This is the first installment of a long term review of the Seekoutside BCS (Backcountry Shelter). Over time, this thread will be updated with additional information as it comes out.
Terms of Review
First, I need to make clear the conditions under which I'm undertaking this review. SO approached me on 01/05/2012 about doing a review of the BCS. They felt I had a reputation for experience and honesty that lent itself to a useful review. I made it clear that I was going to call it like I saw it, and also disclose that the BCS was provided to me free of charge. Of course they had no problem with that arrangement. In addition, they specifically chose not to read my review ahead of publication.
I should mention that part of their choice was probably based on a compare and contrast I did between SO and Kifaru shelters on the 24hr message board in summer 2011. My motivation for doing that unsolicited analysis was largely the result of an inflamed sense of justice on my part. I saw SO getting unfairly criticized by folks who didn't have any idea what they were talking about and I decided to go out on a limb and get some factual information out there. That's still a part of where I'm coming from.
My goal with this review is to talk about the BCS on its own strengths and weaknesses without comparing it to other shelters. That will be a little hard to do, as compare and contrast is a natural way to evaluate something, and I've owned and used floorless tipi style shelters from Chouinard, Black Diamond, Kelty, GoLite, Trango, and Kifaru. We'll see how it goes.
Seekoutside Construction in General
I've written before about SO construction in general, and I'm going to copy some of that information here for completeness, as well as add in new information.
Fabric - The fabric has a nice solid feel to it, heavier than any other silnylon shelter I've handled. Here's an interesting note on fabric strength. At a recent camp (more on that later), there was an SO 8 man tipi new out of the bag which had several cuts in the fabric near the cone. (The damage had to have been inflicted during either packing or shipping, and SO replaced it without complaint). At any rate, when it got put up and those cuts were discovered, I thought to myself "those are going to be a lot bigger come morning". This was before the wind really picked up. To my surprise, they were a little frayed around the edges, but hadn't gotten any bigger despite several hours of wind buffeting. I've seen the specs on the fabric and it is quite strong, in addition to having a good waterproofness rating and UV inhibitors in the coating. I consider the UV inhibitors an important factor in shelter longevity and as a consumer I would insist on proof of that fabric property in any shelter I was going to spend a lot of money on.
Stitching - tex 90 thread is used throughout. The use of this weight of thread is blatant overkill on anything but a backpack. In addition, all of the bartacks are properly finished and the stitch lines are all precise and tidy.
Tie Outs - the perimeter tie outs are extremely robust, consisting of two layers of cordura that sandwich 5/8" nylon webbing. The nylon webbing is very thick. I don't know what the spec on it is, but it almost appears to be tubular webbing. There are two bartacks through both pieces of cordura and the webbing. The webbing loops are big enough to use wide military surplus stakes or field expedient wooden stakes. There are also some in-seam tie outs that consist of edge binding sewn into a seam that is reinforced with a bar tack.
Zipper - SO chooses to use a smaller guage zipper than some. I'm told secondhand by the YKK reps that the guage SO uses is actually stronger than the larger guage that I'm used to and comfortable with. This is because of the number of teeth per inch in the guage SO uses. It is a heavier zipper than is found on most mountaineering tents. Time will tell on the zipper. It is protected by a full length flap which is a nice feature.
Cone - The apex cone is made out of multiple layers of reinforced dyneema. The main shell material also continues to the very top of the cone and is sandwiched in between layers of dyneema. There is horizontal stitching around the perimeter of the cone as well as vertical stitching along the seams of the shell material. I have no concerns about the cone failing.
