Shelters for the Outdoors

Part of Recommended Outdoor Gear by Mark Verber

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 are:

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.

Quick Recommendations

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 or the REI Quarter Dome which are around 4lbs which has more room and two doors. 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.

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.

Some of this is taken from Richard's brief fly notes In increasing weight:

My Choice of Shelters

Since 2002 I have used tarps and tarptents on the majority of my trips. The ZPacks Hexamid  (my review) is my current solo 3-season shelter. I have a MLD SuperFly (think GoLite Shangrai-La 2 with perimeter netting make from spinaker which weights 17oz) that goes on solo trips when I want more protection than the Hexamid provides or when I am sharing a shelter with someone else. In more extreme conditions I add a MLD Superlite bivy with an eVENT foot. We have a Tarptent Double Rainbow that is mostly used as a loaner but we sometimes use it when we want good bug protection with more ventilation that provided by the SuperFly and/or need something that is vaguely freestanding. Finally we have a 4/5-man pyramid tarp for trips with lots of people. I gravitate toward the lightest shelter I can find which gives me a storm worthy pitch quickly, and enough space that once I am inside the shelter, I don't have to  restrain my movements "too much". I have to admit, after trying out the Lightheart Solo Awning, and reading about the SMD Skyscape I am very tempted to consider an ultralight double walled shelter so that I don't have to restrain my movements at all.

Ultralight (Tarptents)

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:

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 you will 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.

BPL's 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:

Other interesting single wall shelters include:

Hammocks

Hennessy Hammock, Speer Hammocks, 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  hammock friendly 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 use a hammock because sleeping on the ground would be less comfortable.

Check out Sgt. Rock's Hammock 101 and Hammock Camping Newsletters for more information. Hammock Forums is a good place to ask the hanging crowd questions.

Tarps

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 out.

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 most tarps 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 check out SGT Rock's Tarps page, Andy Mytys tarp/poncho pitches, BPL's tarps in incidental conditions, and ponchos in incidental conditions. David Macpherson's huge list of possible tarp 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.

Bivy Sacks and Bug Shelters

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 dealing with condensation in a bivy. Black Diamond, Integral Designs, and Outdoor Research seem to 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 bivys, Oware Bivy 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 A16 bug 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), SMD NetTent (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 SMD NetTents GoLite "nests", 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.

Single-wall Tents

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 described above.

Conventional Double-Walled Tents

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 article about ultralight bathtub floors. Also see Roger Caffin's rather harsh, but generally appropriate, Shelter 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 broad categories.

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 really true).  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:

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.

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).

Winter Shelters

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:

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:

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 a nice Snow Anchor Analysis

Stakes

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 reasonably light.

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 6" 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.

Cheap

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:

Selecting Campsite

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