Tarptent Bowfin 1 Review: from Tahoe to the Altiplano
Well loved by long distance through-hikers, California-based Tarptent is known for its broad range of minimal and lightweight shelters and tents. We take the freestanding Bowfin 1 on our travels and see how it fares for bikepacking, testing it in a range of locations, from balmy Lake Tahoe and blisteringly hot Baja California, to Bolivia’s blustery Altiplano…
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve owned three Tarptents over the years: a Contrail, a Rainbow, and a Moment. This is not to say that any of them have failed me. Rather, that the Tarptent range is so broad, varied and well-considered, that each has left me with a curiosity for the next. If you’re unfamiliar with owner Henry Shires’ many tent designs, browse their website and you’ll likely be surprised by the variety of options from this small, California-based company.
The three-season, US-made Bowfin 1 is one of Shires’ latest creations. It’s what I’d call a ‘semi-freestanding’ tent, in that while it stands up alone on a platform, you’ll need to peg it out to maximise its internal volume, or at least use a few rocks to do so. Still, it is freestanding enough to 1) pitch and position, 2) place on the floor of a mosquito-ridden room, or 3) lift up and empty out.
Unlike other Tarptents I’ve owned (all of which have been single-walled in design with an integrated mesh), the Bowfin is a genuine two-skin tent. Whilst you can remove the inner, it’s a somewhat complicated affair. What’s more, the outer isn’t designed to be pitched by itself without an additional tensioning strap ($10).
Still, keeping the two connected ensures this tent is extremely quick to pitch and pull down, one the Bowfin’s strongest points. It also means the inner compartment won’t get wet if you end up setting up camp in the rain. To pitch the tent, it’s simply a case of laying it out, running the single pole through the sleeve (taking care not to snag it), tightening the Pitchlok+ cords that tension the integrated carbon fiber struts, cinching in the straps that contain the long central pole, then pegging it out tautly with the two 6″ aluminum Easton Nano stakes provided. The Tarptent website, aside from being loaded with general information, includes a very clear and handy video that demonstrates this process; I picked up some useful hints that further sped up the process for me.
The door open on diametrically opposite sides, so however you pitch the tent, you’ll have a porch that’s out of the wind. I always aimed to set up the tent head first into the elements rather than side on, which is easy to do, even in very blustery weather. It’s as simple as setting up the arch pole/Pitchlocks and holding the material outstretched. The wind catches it and effectively sets the direction, at which point it’s quick and easy to stake down the sides.
Talking of the inner tent, I should point out that whilst it can be detached from the outer shell thanks to twelve small hooks, it can’t be pitched by itself. For this reason, it makes the most sense to leave them snapped together. In theory, it’s not as easy to dry out the tent as a result – at least, compared to those where the fly is easily removed. But in practice, it didn’t seem to slow down the process too much.
The only real occasion where you might want to separate the two is to pitch the Bowfin fly alone (with the required tensioning strap, as mentioned above) or to swap out the optional partially walled inner, which replaces a wind- and sand-blocking panel for the complete mesh version that I tried. This is a very neat addition; ‘no-see-em’ mesh is suited to warmer climates or anywhere damp where condensation is likely to be an issue, while the walled version offers more warmth and wind protection, but less airflow.
Like other Tarptents I’ve owned, the Bowfin is very well made. Unusual for a one-person tent, it features two side doors. This results in improved airflow, which will appeal particularly to those in humid climates, and it also offers a bonus view! At either end of the tent, flaps can be velcroed into place over mesh vents should conditions demand it. The rainfly itself is made from 30d silnylon with 3000 mm hydrostatic head, which means it should be more water resistant, UV resistant, and hardwearing than many of its competitors. Both the outer fly and the inner tent can be pulled back with simple velcro tabs or ties, and there are loops for additional guylines along the arch. The top strut, made from carbon, swivels into place when the tent is pitched, providing extra headroom and supporting two top vents, both of which can be buckled into themselves during particularly feisty weather.
