Monday, July 8, 2019

So I bought a $49 tent at Target

One year ago, I took a gamble and bought a cheap tent at Target. 

I was heading north to spend four days at Amnicon Falls and Pattison State Parks located in Superior, Wisconsin and an ear-shot from Duluth, Minnesota. and was tired of using my beloved, trusty backpacking tent for car camping. I wanted a simple tent for only car camping, something spacious and basic that I didn't need to worry about or care if it gets abused and tattered. It also had to be cheap. Coleman's Flatwoods II was on sale, so I quickly scooped it up for $49.99, threw it in the back of my station wagon, and hit the road running for the northwest corner of the state. 

While you can read my initial first review here, after spending more than 30 nights in this budget tent over the past year, a long-term update was due. Here's a take chronicling all of the good, the bad, the surprises, and of course any future predictions I may have about this inexpensive, entry-level tent.

At $49, Coleman's Flatwoods II has proven itself to be a reliable tent  that's easy to set up, roomy enough for a queen-sized air mattress and other belongings, plus after a few gos in unfavorable weather a worthy place to retreat to when dark clouds loom above. In the 14 months of ownership, I still always grab it from my cache of outdoor gear whenever I've got a Friday night to Sunday evening car camping trip on my calendar. The big doorway makes getting in and out effortless, there's storage pouches and hooks above to hang things, and its two-pole design allows for it to be pitched in less than ten minutes. 
As expected, a cheap tent brings mediocre-quality components. Out of the bag and almost immediately, the disappointing thin tent stakes bent after a few taps with the back of my axe. To fix this, I picked up a set of heavy-duty, thick metal stakes that anchor the Flatwoods II more firmly into the ground. Also, the metal rings attached at all four corners of the tent (where a stake slides through when stretching your tent out on the ground) were flimsy and began uncoiling during my third or forth trip. I think I may try to repair these broken loops with metal key rings found at my local hardware store. Thankfully, the rain fly has held up, as have the mesh screened windows, rugged polyethylene tubbed floor, and surprisingly all the plastic zippers which feel shoddy.
For the most part, the Flatwoods II stood its ground through the elements. During a recent extended holiday weekend camping trip at Potawatomi State Park, we kept dry in a fierce Door County summer storm and at Council Grounds State Park a few days ago, not a single rain drop entered the tent after it downpoured all night. Its tubbed floor means no ground-level seams help in keeping any pooling or rushing water out of the tent. Now let's talk about wind because Coleman claims this tent has been tested in and rated for wind speeds up to 35 mph. Last fall Brenna and I spent a night camped in South Dakota's sprawling Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which borders Badlands National Park to the north. The solitude was like nothing else I had ever experienced car was the wind. We woke up the following morning to our tent almost flattened by constant, violent wind gusts easily pushing past 50 maybe even 60 mph. I was honestly shocked the tent didn't get completely destroyed. The flimsy fiberglass poles surprisingly held their shape with minimal bending, but a growing rip big enough to put four fingers through had formed at the arch of the tent on the seam above the zipper for the door. I called up Coleman's customer service to ask about a possible replacement and a frustrating, unsuccessful email exchange led me to purchasing a tent patching kit from REI. We'll see how long that lasts. The lesson learned? A quality tent will keep you safer, more comfortable, and last when conditions turn for the worst like my Eureka Taron2 backpacking tent. I would not trust the Flatwoods II in any kind of backcountry endeavor, despite its "Good For Backpacking" marketing ply on the carrying case. This is a product meant for a traditional sheltered campground.
If I can get another year of car camping use out of this $49 tent with minimal to no issues I'l be impressed. Like with any piece of outdoor gear, routine upkeep, and maintenance almost grantees a long lifespan, and while the Flatwoods II is on the cheap end of the tent pricing scale, I still treat it as if it were a multi-hundred dollar tent. At the end of every camping trip, I let it dry fully, patiently refold it, sweep the inside, and sometimes even wipe down muddy spots with a hot towel. It's kind of common sense, if you don't take care of something, it's bound to break. I plan to continue using the Flatwoods II for all of my car camping trips, because at this point it's gained my reliance for that purpose and that purpose only. It's carrying case though? Doubtful. Coleman really dropped the ball in providing a small, frustrating tight zip-up bag to house your tent even when folded neatly and correctly. An inch or two of room would make a drastic difference. 

Let's hope there's a second year recap post in the works.