The Problem with Pyramid Shelters

The Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid I used in Scotland

The Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid

The problem with many pyramid style shelters (such as the MLD Duomid, the Solomid, and the Trailstar to name a few) is that they suffer from low angled walls which reduce the amount of usable interior space inside. Granted, all lightweight backpacking shelters are compromises between comfort, function, weatherproofness, and weight, but there are times when I want a shelter that provides a little more luxury and living space. This was top-of- mind on my recent backpacking trip across Scotland, where I’d brought a floorless Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid and had to sleep with front door closed for 2 weeks in cold and dreary weather.

Adding a bathtub floor or net-tent to a pyramid doesn’t solve this problem because your head and feet are still be just inches away from the surface of the tarp, and waking up on cold mornings with frost an inch or two above your face on the inside of a pyramid tarp gets old pretty fast.

MLD TrailStar Pitched Low

MLD TrailStar Pitched Low

Size does make a difference if carry a large pyramid like the GoLite Shangri-la 3 where the height and diameter of the shelter means steeper walls. Martin Rye has been telling me this for the past month and it’s starting to get through. I’m just not convinced I want a shelter with such a huge footprint because it limits the number of places I can set it up in the thickly wooded forests of New England where I live.

I’ve been running through the design alternatives in my head for a resonably windproof tarp shelter that is suitable for windy, damp open spaces like Scotland and more protected but scramped spaces like New England’s forests with limited success.

GoLite Shangri-La 3

GoLite Shangri-La 3

Like Martin, I wished I hadn’t sold my Tarptent Scarp 1 (click for Robin Evan’s review) which uses hoops to solve the wall angle issue and can be set up in the rain without getting the inner tent wet.  But at 48 ounces, it’s too heavy for my taste, although I’d be interested in what the outer fly weighs independent of the inner because it can be used separately.

But the Tarptent Notch (click for Nielsen Brown’s review) looks very appealing to me, because the ends of the outer fly are raised off the ground using Pitchlock poles providing more interior head and foot room despite angled walls. Very clever. Henry Shires of Tarptent uses this technique on several of his other shelters.

Raised Fly Ends on the Tarptent Stratospire 2

Raised Fly Ends on the Tarptent Stratospire 2

Like the Scarp, the Notch fly can be pitched separately from the inner tent, and according to Nielsen, only weighs 15.2 ounces (433 g), good for times when I want to go light and don’t need an inner tent. But at 26 ounces total, including both the fly and the inner, the weight of the Notch is nearly half that of the Scarp 1, and probably sufficient for Scotland if pitched in more sheltered locations.

I haven’t made any decisions yet and would appreciate any insights or suggestions you have about the wall angle/usuable space issue in pyramid-style shelters. I still like my Duomid which has been my goto shelter for 2 TGO Challenges and other long trips, but there are times when I want a little bit more comfort than it provides.

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38 Responses to The Problem with Pyramid Shelters

  1. Laurence June 12, 2013 at 2:16 am #

    A GoLite Shangri-La 2 has about the same footprint as an MLD duomid, but with a puptent shape, so your head and feet have room for gymnastics. The midpoints of the sides are stretched and staked outward to make a shape that’s a cross between a rectangle and a hexagon, again like a duomid, so it’s wind resistant, and you’ll rarely encounter a slimy side wall. At 22 ounces, the Shangri-La 2 is just 4 ounces over a silnylon duomid, and it is $150. Serious ultralighters might turn up their noses at that weight, but it’s still light, cheap, decadent for one, and keeps the walls away from you.

    • Earlylite June 12, 2013 at 6:11 am #

      That’s a serious option and I have considered it for years…we also use them on Andrew Skurka’s trips as student shelters. Still less optimal than a MLD Solomid or the other many knockoffs available because it has 2 poles right down the middle. With the Solomid the poles are arranged in an A frame. For New England forest, I prefer a flat tarp because its so much more flexible, but the SL2 is a valid alternative to a pyramid. Thanks for suggesting it.

      The irony these days is that many of the “ultralighters” add a nest to their shelters, so they’re not so ultralight anymore…

  2. Ben June 12, 2013 at 7:58 am #

    I used a scarp a long time ago and always thought it was to fiddly to pitch with the 4 corners but I think his newer designs offer as much protection and are easier to pitch.
    I have tried both the Notch and the Stratospires from Tarptent. I still have the two stratospires and they are great tents IMO. They have a huge amount of interior space for 1 or 2 people and the pitch-lock corner on the two sides does make it noticably roomier. I keep the 2 person around for if my wife comes backpacking that once or twice a year. I think this video says enough about the wind resistance.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fg0Yo8dBY0I
    I tried the Notch but it just didn’t do it for me. I thought the floor space was a little cramped and it was fiddlier to pitch than the stratospires. That said you definitely don’t have to worry about having the fly in your face because it is so long.
    I recently picked up the new double wall moment from Tarptent and I have been really impressed with it. It is basically a notch with a hoop pole instead of trekking poles but it has a wider floor and is rediculously simple to set up. It is going to be my go to tent and I think it will make a good winter tent since it is simple to set up and has the optional cross pole which works better than the scarp.