I should mention too that while the zips are small, they’re not as minuscule as on many other minimal tents I’ve seen, so they should last longer. Unfortunately, I can’t claim to be a fan of the Easton stakes Tarptent uses. Although they’re light, their hollow design never seems to stand up to the rigours of rocky desert surfaces, collapsing rather than bending (which means you can’t bash them back into shape).
Within, the Bowfin offers a respectable length (84in/213 cm) and a generous amount of headroom (39in/99cm), thanks in part to the long Easton arch pole and the integrated carbon crossbar that it threads over. I’m 6’1″ (185cm) and I can lie down with room at either end, or sit up straight in the very center of the tent, which I really appreciate after a long day in the saddle. My standard length Therm-a-Rest NeoAir also fits without issue, though when lying down, the tapered design means my face is relatively close to the mesh. Still, I’d call it cosy and not claustrophobic and would consider the internal space to be plentiful; this is a tent you can spend time in, day in and day out. It’s certainly very generous compared to many one person tents, though you can’t squeeze a second body inside it too, unlike the Rainbow or the Contrail that I own (now renamed the Protrail). Taller than me? Tarptent reckons the Bowfin 1 will work for anyone up to 6ft 4in (1.93 m).
There’s a porch on either side, though space is limited if you connect the bathtub floor of the inner tent to the vestibule door, as I tend to do (as this maximises internal space). Cleverly, you can quickly unloosen or even unclip it completely from the fly, hooking it directly into the groundsheet instead. While this reduces living space and makes the inner wall hang rather loosely, it also creates a larger porch. In practice, I tended to just stow my gear inside, but I can see this feature being useful if your bags are wet. Given that there are two doors, unclipping one and leaving the other attached is probably a good solution, allowing porch space on one side and living space on the other. There are two side pockets inside the tent, though the angle at which they’re sewn in means what you can put into them is fairly limited, as larger items tend to slide out. Also, I did notice that during unusually cold conditions, opening the outer doors tended to result in a sprinkling of ice scattering directly into the inner tent, unless I was really careful. I expect the same would be true if the tent was sodden wet from a storm.
Trusting a tent is paramount, so the big question is how does the Bowfin 1 stand up to the elements? During the course of this review, mine has been used in a number of locations: New Mexico, Lake Tahoe, Baja California, and Bolivia. It’s been rained on, blown at, and baked under a high altitude sun. Summer in Lake Tahoe proved to be a good test for how it handles humid conditions; while there was still condensation, it certainly felt under control, and thanks to the inner mesh, the wall of the tent never pressed up against me and drips didn’t make it inside. Having brought it with me to the high mountains of South America, I was initially apprehensive that its two stake design and relatively high stature could handle high winds. In fact, it’s fared surprisingly well on the notoriously blustery Altiplano. As long as I found a wind block of some kind, two stakes proved adequate. And when my pitch was more exposed, I anchored it further by staking down the skirts of the tent (which sit nice and low) and wedging rocks behind the struts at either end. Attaching guy lines to the loops midway along the arch is also an option, and on a couple of occasions I found it prudent to lie my bike on its side and use them as tying points to the rear rack and fork. The double access means you can always get in easily to the tent, even if it’s barricaded with a bike on one side.
As a result, I felt comfortable using it in relatively high winds with only two additional stakes, though I certainly wouldn’t complain if a couple of extra guy lines were included. If you’re expecting rain, note that Tarptents don’t come seam sealed. Seam sealing is a process that’s easy enough to do yourself, as I’ve done previously, or you can pay an additional $35 and have it expertly done by Tarptent. To get you up and running and keep you camping long term, Tarptent sells seam-sealer kits ($8), a handy repair kit ($8) with patches and zippers, and also offer a repair service.
