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Twelve Ultralight Backpacking Tents and Shelters: Part 1

Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid picthed for Heavy Rain

Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid picthed for Heavy Rain

I’ve bought and owned 12 ultralight shelters in the past 6 years. Several of you asked what they were, and wanted to know why I bought them and then moved on to others (See also How to Choose an Ultralight Tent or Shelter: Part 1 and Part 2).

I wish I could tell you that I knew what I was doing when I bought all of these tents and shelter. I didn’t. In most cases it’s because I’d never owned a tarptent, or a hammock, or a pyramid tarp before and only had a hazy notion of what conditions they were good in. There’s only so much you can really understand about a new type of tent or shelter until you try one and see how it performs in dry weather and rain, and in hot and cold weather.

For example,

  • I bought my first  tarptent when I started experimenting with  ultralight backpacking.
  • I bought a hammock when I decided that I wanted the flexibility to sleep anywhere there were  trees.
  • I bought a winter tent when I started winter backpacking and mountaineering.
  • I bought a pyramid tarp when I wanted to backpack across windy Scotland.

If there’s a moral to be learned from my experience, it’s this. When you buy your first tent or shelter in a new “category,” try to buy the least expensive one you can or borrow one from a friend for a few trips. Buying the most expensive model, say in cuben fiber, when you’ve never tried one in that category before, might provide financially disasterous if it doesn’t work out as well as you hoped.

Experience really does pay off. The trick is to pay as little for it as possible.

My Shelter History

Here are the tents and shelters that I’ve owned in chronological order of purchase. I’ve split this post into two parts, so I’ll cover the first six today and bring you up to date on the last six in Wednesday’s post.

      1. Tarptent Squall 2
      2. Six Moons Lunar Solo
      3. Oware 1 person cuben fiber tarp
      4. Hennssey Hammock
      5. Jacks ‘R’ Better 8 x 8 silnylon tarp
      6. Black Diamond FirstLight tent
      7. Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Duo
      8. Tarptent Scarp 1
      9. ZPacks Hexamid
      10. Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid
      11. Outdoor Equipment Supplier 10 x 10 Square Silnylon Tarp
      12. Tarptent Notch

Tarptent Squall 2

Tarptent Squall 2

Tarptent Squall 2

The Tarptent Squall 2 was the first ultralight shelter I ever bought. At 34 ounces, it was by far the lightest tent I’d ever owned and it was the first tarp tent I tried. It was very comfortable to sleep in, it had a lot of space to spread out my gear because it was a two-person shelter, it rarely suffered from any internal condensation except in exceptionally heavy rain, and it was easy to pitch. I still think it is a fantastic value, especially for someone converting over from a double-walled tent to their first ultralight shelter.

Still, the Squall 2 had a pretty big footprint in terms of the area required to pitch it and requires a separate hooped rear pole. I knew I could slash my gear by another 9 ounces (which seemed important at the time), so I bought a 23 ounce Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo. I still hung onto the Squall 2 though.

Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo

Six Moon Designs Luna Solo on The Long Trail, 2008

Six Moon Designs Luna Solo on The Long Trail, 2008

I can’t remember my exact rationale for purchasing the Lunar Solo, but at the time I was infatuated by ultralight backpacking and slashing the weight of my pack. My first UL backpack was also a Six Moon Designs Starlite, which probably factored into the decision to buy a tent from them.

The Lunar Solo was a fine tent in dry weather. Pitching it could be a little finicky because it has a 5 sided shape, but it had excellent ventilation. It also had a front beak that pitched over the front guyline like the Squall 2 and provided a place to keep gear if it was raining. It’s only weakness was internal condensation over the foot area do to low hanging fabric. I believe Ron Moak revised the design later to take care of that problem. Still the smaller footprint made it much easier to find good natural tent sites in forests and it took up less space in my backpack. I really liked it.

 Oware Cat-cut Spinnaker Tarp

Oware Cat-Cut Tarp

Oware Cat-Cut Tarp

I can’t remember buying this spinnaker (predecessor to cuben fiber) tarp. Total amnesia. Someone told me it was likely private labelled by but sewn by a company called Oware, that they outsourced their shelters to. I found it when I was cleaning out my gear closet one day. I never used it and ended up selling it because it was too small. I don’t like tarps that are that confining and I don’t think they’re weatherproof enough for New England backpacking. You want something larger like a two person tarp.

