How to Choose an Ultralight Tent or Shelter: Part 1

Floorless UL Shelters are undesirable if you need to camp out a lot on dished out packed earth tent pads the flood when it rains.

Floor-less UL Shelters are undesirable if you need to camp out on dished out, packed earth tent pads, that flood when it rains (shown Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Duomid.)

A lot of SectionHiker readers contact me asking for advice about which ultralight shelter they should buy. These purchases are always driven by weight reduction desires, but often in the absence of any considerations about the environmental conditions they need the tents or shelters to perform in, interior size, comfort, ease of pitch, or the need to learn better campsite selection and route planning skills.

The widespread belief that you can “buy down” your gear weight by swapping a double-walled tent with a UL tent or shelter without a loss of comfort or the need to learn new skills is a myth.

For example:

A backpacker wants to reduce his gear weight by replacing a freestanding Big Agnes Copper Spur with a Tarptent Notch but is concerned about how easy it is to pitch on the wooden tent site platforms which he encounters 99.9% of his trips in the White Mountains.

I suggested that he keep the Copper Spur if he always camps on platforms because the Tarptent Notch would be a pain in the ass to pitch on them, but that he consider learning campsite selection, leave no trace, and route planning skills so he can practice low impact, remote camping in the White Mountains and avoid wooden platforms forever. 

A female backpacker wants an ultralight shelter so she can keep backpacking as she gets older and weaker. She is try trying to decide between a Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid and a Duomid augmented with an inner nest, but desires lots of internal space and comfort above all other considerations.

I told her to look at a Tarptent Rainbow with a built-in bathtub floor, near vertical walls, excellent ventilation, and bug netting. 

A female backpacker wants to buy a Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar but wants to know if picking a floorless shelter with a door like the Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid would be warmer.

I explain that all floorless shelters will be the same temperature as the ground, effectively eliminating any warmth advantage in cooler weather. 

Shelter Weight is the Least Important Consideration

If you want to buy ultralight shelter, the weight of the shelter is probably the least important variable in comparing one shelter to another unless your chief motivation is to impress someone with your gear weight. Think about the environmental conditions you need the tent to perform in most of the time and the level of comfort you want after a hard day of backpacking, instead of shelter weight so you don’t buy a tent or shelter you’ll be dis-satisfied with. I’ve fallen into that trap myself  and learned this the hard way.

The Tarptent Rainbow is a very comfortable and spacious tent UL tent but it can be difficult to pitch in dense woods.

The Tarptent Rainbow (shown) is a very comfortable and spacious tent UL tent but it can be difficult to pitch in dense woods or on uneven surfaces because it has a sizeable footprint, inflexible shape, and a bathtub floor.

Environmental Conditions

Here are some examples of environmental conditions you should consider when selecting a new UL shelter, and some suggestions about ultralight tent and shelter types that satisfy those needs:

  • I camp in high winds over 20 mph and up to 60 mph, so my ultralight shelter needs to be stable and wind-shedding:
    • Solution: Pyramid shaped shelters are the most wind resistant. 
  • I camp on uneven surfaces covered by moss or tussocks:
    • Solution: Shelters with permanent floors are ill-suited this purpose because you can’t see where you’ll need to lie to get comfortable. 
  • I camp in dense woods:
    • Solution: Smaller sized, square or rectangular tarps are best suited for this purpose because they can wrap around trees  or incorporate physical obstacles without completely losing their shelter integrity. Shelters with narrow rectangular footprints can also be suitable. 
  • I camp on packed earth pads that are dished out and fill up with water when it rains:
    • Solution: Shelters with high bathtub, seam-taped floors will prevent you from getting flooded out. 
  • I camp on wooden platforms, rock ledges, frozen surfaces, or very loose sand and soil:
    • Solution: Freestanding shelters are best suited for surfaces where it is impossible to use tent stakes.
  • I need to cook inside my tent or shelter due to high winds or frequent rainfall.
    • Solution: Floor-less shelters with a door, excellent ventilation, and ample head room will help you avoid setting your tent or shelter on fire or dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. Canister stoves are also best for cooking inside a shelter because the flame is smaller and easier to control. 
  • I frequently camp in areas with vicious insects:
    • Solution: Try a shelter with an inner tent or nest that provides bug netting and a bathtub floor.
Tents with side vestibules let you store gear out of the weather at night without having to keep into inside your living space (Tarptent Scarp1, shown.)

