Why you shouldn’t buy a footprint

I have a lot of people ask me about footprints. The most common question isn’t which to buy or what to make one out of, it’s why do I not carry one. The simple reason? They’re non-sense.

Let’s think about this for a bit. Why buy a footprint in the first place? Well, the idea, innocently and logically enough is that an expensive ultra-light tent deserves and needs to be protected so that it lasts for as long as possible. After all, tents are soft and feathery while the earth is hard and sharp.  The last thing anyone wants is to have holes punched into their brand new tent floor. But, there are several reasons why going with a footprint isn’t the best option.

Let’s start with a mathematical reason. Those of you who like number will appreciate their steadiness. Consider the popular Sierra Designs Lightning 2 FL tent. This is a feather weight shelter with very thin floors and walls. The tent weighs 3 lbs, 4 oz and costs $400. The manufacturer recommended foot print weighs in at 8 oz retailing for $40. That’s $440 and 3 lbs 12 oz when combined. You end up with two thin floors stacked up for protection from the earth (30 denier nylon rip-stop for the floor and an unusually tough 70 denier nylon taffeta on the footprint) and an inflated pack weight from the extra material.

Conversely, let’s consider another option. Instead of protecting a thinner bodied tent, you could opt to invest in the Lightning 2 (non-FL model) for $230. This weighs in at 4 lbs 9 oz and is built with a beefier and very durable 70d tafetta floor instead of the thin nylon floors of the former. Now, sure that’s a 13 ounce difference when added up. But consider the fact that you’ll be saving over 200 of your hard-earned bucks by going with a more durable version of the same tent (many companies offer heavier versions of their products). Not only will you be saving money, but you’ll be gaining a tougher overall shelter around thanks to the use of more substantial materials on the fly, thicker guy lines, and often sturdier poles, not just the tougher floor. Bonus? you can an apply the money you saved by purchasing a tougher tent towards other pieces of gear, like a UL sleeping bag, effectively cancelling out the weight difference while gaining durability and warmth. Another example is the Copper Spur ul2 and a footprint vs the Rattlesnake 2 without(both MtnGlo versions here) . $550 bucks at 3 lbs 9 oz or $350 at 4 lbs 2 oz. Just think about it. Does it really make sense to buy the lightest tent you can afford, then spend even more money on a footprint to just make it heavier again? Instead, you can choose the cheaper tent that’s already more durable and spend the money saved elsewhere.

Here is the other problem with footprints. Tent floors rarely actually wear out within the usable life of the shelter. Other components usually fail first. This is especially true with UL tents. The first thing to go on tents is usually the rain fly, but not from tearing or stretching. The walls of these ultra-light tents are usually built from a thin rip-stop nylon coated with two layers, one is silicone, and the other is polyurethane. The silicone is primarily for tear strength, and the polyurethane serves to provide some flame resistance. Both aid in weather resistance. The issue here is the polyurethane. As required by most state laws, it’s applied to the outside of the tent to avoid turning your shelter into a ribbed inferno when pitched too near the campfire. This same coating breaks down when exposed to the sun. UV rays deteriorate it at a chemical level. This rapid deterioration results in a fly that sags and starts to lose it’s water repelancy, eventually soaking up water and leaking. This normally happens much faster than most earth will erode a tent floor under normal conditions. The simple fact is that people are protecting a floor that will already outlive the rest of the tent. Have you ever wore through a footprint? Me neither, and thus logic dictates that you will probably never wear through a tent floor of (usually) the same material. If you do get a hole? Just patch it. It’s simple, cheaper than a foot print, and saves weight and pack space. The materials used are carefully chosen to be repairable, and it’s a mistake to not take advantage of that. Most reputable companies will even offer to repair it for you for free or at a very low cost.

Furthermore, footprints don’t really offer much protection. If you camp on a stick or sharp rocks and it’s damaging enough to damage the tent floor, it’s going to work it’s way through a footprint too. A sharp object will pierce through nylon, and it doesn’t matter how many layers of fabric you have. If you’re sleeping in your tent and grinding the tent floor into the object, it’s going to work it’s way through both eventually. I’ve tested this myself, and what damaged one layer always damaged the second.

