Review/First Impressions: REI Quarter Dome SL2 backpacking tent

Full photo gallery of the tent in various setups

After my recent bike packing trip, I decided that I wanted to invest in a light weight backpacking tent. The one I used for bike packing was 5.2lbs, and I knew I could do better. It’s fortuitous that right before the trip I received an email from REI about their big Labor Day sale. Never wanting to pass up giving money to outdoor equipment stores, I did a bunch of research and decided to take the plunge on the REI Quarter Dome SL2. Thanks to the sale I managed to pay $244+tax, plus another $38 for the footprint.

It didn’t take a completely straight path though, as I first decided to try out the SL1 (1-person) version. However, when I got it home and set it up in the living room, I realized that it was far smaller than I was comfortable with, so I brought it back and got the SL2.

It’s worth noting that the SL series is different than the Quarter Dome series from a couple of years ago. Many of the YouTube videos I watched were reviewing the older model of tent, which is significantly different than the SL line. The older model was a free-standing tent, whereas the current SL is a semi-freestanding shelter. Additionally, the non-SL models were slightly bigger than the current editions, but also heavier. I’ll mention these changes as we move through the review, but the suffice it to say, make sure you’re reading the correct reviews for the tent you’re looking for.

Once I had procured the SL2 version of the tent I set it up and gave it a quick test on the living room floor. It seemed to be what I was looking for, so I told my wife, “Hey, let’s find a campsite for a night and try it out.” So on a Sunday evening before Labor Day my wife, myself, and our friend Mike, all gathered at a campsite at Afton State Park for a night under the stars.

We all brought our own tents, in order for me to properly test out the Quarter Dome SL2 as a solo use tent. I wanted to see how it felt with just one person, plus their gear. It was a little weird, and funny, to have my wife bringing her backpacking tent as well, but honestly, it was kinda nice that both of us were able to spread out a bit more. We’ve both slept in her Big Agnes Blacktail 2 tent before, and it’s fine, but even though it’s heavier, the floor space is pretty similar.

Setup

The REI Quarter Dome SL2 uses a set of poles that are all connected through a central spoke. You simply unfold all of the sticks and you’re ready to go. When assembled, the pole setup resembles a triangle with two supports for the head of the tent, and one at the foot. Everything is color coded, so figuring out which pole goes where is simple.

Because there are only three pole connection points, this tent is considered semi-freestanding. What that means is that the foot of the tent only has one pole supporting it. You then extend the corners on to the stakes for the full width at the foot of the tent. Although having four supported corners would have been nice, I understand why REI changed this design from the previous version, as it required another spoke and more pole, which increased the weight.

You have a choice of setting up two ways; either as a tent with (or without) the fly, or as a fly/footprint tarp setup. No matter which way you choose, the setup of the poles is the same, as they provide the primary support and structure to both the tent and the fly. There is a link to a gallery of photos of all the different setups at the end of this post.

Once you’ve constructed the poles, you insert the ends into the grommets, and simply hook the tent to the poles with the attached hooks. It’s dead simple, and within seconds, the tent takes shape. Once the tent is secured to the poles, staking out the foot of the tent completes the overall shape and structure. There are then multiple stake points that you can use to secure everything firmly to the ground. The stake bag also contains multiple guy lines for setting up the tent in windy conditions.

Attaching the fly involves putting it over the poles, securing with velcro, and then connecting the bottom to the appropriate buckles. These snap-in buckles also can be loosened or tightened to make sure your fly is secured appropriately. The fly needs to be staked out on the sides to complete the dual vestibules. Having two vestibules is another advantage of the SL2 vs. the SL1.

One thing to note, the footprint is sold separately, but I was happy I got it. Having the connection points already placed where they should be, made everything easier when staking the tent down. The footprint has cords for all the relevant staking points, so you can ensure that it doesn’t get bunched up under the tent.

Features

Once the tent is set up, you’re ready to tuck in and start using it. Since this is a backpacking tent, weight is at a premium. That means that you’re not going to find a lot of bells and whistles on the interior. Despite this, there are quite a few nice touches provided.