Tents with side vestibules let you store gear out of the weather at night without having to keep it inside your living space (Tarptent Scarp 1, shown.)

Comfort

Here are some examples of comfort considerations you should factor into your selection of a shelter, and some suggestions ultralight tents and shelter types that satisfy those needs:

  • I will frequently pitch my ultralight tent/shelter in pouring rain, but never want to get the inside to get wet:
    • Solution: Get a shelter that has a removable inner tent that can be hung inside the outer tent after it has been pitched, and  packed away separately if the outer fly is wet the next morning. 
  • I am very tall:
    • Solution: You want a shelter that is specifically made for tall people. A long rectangular tarp may also suffice.
  • I want to camp with my romantic partner who is not a backpacker.
    • Solution: You want a shelter with two doors, an inner tent with a bathtub floor, near-vertical walls, lots of interior space, and headroom. 
  • I don’t want a tent or shelter that has hiking poles in the living area.
    • Solution: Get a tent or shelter that hangs from an external pole system. 
  • I want to store my gear out of the rain at night but not in my living space:
    • Solution: You need a shelter that has vestibule storage or awnings outside of the inner tent.
  • I am scared of creepy crawlers and slithering at night:
    • Solution: Get a tent or shelter with a built-in inner tent or a nest. 
  • I enjoy privacy when camping and don’t want people to see me when I undress.
    • Solution: Get a tent or shelter with a door and sides that go all the way to the ground. In addition, don’t get a shelter made out of  semi-transparent, lightly colored cuben fiber.
  • I don’t like having a breeze blow through my tent at night.
    • Solution: You’re probably better off getting a UL double walled tent instead of a single walled one which requires good venting to prevent internal condensation. 
  • I want to be able to sit in my tent on sunny days without feeling like I’m being microwaved.
    • Solution: Get a UL tent with good ventilation, that’s made out of opaque colored material. Avoid shelters made out of semi-transparent cuben fiber which transmits a lot of sunlight and heat in bright sunshine. 
  • I like having a lot of floor space inside my shelter at night and don’t want to feel like I’m sleeping in a coffin.
    • Solution: Get a shelter with a wide footprint or even a two person tent. 
Pitching a Tarp in cool weather requires that you orient it so that cold wind doesn't blow through it at night

Pitching a Tarp in cool weather requires that you orient it so that cold wind doesn’t blow through it at night. (Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Duo Tarp, shown)

Backcountry Skills

There is a learning curve when switching from a conventional double walled shelter to an ultralight tent or tarp, or from one type of UL shelter to another that can be quite significant. The transition frequently requires learning new skills such as campsite selection, leaning how to pitch your shelter in different weather conditions, how to prevent internal condensation, how to tie new knots, and so on. Here are a few of the new skills you might need to pick up, depending on your shelter choice.

  • Seam sealing
    • Most ultralight shelters made out of silnylon and purchased from small gear manufacturers need to be seam-sealed before use to prevent the stitching from leaking in the rain. Tents made with cuben fiber are now usually seam taped (glued together) rather than sewn and don’t need to be seam-sealed.
  • Learning how to pitch your tent or shelter
    • Some ultralight shelters are fussier to set up than others and it may take a surprisingly long time for you to get efficient at setting yours up quickly and securely.
  • Learning how to pitch your shelter in different weather conditions
    • Many ultralight shelters can also be pitched in a variety of different configurations or orientations depending on the weather. For example, if you’re pitching a pyramid tarp in  good weather you might leave a big air gap between the outer skin and ground, while in bad weather you might pitch the outer skin flush with the ground so no rain can splash in under it. None of these variants are documented and you’ll have to figure them out on your own by fiddling with the shelter on lots of different trips.
  • Campsite selection
    • Different shelters perform better in certain locations than others.
      • For example, if the ground you need to sleep on is hard packed and won’t absorb water well, you’ll want to pick a shelter with a waterproof floor and high bathtub walls so you don’t get flooded out at night if rain pools underneath you.
      • Or, if your shelter doesn’t shed wind well, you’ll want to pitch it in an area protected from wind, like a stand of trees or behind a small hill.
      • If you have a floorless shelter, you don’t want to pitch it on a slope where rain run-off will flood you out at night.
  • Preventing internal condensation
    • The key to preventing internal condensation in an ultralight single walled shelter or tarp is good ventilation and having a breeze blowing through your shelter at night. This can take a lot of getting used to if your used to sleeping in a shelter with solid walls and a higher ambient temperature at night.
  • Learning new knots
    • Most rectangular of square tarps don’t have guy line tensioners or cords sewn on all of their tie-out points because you want the flexibility to create new “shapes” depending on different landscape features or weather conditions. This requires learning a few knots like the taut-line hitch, prussik knots, the truckers hitch, the McCarthy hitch, the bowline, and double figure eight knots.
Square and rectangular tarps are easy to squeeze into tight spaces but it takes a lot of practice to pitch them in a way that provides adequate weather protection (JRB 8x8 Square Tarp, shown.)

