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Lightweight Backpacking: Shelter Makeover


In my last post about lightweight backpacking, I introduced the benefits of reducing the weight of your gear list and how it can increase your enjoyment and comfort level on backpacking trips.

I also introduced The Big Three, which refers to the three heaviest items on your gear list: your tent, sleeping bag, and backpack.

In the coming weeks, I'll be writing a series of posts that explain how you can reduce the weight of these items by modifying them or replacing them so that they each weigh less than 3 pounds. Doing this often yields the best bang for the buck in terms of immediate weight reduction.

In this post, I focus on backpacking tents, including how you can reduce the weight of your current tent and what to look for in a new tent if you decide to replace it. I also introduce some ultralight shelter options that are commonly used by lightweight backpackers, but that you may be less familiar with.

Weighing Your Gear

I strongly encourage you to weigh your tent, tent poles, tent states, guy lines, and tent footprint on a digital kitchen or package scale. You want to know exactly how much each of these individual components weighs when it's in your backpack.

A word of warning: don't trust manufacturer gear weights. As listed, their specifications can be incomplete, confusing, misleading, or just plain wrong. It's best to weigh your gear yourself.

Weighing your gear is one of the most important steps you can take to lighten your pack. It will change the way you evaluate new gear purchases, highlight items that you can gradually replace with lighter weight alternatives, and help you see the benefit of eliminating non-essential items when you pack for a trip.

Lightening Your Tent

If your current tent weighs over 3 pounds, there are a few ways you can lighten it up without replacing it. For example, if you use a footprint, leave it at home. Unless you have a very old worn-out tent, your tent floor is sufficiently waterproof already.

Next, some tents can be held up with trekking poles instead of the tent poles supplied by the manufacturer. If you hike with trekking poles, using existing gear is a great way to save even more pack weight.

Finally, if your tent comes with heavy steel tent stakes, replace them with lighter weight stakes like Easton's 6-inch aluminum stakes, which weigh 0.35 ounces each.

Is it really worth it? Trust me, the ounces add up quickly when you repeat this process for every item in your pack, from your first aid kit to your cook set. Let your digital scale be your guide.

What if multiple people share a tent? If two people are sharing a tent, you still want to shoot for a tent that weighs less than 3 pounds because you are still likely to sleep in it alone when your regular partner doesn't accompany you. For three people or more, keep the total weight of your tent under 2 pounds per person, and split the tent components up so that everyone in your group is carrying their fair share.

Replacing Your Tent

If the steps already described don't reduce the weight of your current tent under 3 pounds, consider buying a lighter tent. Here are some important features to look for in a replacement. These suggestions apply to double-walled tents which have an outer rain fly and an inner tent with no-see-um mosquito netting for ventilation.

Lightweight Fabrics

 Most mainstream camping tents on the market today are overbuilt with heavy-duty fabrics because consumers equate value with weight. They're designed for use in campgrounds and car camping, not for carrying in a backpack. If you look at the specifications for these tents, you'll see they're made using urethane-coated nylon. Urethane coatings add a significant amount of additional weight to tents.

Instead, look for tents made with silicone-impregnated nylon, also called silnylon. This material is waterproof but much lighter. For example, the LightHeart Gear LightHeart Solo Tent (MSRP $245) is made with silnylon fabric and only weighs 1 pound 13 ounces.  For two people, the Big Sky International Mirage 2P (MSRP $329.95) is also made using silnylon and weighs 2 pounds 11 ounces.

Less Interior Space

While tents with a lot of floor space and headroom are great for campground camping, they're overkill for backpacking. If you hike to exhaustion most days and go to sleep when the sun sets, carrying a tent with extra interior space will just weigh you down.

Smaller volume tents can be just as comfortable for sleeping, but are lighter because they're made with less fabric. A good example is the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 (MSRP $299.95), which weighs 2 pounds 3 ounces. Although it's made with urethane-coated fabric, it's relatively lightweight because it has a small interior. For two people, I recommend taking a look at the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 (MSRP $349.95), which weighs 2 pounds 10 ounces.

Ultralight Camping Shelters

While getting the weight of a double-walled tent down to 3 pounds can have quite an impact on your comfort level, you can experience even greater weight savings by switching to an ultralight camping shelter such as a hammock, a tarp tent, or a standalone tarp. These shelters are used by many lightweight backpackers because they weigh 2 pounds or less and take up far less space in your backpack.

