Ultralight Backpacking Bug Shelter Primer

Ultralight backpacking bug shelter primer

There are three different types of ultralight bug shelters suitable for cowboy camping, sleeping in a lean-to, or underneath a flat tarp:

  • Bivy Sacks
  • Bug Bivies
  • Net Tents

While they’re all similar in certain respects, they have distinct differences, pros, and cons. While bivy sacks are confining, they provide excellent insect protection. Bug bivies usually offer more living space, but are generally harder to get in and out of and must be suspended from a tarp or trekking poles. Net tents offer the most living space, but must also be used with trekking poles and tend to be the heaviest option.

Bivy Sacks

The Borah Gear Ultralight Bivy Sack is an excellent example of a minimalist bivy sack.
The Borah Gear Ultralight Bivy Sack is an excellent example of a minimalist bivy sack.

Ultralight bivy sacks do not have waterproof tops because they are intended to be used in dry conditions under a separate waterproof shelter in non-winter conditions. They should not be confused with much heavier waterproof bivy sacks used as tent replacements, such as the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy Sack.

Most ultralight bivy sacks have mesh hoods for insect protection and comfort with a solid, highly breathable fabric, covering the torso and legs. A waterproof floor is often included as convenience along with a zipper or drawstring closure. Grosgrain loops are usually included to suspend the mesh overhead with cord and to stake out the bivy sack corners.  Bivy sacks made entirely with mesh tops can be problematic because insects can bite through the mesh if you are sleeping on top of your quilt or sleeping bag in hot weather instead of under or inside them.

  • Advantages
    • Provide wind and splashback protection under tarps. (Splashback is when water bounces off the ground near a tarp and back at you.)
    • Good for insect and light dew protection when cowboy camping under the stars.
    • Easy to use in a lean-to because they can be suspended from rafters and take no additional room.
    • Provide inflatable sleeping bag protection when a pad is used inside bivy sack.
    • They can be used like a sheet for insect protection in hot weather.
  • Disadvantages
    • More claustrophobic than alternatives
    • Low to the ground so less waterproof against pooling water
    • Usually not seam sealed or taped

Bug Bivies

The Paria Outdoor Breeze Mesh Bivy is a very affordable bug bivy option
The Paria Outdoor Breeze Mesh Bivy is a very affordable bug bivy option

Bug bivies (not to be confused by all-mesh bivy sacks that some manufacturers call bug bivies) are similar to bivy sacks but have sidewalls and must be suspended overhead using trekking poles or an overhead shelter. They’re usually offered with a waterproof floor. Many come with top zippers on the ridgeline which can be a little difficult to get in and out of depending on your ability to balance while stepping out of them.

  • Advantages
    • More living space
    • Higher sidewalls provide better insect and water protection.
  • Disadvantages
    • Top door access can be awkward.
    • Must be suspended at the ends using trekking poles or covering tarp
    • Heavier than a bivy sack.
    • More difficult to use in a crowded lean-to.

Net Tents

The Six Moon Designs Serenity Net Tent is a refined bug shelter.
The Six Moon Designs Serenity Net Tent is a refined bug shelter.

Net tents are the equivalent of an inner tent from a double-wall tent but are usually designed to be set up using trekking poles and staked out at the corners. instead. Net tents have waterproof floors and a zippered entrance. If you are planning to combine a net tent with a tarp, it’s important to make sure that the door locations align properly for ease of access.

  • Advantages
    • Lots of headroom so you can sit up inside and change clothing.
  • Disadvantages
    • Heavier than bivy sacks or bug bivies.
    • More difficult to use in a crowded lean-to, especially if they have a side door

The Best of the Best

With the advantages and disadvantages of each bug shelter type in mind, here are the ultralight bug shelters that we would recommend taking a deeper look at if your goal is to assemble an ultralight shelter system. When choosing between these different bug shelter types it’s important to understand where you plan to use them, what the weather conditions will be like, as well as the tarp, if any, you intend to pair them with.

Make / ModelTypeWeightOpeningPrice
Borah Ultralight BivyBivy Sack6.0 ozChest$98
Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight BivyBivy Sack5.5 ozSide$175
Enlightened Equipment Recon BivyBug Bivy6.35 ozTop$150
Paria Outdoor Breeze BivyBug Bivy13 ozTop$60
Mountain Laurel Designs Bug BivyBug Bivy6.5 ozTop$125
Yama Mountain Gear Bug BivyBug Bivy7.1 ozTop or Chest$80
Six Moon Designs Serenity Net TentNet Tent11 ozSide$135
Bear Paw Wilderness Designs Standard Pyranet 1Net Tent13 ozSide$130
MSR Thru-hiker Mesh 1 HouseNet Tent10 ozSide$149
Yama Mountain Gear 1P Bug ShelterNet Tent10.9 ozFront$145

Additional Considerations

Zipper Location

On bivy shelters with zippers, it’s often more convenient to have a side zipper or one at the head end than a zipper that runs lengthwise down the center. If you’re sleeping under a tarp, there’s going to be limited headroom underneath it, particularly in inclement weather when it’s pitched low to the ground for more wind and rain protection. Bivy sacks with side zippers and bug bivies with end doors or side doors are easier to get out of compared to bivy sacks with center zippers or bug bivies with top zippers in the ridgeline.

