rookie moves

In my first post about my walk, I joked that one of the questions I hoped to answer on trail was whether MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) would grace me with discounted gear. I hoped that once I was underway and had proven myself on trail, they might be willing to offer me a discount for the numerous pairs of boots and a few gear-swaps I’d need en-route. 

As luck would have it, a friend who had just started working with MEC saw my post and let me know about their amazing array of community-building and community support programs, among them the Expedition Grant, with one caveat: the application deadline was only 24 hours away. I cleared my schedule and scrambled together an application describing my trip plan, motivation, and how I would ensure safety on my journey. As an aside, I really appreciated the emphasis on safety that the application required — kudos to MEC for making this a top priority!

Fast-forward a few weeks and I was beyond excited to learn that MEC had accepted my application and would be hooking me up with up to $1,000 of gear along the way. 

All things feline aside, hiking is my number one passion. I’ve logged enough kilometres in the last decade on trails and terrain around the world to be considered an experienced backpacker, even branching out to (and preferring!) shoulder season and winter excursions. Even so, I made a very rookie move in choosing an essential piece of gear for my cross-Canada walk: the tent. 

The kicker was that I already owned a very good tent! After participating in the Vancouver condo rat race for the better part of a year and a half (when prices were still reasonably insane!) it wasn’t long before I was beyond priced out of the market. Disappointed, I looked elsewhere for my first home and found everything I needed (short of the property investment, I suppose!) in MEC’s Spark2. Affordable, mobile, lightweight, and purchased from a very reputable seller. The mountains were my oyster! 

My inaugural camp with the Spark was a late-season solo attempt of the incomparable Stein Valley Traverse. The tent and trail of my dreams! From there, I camped up and down the Pacific Coast in mountains, meadows, snow, sun, wind, and rain, both with company and alone. 

My Spark enjoying the view on my second Stein attempt.

On one particularly memorable glamping trip in Oregon, friends Brendan and Brian camped in Bri’s dilapidated ‘festival tent’ while Kathleen and I slept in my Spark. On our last night, it started to pour while we were out exploring the Painted Hills and the rain continued into the evening. (Photos here.)

Brendan and Brian laid claim to sleeping in the vehicle (“shotty!”), but being mostly kind, caring, and sharing humans (with the exception of the lemon cake incident!!), they felt sort of guilty about leaving Kathleen and I out in the rain. We didn’t mind in the least, though — sleeping in the cramped disaster-zone of the vehicle didn’t appeal to us, and I was pretty confident my Spark would hold up to the weather.

When we got to the tent that night, a short walk in from the parking lot, Kat and I had a laughing fit when we opened the zips: not only was the tent bone dry inside, but our bags and mats were covered in a thick layer of desert dust. It was so dry and dusty it looked like our camp had been abandoned a hundred years! The tent held up to the day’s wind storms and rain and kept us dry and warm all night. Which is all to say: MEC’s Spark is a very good tent! 

Still, my Spark had always had a very small defect — a hole in the mesh along the seam stitching that grew very nominally larger over time. A few weeks before setting out on my thru-hike, I went to MEC to see about getting it fixed. It probably would have been fine, but I was an eager thru-hiker-to-be, and I wanted to dot all my i’s and sew all my holes. The timeline was going to be tight to have it repaired, so MEC instead offered me a gift card for the full value of the tent, very generously thinking that a gift card would allow me to opt for a different shelter for my journey if I so chose. 

I so chose. I researched, I drooled over MEC’s selection of ultralight backpacking tents, I used their amazing product compare tool, I read backpacking blogs, and I ‘upgraded’ to the MSR Carbon Reflex, a brand new model without reviews but made by a reputable company and with similar, well-reviewed models in their product line. I was quite confident I had chosen the best tent for the job and was thrilled that I’d be cutting my already light 3lb tent weight in half with the ultra ultra-light Carbon Reflex. I’m an experienced hiker and had done my research … What could go wrong!? 

The low-profile MSR Carbon Reflex on one of my early days on trail.

Pegging, that’s what! Having only ever used self-supporting backpacking tents, the perils of pegging didn’t occur to me in the least. I was singularly weight-focused, and I was sure I had won the tent lottery with MEC’s incredible customer service and rock solid warranty.

So out I set with my peg-requisite Reflex and floated along on trail, chuffed with my good fortune until the rains of Hope broke the 30 degree heat and warm, dry nights of my first week. It wasn’t long before I realized I had a problem… a very in-tents problem!

One of the ways the MSR Reflex saves weight is by trading an “x” shape corner-to-corner pole support (self-supporting) for a “t” structure: a single lengthwise pole running along the tent’s spine and a short cross pole creating a peak in the middle. The corners of the Reflex are drawn by pegs rather than the tension of the x shape, and the total pole length is cut by about half if not more. Clever design, and truly, the 840 gram weight of the Reflex is impressive and exciting for gear junkies like me.