Saving extra weight like this also means you can bring along some additional luxury items on trips that you might not otherwise have room for or want to carry. You don't have to be an ultralight backpacker with a 10-pound gear list to use one of these ultralight camping shelters.

Let's take a look at the pros and cons of each of these different shelter types.

Tarp Tents

Tarp tents are single walled tents that have all of the features of a double-walled tent, without a separate rain fly. They tend to run between 1 pound and 2.5 pounds in weight and are the best choice to dramatically cut the weight of your shelter without having to learn new skills or change the way you camp today.

For example, the one-person Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo Tarp Tent (MSRP $235) weighs 1 pound 7 ounces, and the two-person Tarptent Squall 2 (MSRP $235) weighs 2 pounds 2 ounces. Both of these tents are made using silnylon and can be set up using trekking poles instead of tent poles to save weight.

The reason double-walled tents have an external rain fly is to trap moisture which condenses inside your tent at night and keep it from making your gear wet. This moisture, called internal condensation, is created when you exhale moist air at night and travels through the no-see-um mosquito netting on the walls of the inner tent. If the rain fly is left open at night, this moisture is vented outside the tent. Otherwise it collects inside the fly, but is kept away from your gear inside the inner tent.

Tarp tents are built slightly differently. They have a distinct bathtub floor made out of silnylon that is shaped like the top of a shoebox. A single layer tarp covers the bathtub floor to keep rain out but is wider than the floor so that rain flows off to the sides. No-see-um netting connects the bathtub floor to the outer tarp and ensures that there is always a way for internal condensation to flow outside the tent and keep the inside dry. This design works remarkably well in all weather conditions and saves a substantial amount of weight because much less fabric is used.

The only downside of a tarp tent is that they can be a bit cooler than a double-walled tent because they are so well ventilated. This temperature difference is barely perceptible in most conditions, but can be quite welcome in hot weather.


If you're used to sleeping on the ground, sleeping in a hammock can take a little getting used to. They can be very comfortable though and many hikers really like them. There are two parts to a hammock, the hammock itself, which is suspended between two trees, and a rain fly which is suspended above it.

Hammocks can be ideal camping shelters because you can pitch them just about anywhere as long as you have two trees to hang them from. It doesn't matter if there are rocks or puddles or roots on the ground below you.

They also have a lower impact than tents since you don't have to clear a tent site of debris and you are not lying on the ground and compressing the soil.

Hammocks tend to run between 1.5 pounds and 2.5. pounds in weight, but compress smaller than a double-walled tent in your backpack because they have less fabric and don't require tent poles. They also eliminate the need to carry a sleeping pad.

For example, Hennessy Hammock's Ultralight Asym Classic (MSRP $199.95) weighs 1 pound 15 ounces and includes no-see-um mosquito netting, a detachable rain fly, and webbing straps that let you hang the hammock from a tree without hurting the bark. Another popular hammock model is the Warbonnet Blackbird 1.1 Hammock, which weighs 1 pound 11 ounces, including a 7.5-ounce rain fly.

The main disadvantage of hammocks is that they require extra insulation for your back when temperatures drop below 50 degrees, but hammock makers sell additional quilts and insulating pads you can hang under a hammock to insulate your back. Hammocks are a perfectly viable way to reduce your shelter weight, especially if you camp during the warmer parts of the year when extra insulation is not required.


The lightest and most packable ultralight shelter is a tarp. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but are basically just pieces of waterproof fabric that you sleep under.

They are very similar to tarp tents except they don't come with a bathtub floor or no-see-um mosquito netting. Most people who use them bring some sort of bug net to hang over their faces at night and lightweight plastic or Tyvek sheeting to sleep on if the ground is wet.

Most ultralight tarps weigh less than a pound, but many are available that weigh even less. Some economical examples are the Equinox Globe Spinner Ultralite 8 x 10 Tarp (MSRP $80), which weighs 13.9 ounces and the two-person Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Duo Tarp (MSRP $150, in silnylon), which weighs 13 ounces.

