Shelters for the Outdoors
Part of Recommended Outdoor Gear by Mark
Version 0.8, January 10, 2011
You should select a shelter based on how much room you need and the
conditions you expect to encounter (rain, snow, wind, bugs, blistering heat, etc). For example,
if you only camp in mild weather it would be silly to buy a mountaineering tent
designed for expeditions since it will be more expensive, heavier, and not be as well
ventilated as a shelter designed for three-season use. Likewise, if you are camping in
the Canadian lake district in June, taking a tarp without any
bug protection would be plain stupid. And if you are above tree line in
the winter, it would be suicidal not to take a four season shelter
designed to handle high winds and snow load. A corollary is that there isn't one
shelter which is perfect for all conditions... so if you adventure out in all
seasons you will likely want to use at least two different shelters depending on
the conditions you face. The issues I consider when looking at a shelter
- how storm worthy in view of the conditions expected
- ease of a basic pitch
- ease of a storm worthy pitch
- ease of entry (I like side rather than front entries)
- ventilation (summer want a lot, winter I don't want ventilation other
than high vent)
- protection from bugs (only care about if there are bugs)
- usable space (sloping sidewalls can limit this)
- footprint size (smaller for more volume good)
- how it looks (I like clean lines)
The weighting of these factors varies person to person. In fact, my
weighting of these factors depends on where I am going to use the
shelter. I have noticed that some people tend to gravitate to shelters
that are as open as possible. They want to be as fully connected to
their environment as possible. I often see these people using flat
tarps with minimal bivies. Other people want their shelter to be
enclosing and protective. Walls and floors are important. While I have
used a flat tarp and cowboy camped, I find that I tend to like a more
enclosing shelter, especially on solo trips. I know that I could
easily live without my "walls", but the walls give me
psychological comfort that makes the trip more enjoyable.
The most commonly requested recommendation is for a "do
everything" two man, three season shelter with a vestibule. I
believe the the lightest weight option which will meet most people's
needs would be the Tarptent Double Rainbow. Regularly needing a free
standing shelter (the Double Rainbow is ok free standing, but not
great) then I would recommend checking out the MSR Hubba Hubba, the
REI Quarter, or the Big Agnes Copper Spur if you have extra money
to burn. Need something that will take care of you in all seasons
including snowfall and be useful for both solo and with a partner, I
would strongly recommend the Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid +
inner-net tent or Hyperlite Mountain Gear's Ultramid 2.
A Note On Fabrics & Materials
Shelters are made from a variety of materials which have a variety of
strengths and weaknesses. One of the important properties of a shelter is
being able to keep you dry. Many fabrics, even those that aren't "waterproof"
can keep you drive in moderate conditions. Just think about the materials used
in many umbrellas. Storms though can be another story. According to Richard's
post, extreme thunderstorms can generate hydrostatic heads of 12k mm?!, and
typhoons can generate 20k mm. Also note that placing weight in a concentrated
place (like kneeling) can generate quite a lot of pressure. This is why
conventional shelters often had a more waterproof floor than roof.
In increasing weight:
Cuben: spectra threads embedded between Mylar. Available in 0.36-1.6oz
weights. Quite waterproof. Tear strength good (.6) to Excellent (1.6).
Roughly 4x the cost of sil-nylon. Does not stretch when wet. Not the
most abrasive resistant material. Sewing weakens material so best to be
taped or glued. Soft
- Spinaker: tightly woven polyester which is silicone impregnated.
Typically .8-1.1oz weights. Richard suggests that hydrostatic head typically
1400mm (same as sil-nylon). My field experience suggests that spinakers tend
to be higher than sil-nylon, and the the spinaker used by MLD is indeed at
better than any other spinaker I have encountered. I have experienced
misting through sil-nylon and other companies spinaker shelters, but I
have yet to
encourage conditions in the field where rain hits hard enough to mist
through MLD spinaker. In fact, hose with a high speed nozzle didn't cause
misting. Does not stretch when wet. No abrasive
resistant, be careful. Many people find this material noisy when it flaps in
the breeze, but I have found that if tautly pitched the noise isn't
- Sil-Nylon: tightly woven nylon which is silicone impregnated. Available
in 1.1-2oz weights. High variability is waterproof. Richard suggests that
it's typically 1400mm but heavier weight such as used by GoLite can be close
to 3500mm. Will stretch when wet or when the humidity increases so expect to
need to retention. Silcone treatment makes the material strong than the
nylon left by itself.
- EPIC: The Black Diamond Epic tents used the Alpine Summit process
fabric. It averages a hydrostatic head of 1,300 mm.
- Nylon eVENT fabric averages 28,000 mm.
- Conventional double wall tents typically use 70 denier urethane coated
nylon with a 1 oz coating as the fly fabric. It averages a hydrostatic head
of 56,275 mm.
My Choice of Shelters
I have used tarps and tarptents on the majority of my
trips. The ZPacks
review) is my current solo 3-season shelter. After trying the SMD
Skyscape I am very tempted to consider an ultralight double walled
shelter so that I don't have to restrain my movements.
In the last few years a number of excellent ultra-light shelters
have become available. Originally tarptents where tarps which had
perimeter bug netting, so they were a bit like a tarp, a bit like a
tent. These days there is a whole range of shelters, some are still
taps with bug netting, but others really should be called tents. Many
of the ultralight shelter designs came from people's experiences on
long thru hikes and a desire to find the lightest possible shelter
while still providing adequate protection. Tarptents are ideal for
moderate conditions when facing moderate weather conditions and want
to have a bug free space. There are shelters that provide more
protection, or are lighter weight, but few that will match a tarptents
overall performance. There are a number of situations that I think
there are better shelters:
- Extreme Conditions. Most of these shelters don't
handle extreme conditions well. [There are some like the
Tarptent Scarp1 which I would take into more severe conditions.]
What's extreme? For me, winds consistently above 30 mph,
standing water, or real snowfall. A little snow isn't a problem, but
when there is enough to pile up and get blown in to the shelter it is
challenging to keep things dry. Also keep in mind that a closed tent
will give you a 10-15F boast, so if you are using a shelter which
emphasizes ventilation, you might need extra insulation.
- Extended trips in cold (just above freezing) 100% humidity
conditions. In these conditions, having a double walled shelter can
be a big advantage. Condensation is typically outside the inner wall
because the inside will be 10F warmer. This often means that
condensation doesn't form in the middle of your sleeping bag /
- People who can't control their movement and therefore need
something to keep them from repeatedly rubbing against the
condensations on the shelter walls. This is often a problem
- People that can't be gentle with gear, or who are
extremely accident prone... e.g. will fall on top of their
shelter several times due to coordination issues or
People are often concerned about condensation in single walled shelters which
most ultralight shelters are. My experience is condensation is not a big issue in well
designed ultra light shelters which have adequate ventilation and reasonably
steep sidewalls. Pretty much any night that the temperature drops significantly
get some condensation (in the worse cases a fair bit), but so long as you don't
repeatedly brush against the walls the
water won't be a significant issue. In heavy winds or rains some water will shake off, but most will stay
on the walls, or roll down to the edge without falling on you. The worse
condensation will be nights were you have cold rain which cools your shelter,
but the ground under the shelter is warm so ground moisture condenses on the
shelters walls/roof. In the morning
you wipe the inside of the shelter down with a bandana or pack towel and you are
fine. Some people perspire significantly more than others and might find
that they will have more condensation that others using the same shelter, in the
same conditions. Obviously two people will generate more moisture than one
person. SMD has a nice article about
Getting the Most
from your Ultralight tent. BPL's
single wall shelters and condensation has useful information. Several of the shaped
tarps listed below have optional bug netting and/or floors which turn them
into ultra light shelters. Floors in ultra light shelters can be convenient,
specially for people new to ultra light shelters or when you really need your
shelter to be sealed against bugs or other crawling creatures, but they are
rarely adequate if you are facing standing water which can't be avoid in sold
locations (like the flat midwest during a thunderstorm). There was a nice
posting by Ron Moak about the limitations of
ultralight bathtub floors.