There are four pockets in the mesh, two on the top of the tent, and two on each side at the head of the bathtub. The ones near the head of the bathtub are really big, and I was able to fit my phone and charger in them with no issue. It’s also a great place to store a headlamp for easy access at night.

There are also a couple of loops on the top of the mesh that you can use to hang things, such as a small light. However, this is a very lightweight tent, and the material is not meant to withstand a heavy load. I felt OK using my inflatable solar light, but I wouldn’t do anything much heavier than a few ounces.

That’s about it for the features inside the tent. Once you move to the outside there are dual doors and vestibules for gear/shoe storage. One complaint I have is how high the vestibule is off the ground. The gap at the bottom feels like it could let in a lot of water splash if it was raining hard. Of all the weight saving design choices, I wish this one had gone in favor of just a bit lower extension on the vestibule material. I haven’t had to use this in the rain, so it might not be a big deal, but it’s something to be aware of.

The overall size of the tent is perfect for one person. At 88 x 52/42 (head/foot) I had tons of space to spread out, and since I’m only 5’8” there was plenty of room for all my gear at the foot of the tent. Two people can fit as well, but at that point you’re dependent on the vestibule for gear storage. There is not really an option for storage inside, in addition to two people. However, a furry friend might work just fine, depending on their size.

One final feature to mention is a roof vent on the fly. Even just one vent helps to bring in more airflow to the interior. In the previous version of the tent, there was a zipper to allow access to open/close the vent from inside. However, that feature was removed in the SL change.

Quality

I’m not a tent expert, so take my opinions on quality as just my opinions. However, when comparing this tent to our other, heavier, backpacking tent (Big Agnes Blacktail 2), this tent feels like it compares favorably. The seams appear to be sealed nicely, and the overall feel of the material appears to be strong. When I first stretched out the fly, I needed to put some oomph into it to get it where I wanted it. However, it didn’t feel like I was ever in danger of ripping or tearing any part of it. Once I had it set up for an hour the fabric stretched a little bit and everything felt good.

The zippers are fine. Nothing notable about them; they seem to work as intended. I didn’t get any snags when getting in or out of the tent, however, you do need to use a little bit of caution at the top end of the door zipper. The zipper on the door angles downward slightly right when you get to the end of it on the top. When trying to unzip, you need to go slowly for a moment, and pull upwards to get over this curve. It’s hard to explain, but when you feel it, you’ll understand what I’m getting at. Not huge issue, just a little odd.

The stakes provided are really nice v-stakes, and have cords attached to them for easy removal. They all come with reflective material sown into the cords (all the cords on the entire tent actually), which makes them easy to see in a headlamp. A really nice little touch.

Finally, the poles are actually really nice. I appreciate the fact that the longest of the poles has a double cord running through it for added strength. Although light weight, I never felt like these poles were fragile, and in fact they felt stronger than most of the cheap car camping tent poles I’ve used in the past. In this area, REI did a great job.

Conclusion

Let’s start with what I like about this tent.

  • The weight is awesome at just under 3lbs with the footprint.
  • The material feels light, but durable (ripstop nylon).
  • Setup is simple, despite needing stakes to fully stand it up.
  • Just enough pockets to be useful.
  • Dual doors and vestibules.
  • Good poles and stakes.
  • Price.

Now, let’s take a look at my disappointments list.

  • Vestibule is high off the ground.
  • Not fully freestanding
  • Door zipper is a little odd.

Buying this tent on sale for $244 makes it a no-brainer as a good deal. Even needing to purchase the footprint separately isn’t that bad (it was also on sale) when you consider that most backpacking tents in this class start over $400. However, let’s put price aside and ask if this tent is a good tent?

Based on setting it up a couple times, and using it for a trip, I would say yes, this is a good backpacking tent. The weight is nice, the material feels solid, and the setup and design isn’t overly complex. The fact that it isn’t fully freestanding doesn’t bother me, as I’m always going to be staking my tent down anyway. The staking pattern makes sense, and two small stakes to get the full shape isn’t really a big deal.

There are a couple small design choices that I don’t like, such as the door zipper shape and the vestibule height, but I can live with those. Although I wanted to set price aside, it’s really hard to not consider it. The competition for this tent are things like the Big Agnes Copper Spur ($450) and Nemo Dagger ($430). Even at full price for the Quarter Dome SL 2 ($350), it still packs a tremendous value.