Tarps are easy to pitch using trekking poles or they can be tied between two trees. They have excellent ventilation, which eliminates internal condensation, and they can be pitched close to the ground in storm mode to block out strong winds or heavy rain.

There are many different ways to pitch tarps and many kinds of specialized tarp shapes that can be used in different weather conditions. Learning when to use them and how to tie the specialized knots for pitching them requires more advanced campsite selection skills and a fair amount of practice.


As you can see, there are a lot of different options and techniques available if you want to reduce the weight and packed size of your tent or camping shelter. All of them have their own strengths and weaknesses depending on the weather conditions, terrain, expense, and your own personal preferences.

If you're interested in trying a different tent or one of the ultralight shelters I've described here, the best thing to do is to borrow one from a friend and try it out a few times before you spend a lot of money. You also can often find used tents or shelters online for significantly less cost if you can't wait and want to start experimenting today.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them below.

In my next post, I'll examine the ways in which you can reduce the weight of three-season sleeping bags.

Philip's Recommended Lightweight Shelter Manufacturers

Big Agnes

Big Sky International



Gossamer Gear (Full disclosure: I'm a backpacking evangelist for Gossamer Gear.)

Hennessey Hammocks

Jacks 'R' Better

LightHeart Gear

Mountain Laurel Designs

Six Moon Designs


Warbonnet Outdoors


Philip Werner is the author of, a blog about lightweight backpacking and hiking. A popular speaker, Philip gives frequent backpacking talks and gear demonstrations across New England. In addition, he is a Long Trail mentor for the Green Mountain Club, a trail adopter in the White Mountain National Forest, and a lightweight backpacking evangelist for Gossamer Gear.


I would add: to that list...     

I have used the Hexamid Duo along the AT.  Excellent shelter.

I highly recommend the Wild Oasis.   It has bug protection, uses only one pole, has ample room for one and a pack.  Have used it on the AT and JMT and Sierra High Route.

Those are both good shelters. I had a Hexamid (1 person) and thought it could use a better front half-vestibule to reduce rain splatter, but Joe might have fixed that since. Otherwise a very nice, airy shelter. I also like Six Moons gear a lot. Their silnylon tents are fairly affordable and have great ventilation.

Great installment phillip. Glade I get a day of rest. So many options for single wall tents. They do well dureing summer and spring.Have you used one in a winter enviroment or tested.Just wondering your thoughts.

I've used three single walled shelters in winter in the White Mountains (NH):

  1. A pyramid floorless tarp made by Mountain Laurel Designs called a Duomid. It's good for below treeline, but I think a self-standing tent is better  for above treeline because you don't have to freeze deadmen first. It weighs about 14 oz guyed out.
  2. The Black Diamond Firstlight tent. Self-standing, pitches in less than 2 minutes and you don't need to wait for anchors to freeze up. A wonderful winter tent that I use for above treeline winter camping and car camping. I've owned it for going on 4 years. Only problem with it is some condensation so I usually sleep with the front door  open, even in winter - screen keep out snow. Weight 2 pounds 11 oz. Sleeps a friendly two. Single skin.
  3. Brooks Range Mountaineering Rocket made out of aluminumized cuben fiber. It's a summit tent for hard core mountaineering and climbing. Massive internal condensation even with the doors and vents open.  It weighs 2 pounds and costs over $600 new - I had a loaner. 

I kept this shelter post to 3 season shelters, because sleeping in single-walled or double-walled shelters in very harsh winter conditions requires a lot of winter skills that most 3 season hikers don't have. Where I hike in the White Mountains, I consider winter backpacking to be mountaineering. The consequences are much higher and you really need to be trained properly. It's easy to compensate for sub-optimal gear if you have  the right skills and practice.

For example, I built several dozen emergency snow shelters this winter. Given a choice, I think I'd prefer a winter bivy/snow shelter combo more than a tent or single skin tent/tarp if the snow were deep enough and I had enough time to build one. The ventilation and insulation are excellent, really. Next winter, I plan on experimenting with igloos for above treeline shelters. I know someone who uses them all the time out west and swears by them.

philipwerner said:

 ..I think I'd prefer a winter bivy/snow shelter combo more than a tent or single skin tent/tarp if the snow were deep enough and I had enough time to build one. The ventilation and insulation are excellent, really. Next winter, I plan on experimenting with igloos for above treeline shelters. I know someone who uses them all the time out west and swears by them.