There are several reasons to use a floorless shelter: it's easy to replace a
damaged floor, you can pack your "dirty floor" separately, and most importantly,
it's easily to manage wet unless there is standing water. When it's raining hard you can go strait into your
shelter and close the door. Sort of like a vestibule, but larger. The excess
water can typically be absorbed by the the ground.
Single Wall Tents: State of the Market (2008) gives a nice summary of the
current options. They also did a
Floorless Shelter Review and
Single Wall Tents & Shelters Review in 2004 which is somewhat dated, but
is still valuable.
There are a lot of very well designed ultra light shelters. I don’t think
there is a single shelter which is clearly “the best” right now... each has made
tradeoffs. Giving equal weighting to the weight, internal "comfort" (able to sit
up and move), small footprint, ease / speed of pitch, bug protection, survive
high winds, rain protection, and ventilation, there is no clear winner. Add
price and the field flattens even more. Depending on how you weight these issues
will result in a different shelter being "the best". I should also
note that there are several shaped tarps which are
available with bug netting around the perimeter which moves them into this
category. There are several ultralight shelters that I am particularly fond of. A common thread is Henry
Shires of Tarptent. Henry consistently designs shelters that I want to use. My
favorite ultralight shelters today are:
Six Moon Designs Skyscape is a new in 2011 and is somewhat similar
to the Lightheart Solo. It's offered in polyester (cheapest/heaviest), sil-nylon,
and cuben (lightest and much more expensive). Looks like a nice
design and a couple of people have indicated that the pole setup
might be better in extreme conditions than the Lightheart Solo. I haven't seen one in person.
- Tarptent Rainbow is
an innovative, freestanding (when combined with trekking poles) solo tent than weights 30oz.
I think this is one of the most versatile solo shelters on the market today.
If I could own only one shelter which would handle three seasons
conditions, this would be the shelter I would choice. If I
didn't need to worry about free standing and wanted the shelter to handle
winter, then I would select the DuoMid + InnerNet.
- Tarptent Double
Rainbow (DR): ~32sq ft + 20 sq ft vestibules?, 40oz, $250. Very usable
shelter for two that weighs less than 2.5lbs. The design keeps netting between you and the sil-nylon
which might accumulate condensation virtually eliminated the danger of
getting condensation on your sleeping bag. Adequate living space for two 6ft
people, though the
top is narrower than the floor so you have to be a bit careful not to bump
the sides near the top of the shelter. Typically purchased with a
bathtub style floor which can be relaxed for better ventilation. There are a
pair of high vents which are slightly helpful with the vestibules are
closed. The DR can be pitched free starting if you have a pair
of long hiking poles or it can be staked down (what I do most of the time). Double vestibules have a fabric
extender which lets you turn them into rain porches. If you expect to face
strong winds get wind stabilizer anchors added. Can be pitched in under
4 minutes. The DR, especially if you add extra guy points
can survive surprised harsh conditions as described in this thread
Tarptent Double Rainbow in strong winds.
I think the Double Rainbow is the most versatile two person ultra light shelter
on the market today. I am comfortable using the DR in anything but a real
snowfall. I own a DR which tend to be a
loaner for friends exploring light weight backpacking. Today, there are
several double walled freestanding tents using Cuben for the fly which I
would choose over the DR provided I had unlimited funds.
Other interesting single wall shelters include:
Gossamer Gear Squall Classic: 25oz, $295. The shelter uses the same
basic design as the original tarptent squall but uses spinnaker cloth rather than
sil-nylon and has a number of nice upgrades. One of the lightest 2-person
shelter with a floor and full bug protection. I found the Squall Classic to
be one of the fastest shelters to set up. Has a simple but elegant
design with beautiful lines. Plenty of room for two people sleeping, but
only one can sit up at a time.
Gossamer Gear "The One":
17oz, $275. A single person shelter with plenty
of room for me that's fairly easy to use. It's sort of a one person
Six Moon Designs Lunar Duo. There is a discussion thread about
gossamer gear's "the one" on practical backpacking
interview with GG. I have used this shelter for most of 2008 and
2009. The very first time I pitch The One it took
around four minutes and I wasn't 100% happy with the tautness of the pitch.
Since then I can often get The One up in around 2 minutes. My first few
attempts often had me staking the corner too far apart. I am used to staking
the corners out at a 45% angle from corners where The One wants the stake
points more toward the body, maybe 25 degree angle.
I also had a tendency to pull the back corner too far which make rear of the ridgeline too short.
I have not be able get The One's pitch quite as taut as my Spinnshelter
(hard to get the back pole right), but the
pitch has been good enough to handle 30 mph winds. There was
fabric flap (mostly the vestibule), and some side deflection
(especially in the back corners), but it wasn't too bad. While new spinnaker is more "noisy" that sil-nylon without
tension, I found The One was a bit quieter than a Squall2 in
identical conditions when I was able to get a taut pitch. The first two nights using The One had continuous
rain. I didn't experience the light misting that people sometimes get
through sil-nylon in heavy rains... though hitting the shelter with a a high
pressure jet from a hose will generate a bit of mist. Both the ridge line
and where the netting is attached to the sidewalls needs to be seam sealed.
I accumulated around .5-1 cups of water in the bathtub floor the first time
I used The One in the rain without seam sealing it first. After The One is
seam sealed, it handled rain, and blown rain, and light snow well. There is
a huge amount of headroom in the middle of the shelter, but the sloping
walls takes some getting used to. The first time I used The One I found that
when I moved from a lying to sitting position I bumped the side wall on the
way up, and I would sometimes bump the back wall as I got in and out of the
door. The second time I used The One I got used to the dimensions and
stopped bumping into the sides. After a bit of use I think the the
dimensions to be close to ideal for anyone under 6ft, and usable by someone
a bit taller. I have plenty of room to move around and I am able to pile any
gear I might want to get a quickly above my head where I like it.
Ventilation is very good. The first
"The One" I received
had a slight manufacturing flaw. Not surprisingly, GG continues to demonstrate superior customer
service and quickly resolved the problem. I switched away from The One
because I wanted a shelter that is less finicky to set up. I have talked
with several owners of The One. All of us had trouble at the beginning get a
"perfect pitch", though we all were able to quickly get an adequate pitch.
Some people learned to consistently get a perfect pitch quickly. Some of use
are still hit and miss.
- Yama Cirriform: Light weight hybrid shelter made using Cuben for the tarp, some netting for
ventilation, and a SilNylon floor.. Reminds me of the very
first version of the Europa shelter made by Six Moon Desigs.
- LightHeart Gear (my
review): Available in SilNylon and Cuben, Solo/Double, Awning/No Awning.
A diamond shaped floor that makes use of two hiking poles. The lightest
version is the Solo Awning Single Door in Cuben model that weights a mere 14oz
while providing a double walled solo shelter
with a lot of room, good views when the fly is pulled back, good insect
protection, and decent weather protection.There are some good write ups
lightheart@bpl. This shelter is very similar to the Wanderlust
Nomad. I wouldn't trust this shelter in high winds, but in places
that are sheltered it would be very nice.