Pole - SO poles are made of carbon fiber. I'm leery of carbon fiber for outdoor uses period. With this in mind, I told SO that I was going to destructively test one of their poles to failure. I have a method worked out that will simulate a deflective wind or snow load under controlled conditions using a game hoist and come along. I'll measure and video the whole thing so that anybody else who wants to test a pole to failure can do so using the same method so there are comparable results with quantifiable measurements. It will also document exactly what happens to a carbon fiber pole when it fails. When I explained this to the SO folks, their eyes lit up with excitement. They're confident in their poles and want other folks to see how it goes. After using the CF pole, I have to say I understand why. It is extremely strong and extremely rigid, and I feel like testing one to destruction is going to be a pointless waste of time. At one point, I used it as a skiing pole in the extremely old school Scandinavian "rudder" method. Not only was that fun and historic, it showed me how strong the CF pole is. I'm still going to test to destruction though. Never hurts to have some quantifiable data.
Sod Skirt - I sewed a 12" mesh sod skirt into my megamid over a decade ago now. In the case of the megamid, the sides aren't flush with the ground and the mesh helped with bugs and a little bit with wind. When I heard about the SO sod skirt, I was sort of imagining something extra like that sewn onto the bottom perimeter of the shelter. Once I saw and worked with the actual implementation, I had one of the "of course, why didn't I think of that" moments. Instead of some ungainly layer of extra fabric sewn onto the bottom, the SO sod skirt takes the form of all of the tie-outs being about 4" short of the fabric edge. Like I said, that's one of those "well, duh" things. If you've spent any time at all in floorless shelters without this feature, you've had the experience of moving snow or duff or clothing around to try to fill in little gaps in the edge where the ground is uneven. The SO sod skirt makes that a thing of the past. The extra 4" of fabric around the perimeter below the stake line acts like a gasket that fills in all of those little irregularities in the ground. Now I'm wanting that on all of my floorless shelters. I'll probably add it to a couple of the most used. In the picture below you can see both the tie out and the sod skirt.
Stakes - Stakes are a personal choice and very location dependent. In a shelter the size of the BCS, I'll probably end up exclusively using the 9" groundhog knock offs made by Coghlan myself. The BCS shipped with two durapegs (worthless in my opinion), and the balance easton aluminum capped stakes. Part of the rationale with these choices is that they're both made in the USA, just like the rest of the BCS lineup. I was pretty impressed with the eastons in the conditions I used them in, and I'll be continuing to test them in varying conditions. They might get added to the lineup. I think I ended up using about 5 of them in my staking lineup during my first trip. I drove them through 2 inches of solid ice (plastic ice for you ice climbers) and into the frozen ground beneath with my tomahawk. In excavating them out, I left one in place, broke another in half, and lost the cap off of a third. Not bad performance considering the conditions.
Production - Now that I'm involved in commercial outdoor gear production myself, I understand two things I may not have gotten before. First, no matter how good your prototype or standards for construction are, the product that consumers get will only be as good as your production process allows. SO products are made by ex-Marmot and ex-Mountainsmith employees with decades of experience. Each product is made by a single sewer. This process results in a very high quality product. Second, production variances and mistakes are a fact of life. Choosing a company that will stand by its products and quickly fix mistakes is important. I know of several incidents where SO has done just that. They are quickly building a solid reputation for the kind of customer service that every consumer of high end products should demand.
I think that covers general SO construction that would apply to any of their shelters.
The Backcountry Shelter
On to the BCS. I'll start with a funny story. The SO folks had told me that every time they set up one of their shelters in a certain downtown park in Grand Junction Colorado, a vagrant would walk up and compliment them on the shelter. I met them at that very park for a quick demonstration and BCS hand off. Sure enough, five minutes after we started, one of the guys ambled over and talked about how great the shelter looked and how things like that are hard to find. Indeed. When you're living closer to the margins of society, you get a good appreciation for the basics!
The BCS is based on the historic George Tent design, most recently made out of nylon by Integral Design. I've seen references to the George Tent going back to the 1800s. When I lived in Colorado, I did almost all of my camping under tarps. In my summers as a firefighter, I lived under an 8x12' tarp. Being able to wake up in the middle of the night and look across the moonlit surroundings is nice. Feeling that first pre-dawn breeze across your face is nice.