It weighed 4.8 oz which probably contributed to my purchasing it in an ultralight backpacking fugue. Buying a shelter purely in the basis of weight is a bonehead reason to buy a shelter. I probably lost money when I sold it, but I can’t find any record of what I paid for it originally.

Hennessey Hammock

Hammocking in the Adirondacks

Hanging Out in the Adirondacks

If you camp enough in the Northeast, it’s easy to justify switching to a shelter that you can hang between two trees.  I bought a Hennessey Ultralite Backpacker Asym Hammock because I could see myself backpacking through the mountains with it and sleeping on rocky slopes where good campsites are difficult to find.

Unfortunately, I could never sleep comfortably in my hammock because I was too cold at night. I tried buying thicker undershield systems from Jacks ‘R’ Better (JRB) and Hennessey, but that didn’t work. I tried adding additional sleeping pads and even a down underquilt (shown above) which helped somewhat, but was still insufficient to keep me warm.

This went on for quite some time until I gave up on hammocks, concluding that they were  never going to be a weight or pack-volume efficient shelter option for me because of their limited temperature range. It’s too bad because they have some real attractive properties, but they didn’t work for me at the time.

I ended up selling all my hammock gear, except for a $80 green silnylon Jacks ‘R’ Better 8 x 8 tarp that I hung onto. They don’t make it anymore. I love it.

Jacks ‘R’ Better 8 x 8 Tarp

JRB 8x8 Square Tarp pitched as Adirondack Wind Shed in the 100 Mile Wilderness

JRB 8×8 Square Tarp pitched as an Adirondack Wind Shed in the 100 Mile Wilderness

I started using my JRB 8×8 Square Tarp toward the end of 2008 as a fall back shelter on the Long Trail in Vermont. The Long Trail has a shelter system like the Appalachian Trail, but the shelters are much nicer, often with four walls and a door.

I was hiking the LT off-season so I almost always had the shelters to myself. But I carried the tarp along just in case I didn’t end up at a shelter by nightfall. Weighing 9 ounces, my little tarp made a perfect just-in-case shelter. I did use it once when I got to a shelter that was under repairs and boarded-up. I’ve since done the same thing on AT section hikes, carrying an ultralight tarp as a hedge against not getting a shelter spot at night. It depends on the time of year and section you hike, but by carrying a tarp instead of a tent, you can lighten your pack or carry a day or two more food between resupplies.

Several years later I got very interested in flat tarps(with 90 degree corners) and how to pitch them in all kind of different shapes. Learning these pitches and how to incorporate lanscape features into a tarp pitch is a real throw-back, old-school skill. But it really adds a rich  dimension to campsite selection that I enjoy. If you’d like to learn more, check out Square Tarp Pitches.

I still own this tarp and doubt I’ll ever sell it. It’s the best $80 I ever spent on a shelter.

Black Diamond FirstLight Tent

Black Diamond Firstlight Tent (Freestanding)

Black Diamond Firstlight Tent (Freestanding)

I bought the Black Diamond FirstLight for cold weather and winter backpacking, five years ago, I think. I still own it and continue to use it in those conditions.

If you read my post How to Choose an Ultralight Tarp or Shelter: Part 2, you’ll see that I deliberately left out a shelter category called Single-Walled Tents. These are different from tarp tents because they don’t have any bug netting sewn into the walls. This design is only used for winter mountaineering tents where light weight is more important than comfort and where internal condensation is mitigated by colder, less humid air. I didn’t list a Single Walled Tent category in that series because they are very few tents like this available.

I bought the Black Diamond FirstLight because it was the lightest 4 season tent with a floor that I could find (43 ounces). It’s a single-walled freestanding tent which pitches using two collapsible poles that run from corner to corner inside the tent. Being freestanding is its greatest virtue, making it very fast to erect without the need to wait for tent stakes to sinter (freeze) in place beforehand. I also bring this tent on trips where I know I’ll have to use wooden platforms.

