Oct 16, 2023

Heilman: Tents only seem to last until next version is available

With only a month left before Labor Day, I hope to change the trajectory of my summer.

While June could rightly be called “the month of adventure,” July proved to be something more mundane: “the month of tent repair.”

We spent several consecutive days seam sealing and spraying before my son went to scout camp at the end of the month. It was then I came to a groundbreaking conclusion: they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Of all the tents in my garage, not one is in 100% condition. You’d think a guy who spent more than 30 nights outside last year would have trustworthy gear, wouldn’t you?

But you’d be wrong.

Allow me to give a rundown of my tentsome tribulations; perhaps your experience mirrors mine.

“Old Blue” is a 4-person Coleman we got as a wedding gift 23 years ago. I’ve preemptively touched it up with silicone spray a time or two, but it shows remarkably little wear.

Last June in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, however, it finally revealed a deficiency in waterproofing.

A Eureka backpacking model from 2002 had been reliable for more than 15 years, and poles, fabrics and zippers are all still good. A slow drip developed on a late October trip, however, which caused me to get aggressive with silicone seam sealer.

In 2015, we bought a backpacking model from REI. It was great right up until the moment it wasn’t, at which point it imploded.

That deluge in the Smokies last summer flowed through the rain fly and walls like the whole thing was made of screen material. And that’s when the shock cording gave out and a stress fracture developed in one pole (which peeled like a banana in September).

A spacious six-person tent became necessary as our kids got bigger, which brought another REI model to our doorstep in 2018. That one only lasted a couple years until a moderate wind destroyed the aluminum poles.

For our road trip to the Black Hills and Bighorns in June, my in-laws sent along their six-person Coleman, which had only seen a few nights in the woods. It performed admirably at first, but persistent rain began to seep in, at which point the tent was given a blue plastic crown.

All together, that’s five tents in compromised condition.

I realize stuff wears out, and that good gear needs good maintenance. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the newer the stuff, the sooner it breaks down.

If this keeps up, the half-life of a tent will soon be roughly that of a leftover hotdog.

From what I gather, “planned obsolescence” has been part of the American economy for 100 years now. The idea that our stuff “needs” to be replaced often can be seen across industries.

Fashion, automotive lines and home furnishings are famously overhauled every year so consumers will be enticed (or pressured?) to abandon the perfectly good for the newer and shinier.

Among outdoor goods, I see that mostly in clothing, boots, tents and other camping gear.

Again, it’s not new. So, why does it seem like the phenomenon is accelerating?

As with most things, I blame the internet.

When I worked in outdoor retail in the early 2000s, consumers were heavily influenced by brand reputation and the resulting loyalty. Reputations were built and curated over years — if not generations.

A tent, fishing reel or hunting boots that served the owner well inspired word-of-mouth endorsements and follow-up purchases. I don’t believe that’s the case anymore.

These days, an incredible amount of shopping is done online. Even when things aren’t ordered on the internet, pre-purchase “research” is often a factor.

Consumer ratings are very influential, and often given before a product is actually put to the test. What’s more, models come and go so fast that by the time a product’s durability is truly known, it is no longer on the market.

In other words, things are being made to last only long enough to get that five-star rating. Very few companies seem interested in building brand loyalty, which makes me treasure even more those things that have stood the test of time.

In 2018, I wrote a product review for my 2004 F-150 on my blog. On one hand, it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. But on the other hand, product reviews with that kind of perspective would actually be helpful.

Anything less than 10 years for something like a tent is nearly useless.

As I recently said to another scout’s parent, I’m not sure I trust the marketplace enough right now to buy yet another tent. I’m not aware of any product lines that are actually built to last.

Wish I did; I’d happily sing their praises.

So, I guess I’ll keep working on these tents. I’m getting good at seam sealing now.

And I have a lead on a company that will replace the broken poles, though they neither answered nor returned my calls (don’t get me started on the state of customer service).

Of my stable of misfits, the Eureka tent is the best one at this point. If it proves watertight in a lawn sprinkler test, I’ll use it with renewed confidence.

It’s funny to think that one has been in service since before MySpace came and went, and before the first iPhone model came out. With luck, I’ll be singing its praises someday on digital platforms that haven’t even been invented.

Seems extraordinary in today’s throwaway culture.

If it doesn’t hold up, though, I may regress in technology to the point that I’m hauling my canvas tent, along with bedroll and dutch oven, to the woods in my mule-drawn wagon. It might be cumbersome, but at least I’ll know it works.

Five stars.

Roy Heilman is an outdoorsman, writer, musician, and ethnic Minnesotan. His adventures take him all over the map, but he’s always home at

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