Luxe Outdoors X-Rocket is sort of an oversized bivy with a removable fly
which doubles as a poncho. It's an interesting design, but at 2lbs (950
grams), I think it's too heavy for the features it provides. I have no
personal experience with this shelter.
- Moonbowgear makes a number of
shelters, and will build a shelter to your specifications.
MSR Missing Link
lots of room for two people in this 37sq ft shelter + a huge overhang. But this weights more than 3lbs (1lb more than most of the other ultra-light
shelters) and does not do seem to do well in wind. Most of the user reports I have heard about this shelter have
been lukewarm. I saw one in person not handle a wind storm at all... unclear if
this was user error of a design flaw. The others I have seen on the trail
weren't as distressed as the first I saw, but I am very unimpressed. I would try something else.
Research Nighthaven: 56 sq ft, 34oz, $170. Floorless shelter designed
for a locked down pitch with
a screen door and high vents. I don't have any personal experience with the
shelter. This shelter has less ventilation than several of the
shelters in this category, but might be ok thanks to the high vent. Since the
side vents are off the ground, this shelter might work in locations with
modest amounts of snow.
- Six Moon
Designs Lunar Solo(e): 27 sq ft (~20 sq ft usable) + 10 sq ft vestibule,
23oz, $235. Full protection for a solo hiker in a light weight package. Haven't used this
shelter, but I did get a chance to see them on the trail, and talk with
several people who have used them on the PCT. Good amount of room for
one hiker plus a large vestibule. First production run has some problems
with leaking in heavy storms but the enhanced (e) design fixed
this problem. This has been one of the most popular integrated
shelters on the PCT.
Modification of the Lunar Solo(e). This shelter, and the GG "The One"
are quite similar."The One" is a tad bit lighter, has a few additional
features, while the Lunar Solo is cheaper and might be better in a nasty
storm since the vestibule can be pitched to the ground.
Moon Designs Lunar Duo: 34 sq ft + 24sq ft vestibules, 43oz, $275. A
good three season shelter with a nice amount of room for two people. I don't own
this shelter, but I have had the chance to use it a couple of times. This
shelter fills the same nitch as the Tarptent Double Rainbow. The roof on the
Duo as wide as the floor giving this shelter a more spacious feel.
- Six Moon
Designs Refugee (discontinued) provides a lot of space for two people for a
mere 28oz in sil-nylon.
made from cuben is just 16oz making it the lightest 2 person shelter with integrated bug protection
and a floor. Of course you pay and extra $160 (total of $400) to save ten ounces over the sil-nylon
version. I have not seen or used this shelter.
- Six Moon
Designs Wild Oasis is a minimalist floorless solo shelter with bug
netting around the edges. Only 1lb. If this shelter looks interesting uou
might also want to consider the SMD Gatewood Cape (below in poncho tarps section)
because it's cheaper, can double as rain gear, and can be combined with a
separate bug shelter at the same weight, or maybe an extra couple of ounces
above the Wild Oasis. I have not see this in person.
Designs Europa (discontinued). A light weight, single walled tent for two people (36oz). This hybrid shelter has most of the advantages of a double walled
shelter at the weight of a single walled tent. It is natural for me to
compare this shelter to my favorite, the Squall2. Advantages for the Europa
are slightly better ventilation, it's a bit easier to keep dry during a rain
storm and it is less likely for you to brush against condensation on the
body of the shelter. I found that the Europa is a bit harder to get a
good pitch, doesn't pitch as taut, and therefore isn't as good in high
winds. The Europa has more square footage, but doesn't have sidewalls that
are as steep or as much headroom of the Squall2. There was a nice review
the squall2 and six moon designs europa.
- Tarptent Hogback: 4
person, 4lb shelter. Have not seen one in person yet.
- Tarptent Moment: 19sq
ft, 28oz (35oz free standing) shelter that looks a lot like a single wall
Hilleberg Akto. Reported to set up in 1 minute with two stakes. I have
not seen one in person yet but looks like it would offer a solo hiker a lot
of bug free space as well as a good amount of vestibule space. Reported to
do well in wind. Doesn't need
hiking poles to set up. Can be freestanding with an optional cross pole.
This looks like a really great shelter. If I hadn't gotten used to <1lb
shelters, I would seriously consider this. There is a
Tarptent Moment Discussion and a thread about
Tarptent Moment in snow.
- Tarptent Squall2:
42sq ft (33sq ft usable), 34oz, $225 (expended floor), 28oz $195
(floorless). The Squall2 provides enough room for two people to lay down
with their gear, and if they are careful, sit up by the door. The Squall2 is
one of the fastest pitching shelters on the market, has beautiful lines, and
provides a lot of ventilation. Both the Squall2 and the Double Rainbow (DR)
provide a decent amount of bug free living space for two people. The Squall2
advantages are that set-up is quicker, feels wider, and is a bit lighter and
more compact packing. Advantages of the DR are that it provides more shelter from
storms (I have used a Squall in
high winds... but I wouldn't recommend it... it felt like I was in a
wind tunnel), DR does a better job at
keeping the users from brushing against condensation covered walls, has a
nice rain porch, and can be "free standing". I think the Double Rainbow is a
more versatile shelter than the Squall2, yet, I feel very fond to the
Squall2. Why? I don't know, but my daughter and I typical choose to use the
Squall2 over the DR when we expect moderate conditions. The Squall2 is a
perfect shelter for summers in the sierras, appropriate for 3 seasons in the
sierras, 2 seasons in harsher locations. Even though we were attached to the
Squall2, we sold ours in the summer of 2008 when we were paring down our
gear because the DR was more versatile.
- Tarptent Sublite is a
18oz, single person shelter. Henry has taken an interesting approach, making
this shelter out of a breathable, but only water resistant material. Should
be fine in moderate conditions, but runs the risk of wetting out in an
extended, severe storm. This might be a very interesting shelter when bugs,
heat, and modest rain are issues rather than protection from real rain
storms. For example, this shelter might be really great for 2-3 season
use in the sierras. There was a good discussion
thread about the Sublite. There is also now a
sublite sil which
weights 21oz and is made from sil-nylon.
- Tarptent Rainshadow2
is a 2.5lb, three person shelter with full bug protection made from a design
based on the Squall2. I don't know it you can get any lighter than this for
3 people with bug protection. Sets up quickly and easily.
- Tarptent Contrail: A
solo tarptent designed to be simple and effective. Beloved by many of it's owners,
but it hasn't grown on me. Partly due to the angular lines, and partly
because the roof has a fairly large section of unsupported fabric which is
fairly flat. I have never used this shelter... only seen others use them.
This does seem to be one of the most popular ulttalight solo shelters on the
- Tarptent Cloudburst2:
A two person, single walled, hoop tent. Doesn't use trekking poles for
structure. More storm worthy than the Squall2, but didn't feel as roomy. I
can understand why people choose the Cloudburst rather than the Squall1, but
I can't imagine choices the Cloudburst2 over either the DR or Squall2. I
haven't used this shelter.. only seen others use them.
- Terry Thompson TR1 & TR2. Light weight one and two man shelters. I have no experience with these,
but from the pictures and specs I think I would prefer the Europa.
