A lot of SectionHiker readers contact me asking for advice about which ultralight shelter they should buy. These purchases are almost always driven by weight reduction desires, but often in the absence of any considerations about the environmental conditions they need the tents or shelters to perform in, interior size, comfort, ease of pitch, or the need to learn better campsite selection and route planning skills.
The widespread belief that you can “buy down” your gear weight by swapping a double-walled tent with a UL tent or shelter without a loss of comfort or the need to learn new skills is a myth and I’ve always found a high correlation between shelter weight (or lack thereof) and environmental specificity. When choosing an ultralight tent or shelter, it’s important to understand what conditions it will perform well in and those it won’t. The purpose of this post is to help illustrate the strengths of weakness of different tent and shelter types so you can understand your preferences and needs better.
A backpacker wants to reduce his gear weight by replacing a freestanding Big Agnes Copper Spur with a Tarptent Notch, but is concerned about how easy it is to pitch on the wooden tent site platforms which he encounters 99.9% of his trips in the White Mountains.
I suggested that he keep the Copper Spur if he always camps on platforms because the Tarptent Notch would be a pain in the ass to pitch on them, but that he consider learning campsite selection, leave no trace, and route planning skills so he can practice low impact, remote camping in the White Mountains and avoid wooden platforms forever.
A female backpacker wants an ultralight shelter so she can keep backpacking as she gets older and weaker. She is try trying to decide between a Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid and a Duomid augmented with an inner nest, but desires lots of internal space and comfort above all other considerations.
I told her to look at a Tarptent Rainbow with a built-in bathtub floor, near vertical walls, excellent ventilation, and bug netting.
A female backpacker wants to buy a Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar but wants to know if picking a floorless shelter with a door like the Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid would be warmer.
I explain that all floorless shelters will be the same temperature as the ground, effectively eliminating any warmth advantage in cooler weather.
An Appalachian Trail hiker wants to buy a cuben fiber Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid because he believes that cuben fiber is less prone to internal condensation that the silnylon version of the same shelter.
I explain that you can’t change the weather no matter how much more you pay for cuben fiber over silnylon. The only way to decrease internal condensation is through better campsite selection. Cuben fiber’s main benefit over silnylon is that it doesn’t sag when exposed to exposed to precipitation and doesn’t have to be adjusted at night to maintain a taut pitch.
Shelter Weight is One Variable
If you want to buy ultralight shelter, the weight of one shelter over another is probably overemphasized when comparing shelters. Think about the environmental conditions you need the tent to perform in most of the time and the level of comfort you want after a hard day of backpacking, so you don’t buy a tent or shelter you’ll be dis-satisfied with. I’ve fallen into that trap myself and learned this the hard way.
Here are some examples of environmental conditions you should consider when selecting a new UL shelter, and some suggestions about ultralight tent and shelter types that satisfy those needs:
- I camp in high winds over 20 mph and up to 60 mph, so my ultralight shelter needs to be stable and wind-shedding:
- Solution: Pyramid shaped shelters are the most wind resistant.
- I camp on uneven surfaces covered by moss or tussocks:
- Solution: Shelters with permanent floors are ill-suited this purpose because you can’t see where you’ll need to lie to get comfortable.
- I camp in dense woods:
- Solution: Smaller sized, square or rectangular tarps are best suited for this purpose because they can wrap around trees or incorporate physical obstacles without completely losing their shelter integrity. Shelters with narrow rectangular footprints can also be suitable.
- I camp on packed earth pads that are dished out and fill up with water when it rains:
- Solution: Shelters with high bathtub, seam-taped floors will prevent you from getting flooded out.
- I camp on wooden platforms, rock ledges, frozen surfaces, or very loose sand and soil:
- Solution: Freestanding shelters are best suited for surfaces where it is impossible to use tent stakes.
- I need to cook inside my tent or shelter due to high winds or frequent rainfall.
- Solution: Floor-less shelters with a door, excellent ventilation, and ample head room will help you avoid setting your tent or shelter on fire or dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. Canister stoves are also best for cooking inside a shelter because the flame is smaller and easier to control.
- I frequently camp in areas with vicious insects:
- Solution: Try a shelter with an inner tent or nest that provides bug netting and a bathtub floor.
Here are some examples of comfort considerations you should factor into your selection of a shelter, and some suggestions ultralight tents and shelter types that satisfy those needs:
- I will frequently pitch my ultralight tent/shelter in pouring rain, but never want to get the inside to get wet:
- Solution: Get a shelter that has a removable inner tent that can be hung inside the outer tent after it has been pitched, and packed away separately if the outer fly is wet the next morning.