    • Earlylite June 12, 2013 at 8:08 am #

      Also an interesting option and I like the fact that the inner nest is optional. Do you happen to know how much the inner nest weighs by itself (or just the fly without the inner)? You are right about the Notch being fiddly – I also use Pacerpoles which are not that well supported by Tarptent, but I plan to get on Henry’s case about that. :-)

      For you old timers, the Moment DW without a nest looks a lot like the Integral Designs SilShelter without the asymmetric design. Just saying. That was an interesting shelter.

      • John Shannon December 1, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

        You meant the Integral Designs Sil Dome?..similar to the Moment in shape. I’ve been reading your reviews. Great website.

        • Philip Werner December 1, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

          That’s it. Yama is about to come out with a tarp shaped like the TT Notch, but with asymmetric poles that looks pretty interesting.

  3. John June 12, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    I recently moved from the MSR Hubba (which I dearly loved for many years) to a MLD Cuben Grace Duo, then to a Tarptent Notch. These changes were motivated by a desire to minimize weight. I looked long and hard at the Notch, but convinced myself that the weight savings of going Tarp/Bivy were worth the slightly less functional aspects of that system, i.e. weather protection.

    Once I got my MLD/Bivy system put together, I discovered the total weight, included proper stakes and guys to be only 4oz lighter than the Notch. And in heavy weather, it really wasn’t all that protective. Add to this the fact that gear is harder to keep clean and dry, and I just wasn’t happy with my decision.

    Sold the Grace and Bivy, bought the Notch, and knew within 2 min. of setting it up it was the decision I should have made initially. Love the Notch. Love. Love. Love. I described it to a friend as “95% Hubba flavor, 1/2 the fat”. I truly admire those who are comfortable and happy with nothing but an 8oz tarp for shelter. But for me, the 28oz total weight of my Notch system is another of those gear decisions where the “extra” weight is completely worth it.

    If you think there is any way you might like the Notch, I highly encourage you to try it. I never dreamed I could get so close to the Hubba’s functionality for 28 oz.

    • Earlylite June 12, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

      Might do. I’ve owned a grace duo too.

  4. Shelly June 12, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    I used the Notch last summer for fifty nights or so on the PCT. In most conditions it was a wonderful shelter, relatively easy to setup and plenty of space for me. In big winds though it was less than stable and I ended up with piles of rocks on either end to keep the shelter up. It could have been user error but I don’t think entirely. After this I wouldn’t consider using it in high wind areas especially if the wind also included rain. Just my two cents.

    • Brian June 12, 2013 at 9:56 am #

      I would also have a concern with the Notch for strong wind-shedding capabilities. It’s a great tent and option, but most (not all) tarptents don’t do as well in extremely intense winds as a shelter like the trailstar. All a tradeoff I suppose.

      One option might be the Hilleberg Akto. It’s also heaviesh at 3.5 pounds, but it can shed some serious wind and definitely has some more headroom. I don’t have the Akto, but I have a Hilleberg tent I use in winters and absolutely love it…

      In the end this might be a mutually exclusive option… maybe you’ll need to stick with two tents. One for places like the UK or here in Colorado above treeline (where winds can get pretty intense) and a light, but roomy, option like the Notch for everywhere else.

      • Earlylite June 12, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

        I’ve tried the Akto – way too heavy and fussy. I’d just stick with my 12 oz cuben Duomid.
        You only really need wind shedding capabilities if you choose to camp in an exposed spot. You don’t have too. High camps are nice, but how often do you really get to have them?

  5. Mark June 12, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    I’ll be trying out the Tarptent Rainbow this year. I’ve pitched it, but I haven’t had it in the field yet. At 36.1 oz (seam-sealed and including stakes), it’s lightweight but not ultralight. In exchange for a weight penalty of roughly one pound (over the mass of a shaped tarp like the Wild Oasis by Six Moon Designs or a simple poncho tarp plus cord, stakes and ground sheet), I’m getting a remarkably spacious, single-walled luxury apartment. If you carry hiking poles (or can find a couple of suitable sticks), it can be pitched free-standing. This gives it a modest overall footprint and improves options during site selection. If needing to shelter for an extended time, I expect it would remain comfortable with plenty of space for activities. It even has sufficient floorspace and side-wall angle to ‘double’ as a super cozy two-person tent, if my girlfriend hikes with me.

