MSR Missing Link
Living Up to its Name
The aptly-named Missing Link is exactly what its name implies: a shelter that fills the conspicuous gap between light-weight, low-bulk tarps and comfortable, convenient fully-loaded tents. At approximately three pounds, it still isn't quite as light as some of the ultra-minimalist tarps, but it's dramatically lighter and smaller-packing than virtually any other roomy two-person tent on the market. Much of this owes to its lack of poles, which also means that the Missing Link can be crammed down to about the size of a loaf of bread. In kayaking terms, this means it stuffs easily into a 10-liter dry bag and slips through even relatively small hatches. Instead of tent poles, the Missing Link uses guy lines, hiking poles, or (ideal for kayakers) two halves of a kayak paddle to provide it with vertical support. Once pitched, you have yourself a surprisingly roomy shelterplenty large for two people to sleep comfortably in, and large enough to accommodate four people sitting up.
It's All in the Set-Up
To be honest, the first time I set up the Missing Link, I hated it. It sagged, it bagged, it flapped, it drooped, and finallyit collapsed. But a few days later, I decided to give it another chance. Instantly I was hooked. What changed? Well, the first time I set it up, I was inside a store, using velcro carpet tabs instead of actual stakes to tension it out. Even worse, I pitched it by propping up the sides with paddle halves first, but after about fifteen minutes of fumbling and disturbingly poor results, I began to doubt anyone could pitch this shelter easily alone. The second time around, I went outside and used real stakes. More importantly, I swallowed my pride and read the instructions, which recommended staking out the corners of the floor first, before propping up the sides (as I should have guessed anyway). The instructions were right. This method made the set-up virtually effortless. Not only did the Missing Link go up in less than two minutes, it now looked like a completely different shelter: no more sagging sides or drooping door, no more baggy awning or leaning poles. Everything was tight, spacious, and amazingly sturdy. Grabbing it at one corner, I shook the whole shelter hard. The sil-tarp material flapped a little and made a little noise, but nothing budged out of shape or showed even the slightest sign of slackening. Instead of the flimsy shelter I had expected, here was a minimalist fortress that felt as solid as some of the best two-pole tents on the market. I was in love.
When properly pitched, the Missing Link has a clean, traditional "lean-to" design with a small awning overhanging the front. In other words, the sides of the tent form right triangles so that the front of the tent is a high rectangular wall with an entry door and an overhanging awning, but moving toward the back of the tent, the shelter slants all the way down to the ground. Since the slant is so abrupt (at an approximate 45 degree angle), I expected to feel claustrophobic inside the shelter, as if the slanting wall were closing in too closely to sit up without rubbing my head against the fabric or feeling squished against the front door. But this was not quite the case. Even in its most basic, lean-to shape, the shelter feels only mildly restrictive, and as long as you sit close to the front door (where the ceiling is highest), it is possible to sit up relatively comfortably. Even so, I did find myself wishing for more head-room.
Then, something wonderful happened: I noticed the guy-loop in the center of the rear, slanting wall. Curiosity compelled me to attach the included guy-line to this loop, and then to stake it out as far to the rear of the tent as possible. When I climbed back inside the shelter, I heard angels sing. The tension on the center guy loop in the rear wall nearly tripled the horizontal headroom inside the tent by stretching the shelter's right-triangle-shaped profile into something more resembling a trapezoid. Even better, it made the shelter feel still more stable. Now the roominess and stability of the Missing Link were beginning to surpass a good portion of the heavier, bulkier free-standing two-person tents available on the market. I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Here was a true "missing link"a shelter low on bulk and weight like a tarp, but mercifully endowed with a waterproof floor and fully-enclosed from biting insects. The awning in the front, though small, could easily serve for cooking in the rain; the huge entry door (spanning the full width of the front wall) would make it simple to toss gear in and out of the tent in a hurry, and the trapezoidal-shaped floor provided so much extra space at the rear corners of the tent that even a 6'6" tall paddler would still have plenty of room to stow valuable equipment at his head and feet. Two paddlers could truly live comfortably in this shelter, and one paddler could live like a king.
One last comment about the design: Because the Missing Link packs small and sets up fast, I can imagine not only using this shelter for nightly camping, but also for extended rest- or lunch-stops in bad weather. This, to me, is one of the most exciting aspects of the Missing Link. If you get caught in a storm in the middle of the day, you can pull to shore, break apart your paddle, bust out the Missing Link, and have lunch in style, protected from rain or chilly winds. In rescue situations with hypothermic victims, this might even make the Missing Link the ultimate, quick set-up recovery station.