- I am very tall:
- Solution: You want a shelter that is specifically made for tall people. A long rectangular tarp may also suffice.
- I want to camp with my romantic partner who is not a backpacker.
- Solution: You want a shelter with two doors, an inner tent with a bathtub floor, near-vertical walls, lots of interior space, and headroom.
- I don’t want a tent or shelter that has hiking poles in the living area.
- Solution: Get a tent or shelter that hangs from an external pole system.
- I want to store my gear out of the rain at night but not in my living space:
- Solution: You need a shelter that has vestibule storage or awnings outside of the inner tent.
- I am scared of creepy crawlers and slithering at night:
- Solution: Get a tent or shelter with a built-in inner tent or a nest.
- I enjoy privacy when camping and don’t want people to see me when I undress.
- Solution: Get a tent or shelter with a door and sides that go all the way to the ground. In addition, don’t get a shelter made out of semi-transparent, lightly colored cuben fiber.
- I don’t like having a breeze blow through my tent at night.
- Solution: You’re probably better off getting a UL double walled tent instead of a single walled one which requires good venting to prevent internal condensation.
- I want to be able to sit in my tent on sunny days without feeling like I’m being microwaved.
- Solution: Get a UL tent with good ventilation, that’s made out of opaque colored material. Avoid shelters made out of semi-transparent cuben fiber which transmits a lot of sunlight and heat in bright sunshine.
- I like having a lot of floor space inside my shelter at night and don’t want to feel like I’m sleeping in a coffin.
- Solution: Get a shelter with a wide footprint or even a two person tent.
There is a learning curve when switching from a conventional double walled shelter to an ultralight tent or tarp, or from one type of UL shelter to another that can be quite significant. The transition frequently requires learning new skills such as campsite selection, leaning how to pitch your shelter in different weather conditions, how to prevent internal condensation, how to tie new knots, and so on. Here are a few of the new skills you might need to pick up, depending on your shelter choice.
- Seam sealing
- Most ultralight shelters made out of silnylon and purchased from small gear manufacturers need to be seam-sealed before use to prevent the stitching from leaking in the rain. Tents made with cuben fiber are now usually seam taped (glued together) rather than sewn and don’t need to be seam-sealed.
- Learning how to pitch your tent or shelter
- Some ultralight shelters are fussier to set up than others and it may take a surprisingly long time for you to get efficient at setting yours up quickly and securely.
- Learning how to pitch your shelter in different weather conditions
- Many ultralight shelters can also be pitched in a variety of different configurations or orientations depending on the weather. For example, if you’re pitching a pyramid tarp in good weather you might leave a big air gap between the outer skin and ground, while in bad weather you might pitch the outer skin flush with the ground so no rain can splash in under it. None of these variants are documented and you’ll have to figure them out on your own by fiddling with the shelter on lots of different trips.
- Campsite selection
- Different shelters perform better in certain locations than others.
- For example, if the ground you need to sleep on is hard packed and won’t absorb water well, you’ll want to pick a shelter with a waterproof floor and high bathtub walls so you don’t get flooded out at night if rain pools underneath you.
- Or, if your shelter doesn’t shed wind well, you’ll want to pitch it in an area protected from wind, like a stand of trees or behind a small hill.
- If you have a floorless shelter, you don’t want to pitch it on a slope where rain run-off will flood you out at night.
- Different shelters perform better in certain locations than others.
- Preventing internal condensation
- The key to preventing internal condensation in an ultralight single walled shelter or tarp is good ventilation and having a breeze blowing through your shelter at night. This can take a lot of getting used to if your used to sleeping in a shelter with solid walls and a higher ambient temperature at night.
- Learning new knots
- Most rectangular of square tarps don’t have guy line tensioners or cords sewn on all of their tie-out points because you want the flexibility to create new “shapes” depending on different landscape features or weather conditions. This requires learning a few knots like the taut-line hitch, prussik knots, the truckers hitch, the McCarthy hitch, the bowline, and double figure eight knots.
Weight comparisons between shelters only make sense once you’ve considered the environmental conditions you need a new shelter to perform under, your comfort needs, and the number of new skills you might need to develop to grow into a new shelter. By going through this analysis you may find that one ultralight shelter is not enough for your needs, and that you need two or more shelters to achieve your backpacking goals.
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