  6. PaulA June 12, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    All ‘rag huts’ will have their advantages and disadvantages, for myself I want a shelter that I can hit the hills for a week or so without weather concerns, fairly lightweight (~1kg), be capable of pitching as easily on a mountain top or in the valley and be comfortable (space).

    I’ve now used the MLD Trailstar for around 40 nights in Scotland, summer and winter, using either the MLD Superlight Bivi (winter & spring) or the BearPaws PyraNet inner during the midge season and found it a very versatile shelter, probably the best I’ve owned.
    For me the biggest advantage is the Trailstar’s all-round weather performance, even on exposed sites with 30-40 mph winds I’ve not felt that I’m ‘pushing the envelope’. Yes the usable floor space is less than the footprint but that’s a component of the aerodynamics. For one person even at a low pitch I find there a huge amount of usable floor space (at 5’-7” I’m not as vertically challenged as you), there’s far more space than something like the Laser Comp, which makes it quite comfortable sorting out gear/ cooking with the rain lashing down.

    Some other observations on the Trailstar:

    Good anchors are a 100% necessity in strong winds, higher capacity that a tent. I’ve generally found the 8” Easton stakes to be pretty solid but on hard frozen or rocky ground these can be useless so I’ve taken to also carry a few Vargo Ti Nails when the season/ terrain dictates (it does add a few grams).
    A nice symmetrical pitch (e.g. on flat ground) isn’t absolutely necessary, a good taut pitch can be achieved fairly easily with one side (or point) higher than the others, pitches that would be difficult for any tent.
    The PyraNet only real fits under the Trailstar in 2 positions so it sometimes can be difficult to get a comfortable sleeping spot on bumpy ground (a traditional tent can be similarly awkward when trying to pitch up on a windy site). With a bivi it’s easy; I just find a spot around the center pole that works!

  7. Dave June 12, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    I too have had the same issue. I went through the DuoMid and Trailstar and sold them for their lack of usable length. I also went through a Golite SL2. Its issue was width. With the poles in the middle of the shelter I and with usable width compromised, I would roll into the sides easily. Length was good, however.

    I now use a Notch exclusively. I cannot find a downside to the shelter. Double walled. Check. Usable length for tall folks. Check. Enough room to sit up. Check. Dual doors. Check. Dual vestibules. Check. Excellent wind stability. Check. Sets up fly first. Check. Well under 2 lbs. Check.

    If you are looking at a modified mid design then the Stratosphire fly is the way to go. Henry now sells them separately and the benefits over the DuoMid are clear to me. Struts increase the usable length. Two doors and two vestibules. Two upper vents.

    • Laurence June 12, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

      A solo camper can angle the poles of an SL2 quite a bit and sleep in the middle.

  8. Damien Tougas June 12, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

    What about tunnel tents? Roger Caffin from BPL is a huge fan, especially in windy/stormy conditions. Some of the newer versions are getting pretty light (like the Hilleberg Anjan), and they can also be used floorless without the inner if you like.

  9. Doogster June 12, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    I prefer not to fiddle about with a shelter. Some people do, they love custom made nests, trimming guy lines and looking for optimal trekking pole heights to support their shelters. Good on them if that’s what sweetens their life. I like a place where I can sleep, stare at the sky and keep out of the wind and rain. My TN Laser Ultra lets me do this. I don’t ask for anything more, it’s a wonderful shelter, not without its opponents, and I wouldn’t change it for anything else. My 2 cents.

  10. Joe June 12, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    I’m pretty new to the game so this conversation is very informative. I’m currently rocking the SMD Skyscape Scout cause $125, yo. It’s a bit of a tight squeeze, but very nice when the weather allows for the sides to be stowed away. I have been considering a ZPacks Hexamid Twin when I’m able to upgrade but I see that it hasn’t been mentioned so far. Any opinions?

  11. Walter Underwood June 12, 2013 at 5:41 pm #

    This is more a problem with modified pyramids than with pyramid tents in general.

    Originally, pyramid tents were much taller. They shed rain and snow and have plenty of room. Take a look at a Chouinard pyramid, a Black Diamond Megamid, an MLD Supermid, or any of the Oware pyramids. They all are about 8×8 and have a six foot center pole. Even the cotton canvas BSA Miner’s Tent from the 60′s is the same design, just down-sized a little (http://www.bplite.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=2576).

