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Hands-on Gear Review
Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo Review
Cons: Not as adaptable as a flat tarp, doesn’t provide the level of weather protection as an enclosed shelter
Bottom line: The most affordable shelter in this review is easy to use and provides enough coverage for two.
The Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo in Pro SilNylon, is the best value ultralight shelter that we've tested. It is larger than most two-person, A-frame style tarps, and the pronounced catenary-cut ridge makes a taught A-frame pitch easy to achieve. When pitched close to the ground, the coverage provided is enough for two folks to stay nice and dry in all but the windiest rainstorms. While its design limits the way it can be set up to simple A-frame mode, we loved that Mountain Laurel Designs gives you the option of upgrading, or adding on to, nearly every aspect of this tarp. If you are looking to enter the ultralight realm without breaking the bank, we highly recommend this exceptionally well-built tarp. Weighing in at only 15.1 ounces, it's very light on the scale as well. We've previously tested the much lighter DCF fabric version of this tarp, which we also highly recommend if you have the extra cash.
RELATED REVIEW: The Best Ultralight Tent Shelters of 2017
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
We have tested the Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo many times, and no matter who uses it or in what conditions, it is still a tarp that we come back to with fondness. As a catenary cut tarp, it can really only be set up in one way, A-frame mode, which is one of the simplest and most common ways of pitching a tarp anyway. This leaves two ends open, although it is common to have the feet end of the tarp significantly closer to the ground, offering more shelter than the head end. Regardless, these limitations caused it to rank lower than most in this review for weather protection and adaptability, two important metrics for assessing performance of an ultralight shelter, and thus its cumulative score was in the lower third of the review.
That said, we still love this shelter and think it presents excellent value! We also love that virtually everything about it is either upgradable, or can be added on for a slight upcharge. For instance, you can choose to buy this tarp made of Pro SilNylon, as we did, or three different thicknesses of DCF fabric (+$130, 7.5oz. total! Or 10oz. or 11oz. ). Likewise you can pay to have them seam seal the SilNylon version for you ($30), add two carbon fiber poles so you don't need to use trekking poles (+$50, 2.6oz.), add titanium skewer stakes (+$25, 2.6oz., not the quality or durability we would want to use), or upgrade to reflective guy line (+$6). This tarp also comes in both Duo size, which is what we tested, or solo size.
Like many of the products in this review, the Grace Tarp Duo is not available from major retailers - only directly from the small manufacturer in Virginia. We only had to wait more than a few weeks for the SilNylon version that we tested, which MLD reports is typical for SilNylon. However, if you're looking for DCF, you'll probably have to wait a few weeks longer.
Get it online at www.mountainlaureldesigns.com.
The MLD Grace Tarp Duo scored in the bottom half of our overall comparative rankings, as you can see below highlighted in blue. This was due mostly to lower scores for weather protection and livability, drawbacks of using a tarp as your primary shelter.
The Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo provides good enough weather protection in most backpacking environments. The two open ends can be a drawback though if you select an exposed campsite and it turns rainy and windy. We find that almost all established campsites are in well to moderately well-protected areas where an A-frame works great. Eight perimeter Line-Locks allow you to securely stake out and tension this A-frame. There are no field guy outs on this tarp; it would be nice to have mid field guy outs on the sides. SilNylon stretches when wet, but having the adjustability of the Line-Locks within reach from inside allows you to tighten things up without going out in the rain.
The catenary cut makes it easy to pitch this tarp very tight to resist the wind. The ability to set it up low against the ground, while still having headroom to sit, is a significant advantage in foul weather compared to smaller tents that don't allow as much headroom. In exposed sites, it can be important to pitch one end of the tarp near a rock or bush that blocks the wind. Alternately, you can block the open foot with your backpacks and partially cover the head end with a rain jacket. If you know you are going to face bad weather, or for the greatest protection and safety for long journeys, pairing this with a lightweight water resistant bivy sack is a good idea. The fixed set up with two open ends meant we couldn't rate this tarp as high as the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp, which can be set up in storm mode, but we felt it was much better than the MSR Flylite 2.
