Choosing the Right Camping Shelter

Hennessey Hammock Ultralite Backpacker Asym Classic with a Down Underquit at Lost Pond, New Hampshire
Hennessey Hammock Ultralite Backpacker Asym Classic with a Down Underquit at Lost Pond, New Hampshire

I’ve started planning my early spring trips and I have been weighing the pros and cons of different shelter alternatives.  I own ultralight tarps, tarp tents, 4-season tents and a Hennessey Hammock and have different criteria for bringing each along on a trip depending on terrain types, trip duration, weather, and backpacking companions. None of these rules of thumb are written in stone, and I’m constantly revising them, but I thought it would be useful to write them down and get some feedback on them.

  1. If you like to pitch camp in wilderness locations where no one has camped before, bring a hammock. They are very low impact and can be hung over terrain where it is simply impossible to pitch a tent….like on a slope. Wilderness camping is also good for avoiding bears, because they’re hanging around established campsites.
  2. If the ground is likely to be wet from snow melt, like in the spring, bring a hammock. You can hang above the moisture.
  3. If you must camp above tree line, bring a tent. Hammocks are hard to pitch using just hiking poles.
  4. If you are camping in the winter, bring a 4 season tent. You need to limit the cooling impact of airflow and cold wind. Tarps, tarp tents, and hammocks are designed to promote maximal evaporative cooling and are poor choices in drier, windier conditions.
  5. If the ground is rocky, bring a hammock. It eliminates the need to carry a heavy sleeping pad.
  6. If the ground has a lot of leaves and duff, a tarp or tarp tent can be very comfortable if you pile the ground cover under your tent and sleeping pad. This is higher impact however.
  7. If you have to spend an entire day in your shelter, due to rain or because you want a zero day, bring a tent. It helps to have a little room.
  8. If you like to sleep with all of your gear, minus your food, bring a tent or tarp.
  9.  If you are likely to encounter bloodsucking insects, bring a shelter with no-seeum netting, like a tent or hammock.
  10. If you are obsessed with pack weight, bring a tarp or a tarp tent. All in, hammocks trade off weight for flexibility.
  11. If you have to camp on platforms, bring a free standing tent or a hammock. Pitching a tarp tent on a platform can be a challenge. It’s worse if there’s high wind.
  12. If it’s below 45 degrees at night, don’t bring a hammock. You’ll be cold unless you’ve invested a lot of time perfecting a cold weather system that provides insulation below your body and above it.
  13. If it’s above 85 degrees at night, don’t bring a hammock. Ventilation is not optimal to keep you sufficiently cool. It helps to lie on the ground with a thin sleeping pad to cool yourself down.
  14. If it gets dark before 7pm, don’t bring a hammock. Hammocks are good for sleeping, but not for reading or hanging out.
  15. If it’s really hot and dry at night, bring a tarp. If there are bugs, bring a bug net.
  16. If it’s really hot and humid, bring a tarp or a tarp tent. You need as much air flow as possible through your shelter to prevent condensation.
  17. If you hate mice or the reptiles that eat them, don’t sleep in shelters. Hammocks transcend the ground and are the optimal way to get away from these critters.
  18. If you snore or hate sleeping near snorers, don’t sleep in a shelter.


  1. I challenge your claim that you can't sleep on your side or read in a hammock tent. But I have a camo 'blue ridge' model with spreaders and poles and won't go near those sacks most people use so you're probably mostly right.

  2. You're right. You can sleep sideways in a hammock and read in it after dark. It takes some effort, but it is actually doable.