Continue to Part 2 ->

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19 Responses to Twelve Ultralight Backpacking Tents and Shelters: Part 1

  1. Marco November 4, 2013 at 6:48 am #

    You have gone through some good tents/shelters. I find it somewhat amusing that the $80 JRB tarp is still hanging out in your pack dispite several hundreds worth of other gear. I pretty much went the same way, but started with old $9, 2.5 pound “pup” tents. Nice reviews, generally.

    I could never sleep comfortably in my Hennessy. Not so much due to cold, as just not being comfortable. I generally toss and turn all night. I still have it stored away.

    The weather through out the north-east is highly variable, most is governed by the mountains. A 20 mile difference is enough to change it from rainy & cold to hot and humid. Indeed, one side of a mountain can be rain and cloud and the other side bright and dry. I agree that small tarps, like the spinn shelter, are not enough to handle this. A larger tarp will perform better over the course of two or three nights.

    One of the best tarp references I have found is
    He covers a lit of the basic characteristics of the shelters, but note that many are just origami. They will require some clips to properly do, and, he does not list basic dimensions for the finished shelters, ie, interior volume, floor space, usable floor space, areas, etc…

    • Philip Werner November 4, 2013 at 9:18 am #

      Isn’t it though! When I learned how to pitch a 3 sided pyramid with an $80 silnylon tarp, I had to laught.

  2. rob November 4, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    I have a similar but (much) shorter list.
    Squall 2 – big, airy, good for 2 people and luxurious for 1, but that hooped pole is a bit of a bugger.
    Luna solo – small, dry (mostly), with a bug net. Still use it occasionally, but it is a bit of a muchness – not quite big enough, not quite light enough. Enough of a “real tent” for Philmont.
    Etowah designs silicon nylon tarp. Light and leaky – not all silicon nylon is the same quality. Worked OK in a California winter downpour, but not really dependable as it would let a spray through.
    MLD pentamid. Currently my favorite – light and relatively huge.

    Been enjoying your reviews/description of factors for shelters.

  3. Albert Kim November 4, 2013 at 11:22 am #

    Thanks for writing this up Philip. Interesting to see the evolution of your shelter journey. I always wondered why you gave up your hammock. Now I know :-).

    Can’t wait for part 2!

  4. josh camp November 4, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    I’m another one that always wondered why you gave up on hammocks. Now I know….
    I love sleeping in my hammock, but the lowest that I’ve tried is about 20 degrees. I live and hike in the south so it doesn’t get quite as cold down here. I use a large neoair xtherm, a 20 degree sea to summit bag, and a OES macat sil tarp. Can’t wait for the rest of your post.

  5. Jeremy Rardin November 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    You should check out the Borah Gear “Borahgami”! Only weighing 13 oz, it is large enough for two people and gear and has optional door/vestibule.

  6. Lunatic November 5, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    Great article-can’t wait to see pt. 2.
    I used the SMD Lunar Solo on my AT and JMT thru hikes. Love it, but this year on my LT hike I switched to the SMD Wild Oasis to drop a little weight. Basically it’s the Solo minus the floor. It worked well; still had expected condensation issues but overall I love it.
    Thank you.

    • Paul February 2, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

      Im thinking of using a wild oasis for my upcoming AT thru hike. Were you happy with in genera? All im concerned about is condensation issues and what to do for a ground sheet etc…

      • Philip Werner February 2, 2014 at 9:38 pm #

        Not sure who you are asking. I’ve never used one. But I’m familiar with the shelter. If you’re worried about condenstaion sleep with the door open. For a ground sheet, a piece of tyvek will do.

      • Lunatic February 2, 2014 at 10:53 pm #

        Haven’t had too many issues with condensation but it will occur. there are ways to deal like Philip says open door or set up a bit higher, which is possible. I use a piece of tyvek for a ground cloth and also use it in shelters to keep my pad, bag, and gear cleaner.