Obviously, time will tell how this tent holds up. I’m hoping to come back in a year or so and see if this tent is still meeting all my expectations. From everything I’ve seen and experienced so far, I’m happy with this tent, and I think most casual backpackers will be too. It does what it’s advertised to do, and was a comfortable shelter for sleeping outside. Although the sale is done now, it’s worth adding this to your list of tents for consideration.

Now, it’s time for me to start thinking about more adventures to really put this tent through its paces.

Full photo gallery of the tent in various setups

Fish Lake Trails at Cedar Creek Ecological Center

Haven’t done a photo post in a bit, and the other week we headed out to Fish Lake Trails at Cedar Creek. I decided to put on the telephoto which is a 55-210 (E-mount for a Sony a6000), however, I’m becoming more and more displeased with the results. Granted, I shouldn’t be surprised, as this is a budget lens. Might be time to start looking at an upgrade.

For now though, I did get some nice shots from the trail. https://swiftphotography.smugmug.com/Exploration/Fish-Lake-Trails-at-Cedar-Creek/

Summer’s final gasping breaths

This morning I awoke to temps in the 50’s, a brisk wind, and the smell of fall starting to creep into the air. I went for a short walk this morning, and as I left the house I was thankful for my warm hoodie, while simultaneously trying to defy the weather with my shorts and sandals. I don’t even think it got much into the 70s today, with even cooler temps predicted for the week ahead.

Season changes can be both difficult and refreshing. There’s a newness to the changing weather patterns and the different smells in the air. Gone are the bright vibrant blooms of summer flowers, replaced with the rustle of tall grasses, reaching towards the sky, achieving heights unheard of earlier in the year. There’s a beauty in the season between blooms and the vibrant colors of changing leaves. The green things are reaching their apex, the fulfillment of all that they could accomplish in a season. The strain of growing so hard and fast permeates their slightly duller and brown tinged hues.

The air itself struggles with its identity. As we biked along the river last night we passed through alternating pockets of hot and cold air, battling against one another along unseen battle lines. Every 30 feet the temperature would change 10 degrees, providing relief, refreshment, or comfort. Constant turmoil between what was, and what is to be.

In a few weeks the summer air will all be a memory and the comforting embrace of fall, with it’s warm spices, will be all that remain. It’s important to stop for a moment and savor what is before rushing into what will be. To look one more time at the tall grasses, and the remnants of green that breathe one last gasp. The sun is not yet low in the sky, and so we life our faces to it, and its warmth, breathing in the freshness of a summer gone by.

Soon, I’ll put away the sandals. But not quite yet.

Virtual Race Report: Badger 50K

Due to the pandemic, almost no trail races have been happening. One of the ones that I was particularly disappointed about was the Badger Trail Races in Wisconsin. Last year this race was my first time completing a 100K distance. It was also a perfect testing ground for what I needed to learn before my 100 mile race at Savage 100 later in the Fall.

When Badger went virtual I decided to step down to the 50K version for this year. With dealing with a broken toe, and a slower training ramp up from my recovery from 2019, I just wasn’t ready for anything longer. I felt I could get up to the 50K distance without too much trouble, and then rely on my overall experience to get me through any deficiencies.

I also opted not to travel to the Badger Trail itself, due to all the issues with COVID-19, and instead looked for a trail that was local to me, that mimic’d the Badger as much as possible. That led me to a trail that I have been on a couple times before, the Luce Line trail. It’s pretty much a mirror image of the Badger Trail, in that it’s a long, straight, former railroad line that goes for dozens of miles in one direction. It’s a crushed limestone surface, and passes through a lot of scenic wetlands, farmlands, and small towns.

I decided to do a point-to-point 50K which started me at Medicine Lake in Plymouth and took me straight west on the Luce Line all the way to Winsted, MN. The first couple of miles from Medicine Lake are paved asphalt, and are actually a part of the Three Rivers regional trail system. However, once you get to Vicksburg Lane it’s unpaved all the way to Winsted.