My particular take, FL and UL tents are just fine without a footprint. This is especially true if your’e going with a solid brand like Big Agnes or Sierra Designs. I’ve carried mine for years and used them on every surface imaginable, and very rarely have I had any issues. When I had, it was not something that a footprint could solve. In many cases, footprints have actually causes more trouble via heavier pack weight, pooling water, and simply being of no real benefit.

So, that’s my logic and my thinking. At the end of the day it’s really up to the end user. Many can argue for having a footprint, and their arguments are usually quite valid. Whatever you choose to do, consider your options.

What are you thoughts on the subject? I’d love to hear them. Post below!

 

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35 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t buy a footprint

  1. Great read, and I couldn’t agree more. My rule has always been that if I am doing a hike so hard that the 1.5 lb difference between a $200 and $500 tent matters, then I probably shouldn’t be carrying a tent at all!

    I would add that this is everywhere in backpacking culture though: How many people buy ultralight boots, just to put burly insoles in them? Or, an ultra-light pack they then add a frame to? Or, a tiny headlamp which requires you to carry extra batteries? Or a super thin sleeping pad, but then need a warmer sleeping bag? The list goes on and on.

    • Those are all very excellent points and examples. These are the things that people rarely think about, and small issues here and there really add up when you start taking on extra weight to counteract them. Being proactive with your purchases can go a long way. Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment.

  2. I have some thoughts on this. First, check out this video from Sierra Designs:

    I take everything with a grain of salt, but I saw this a week or two ago and it really made me think. They say outright that with their FL tents, including the one you called out, a footprint really isn’t needed. They say very honestly that they sell them because people want to buy them. Take the weight and cost of the footprint out of your calculations and the difference is less clear cut, at least for me. Second, they say that they are forced by 7 states to use the polyurethane that you mentioned, and that it degrades as you say, and that they hope to someday not have to use it. They would prefer to use silnylon instead for longer life. They mentioned Hilleberg, a very, very expensive brand, as an example of a company that doesn’t use poly. That got me to thinking. I really like the exoskeleton design with the poles on the outside for setup in the rain. I’d like the lighter weight of the FL build, and might still pull the trigger on the SD Flash 2 FL (without footprint) for bicycle touring. Then I discovered the Big Sky Revolution 2 (porch model). The size is similar to the SD, the weight is similar, it is fully double wall, and the price is similar. The difference? It is silnylon top to bottom. In some ways this is the tent the SD video says the wish they could make. So I’m discounting the choice of the SD Flash 2 (non-FL) because weight is important to me and because without the footprint it’s more justifiable. The FL build is still on my radar, and I may buy it. The Big Sky has my interest though, because it overcomes your other point about polyurethane. For around the same money as the FL I can get a tent just as light or lighter that may have a far longer life than either of the versions of the SD tent. (I don’t work for SD or Big Sky.) Your mileage may vary and everybody has their own tolerance for weight, price, etc. I agree, and SD seems to agree, that footprints are not worth the money unless the tent is poorly designed. But moving to a heavier tent is not the answer for me, while perhaps buying an ultralight silnylon tent that will outlive both of the others is the most cost effective strategy.

    • I’m glad you found this video. This is an excellent example of why these exist in the first place. It’s a cash grab at best, which is fair if people are willing to buy them. The one tent that does use silnylon from SD is the Tensegrity 2 Elite, and it’s a very durable, robust tent. Getting rid of polyurethane does offer many advantages, including less sag, less weight, and more strength. I’m a big fan.
      Big Sky makes some solid tents with great designs. I can’t imagine that you would regret going with either, although I’m yet to test one of their models formally.
      Let me know what you go with. I’d love to see how it works out for you.

  3. Thanks for this post! I’ve always been confused about whether to go footprint or no footprint. You outlined the pros and cons really clearly. I’ve just emailed a link to hubby for him to read.

