Long Term Review: TarpTent Saddle 2

A Clever Concept With Disappointing Execution

[Update: I encourage readers to view the response to this review from TarpTent in the comments section, as it provides a counter point to many of the topics discussed here. Also, some aspects of the Saddle 2 are being updated as Henry Shires (TarpTent) describes.]

Summary
The Saddle 2 is TarpTent’s lightest double wall tent – a feat achieved by forming the structure from four trekking poles instead of dedicated tent poles or struts. The general concept of how 4 trekking poles are employed is a good one, with the Saddle 2 successfully offering reasonable space and fairly good weather protection at a low weight (37oz). Unfortunately a myriad of issues with the tent’s design and construction make it a shelter I can’t recommend. These issues include disappointing construction quality, very saggy fabric, poor entryway design, tedious door clips and a seeming lack of field validation of several design attributes.

Pros:
– Light (36.7oz w/o stakes)
– Efficient use of 4 trekking poles
– Protected inner setup

Cons:
– Poor construction quality
– Door design / weatherproofness
– Difficult to use door clips
– Saggy fabric
– Poor inner floor pitch

Testing / Usage
My Saddle 2 was purchased in spring 2017 and I have used it for ~100 nights. Usage was primarily via a 3 month trip in the Canadian Rockies but I have also used it in the Pacific Northwest and Central Canada.

TarpTent-Saddle - 7

Concept
TarpTent’s Saddle 2 fits into TarpTent’s lineup as their lightest 2 person double wall shelter. Instead of using tent poles and struts for the structure (Scarp 2) or a mix of trekking poles and struts (StratoSpire 2), the Saddle 2 saves weight by relying exclusively on 4 trekking poles for the structure – something many hiker duos will have on hand anyways. The use of four trekking poles is by far the most unique attribute of the Saddle 2, separating it from the long list of shelters which incorporate two trekking poles.

In two pole designs, the poles are virtually always used to support the ridgeline, whether it be parallel, perpendicular or diagonal to the occupants. Regardless of a ridgeline’s orientation, alone it offers limited headroom for two occupants, which is why nearly every multi-person dual pole shelter augments the headroom in some way. Competing shelters typically increase the interior volume through the use of struts (TarpTent StratoSpire 2), short poles (SMD Lunar Duo) or elaborate guy-outs (Zpacks Duplex). The Saddle 2’s incorporation of two additional trekking poles is a rare but elegant and seemingly obvious solution. It’s surprising that using four poles is largely unheard of in the shelter world. This complete elimination of dedicated structural components results in a lighter shelter, and serendipitously allows the tent to be packed into any shape.

TarpTent-Saddle - 9

Four trekking poles can be arranged in a multitude ways. With the Saddle 2, TarpTent has decided upon a ridgeline positioned perpendicular to the sleepers, and then one additional pole at center of each end – a lay out which works well to boost interior space.

Overall, the Saddle 2 has convinced me that 4 trekking poles are the ideal configuration for a multi-person trekking pole supported shelter. Certainly there are many circumstances where a freestanding shelter would be a better choice (e.g. anywhere staking conditions are poor), but within the niche of non-freestanding shelters, a four pole layout has a lot of potential and it is conceived well in the Saddle 2.

Space
As mentioned, the Saddle 2 has a 50″ x 84″ floor, which is pretty typical for a 2 person tent. Two regular sleeping pads (20″ x 72″) fit easily, while two wide/long pads will fit but would be a full house.

Headroom is better than most trekking pole supporting tents, and similar to mainstream lightweight tent pole supported tents (e.g. MSR Hubba Hubba). The only noticeably weak area is at the four corners, where headroom is limited as the roof slopes down to meet the floor. Since the trekking poles are centered at each end, if you slide your pad right to the top corner of the tent, you’ll find the mesh inner pretty close to your head. It’s quite a minor downside, but it is best if your sleeping pad is fore/aft centered in the tent, or closer to the foot end.

TarpTent-Saddle - 11

The dual vestibules are noticeably smaller than TarpTent’s SS2, but still a good size. The outer vestibule walls are fairly steep, making it easy to stash a pack upright in the vestibule, or cook in this area without accidental canopy fires.