I was lucky to have my buddy Mike B. join me for some of the miles, and as I would soon discover, I’d actually have a lot of company for this run. My wife dropped me off at the lake where I met up with Mike. We headed out with a beautiful sunrise behind us. Before we even hit the unpaved section we met up with my fried Bob M. who was out doing a long 20 mile run on the trail. Bob decided to join us for a while and the three of us soon reached the crushed limestone.

We knew that soon we’d be running into our friend Angela who was doing a point-to-point 50 mile run overnight, starting all the way out in Hutchinson. Within a couple miles we saw a couple people in the distance, and sure enough it was Angela on the final stretch of her adventure. We stopped and chatted for a bit, got a trail report about a downed tree, and then went on our way. We foolishly forgot to grab a picture, but oh well, we all know what each other looks like anyway.

By this point I was moving well, and felt really good. I was targeting a run-all-day pace of around 11:30-12:00/mile, and thanks to some help from my friends, I was able to stop myself from burning out too quickly. That pace did briefly drop to zero when we encountered a huge tree that had come down in the storms of the previous night. This wasn’t one of those trees that you could just step over, as the crown was laying completely across the trail. We ended up needing to slowly find a path through the branches, much like trying to navigate an overgrown path. Slowly, one at a time, we made it through and we were able to get back on our way.

Shortly after the tree encounter, we came across our friends Yogesh and Emily. He was out doing a 74km run in honor of India independence day, and Emily was along for a bit of the run as well. Suddenly this little adventure of mine turned into an awesome group run with a bunch of great people. The miles started clicking off quickly, and conversations were insightful and fun.

Around mile 16 it was time for Mike to leave and get back to deal with a broken tree in his back yard, and shortly before this Bob hit his turnaround point. My wife was waiting as my aid station at this point, and it was good to take a few minutes to refuel eat some real food. The day was starting to get warm and my pace was starting to slow slightly, but my body felt great. After a short break, Yogesh, Emily, and I headed back out.

The next section saw more walking and my pace creeped up towards 12:30/mile. I was totally fine with this, and I knew that as the heat and humidity continued to grow, it was going to become more and more of a slog. Eventually Emily had to turn back and so Yogesh and I kept moving into the afternoon.

Soon we arrived at mile 22, which is Watertown, MN. Lisa was waiting for me once again, and I took advantage of a stop to easily change my socks and scarf down a bunch more real food. This was a place that would have been easy to dawdle, but I knew that the next 9 miles wouldn’t run itself. We gathered our gear back up and started back on the trail.

This is where my experience with ultra distance events really came in to play. As we left the aid station I felt like crap. I ate too much food and my gut wasn’t terribly happy. My body was feeling run down, and I just didn’t want to move very quickly. Yogesh was incredibly kind and walked with me without complaint. In my mind I wanted to quit. I thought, maybe I should just turn around and go back to the parking lot and call it a day. After all, 22 miles isn’t a bad day.

I thought this for about 10 seconds. Then the experience kicked in. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me that wouldn’t change in the next 20 minutes. I’d hit this wall before, and hit it enough times, that I knew that it would pass. Sure the quick 11 minute miles were behind me, but after I let this stomach issue work itself out, I’d be fine to keep moving quick again, and get this done.

I surprised myself with how quickly my mind turned on itself and shut down any thoughts of quitting. It’s become such second nature for me to look at suffering as not an impediment to moving forward, but just another stage in the journey. Sure enough, we walked the better part of two miles. And then things got better, and we started running little bits again. My wife had headed in to Winsted and hopped on her bike to come back and meet us, and when she came upon us we were doing a solid run/hike pace.

We kept moving really well until mile 27 where it was time for Yogesh to turn around. We said our goodbyes, and thanked each other for the great conversations, and I kept moving forward. My wife was still biking and she rode next to me for a while. Soon she headed back to the car to get me a Subway sandwich for the finish line and for the first time all day, I was alone.

The day was continuing to be a humid mess, but I had fully recovered and was feeling good. I decided to walk the first 0.4 miles, and then run the final 0.6 of each mile. This 40/60 split worked REALLY well and the final miles clipped along with little suffering. During one of these splits I looked down at my watch and saw that I was just about to pass the 50K mark. I took a picture to commemorate it, since I was pretty sure this was a new PR. My ultra brain wasn’t working 100% so I still went back and confirmed it later, and sure enough this was a huge lowering of my 50K PR.