Square and rectangular tarps are easy to squeeze into tight spaces but it takes a lot of practice to pitch them in a way that provides adequate weather protection (JRB 8×8 Square Tarp, shown.)

Weight Wait, Don’t Tell Me

Weight comparisons between shelters only make sense once you’ve considered the environmental conditions you need a new shelter to perform under, your comfort needs, and the number of new skills you might need to develop to grow into a new shelter. By going through this analysis you may find that one ultralight shelter is not enough for your needs, and that you need two or more shelters to achieve your backpacking goals.

Next week I’ll review the pros and cons of the most popular UL shelters available from Tarptent, ZPacks, Six Moon Designs, Mountain Laurel Designs, Big Agnes, and several other shelter manufacturers and explain the conditions that they are best suited for.

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24 Responses to How to Choose an Ultralight Tent or Shelter: Part 1

  1. Doug Layne, Portland, OR. October 24, 2013 at 2:16 am #

    Thank you taking the time to start this series. I knew about some of the things to think about but lose sight of these important factors. Liked this very much, thanks again and I look forward to reading the next installment.

  2. Ole October 24, 2013 at 7:24 am #

    So far, this is one of the better articles I have found when searching for info on what shelter I need.

    One question: You state that pyramid tents/tarps are best in high wind. Do you know of any test done where tunnel-tents, selfstanding and pyramids are compared on this? There is a german site,http://www.outdoor-magazin.com/, that tests tents using a windmachine to see how they perform i strong winds. I do not know if they have tried a pyramid-shaped tent in this test, but it would be interesting to see.

    In my country, Norway, the saying is that a tunnel-shape or dome with crossing poles are the most windresistant. Pyramids are not seen as so wind-sturdy. This means that to get a tent for hiigh winds, UL is an almost non reachable goal, therefore it would be of great interest to see if your statement is right and ours “wrong”.

    (pardon my spelling)

    • Philip Werner October 24, 2013 at 7:26 am #

      Tunnel tents are excellent for high winds but none are ultralight (or even close to 3 pounds in weight) hence out of the scope of the article.

      • Walter Underwood November 30, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

        The Stephenson Warmlite 2R is a two-person double-wall tunnel tent at 2.75 pounds.

  3. Marco October 24, 2013 at 7:28 am #

    There is a large number of overlaps with tents, tarps and floorless shelters, too. Choosing good ground (a small raised area or hillock) works with any tent as a simple example. In good weather, most any tent will work. In bad weather you quickly find out which ones do not work so well.

    Good write up!

  4. Mike Spalding October 24, 2013 at 8:27 am #

    Thanks for tackling this subject. I’m looking forward to subsequent articles. Will Bearpaw Wilderness Designs be one of the “other shelter manufacturers” that you review?

  5. Francis Tapon October 24, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    Great article! The main thing I would disagree with is, “Shelter Weight is the Least Important Consideration.” That’s a bit of a hyperbole.

    I agree it should not be your #1 consideration, but it’s hard not to put it in your top 3 factors if you’re aiming to find an “ultralight tent or shelter.” And this article is written for people who want an ultralight tent or shelter, right?

    If this article is written for the general audience, those who are not necessarily looking for an ultralight shelter, then a shelter’s weight drops a few more notches down in importance.

    However, it should probably never be “the least important consideration” on anyone’s list. There’s a lot of other things I’d put down as less important than weight: the color; the kind of stakes it comes with; the stow sack; if it has a place to put your eyeglasses; if the guylines are glow-in-the-dark, etc…..

    Don’t take my criticism badly: this is a great article that everyone should read!

    • Philip Werner October 24, 2013 at 10:50 am #

      Spot on Francis – it is hyperbole. I never exaggerate!

