Review: MSR Twin Sisters Tarp Shelter

The MSR Twin Sisters 2-Person Tarp Shelter is MSR's four season entry into the fun world of minimalist 'mid' shelters.

An Introduction to ‘Mids’

If you aren't up to speed on the world of 'mids', they represent a class of minimalist shelters which forego any non-essentials to save weight. Probably the best known example is the Black Diamond Mega Light. The Mega Light, is basically a pyramidal tent fly that's held up by a single central pole (or a couple of ski poles held together with a couple of ski straps). No tent body to carry, no poles (if you're using ski poles) - you can save a ton of weight if you're willing to give up having a floor to your tent or same level of bug and wind protection. The BD Mega Light clocks in at 1.05kg advertised minimum weight and sleeps up to four people. 

Meet the MSR Twin Sisters Tarp Shelter

A few months ago, Christine and I were heading to Norway for Christine's first ski tour since her concussion. We wanted to minimize how much she was carrying by tossing most of the communal gear into my pack, so I was really interested in minimizing the weight of that gear and that seemed like a fantastic opportunity to try out the MSR Twin Sisters Tarp Shelter.

Endless alpine on our ski touring trip through Norway.

Specs

The MSR Twin Sisters has a claimed weight of 1.4kg but that weight drops to 0.92kg if you ditch the included poles and use ski poles instead. The optional footprint for the shelter weighs another 650g and since we were going to be sleeping on snow, we opted to bring it for a total advertised system weight of 1.57kg.

Design

Our first night using the MSR Twin Sisters, we camped out on a grassy knoll in the middle of a snow field.  We were rigging with ski poles instead of the included non-adjustable poles. This is one of the reasons I prefer ski poles for this stuff - you can peg out the tent and then use the adjustable ski pole to tension the shelter to keep things taught. This is also where we ran into the first big headache with this system.

Setting up for our first night in the MSR Twin Sisters Tarp Shelter

The MSR Twin Sisters footprint doesn't have a pass-through for the pole tips to sneak through. If you are using ski poles (as MSR says you can), then the tips would just punch holes in the footprint if set up in the standard vertical orientation.

I wasn't too worried though as I figured I could actually increase the strength of the shelter by using two poles in an A-Frame setup with the handles Voile strapped together. My thought was that this would provide just as much vertical strength, it would provide increased lateral strength and with way I rigged the pole handles together, they sat in to the pocket of the tent fly just as well as they would have vertically.

Our solution for using ski poles AND the footprint. This also actually seemed to make the whole thing stronger.

There's a also a big, big advantage to the A-frame setup for the poles - you get way more usable space inside the shelter. Normally you end up with two poles coming down into the middle of the tent. By using four poles in A-frame configuration, you open up the centre of the tent for activities like cooking or playing cards.

By setting up the poles in an A-frame, you end up with way more usable space inside

Guylines Are Not Optional

With the shelter pegged out the second major issue presented itself. We were in an alpine environment. I wanted this thing as pegged out humanly possibly, but like so, so many tents these days, it came with no guylines. 

Not including guylines on what is basically a tarp that costs $470CAD is one of the more miserable moves I've seen a tent manufacturer make. There's only two reasons to do this:

  1. To be able to keep the advertised weight down - which is bullshit because it doesn't affect the minimum packed weight which is what weight weenies actually look at, and

  2. To be able to gouge a few more bucks out of the consumer which is actually a bitter pill I'm willing to swallow on a value priced tent - but this sucker costs more than many of MSR's own top quality complete tents and is basically just a tent fly.

Like I said, I was pretty irritated to have to drop a few bucks more on cord and tensioners which luckily I brought with me. I used guylines on all four corners to maximize the tent's ability to withstand wind and keep the poles, which aren't secured to the tent in any way, in place by keeping things taught.

The first night was a disaster. Sure enough we got blasted by winds and the shelter spent the entire night doing its best to fall down. Some of the issues were the tent's fault and some of it was the ground on which we'd chosen to set up the tent.

The soil we drove the pegs into was basically wet gravel. It didn't have much clay content so when it started raining, it got super weak and then the buffeting winds caused the pegs to shift, which gave the tarp enough slack that the pole grip came out of the windward pocket and one side of the MSR Twin Sisters Tarp Shelter would collapse.

Christine getting dinner ready in front of the orange chaos tarp.

After several hours of the repetitive game of having the tent collapse, getting up and heading out into the rain and wind to re-tension everything, and then grumpily crawling back into my sleeping bag, we eventually gave up and just slept with one side collapsed over our feet.

A few nights later we once again found ourselves in a position of facing a night in the MSR Twin Sisters and this time, I was determined to do it every favour possible. We camped on bomber spring snow. We staked out every corner using a ski driven tail first up to its bindings and then secured the guylines to the ski bindings and tensioned them down. The doors we pegged out with ice axes driven spike first down to the head. We then piled several inches of snow all along the perimeter flaps and then packed it down to prevent any wind from getting underneath. We once again used A-framed ski poles for vertical supports so that we could use the footprint.

The MSR Twin Sisters Tarp Shelter fully rigged.

We did the shelter every favour we could in setup. I seriously did not want to repeat our experience the first night.

We completely repeated the first night. Despite having everything tensioned within an inch of its life, the MSR Twin Sister just didn’t hold up to another night of strong winds. The pockets for the pole supports just aren’t secure enough - as the poles absorbed load, they sank into the snow a bit, that created enough slack in the canopy that the pole handles slipped out of their pockets and the whole thing collapsed around us. We could stall the inevitable by re-adjusting the poles every half hour or so in order to maintain maximum tension - but that doesn’t exactly make for a peaceful night of sleep.

 Hard to get much more staked out than that.

Hard to get much more staked out than that.

Any time we drifted off and stopped continuously tending the system, the whole thing collapsed again.

The MountainWagon Bottom Line

I wanted to love the MSR Twin Sisters Tarp Shelter - it’s right up my alley, it’s minimalist, lightweight, and should be bomb proof - and in some ways it is. The materials are great, the construction quality is typical MSR top quality, but after that, things start to fall down.

This is a bomb-proof shelter that just can’t handle alpine winds. I have no worries about it handling snow loading or extended abuse, it just can’t be reliably used in an alpine environment where it might get subjected to strong wind. The design of pockets for the pole handles just isn’t secure enough. For a shelter that is designed for use on snow, the design doesn’t allow for any packing or melting of the snow - both of which are pretty much guaranteed. The second issue is that the footprint doesn’t have a pass-through for pole tips which is just a huge oversight in my opinion as it restricts your options when using ski poles.

The final beef I’ve got is cheaping out on guylines. They are 100% NOT optional for this shelter and there’s no way they shouldn’t be included. This is a pricey, pricey shelter and not including them just feels like a lame move.

If your looking for a lightweight shelter for four season use in a sub-alpine environment (and have a very healthy budget), I think the MSR Twin SIsters Tarp Shelter could be a reasonable option for you - but the next time I’m headed into an alpine environment like our Norway ski tour - I’m grabbing something else.

Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.