TarpTent-Saddle - 6

Pitching
I’ve previously mentioned my frustrations with pitching TarpTent’s StratoSpire 2. Specifically that it’s complex shape pitches fine when the conditions are good, but becomes a hassle when pitching on wonky, stake-resistant ground or in blustery weather. My hope was that the Saddle 2 would be a simpler tent to pitch, and in some ways it is.

TarpTent-Saddle - 4

The basic concept is certainly more intuitive. I agree with TarpTent’s setup video that the best way to pitch the Saddle 2 is to temporarily stake the ends, construct the ridgeline, and then properly stake out the ends. This approach usually works fine, but it’s not perfect (it’s easy to pitch the ridgeline off-center from the pre-staked ends) and this pitching process is vulnerable in high winds. Overall, the Saddle 2 is easier to pitch than the StratoSpire 2, but as with many other attributes of the design, the StratoSpire 2 is the better companion in difficult weather.

TarpTent-Saddle - 10

One unfortunate aspect of pitching the Saddle 2 is that TarpTent has opted for unnecessary complexity in the design – trading simplicity for more pitch control. Specifically, two major aspects of the shelters’ shape have been allowed to vary, which might be useful in odd circumstances, but increases the required knowledge. I suspect many users will end up with the occasional weird pitch and not really understand why.

These “extra” variables are:
1) Rather than giving the ends of the tent a fixed width, which would dictate where to stake the corners, the Saddle 2 has V shaped ends where the angle of the V varies (which affects other aspects of the pitch)
2) Less obviously, the distance that the vestibules are staked out from the floor affects not only the slope of the vestibule, but also the tension around the perimeter of the shelter, acting in opposition to variable 1.

The result of the above is that if you pitch the V too wide (like the photo below), the vestibules will be slack – unless you compensate by staking the vestibules out further. Conversely, if you pitch the V too narrow, then the vestibules will need to be staked closer to the floor. It would be better if the ends were a fixed width (like virtually every other tent), and the user only had adjust variable #2 to dial in the pitch. I realize there are some atypical circumstances where adjusting the ends may achieve a better pitch, but these benefits are minor compared to the substantial loss in simplicity, which is especially needed in a non-freestanding shelter where pitching already requires some guessing.

TarpTent-Saddle - 1 (1)
Here the end is pitched quite wide, so the vestibules also needed to be staked far from the body.

In my previous (and largely positive) review of TarpTent’s StratoSpire 2, I noted that the vestibule stakes are too close to the tend body to robustly tension the ridgeline, so additional ridgeline stakes positioned further from the body of the tent are needed (adding weight, hassle and tripping potential). In this regard, I was hopeful that the Saddle 2 would pitch satisfactorily with only 6 stakes because the vestibules are more gently sloped.

Indeed, the gentler sloping vestibules do allow the Saddle 2 to be pitched robustly with only these two vestibule stakes anchoring the ridgeline (6 stakes total). However, the door clips (discussed later in more depth) undermine this benefit, because if you put substantial tension on the vestibule stakes it becomes quite difficult to operate the clips – particularly to close them. Thus, while two additional ridgeline stakes are not mandatory, they are needed if you want to be able to close the clips with minimal frustration.

TarpTent-Saddle - 1

More troublesome than any of the above mentioned pitching issues however, is the fabric sag. The silnylon used here sags dramatically in wet conditions – moreso than any other silnylon I’ve ever used. Whereas my StratoSpire 2 (purchased in 2011) always impressed me with its sag resistance, my Saddle 2 wilts in the rain or when dew sets in. It’s not uncommon to wake up during a rainy night and find the fly stuck all over the inner tent. Even worse is heavy, slushy snow, which both saturates the fabric and stretches it due to the snow weight.

By way of example, the photo below was taken after a night of slushy snow. I pitched the tent taut that evening and by 2am it had collected ~2″ of slush so after brushing it off I had to tighten up all the guylines by 2-3 inches each. I went back to bed and woke at 7am to find another 2″ of slush on the tent and a huge amount of additional sag (below). This is a huge step backwards in materials, even if the new material is more water resistant.

