I’ve heard it said that Sierra Designs makes the best three-season tents on the market. This, mind you, was from a grizzled old senior guide at the agency I’ve worked at and his impression may well have been formed in the 1970’s. That’s been in the back of my mind as I’ve tested Sierra Designs’ most comfortable, innovative line of tents yet: the Flash series.
Sierra Designs Flash 3 Features:
- Freestanding design
- Large double drop doors, wide enough for two people side-by-side
- 15″ integrated awning pole
- Hybrid double wall/single wall construction
- Integrated fly for dry pitching, every time
- Symmetrical dome design for lots of space all throughout the tent
- Double awning for gear storage
- Total weight: 6lb. 3oz
- Fly Fabric: 75D Polyester Tafetta 190T, PU 1500 mm, WR, FR
- Floor Fabric: 70D Nylon Tafetta 190T, NY T/F PU 3000 mm, FR
- Body Fabric: 20D Nylon No-See-Um Mesh
- MSRP: $399.95
Flash 3 challenges standards of comfort and convention
The last tent from Sierra Designs that I tested was their stellar Mojo 2 ultralight tent. Since then, many tents from several respectable brands have passed through my gear closet but the Mojo remains my absolute favorite choice for an ultralight shelter. Every time I lend it out to a friend, they confirm what I already know: the Mojo is a remarkably special tent. So, when I received the Flash from the folks at Sierra Designs I had very high expectations for the tent.
In truth, the Flash 3 and my old Mojo are very different tents. The Flash is built on a knife-edge of comfort and lightweight construction. Sierra Design’s ultralight version, the Flash 3 UL, tips the balances further towards the ounce counting side of things. My tester Flash 3 has shown itself to be highly concerned with comfort and overall livability while still maintaining a low enough packed weight that I can take it into the backcountry without too much fuss.
The pole structure on the Flash is one of its most unique features – there is a disconcertingly long center pole with two DAC Swivel Hubs on either side which branch out to anchor down the four corners. Sierra Designs attached the tent to the pole design with rather diminutive ultralight clips which are a marked departure from the DAC Twist Clip that the industry has been favoring. Regardless, they seem sufficiently strong and there are plenty of attachment points to disperse force across the tent body. I’ll be honest, though, that the long center pole scares me: a single pole like that, largely unsupported, is a bit of a liability in winds. The Flash 3 spent plenty of time in the wind tunnel for testing, but I’d still take care to set it up in a sheltered spot.
This pole layout does one thing very well indeed: it makes the Flash as roomy and airy as a Gothic cathedral. The pole design pulls the door walls nearly vertical and the other full-mesh sides do little to intrude on the interior of the tent. The pole design also creates two neat little awnings on top of either door. As it turns out, this is something of a soapbox issue for Sierra Designs; as they point out, the vestibule has trickled down from mountaineering tents into modern three-season backpacking designs. The reasons is obvious: it provides a ton of protection and shelter. Sierra Designs then goes on to illustrate all of the flaws with vestibules and asserts that having a nice awning (along with two storage awnings for gear) is a much better option. I won’t bother to repeat the argument, but you can read about it here.
The upshots for the user are pretty clear: getting in and out of the tent is as simple as pulling open the zipper on either of the two huge drop doors, and you don’t have to do the awkward little forward lean (often into snow or mud) to get the vestibule zipped the rest of the way down. As you get into the tent, the cute little awning (with is flimsy little sleeved pole) keeps the majority of the rain off of you. I actually rather like this design since vestibule doors are almost always wiling to shower you with water at the slightest touch and I don’t miss that one little bit. What happens if there’s wind? Sideways rain has been known to occur in the mountains, after all. Sierra Design’s solution is pretty simple: waterproof the door. And, hey, it works – rainy condition on the PCT last week allowed me to test this thoroughly. Very, very thoroughly.
The door design itself deserves a special little mention. The upper part of the door has no storm flap or anything of that sort, so it is susceptible to trace amounts of rain up high. Down low on the door, the storm flap comes smoothly onto the zipper with the aid of a thickened patch of reinforcement that keeps the zip away from the edge of the flap. Inside, there’s a full-size mesh panel so you can have the door completely open or almost completely closed – the zips don’t go all the way up, so you’re forced to have a little ventilation.
Instead of storing gear in the vestibule, Sierra Designs wants you to keep your gear in two nifty little awnings. These are attached to adjustable guy-out points which are easy to tighten and loosen to quickly stash gear from the outside. Sierra Designs included two nifty little zippered ports to access your gear from inside of the tent – the ports are big enough to fit a sleeping pad or bag through and the small-gauge zipper has yet to cause me any problems.
