all over the place. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve awoke in a jumbled mess on the bottom of a tent, or all up in my tent partner’s face. Sometimes, I don’t even bring a pad because I know I’m not going to stay on it anyway.
The bag-and-pad system didn’t completely solve this issue, but it definitely made a night’s rest in the woods more comfortable. It performed exactly as advertised: The pad stayed snug against the bottom of the bag, which kept me high in the tent thanks to the pad’s long and supportive I-beam compartments.
But, like the tent, I couldn’t get over how flimsy the material felt on both the bag and pad. They’re also made of nylon rip-stop, and I’ve talked with a few friends who say their gear is still in one, un-torn piece, but I found myself gingerly moving around to avoid accidentally ripping the fabric on a fingernail. Maybe Big Agnes does that on purpose: People probably treat tough-looking gear like tough-looking gear, which just might shorten the lifespan. Plus, that flimsy-feeling rip-stop also looks pretty sexy when it shimmers in lamplight.
But I digress. Fabric aside, the bag’s water-repellent down fill is soft and cushy, and the interior nylon tafetta material is the next-best thing to silk for a backpacker. The temperature dropped into the 30s that night, and between the 15-degree rating and surprisingly insulated tent, I ended up kicking my feet out the bottom of the bag. By 9 the next morning, I was baking.
Not only is the Big Agnes backpacking system intuitive, it also lives up to its ultra-light claim. All told, the tent, bag and pad I tested weighed 7 pounds, 9 ounces and cost about $1,000. That’s nearly lighter than some three-person tents by themselves (and a good $750 more expensive). If backcountry trekking in style is your thing, Big Agnes is your brand.
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