Saddle 2 - 1

A final disappointment with the pitch of the Saddle 2 is that there is no way to achieve a taut floor. As long as you haven’t seriously splayed out the V shaped ends, the length of the floor will be tensioned reasonably, but there is no way to properly tension the width of the floor. Where the floor connects to the fly is scarcely wider than the floor itself (see below), so there is virtually no outward pull on the floor. It’s not a big deal, but it looks sloppy and makes it harder to clean out debris.

DSCN1356

On the plus side of things, the inner tent is protected from getting wet during setup because it is clipped inside of the fly. I’ve skimmed over this benefit here, as it’s common to all TarpTent’s, but it is a major advantage of TarpTent products over mainstream offerings where the inner pitches first while exposed to the elements.

Weight
My Saddle 2 weighs 1040g (36.73oz) for only the inner + fly. The provided tent sack weighs another 23g (0.8oz) and then you’ll need stakes. 8 stakes weigh another 3oz or so, making the total package around 40oz or about 41oz after seam sealing. Mine is seam sealed but I haven’t weighed it since.

TarpTent claims 1020g (36oz) for the fly + inner, so my Saddle 2 is about 2/3rds of an ounce overweight. Not too bad considering the egregious weight discrepancies often found with lightweight gear.

Doors
The dual entryways of the Saddle 2 are one of the most disappointing aspects of this tent. In several ways, it feels like these doors were designed on a computer, without sufficient field validation.

The first door issue is that the entryways are not fully protected from falling rain as TarpTent claims (“Interior never gets wet during entry, exit, setup or takedown in storms“). As shown below, the fly does not fully cover the entryway, and thus does get wet in vertical rain. Admittedly this protection is still better than many other tents, but it’s not good for a TarpTent product, which normally stand out in this area.

Saddle - 1

A second issue is that if you roll up a wet door – such as when exiting from a dewy tent in the morning – the water captured inside the roll runs out and drips onto the inner mesh. Rolling the fabric outward instead of inward reduces this, but either way if the door is quite wet, you’ll get water dripping on the inner. This also is not a huge deal as it’s only 5-10 drops, but if the fly fully covered the inner then these drips would fall into the vestibule instead. A little more coverage would be a big improvement.

Lastly, there are the door clips. Although I was initially indifferent, after substantial use I don’t like them. The largest problem with the clips is that they turn a one handed job into an awkward two handed job. The clips can be opened with a single hand, but closing the door clips is always a two handed job unless you’re far more nimble than I. Instead of reaching one arm into the vestibule to close the zipper, the clips require leaning both arms and most of your upper torso out into the vestibule and then using your excellent core strength to suspend your upper body there while your hands work on the clip – a much more challenging manoeuvre. Because of this hassle, most of the time I only do up the velcro (with one hand) and leave the door unclipped. The velcro is nice.

Additionally, the clips reduce the flexibility of how open the door is. You can partially open the door via the velcro patches, but there are only a two possible positions, whereas with a zipper you can fine tune the door aperture to your needs. When cooking in the vestibules I found this to be a moderate con.

Another annoyance is that the clips fall open when the shelter isn’t pitched, so you often need to re-clip them before pitching. It’s just a minor hassle, but again it makes you wonder why there aren’t zippers. At least having a buckle would be better.

Overall, the clips seem like an anachronism – a relic from a time before zippers existed. Zippers are wonderful inventions – enabling doors to be closed securely, elegantly and simply. Admittedly zippers do add weight, cost and a potential failure point, but #5 zippers (like TT uses in the SS2) almost never fail. The #3 zippers used for the inner will wear out far sooner. So my take is that the clips save 0.5 – 1oz and $20 off the price, but add substantial hassle to the user experience.

The final nail in the coffin for the clips is that they rust. My rust is only minor at this point, but after another year or two of regular use I expect they’ll be ready for replacement.

DSCN1034

Weather Protection
The Saddle 2 sheds rain well, such that it seems upon first impressions to be a good partner when the weather turns. Unfortunately many issues prevent this from being so.

First, the previously mentioned dramatic fabric sag in wet conditions largely negates the benefits of the double wall design. In condensation prone conditions where you want a double wall tent to keep you from contacting the wet fly, the Saddle 2 fly sags and sticks all over the inner. It’s a double wall tent when you don’t need it, and a single wall when you do.

