Original post :
I blogged last July about the problems we’d had with the zippers failing on our (otherwise wonderful) Hilleberg Kaitum 3GT tent.
Despite Hilleberg replacing the sliders on the outer tent and providing us with a discounted brand-new inner tent, our zipper frustrations have continued. We’re now stuck with an unusable tent and here’s the story of how we got here.
In August 2012 I contacted Hilleberg’s US office in Redmond, Washington to explain that three out of our tent’s five zips had broken down irreparably. They invited us to send the tent for inspection. We were staying in the Northwest of the US with warmshowers.org hosts at the time so being without the tent for a while was no big problem.
Shannon at Hilleberg told me that Petra (I assume Petra Hilleberg herself) had inspected the tent and reported that while they’d been able to replace the sliders of the outer tent, the zipper of the inner tent was just too worn down and couldn’t be mended. We were offered a discount on a new inner tent, which we decided to go for.
Petra and Shannon also said that the Kaitum 3GT was not the best tent for our purposes, despite it being clearly marketed for cycle tourers (Hilleberg’s website describes the Kaitum as a strong, robust tent which will stand up to all-season weather), and recommended that we go for the Keron, which comes in a thicker fabric with sturdier poles. Of course, we were not able to afford a brand-new tent (even at a discounted price), since we’d invested in the expensive Kaitum on the basis that it was an ideal choice for cycle tourers.
Shannon wrote to us stressing the importance of cleaning the tent zippers every day. She didn’t seem too impressed with how we’d been looking after our tent. To be fair, we’d done our best to keep it clean given the resources we had while on the road. I’d been cleaned the zippers with a toothbrush as often as I could – about once/twice a week. Shannon wrote:
“I know it is hard for you to understand the need to clean your zippers but the tent has been well used and the outer zippers had fuzz and dust in them. I cleaned up the edge of the flap covering the zippers so that should help a bit. Maintenance is as important for your tent as it is for your bike or a new car. It really helps to keep everything working well. We do recommend that you daily brush out your zippers.”
We collected the tent from Chris, their shipping manager – Shannon had let us know in advance that he’d be the only one in the office that day. I had a brief chat with him about our problems but he wasn’t able to offer much sympathy with our experience – fair enough, that’s not his job. I also picked up a letter Shannon had prepared with more detailed care instructions: clean the zippers daily; wash the tent in a bucket regularly, etc.
Although it should have been a positive day – picking up a refreshed tent which would allow us to continue our journey – we left Hilleberg Redmond slightly dejected. Rather than feeling that we’d received outstanding customer service (which we’ve had when things went wrong from companies such as Showers Pass, Exped and Supernova), we felt more like we’d been lightly scolded for not scrubbing behind our ears. Oh, the shame! While Hilleberg’s customer service was polite, it was also quietly defensive of the Hilleberg tents and refused to acknowledge the zippers failing as being a weakness of their tents. In Hilleberg’s view, the zipper failures were due solely to our lack of care.
We were frustrated that we’d invested in an extremely expensive ‘wilderness shelter’, supposedly designed for ‘expeditions to the most extreme environments’, which appeared to require an unreasonable level of care to maintain its integrity. We were expecting a better response from a company producing such a high-end, high cost product, and were disappointed with Hilleberg’s defensive approach.
But, we were keen to set off on our cycle adventure again. So that is what we did, heading for the San Juan islands off the coast of Seattle, and trying as hard as we could to get the tent’s toothbrush out every morning to clean its zippers thoroughly. A Kaitum 3GT has five zipped entrances, so this was a bit of a faff when you’ve got mats to roll, panniers to pack, bikes to ride and adventures to have. We did get some very odd looks from fellow seasoned campers, who had never seen anyone clean their tent’s zippers before.
Unfortunately, just a month and a half after our visit to Hilleberg, we noticed that the fabric surrounding the rear zipper on the brand-new inner tent had started to fray. The stitching was rather slapdash in that area, and bits of excess fabric had been getting trapped in the zipper. We were in the full swing of touring at that time and so just took a couple of pictures and avoided using the rear entrance.
During the next few months touring in New Zealand we made special efforts to treat the tent with kid gloves and follow Shannon’s care instructions to the letter. The tent got a good old wash in a bucket before we flew Down Under, and a regular – almost daily – tooth-brush of all the zippers on its entrances.
Given what had gone before, we had much less confidence in the tent entrances, and used the zippers as gingerly as possible.