(out of business) made a number of light weight
shelters. Alas, Kurt has established a reputation for being constantly
backlogged and not communicating when he will ship his tents. According to
online forums no one has heard from Kurt since sometime in 2004. If you want
a Wanderlust shelter, check out Lightheart
Gear which has a very similar design.
- ZPacks Hexamid in Cuben
with Netting (my review)
8oz, $259 for a cuben solo shelter with netting walls and floor. What's not
to like? There is plenty of room for one plus gear. Two friendly
people could share the space in moderate conditions. I had not problem
moving around and avoiding the walls... though part of this might be that I
am used to the dimensions of The One which has somewhat similar living
space. I have just started to play with this shelter. So far it's been a
very good experience. The step up is quick and easy. While I would not want to take this into snow conditions (which Joe
did) it looks like it would work in many conditions. There is a
two person Hexatwin
on the way.
Warbonnet Outdoors as well as a number
of other companies make really nice
shelter systems which consist of a hammock, integrated bug netting, and a rain
fly. The rainfly can double as a poncho using something like Sgt Rock's
poncho/tarp. Hammocks have a fanatical following. Hammock lovers will tell
you they are significantly more comfortable than sleeping on a pad. Hammocks can
be pitched in many locations tarps or tents won't work like on a hillside or
uneven ground. You don't have to worry about getting wet in standing water
because you aren't on the ground. Finally, when you consider the weight of both
your sleeping mat and your shelter, hammocks can be as light, or lighter, than
most other alternatives.
If you are planning to use a hammock, I would recommend using a quilt as your top insulation layer because it is much easier to get in/out of a quilt than a
sleeping bag in a hammock. When it gets below around 60F though, a hammock
starts to get chilly. See the Hammocks
section of my Sleeping System page.
So do I use a hammock? Nope. Why? I am one of those people who
doesn't sleep well in a hammock. For me, it just wasn't comfortable. If you are
considering getting a hammock, try to borrow one, or purchase it from someplace
that has a good return policy like REI. The other reason I don't use a hammock
is that I am often camping above tree line when I can't hang a hammock. If I was
expecting frequent problems with ground water and/or very hot weather and knew
there were going to be trees (e.g. in the tropics or a rain forest) then I might
hammock because sleeping on the ground would be
Sgt. Rock's Hammock 101
for more information. Hammock Forums
is a good place to ask the hanging crowd questions.
I think tarps are a really great shelters. They are the lightest option, give
you a lot of room for their weight and let you stay connected to your
environment when pitched open. Tarps can often be set up in a number of ways so they can provide
protection for a group of people cooking and eating and then can be pitched for
maximum protection for sleeping. Tarps are particularly nice in extreme raining
locations with little or no wind because you can create a larger space to dry
Downsides are that in extremely windy
conditions tarps (except shaped tarps pitched to the ground) aren't as
protective as high quality tents, you have no protection from bugs. Furthermore
require more skill and time to set-up than most tents. In some environments such
as some alpine destination with nothing but rocks below you, it is difficult to
finding tie downs or staking points... a free standing tent or bivy might be
preferable. Some people
considering using a tarp for the first time are often concerned about protection
from animals: snakes, bear, etc. In the USA, this is more fear driven than
based in any real danger. On other continents there is some justification for
these concerns. One way to compensate for the lack of bug & snakes protect
is to use use a bivy sack or bug shelter discussed
below. When there is little likelihood of rain, you might decide to leave your
tarp in your pack and sleep under the stars, or just use a bug shelter if there is a lot of bug pressure. If you buy a
tarp I would recommend getting one which uses sewn tie loops rather than
grommets because this will be more durable. It is also useful to have a tarp
that has a catenary cut for at least the ridgeline (and maybe the pullouts)
for optimal pitching. If you get a flat tarp, make sure there are multiple tie
loops so you can use the tarp in multiple configurations. For ideas about pitching tarps
SGT Rock's Tarps page, Andy Mytys tarp/poncho
tarps in incidental conditions,
ponchos in incidental conditions. David Macpherson's huge list of possible
structures has a lot of designs no one would actually use. Some people
have found gripclips
useful for setting up tarps, though you can improvise something similar
using a smooth stone which you cover with the tarp and tie off using guylines. There was a thread about
pitching plastic tarps. BPL.com has a somewhat dated
Comparison Review of Tarps and Other Floorless Shelters. One trend among
ultra light backpackers is combining a tiny tarp with some sort of bivy. The
bivy is required because the tarp isn't large enough to keep nasty weather at
bay. While this is a workable system, I generally prefer to use a larger tarp.
With a larger tarp you have more room to move and manage camp life, more
pitching options, and the
weight can often be as light, or lighter than the total weight of a small tarp + bivy.
If you use a tarp and not a bivy, a ground cloth is often needed. I am very fond the the
Gossamer Gear Polycro ground cloths because they are light, surprisingly
durable, water proof, and very compact. I believe the material used in these is
very similar (the same?) to what used in the 3M door or window insulation kits.
I tried the "emergency space blankets" but found that they would last one trip
before the were ripped up beyond use. The newer "heatshield" emergency blankets
might be more durable... I have no personal experience with them. Many people like Tyvek because it is
light, durable, highly water resistant, slightly breathable, and cheap. You can
often find it for free at construction sites. Since Tyvek is vapor permeable,
you are less lightly to end up with condensation under your ground cloth, so it
will tend to pick up less particulate matter
then something that is damp in the morning, The downside of Tyvek is that it's
a little bit bulky and not completely waterproof, so if you kneel down on very
wet ground you might get damp. Another cheap option are 2 mil plastic drop
cloths solid at hardware stores but my experience is that these get worn out
pretty quickly. Still other people use light weight nylon or polyester,
typically with some waterproof coating. This is the most expensive option, but
often the most durable. There are a number of companies that make tarps in each
of the categories below. Of those companies, Mountain Laurel Designs deserves
special note for their commitment to excellence. Ron made a large investment in
testing equipment so he could select the best performing materials as well as
insure that the materials he receives from manufacturer continues to meet those
specifications. MLD products are well design and extremely well executed with
attention to even the smallest of details. Given two relatively equivalent
products, I would choice a product from MLD.
- Flat or catenary cut tarp: Flat tarps can be pitched in a
variety of ways and come in a wide variety of sizes. Historically, 5x7 or
5x8 was the "typical" solo tarp, 8x10 or 10x10 were the typically size for a couple. Some
people use even smaller tarps on solo trips. Personally, I found the 5x7
poncho/tarp I used to be too small for my tastes when facing moderately stormy weather.
There is a nice article at about
using a 5x8
poncho/tarp. Catenary cut tarps will typically have fewer pitching options,
but it will be easier to get a good, taut pitch when compared to pitching a
flat tarp. High quality tarps include those made by Alpinlite Gear, GoLite,
Granite Gear, Integral
Outdoor Equipment Supplier
(MacCat tarp), Oware, and
Team IO (UK).