TarpTent-Saddle - 5

Secondly, as mentioned already, the doorways which appear fine in good conditions, let you down in rainy conditions from rain falling right in or dripping in via a rolled door. They’re still better than many tents, but they could be better.

Lastly, the ends of the tents seem designed more for fair weather than storms. The ends consist of two fabric panels which separate via velcro and can be rolled up to increase ventilation. This does boost ventilation, but the reliance on velcro to hold the flaps shut is questionable in high winds. The ends have never blown open on me, but it seems plausible this could happen, particularly as the velcro ages. At the very least, I’ve found slushy snow gums up the velcro enough that it doesn’t hold.

Making this situation worse is a suboptimal design for how the end flaps are secured open. When you open the flaps, elastics are provided to tie around and secure the rolled fabric. Unfortunately, these elastics grasp the roll exactly where the velcro is buried inside, scrunching the velcro. If the wind picks up in the night and you decide to close the ends, you’ll find velcro doesn’t stick as well as usual. It’s admittedly a small issue, but it’s a good example of my general sentiment with the Saddle 2 that it lacks field validation. It would have been easy to move the elastics straps up or down by two inches to avoid this but apparently no one noticed.

TarpTent-Saddle - 1
Velcro on the end flaps after being rolled up

Lastly, the clips are a pain to close when it’s snowy/slushy. They’re near impossible with mitts on.

With regards to snow, the Saddle 2 doesn’t fair well because the top panels are only mildly sloped. They don’t shed snow when the tent is pitched taut, and once the fabric starts to sag then the top panels become concave and definitely won’t be shedding any snow (see snowy picture several pics up). To be fair, TarpTent doesn’t sell this as a 4 season tent, but I don’t think an inch or two of snow falls outside the realm of reasonable 3 season use.

Construction Quality
My experience with TarpTent is that they’ve always been middle of the road in terms of build quality. Their gear doesn’t exude quality like the fine products from companies like Locus Gear, Hanchor, Katabatic and Patagonia, but it’s not sloppy work like Bear Paw Wilderness Designs and to a less flagrant extent, Six Moon Designs and Zpacks.

Expecting middle of the road quality, my Saddle 2 has been a disappointment. In many areas the stitch length is far too long at 4 mm (6 stitches per inch), making the seams quick to sew but less robust. Good stitching is 2-3mm, with 2mm being ideal for tents where seam strength is the primary consideration.

TarpTent-Saddle - 3
4mm stitching

There are also unfinished edges throughout, such as around the doors where the zipper is sewn to raw edges of the silnylon. This is now fraying somewhat, although silnylon fortunately stays together pretty well. The fabric edges that are folded often have just a single fold instead of a proper double fold to hide and protect the raw edge. For example, the bottom hem of the tent is just a single fold held by a single line of stitching, whereas ideal construction would be a double fold with double stitching.

TarpTent-Saddle - 1 (1)
Fraying exposed fabric edge along the door

To my understanding, TarpTent outsources the construction of their tents after doing the design work, which may be why some aspects of the quality varies. Hopefully this isn’t a widespread issue, or if so, perhaps TarpTent can find a better manufacturer – perhaps whomever Katabatic is using.

Conclusions
Obviously I’m disappointed with the Saddle 2 and can not recommend this tent. The 4 pole layout is clever and long time TarpTent features like the protected inner setup are great, but the list of problems is too long. The entryway design, construction quality and saggy fabric are all substantial issues which collectively make the tent a disappointment.

The StratoSpire 2 that I have previously reviewed quite favourably was a much better partner in poor weather. Unfortunately, I suspect current versions of the StratoSpire also suffer from similar fabric sag and a decline in build quality. I recommend looking into this issue before buying a TarpTent product, and also encourage Saddle owners to add shockcord to the stakeout locations to mitigate the sag issue. Most stakeout points on the SS2 are like this from the factory.

While this review is quite negative, please keep in mind that I’m only reviewing a single example of this tent. I could easily have gotten the worst of the lot – a Friday afternoon sew job with a sub-par roll of fabric. That doesn’t explain everything, but the Saddle 2 might be better than my experiences with it. With that said, some issues such as the non-taut floor have been noted elsewhere.