The first time I tried to pull the tarp thing off in the Pacific Northwest (in the Pasayten wilderness) was a rude awakening. Let's just say that mosquitos and mice make tarp camping miserable and my then girlfriend decided to marry me anyway. Trial by fire! I quickly moved to enclosed floorless shelters and actual double wall tents. When you have toddlers in the backcountry with you, the fully enclosed double wall tent provides peace of mind.
The George Tent design allows for both tarp and fully enclosed shelter pitches. SO has added a couple of other features to give it even more versatility. First off, the front door zipper is a full length separating zipper with a velcro reinforcement at the very top. This means that you can completely separate the two sides for tarp pitches. However, SO has also added a removable front panel to their lineup that zips into the separating zippers. The addition of this front panel makes the BCS a much larger shelter with an enclosed or screened front door with a relatively small weight and cost addition. It beats buying a completely new shelter to have the next size up. This kind of versatility comes at the cost of a little bit of fiddliness as you figure out the specific ways that you personally will use it. I suspect that once you know the 2 or 3 pitches you like, you'll be able execute each one quite easily without any screwing around. This is something I will be monitoring closely. I have a pretty low tolerance for having to screw around.
The other element that SO has added is a removeable nest. The nest is constructed of tent wall material on the bottom, water resistant DWR on 3 sides, and a zippered mesh panel on the front. The footprint is just large enough for two people's sleeping pads and bags.
First Field Test and Impressions
My first trip with the BCS was a winter rendezvous with a few other folks. Since most of my time was going to be spent in the big group tent with woodstove, I set the BCS up as a sleeping shelter only. This meant small configuration without the front panel, no woodstove, and the nest used for additional warmth and comfort. Don't know the all up weight of this configuration. I think it's 4 lbs.
Pitching this configuration was quick and straightforward. No screwing around. Stake the two rear corners, pull the door taut and stake that, pull the two front corners taut and stake them, put the pole in and stake whatever else you want. I staked every loop because I always do. SO had told me to twist the Eastons once in the stake loop before staking to keep the bigger loop tight around them. I forgot to do that. Made no difference, but I'll do that in the future.
Initially, I staked the top rear tie out directly out to the back. After getting inside of the shelter, I realized this wasn't really giving me the lift and headroom I wanted in back, so I used a trekking pole as an additional back pole. A stick would have worked just as well.
I then put the nest in widthwise against the back wall. This meant the front screened edge of the nest was about a foot behind the center pole. What immediately came to mind was that this is the first small and light shelter that will take a wood stove and also allow two people to sleep side by side on the opposite of the pole from the wood stove. With all due respect to those who do, I wouldn't personally do that in a GoLite SL4 / SL5. The footprint of the BCS when pitched in this mode gives you a nice rectangular space with steep sidewalls behind the pole that is plenty wide enough to be used widthwise. In front of the pole, you have a small rectangle that quickly tapers down to a triangle with the apex at the front door. The area in front of the pole is just big enough for moving around in, sitting in, and gear storage for two. In my opinion, this layout is a huge plus for couples. Add in the comfort of a nest for a partner who may not like the idea of floorless camping, and you've got the ideal lightweight honeymoon shelter.
One issue with the nest. I understand that the nest is still sort of in prototype mode and the dimensions might change. It is also designed to be used in a variety of shelters which means it may never function perfectly in any given shelter. Attaching it as I did flush with the back wall of the BCS with the top of it tied into the apex of the BCS resulted in taut rear and front walls of the nest, but the sidewalls drooped onto me. I expect I could fix this by tying the apex in differently, or moving the nest towards the center pole, which would throw away some space at the back of the shelter but also give even more generous headroom to the person sleeping in the rear of the nest. The drooping didn't bug me, but other people will have a different tolerance for that.
