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Black Diamond Distance Tent with Z-Poles Review

© Toby Archer

The Distance tent is an interesting beast. It's interesting that Black Diamond decided to use the word "tent" in this product's title. I guess it is a tent, but it often feels more like a tarp. Nevertheless, the Distance Tent offers much quicker protection from the elements than a tarp, and I think probably superior protection from the elements too, at least to a standard rectangular tarp of the type I've used for many years (shaped tarps like the MLD Trailstar raise their own interesting questions of when a tarp becomes a tent!).

Going light in the North Pennines with the Distance Tent and Z-Poles  © Toby Archer
Going light in the North Pennines with the Distance Tent and Z-Poles
© Toby Archer

So what is it?

The Distance is a very lightweight single skin tent, weighing only around 820g. It could be described as a squared-off pyramid in shape, has pegging points at all four corners, and for a frame uses trekking poles (thus saving the weight of carrying an extra set of tent poles). The model I've reviewed comes with Black Diamond's Distance Carbon FLZ-AR Trekking Poles: very, very nice poles that I'll deal with separately later.

It may be a niche product for pole-using backpackers only, but if you find yourself in it, you might find it is quite a comfortable niche in which to spend the night!

Crossbar slots into the poles to make the roof ridge  © Toby Archer
Crossbar slots into the poles to make the roof ridge
© Toby Archer

The poles have a little cover on the top of the handle which pops out to reveal a hole, into which the crossbar piece goes. Plastic clips on the tent body hook onto this, holding the tent up. The alternative version of the tent has an identical body but is called the Distance Tent with Adaptor and doesn't come with the walking poles; instead the crossbar is slightly larger and has sockets with velcro straps that allows any suitable trekking poles to be used as an alternative. Beyond the two different versions of the crossbar, the two models are the same.

The tent has one large zip opening door on one side, this has a zip-close mosquito net window in it. The zip on the door is protected by a serious storm flap that seems to stop even wind-driven rain from finding a way in. There are guylines attached to the sides about halfway up parallel to the poles. The material the tent is made out of is described by BD as "high tenacity 30D poly", I think which means a very lightweight polyester. I'm not actually sure if it is breathable or not, although it is completely waterproof as nights in heavy rain have shown. Because of the single skin nature of the tent, it has two cowled but otherwise unclose-able ventilation points, both covered with mosquito netting, one at the highest point of the tent (just below the 'crossbar' of the fame) and the other along the full width of what I think of as the 'foot end' of the tent.

Lighter than most double walled tents, more protective than a tarp or bivvy... the best of both worlds?  © Toby Archer
Lighter than most double walled tents, more protective than a tarp or bivvy... the best of both worlds?
© Toby Archer

At the foot end there are two little permanently sewn-in poles about 15cm long, which hold the end of the tent up, allowing the vent to remain open and minimising the end of your sleeping bag touching the otherwise sloping tent roof. The vents should produce an airflow through the tent, stopping condensation. The mosquito netting at the high point has been cleverly folded forming a pocket in which you can put your torch to illuminate the inside of the tent. There is one other pocket attached to the sidewall of the tent. Finally, the pole comes with six lightweight V-stakes. These seem strong and resistant to pulling out, but I found removing them quite hard - so added short tie offs to the holes in them with some yellow cord. This gives you something to grip to pull them out and helps find the pegs in tufty grass or heather! There is one additional point to attach a guyline at the foot end. I did this, so added one extra peg for that to the six that came with the tent.

Distance Carbon FLZ-AR Trekking Poles

The version of the Distance Tent reviewed here comes as a kit with the aforementioned poles. These are superb - light (380g), seemingly strong, and rigid without feeling harsh. They have foam handles which I find very comfortable without being excessively sweaty. Even the wrist loops are a simple but comfortable and efficient design.

An excellent set of poles for heavy load carrying  © Toby Archer
An excellent set of poles for heavy load carrying
© Toby Archer

I really like the shaped handles and comfy wrist loops  © Toby Archer
I really like the shaped handles and comfy wrist loops
© Toby Archer

I received the tent literally days before the country went into lockdown so although I couldn't use it beyond my back garden until quite recently, the poles got used quite regularly for "exercise from home" - walks on hilly terrain on the edge of the Peak District - normally carrying my youngest in child-carrier, so plenty of relying on them for stability when carrying a load approaching 20kg. They fold up in three sections and have a collapsed length of 38cm, meaning they easily fit in many day packs if you use them for approaches to climbs. They are adjustable between 105 and 125cm so will be comfortable for the majority of adults. When used as the poles for the tent they are adjustable enough to tension the tent regardless of how soft the ground is below it.