I always prefer a in-snow shelter whenever the snow pack avails that option.  there is always time to make one - no reason they can't be built in the dark - but one must make sure they budget their energy so they have enough gas at the end of the day to construct such shelter.  I find the quiet (no flapping tent walls) and significantly warmer interior, versus a tent, make for a better sleep and offsets the effort expended constructing a snow shelter.


I am glad I get your's and ed's perspective on this. I have no experiance with snow shelters. But I did want to know about the single walls and how they held up. I am just learning and have a Tarptent Virga and have a double wall Montbell Monoframe heading to my house. I want to try they virga to see of Iam comfertible with it, Maybe try a test this winter and have the Montbell with me.That only weighs 2.7lbs. just feel a little more comfertible I think..

I appreciate the article (thanks Phillip) and following comments.

Many of my adventures are what most people would consider three season, even though I go out in mid winter. The occasional winter storm we have in the southeast at higher altitudes does require the right gear and some experience to stay safe and fairly comfortable.

I have used tarps, bivys, pyramids, and do like them a lot for light weight options, but I always seem to come back to a more substantial tent for mid winter.

The floor less shelters have always intrigued me, they seem more primitive and let you stay in touch with nature more. You don't have to remove your shoes before entering and it's not such a big deal if you should accidentally spill something.

Thanks a lot Phillip your articles are very informative.

I will be buying a tarp set up of 1 sort or another as the weight and space they provide look really appealing.

Whats your opinion on the Ray Jardine tarps?

I have heard good things and they are at a price that appeals to me.





We use an Appy Trails tent. Weighs about 2 pounds total. I also use 4 mil black plastic as the ground cover inside. Have used it at Glacier National Park, Lake Chelan National Rec Area and Grand Tetons so far as well as a local Washington campground on the Centennial Trail. Very light to carry and easy to set up. Roomy, plenty of room for 2 people (maybe 3) and I can stand up in it although my husband has to stoop a bit.  Bought it on sale for about $100. Have used it in rain and wind without problems. It has vents so condensation has not been a problem for us.

I'm a great fan of snow trenches, less work and almost all of the advantages of a snow cave or igloo and go up quicker. The great part is that they don't require deep snow as the cave does or the "right" snow or stomping and waiting that an igloo do. a light weight ground sheet for under the pad and some gear and I use a light weight sheet to anchor over the top of the walls. Like other snow shelters, a candle lantern warms it noticeably. 

richard riger said:

I'm a great fan of snow trenches...

I have to disagree, they may go up quick, but the only advantage a trench shares with other snow shelter is relative warmth, and even that is predicated by the additional effort to erect a roof that snow can be pile on for insulation.

Snow trenches are fine in an emergency, or for those who have no desire to socialize with others in their group after dark.  But I find trenches are claustrophobic, lack head room, and makes one feel isolated.  There is a good reason "Eskimos" didn’t prefer trenches.


Build a ledge in it to sleep on that is elevated from the floor of your "snow den" to escape the lower colder air.

I saw it on Man vs Wild so I know it works.

Seriously though, it make sense.


If a snow trench is used, build the roof by use of a tarp or rainfly from a tent as the roof. I used to make these as a kid playing in the backwoods near my childhood home in upstate New York.

I would pile up snow in a domeshape and then dig a hole in the middle of it like a trench. Then use a old canvas tarp to cover the top, securing it around the sides with snow piled on it. Then when the edges were secure I would put snow over the top.

As I found out then one of these igloo type shelters can be fairly warm, even tho it would seem surrounded by snow would be like a refridgerator?  Later on TV I saw documentery's about the indians of the Arctic would build igloo's and other snow shelters and using just seal oil lamps for cooking and light, get the inside temperture up enough to remove much of their clothing.

I further tested use of snow shelters when I lived in Yosemite from January to May 1980. I built both igloo's and snow caves (built by digging out snow drifts). As Rick pointed out a raised ledge/shelf that is higher then the floor makes a warmer place to sleep. By trial and error, I found that if I built the entrance lower coming into the floor area, then had sleeping and sitting benches, that even with the doorway open all the time, it was was much warmer inside than out. I used candles and my Svea stove and these alone brought the inside temps up quite well.