All of these manufacturers make excellent products. Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD)
tends to be the most cutting edge. Slightly less expensive are the
Campmor / Equinox
line of ultra-light tarps. Some people use very small tarps, say 4x7 which
virtually requires using a bivy of some sort if there is any chance of wind
blown rain. Personally, I would recommend taking a larger tarp and pass on
- Solo Multi-use and Shaped Tarps: There is a long tradition of light weight
backpackers using poncho/tarps. Ponchos can provide triple duty: rain protection,
pack cover, and shelter for a very modest weight. I keep a list of
ponchos in my outdoor clothing recommendations page. The down side of the classic poncho / tarp is that in a serious
storm there is little protection from blowing rain. It's common for
poncho/tarp users to bring an ultra light bivy to protect against
blowing rain which obviously raised the weight of the system. One other
issue is what to do when you need to leave your shelter for chores or "the
call of nature". Options are go naked and dry off when you get back,
use a DWR windshirt which can provide adequate protection for a short time,
or bring a second rain item like those $1 plastic emergency poncho. I used a poncho tarp for around a year, but eventually
switched back to slightly larger shaped tarp (and rain jacket) which only
added a few ounce to my pack while giving me significant better
protection. I think the best combination rain gear / shelter might be the
Designs Gatewood Cape with it's full coverage and easy to use zipper
entrance. The only complains I have heard are that the Gatewood Cape is a bit short for taller folks and is slightly tricky to pitch taut. You can combine the Gatewood cape with
SMD Serenity NetTent for an 18oz double walled shelter. If I
was a tad shorter or a bit less of a space hog the Gatewood Cape would be high on my
list of shelters to consider. The Alpinlite Gear Microburst is another shaped poncho / shelter. There are several other very light weight
shaped solo tarps which provide sufficient protection that they can be used without
a bivy in most conditions. The
(without netting, made from Cuben) is amazingly light at 3.3oz. I believe the half pyramid Oware Alphamini /
BMW Alphamid Nano might be the lightest full protection shelter at
just over 7oz. The Alphamid Nano sets up very quickly, does well in wind, and
theoretically can handle some snow (no personal experience). It's dimensions are 3'8"x7'6" with a
peak height of 49". Keep in mind that the full 7'6" isn't actually usable
when pitched to the ground for maximum protection. When staked to the
ground, anyone on
top of a sleeping mat who is over approximately 5'8" won't be able to fully stretch
out without bumping into a sidewalls. In conditions that aren't a full on
storm, the Alphamini can be pitched off the ground using guylines while
provides more room and better ventilation. The
MLD SoloMid looks to be a near perfect solo shelter weighting in at
10.1oz in Cuben (more in Sil) with an optional bug insert that weights 8 oz. I used a
Gear Spinnshelter (my review)
between 2004-2008. This
9oz tarp using a catenary cut for a taut pitch with doors which can be shut
when facing severe conditions. The
MLD Patrol Shelter can save a bit of weight compared to the Spinnshelter
at the cost of some flexibility.
Hyperlite Mountaingear.shelter is a also makes a catenary cut solo tarp
GoLite Shangri-La 1 looks to be similar
to the Spinnshelter, but is heavier (19oz), more durable, with a bit more
room and a high vent. The
SMD Vamp is a solo shelter designed for taller folks
weighing in at 16oz. There is an optional 11oz net tent. For nasty weather
trips I generally recommend going with a slightly larger shelter so you have
some room to move around and manage your gear. I would recommend considering
one of the multi-person shelters listed below such as the MLD DuoMid.
- Multi-person Shaped Shelters:
Shaped tarps are better than "flat" tarps for extreme weather (though don't
ventilate as well as flat tents in milder weather).
There was an interesting thread discussing the relative merits of
shaped tarps in harsh conditions. The newest shape is the
MLD TrailStar. I have not used this shelter, but there seem to be
a lot of people who really love it.
The most common design seems to be a
traditional pyramid tarp, sometimes called a miner's tarp. Pyramids are
quick and easy to set up, and shed snow and wind well. The taller the
pyramid the better it sheds snow, but a higher profile makes it more
susceptible to wind. Superior to pyramids in terms of shedding wind and
snow, but more complex to set up are conical structures / tipi / teepee /
however you spell it. One downside of a conical structure is
that while they have more floor space, it's not as useful. Ryan wrong
a short piece on the
versatility of the pyramid shelter. There are a
number of companies that make pyramids including
Mountain Laurel Designs,
Seek Outside. The lightest option is the
MLD DuoMid, a two person, slightly smushed
pyramid. It weights in at 11.5oz in Cuben, 15oz in silnylon. Two
people could share the DuoMid but I would recommend that both be less than
6ft tall. The DuoMid is close being a perfect solo shelter, especially in
nasty weather. Craftsmanship and design is top notch with nice
reinforcement at stress locations. This is a shelter that
has been built for a long life. Next up is the
Super MID, an 14oz 8.75ft pyramid tarp made from Cuben. Chad did a nice diagram showing the
MLD MidDuo vs a Oware Mid. Oware/BPL was suppose to release
super light cuben pyramid in 2008 but it's not out yet. This would provides
plenty of room for 2-3 people. Titanium Goat and
Kifaru make modern tipis and also
make small wood burning stoves which are designed to be used with their
tarps in cold weather. There are also a number of
Scandinavian made tipi style shelters that I have no experience with (in
fact, I can't even read their specs not speaking the language.) There are
also some modified pyramid tarps which have a smaller footprint. The half
pyramid Oware Alphamid
(19oz silnylon) looks nice, and is reported to be quite good in the snow. There are the two pole
"pyramids" which have remind me of the traditional A-frame tents
with a small integrated vestibule.
Black Diamond Beta Light,
Shangrai-La 2, MSR Twin Peaks (now discountinued), the winter oriented
MSR Twin Sisters,
and my favorite, the currently discontinued MLD SuperFly. The SuperFly
provides ~40sq ft of space, and weighs 10.8ozoz made from spinntex, w/ netting
around the perimeter weights 17oz, costs $240. The Superfly has the same footprint as the DuoMid, but the second pole makes it
feel much larger on the inside. The DuoMid feels small when I am sharing it
with someone else while the SuperFly feels roomy once I adjusted to
the sloping side walls. The cost of this extra internal space is a larger
surface area which will be more effected by wind and snow that a center pole
pyramid. Ron Bell recommends not using the Superfly when expecting
heavy snowfall. The worse conditions I have personally
faced was 45 mph winds, heavy rainfall,
and light snow...
it did great. There is a forum thread about using
superfly in high wind. An innovative design is the five sided
MLD Trailstar which has gotten a lot of good reviews. In the early 2000s, the
Designs SilShelter was popular with ultralight backpackers, though it never grabbed me. The
SilDome is a similar shelter with an integrated mono pole (hoop) for a
more roomy space.
Appy Trails makes a number of
shaped tarps. While I would preference slightly different geometries, I
can't argue with the ~$100 price point which is significantly cheaper than
many of the other options.
Bearpawtents also makes some reasonably priced tarps. Many of the multi-person shaped tarps need a pole
which is longer than a typical trekking pole. It is possible to supplement a
hiking poles height by using a boot jack (or a nearby rock), the
coupler, lash them together, or the more ridged option, the
backpackinglight.co.uk trekking pole coupler. There was a nice thread at
connecting trekking poles together. Ruta Locura makes very nice carbon fiber tent/tarp poles if you don't using
Waterproof Standalone Bivy: In most cases I would not use a waterproof bivy sack. In mild to hot
weather they don't provide enough ventilation for my taste. In winter, moderate
to heavy snow
fall will compress any insulation inside the bivy and is likely to
produce condensation on the inside of the bivy sack. In most situations it's
tricky to get in and out of a bivy without letting rain and snow into them.
Of course, there isn't room inside a bivy to cook, arrange your gear, or do much
of anything expect lay there more maybe read. Stand alone bivys
tend to weight around 2 lbs. In really harsh
weather I would rather carry an extra pound and get a tent that gives me room to move and a covered access/exit.