The Grace Tarp Duo is a LARGE A-frame tarp. It is much larger than the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp. The added coverage is important for comfort in high winds and downpours because it provides lots of space for two people and their gear, even when the tarp is pitched tight against the ground. Depending on steepness of pitch, we had about four inches overhead at the peak for our 5'11'' testers when we pitched the Grace low to the ground for maximum weather protection. That's a lot more headroom than most tarps would afford.
This tarp also has three plastic clips on the underside of the ceiling. A mesh inner tent with bathtub floor can hang from these, or they can be used to rig up a clothes line, or for other gear storage. Without adding a modular inner tent, like the Serenity Bug Net Shelter ($205, 16oz. for Duo SilNylon), there is no bug protection or floor. And regardless there will not be much privacy with this tarp. With these thoughts in mind, we ranked it near the bottom in livability, roughly the same as the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV2 Platinum.
At a measly 15.1 ounces for our SilNylon version, the Grace Tarp Duo is the second lightest shelter in this review, second only to the DCF HMG Square Flat Tarp. If you want the lightest version of this tarp, then upgrading to DCF is possible for an extra $130. The SilNylon tarp itself weighs in at only 12.4oz. and the 40' of included 2.7mm guy line weighs only 2oz. It also comes in a SilNylon stuff sack that is unfortunately far too large for the Duo, meaning that it fits easily, but could fit in a far smaller stuff sack that would be more efficient for packing. In order to complete the setup you need to add two adjustable trekking poles (or buy the carbon fiber poles available from MLD), and eight stakes.
A-frame tarps offer an advantage over traditional tents and pyramid shelters in that the pitch can be adjusted in both height and width. If a campsite is narrow you can bring the walls in and pitch it tight against the ground, something that you can't do with the fixed size of the Six Moons Designs Haven Tarp. Raise it up and spread it out for more headroom and coverage if you don't anticipate any wind. However, flat tarps are much more versatile because their pitching configurations are limited only by your imagination. The Grace Tarp Duo is a great tarp for most backpacking environments, but if you want to become an expert tarp camper, or want to travel as light as possible in the most exposed and rugged areas, we highly recommend our favorite ultralight tarp, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Square Tarp.
Ease of Set-up
The Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo, due to its generous catenary cut at the ridgeline, is the easiest to set up A-frame tarp that we have tested. All things considered, we find it about the middle of the pack for ease of set up, roughly the same as the Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid 2 or the Nemo Hornet 2P. Our first pitch in the backyard took right about four minutes with adjustable trekking poles. Four minutes is a good set-up time for one person, and two can do it faster. Forty feet of cord for staking and guying out is included, but must be cut and added to the Line-Locks, preferably before you are out in the field. We found set-up using trekking poles quicker than pitches where the ridge lines were secured to trees.
One feature that really added to the simplicity of set up was grommets sewn into the tabs at each end of the ridge crest, which easily took the tip of our adjustable trekking poles, and are also designed to accept the end of carbon fiber poles that are sold separately. This was a faster and simpler method of rigging poles than needing to tie clove hitches, like we do to set up the Square Flat Tarp.
The Grace Tarp is perfect for ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking on a budget. If you seek three-season protection in an affordable ultralight shelter, this one is hard to beat. It is also a good option for those who prefer tarps but aren't carrying trekking poles, as carbon fiber poles can be purchased for only $50.
At a mere $165 for the Duo size, this is hands down the most affordable shelter in this ultralight review. We think the quality of materials used and the construction is excellent, so of course we think this shelter presents a great value.
The Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp is a very large, catenary cut shaped tarp that comes in either SilNylon (cheaper) or DCF (more expensive) versions. While it doesn't provide the same level of weather resistance as pyramid or dedicated pole tents, it still offers generous coverage for a tarp, and set up in sheltered places will easily protect the user in all but the windiest rain storms. It is the most affordable shelter in this review, presenting a great value, and is also quite easy to set up for a tarp. If light weight and affordability are primary concerns, we encourage you to check out this high quality tarp.
— Andy Wellman and Brandon Lampley
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