You have to be sure though to add breathing holes to the roof. Otherwise you would quickly use up the air inside and die in your sleep. Simply poke holes out using a hiking pole or stick.

Also smoothing off the inside of the walls will keep melting snow from dripping from any edges.


On the right is the entrance which then drops down on to the floor, pushing cold air down. The left side and back show the bench area for sleeping,sitting and cooking area. On the top are the air vent holes.

I lived in and used different idea's of these on top of El Capitan,Yosemite Falls and at different high country lakes during the winter. Use of these left my tent free for other hikes.

They can be built to needs and even add other room on next door. I "played" around and even built a triplex of three dome shaped rooms, In my leisure time.


Have any of you had simular winter camping experiences with making winter shelters?

I have not winter camped in snow country in many years, I usually come south to Arizona and the bottom of the Grand Canyon where winters mean little snow. It does snow on the rims, but the inner canyon generally stays warmer (40-60 degree's) than the rims (0-20). A simple hike of less than a couple hours bring me to winter temp that mean shorts and tshirt in Dec/Jan.

My last winter snow camping was in 1980 as described in my reply above about snow shelters. It was fun except the post-hole hiking thru the deep snow to the high Sierra as spring came about.

I am looking at next year living around the Escalante/Kaparowits Plateau area of southern Utah during the spring summer and fall then going to winter down in the Gila Wilderness of west central New Mexico. It gets cold in the Gila but usually not deep enough to build snow shelters.

Gary ~~

Where do you call "home" for tax-purposes, driver's license, receiving mail, voter-registration, etc. ???


Hi All:  In regard to snow trenches, all of the normal snow shelter rules apply

: sleeping ledge above floor; patting down ALL inside surfaces to prevent sluffing and drips, especially the roof or walls near the top; and small gutters all the way around to catch any drips or moisture; and as was mentioned, the entrance lower than any other part.  As to inside height and overall size, they are only limited by the supply of deadfall branches and small trees for roof rafters. The blessing is that as you dig down in the snow, you build up the walls. You can go down to with in inches of ground level if desired and pack it down easily with your snow shoes. 3-4 inches of light snow on the tarp or plastic give very good insulation and privacy, so good that you might miss sunrise. I would guess that Eskimos lacked the wood for the roof rafters and needed, in general, more permanent dwellings. I've used them for several nights at a time and find them a good cheap shelter that you can build as large as materials allow in much less time and with much less skill. If snow is right, you can even cut blocks and pitch them in a small trench to make an inverted "V" roof quickly. I don't normally cook inside, rather build kitchen areas outside with benches and stove shelter areas near by.

Gary ~~

Where do you call "home" for tax-purposes, driver's license, receiving mail, voter-registration, etc. ???

I work so very little each year that I don't bother filing taxes. I always file exempt on work tax form. This year I have worked only about 160 hours all together.

I have never had a drivers license or know how to drive a car. Last motor vehicle I had was a moped 40 years ago when I was 16. I currently have two state I.D.s one from Jackson Wy and the other from Flagstaff Az.

I currently get my mail at a friends house here in Flagstaff where I have been since April 2009.

I have never voted in my entire life. I am 55.

Generally home is where ever my tent is set up when on long, most of the year hiking and bicycling trips. I have lived all over the usa including Alaska but not Hawaii. Would like to go to Hawaii someday. Have only flown in an airplane about a 1/2 dozen times in my life.

I have bicycle toured around the USA, longest tour was in 83-84' 7000 miles. Last trip was across Alaska from the North Slope to Homer Spit, 1000 miles over 30 days. I have ridden from Jackson Hole WY to Flagstaff or Tucson about 20 times both ways.

I spent twenty years 1983-03 hiking in the Grand Canyon full time from October to April. Longest trip was 356 miles over 28 days in the canyon. I went down on four different area's and left food/water caches prior to the trip. I started with a few days worth of food and gear, then resupplied at the caches.

I have never done a long trail like the AT or PCT. Longest other hike was along the Teton Crest Trail in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. About 65 miles along the crest of the Teton Range.

Someday I would like to follow in Colin Fletchers footsteps and hike from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other. Read "The Man Who Walked Through Time" to understand what I am talking about.