    I can’t remember whether we bought a footprint for his UL backpacking tent or not (I know we were conflicted about whether we should or not) but if we did, perhaps we’ll ditch it!

      • My pleasure! I’ve discovered that blogging often feels like talking to yourself. It’s rare for people to take a minute to let you know what they thought of your post (but it’s so nice when they do!)

      • I certainly appreciate that. It’s very rewarding for myself, and it allows me to get a grip with what my readers are thinking too. I love the community, which, oddly enough, is one of the draws to backpacking for me. I always have at least a couple people with me, and these trips spur the most real conversations that the world can provide these days. Free of distraction.

      • Actually yes. I am. It’s a much better option than the flash which i too used and gave up for the same reason. It’s a fabulous pack, especially once you adjust the spine to fit.

  4. As someone who has never owned a tent, I find your thoughts on this interesting. I am camping his year for the first time. And they will be campsites only. I’d expect then to be nice and easy on a tent floor. The foot print of the tent I am considering is a bit less then 10 percent of the cost.

  5. The foot print will deteriorate quicker than the rain fly if you camp in heated climates because the rain fly gets minimal use for star gazing purposes. Also if camping in red dust it will make your tent last longer regardless off thickness because it dose not get stained ware from the sand and deteriorate. So for minimal extra weight it is worth it.

    • Red dust, is this some sort of silica based sand? If so, I could certainly see that having an abnormal amount of wear on a coated fabric. That would essentially be like camping on sand paper. That’s a pretty solid point that I’ll keep in mind.

  6. Always like seeing things that run in the face of conventional wisdom when they’re valid. I’ve never owned a footprint and won’t. If you have a UL tent it’s pretty easy. Clear your site and only sit or lie on your sleeping pad. Problem solved. I’ve never had a tear.

  7. If your concern is about cost and weight, I have a footprint made from a black trash bag, which is cut on each side to acomodate the length of my tent. It doesn’t cost me a fortune, protects the floor from the dirt, and only weighs 80 grams.

  8. I agree that with the tents you mentioned that you don’t need a footprint and it is a money grab. You don’t need a footprint with any silnylon tent.

    I do use a groundsheet with a cuben fiber tent. It weighs about 16 oz. Cuben fiber has a very high tensile strength but is susceptible to abrasion. I use a polycro groundsheet at about 1.5 oz. Also known as window film that some people in cold climates use to “shrink wrap” there windows for extra insulation.

    • Ah, cuban fiber is certainly a whole new beast. I do love the material, but I wish they wouldn’t use it for the floor. Perhaps they’ll fix the puncture/abrasion strength in the future (the tear strength is really all in the fibers, which is made by Dyneema).

  9. I use a GG polypro ground cloth, not because of wear, but because I prefer a clean dry tent bottom. It takes a few minutes to shake out the 2 oz groundcloth and I can fold it with the dirty damp side inside and put it in an outside pocket of my pack. I don’t have to wait or pack up a tent with a damp floor. It is clear and I can lay it out and make sure there are no sticks or rocks under it. It can also be used to cowboy camp in the right conditions.

  10. I’ve used cut-to-size medium weight painters plastic drop cloths in the past and they are light and tough. They will not leak and will outlive your tent. However, if you’re a fan of the fast and light setups where you can leave the tent body behind and use the fly, it really helps to have a footprint designed for the fly. So I’ve bought footprints for the past couple of tents I’ve owned. A footprint, either made or bought from the tent maker has one other benefit. It keeps the body of the tent clean. In nasty, muddy weather, it’s best to keep as much muck off the bottom of the tent as possible. It’s easier to wash off and dry a footprint .

  11. Great write-up. I also think too many people are buying footprints basically out of fear.

    I would suggest some small changes in the polyurethane discussion: the very lightest tent fabrics do indeed use silicone on one side and PU (poly-urethane) with some truly nasty fire retardent chemicals in it on the other side. But the durability issue is primarily due to hydrolysis of the type of PU that must be used. Poly-ester based PUs degrade by reacting with water but poly-ether based PUs or aliphatic PUs do not. UV could degrade the coating but it degrades nylon fabric on the outside even faster. Note that slightly heavier fabrics, 20D and up, CAN use poly-ether based PUs with FR treatments. It’s only the lightest fabrics, 15D and lower, that haven’t had that figured out yet.