TarpTent-Saddle - 2

Recommendations
While I can’t recommend the Saddle 2, I wouldn’t be hard for TarpTent to turn it into an excellent tent.

First, TarpTent needs to find some non-saggy silnylon and get it sewed by a quality manufacturer. Secondly, the fly should be redesigned with ends that are wider (for sure) and fixed width (ideally). Wider ends would move the vestibule doors outward so the inner is fully covered. This would also prevent drips from the door from falling on the inner and enable proper side to side tension on the floor so it is taut. Lastly, replace the clips with zippers and the tent would be quite good.

TarpTent rarely does substantial revisions to their products once on the market, but I hope they see the need here and address these criticisms in a second generation Saddle. There is the potential for a superb tent based on the Saddle 2 concept but it needs more rigour in its’ execution.

TarpTent-Saddle - 8

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Long Term Review: TarpTent Saddle 2

  1. Thanks for posting your thorough review. The best reason for removing a zipper is that it is the most common mechanical failure in tents, and probably any outdoor item (sleeping bags, packs, and jackets). I’ve had zippers fail on my tents (mostly from Black Diamond and TarpTent).

    Do you think the SS2 could be designed to be used with 4 trekking poles, or would the short corners require something shorter than a compacted pole?

    Like

  2. The failure potential is a valid point. I’ve worn out a lot of #3 zippers – especially in tents. I’ve always had good luck with #5 zips though. My StratoSpire 2 had #5’s in the fly and #3’s in the inner. The #5’s always worked well through 200+ nights, while the #3’s needed new sliders after ~120 nights.

    The SS2 pitch lock corners have two short struts at each (in an inverted V shape). I suspect that the height of a ~22″ collapsed 3 piece pole wouldn’t be hard to accommodate, and would boost interior space nicely, but using a single pole at each corner instead of the dual struts would require a major redesign of the corners. It might need two stakes at each of these corners to be as solid (to stabilize the pole in 3 directions).

    Like

  3. I’m late to the party but I did want to respond to the points made in the article.

    First off, thanks for the detailed write up. I take your criticism of the clip system to heart and agree that it needs improvement. You will see a revision later this year that both makes the clip in / clip out process easier but also protects the clip from exposure to rain. The rusting effect you encountered was unexpected — the clip is nickel coated steel but abrasion and rain exposure apparently wore off at least some of the nickel coating over all those nights. The updated design will eliminate that. The clip system is not going away and it there intensionally in order to eliminate any chance of mechanical failure, an ever present albeit low probability risk inherent in zippers. The side to side floor tension can also be improved and an update is coming that will allow the trekking poles to supply it (as is the case with the Notch).

    I want to address some other specific criticisms.

    Pitching. You say that pitching is a problem because the ends are variable and not fixed “like virtually every other tent.” That statement is just not true if you pitch it as we ship it with the storm flaps engaged. Those flaps do in fact define a fixed end length and give you an exact corner to corner distance and tension feedback loop.

    Doors/rain protection. I stand by our statement that the “Interior never gets wet during entry, exit, setup or takedown in storms.“ That is absolutely the case. You can easily get in and out and keep the interior protected. If is also true that if you tie back the vestibule doors then you pull the fabric back and inward and you do expose a bit of the interior to rain. In that way it is different than the StratoSpire 2 but lots and lots of tents don’t protect the interior with the vestibules tied back and we have never claimed that the Saddle 2 fly protects the interior when the vestibules are rolled back. I will say that you can quite easily use the existing velcro system to tension back the vestibule flap about halfway to encourage ventilation and still protect the interior (see below).

    End vents. They didn’t fail for you, nor have we ever heard of them failing. I really just don’t understand your argument. It is true that the tie-up should probably be moved about inch. If you roll tightly they don’t bind the velcro but, yes, with some slack they currently can.

