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A One Pound Tent for Snow Camping

The "tent" described here is not a tent in the traditional sense. But the Black Diamond Mega Light, which replaces its predecessor the Megamid, is a great shelter for weight conscious snow campers. It is a four-sided teepee without a floor and incorporates a center pole.

Image of two Megamid tentsThe Megamid that I have used since it was first developed many, many years ago weighs 24 oz without the pole. Add 4 tent stakes at 2 oz each and you have 2 pounds even. It's luxury for two people (one pound per person), comfortable with three people (11 oz per person), and can house four people if done right and you are friendly (a measly 8 oz per person). The current version, the Mega Light, weighs less but I don't know the exact weight since I actually don't own one. The footprint of the Mega Light is 86 x 86 inches and the height is 57 inches. Note that the height is greater when combined with a pit underneath (more on this later).

No Pole Needed

You might ask, what about a pole? The answer is simple. Use a pair of screw-together adjustable avalanche probe ski poles for the center pole instead of the pole that comes with the Mega Light. You need ski poles anyway! In fact, as described below, the pole that comes with the Mega Light is not long enough to set the tent up over a pit.

Here's the bad news. It looks like no one manufactures ski poles that provide the option for removing the grips and screwing the poles together to form a 9-foot avalanche probe, which can also be used as the center pole in a Mega Light. This was once common place, but not today. Don't be confused by claims that the poles screw together to form an avalanche probe. In all likelihood only the lower sections screw together forming a 6-foot probe that is too short for the Mega Light over a pit and marginal as a probe.

Consider yourself lucky if you have a pair of older poles that screw together at the grip ends. Use them for the pole in the Mega Light.

If not, Black Diamond does sell a Pole Link Converter (1 oz) that allows you to strap two poles together. The downside is that it uses up about two feet of pole length. You end up with a usable length of about 91 inches for the Mega Light pole if your poles extend to 59 inches (tip to grip) and subtracting 3 inches because one tip will go into the snow. This allows for a pit approximately 30 inches with a little room for adjustment. Not too bad, but not as nice as the screw-together poles.

Cut Every Ounce You Can

As you might have guessed I have replaced the eight tent stakes with four and use four skis for the other pull-outs. You can cut the weight even more by going with less tent stakes if you have more skis (three or four people) or ice axes to use in place of the tent stakes.

The Pit is the Key

You can pitch the Mega Light directly on the snow and sleep two people. You will probably not want to sleep a third or fourth person(s) because as the tent material nears the ground, the headroom approaches zero, and you don't want to be brushing against the tent where ice will form.

You can comfortably sleep three people and can accommodate four very, very good friends if you pitch the Mega Light over a pit with vertical walls (see drawing below). If you have three people the center pole is installed at an angle with two people on one side and one person on the other.

Drawing of Mega Light tent

The following are a bunch of tricks learned through years of experience.

Plan In Advance

Figure out the dimensions of your pit before you start digging. The easy way to do this is to lay the Mega Light on the snow and mark its outline. The size of the pit is then adjusted for the width of the blocks.

18 Inches Equals Three Feet

One way to create a pit three feet deep is to dig out three feet of snow. Ugh, that's a lot of work!

The easier alternative is to cut blocks of snow as you dig the pit and stack them around the periphery of the pit. After you have dug down 18 inches you have walls three feet high. That's a big savings in energy.

To cut blocks you will need one or two shovels, though everyone should be carrying one if you are using avalanche beacons. The bad news, there always seems to be some bad news, is that modern shovels tend to have curved blades that in make cutting rectangular blocks difficult. So the key to great blocks is having a snow saw. One will suffice for two or three tents.

Remember to pack the snow down and wait 10 or 15 minutes for it to consolidate before you begin digging.

Every Inch Counts

You can enlarge the sleeping area by undercutting the walls. It might not seem like much but adding four inches on each side (8 inches in overall width) makes a big difference. But don't weaken the walls by undercutting too much.

Wind and Snow

Mega Lights can be used in fairly strong winds, however, it is difficult to pitch them so that they shed snow well. When they are pitched on the surface of the snow shedding is nil; snow piles up along the sides and collapses the walls. But with the pit-and-wall technique one can vastly improve on this.