It's quite small, and has no porch

Black Diamond's website says the Distance tent is a "2 man, 3 season shelter". You could fit two people in there - it's 104cm at its narrowest point, enough for two sleeping mats side by side but two people would likely be pushing against the sloping side walls where condensation collects (see below). It would be a squash, and soggy at that. Mountain marathoners will be used to that sort of thing, but for the rest of us, much better to consider it a rather spacious one-man tent.

Good headroom, but it's a bit tight for two people widthwise  © Toby Archer
Good headroom, but it's a bit tight for two people widthwise
© Toby Archer

In wet weather you have to stay zipped up, or rain gets straight in  © Toby Archer
In wet weather you have to stay zipped up, or rain gets straight in
© Toby Archer

On my own I can sit up with plenty of head room and only the very ends of my sleeping bag sometimes touch the tent body (the thicker the mat you use the more likely this is as it raises you off the ground). Because the tent has no porch or any other covered area you find yourself bringing things like boots and packs into the tent, things that I wouldn't normally have in the inner of a normal two layer tent. I guess you could leave your boots outside turned upside down or have a carrier bag to put them in outside, but neither of those options give them any chance to dry. Nevertheless I'm not super keen on having muddy boots in the tent with me, I just haven't settled on another solution yet. The same is sort of true for your pack and waterproofs if it has been raining.

Another issue with no porch or vestibule is that you need to cook outside the tent. This is fine in decent weather, in fact you can sit in your sleeping bag on your mat and make your morning porridge just outside the tent whilst you remain comfortable in it. But the door to the Distance is on one of the sloping sides, so if it's raining, the rain actually falls into the tent as the bottom of the door is further out than the top. Cooking outside is therefore a bit miserable in rain. Having wind protection for your stove is also important because, again, with no vestibule your stove has no shelter from the wind.

Issues that arise with an ultralight single-skin tent:

A major issue for a single skin tent is condensation. There is no getting away from it, condensation has been there in the morning on most nights I have used the Distance. One time when I got none at all was on a cool and windy but dry night where I pitched with the upper vent facing into the wind. This produced a noticeable draft, but it successfully meant the tent was dry inside in the morning. Weeks later in the dark, mist and a strong wind and rain, at about midnight on the Kinder plateau, I tried to reproduce this by again pitching the tent with the vent into the wind. This experiment was less successful. The strong wind drove enough rain under the cowl of the vent and soon I could see the mosquito netting getting wet, and droplets of water starting to roll down the inside of the tent towards the hood of my sleeping bag. After contemplating this for some time and judging whether I could be arsed to do something about it, I decided I really had to. This was July and the only thing that kept the conditions outside from being really dire was the summer temperature in the mid-teens. But even then I didn't fancy seeing if a pool of water would accumulate through the night, or whether my sleeping bag would mop it up! I put my shell, boots and headtorch back on and headed back out into the rain.

Wind-blown rain getting in under the cowl  © Toby Archer
Wind-blown rain getting in under the cowl
© Toby Archer

Fortunately with only four corners plus two guys being pegged down, changing the pitch direction of the tent is a short job. By angling the side of the tent with the vent on it at about 45 degrees to wind, it seemed I could still get some draft through the vent, but the cowl could keep the rain out. In the morning the tent was by no means dry inside but there was not as much condensation as a few weeks earlier on the other side of Kinder where I had camped for another night of rain but little to no wind. On subsequent nights in the Distance I have tried to pitch again with the upper vent towards the wind but not fully so, and have not had the problem of wind blown rain getting in again. That's not to say that it can't happen - wind direction can change, or winds can pick up and rain can fall when you weren't expecting it. The other vent beside the ones at the apex and foot of tent is the "window" on the door. This is covered in netting so you can have it open during the night for extra ventilation and not get midged BUT because of the sloping angle of the side of the tent, again, if it rains it will come through that netting, so you have to zip up the waterproof part again, losing that ventilation.