    Construction. Without seeing your particular Saddle 2 I can’t say for sure but I very much question your pronouncement that stitching quality had declined relative to your StratoSpire 2. It’s the same people and the same sewing techniques. In particular your claim that our stitch length is too long is just flat out wrong. Tighter stitching doesn’t make it stronger — punching holes in things makes them weaker, not stronger. Tighter stitching presses fabric edges tighter together (at loss to fabric strength) and reduces thread stress per inch but that just isn’t necessary as threads don’t break unless unusually stressed at high stress points and for those we reinforce with fabrics and extra stitching. Real world testing has born this out over untold hundreds of thousands of nights of collective use.

    Fabrics and sag. We use a variety of fabrics and the Saddle 2 uses a different fabric than your StratoSpire. It’s a lighter fabric with a 50% higher pressure rating than your StratoSpire. The downside is that it is stretchier. Much of any stretch can be easily compensated for by internally boosting your trekking poles as necessary after initial pitch. Going forward we are working to bring in some newer lower stretch fabrics which also feature high pressure ratings.

    Thanks.

    Henry Shires
    Tarptent

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for chiming in Henry.

      It’s great to get your comments on the Saddle 2. I’ve added a note at the top of the review encouraging viewers to read your perspective. Also great to hear that you have some revisions planned.

      It sounds like we at least partially agree in a few areas (fabric sag, clip rust, clip ease of use). With regards to sag, extending the poles further would be a nice way to compensate for folks with adjustable poles. In my case, we were using fixed length poles, so compensating for sag was a more involved task.

      In a few other areas, it seems our disagreement is just differences in communication/interpretation. I interpreted the door statement on the TT website (“Interior never gets wet during entry….”) to mean that the inner would always be protected. But indeed you can enter/exit without securing the door, in which case the inner stays dry. So I can an argument for that interpretation. Either way, a little more coverage would be great.

      FIXED VS VARIABLE ENDS
      With the “fixed vs variable” end pitching discussion, I think we agree on how the ends work, and this is mostly a difference in perspective/interpretation/terminology. I view the corner stake outs as “not fixed” because the angle of the V is variable. There’s not always the same V angle from one pitch to the next because there is no direct line of material between these two points. I believe that you view the ends as “fixed” because once the ridgeline is constructed, then the corners do naturally pull to a single point so there isn’t any guesswork. I agree with that, but still view the ends as not fixed because if someone sets up the tent with the vestibules staked unusually (i.e. really close or really far from the body), then the lines of tension which dictate the corner positions will have the end V’s being quite wide or skinny. So the angle of the V depends on the staking position of the vestibules. I would prefer a direct line of material between the end corners (a flat end rather than a V shape) so that if someone does stake out the vestibules unusually, this anomaly isn’t propagated further through the pitch. If the ends were flat, the pitcher would see the vestibules are too loose/tight and would then reposition the vestibules. All of this seems (and is) pretty minor, but where I’m really going with all this, is that if the ends were flat then potentially easier pitching options would become available. In high winds, it would be possible to start the pitch by staking the 4 corners while guessing just one variable (length of the tent). Even the length of the tent is mostly fixed by the inner, so if it had flat ends, I think the Saddle 2 would be very easy to pitch by staking the 4 corners, adding the poles, and then staking out the vestibules.

      CONSTRUCTION QUALITY / STITCH LENGTH
      Everything I’ve ever read on stitch length has said that shorter stitching gives a stronger seam. Yes there are more punctures in the fabric, but this also spread the stress over a greater number of points. Here are some examples of respectable publications saying that shorter stitching gives a stronger seam:
      http://www.daaam.info/Downloads/Pdfs/proceedings/proceedings_2012/0875_FirstRogaleatal.pdf
      http://www.amefird.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Selecting-the-right-SPI-2-5-10.pdf

      In that first publication, a 2mm stitch was consistently about 50% stronger than a 3mm stitch across a variety of fabric types. The second publication is by a thread manufacturer and they provide formula’s for estimating seam strength which has a 3mm seam at 35% stronger than 4mm, and a 2mm seam at 100% stronger than 4mm. If there is good evidence that this is wrong, or isn’t true for silnylon, then I’d love to read it and I’d be happy to be wrong.

      In any case, a striking thing with the stitching in my Saddle is how variable the stitch length is, which is never a sign of quality. Some areas are 2.5mm, most are 3-3.5, a minority is 4mm and a few rare spots are 5mm. My SS2 was more consistent at ~3mm.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s