    When you shorten the tent to save weight and money, it doesn’t work as well. I like my MLD Speedmid, but if I had the cash, I’d be glad to carry a Supermid.

    The footprint for the MLD Speedmid and Supermid is exactly the same, but the Supermid is a lot bigger inside.

  12. Stephen June 13, 2013 at 10:30 am #

    Its worth looking at the Ss1, Henry added extra guy points to mine and he reckons it will handle wind as well as the Scarp.

  13. Steve M June 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    I currently own two tents – a Zpacks Hexamid Solo with netting and beak and a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1 ( newest version). On mild nights, the Hex is hard to beat at 16 oz including a polycro ground sheet to keep the netting free of debris. By coincidence, I have not had to sleep in it in inclement weather, so cannot comment on its performance in those conditions.

    I recently purchased the UL1 for trips where the weather looks more iffy. It weighs in at just under 2.5 lbs ( replaced the stakes with Ti hooks), is free standing ( other than the rainfly vestibule), and with a sling I made out of two lengths of triptease with loops at either end, I can erect the frame, drape the rainfly, then erect the inner tent, thereby keeping it pretty dry even in a downpour. This tent is very roomy for one, both vertically and at the head end which is 42″ wide. It is also a side entry design, like the Hex, which I much prefer. I also carried it once without the fly on a clear night, which reduces the weight by almost a pound. For the 8 to10 oz weight penalty over other single wall options, this has proven to be worth it in terms of its flexibility and comfort.

    • Simon June 13, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

      Steve – did BA redesign the cross-pole on the CS UL1 in its latest iteration? I had the 2011 version which was ~8oz heavier, and although I liked the space to weight ratio for a freestanding tent, the cross-pole is what caused me to sell it after a few uses. It was exactly at head height when entering the tent, and I almost poked my eye out every trip – usually on the way back in after a middle of the night pee break.

      • Steve M June 13, 2013 at 6:53 pm #

        I did not own the earlier version, but did study its design via youtube. I believe you mean the top cross pole that spreads both the inner tent headroom and supports the fly. They did shorten this so that it is only about as wide as the inner tent. It does not get in my way – I believe the prior version extended a few inches beyond the inner tent walls. The result is that the vestibule must be a little smaller in enclsed volume.

        BTW the fabric weight is not listed anywhere on BA’s website, but I wrote customer service and they responded that the floor, sidewalls and fly are all 20D and the mesh is 15D.

  14. DaveC June 13, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    Snow shedding.
    Wind shedding.
    Easy to pitch.
    Light.
    Small footprint.

    With the best shelters you can perhaps have four.

    The SL2 sheds snow well, is light, has a fairly compact footpring, and is easy to pitch. Broadside wind shedding leaves a lot to be desired.

    The Trailstar can either shed snow or wind depending on pitch, is fiddly to pitch well, and takes up a ton of space.

    The square mids (Megalight et al) balance snow and wind shedding well by having an approximate 45 degree wall slant. They’re easy to pitch, but take up lots of space.

    Tipis (mids with many sides) also take up lots of space, balance wind and snow shedding even better than square mids, but are a pain to pitch well.

    Pick your preference.

  15. Scott June 16, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    After trying the poncho/bivy and pyramid tent options, I have arrived at the same conclusion; the TT Notch is the best tradeoff between weight and livability. Hopefully I will feel the same way when it is delivered next week.

  16. Simon June 16, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    Yes, that’s the cross pole I was referring to. On my model it extended quite a ways beyond the inner, which made for a spacious vestibule but a real hazard when entering. The design was basically the same on the CS UL3, only taller, so it was less of a problem on that shelter. That’s good to hear BA shortened the pole, even if it resulted in less usable space under the fly.

    However, these days my shelters use trekking poles. The Tarptent Stratospire 2 comes in at about the same weight as the current CS UL1, excluding trekking poles which I bring anyway, and has massive amounts of usable space – volume-wise I put it on a par with the CS UL3. And, back to the point of this article, it handles the wind better than anything that tall ought to.

  17. Simon June 16, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    Oops, that was in response to Steve M’s comment.

  18. Randy Cain June 17, 2013 at 12:29 am #

    The Santa Anna Winds of the Mohave Desert about blew my ass into the next state when I set a Tarptent Notch up in April. The wind was so strong it was just ridiculous!! I couldn’t even walk straight. That would have been a true test for ANY shelter. I wish I had the Trailstar with me to give it a test. I finally left the Notch and crawled into my topper on the Tacoma. I honestly wasn’t sure the Notch would even be there the next day. It was, but it sure was droopy, beat up, and filled with sand.

