By Brett French

Billings (Mont.) Gazette

I was looking forward to the rain as a buddy and I backpacked into the Custer Gallatin National Forest in south-central Montana to bowhunt in September. The drizzle would help quiet the crunchy-dry forest as we sneaked through the timber in search of wary elk.

Unfortunately, that soaking rain also saturated my pants, boots and socks as they brushed against the drenched grass and still-leafy bushes. Nothing feels much more uncomfortable, and chilling, than hiking around in wet clothing.

Luckily I was traveling with a hunting buddy who owns a lightweight backpacking shelter that has a compatible titanium wood stove. Before an evening hunt we picked out a campsite, and he set up the shelter and stove. Inside we piled up some small firewood. When we arrived back at camp at the end of shooting light, he quickly fired up the stove with a starter stick, and the pyramid-shaped tent steadily warmed.

By keeping the fire stoked, the stove and stovepipe were soon glowing orange-hot, and my gear slowly steamed dry while my body finally shook off the chill of a wet, cool fall day.

Hot tent intro

This was my introduction to hot-tent camping, an ever-growing fringe area of the outdoor market that’s gaining attention from backcountry hunters, anglers and even winter campers.

“It’s hard to go back to a cold dome tent” after camping in a stove-heated shelter, said Eric Bender, the lead designer for Kifaru International.

The Colorado-based company, founded by Patrick Smith in 1997, has been in the hot-tent business for a long time, but the past few years have seen an uptick in sales as more people look for wood stove warm-able shelters that are lightweight, Bender said.

That fame has been aided by social media.

“Hunting has definitely blown up in popular culture and social media,” Bender said. “Especially in places like Colorado and Montana where everybody knows someone who hunts.”

As a result, Kifaru now has competition from the likes of Seek Outside, another Colorado-based business, and Luxe Hiking Gear in Forks, Washington. Foreign companies are also building similar heated tepees, including Nortent in Norway and Eldfell in Sweden. The size of the structures range from one-man shelters up to 24 people.

Seek Outside

My friend was packing Seek Outside’s Cimarron ultralight pyramid tent ($369). It utilizes only one 6-foot-tall four-piece carbon-fiber pole. With the stove set up it comfortably fits two backpackers, their gear and a pile of firewood. The 8.6-foot, by 9.6-foot shelter has no floor, so we brought tarps to spread across the ground and keep our sleeping pads dry.

A fireproof vent made of fiberglass, called a stove jack, allows the 7.5-foot titanium stovepipe to poke outside without melting the lightweight tent fabric. The titanium stove set up in minutes, and its flat top allowed us to boil water without lighting up a canister gas stove, although the wait was a bit longer.

Although high in profile, the structure sheds wind incredibly well. A door on each side also made it easy to exit and enter without stepping over each other.

The tent alone weighs just less than 5 pounds. The Cub woodstove ($239) is a marvel of engineering, collapsing flat and weighing in at 2 pounds, 11 ounces — a weight that includes the stovepipe. The combo outfit cost my friend $825.

Winter camping

That’s a steep price, but as Whitefish, Montana, extreme skier and snowmobiler Corey Seemann pointed out, it’s hard to put a price on a lightweight, packable shelter that enables you and your pals to stay warm on a cold night or morning. Seemann is an ambassador for Seek Outside, testing out the gear on his winter backcountry trips. When it dropped to zero degrees outside the tent, it was 60 to 70 degrees inside with the fire roaring, he said.

“The lightweight aspect of what they’re doing is genius,” he said.

Other friends have heavier canvas tents that can provide a similar hot spot for winter camping. But those have to be packed on a sled and driven in. If a snowmobile broke down, Seemann said a Seek Outside tent could fit in a backpack so a winter camper could safely ski or snowshoe out for help.

“It can be used as a lifeline,” he said.

Bender, of Kifaru, noted that his company has sold stoves and shelters to search and rescue groups for use in the backcountry. His company also makes backpacks and other gear, most of it with hunters in mind.

“We can pretty much fully outfit you except for the food, weapon and the knowledge,” he said.

Take note

As Seek Outside notes on its website, the smaller stoves need constant tending to keep a fire going, since the fuel is little. So if the temperature is likely to drop to zero, you still want a zero-degree sleeping bag to stay comfortable after you fall asleep and the fire goes out.

And unless you’re willing to stay up all night and stoke the fire, it will go out. So don’t think of the shelters as continually hot. Instead, look at them as a way to dry out wet clothes, bake off a chill and maybe heat up water for a freeze-dried meal.