In more moderate conditions there might be options that are lighter than a bivy
while providing significantly more room. Personally, I want to be able to sit up
fully, lie down fully extended, prop myself up on my elbows and read, and be
able set up a bug free space quickly, throw gear in, dive in, and then deploy my
pad, unpack my quilt, maybe change clothing and not have to be a contortionist.
Bivies just don't have this sort of room. The only situation I think stand-alone bivy sacks shine is
in the high alpine (typically climbing) where you need a very small footprint
and something that is as low to the ground to minimize the impact of high winds.
Maybe I am missing something, since there are people who use bivy as their
primary shelter. You might want to check out
The Book of Bivy by Ronald Turnbull for reasons why to use a bivy and
the way to make them effective. There is an interesting article about
dealing with condensation in a bivy.
Integral Designs, and
make the best regarded bivys. The minimalist
MLD Alpine Bivy weighting in at 11oz is the lightest fully waterproof bivy I
know. If you are getting a stand-alone bivy, I would
strongly recommend picking one made from eVENT.
Sleeping bag covers / Bivies: The second kind of bivy is is designed to be used with a tarp or other
shelter. These are often made with a waterproof sil-nylon bottom, and a DWR top such as the
BMW Quantum Bivy, Mountain Laurel Design
Bag, and the DIY Six
Moon Designs Meteor Bivy. These bivy sacks are often used in conjunction
with a down quilt
against side winds, spray, and bugs when using a small tarp. The down side is
that in warm weather they block cooling breezes and don't provide a lot of room
if you want a space protected from flying insects. If you really want
a waterproof top you
should check out the 11 oz
MLD Alpine Bivy, 18oz
Integral Designs Micro bivy made from eVENT or
Montbell ULsleeping bag cover which is cheaper and lighter, but not as
breathable as the ID eVENT sack. I sometimes use a MLD Superlite Bivy when I
expect winds and lower temperatures or rain, because the the bivy easily adds
10F to my quilt that's to it's wind blocking and helps kep my quilt contained.
Bug Shelters: There are a wide variety of shelters designed to protect
against bugs. The lightest weight options are half length, relying on a
sleeping bag to protect the lower legs and typically weight around 3-4 ounces
such as the
simblissity bug tent,
Brawny sleepnet, and the
Gossamer Gear Bug Canopy. Next up is the
bivy weights 6oz due to an integrated fiberglass pole which makes it freestanding. The freestanding
nature of the A16 makes it easy to use under a tarp, when sleeping under the
stars, or in a shelter. There are several ultra light full size bug shelters include the
MLD Bug Bivy (5oz),
(7 oz) and the
MLD Serenity Shelter (6-8oz). There are also a number of heavier bug
shelters which are typically designed to mate with shaped tarps and weight
between 1-2lbs such as the
Integral Designs Bug Shelters,
BD MegaBug, and the 13oz
MLD Mid Inner Tent. I found the Inner Tent to be adequate in size, but
would have liked to have a bit more "headroom" at the edges... the aggressive
slope of the walls limits usable space when not laying down. Finally are also a
number of free standing bug shelters which typically weight between 2-4lb such
as REI Bug Hut, or you could use
the inner mesh tent of a typical three season double walled tent. While I like
the theory of a separate bug and tarp, I find that I didn't like them in
practice as much. I found that I either wanted to be completely in the open
(cowboy camping) or more enclosed. I don't know why, but in a net only shelter I
felt more exposed that I did cowboy camping.
There are two types of single wall tents. The first is made using waterproof (or
water resistant) breathable materials. These are typically free standing
shelters designed for mountaineering, and have very similar designs such as
those from Bibler, Integral Designs, or Black Diamond. I like these sorts of
shelters a lot cold, winter conditions, with low humidity. The second type uses waterproof
(non-breathable fabrics) and relies on ventilation to keep condensations down. I
have yet to find a shelter like this that I like, I think people would often be
better served using one of the ultralight shelters
MK1lite eVENT: 27 sq ft, 3 lb 6oz, $530. A bombproof single-wall mountaineering tent for one (two in an
emergency or if you are friendly). Could be event lighter if you use replacement
fiber poles (though there have been questions about whether these will stand
up to severe wind... I would recommend sticking with the provided poles). I think this is the best solo winter tent
ever made. Alas, it was been
discontinued (except for industrial purchase) due to concerns of lawsuits since eVENT isn't fire resistant. Other good alternatives are the slightly less breathable and heavier
Designs Mk1 which uses Tegraltex, the
Bibler i-tent made with
ToddTex, or the BD Firstlight made from EPIC.
Diamond Superlight Series including a number of models including the
nice two person Lighthouse: EPIC
canopy/sil nylon floor adaptation of Bibler designs. A bit more breathable
than ToddTex and field reports suggest that it is surprisingly water
resistant, but it will wet through in an extended storm. I won't want to use a EPIC tent in a multi-day rain storm.
- Eureka Zeus Exo
single walled freestanding tent. I tried an early version of this tent and
found it had serious problems with condensation and the 1-man wasn't tall
enough for my taste. It looks like the design has been somewhat improved so
condensation isn't as awful now, and is very reasonably priced. I am not
fond of this shelter, but it seems to have it's fans.
GoLite Tents &
GoLite Freestanding tarps look potentially interesting, but I have no
experience with them.
- MH Waypoint 1&2: single walled tent which I have heard nothing but bad things
about. Don't bother looking at this tent.
Seemed to make interesting shelters, but never seems to get their products
shipping in volume (basically vaporware). I believe they are out of business
- MSR Dragontail:
Similar to the Warmlite 3X, but a bit heavier, with fewer ventilation options.
- Nemo Equipment is making
a number innovative single wall shelters using with inflated ribs rather than typical metal or
carbon-fiber poles and using some sort of waterproof breathable fabric. It's
cool to see companies like Nemo try new things. I can't recommend these
products because I have no direct experience with how well the air beams
work, nor how breathable their fabric is.
Most people seem to use double-walled
tents. Tents give many people a sense of security by providing privacy and a barrier against wind, rain, insects and other small creatures. Having a double wall means that there is a barrier to protect you from brushing
against the condensation which will often form on the fly. Double-walled
tents that use fabric for the inner body (rather than mesh) are warmer that
other shelters because they air between the inner tent and the fly can act as an
insulation layer. The downside is most double-walled tents are heavier, can have ventilation problems when the fly is fully shut, and you lose a visual
connection to your environment. Most US designed double wall shelters require
the inner tent to be set up, and then the fly to be deployed. In a strong rain,
this means you can soak your inner tent. Many of the tents from Europe and
Australia have a more sensible design that lets you pitch the full structure at
once, or pitch the fly and then sent up the inner tent from the inside. For a
very brief history of the evolution of double walled tents see Ron Moak's nice
ultralight bathtub floors. Also see Roger Caffin's rather harsh, but generally
FAQ. While a true tent taxonomy such as found in The Complete Walker IV
divides tents into a large number of categories, I will talk about two, very
Free Standing Tents
The most common double walled tents are free standing wedge and domes. People
like these because they tend to be easy to set up, can be moved around, and work
well in locations where getting stakes to hold is difficult. The downsides are
that they tend to be heavier, don't ventilate as well, that most of the time you
really need to stake down one of these shelter for strength and to prevent the
tent from blowing away even if you have gear in them (e.g. freestanding isn't
There are a lot of other good quality 2 - 4 man free standing tents. I used to
consistently prefer Sierra Designs
double wall tents to their competitors. For many years, SD really seems to be
one of the most innovative main stream companies, makes good trade-offs, and has
nice design features. My family has owned several SD tents since the 1970s. We
have love each of these tents. These days I think SD still makes good tents, but
I don't immediately assume they will have the best of class. These days
Slingfin seems to be making
some interesting tents. Popular light
weight free standing shelter that I would suggest looking at include:
Big Agnes Seedhouse
Ultralight (2lb 14oz 1 person, 3lb 9oz 2 person) is one of the lightest
freestanding double walled tents. I found the two man version of this tent to be
a bit cramped for two medium size men and the roofs a bit low for my taste.