To improve snow shedding use the following suggestion. The edges of the Mega Light should reach to about the mid-point in the width of the walls. Slope the tops of the walls downward and out from the center of the tent. This is easily done with a snow saw. The walls of the tent slope down right to their edges because the walls are sloped too, and snow sheds better. Sorry, but this is all easier said than done!

Replace Tent Cords With Longer Ones

Before you leave on your snow camping trip tie tent cord to each corner and the other four pull-outs. The Mega Light comes with cord, but I recommend longer ones; five or six-foot lengths so that you can easily tie off to skis, etc. In order to make minute adjustments use tent-tightening knots.

Not All Doors Are Equal

The Mega Light has a zippered flap for a door, but it is a nuisance to have to step over the wall and down into the pit (if you are even tall enough to do that). Therefore you will probably want to cut a door in the wall. This works fine unless snow gets blown in during bad weather. You can solve this problem with a one ounce piece of nylon. Hem all the edges and then sew a sleeve along one edge. A ski pole can be threaded through the sleeve to form a curtain. The ski pole is then placed across the door opening in the wall. Gear can be used to hold down the bottom edge. It's not perfect, but it works okay.

Keep in mind that you increase warmth by decreasing air movement in a tent. Therefore an open door reduces warmth. On the flip side, a small breeze in the Mega Light reduces ice formation on the inside.

Oh My Gosh, No Floor!

You might be thinking, "but if doesn't have a floor; don't I have to bring a ground cloth? That adds weight." The answer is no. Let your sleeping pad be your ground cover. You can go real light by using a 3/8-inch thick, 3/4-length closed-cell foam pad. Empty your pack and place it under your feet to protect the leg section of your sleeping bag. This solution only weighs 8 oz. Don't use one of those ridge-type pads; you can't brush the snow off them.

Using a Gortex™ or Dryloft™ (or other similar material) sleeping bag greatly reduces the chances of your bag getting wet should you slip off your pad.

More Comfort Please

To get more comfort you can go hog wild with a full-length Thermarest. Some people even add another layer of closed-cell foam. But this is a heavyweight solution.

Here's a middle-of-the-road solution that balances comfort and weight.

Use a Thermarest ProLite 4 (the short version) for comfort and warmth. It weighs 17 oz. Also bring along a Evazote Bivy Sleeping Pad. It weighs 5.5 oz. Use this 59 x 20 x 3/16-inch (5 mm) thick closed-cell foam pad to sit on around camp and under your Thermarest at night. In the unfortunate situation that your Thermarest leaks you at least have this thin layer for warmth and cushion (not much, but better than nothing). The Evazote is so thin that you can fold it length-wise, then roll it up and finally stuff it inside your pack if you have room. Total weight is 22.5 oz for the Thermarest and Evazote. The bad news is that the only readily available source of Evazote is Mountain Equipment Co-op in Canada.

It's Raining in My Mega Light ... Must Be Time to Get Up

As mentioned earlier, during the night a layer of ice is going to form on the inside of the Mega Light unless you have lots of air blowing through. Most of this is the moisture you exhale that freezes on the walls. In the morning be sure to get yourself and equipment out of the tent before the sun shines bright. Otherwise you will get wet from the melting ice.

Time Versus Weight

The great advantage to a Mega Light is that it is "light." On the downside, pitching it is more time consuming than throwing up a standard tent. However, three people can easily do the job in less than an hour with a little practice. And there is charge for the heat you generate.

But here is a trick if you choose to haul a real tent along. Pack a small sponge with your tent. It is great inside your tent for mopping up melted snow in the winter and rain in the summer.

I Love My Mega Light

I enjoy the high ceiling of the Mega Light (actually I use the older Megamid) tent and the fact that for less than a pound I have a nice shelter in the snow. You can't beat that.

True Confessions

There are times when you will want to use a real tent when snow camping. For example, a mid-winter trip or even a spring trip where you know you are likely to encounter severe conditions warrants a full fledged four-season tent. You may want to consider other alternatives too. For example, snow caves are wonderfully warm and quiet even in a storm. Same thing for igloos.

Happy snow camping.

Marcus Libkind

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