I can’t think of many brands that that I associate with ‘reliable’ as much as Mountain Safety Research. Their name says it all, and in addition to their early improvements to ice axe head design and the perfection of the snow fluke, MSR also has a long history of making great tents (first tested on trucks using the interstate as a wind tunnel). They’ve kept pace with or led the industry in tent design in many ways, and their core principles are all evident in the new FreeLite 2 lightweight tent which I’ve been testing for the last two months.
MSR FreeLite 2 Features:
- MSR’s lightest freestanding, double-wall tent for two
- Twin large D doors
- Micromesh canopy offers maximum ventilation, moisture control and bug-free protection.
- Floor area: 29 sq ft
- Vestibule area: 17.5 sq ft
- 36″ peak height
- Poles: 1, aluminum
- Rainfly fabric: 15D nylon with 1200mm polyurethane/silicone DWR
- Mesh type: 10D Micromesh
- Floor fabric: 15D nylon with 1200mm polyurethane/silicone DWR
- Packed weight: 3lbs
- Minimum weight: 2lb 7oz
- Footprint, pole and fly weight: 2lb
- MSRP: $439
Versatility for the backcountry
Testing for the FreeLite 2 has taken place primarily in the Selkirk mountains on backpacking trips. It’s an ideal tent for this purpose, when a lightweight, weather- and bug-proof shelter is desired for hiking duos that want to move fast and light through both forested and alpine terrain. It’s not a mountaineering tent by any stretch, but it does have the chops to be pushed a bit harder in foul weather than other popular three-season tents out there right now.
MSR’s pole design is meant to balance light weight, strength and ideal shape. It nails the light weight category, featuring considerably less footage of pole than a traditional dome tent. It also creates an ideal tent shape, with near-vertical doors and a ceiling that stays high for much of the ridge of the tent.
Strength is the one factor that isn’t optimized by this pole design, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there’s only one true pole intersection and it’s low on the tent where it won’t contribute as noticeably to weathering wind or snow loads. For another, the single long unsupported ridge pole is not the strongest design, although as I’ve said it’s light and creates a good shape.
In my own testing, I never actually got snowed on in this tent, but if you were to push into the shoulder season and get snowed on in this you’d definitely want to wake up periodically to push snow off the roof. And if you’re going to set up the tent in a place where you’re expecting wind, take care to orient either the back or front of the tent into the wind (the back offers the cleanest profile) and guy it out well. I’m not saying that the pole design is weak, but be aware that you’ll need to take common sense precautions to protect your tent’s structural integrity if you start pushing into foul weather with it.
One last thing about pole structure. MSR has labeled the FreeLite 2 their ‘lightest freestanding tent for two.’ Many people tend to think of freestanding tents as not requiring any staking at all. However, the name actually just means that the tent can stand up on its own without stakes. That doesn’t mean it’s fully deployed and usable without them. With the FreeLite 2, you need to stake it out to get the most of the interior floor space, especially down at the rear where only a single center pole is present to stretch out the fabric. Take note, though! If you are pitching this tent on a slab of rock, it will be tough to reliably stretch out the corners at the bottom of the tent; the pole design does no do this (single center pole), so you have to either stake it or use rocks.
Anywho, enough about that. Let’s talk specs. The FreeLite 2 features 29 square feet of interior space and 17.5 square feet of vestibule storage for its total packed weight of 3 lbs. It also has a 36″ headroom so that you can sit up without brushing your hair with mesh. For some comparisons, I’ve chosen the Sierra Designs Tensegrity 2 FL and the Mountain Hardwear Ghost UL 2. These tents are comparable to the FreeLite in that they’re both ultralight and at the upper end of the price range (each tent is over $400!!).
So, here’s where the comparison sits. The Tensegrity’s packed weight is 3lb, has 29.3 square feet of interior space and a 41″ in peak height. The Ghost weighs 2lb 9oz, has 27 square feet of interior space and a peak height of 37″. When we stack these two top-notch tents up against the MSR Freelight, we see something pretty obvious come into play; if you spend $400 on a tent, it’s going to be pretty flipping good no matter what. I would call the difference in specs between these tents virtually a wash. While it’s true that the Tensegrity has a substantially higher stated peak height, the reality with that tent (which I own and love) is that it very quickly slopes down away from that height and is effectively just as short as the other tents unless you’re exclusively sitting upright at the far end of the tent.
So I wouldn’t necessarily interpret the value of the MSR Freelight in light of these specs. The useful categories here are the ones that deal with how ‘liveable’ the tent is, or how pleasant it is to spend time (or weather a storm) in the tent. That’s what we’ll dive into next.
One of the key things to liveability is tent shape – are the walls almost vertical, and does the roof stay near to it’s maximum peak height. The Freelite’s pole design does this quite well; the central ridge keeps the ceiling high, and there’s a spreader pole that holds the doors very taught and near-vertical. These two doors are large, D-shaped and have two-way zippers. They make it easy to get in and out of the tent without crawling all over your partner.
Another key factor that I consider is body and fly color. I love the grey fabric that MSR uses for many of its flies because it allows morning light to provide a lot of natural color within the tent, making it pleasant to wake up in (as opposed to, say, a dark green). The downside is that it can get gloomy if you’re stuck inside for an extended rain. The actual body of the tent is mostly mesh, but with nylon walls up about a foot from the ground for some privacy and a touch of extra warmth. This combination does a decent job at combating condensation, but I did notice some condensation occurring regularly; this was increased with the fly on, unless I got lucky and had a breeze coming through the doors.
The tent isn’t really a true bathtub floor, but we’ve seen this same design on tents like the MSR Nook and it does help add (at least the sensation of) extra interior space. The FreeLite features just a single large interior pocket, but it really is big. You could easily stuff two Nalgenes in there.
The FreeLite also scores points when it comes to ease of setup. The pole design is so asymmetrical that you don’t even need color-coordinated webbing. Instead, just slot the pole end through a grommet on the ground cloth, body or fly. It’s a very quick setup, and the fly has several velcro’d lash points to add strength to the frame.
Finally, a word about the *real* selling point of the FreeLite – the bag. I’ve never used a better tent bag! Instead of stuffing from the top down, this new tent bag feels a lot more like a rope bag with a large opening on its flat top that opens or closes with a drawstring. It also features two compression straps which make it a cinch to make the tent smaller. It’s effortless to pack well, unlike many tent bags. A major boon when your fingers are fighting off frost.
- Very light for its class, especially if you only pack the ground cloth, poles and fly!
- Competitive in terms of interior space and vestibule storage
- Very easy to setup, reasonably strong pole design
- Large double doors are easy to get in and out of and create amazing views
- Interior space is actually enhanced by a non-bathtub floor
- Thoughtful accents like cinch locks on the corners make your day easier
- Large zipper pulltabs are easy to grab with cold fingers
- Some will decry the lack of a bathtub floor
- D doors tend to snag around the fat part of the ‘D’
- Pole design will struggle if you catch a shoulder season snowstorm
- It ain’t cheap (though, admittedly, this is the price point of elite tents)
The Bottom Line: MSR FreeLite 2
If you have the cash to spend, MSR’s FreeLite 2 will become your best friend in the backcountry. It’s highly liveable (so much mesh and those great doors!), lightweight and easy to set up. I also love that the floorplan is symmetrical, so you and your partner can choose whether to be head-to-head or not. This also makes it more pleasant to spend rainy days in, if need be. I recommend this tent for anyone who wants to shed ounces but still cares about having a tent that feels like a second home in the backcountry.
Buy now: Available from Backcountry.com