One possible shortcoming of the Missing Link is that, because its sturdiness depends on how tightly it's staked out, it may not set up securely on a treeless, sandy beach. Certainly, it is possible to set it up without solid ground. I have successfully pitched mine on beaches by tying off the front awning to the bow and stern of my kayak and by burying pieces of driftwood in the sand to increase the holding power of the perimeter stakes. But I am doubtful whether these methods would provide enough tension and stability to stand up to a brutal storm or 30 mph winds. Other reviewers claim that the Missing Link can withstand winds in excess of 40 mph, but in those cases the shelter was staked out in solid ground. On a sandy beach, where the ground can shift, anchors can loosen, and stakes can work themselves free, the Missing Link's wind-resistance is likely to be much poorer. Since I have yet to pitch the Missing Link under such a tragic convergence of less-than-ideal conditions, I don't see this as a major problem. It just means that, when a storm is brewing, I may have to hike further inland to get to trees and firm soil. To my mind, that's an acceptable compromise.
Another (minor) drawback to the Missing Link is the lack of interior organizer pockets. Die-hard ultra-light backpackers would cut these off anyway, so MSR probably decided to save them the trouble. But for the extra ounce they would have added, I would appreciate a secure place to tuck my headlamp, alarm clock, and snacks. Again, this is a small issue because there is plenty of space in the corners of the shelter to stow these items. It's just trickier to find them in the dark without a dedicated pocket to hold them in one place.
Another minor gripe: it can be difficult to get the front awning to stake out perfectly tight, but if left loose, you may wake up to a loud, annoying flapping sound in high winds. This problem seems to occur mainly when you stake out the awning guy lines to the ground. The problem virtually disappears if you tie them off to something slightly higher, like the trunk of a small tree or a low-hanging branch. Tying them higher also helps to stretch the awning further out from the shelter, creating a slightly larger (and safer) space to cook under in rainy conditions.
Finally, some users have reported leaks at the main seams. I haven't experienced this problem, but the recommended fix from MSR is to seal the exterior seams with a high-quality, flexible seam sealer like McNett Seam Grip seam sealer. I suspect that many of the folks who think their tent is leaking are actually experiencing problems with condensation, which I address in the next section.
Like most single-wall tents, the Missing Link is prone to condensation. I don't find it to be worse than any other single-wall tent I've ever used, but certainly you cannot expect to sleep as dry in this shelter as you would in a more traditional, double-wall tent (with a separate rain-fly). That said, the Missing Link will stay acceptably dry if you pitch the shelter with proper tension, open the front window fully, and prop up the rear vent flap with a stick to ensure ample air flow. Whenever possible, you should also pitch the tent so that the rear (sloped) wall faces into the wind (to maximize high-low venting). This will keep cooler fresh air flowing in, and humid warmer air (from your breathing and body heat) moving out. Even if you take these simple measures, you should still keep a tent sponge on hand. On cool-but-humid nights when there is no breeze to encourage airflow, there will still be some problems with condensation. I should say, however, that despite four seasons of hard use (always near a large body water), I've never experienced condensation problems on a par with the horror stories other reviewers have reported about the Missing Link online. I suspect their problems were exacerbated by improper pitching techniques and inexperience with single-wall tents.
On a related note, since the Missing Link is a single-wall shelter, it sacrifices some convenience when packing the shelter in wet conditions. Unlike a double-wall tent, which permits you to pack the tent body separate from the wet rainfly, the Missing Link cannot be separated from its own skin. If you cram it into a stuff sack wet, the inside of the shelter will invariably end up as wet as the exterior, obliging you to carry a tent sponge. Of course, if the weather happens to clear up by lunchtime, you can always set up the Missing Link to dry out in the sun while you eat. Nonetheless, you won't always be so lucky, so realize that a single-wall shelter involves a few extra, moisture-related hassles that don't normally apply to a double-wall tent.
If you like the idea of a light-weight, low-bulk shelter that stows easily, sleeps two people comfortably, includes extra room for gear, and doesn't skimp on the tent-like conveniences of a floor and full bug-netting, the Missing Link is an outstanding shelter. Having said that, this is definitely not a four-season tent, so you should probably limit its use to the warmer months of the summer paddling season. On nights colder than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, expect to feel a cold chill circulating along the permanently-vented floor, and either pack extra layers or carry a different tent. This is an ideal shelter for someone taking a long paddling expedition and trying to conserve space inside the hull, but if you're more of an overnight paddler or a weekend tripper who craves the luxuries of a fully-loaded, oversized tent, this is probably not the shelter for you.
© 2007, Wesley Kisting