At first glance, the world of ultralight shelters seems to be running out of innovations. It’s hard to imagine finding a lighter material than Dyneema. It also doesn’t seem possible to invent a better design than the trekking pole tent that saves weight by eliminating traditional tent poles. In fact, there have been few real turning points in the past decade: many of today’s most popular ultralight tents are legacy designs. But in recent years, a new tent has overtaken proven tents like the Tarptent Rainbow and Zpacks Duplex.
This tent isn’t the lightest shelter out there. It’s also not made from the most expensive, cutting-edge materials. In fact, it looks just like a dozen other minimal nylon tents pitched with trekking poles. But since its launch in 2018, the Durston X-Mid has sold by the thousands and is constantly out of stock or on backorder. It’s especially popular with thru hikers and other gear enthusiasts. What is behind his sudden rise?
In a word, intelligent design. Ultralight gear is so often a world of compromises, and the X-Mid minimizes many of the compromises that lightweight shelters typically demand. Many trekking pole tents require eight pegs for a tight pitch; the X-Mid only needs four. It sets up first in inclement weather, an advantage usually reserved for heavier freestanding tents. And hikers can stake and set up its simple footprint in just minutes.
These small design perks are a big deal when you’re sleeping in a tent every night for weeks, so it’s no wonder the spirit behind the X-Mid is a thru-hiker. Dan Durston, the founder of Durston Gear and designer of the X-Mid, hails from Golden, British Columbia. A biologist by trade, Durston is an avid hiker having completed the Pacific Crest Trail and the Great Divide Trail. He is also the five-time “fastest finisher” of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Open, an adventure race in Montana. He’s also a self-confessed gear freak: on his blog In Cascadiareaders can find articles with titles such as “The Volumetric Efficiency of Trekking Pole Shelters”.
Durston says the X-Mid concept came to him while hiking through the Canadian Rockies on the Great Divide Trail. “I didn’t really want to rock my headphones while hiking,” he says. “I’ve just been thinking all day, and I’ve been thinking about shelters because they’re interesting. They are complicated and it is difficult to navigate between all the different tradeoffs.”
According to Durston, there are two basic types of trekking pole shelters: a one-pole pyramid tent and a two-pole tent. On his hikes he found that both had design flaws. Pyramids are usually easy to erect, but the trekking pole sits right in the center of your living space. The double pole tents with the trekking poles next to the side entrance doors are usually tricky to set up. You will also need more stakes and place the poles in the middle of the tent vestibule. For Durston, the disadvantages of both designs were obvious.
When the solution came to him, it seemed obvious. It started with a staggered two-pole design, similar to some other recent models like the Tarptent Stratospire and Sierra Designs High Route. This choice created a diagonal ridgeline and allowed two full-size doors without the trekking poles getting in the way. But the big breakthrough came when he moved the inner tent – the part you actually sleep in – to the diagonal as well. In doing so, he created a rectangular tent with no vertical walls (making the shelters vulnerable to high winds), two large vestibules, and only four required stakes. At 28 ounces and covering 46.5 square feet under the rain cover, it also offers a super efficient space-to-weight ratio.
The concept quickly caught on in the ultra-light world. At Drop, the online retailer and community that first worked with Durston, the X-Mid announcement spawned around 600 different discussion threads. And wherever X-Mid was discussed online, from Reddit’s /r/ultralight subreddit to Backpacking Light, Durston was on hand to answer questions, usually in long, detailed posts packed with data and charts. His analytical nature and attention to detail won over his gram-counting, spreadsheet-loving audience.
The exploding demand for the X-Mid quickly overwhelmed Durston’s own ability to manufacture the tents. After Drop decided to stop selling outdoor gear, he partnered with another online retailer, Kaviso, and also launched his own webshop. He has expanded his tent range with a two-person model, plus a X-Mid Pro Dyneema variant.
Since the X-Mid’s success, Durston has turned his attention to other design flaws he encountered on his long-distance hikes. He recently released a backpack that Kakwa 40, which features carefully designed pockets that allow easy access without removing the backpack. Next could be sleeping pads or freestanding tents.
“I think there are more revelations out there in ultralight gear,” he says. “And I think I’ve got a long hike to figure out what they are.”