  19. Jesse June 30, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    I’d like to put in a vote for the Statospire. My girlfriend and I shared a Stratospire 2 for over half our thru-hike last year. We weathered some killer storms in it. I’d say it errs on the side of “fiddly” to set up when you are learning to pitch it, but after a few nights practice its easy to get a tight pitch in the dark. No issues with condensation. The Stratospire 1 is almost big enough to share.

  20. Brad R. July 11, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

    Perhaps a Oware Alphamid? It has a similar footprint of a Duomid but there is no center pole and you have more headroom. About the same weight too at 19oz.

  21. RIck Light July 20, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    Hi Experts,
    I’m new to ultralight, although I’m a seasoned backpacker. I’m transitioning to ultralight and have questions about ultralight shelter systems: Anyone have beta or suggestions?

    I’m comparing the Zpacks Hexamid Solo Plus and the Six Moons Designs Lunar Solo 2012. The Hex is $275 more, looks nicer, but is it worth it? Anyone used these two tents? Also considered the Tarptent Notch and some Mountain Laurel Designs models. Any tent you feel is the best choice? My criteria in addition to light weight are the usual kinds of things (in random order):
    (1) must be reliable and weather-tight in severe weather
    (2) minimal to no condensation – most of my trips are in CO, NM, UT, and Grand Canyon – some desert some high altitude (11000-12000′ camps).
    (3) decent room for one person plus gear – I’m used to using a Hubba.
    (4) good quality, durable, functional
    (5) simple to set up/tear down

    I would appreciate any and all comments, suggestions, and expertise you can share.

    Thanks in advance.

    Rick

    • Walter Underwood July 20, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

      Since you are not dealing with bugs and don’t need to do snow, get a Mountain Laurel Designs Speedmid. It is reasonably-priced ($195), lightweight, and good in any kind of weather that does not involve heavy snow. It is a palace for one person, and plenty roomy when you camp with a friend.

      The only real issue (common to all pyramids) is that it must be set up tight and stay that way when the wind blows, regardless of the soil. I bring a variety of tent pegs: titanium hooks, titanium nails, and a couple of Easton fat pegs. If the tent is set up taut, you’ll be good in pretty nasty weather. You’ll get a bit of weather blown under the edges, but the tent will be solid.

      My wife and I camped on Angel Island yesterday in an exposed campsite with lots of wind and really hard soil. I got a blister on my palm working in the thinnest stakes I brought, but the Speedmid was great all night. I bent one of my Vargo titanium nail stakes. Geez.

      I really don’t like breezes on my face when I’m sleeping, so I have a TiGoat Ptarmigan bivy that I use inside the Speedmid.

      Set up? You’ll move every stake once, just like setting up a tarp.

      Tear down? Nothing strikes faster than a pyramid. I think it is faster than packing my 8×10 tarp.

      Here is a photo of the interior of a pitched Speedmid. It was nice weather, so I used the pole extender to get an additional four inches of height.

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/walter_underwood/4573142335/in/set-72157623980063688

      • RIck Light July 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

        Thanks, Walter. I’ll check it out.

        Rick

  22. Philip Werner July 28, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    I tried out a Gossamer Gear ‘One’ tent last week on loan from Austin and found it to be much larger than expected it. Shape-wise, it’s nearly identical to the Tarptent Notch except the rear door is fixed and doesn’t open into a vestibule. The interior space is huge, mainly because it is very long, designed to accomodate a 6’4″ Glen Van Peski – to Walter/DaveC’s points that mid space is not an issue if the footprint is much larger. Pitching it was fussier than I expected though and the old Spectra fabric was cracking apart so I opted no to take it on my upcoming trip where it rained like hell. The One has an exterior rear pole rather an an interior one, and must be slanted rather than stand vertical as it is on the Notch. I think the Notch is the obvious next step in the evolution of the One and a better overall design. I’m still leaning toward the Notch in these deliberations.

    • Rick Light July 28, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

      Hi Philip,

      Any thoughts on the comparison of the Notch and the Six Moons Designs Skyscape Trekker? Similar designs, Trekker is longer so requires more room to pitch. Love to hear any thoughts you and others might have.

      Rick

      • Philip Werner October 4, 2013 at 7:53 am #

        I still favor the Notch because it has a removable inner that can be use in other situations like a lean-to to keep bugs off. The Skyscape is one unit withot seperable components. It’s a nice tent, but I like modularity.

  23. Annie October 10, 2013 at 4:06 am #

    I had the Hilleberg Unna on the Pennines in a gale the other night. Only ever take the fly, poles and a plastic sheet. Pegged down, with all guys, it was solid and barely shuddered!

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