      • Grandpa October 28, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

        Not once in a million years have I been known to exaggerate.

  6. Jacob D October 24, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    Nice write up. I like the use of criteria to serve as a sort of steering wheel towards shelter designs that would fit best, but in the Environmental section I’m not sure there’s much difference. A pyramid would work fine in all of the listed situations. The one about sleeping in dished out areas that fill up with rain water… I wouldn’t pitch there with any shelter and count on the floor to keep standing water out.

  7. Philip Werner October 24, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    Sometimes you really have no choice, especially if local regulartions require that you only pitched on packed earth sites and the rangers enfore the policy through fines or ejection.

  8. Dan Smith October 24, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    Excellent article, Philip. Congrats on leading the community in discussing issues that hit us where we are most exposed — in our sleep! As Marco indicates, selecting the best possible site for your camp may be the number one prereq to a good overnight experience in the woods.

  9. Rick October 24, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    Excellent article and analysis. Insight on factors many of us don’t focus on. Please keep up the good work.

  10. J. Mark Lane October 24, 2013 at 6:07 pm #

    This probably doesn’t matter to everyone, but one factor that I take into account is the size of the packed tent. For example, I have a Tarptent Double Rainbow (Rainbow is the same). I love it, but the poles break down to 18 inches. I prefer not to pack them vertically in my pack; would rather roll them with the tent and pack it all in one bundle horizontally. Not possible in most packs with this rig. I solved the problem — contacted Henry Shires and he sent me to Tentpole Technologies. For a few bucks, they made me a new pole that breaks down to 14 inches. Also happens to be a bright gold color, easier to see in the dark. Cost me a fraction of an ounce in additional weight and makes the DR a much better tent, imo.

    Nice article. Tents are like potato chips, you can’t have just one.

    • Philip Werner October 24, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

      That is a great observation. I was just remarking on a similar point to a reader this morning via email that he should compare the poles on two exoskeleton tents in terms of their packability, since those Y junctions on BA and NEMO tents are so awkward to pack.

  11. John Haynes October 24, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

    I’m planning to join a camping trip with my friends next month. Thanks for sharing these wonderful tent ideas that I can use when buying a new tent. My main problem with my tent is that it’s quite heavy and hard to assemble. I want something light and easy to assemble but can at least protect me from crawling and flying insects at night.

  12. PhilipS October 28, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

    Another important consideration is that a tent is part of a “sleep system”. Some people have come to rely on a full tent for added warmth because they fell for some marketing foo and went Hyper-UL on the sleeping bag and mat. Others insist on a tent because they are convinced that all scorpions and snakes in the county will end up in their sleeping bag if they go for just a tarp. In addition to the criteria that you’re listing, I don’t think I could honestly recommend a UL shelter to anyone without knowing their nightly phobias and what type of mat and bag they intend to carry along with it.

  13. Walter Underwood November 30, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    I don’t like a breeze across my face, but I solve that with a breathable bivy (from Titanium Goat). I tuck my head under the flap. My MLD Speedmid is big enough for two, light enough for one, and stable in wind.

  14. Ozzie Banicki February 9, 2014 at 9:33 pm #

    Great article and excellent comments — I just discovered the pyramid tents by Mtn. Laurel Designs — very interesting. I was sold on the new Gossamer Q-spin tarp, but this casts some doubt on it. I need ventilation. I am not satisfied with my Mt. Hardware duo.

  15. alana March 4, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

    where i hike (in Manitoba) you get slaughtered by mosquitos, so inner netting is mandatory. that being said, i’m looking at just making something that will suit my needs and this definitely helps a lot.

  16. guillermo elgart March 23, 2014 at 12:20 pm #

    hello. I am from Argentina.
    I have a tent. MSR Carbon Reflex 2.
    It is very comfortable.
    Easy to assemble.
    Easy to dry.
    With good rains, good bath.
    It is very resistant to winds.
    Weight 1500 grams.
    I’m thinking of buying a Stephensons Warmlite 2c. He perishes.
    but a duomid mountain laurel designs with innernet. That option seems best?
    The use forest backcountry. heavy rainfall possible. possible high winds. no use in snow.
    Thanks Philip for his analysis.
    I await your response. Thank you. Bill from Argentina

    • Philip Werner March 23, 2014 at 10:05 pm #

      The duomid is an excellent shelter but is difficult to pitch in forests in my experience because it has a huge footprint and doesn’t fit well between trees.

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