Saturday, November 9, 2013

Hilleberg tents review

Below you can read our on-going evaluation of Hilleberg tents, or you can go straight to the Hilleberg website by clicking on the Hilleberg logo on the left.

Hilleberg makes tents and shelters, and that's the only thing they do. It's not an outdoor chain that simply sticks their name to a product. Early in the 1970s Bo Hilleberg wanted something better than what was available on the market, something that didn't need a separate fly, was light, easy to pitch and at the same time stronger than anything else. He started a true family business; he made the designs and his wife was sewing the tents together. The business grew and the tents are now made in a modest factory, but 40-odd years later it's still a family firm.
We discovered Hilleberg in 1998. We were planning a 3 months trip to New Zealand and were looking for a tent that was light, easy to pitch and which we could setup in the pouring rain. On a 6 weeks trip to the Nordkapp in northern Norway we looked at lots of lightweight tents; and didn't like any of them! Hard to pitch, flimsy and too fiddly were just a few of the things we noticed. Until we saw a motorcyclist form Germany. He was doing 'something' on the ground and then pulled the whole tent up in a matter of seconds… Not only was it easy to pitch; it was huge! I walked over to have a closer look and he explained the attachment of inner and outer tent for simultaneous pitching, the lightness and the incredible tear strength. I looked at it and realised I had found my tent!

The Hilleberg Keron 4GT tunnel tent we have was introduced in 1980, more than 30 years ago. It was unique then and it's still unique today. I have yet to find a tent with so much space, that is so light, so easy to pitch and so incredibly strong. We've been in storms that blew many a tent away, expensive ones too, and yet we could sleep knowing it would survive. These tents are used on polar expeditions so they can handle a lot. The inner tent is not only attached to it, it's also waterproof by itself. Condensation on the outer tent might drip onto the inner but won't leak through. It has double entry, meaning we can vent straight through on hot days. Now that Mike has his own tent, the Keron 4GT is perhaps a bit big for just the two of us. Yet it's small and light enough to take with us on a motorbike, so why would we get something smaller? Space is very nice to have, especially in bad weather!

When we went looking for a separate tent for Mike, he chose the Staika. The only 2 person tent I've seen that is actually a proper 2 person tent. There is even room for your gear as well. Again double entry, lots of ventilation and easy to pitch. 

Evaluation and verdict after two years use, an extract from our post 'All our gear after two years on the road':

The material has faded badly in a matter of months. The Keron on the right has just been replaced, the Staika on the left is only 7 months old. Just 4 months later it tore open as well.
Zippers with a curve like in this entrance 
door, is not a good design. They are 
difficult to operate and wear prematurely.

Despite having had good results with earlier Hilleberg tents, these didn't fare so well. We have two Hilleberg tents, a Keron 4GT and a Staika. And we literally tested them to destruction!

The Keron was an easy choice. I had one before and loved it, while the Staika was a replacement for Mike’s Vango Tempest 300 that failed after just a few months. Both the Keron and the Staika have been reliable shelters that can handle some serious weather. Things like storms, heavy rainfall, snow and frost don’t even phase them. During a freak storm in Italy they handled 180 km/hr winds without tearing or snapping poles for instance.

What does kill a Hilleberg though is sunlight, which is ironic as camping is for most of us a summer thing. Our Keron 4GT tore open after 78 weeks of continuous use. The material had faded badly and was degraded to such an extend that the rip-stop fibres just fell apart when we touched them. Mike’s Staika did exactly the same but after only 50 weeks… Hilleberg claimed both were normal wear and tear but they did replace the outer tents under warranty. However our new Keron 4GT has been used for about 7 months as I’m writing this and the material has already started to fade again.

The zipper problems with Hilleberg are well known. Simply put they are too light and there is too much tension on them. The fabric used by Hilleberg also expands and shrinks quite a lot depending on outside temperature, which makes then zippers’ life even more difficult. The zipper problems started just 3 months after we started using them and they never went away. I contacted Hilleberg, who claimed that we weren’t taking good care of our tent as we hadn’t been cleaning our zippers on a daily basis with a toothbrush… ‘You have to be kidding me!’ I thought when I read the e-mail from Shannon. We were camping in mosquito infested areas in Alaska. Are they seriously thinking I’m going to clean the zippers, with the inner tent thus wide open, while half a million mosquitos have already fired up their engines and set their auto pilots on us? I think not. I had a look at the zippers and there wasn’t any dust in them. Hilleberg’s solution was to send us a bag full of sliders… right! I fitted them and indeed the problem went away for a few weeks but then came back again. Nipping up the sliders helps for a while too but in the end we had to sew one zipper up and turn the inner tent around. 

We feel that the problem is caused by too much tension on the zipper combined with zippers that have to run a curve. Zippers like straight lines, they’re not designed for curves. They simply don’t want to close and thus wear prematurely. While dust might be a contributing factor in general, this would damage the teeth of the zipper where they mesh, while we have zippers where the back is worn away to the point that the slider can’t mesh the teeth anymore. We got to the stage that the back of the zipper was worn away so much that the teeth simply fell out. In the end Hilleberg decided to give us a new inner tent under warranty, a tent that came with a bag of spare sliders as standard…

Material quality and longevity problems aside, the Keron has a few other issues. Hilleberg has changed the entrance door design from the two zippers that were on the previous model to a single curved one. This makes the door harder to open and close, especially when it’s raining, and results in water running into the vestibule area when you open it. The old design was much better as not only did it open and close a lot easier, it also allowed for rainwater to be diverted away from the entrance.

To make matters worse, the new outer tent we received under warranty leaks at every seam… while the previous two had never leaked a drop anywhere. Even the new and normally waterproof inner tent we received leaks and at all four corner seams… 

There is a third problem with the inner tent. To gain access means opening the zipper all the way, which results in a gaping big hole of 2x1 metre and a whole family of mosquitos going into the tent with you. Especially as we were heading for places with Dengue fever and Malaria, we asked Hilleberg for an inner tent with the straight up and down zipper as used in the Staika. They flatly refused. My ever helpful mum came to the rescue and has modified the inner tent for me. The modifications have worked out really well and have solved the fast wearing zippers on the Hilleberg once and for all. For more detail on what she changed and how, have a look here.  

The Staika on the other hand isn’t waterproof either. Again it leaks at the corner seams in the floor, the fabric used under the snow cover isn’t waterproof and when you open the tent, water drops straight into the inner tent. Both tents also have serious condensation problems, despite every vent panel being open at all times. We even leave the vestibule door open when we can too and still have condensation issues. 

I must say that the Keron hasn’t improved over the years but degraded. There have been some design changes but they weren’t improvements and it seems the quality has gone downhill too. Having had 3 of them, this is going to be my last Hilleberg tent. I can no longer justify spending this kind of money on a tent that leaks, can’t handle sunlight, has silly design flaws, wears through zippers like crazy and in the case of the Keron has simply become user un-friendly. The only reason our Hilleberg tents aren't in the 'What didn't work' section below yet is that we will use them until the end of the trip as we don't have the funds to replace them. After this trip we will look for alternatives.