Big Agnes. Copper
Spur (3ln 5oz 2 person, 4lb 3oz 3 person -- need to verify these weights)
make it a very light free standing tent. No personal experience with this
tent, but they have been getting pretty good reviews. Kind of pricy.
Tents: makes some of the lightest, free standing shelters on the market.
The Big Sky Convertible 2P tent looks really nice. I would recommend carefully checking
what their backlog is before giving
these folks business. At best they have serious production problems and
don't communication these before or after someone purchases a tent. There
are numerous people who have been waiting for more than 12 months for their
purchase to be delivered. If BS was an ethical company, they would either
stop accepting orders until they had solved the production problem or update
the pages to accurately reflect that wait time and take money in an escrow
account with an easy way for people to get their money back if they felt
they had waited longer than the advertised delivery period.
- The MSR Hubba (1 person),
person) One of the most popular light weight free standing shelters. More roomy that the Seedhouse, better vestibules than
the SD Lightning. Not quite as stable in the wind as the Lightning. I have only check this tent out in stores, I have no field experience.
Friends have reported that extra space costs strength in a storm, especially
when facing high winds, but they have been happy with this tent.
Mountain Hardware Skyledge2: 4lb 4oz wedge tent with side doors and
moderate size vestibules on both sides of the tent.
- REI Quarter Dome (T1,
T3) seem to be good, light
weight, 3 season, free standard shelters. My friends original 2 person
quarter dome wasn't as stable or well made as my Lightning, it was cheaper
and had two vestibules.
Designs Lightning: Light weight (4lb), free standing wedge, three season
tent for two people who are under 6ft. Room to move around. Huge front
door. Stable in wind. A good improvement would be to add a second zipper so
the fly opening could be turned into an overhang for cooking in the rain,
and a high vent.
Mountain Products Kilo: 2lb, 2 person, freestanding shelter.
Tunnel / Arch Tents
Tunnel shelters typically have 2 or 3 arches that provide support. These tents
need to be staked to the ground, but often you can get away with 4 stakes except
in harsh conditions. Tunnel tents tend to be longer than an equivalent
dome, and require a fairly flat space to get adequately taut pitch. A well
pitched tunnel tent can survive very harsh conditions. If similar materials are
used, a tunnel tent tends to be light weight than a dome. Tunnel tents tend to
be designed with good ventilation options. Higher quality tunnels designed to
handle nasty conditions tend to use equally sized arches. I would recommend
staying away from any tunnel tent which uses fiberglass poles since both the poles
and the tent are most likely not built to handle harsh conditions.
- Eureka Spitfire:
I don't have personal experience with the spitfire, but there is a lot of
good reviews on the net. Can often be found for less than $100. Reasonably
light (<3lbs). Seems to be a good design.
- Hilleberg - Make a variety of
tunnel tents. Most are designed to stand up to Northern Europe's winters. Very
- MSR Zoid
(1 man 3lb2oz, 2 man 4lb6oz, - discontinued now). This was MSR's rework
of the Walrus Zoid. The Zoid 1 is comfortable for one person, has easy access, stable
in a storm, and can be used like an oversized bug bivy in good weather.
The Zoid 2 is the same basic design, but has a door on either side, and have
been sized for two people. Not the tallest tent on the block.
- Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight (2 people) /
Divine Light (1 person)
historically was the most commonly seen tents on the AT. Reasonably light, well
design, moderately priced, good quality. Sierra Designs continues to
update and improve this tent. Personally, I liked the Zoid was a bit better
because I find it easier to enter and exit, but the flashlight is a good
light weight tent which has stood the test of time.
- Stephenson's Warmlite 2RSW (2 man
42sq ft, 3lb 4oz, <$500) has been one of the lightest tents on the market for
years. Warm, very stable in high winds, and handles snow well provided pitched
vestibules having a floor was a bit annoying because when you enter and exit in the
rain/snow because some gets in and doesn't have anywhere to go. Should note
that while it has two walls, the inner wall is not breathable which makes it
different from nearly everyone else's double wall. My experience is that
condensation on the inner wall was less than other non breathable single
Other Tent Designs
There are a number of light weight shelters that use a single hoop, or trekking
poles to form a ridge line, much like some of the ultra
light shelters listed above. In general these shelters are not up to facing
extreme weather conditions, but they can provide light weight shelter for 3
season conditions many places (4 in places where winters aren't too harsh).
Hilleberg Akto is
quite light for a solo four season tent, and is designed to put the fly up first
followed by the tent body which is really nice if you are setting up in the
rain. Huge amount of space under the vestibule. The tent is a little
short for my taste because I can't sit up without bumping by head and doesn't
handle heavy snow loads well. On the other
hand, everyone I have talked to who owns this tent loves it. Exped
Vela I is a moderately priced clone of the Akto.
Nova.Laserlite is a 1+ person tent similar in design to the Akto but weights
a mere 34oz including poles while providing more headroom.
Laser are two person sub 3lb double walled tents which make use of hiking
- Tarptent Scarp1 1
person, 2.75lb and Scarp2
1 person, 3.25lb double walled, winter shelters which is somewhat similar to the Hilleberg Akto. An extra 12oz for a pair of poles makes it free-standing.
- Montbell single pole tents... pole runs across the long axis rather than
the short favored by most of the other monopoles.
Actually, this should really be called shelters for extreme conditions with snow
since there are many places where "winter" could be handled with a traditional
"three season" tent. When I think "winter shelters" I am thinking
something that can survive 50+mph winds, and a foot of snow or more falling
overnight. Things that help make shelter survive in the winter:
- Strong materials. Often times mountaineering shelters are made
from fabric which is 1.5-2x the thickness and strength of similar shelters
designed for three season use. Poles are typically thicker and larger
- Supported surface area. Ideally support of the shelters walls is evenly
spread, across multiple points so that when the wind is blowing or snow is
sticking the room, the pressure is distributed through out the shelter. The
larger the area without support, the more likely that the shelter will bow
in, and that the pressure will be concentrated on a small area which is more
likely to fail.
- Steep walls so snow slides off rather than accumulating and weighting
down the shelter.
- Aerodynamic shape so winds don't knock you down
- Snow skirt which help keep the shelter stable in wind, and also provide
continuous support rather than having the support points being the few
places that stakes or snow anchors are attached to a shelter.
I don't do a lot of winter / snow trips these days. I use a MLD Superfly as my solo winter
shelter, and a GoLite pyramid as my multi-person winter shelter. If I was doing
a lot of winter trips I would consider purchasing an Integral Designs Mk1, MLD
Duomid, or the Tarptent Scarp 1 as a solo shelter. I would most likely
continue to use a good size pyramid shelter if I was sharing the shelter with
others. I have heard good things about MSR, Marmot, and Mountain Hardware's 4-season
tents by but have no personal experience. Terra Nova and Vango seem to be well
regarded in Europe and make what seem to be reasonably light 4 season tents. Exped makes tents which seem to be clones of Hilleberg designs which are
less expensive. I don't know how the quality compares.