But, despite careful handling and cleaning, the zippers failed again. In November 2012, while camping in Wellington awaiting our ferry to the South Island of New Zealand, the zipper on the outer side door broke again, the teeth gaping open once the slider had been pulled across. It was only the fourth or fifth time we’d used that side door since Hilleberg had replaced the sliders. We took the frustrating decision to keep that door permanently closed.
At the same time, the zipper on the front outer entrance started to fail again. The teeth of the zipper would refuse to close once the slider had passed. It took such effort to keep the thing closed that we eventually gave up and so – for about three months’ camping – we kept the entrance permanently tied back and open to the elements… and to the local wildlife.
I suppose it is testament to the quality and strength of the tent material that, while camping on New Year’s Eve 2012 at the foot of Mount Cook, New Zealand, we managed – just – to withstand a horrendous storm with the entrance with its broken front zipper permanently tied open. That was a scary night, and not something we’d like to experience again.
‘The Hilleberg Principle’
Hilleberg set out three principles upon which they base their ideal tent: “RELIABILITY – your being able to depend on your tent, no matter what; EASE OF USE – being able to pitch it easily, even in high winds, in the dark, alone, and while wearing heavy gloves; COMFORT – its livability, including the obvious, such as fully waterproof outer tents and floors” and “being able to depend on your tent, no matter what’.
It is plain to see that when zippers fail as severely and as frequently as theirs do, the reliability, ease of use and comfort of the tent are severely compromised.
The Hilleberg zipper problem is one that others have suffered. We heard first-hand accounts from other cycle tourers about their zippers failing, often quite early in the tent’s life. Of the five other Hilleberg tents we came across during our travels in North and South America, New Zealand and Australia, three had suffered severe zipper failures. In Tasmania we met Robert and Sabine from Germany, who’d had to fasten the outer entrance of their Nallo 2 with clothes pegs when their zipper failed. They were making a special trip out of their way to have the whole thing replaced. In Patagonia we met Sarah and her husband, also from Germany, who sewed their own tents and backpacks and had constructed a super-duper tent with a bespoke extension using the fabric from their old Hilleberg Nallo. An experienced seamstress, Sarah singled out the Hilleberg zippers for particular criticism, saying they were the weakest tent zippers she’d come across. Also in Patagonia we met Nicolas and his cycle touring family from Switzerland. All four of them were living in their 4-person Hilleberg and their zipper failed after just three months’ use. In fact, as soon as we met other Hilleberg users – mainly very experienced mountaineers and cycle tourers – the conversation turned immediately to the poor quality of the zippers, and how they’d never had such problems with other tents.
Online we came across several other incidents of Hilleberg zipper failure, for example Guy and Frederike of A Bike Journey, Linda’s comments on our blog post, and here on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum.
We are deeply disappointed with the performance of a tent which is marketed as ‘supremely reliable and easy to use in all conditions’ with ‘all-season strength as well as […] low weight’. It is pretty unreasonable to expect daily cleaning of a tent marketed as ‘supremely reliable and easy to use’, especially when it carries a price tag of almost £1,000.
I absolutely understand that nothing is infallible and that we’ve given the tent some good use, but that is what an expedition tent is designed for. We experienced the first zipper failure after just 60 nights in the tent. Is that speed of failure acceptable?
I hope that Hilleberg will respond to this post by offering to replace all our tent’s zippers at no cost to us. I also strongly urge them to acknowledge that this is a recurring problem which really lets their tents down. They should seriously consider upgrading the zippers on every new tent they make.
Are you a Hilleberg owner who has also had problems with your zippers? Please do leave a comment on this article with details of your experiences. Perhaps together we can persuade Hilleberg to give their zippers the upgrade they clearly need and drastically improve the reliability of their otherwise fabulous tents.
Here’s our Hilleberg history in numbers:
Kaitum 3GT three-man tent: £854.95
Bought tent: 20 June 2011
Started cycle tour: 15 January 2012
Sliders and inner tent replaced: 31 August 2012
Ended tour: 2 February 2013
Number of nights camped:
… when side outer zipper started to fail: 60
… when front inner zipper started to fail: 120
… when zipper sliders and inner tent were replaced: 160
… when brand new inner tent zipper fabric started to fray: 40
… when front outer zipper broke completely: 198
… in total between 15 January 2012 and 2 February 2013: 314