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Floorless Tents and Shelters 101

Floorless Tents and Shelters

Floorless tents and shelters provide an ultralightweight option for backpackers who want to significantly reduce their backpacking gear weight. While that weight reduction might sound quite attractive, in most cases you’ll still want some form of insect protection like a bivy sack and/or ground protection, like a ground cloth or bathtub floor to protect your gear from dirt and moisture. The weight of those added components will whittle away some of the potential weight savings but you can probably still reduce your shelter weight. The components required for this approach include:

  • a tent rainfly or tarp
  • insect protection, if required, in the form of a bivy sack or net-tent
  • ground moisture protection in the form of a plastic sheet, ground cloth, or bathtub floor.

When it comes to a tent rainfly or tarp, there are a number of different approaches available including the use of a modular double-wall tent, a modular single-wall tent shelter system, or a flat (rectangular) tarp or shaped tarp like a pyramid.

1a. Modular Double Wall Tent

Tarptent Notch - rainfly only
Tarptent Notch – rainfly only

You can use a modular double-wall tent, like a Durston X-Mid 1 Rainfly or the Tarptent Notch Rainfly, and just use the exterior rainfly portion while leaving the inner tent at home. If you already own such a tent, you can start experimenting with using a floorless tent without any extra cost or delay. This can be an attractive option when insect protection is not necessary and a plastic or ultralight ground sheet can suffice for ground and moisture protection.

However, if insect and ground moisture protection is needed, it can be hard to save much weight over using the inner tent already supplied with the rainfly if you already use an ultralight tent with a lightweight inner tent. For example, the inner tent on the Durston X-Mid 1 weighs 10.7 oz, which makes it difficult to slash much weight, even if you switch to an ultralight bivy sack and a plastic groundsheet.

1b. Modular Single Wall Tent

Some manufacturers sell shelter specific inner tents as part of a modular single wall shelter system.
Some manufacturers sell shelter-specific inner tents as part of a modular single-wall shelter system.

Alternatively, you can invest in a modular single-wall pyramid tarp like a Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid XL or the Hyperlite Ultamid-2 or a modular shaped tarp system like the SlingFin Splitwing Tarp and augment it with an ultralight mesh bivy sack and ground cloth, either plastic sheeting or a bathtub floor.

The advantage of this approach is that you can upgrade with a fitted inner tent, like the Ultamid 2 Half Insert if later you decide you prefer having a more livable inner tent that provides insect and ground moisture protection. Many single-wall pyramid tarp manufacturers provide this option when purchasing a mid or as an add-on including Mountain Laurel Designs, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Seek Outside, MSR, and Black Diamond.

1c. Flat Tarp or Shaped Tarp

A shelter system that includes a shaped catenary cut tarp, a bivy sack, and palstic ground sheet
A shelter system that includes a shaped catenary cut tarp, a bivy sack, and a plastic ground sheet

Another option is to use a flat tarp or a shaped tarp, adding a bivy sack for insect protection and a  groundsheet or bathtub floor. This often provides the most effective way to shave gear weight but requires the biggest transition if you’re used to using a tent. The biggest weight-saving in this scenario likely be the weight of the rainfly, particularly if you choose one made out of an ultralight material like Dyneema

Some shaped tarps are also available with perimeter bug netting like the 9.8 oz Gossamer Gear DCF Whisper and the Six Moon Designs Deschutes Plus, and just require using some form of ground and moisture protection to turn into a complete shelter system. The Tarptent Preamble is another good option in this vein.

2. Insect Protection

Insect protection is often a necessity when camping under a rainfly or tarp, but not always. It can also provide some protection against larger bothersome animal life like snakes, lizards, or scorpions that may be attracted to your body heat.

The Katabatic Gear Pinon Bivy weighs 7.3 oz
The Katabatic Gear Pinon Bivy weighs 7.3 oz

Ultralight backpackers often opt for an ultralight bivy sack for insect protection, which is entirely made with mesh or has a mesh window over the head and a breathable top fabric. Most ultralight bivy sacks are not waterproof and must be used with some sort of waterproof ground sheet, although there are exceptions including the 7.3 oz Katabatic Gear Pinon Bivy and 7.3 oz Bristlecone Bivy Sacks which have waterproof floors.

