It seems like it was yesterday when I resigned to sleeping in a bivy sac every night I was out under the stars and next to my bike. I still do so when I’m racing, and that’s simply because of the convenience factor, but there is a big difference between bikepack racing and not. So when I’m sleeping for long periods of time, trying to stay warm, looking to play cards and drink whiskey with my wife, I like to take shelter.

I have used an MSR tent for as long as I can remember with the Hubba Hubba. It has gone on backpacking trips, when I still backpacked, it has been to the mosquito infested North Shore hiking trail, cold desert spring nights in Moab, and early summer high alpine snowy nights near Crested Butte. Now it remains in my car as the car camping tent, simply because I was looking for something lighter, something that could pack down to nothing, yet still provide the same overall quality and durability that I know and love with all MSR Products.
Scrolling through their website one day, I ran across the MSR Carbon Reflex 2 Ultralight Tent. It’s the lightest double wall 2 person tent that MSR makes. Now, there are some major differences between the Hubba Hubba and the Carbon Reflex 2, so this is not entirely a comparison review, but I will be making some comparisons as I talk about the details of the tent.

The Deets
The MSR Carbon Reflex 2 Ultralight Tent is a non-freestanding tent. This means you need to stake down the tent in order to make the tent stand. This is an ongoing debate in the camping world with plenty of pros and cons for each side. A freestanding tent typically comes with a large dome shape skeleton which gives the tent the ability to stand up without stakes, with a non-freestanding tent, you will see that they are much shorter. This feature takes away the headroom slightly, but also keeps you warmer as the hot air that you produce throughout the night does not have as much room to rise. It’s a tighter setup, and that is certainly the case with the Carbon Reflex vs. the Hubba-Hubba. 
As far as the setup is concerned, non-freestanding tents can be a bit more complicated at first, but once you get the hang of it, its more simple than you may think. With the Hubba-Hubba, I would set up the tent and move to the premiere tent spot, which sometimes takes a bit longer due to my perfection in finding the perfect position. With the Carbon Reflex, I found that I needed to survey the land prior to staking in the 4 corners of the tent. When I found the perfect slope or flat spot. I would then stake the head of the tent down first, which can actually be either side as its is symmetrical, followed by the foot. I like this task as once I set it up, there was no moving it. I sometimes dwell on the “perfect” spot a bit much.
After staking down the four corners of the tent, you will see the Carbon Reflex start to take shape. I really like the tub of the tent body, which rises up from the ground a bit before the mesh is sewn in. This not only has proved to block some wind, but also helps keep the cool drafts from coming into the tent, which will keep you warmer throughout the night. This is another reason I enjoy the doubled walled tent vs just a single walled mid-tent.  The doubled walled tents offer protection from the elements and comfort of being more protected. 
As far as the size of the tent, it comes in at 50 inches wide and 84 inches long, exact same sleeping space as the FreeLite 2 Ultralight Backpacking Tent. The only difference is the with the low clearance of the Carbon Reflex. Taller people may find their head pretty close to the mesh body, but both Lindsay and I were comfortable, especially as a couple. This tent would also be great for one taller person sleeping on a slight angle. Typically Lindsay and I would store our backpacks and a number of bikepacking bags in the vestibules with no problem of finding room.
The most exciting part of this tent is the carbon poles. The poles are so light and so minimal, that they hardly add any weight to your overall rig, and they pack down so small, they easily fit inside your frame bag. The Carbon Reflex comes with two Easton carbon poles –  One long pole down the spine of the tent and one shorter pole across. They hook into 4 grommets that are sewn into the tent, two near the top of each entry and two at the bottom of the each end. The tent then connects with some clips to the poles to pull which give the body of the tent it’s shape. if you are expecting a warm evening without rain, your tent setup is complete. You can enjoy the large mesh opening for star gazing and plenty of breathability. 
That being said, we have always used the rain fly because we live in Colorado, where the there is always a chance for a scattered evening storm and it also tends to be pretty chilly. The rain fly is pretty spectacular, it’s super light, has no zippers, and holds it’s own against the elements. Throwing the fly over the tent is easy and knowing which side it goes on is as simple as looking at the velcro straps. Those straps are to connect to the poles so they face down on the tent body. Like most tents, the fly comes down to connects to the 4 stakes on either end as well as two stakes outside of each door which creates a small vestibule for your belongings and smelly shoes.  Instead of a zipper, MSR designed a simple velcro closure system paired with two hook and loop systems on each side of the fly. This reduces the weight down, which I can assume was MSR’s ultimate goal, but it also removes a high stress component to the tent. Something that could eventually break and leave you scratching your head. Similar to the zipperless frame bags that we have seen over the past two years, the zipperless tent allows for a more durable and reliable tent.
Quick notes:
  • The most important feature that the Carbon Reflex 2 offers bikepackers is the weight saving. The tent and fly comes in at 724 grams, and the floormat comes in at 200 which totals 924 grams, or just over 2 lbs.
  • Tents in general are really easy to pack, but when stakes come in that light, and small, it’s a pretty awesome feature. Just make sure to hit them straight on, or they will bend. 
  • Are we worried about the durability? Not really. We plan on bringing this tent to Peru in May of next year mainly because it’s the best option to save room and weight so we can bring some other luxury items, while knowing it will keep the elements out.
  • As far as the head room, we certainly don’t have as much as we do in the Hubba Hubba, or other tents we have tested, but its still good enough for Lindsay and myself to sip on some whiskey and play gin rummy, our go to tent game.
  • Condensation and rain. Two weeks ago, we got to test both of these factors as it was a chilly evening and a storm rolled through. We were pleased with the fly doing it’s job, and even without a zipper, the Velcro paired with the hook and loop closure kept the moisture out. We did wake up with some condensation that morning which is ultimately a good thing as it’s keeping our heat in the tent.
  • Fast drying: After a quick round of sun and flipping the fly upside down on bush, we found the fly to be nearly dry after cooking breakfast and packing up, we packed it up a little damp, and quickly dried it out later that day.
  • One downside about a non-freestanding tent is sleeping on rocks or hard surfaces, sometimes you will need to be creative when figuring how to tie down.
  • Great to split items among two people. Fly, poles and stakes in one rig, and tent body in the other.

The Brand
I’m a sucker for MSR. I love to support brand and products that treat me well. Looking at the details of the tent, I see fine craftsmanship in the stitching, attention to detail in all of the seamed seals, bartacking and reinforced stress points, all while understanding that they are experts in their field leaving me to never doubt the capabilities of this ultralight tent. A few years back our Hubba-hubba took a turn for the worse. The screen ripped after many nights used and it was time to send it in to have them fix it. To our surprise, they replaced it no questions asked, not just the body, but the fly and poles too. That speaks volumes about their customer service and brand as a whole.
Overall, we are very pleased packing the MSR Carbon Reflex 2 Ultralight Tent ($499.95) into our bikepacking kit. MSR offers a Carbon Reflex 1 ($399.95) and a Carbon Reflex 3 ($599.95). Please feel free to ask any particular questions you may have in the comments below. This review would not be possible without the cooperation of MSR and Cascade Designs, Inc.

2 Comments

  1. I also love MSR. They are true to their calling and don’t mess around. What are the lengths of the poles when collapsed and where did you stow them on the bike? I’m also planning on Peru in May so I hope you elaborate on that a bit as well…

    Cheers,
    Mat

  2. John Stewart

    Nice review Neil. I been very pleased with my Carbon Reflex 2 as well, it’s held up well over the past few years and looks like it will continue that path for many more nights in the wild.

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