It's quick to reposition if rain's getting in the vents  © Toby Archer
It's quick to reposition if rain's getting in the vents
© Toby Archer

So condensation is definitely an issue, but other moisture in the tent (from wet gear) also adds to this issue. I've definitely noticed water droplets on my sleeping bag in the morning, probably drips from the walls where either the bag has touched a wall when I've moved or possibly shaken free by wind buffeting the tent. In damp British conditions I'm not sure the Distance would be my choice for multi-day trips, or at the very least you need to be well aware of its limitations and have good 'gear management' skills to work around them.

What's great about an ultralight single-skin tent:

Having read all of the above you may think, why bother? Isn't the Distance Tent a sweatbox that doesn't do very well at protecting you from wild weather if pitched in the wrong direction? Sort of yes.

But the main points in its favour are simply that it is both ultralight AND a tent. Once I had sorted out the issue of the wind direction in relation to the vent, the Distance kept me dry and safe in a pretty foul night of wind and rain at over 600m. Considering where the lower ventilation port is, this isn't a tent to use in snow, but in three season conditions, including it seems quite strong winds, the Distance seems strong.

Palatial for one  © Toby Archer
Palatial for one
© Toby Archer

Packs up very small  © Toby Archer
Packs up very small
© Toby Archer

Also it literally takes about a minute or two to pitch, which means you are in and out of the weather very quickly. A well pitched tarp can provide adequate protection in poor weather but they can be fiddly and take practice to pitch well, and even when pitched perfectly, in rough weather they do not give as much protection as a tent, particularly in the British hills where an absence of trees makes tarps trickier to use. In this sense the Distance feels more like a tent than a tarp - quick to pitch and then great protection from poor weather. But take it down, shake off any water and stuff it in its bag and, at 820g (with an extra peg, guyline, the pegs in a plastic bag, and the provided bag for the whole tent and smaller one for the crossbar and pegs, mine weighs 832g - so I suspect BD were actually being a bit conservative with their stated weight) and the package not much bigger than a liter water bottle, you are putting something much more like the size and weight of a tarp in your pack. Packed up I doubt the Distance Tent is much bigger or any heavier than my old bivi bag, yet the amount of protection and comfort it gives is huge in comparison. Indeed I've rarely used a bivi bag in recent years because condensation in them seems unavoidable and neither of the two I have are much fun in proper rain, at least without something that can be used as a tarp to shelter your head.

The point has to be made that at 820g, the Distance tent would be little more than an ineffective bivi bag because that weight does not include poles. The poles supplied with mine weigh 380g according to BD (although my kitchen scales suggest 403 g). The combined weight of a bit over 1.2 kgs is heavier than quite a few double skin one-person tents (although I doubt many would have the space inside of the Distance Tent), but of course many people carrying such a tent will also have walking poles weighing similar or more than the Distance poles, as additional weight. As such, the arrangement here does offer a weight saving.

It's only for pole users, but in that niche the Distance Tent does offer something a bit different  © Toby Archer
It's only for pole users, but in that niche the Distance Tent does offer something a bit different
© Toby Archer

...but you're obliged to go with trekking poles

The final and perhaps most obvious weakness with the Distance tent is what happens if you don't use trekking poles? Yes, the version of the tent that comes with the adaptor crossbar means that you don't need to buy these rather fine but expensive trekking poles specifically for the tent (BD's price is £400 for the tent and carbon Z poles, but only £240 for the tent with adaptor but no poles. The poles sell separately for EUR 170, reflecting their top of the range stature!), so you can use the Distance Tent with whatever poles you already have.

But what if you don't currently hike with poles and don't feel any need to? Or indeed, what if you would like to use the Distance Tent when kayak touring or bikepacking? Currently you can't unless you're ready to take hiking poles along with you! It would be great if BD would make a tent pole that could be bought separately - I would be very happy to buy one in order to use the tent on bikepacking trips as well as when hiking.

Summary

So, in conclusion: the Black Diamond Distance Tent with Z-Poles is clearly a rather niche product. It doesn't make a lot of sense currently for anyone other than pole-using lightweight backpackers. But if you fit that category, it actually makes a lot of sense, being lighter than most tents, more spacious than lighter tents, far more comfortable than a bivi bag and easier and faster to use than most tarps. Yes; managing condensation is part of using it, but it's far from an insurmountable issue, and that should be weighed against a spacious shelter at considerably under a kilo. It may be a rather small niche, but if you find yourself in it, you might find it is quite a comfortable niche in which to spend the night!