And yet! A few days in rain was all I needed to absorb the lesson: If it ain’t actually broke, fix it!! Fix the minuscule hole in the Spark you love rather than getting swept away by the new, super-svelte shelter.

The Reflex required pegging to pull the fly and the corners of the tent. Without a tight pull — which demands perfect ground conditions: firm enough to hold the peg in place but soft enough to actually drive the peg in — the fly doesn’t get enough distance from the mesh of the tent. Add rain or even a morning dew, not to mention a moderate wind, and you’re assured drips. 

Using a sheet of plastic (thanks Kelly!) between the fly and mesh to redirect some of the incoming rain drops!

Realizing this was going to be a big problem in the extremely varied terrain I’d experience across Canada, I timidly reached out to MEC’s grant coordinator to see if I might be able to swap the Reflex for another Spark. Reasoning that their rock solid warranty probably wouldn’t account for operator lack of foresight, I figured I was probably hooped. Instead, MEC went above and beyond, express-mailing me a new Spark on top of the gear they had already provided through the Expedition Grant.

It’s not an understatement to say MEC saved my trip. Thru-hiking, my tent is literally home base. It’s shelter and comfort; one of the few constants in a constantly shifting landscape. Heaps of gratitude to MEC for saving my tail and for all the work they do to support communities, organizations, and individuals in getting outside! Bonafide Trail Angels!

“You can’t run through a campsite. You can only ran, because it’s past tents.” – Jack Clayton 

Here are the things I love about the Spark compared to the Reflex:

– I’m on the move a minimum of 8 hours a day — sometimes 10 or 12 — with 40-50 lbs on my back. At the end of the day, my body is spent and stretching is crucial. The Spark has enough room for me to sit straight up, stretch out, and even do a downward dog, and that’s so important, especially on days (most days!!) where it’s either raining cats and dogs or swarming with bugs and stretching outside isn’t an option. 

– The Reflex has a very low profile and is so low to the ground compared to the Spark. I initially liked this — it allowed me to easily pitch my tent out of sight behind even a very low bush — but not having to crawl/crouch to enter and exit makes a huge difference for a stiff body. 

– The next point is small, and I wouldn’t have thought to pay attention to this before the back-to-back tent comparison, but I also love the double zips of the Spark (the reflex only has one zip per door, with the end point being the top crease of the seam). Two zips makes opening and closing that much more efficient and less awkward. 

– The self-supporting pole system of the Spark is key. I can pitch my tent on any kind of ground, and feel confident it won’t fall over with the slightest bit of wind or rain. Even without pulling the fly, the Spark still holds up to a good amount of wind and rain, whereas the Reflex would literally collapse if ground conditions weren’t perfect to hold it in place.

– I like the wide head and tapered end footprint of the Spark compared to the perfect rectangle of the Reflex. This design seems to use space most efficiently.

– Both tents are ostensibly three season, but the Reflex fly closes with a small strip of velcro in the middle and bottom of the fly. With any amount of wind, the Reflex lets in a draught. I doubt it would be as warm or hardy as the Spark is in wind and/or cooler spring or fall temps. I also regularly camp with my Spark in the winter — on a few occasions in temps well below -20 — and the Spark holds up, but I wouldn’t ever consider taking the Reflex out in any kind of inclement weather.

– Both tents have two side-entry doors, which is also a key feature I’d look for in a tent, especially when sharing with another person. The tent I used before (a MEC 1990s era Tarn 3 — which speaks to the longevity and quality of MEC’s products) had a single front entry, which was a bit more awkward getting in and out, even for just one person.

– I’m struggling to think of a time where the incredible weight savings of the Reflex would be necessary and you’d be sure of good ground conditions. If you’re covering such distances that you’d need the weight savings, presumably you would also be covering varied terrain and would need a self-supporting structure. Perhaps in a desert thru-hike where rain wouldn’t be a problem? I’d be interested to hear from other backpackers on this!

Are there other pieces of gear you’re curious about? Want to know more about MEC, the Expedition Grant, or how to start hiking? Let me know in the comments section!

The Reflex wedged under a tree between a steep bank and a fence, which would soon become the site of the bull rescue incident!

Thrilled to be reunited with a Spark2! 🙂

Spark doubling as a clothes drying rack.

Weathering a snow storm in the Purcells no problem!

Looking good at Blue Lake, BC

3 thoughts on “rookie moves

  1. Bone dry!!! After that trip to Oregon, I was so impressed with how it held up in that rain and wind storm, I vowed to one day, to purchase a Spark2. I was surprised to see you without it in the early days! Glad you’re staying warm and dry!

    Like

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