I’ve used bivy sacks quite extensively and enjoy sleeping in one, but they’re not everyone’s cup of tea in terms of livability. If more interior space is desired, you can try a larger Net-tent like the 6.5 oz Mountain Laurel Designs Bug Bivy or the 11 oz Six Moon Designs Serenity NetTent, which have the added benefit of having waterproof floors. They’re essentially the same as the inner tents available with modular single-wall tents, but are not wed to any one tent and can be used with a wide variety of other single-wall tents or tarps.

3. Ground/Moisture Protection

The Zpacks Solo Bathtub Groundsheet weighs 3.2 oz
The Zpacks Solo Bathtub Groundsheet weighs 3.2 oz

Ground protection, particularly moisture protection is usually a requirement when using a floorless tent or shelter. It can take several forms from a durable plastic ground sheet or a tyvek ground sheet to a full bathtub floor which has sidewalls to protect against running or pooling water. All three benefit from good campsite selection skills in order to keep you and your gear dry.

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  1. Tarps and tarp tents…I am carrying a Zpacks Hexamid plus tarp tent….mine weigh 14 ounces…it has a bath tub floor…I used a Black Diamond Mega Light floorless single pole tipi for years…this shelter is 2 lbs a ultralight 4 season floorless tent. I highly recommend using a waterproof bivy…with a floorless shelter.

    _Friar Rodney Burnap

  2. You don’t need a high or inner tent for insect protection. I sewed a skirt of no-see-um netting around the bottom of my tarp and have never had insect problems. Six Moon Designs makes two tarps which have no-see-um skits. You also don’t need to make a ground tarp shaped like a bathtub floor. I’ve used a flat polycryo tarp for a floor without testing my gear wet. As long as its edges are kept inside of the tent walls you shouldn’t have a problem.

    – Not Bob

    • Correction – Six Moons USED to sell two tarps with perimeter skirts. Looks like they killed them off. I suspect they didn’t sell very well, which is too bad, because they had little competition.

  3. I am new to the tarp/bivy stuff. Did it this weekend. Lesson learned: take some turkey sized oven bags to put extra clothes/insulation in so they do not sit on the ground.

    • I sleep with a tarp and bivy. I carry an extra trash compactor bag that I use to put my gear in after my nightly pack explosion. Keeps everything organized, dry and out of the dirt. Also helps me keep from misplacing or forgetting something. Multiple uses for the bag and allows for a smaller groundcloth if I choose to carry one. (oops ~ previously posted this comment in the wrong post)

  4. I just checked their site and yes, one can order the Deschutes tarp with the “plus” option (which adds a continuous bug net skirt around the perimeter hem). I’ve used one now for four years and it has proven to be reliably bug proof . . . flying bugs, but the crawling ones can still walk right in.

  5. Christopher D Klemetson

    Great for fair weather camping.

  6. I just returned from a very buggy and rainy trip into the High Sierra and my Tarp Tent Preamble saved my bacon!

  7. I love the rab element 2 (integral design) it’s almost the perfect shelter. I would get a dyneema version in a heartbeat.

    • I assume you know that the top photo was taken in a Rab Element 2. The main problem with that shelter is that the two peaks have open grommets at the top, so the thing will leak in the rain. I never understood that. Otherwise, it’s an excellent size for one with two end vestibules.

  8. I’m a hammock camper but since I often encounter areas with tiny or unsuitable trees in areas I’d like to camp – Nova Scotia coastal scrub and granite barrens – I’ve been eying a ground set up with a tarp and bivy or bug shelter. Am I right in assuming that a hammock with a bug net and bivy/bug shelter are similar as far as the feeling of how much room you have, coziness, etc? Obviously it’s way different being on the ground than it is hanging but I’m curious about what is similar before I buy anything. I do love hammock camping a lot. Thanks for any insight or info.

  9. I used to tarp and bivvy but no longer. I bought a Lanshan One single-pole tent/tarp and it can be whatever I want it to be. I can use it as a tarp (just like the man sitting up in the picture) or I can fit in a 3 or 4-season mesh inner, (takes about two minutes) and if the weather gets bad I can just zip the Lanshan into a fully enclosed and waterproof area. When I’m stealth camping, if need be, I can load my tent with all of my gear into it, without bothering to erect it and can either sleep with the material draped over me, or I can just erect it properly within about 1-2 minutes. It just involves poking in my pole to its socket, pulling on one string and the placing of one peg. If the weather is really bad, again if need be, I can just drop my pole to present the minimum of wind resistance and just raise it back up to its proper height again when the weather eases without having to get out of my sleeping bag.

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