I have chosen the free life over the working all my adultlife. I have no bills, no debts, no morgage,no unpaid loans, car payments. I have a Trek Mtn bike, a tent,sleeping bag, pad, stove/cook pot and water bottles.

I don't know when if ever I will ever settle down tho the thought crosses my mind often. If I did it would be somewhere like the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico and would be a small self-built cabin two days walk from the closest road/town. But I probably will stick to living in my tent and being nomadic.

Richard Riger said: I would guess that Eskimos lacked the wood for the roof rafters and needed, in general, more permanent dwellings


Actually many of the Eskimo's and other native's of the Arctic did have permanent houses. They did like the pioneers in the Lower 48 did on the Prairie, they build sod houses, by cutting blocks of tundra/ground and stacked them like bricks. They used whale bones for roof rafters and the thin stomach membranes for windows.(They let light in, but of course one could not see thru them.

In places were soil was not available they used stones or whale bones with walrus,seal and other animal hide put over them like a tent.

Igloo's were mainly used for hunting and fishing trips.

There was an archeologist who in the early 1900s lived with Native Alaskan's and recorded their lifestyles in the 1920-40s before WWII had brought machines and modern tools to the wilderness. He showed how use of only natural found materials like bone,hides and stones, the natives had survived thousands of years before the coming of outsiders.

In one story the archeologist went hunting/fishing with a native man. His sled was made of bones and fish lashed together as wood was basically unavailable. During the hunt he lost his stone knife and made one by urinating on the snow and forming the flash frozen ice into a usable knife. He had extra sled dogs and would kill and eat some of them when the hunt was slow. His boots were made of fish skin and were completely waterproof. He did carry a walrus skin for a shelter, but also made igloo's to live in while hunting away from home.

His wife and family lived in the before mentioned sod house, generally near a stream or rivers for fresh water.

The man hunted with harpoons and atlatil's (special spear with a detachable throwing stick handle that increased distance and force). He also had kayaks made from stretched walrus or seal skins over a bone or wooden frame.

After WWII the introduction of modern wooden buildings, rifles and metal boats soon replaced the primative tools and housing. Most individual families that once lived desersed all over the land now moved into town and villages, buying automobiles,planes,boats,and others modern things with the furs and skins of the animals that for millenia had given the native all they needed.

My great Grandmother was Mohawk of upstate New York along south Lake Ontario. I have always had more an affection for early man than modern man and wanted to live outdoors rather than stuck in a modern house, working to pay bills and buying things.

All I own will fit into my pack and tho all is made from medern materials, I would like to replace them all with primative materials like hides, bone and stone. I can and often do hunt and fish with primative tools like wooden traps, throwing sticks and rocks/stones when I am out on long wilderness adventures.

Gary ~~

You are indeed, a rare and fascinating individual.

BTW --  How / where did you learn your internet skills?   You do a very good job.

I look forward to our meeting one day, my friend.

Blessings upon 'Ye, Lad ....




My internet skills? I have been using a computer for about 20 years, since knowing a young lady 16 years my junior back in 1993. We lived together many years ago in Jackson Hole.

Where do you live?

GaryPalmer said:



My internet skills? I have been using a computer for about 20 years, since knowing a young lady 16 years my junior back in 1993. We lived together many years ago in Jackson Hole.

Where do you live?


Hi, Gary ~~

Right now, I am back where I used to live 30 years ago ... Talbot County, Maryland.   A lovely area on the East side of the Chesapeake Bay, about 1 1/2 hrs very casual drive (speed limit, or less in my vintage VW Diesel Vanagon) from Washington, D.C. &/or Baltimore, Maryland.  And, a little more than an hour's drive from the Atlantic Ocean.

I am thinking about returning to the most previous area in which I lived -- that being the East End of Long Island, not far from  Montauk Point, which is almost 2-hrs drive East of New York City.  ( why they call it "LOOONG Island").

Have not traveled much West of the Mississippi River ... mostly Minnesota, Iowa.   Trying to get my "affairs" in order (messy divorce and property settlement) ... and THEN (!) ... I hope to be free to do some serious traveling.   Which would include a cross-country journey. 

  Good opportunity to 'look you up' !

~ r2 ~

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