Bathtub Floor and Sidewall Depth

If you have an all mesh bivy sack or a bug bivy with mesh sidewalls and need to sleep on top of your sleep insulation on hot nights, insects can still bite you through the mesh. If you sleep on a 2″, 3″, or 4″ high inflatable pad, you might consider choosing a shelter with higher sidewalls made with solid insect-proof fabric instead of mesh.

Breathable fabrics

When choosing a bivy sack, try to get one with a highly breathable top fabric to help reduce the chance of internal condensation inside the bivy back. Avoid buying a bivy sack with a waterproof/breathable top fabric for warm weather use because they’re much more prone to internal condensation.

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18 comments

  1. Mike Cunningham

    Is there any good pitch other than an A frame for using a net tent or bug bivy?

    • You could porch one side or use a flying diamond. A wind shed would work pretty well with a bug bivy if it had a side entrance.

  2. Tarp, bug net, hammock.

  3. A great alternative to tarp and bivy setups is a single wall pyramid with a bug mesh perimeter, such as the Six Moons Designs Wild Oasis or Deschutes Plus. I believe Mountain Laurel Designs will also added a perimeter net to their ‘mids. The DCF Wild Oasis has to be one of the lightest full protection options available at 12 oz. I personally have spent hundreds of nights under a silnylon Deschutes Plus which has similar design but weighs a few oz more. Though I’ve never had to use it in extreme bug pressure situations, it provides great protection from any bugs or rain I’ve encountered in NH and is a much easier pitch than a tarp and bug bivy combo. The footprint Is larger than a tarp however which can make site selection more challenging.

    • Interesting suggestion. Can’t say I’ve tried one. Not appropriate for cowboy camping or lean-to use and I’d still worry about ticks and chiggers. But it’s probably ideal if sleeping on something benign like forest duff. Might have to try one. :-)

      • True, not good for shelters or cowboy during bug season. But one of the advantages IMO is that I carry a polycryo groundsheet. Inside the tent, it rests on the netting making a good UL bathtub floor. When I want to sleep under the stars, I lay it out to protect my pad and organize my space. Total system weight with stakes and guys is 21 oz, not bad for the $200 I have invested (got the tent on sale).

  4. The sea to summit escapist bug tent is a tight fit for two people, but has plenty of space for one and gear.

    The escapist tarp is overpriced, so I would look elsewhere for rain protection.

  5. I have had really enjoyed the versatility of combining the SMD Deschutes with either the Serenity net or the Borah bivy. I feel these to be highly modular and very fair in price. As an active side sleeper who uses a quilt the Borah bivy keeps me in place on a women’s Neo air X-lite. The tarp and bivy are small enough and light enough to take on day hikes in case an unexpected overnight happens.

  6. Don’t you like the Hilleberg Mesh Tent 1 anymore?

    • It’s comparatively heavy and expensive. I believe its 13 oz and costs close to four times what the Paria Breeze mesh costs. The goal of this post was to specify UL options. The Paria was only included because it’s such a good deal.

  7. Huh. I guess if I’m being honest, not being bothered by bugs is the main reason I enjoy my tent. Looking at some of these it feels like something I could get away with for my typical climate.

    Is it wise though? (Real question to the more experienced.) I feel like I stick to a tent with a fly in case I gauge the weather wrong. Cold/breezy nights or unexpected rain.

    Do people really take these for longer trips where the forecast might change?

    • I’m normally a hammock sleeper, but because I occasionally go where I know there will not be a place to hang a hammock I was looking for a lightweight option. I was eyeing a bug bivy & tarp combination, but I ended up with the SlingFin SplitWing bundle. It’s pretty light, I can sit upright at the door end, and it’s easier for me to get in & out of than a top-zip bivy. Tons of room for a solo hiker, too.

    • Yes. I’ve taken them on multi-week trips along the AT and in Scotland.

  8. I just discovered bug bivies and thought I could contribute an article to your cause but you beat me to it. I have a Paria Breeze and love it. I am still shopping for the correct size tarp that is affordable AND lightweight. I used the Breeze on Dolly Sods this summer. The mesh was great allowing a breeze and keeping out the bugs. It rained hard the second night. The tarp gave me the option, when one side was propped open with trekking poles, of sitting under the tarp with others to cook and eat. Upon retiring for the evening I lowered the side for greater protection from the rain. The chest entry is great once you figure it out. I asked Paria to consider a winter version (less mesh); I am waiting their response. I will still use my MSR Access 2 in heavier winter weather.

  9. A good, inexpensive hanging mosquito net is Coghlan’s double. It works well outside, in lean to’s and cabins. $20

  10. Tent with removable rain fly works best up here in Minnesota. The mosquito is our State bird.

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