It's been a couple of years since I stayed in anything that wasn't floorless. I have to admit that the additional warmth of the nest as well as the psychological effect of zipping up into my nice secure hobbit hole inside of the BCS was very nice. If I was in a situation where I was operating at the outer range of my physical and psychological envelope, having a nest to get into at night might be worth the weight. I can't remember the last time I stayed in a double wall tent at all, so I had to ask some folks about condensation in double walls. They reported that you get condensation inside of 4 season double wall shelters. I did get condensation inside of the BCS nest.
Viewed from the outside, the BCS is somewhat improbable in appearance. It is so tall relative to it's footprint that it looks like a sharkfin coming up out of the ground. Shown beside a 6+ foot tall guy.
This doesn't give you walk in and walk around ability. You have to bump up to about a 6 person to get that. What it does give you is four things. First and foremost, it makes the sidewalls nearly vertical so you get the most usable space out of the footprint. Second, it makes it pretty easy to move in and out of the shelter. You bend over to get in and out. With shorter shelters in this size range, you have to adopt a significant crouch, a duckwalk, or even a crawl to move in and out. Third, this height translates to a really big footprint when you use the BCS in tarp mode. Finally, the sides are so steep it's hard for me to imagine the circumstances where snow would have any chance to collect on this shelter.
The obvious concern with a shelter this tall is wind loading. Fore and aft stability is going to be good, but a side load could cause problems. I haven't had a chance to test side loading in this shelter. I will say that you can get a very secure and taut pitch with lots of lateral stability. There are also tie outs up on the sidewalls that you can use for additional lateral stability. I didn't use those in my initial trip with this shelter. The next time I get a chance on an overnight, I'll deliberately pitch the BCS crossways to the wind to see how it does.
On this first trip, we were camped in a saddle on a high ridge between two drainages. Recorded wind speeds down in town were mid 20s with gusts into the 30s. The collective group of 8 folks who spent the first night there all agreed that wind over the saddle was sustained 40mph with gusts above that. These were mostly very experienced outdoorsmen, and some reported trouble sleeping due to all of the wind noise. I must admit to sleeping very soundly in my beaver skin hat with ear flaps down, so I don't have any idea how windy it got relative to other nights I've spent out.
For the majority of the night, the wind was blowing directly into the rear end of the BCS. This picture clearly shows where the wind load was placed.
As you can see, there was one hell of a serious point load on that single inseam tie out. This is the same type of tie out that allegedly failed and ripped under a 30mph wind load with a bottom edge placement for one user. Significantly less stress than I was placing on it in the configuration above. I looked at the stress that was being placed on this single point in the middle of a big swath of fabric with a sustained 40mph wind load and figured that I'd find out overnight what it took to rip out that kind of tie out. The result was boring. Here is what that point looks like now:
You can see where the fabric has stretched a little bit around this point (silnylon stretches. that's why it should never be used structurally like on the suspension side of a backpack). Other than that, no signs of failure or even stress. Even so, I told SO that I would really like to see a more resiliant tie out point in this location. Everything else on this shelter is overbuilt, why not overbuild this point? SO already had an implementation that they'd been kicking around, and my comment pushed them over the edge. Going forward, this point will be built just like tie outs on 4 season mountaineering tents with the loop sewn into a cordura patch that is sewn into the inseam. This will distribute that point load across more stitching and better distribute it into the seam so that it is less of a point load. As I said, there is no demonstrable reason that this is necessary, but it will be a nice touch.
In summary, I'm impressed so far, but two nights out isn't very far. I'm sold on quality of construction, with the possible exception of how it does with a crosswise wind load. I would consider that kind of stress test a "boundary test" in QA parlance. I will continue to evaluate the BCS in a variety of conditions and configurations as time goes on. The things I'm looking for beyond that crosswise wind load are general livability and usability in various configurations. I'll probably get into more compare and contrast with other shelter options available to me as time goes on. For example, on a weight versus cost versus usable space basis, how does the BCS compare to the GoLite SL4/5? Only time will tell.