Ventilation never wound up being something that I spent much time thing about with the Flash. Like the best of tents, the Flash 3 just seems to breathe easily. Its full-mesh body and tremendous doors facilitate ample airflow in all sorts of conditions. It’s best to set the tent up with one of the doorways facing into the tent – this puts that long center pole into a strong position. Naturally, you’ll have to use discretion if that prevailing wind happens to be dumping sideways rain into your lap all night.
I’ll briefly mention Sierra Design’s material choice for the Flash; the body and fly are attached, making for a quick setup that keeps the inside of the tent dry in the rain. The tent body is made out of 20D nylon mesh atop a sturdy foundation of 70D nylon taffeta on the floor. The fly is made from 75D nylon. Both the body and the fly have a polyurethane coating that has, so far, done a fantastic job of fending off moisture.
This Summer we’re testing four different three-man tents and the Flash 3 is definitely a standout. When it comes to weight, it’s the second lightest but certainly the most fully-featured. The MSR Elixir 3 clocks in at 6lbs 13oz, the Kelty Outfitter Pro 3 comes in at 7lbs 140z and the Big Agnes Lone Spring 3 comes in at 5lbs 130z. At 6lbs. 3oz the Flash 3 is the second lightest of the group, but it’s also considerably more comfortable and feature-rich than our lightest tent, the Big Agnes Lone Spring.
Finally, I would be completely remiss to not mention livability. Livability is, quite simple, how comfortable the tent is to live in. I usually set it up against the standard scenario of ‘how miserable would it be to wait out a storm in this tent.’ It just so happens that this is one of the Flash’s major strengths: the interior color is a wonderful light blue that looks absolutely beautiful in dawn sunlight. It creates a very nice atmosphere that is (I would guess) intentionally reminiscent of the colors you see on a bright summer’s day. Sierra Design’s epic headroom (44″!) and impressively steep walls create an impression of airy space that is rarely associated with backpacking tents. And, of course, who could forget those huge drop doors – open them up and enjoy the mountain views.
- Feature-rich, extremely comfortable tent for its weight
- Wonderful livability with excellent color choices and headroom
- Near-vertical walls are especially nice to have on the door sides
- Waterproof door does a great job at sealing out moisture
- Ultralight clips and DAC Swivel Hubs make for a quick setup
- Gear storage awnings and access zippers are a well-executed inclusion
- Sleeved awning poles are just begging to be broken when stuffing the tent
- Largely unguarded main zippers are susceptible to moisture
- Pole design is a bit tricky to set up with one person
The Bottom Line: Sierra Designs Flash 3
I’ve really enjoyed my time with the Flash 3; it really has found the tricky balance between lightweight and comfort. I’d be fascinated to try one of Sierra Design’s ultralight tents to see how comfortable they can be while truly cutting every ounce, but the Flash that I’ve tested today is still easily packable between two people. I like the innovations with the awning-style entrance and waterproof door and, as a whole, this is a remarkably welcoming tent to spend time in.
Buy now: Available from Backcountry.com
I own a SD Flash 3. Well I have owned 3 Sierra Design tents since the early 90’s. They have always been bomb proof, which is why I purchased the Flash 3. Unfortunately, this reputation failed on the Flash 3. First, we camp most often in the Sierra and western BC where the camping is on granite and shallow dirt. This is important because the Flash 3 is not a true freestanding tent. All of the advertising indicated it is freestanding. We found, the hard way, if the tent is not staked down it will slowly collapse in the wind. So securing a tent on a granite slab in wind is a difficult process. Needless to say we had rope all over the place. I noticed that SD has a designation as semi freestanding for the tents that need to be staked down.
More disconcerting was the ridge pole clips that broke. The little clear plastic clips that hold the ridge pole both broke, one during pitching and the other in the middle of the night. I was able to quick fix them with nylon cord.
Sierra Design did repair the tent for free and were very pleasant to deal with, so no complaints there. Although it is curious that the Flash line is phased out. I wonder if SD realized these issues and have buried the line.
Based on this experience, I think Sierra Design has changed since the purchase by Exxel and thus quality has suffered.
Brian, thanks for your insightful comment. Sorry to hear about your experience with the ‘freestanding’ qualities of this tent.
Your point about the broken clips is interesting. While I mentioned that the design is ultralight, what I should have also harped on is how the ever-lightening trends in the outdoor industry necessarily sacrifice durability. Being lightweight is such a focus anymore that many products are not built for the long haul. There are some exceptions, but generally the lighter something is the less it will withstand abuse. This is especially true with fabric and plastic. Maybe something I can do, as a reviewer, is to draw more attention to how the emphasis on ‘lightweight’ inevitably includes a sacrifice of durability.
Thanks for your comment.
I second Brian’s comments on the ridge pole clips. The problem happens in very dry conditions when the fly shrinks and puts extra pressure on the ridge pole. This is unfortunate because the Flash 3 is an excellent tent for hot and dry conditions. We loved the tent design and are disappointed by the failure, wondering if we can get hold of the parts to repair it ourselves.