Black Diamond say:

A compact two-person, three-season tent, the Black Diamond Distance Tent is an ultralight, single-wall shelter built for weight conscious backpackers, thru-hikers and mountain adventurers. The structure is created using two Distance Carbon FLZ-AR Trekking Poles (Accessory Ready) trekking Z-Poles and a small DAC cross pole that inserts into the accessory ready grip and connects the trekking poles. Four stake-out points anchor the tent to create the ultimate fast pitch shelter—simple to set up and robust in windy conditions. For cross ventilation, there are vents at both the peak and foot area. Lightweight 30d polyester construction allows the tent to pack down to the size of a Nalgene bottle. There is a headlamp pocket located in the peak for easy illumination.

  • Average Packed Weight : 820g (tent) + 380g (trekking poles)
  • Comes with two Distance Carbon FLZ-AR Trekking Poles
  • Vents at peak and foot allow for cross ventilation
  • Mesh door provides additional ventilation
  • Headlamp pocket in peak for easy illumination
  • Tension-adjustable stake-out points
  • Stronger reflective guylines—Polyester sheath with Dyneema core to minimize stretch
  • High tenacity 30D poly fabric improves strength and doesn't stretch when wet
  • Season: 3
  • Capacity: 2
  • Doors: 1
  • Dimensions: 147 x 241 x 104cm
  • Area: 2.4m2
  • Packed Size : 13 x 30cm

For more info see eu.blackdiamondequipment.com



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25 Aug

Just a wee note! Condensation IS an issue in the tent at times but the photo titled "Condensation is definitely an issue" isn't condensation, that was rain being blown under the cowl over the upper vent - it was when as I say in the review I had to get out and change the angle of the tent.

Interestingly there is a review on Outdoor Gear Lab which I didn't see until after I had written my review, but exactly the same happened to them on a testing camp. https://www.outdoorgearlab.com/reviews/camping-and-hiking/ultralight-tent/black-diamond-distance-adaptor-tent Nice to know that it's not only on Kinder that you get annoyingly angled rain, but in the US mountains too! :)

25 Aug

For the price, there are far better options I feel, especially for anything in the UK (surely condensation is horrendous in this?!). Can't see BD elbowing in on the likes of the Tarptent Notch, which is both cheaper, lighter, and better.

25 Aug

Well, it's a review. There may well be.

I discuss condensation extensively in the review. It is an issue when there is not a breeze but I wouldn't say "horrendous". When there is a breeze it is a suprisingly small issue.

Have you used them both? I'm not saying that I wouldn't prefer the Notch, but I've not used one so I don't know if it is better or not. I don't see how it can be cheaper though. Tarptent's website says they are USD 314. This bloke bought the more expensive dyneema one, https://wildwalkinguk.com/2020/06/24/tarptent-notch-li/ and paid 50 bucks extra for delivery plus "customs duty of £42.25, VAT of £78.86, and a ParcelForce handling fee of £12. These extra charges came to a total of £133.11". It would be proportionately less for the cheaper model but I can't see how it would be cheaper. The Notch doesn't come with poles so is comparable to the Distance Tent Adaptor which a top UK backpacking shop is selling currently for GBP 219. Google shows me as well that if you wanted to buy the tent with poles that I reviewed, Hereford's leading (?!) outdoor retailer have them on their website at 25% off which is pretty hefty saving.

Weight wise they are similar, but its worth remembering the Distance is theoretically a two person tent. There is loads of space in it. The inner tent of the Notch at least looks a lot smaller although having two vestibules looks great. Where to put wet stuff was one of the big issues I had with the Distance.

25 Aug
I also compared prices and thought the notch pricier. 2 layers is nice, but the notch also looks flappier.

Re. condensation, I use a single layer tent quite often (MH Direkt 2) and it's a factor, but not terrible, and you live with it. All very light tents are compromised somewhere

25 Aug

I've been using a Black's Force Ten Vitesse single skin tent occasionally for years -a bit heavier at about 1kg, "Mark IV" shaped, walking pole support (internal) but single 'traditional' door and porch setup. Condensation is present but manageable but the biggest advantage over this BD is that the conventional tent door can be open for ventilation, cooking, or just looking out without the rain running in. That BD door design is a deal breaker for me multi day use the UK. Even if It had hinged from the top there would have been scope to arrange some shelter with a prop or two.

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