For the last six years or so a tarp, in one form or another, has found its way onto my kit list. However, I’ve mostly used one in combination with a tent. Whilst this may seem like overkill, on extended wilderness canoeing trips and when car-camping, where weight is less of a concern, it’s proved invaluable for use as a cooking shelter. Especially so in bear country where cooking in your tent is ill advised and on sites where camp fires are permitted and its wise to keep a significant distance between your main shelter and the flames.
Although I’ve used a bivvy bag on and off since 2001, only relatively recently have I started using tarps as my main shelter on multiday backpacking trips. Since my first use of a tarp “in anger” in the cairngorms in 2005 I’ve been looking for my ideal backpacking tarp. A first run out strongly suggests that I’ve found it in the Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) Grace Duo.
As the name suggests the Grace Duo is designed as a two person shelter. The measurements are indeed such that two occupants can find ample shelter and need never come into contact with the sides even when pitched close to the ground in a steep A-frame configuration. However, the low weight is well suited for solo use and consequently the Grace Duo represents a luxurious shelter for one person and all the gear they can carry with sufficient space to escape from wind blown rain.
The Grace duo is available in three models; Silnylon, Spinnaker fabric and Spectralite versions, each with slightly different measurements and associated weights. I opted for the Spinnaker fabric (Spinntex). Lighter than silnylon and hopefuly more robust than Cuben fibre (I'm reluctant to try Cuben fibre since I've heard negative stories about the integrity of bonding on some tarps. For the Spinnaker model the ridgeline and baseline lengths are 297 and 281cm respectively, the front length is 280cm and the rear length is 238cm. The weight claimed by MLD is 303g and the weight of my example is within a few grams of this figure. For my set-up the more important figure, total weight of tarp plus guy lines carried, is 420g (before seam sealing).
Close inspection reveals good workmanship throughout. All seams are neatly stitched and guy points are reinforced with an additional layer of bonded spinntex. Each of the twelve guy points is foreseen with a lineloc attachment mounted on a webbing loop. In the way of SUL gearmakers, MLD suggests that the user may want to dispense with the linelocs for a saving of around 30g and thus enable further weight saving by moving to thinner line for the guys and tie-outs. The webbing loops provide the user with the opportunity to tie on guys in the usual manner. However, I’m glad I didn’t act too hastily. In practice, I'm sure these little linelocs will prove their worth enabling one-handed retensioning of the guys with a simple tug on the dead end of the guy line, easily done when lying inside the tarp! In this case I think functionality easily justifies the extra weight.
Ten guy points are distributed around the periphery with two at the ridgeline, one at each of the four corners and a further two on each of the two baselines. I’ve not used the Grace Duo in sustained high winds as yet but I fully expect that, when locked down with 10 pegs in a hard A-frame, the set-up will be highly stable. On its first outing in the Swiss-alps it certainly took gusty conditions in its stride. The final two guy points are found in the centre of each of the two panels and can be used to pull up the sides providing substantially improved head room. A nice feature when used as a two man tarp and an extra set of walking poles can be pressed into service.
A very nice touch, and one that I think well illustrates the attention to detail in the design, is that one ridge line guy-point carries an MLD label. This enables effortless identification of the front and rear ends of the tarp when pitching. I’ve found this to be realy useful when pitching in a hurry.
The webbing loops at the ridgeline are sized to accommodate the tips of walking poles but are also foreseen with grommets for locating the tips of optional Easton carbon ridge poles. Since I don’t like to use walking poles I opted for the latter but at 9mm outer diameter these seem a little flimsy. I can't comment on how these poles perform in combination with the Grace Duo since in the Alps the group had plenty of walking poles spare. I did however use them in combination with a micro tarp (to be reviewed later)and, although the longer of the two bent alarmingly when guys were tensioned, they performed fine under the conditions experienced (which didn't include sustained high winds). At a combined weight of 79g the carbon poles bring the total weight of the grace duo to 1g short of 500g and provide a pitch with a rear height of 71cm (28”) and a front height of 107cm (42”). I can therefore sit comfortably in the apex. All very well, but I would not be inclined to use the carbon poles without a backup until I'm more confident in them. As somebody who doesn't walk with poles this poses a problem. I'll need either another solution when going solo or to be with someone keener on walking poles than myself.
The ridgeline, baseline and front and back edges are all caternary cut. This is supposed to provide a super-taught pitch and indeed little effort is required to achieve a drum-tight set-up. The super-thin Spinntex fabric is a little crisp-packet-like and I imagine could be rather noisy in a sloppy pitch. I’ve not had any problem with noise to date, its just so easy to get a clean pitch. A percieved disadvantage of caternary cut tarps is that they are optimized for one pitch (the A-frame) and are less adaptable for other pitching configurations. However, in my view, its better to optimize for the most used configuration than to compromise for all.
Finally, MLD claim their seams are constructed such that they require application of significantly less seam sealant. I can’t pass meaningful comment on this since I’ve not sealed them. However, I can confirm that the ridgeline should really be sealed. On the alpine trip we experienced one very wet night (even by UK standards) and although not sufficient to cause serious problems a few drops did penetrate the ridgeline.
All in all my verdict is that, my suspicions of the carbon fibre poles aside, the Grace Duo is a fantastic piece of kit. Light enough for solo trips but big enough to keep the weather out even in UK conditions. It’s designed for backpacking by somebody who clearly understands the requirements of backpacking gear. Ron Bell at MLD should be congratulated for a great design. He's even made the label indispensable!
*Photo courtesy Jeffrey Flemming