    Another small point: no LIGHTWEIGHT fabric tent that I know of will become a “ribbed inferno” if it catches fire, unlike tents made of, for instance, waxed canvas. There’s just barely any fuel in a lightweight tent. IF you managed to catch fire to a lightweight tent – which is not easy – the lit part would burn and be out in seconds. This is true of LIGHTWEIGHT fabrics whether they are FR treated or not.

    Again, thanks for the post,
    Mike Cecot-Scherer
    Longtime professional tent designer
    Mike@TheTentLab.com

    • This is all true. I over simplified things for the article, and I’m glad someone cares enough to point it out. Also true that tents are likely to just melt, but i like to over emphasize at times. Thanks for the well written and informative comment.

  12. I use house wrap, the kind they use on new home construction. Water and tear resistant. You could fold it up and put in your shirt pocket. I pretty much use it every time I tent. Out of habit I guess. I have seen it come in handy if it comes a downpour, the water will gather underneath here and there but as of today I have always stayed High and Dry. Its a peace of mind thing with me. But your right….its most likely overkill. Enjoy the info.

    • That’s a great solution, especially if you’re looking for a light weight yet affordable route to apply a little protection. Thanks for sharing!
      do you cut the footprint to be smaller than the tent floor? This could prevent some of that water buildup.

  13. I agree, but if you must have a footprint I like Tyvek 1443 kite material just over 3oz. Also tried polypro (window covering) and it was a pia to use and didn’t last 5 days for me.

  14. I own the BA Copper Spur 2, WITH the matching footprint. If it starts pouring, I can pitch the fly using the poles and footprint, and THEN pitch the dry tent inside.

  15. Great incite, seems very logical and quite valuable information.
    I think a lot of people will do it just for piece of mind, and lack of experience with tents.

    It’s always great to have more experienced people like yourself sharing this kind of valuable information.
    Another reason I personally think footprints are pushed on the market is simply for companies to make the extra money selling accessories like this. Not to mention it seems like they seriously overcharge on many footprints.

    With all this being said I will still carry one, but for the main reason of having a quick floor to throw down for breaks while hiking.
    I find that a small ul footprint and the thermarest z seat in the outer mesh of my pack makes for a great fast and easy setup up for rest breaks, lunch, and things of the sort.

    Within a few seconds I can have my footprint/bed thrown down and the z seat makes a great pillow to prop my head up lol. Little extra weight but for me it’s worth the few oz for the comfort. 3oz fp and 2oz for the z seat.

    Seeing I use it for this purpose I my as well use it with my tent as well trying to spare off my floor as long as possible.

    Great article I found it very interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for the well written comment!
      I was actually quite surprised when I created this post that so many people agreed with me, and the conversation from it has been wonderful.
      That’s a really good point you made. A foot print can be quite useful in a variety of ways. I never really considered using it as a lounging surface, but that would be really nice on a damp day especially.
      Thanks for sharing a little inspiration!

      • Very informative, I agree with your thoughts. I love my North Face Triarch 2 for the reasons you just laid out. At 3 lbs 12 oz It’s the only fairly light roomy 2 person tent I’ve found with a tough 75 denier floor. It actually comes with a foot print but I’ve never used it. I’m sad to see this years Triarch model has gone to a 30 denier floor – but yet it is not a lighter tent weight overall.
        I think any manufacturers sales could be much better if they would just make the floors a little tougher.

      • I think I have to agree. It’s perfectly O.K. to shave weight on the fly and tent walls (they really don’t take that much abuse) but a tent floor takes constant abuse. I’m glad you’re enjoying your Triarch. It’s a solid tent that I’m sure will last you a very long time.

        Thanks for reading Run Hike Dan! I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

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