My wife had informed me that the final 1.6 miles in to town was paved, and so as soon as I hit asphalt I knew I was home free. However, after 30+ miles of crushed limestone, hitting asphalt again was painful. It was incredibly unforgiving and my feet were not happy for that final stretch. I kept up my 40/60 method and soon I saw the end in the distance. I came around the corner and there was my wife waiting for me to greet me at the finish.

She commented that I looked like I was suffering more than when she left me, which was probably true. Because I was so close to the end I had stopped bothering to eat, and so my energy levels were much lower than they could have been. If I had been going on for a longer race I would have certainly kept the eating going, and I think that would have helped a lot.

Needless to say, I was happy that I was done. We sat down on some bleachers and I ate my sandwich and slammed a beer. Then it was time for the 45 minute drive home to get cleaned up and rest. The downside of doing a point-to-point that starts near home is that you then have a longer drive home. Thankfully, I didn’t need to do any of the driving and soon enough I was cleaned up and napping peacefully on the couch.

I’m incredibly happy with how this virtual race went. I planned and executed the way that I wanted, and I finished with a smile on my face. I probably could have shaved a couple minutes off my overall time, but given my training this year, I was really happy with where this ended up. In particular my ability to push through suffering, and draw on my experience, made me really excited.

This year has been really different for everyone. I’m sad that so many races aren’t happening this year, but I’m grateful for the motivation of a virtual race to go out and do something cool on my own. In the end, I got some cool swag, a new PR, and a lot of great memories on a beautiful trail.

Some video game time

I’ve been getting out of the habit of writing more here, but it’s not for lack of things to write about. Therefore, I’m taking a few minutes this morning to talk about some of the video games I’ve been playing lately.

Earlier this summer I got into Animal Crossing and was pretty much addicted to checking on my island for hours every day, doing whatever I could to maximize profits and complete my house. But as you can imagine, that got old after a while and I honestly haven’t touched it in a couple of weeks. I used to do daily quests in World of Warcraft all the time, but in Animal Crossing it all seemed pointless, as the only thing I would get out of my grinding is more money… that I didn’t need.

Next up I played through The Outer Worlds, a really cool open world game in space with a retro/old-west feel. It was incredibly fun (and challenging), and well worth the time spent on it. I really enjoyed the characters and story lines, and the choices you got to make. The combat system was fine, and I was good with playing it on an easier level to focus on the characters.

I then got really excited about the new Paper Mario: Origami King game. I knew it used to be more of an RPG, and from the screenshots it looks like an RPG-lite type of game. Despite being an amazingly beautiful game, with delightful characters and animations, the battle aspect of the game was so abysmal that I never completed it. Granted I got all the way to the final boss, before quitting in disgust, but it was a constant battle to keep enduring through mindless spinning puzzle battles that gave nothing but coins. There was zero skill development in your character and your companions were sometimes worse than worthless. My friend Wes did a write-up on it that pretty much is a mirror of my experience.

That left me with wanting something new to play, and I decided to go old-school (well kinda). I wanted another open world type game like Breath of the Wild or Outer Worlds (or even Fallen Jedi), and so I had my oldest bring over his discs of Red Dead Redemption. I’m a few hours into the first game and I’m starting to get the hang of it. I’ve only accidentally shot my horse once, so that’s a good thing. The controls are a little odd, with the same button doing a dozen different things depending on context, but once you get used to it, it seems to work well. I know that Rockstar Games does a good job with their titles, so I trust them on this being a good method.

Of course the story is somewhat dark, and you have to make a myriad of ethical choices throughout. For the most part I’m trying to play it as a redeemed criminal trying to do good in the world, which is I think what the story wants. However, it appears that I can certainly go off-book a bit to be a bit harsher and cruel. Overall though, I’m keeping it pretty straight to the intended outcome.

My son also brought over RDR2, which is a prequel to the first game, and I’m actually excited to see the backstory to this, as you’re thrown into a world and a situation that appears to have a lot of history to it. Needless to say this should give me enough to keep me occupied for a while, and it’s a fun distraction.