In the winter / snow I have used a number of shelters over the years.
In reverse chronological order:
- MLD Duomid (cuben): 1-2 person pyramid design. Good solo shelter with
reinforced pullouts. Ideal for 1. Usable but tight for 2. Used
once in moderate snow conditions.
- MLD Superfly (spinaker): 2 person dual pole modified pyramid. Just the
right size for two. Have used a few times in moderate winter
conditions and several spring and fall storms.
- GoLite Hex: Very light for space, especially if you dig out snow. Nice
flexibility. Light and cheap compared to most 4-season tents. You can dig out
a platform which gives you a huge space. Staking can
be a bit
temperamental to get set up right. I have used it with a sleeping bag cover
and just a ground cloth. In more severe conditions really wished it had snow
skirt. Some similar tarps are designed to take a small wood stove like Titanium
Goat and Kifaru. In ancient past shared a large pyramid tarp that did
have a snow skirt with a pile of other boys.
- Integral Designs Mk1: Loved it as a solo tent. Reasonable weight. Not
cheap. Bombproof. More or less same tent is the Bibler i-tent and the BD Firstlight made using EPIC.
- Hilleberg Nallo2GT - This tent is not the lightest tent you could survive in,
but has a large vestibule which is handy in nasty weather. Very well made.
Popular in Europe.
- Warmlite 2R - Shed snow well when pitched tight. Good in wind. Middle
will sag if not pitched tightly. The 2R is not as tall as I would like if I was going to be spending a lot of time in the
tent. The vestibule having a floor was annoying but manageable. They also make tents larger than the
2R. Get a third pole if using size 3 or 5.
- Sierra Designs Stretch Dome... I had the first version. Roomy for 2,
usable with three. Mine stood the test of time but was stolen from my car.
Not the lightest solution. I continue to be impressed with SD's commitment
to quality and innovation though I haven't used a modern SD 4-season tent.
- North Face V24 - Hasn't been sold for years. Was bombproof and heavy.
- Sierra Designs
3-Man Tent from the early 1970s... Double walled three
person tent which used three
strait poles in a tipi like design with a hex floor. Great size for two
in winter, worked for three. Half moon zipper in the floor formed a cookhole
for using a stove inside. Some of my fondest memories are nights I
spent in this tent with my dad as storms raged outside.
I have also used some 3 season tents / tarptents in the winter which worked
ok if there was no or small amounts of snow. When the was enough snow to
blow into the shelter through the netting I was unhappy. Anything not protected
gets damp. Not recommended.
Whatever you are using a tarp or tent, you need to keep your shelter in
place. Typically snow anchors are more effective than stakes for this task. See
Snow Anchor Analysis
Most shelters need something to keep them from blowing away. Most people carry metal or plastic stakes, though it is often possible to improvise
using local material. Ultralight backpackers often use titanium stakes because they are strong and
There is no one best stake. There are a number of environmental issues
which will suggest what might be the most effective stakes. Things I typical
consider is the "holding power" of the stake, how easy the stakes will go into
the ground, the weight of the stake, and what sort of environmental impact the
stake holes might make.
Holding Power: The looser the ground, the more surface area you need for an
equiv hold. If you use two stakes of identical design, the larger on (more
surface area) will hold better if you can get it into the ground. Wide
diameter round stakes can work in many conditions, but if you need a lot of
holding power, especially in soft ground (sandy, waterlogged, etc), use Y stakes
like MSR groundhogs. Some people use V stakes, but I have found that they have a
tendency to bent more than most stakes I have tried. In extremely lose soil some
people will double stake. At the extreme (sand / snow) you want to use anchors
rather than stakes.
Easy to Drive: The harder the ground the more you want a strong, thin stake.
Many people use titanium sheppard hooks stakes. The one down side of these
stakes is that if the ground is very hard, you can't pound these stakes in, you
can only push with your hands. Some people carry one "nail stake" which can be
used to get a hole started for a hook stake. Note: Pushing V and Y stakes in can
be hard on the hands, so I carry a small plastic PVC tee joint which weights
less than .5oz.and saves my palms.
Durability: The thinner the stake, the more likely it is to bend. Some stakes
have been known to break when put under stress, such as the MSR Needle Stakes.
The tops of the Easton stakes sometimes comes off. You can epoxy them back on
when you get home.
Weight: If you are shooting for the absolute lightest, titanium stakes might be
right for you, but it really depends on the other factors listed above.
These days I mostly use
easton stakes on 3 season trip because they have pretty good holding power
in soft ground because they are wider than my titanium Sheppard's hooks, and the
have a flat head so I can pound them into harder ground with a rock, and they
are reasonably light. The only down side is that the epoxy that glues to top to
be body can come undone and in extreme cases, they can be broken. If I am
really concerned about holding power (expecting lose soil) I will switch to 9"
easton stakes, or switch to a Y stake.
Jerry Goller wrote up a more analytical
comparision of stakes which I have stashed on my web page and there is a
nice article at BPL about
tent stake holding power.
Not stakes.. but line locks can be useful. There was a thread on BPL where
a number of
link lock options where discussed.
Nothing can beat the price / performance of a sil-nylon flat tarp. For
completely cheap use a 2-3 mil plastic sheet. Set a line up which will be
the ridgeline. Tie some guylines to the four corners using a sheet bend knot,
and stake the corners out. If you want a double wall tent, look for a used/close-out
Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight (or similar tents like the Eureka Spitfire), but be careful. Buying used tents can be tricky.
If the waterproofing is peeling, or the tent smells like mildew, skip it. You
should also enquire about how much the tent had been out in the sunlight. UV
light breaks down nylon which is not apparent until it is really to fail.
Classic Scouting / Club Tents
There are a few manufacturers who seem to have captured a significant portion of
the "club" market. By this I mean organizations which have a stock of gear which
is loaned, or rented at low cost by their members. Clubs typically look for low
cost options which can stand up to people who don't treat the gear carefully.
The two largest supplier to clubs seem to be:
- Alps: I have no personal
experience with Alps, but have a number net-friends who have used them.
Alps seems to be commonly used by the boy scouts and budget conscience folks.
They seem to be better made than wal*mart / target / etc specials. They are not
as light or as well made as many higher end tends made by companies like Sierra
Designs. You should never pay suggested retail price for Alps tents. A bit of
careful looking should lead you to prices around 60% of MSRP which makes it a
good price / quality ratio. Full price is cheap, but not a good value.
- Eureka!: In the 70s, 80s, and
maybe later, the Timberline was "the" standard tent used by many boy scouts
troops, YMCA outdoor programs, etc for backpacking. They weren't the
lightest free standing tents, but they were value priced and fairly durable.
I still have fond memories of timberline tents even though there were better
shelters, even then.. I have been much less
impressed with Eureka's dome tents, having seen a number fail in strong
Note: I am starting to morph my gear notes into a more general guide.
Several sections (such as this one) will be filled out more fully in the future . Some brief notes by other sectionhikers campsite selection
- Look for someplace with soft ground. Not only is
this more comfortable to sleep on, but if it rains, the water will more quickly
- Look for someplace that has good drainage: slightly higher than the
near by ground, avoid sleeping in depressions.
- Make sure you aren't in the
path of runoff if there was a severe storm.
- By lakes will have more humidity which is normally not a good
- Under a tree or on a hill side will typically be warmer than in
a valley or the middle of a meadow.
- Ridge lines are not a good location
because of wind and lightning danger.