1/13/16

Tarptent Contrail Review and Modification

In 2014 I bought a Tarptent Contrail per the enthusiastic recommendation of another bicyclist.  For $200 and under 2lbs it seemed like the best value ultralight tent around.  It provides excellent bug protection, is plenty spacious for one, and is well ventilated.  The only problem is that it leaks.

After picking up the Contrail in Oregon, I road through Washington, Vancouver Island, ferried to Alaska, rode into the Yukon, BC, Montana, Wyoming, and back east.  I experienced some very wet days and nights and ferocious mosquitoes.  Mosquitoes were kept out, but several times I woke up with a pool of water at my feet.  Upon returning I emailed Tarptent and Henry Shires (proprietor) wrote back: "yes, the Contrail can have water problems if you don’t get the sides down. You accomplish that but [sic] a) lowering your front pole down to 110cm or lower—that drops the front corners—and b) by lowering the rear edges down the rear struts to whatever height you want.  Doing those things ensures that water can’t find the floor edge because the canopy edge and/or mesh low post will be lower than the floor edge"

Here is the Tarptent Contrail somewhere in a wet forest of the Pacific NW.  Note the rear struts are not lowered.  This evening was a dripping mist, so I stayed mostly dry.
Oops.  User error!  I had not been lowering the rear struts. That's good news, I figured.  I like this tent and now I can keep using it. So I didn't hesitate to use the Contrail while hiking the Appalachian Trail. This time I followed Henry's recommendations.  And guess what? It still leaked.

Here is the Contrail after a night of rain near the Baxter State Park entrance. Full of water.
So I say the Tarptent Contrail is a flawed design, which Henry Shires apparently agrees with, as the Contrail is no longer in production. It has been replaced by the Protrail.  The Protrail design looks like it will fix the main problem at the rear of the tent, but it still has the the bug netting attached on the edges of the tarp.  With the Contrail I found that the bug netting can draw the water into the tent if not set up just right.  Who wants a tent that needs to be set up just right after a full day of hiking or biking?  Not me.  The reviews I did find of the Protrail are positive, other than typical issues with single wall tents:

i.reddit.com/r/Ultralight/comments/3lv2b1/indepth_tarptent_protrail_review/
www.thehikinglife.com/2014/11/tarptent-protrail-review/
endoventure.net/2015/08/31/gear-review-tarptent-protrail/

So what to do if you have a Contrail? I don't think Tarptent is offering to replace all the Contrails with the Protrail, so the answer is: fix it yourself.  If you have access to a sewing machine, and at least a smidgen of sewing confidence, I suggest the following modification, which will lighten your Contrail by a few ounces and fix the water problem.  It will cut back on ventilation, but in reality some condensation is inevitable if it is raining and the front flap is closed. 

I removed the struts and stitching in the back and cut the bug netting off the edge along the sides and rear, and about 7" up on the front. I then reattached the bug netting about 7" on the inside of the sides. The seams are visible in the picture below. (I did a mediocre job. Use sewing pins.)  In the rear, after taking all the stitches out and discarding the struts, I sewed a couple pieces of silnylon with reinforced loops into the missing square sections so it can be staked parallel to the ground.  All the old stitches make it swiss cheese like on the end, so be generous with the seam sealer.



Admittedly, I haven't used it on a trip, but I did leave it out in a windy rainstorm for 2 days and gave it a separate thorough soaking with the hose.  No leaking.  Ventilation will definitely be reduced, so I moved the circular black reinforcement patch to the inside of the rear where I can use a stick or short pole to prop up the center, similar to the new Protrail design.  That should provide adequate ventilation and if it starts to rain heavily in the middle of the night it can be easily kicked out from the inside to lay flat.

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