    • Bill Pope September 23, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

      I have also gone thru a number of “ultralight” tents over the last few years, especially since I retired and have done more long distance hiking (JMT, Colorado Trail, etc.). All in all, I think the SMD Luna Solo (the new version, which is longer and higher) is the best overall design and the best value. Condensation can be a problem, but I usually sleep with the vestibule side wide open unless it is raining or snowing. It is probably the most wind proof ultralight I have used, due to its pyramidal design and the relatively low peak (48″). I have weathered some Old Testament storms in it without getting a bit wet. Plus it has a large vestibule and lots of internal storage space for one person. I recently bought the LE version, which is slightly heavier (30oz), but still quite light, and has the added benefits of being less expensive ($180) and has a more substantial, non-slippery floor. I hate the silnylon floors, especially on an slope.

      I am also planning to try the SMD net tent plus the Deschutes silnylon tarp. The benefits are ventilation, the ability to set up the net tent only for warmer nights and stargazing, and a slightly smaller the footprint. The primary downside will probably be less internal room and a smaller vestibule. Overall, the weight is about the same. Oh, and of course, I could also set up the tarp only for guaranteed bug free hikes. We’ll see how it works.

      Btw, I also have the Luna Duo, which is an unbelievably spacious shelter for two people, even two bigger dudes. Light, lots of width, vertical side walls, and huge vestibules. I was a little worried about high winds, but we had it on the Colorado Trail and it did amazingly well in storms when it was properly and tightly guyed out. It’s not a tent you want for very cold weather, but for most 3 season hiking it’s fine.

  7. Peter Taylor February 10, 2014 at 6:18 pm #

    I am already in love with the Squall 2. I know that it needs a huge area for pitching, but I love it when I can look out from the tent on the sides and I can feel the breeze on my face while sleeping. I am going to get one of these!

  8. Dan June 19, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

    My first tarp was the OES Maccap delux which I use as a gear and kitchen cover now. Then I got the OES 10’x12′ cat cut rectangular tarp which I am currently using with a bottomless/doorless net on a tyvek sheet along with a bivy cover. I just purchased a single net tent from SMD as well as their new Deschutes CF tarp to match. I got the CF just because I wanted to experience that type material but the weight reduction is a welcome bonus.

    I would point out that the Deschutes tarp has no apex vent. At least I do not see it in the specs..

  9. sally roman July 6, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

    I love my hennessy hammock (ultralight asymmetrical). They make a very light under cover that weighs 200g or 7oz and fits under the hammock to essentially create a double walled hammock. Slip an ultralight emergency blanket in there and as soon as you crawl in, you’re lying on a heating pad!! They also make a reflector foam underpad, but I just use a basic emergency blanket for this. In fact, go to their website and check out the full insulation kit for colder weather camping.

    As for sleeping, you have to practice hanging your hammock at the right height and tree distance so that it’s taught and even, and then you should get an asymmetrical and lie on the diagonal with an inflatable airplane pillow or maybe some rolled up cloths. I’ve had back issues even in the best of beds and always wake up sore on a thermarest but never have problems in my hammock! My husband loves it so much he bought his own and he has terrible back issues. It limits snuggling on camping trips but saves on weight and sore backs and hips!! Plus, we can camp anywhere – this is especially great along the coast of BC, Canada, where we just pull up on a rocky bluff in our boat or canoe and string up our hammocks anywhere there are two trees (we’ve got a lot of trees in BC!). Go hammocks go!

  10. John Clay April 11, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

    It’s too bad you gave up on hammocks. I have never had a problem staying warm in mine and I have been down into the teens with no problem. I find them far warmer and more comfortable than tents. What may have been your problem is with adjusting the underquilt correctly so that there are no gaps that let air in. I also use an underquilt protector that provides another layer of wind resistance so in windy conditions, the heat is not robbed. Lastly, in cold conditions I can replace my bug net with a solid material top cover which provides another 10* of temperature improvement. I have seen people go out with hammocks and freeze their a$$es off not knowing the details of how to tweak the adjustments but once you understand them, they are amazingly comfortable and warm. I personally will never go back to a tent unless I am above treeline or I know there will not be usable trees.

    • Philip Werner April 11, 2016 at 7:00 pm #

      John – I’m back in a dream hammock, mostly. But I also use a variety of shelters all year round. Need to get an underquilt protector or full winter sock – froze on my last trip. Not UL by a long shot, but the comfort and sleep quality are stellar.

  11. Marco April 11, 2016 at 4:41 pm #

    John, what does all that gear weigh?

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