As bikepackers, we tend to have our eyes on the scales when it comes to camping gear. Weighing in at 37oz (1.1kg), the Bowfin 1 is in the lightweight rather than ultralight category of tents. It does, however, undercut many of its high-end, overseas competitors in price, and as I’ve mentioned previously, I’d consider the materials to be more robust too. If you choose to set it up as a fly-only option, weight is cut down to 25oz (710g), including stakes and the optional tensioning strap, and Tyvek footprints (4.9oz/140g) cut to shape cost a reasonable $15. Speaking of footprints, the Bowfin’s is on the minimal side (especially compared to the Protrail, for example), which means finding a place to pitch it is rarely an issue.
But as good as this tent is, its pack size (18x4in/26x10cm) is what will be most limiting to bikepackers. Thanks to those internal carbon struts, this is a tent that needs to be rolled and packed in a cylinder shape, rather than stuffed into any bag. If you run a handlebar harness, this won’t be an issue. If you don’t, you’ll likely need to pack it on a rear rack, unless it fits in your framebag, as it does for me (Tumbleweed Prospector, size L). Although the four struts in question can technically be removed and reinserted, doing so defeats the point of the Bowfin’s fast pitch. On a more positive note, the Silnylon bag is nice and roomy, so there’s no frustration in trying to roll the bag as tight as possible and squeeze it in with cold fingers.
- Super quick pitch and pull down.
- Two doors provide extra ventilation , are great for double-sided views, and mean you’ll always be cooking out of the wind.
- Pitching in the rain? No problem, as the inner stays dry.
- Partially walled inner tent available for cold weather adventures.
- Very spacious interior for a one person tent, with plenty of gear storage space.
- Hardwearing for its weight.
- Packsize; at 46cm long, stowing options are limited on a bike.
- Not as light as some; though likely tougher than many ultralight tents.
- Seam sealing isn’t included; you can do it yourself for $6 or pay an additional $35 to have Tarptent do it for you.
- The inner tent can’t be pitched alone for star gazing.
- Inner and outer layers can’t be dried separately.
- Pricier than some of the other tarptents, like the ultralight Protrail ($225).
- Model tested: Tarptent Bowfin 1
- Weight: 1100g/37oz
- Packed size: 18x4in (46x10cm)
- Floor width:20-50in (51-127cm)
- Floor length:84in (213cm)
- Place of Manufacture: Seatte, USA
- Price: $309 ($439 with both inner tent options/$230 without either)
- Contact: Tarptent
If it’s not clear already, I’ve grown very fond of this little tent. It’s enough of a cocoon to feel cosy, yet offers sufficient headroom for my 6’1” body not to feel cramped when I sit up. Attention to detail is on par with other Tarptent models I’ve tried in the past; there are ample storage possibilities, the double porch is great for both airiness and good views, and a freestanding design is definitely useful at times. The Bowfin’s packed weight is reasonable rather than being eyebrow-raisingly light. Although not a match for the lightest tents on the market, robust materials should pay dividends in the future, hollow stakes aside.
Most importantly, it’s a tent I trust. The Bowfin 1 has proved itself surprisingly resilient against the elements, be it in storms or relatively high winds, even with just two stakes. The option to swap between an optional partially walled inner tent is a nice touch too; I’d certainly have appreciated the extra insulation for my frigid campouts on the Bolivian Altiplano. Even as someone who favours side entry tents, I admit that the two-door design initially seemed overly indulgent. In practice, it’s proved to be really useful (and, in the event of one zipper failing, you have a backup!). But best of all, the Bowfin is an absolute breeze to pitch and fold away, which makes setting up and breaking down camp so much less of a chore than it might otherwise be.
Ultimately though, the Bowfin’s limitation for bikepackers will be its pack size and shape, given the length of the four integrated carbon struts. I was able to fit it snuggly into my framebag; shorter riders may struggle to find a spot on their bikes, unless they run a cradle-style handlebar harness or a rear rack.