I dislike living in tents as a rule. Whenever I do trips, I’ll avoid taking a tent at all costs if I can stay in a hut. The condensation, the lack of space, the extra organisation required to make the most of the minimal space, not to mention the weight all deter me from tenting; especially if there’s a hut nearby. Therefore prior to Alaska, the two things I was dreading the most was melting water for every drink or meal, and living in a tent for over a month.
However, in hindsight spending five weeks in the Macpac Hemisphere on the side of Denali turned out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip (short of summiting a couple of peaks). There’s a high standard in expedition tents on the market these days, and wandering around a base camp of around 700 people, one gets a fairly good idea of the various kinds available. The Hemisphere holds its own, and more amongst these competitors; excelling in everything you want in a tent, and then throwing in a number of bonus features you didn’t know you needed, until you needed them.
I’m a little biased in what the most important thing in a tent is, but if you were two metres tall, you’d care as well! This tent is simply huge inside. For most of the time, Ari and I had a whole Hemisphere to ourselves, which was so much space we almost had to shout at each other across the void in the middle. At 2.2 metres long, I could luxuriously stretch out with no fear of touching either end of the tent. At its narrowest, the tent’s width is 1.1 metres, but given the geodesic nature of the tent, it pulls out quite a bit in the middle, which you can utilise as you’re not crammed up against the ends of the tent.
Additionally, while it claims it’s a four person tent, the Hemisphere is like the Tardis; larger on the inside than the outside. One night, aborting early due to temperatures close to -40°C, we opted to pitch the tent in a small schrund. Squeezing five fairly large guys into the tent was somewhere between a game of tetris and a ménage à cinq (a friend of the ménage à trios). However we succeeded, and while no-one would claim it was a comfortable night’s sleep, we all were warm, and got varying amounts of napping achieved.
With not one, but two gigantic vestibules, these are some of the largest vestibules I’ve seen in four man tents. Each vestibule has about 1.16m2 area, giving a combined vestibule space of a whopping 2.32 m2: in other words almost the same size as a number of 2 person tents. For an expedition tent, huge vestibules are key. If you’re not taking a cook tent, then it’s likely one of your vestibules will be dedicated to cooking, and with a little excavation of snow into a shallow pit by the door, it makes an ideal cooking space. In the other vestibule, there’s plenty of space to store packs, gear, food, or any other equipment.
This tent has all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from top-end tents, be they expedition tents or general backcountry tents. In addition, it utilises every bit of space with one handy feature or another. For starters, this tent had 16 pockets, in addition to a gear loft. It’s almost like nirvana for a kleptomaniac, with pockets for everything imaginable: high up pockets on each wall ideal for drying things, or narrow pockets, perfectly (intentionally or unintentionally) shaped for a piss bottle. Even the gear loft is full of pockets, with four little slots underneath which are handy for the lighter or torch you’re always losing!
There’s also plenty of ventilation, a necessary feature of an expedition tent, when it turns into a veritable drying room with the endless wet gear. Besides the four small windows around the doors, it also has two enormous windows in the middle of the tent, in a kind of inverted teardrop shape. The inside material is completely removable, with a cleverly designed storm proof, reinforced window on the outside, which allows complete airflow when it’s all undone. More than just ventilation, it gives the greatest indoor-outdoor flow of any tent I've stayed in.
Whenever anyone waxes lyrical about ‘the perfect tent’ with all the features, the first question of the critics is always the weight. The Hemisphere is truly the chubby kid in gym class, weighing in at over six kilograms; almost the same weight as a small yurt! The weight is fairly understandable when you consider the heavy materials used, and the six poles which keep the whole thing upright, and while the durability is appreciated when you’re weathering out a storm, there’s no denying it’s extremely heavy, with one of the top weights of similar 4-person expedition tents.
Other Miscellaneous Attributes
As appears to be the status quo, the pegs were sub-standard for snow, but Macpac do sell some larger snow pegs separately, or there’s the classic dry-bag burial strategy for pitching the tent. The pitching itself was fairly straightforward, although the light mesh pole sleeves are very susceptible to puncture when it’s frozen and you’re pushing a pole through. On the topic of pitching, it does take a while to thread the six poles through the inner of the tent, which is problematic when it’s blowing a blizzard, as the whole inside gathers a lovely layer of snow and ice, which proceeds to melt once the fly’s on and you’re inside. While I haven’t had the opportunity to test one out, I wonder if a tent with the poles on the exterior would eliminate both these issues. Despite these minor inconveniences, the durability of the tent was excellent, with only one slightly bent pole between two tents over the five weeks.
Macpac’s ethos is that their gear is for the toughest places on earth, and Ari decided that this needed to be verified. Unintentionally, he lit the vestibule on fire one day when the cooker flared while melting water in the vestibule. More due to the tent’s remarkable fire resistance rather than Ari’s quick actions, the fire was quickly extinguished with minimal harm to the tent. (We do not recommend testing this or trying this at home).
So what’s the verdict on the Hemisphere? It’s a great tent, and I loved living in it for all the weeks on the mountain, but I’d seriously have doubts about taking it anywhere in New Zealand, unless I was mounting a multi-week siege style expedition somewhere in the Alps. In saying that, it’s not really a tent designed for New Zealand, it’s proudly advertised as an expedition tent which will stand up to virtually anything which can be thrown at it. When you’re pulling a sled with about 55 kilograms already on it, the extra one or one and a half kilograms of durability in the Hemisphere don’t really prey on your mind. It’s a pricey tent; at the top of the price range as far as expedition tents go, but it’s more than on par with its competitors. There’s also nothing quite like the uniting factor of a bright yellow Macpac tent; it brings all the Australians and New Zealanders flocking, sure that there’s a kiwi party hiding somewhere within its luxurious depths!