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Ultralight Backpacking Tent and Shelter Guide

Ultralight Tents and Shelters
Ultralight Tents and Shelters – How to Choose

Ultralight backpacking tents and shelters come in all shapes and sizes, but each type has advantages and disadvantages for different camping conditions. It’s best to understand these before you waste money on a tent or shelter that doesn’t suit your needs or comfort preferences.

There are six basic types of ultralight  tents and shelters:

  • Double-Walled Tents
  • Tarptents
  • Pyramids, including modified pyramids
  • Catenary-Cut Tarps, including augmented cat-cut tarps
  • Flat Tarps
  • Hammocks

For purposes of this article, I am defining an ultralight tent or shelter as one that weights 3 pounds or less, and focus on single person tents and shelters that fit within that weight range. Some of the categories listed above overlap, so if you think I’ve mis-classified a shelter or left one out, just leave a comment and I’ll try to address your question.

In addition, I’ve listed the most popular makes/models for each shelter type with the weight of the shelter in silnylon, if available. Some of the shelters listed are also available in cuben fiber and weigh considerably less. For brevity, I’ll cover the differences between silnylon, cuben fiber, and polyurethane coated nylon or polyester in a separate post. Still, I note differences in fabrics when it has a material impact on shelter utility or performance.

TarpTent Scarp 1 Double-Walled Tent
TarpTent Scarp 1 Double-Walled Tent

A. Double-Walled Tents

Double-walled tents are designed to protect occupants from internal condensation (see How to Prevent Internal Condensation). They’re called double-walled because they have a separate inner tent and an outer rain fly which protects you from the rain and wind. All internal condensation or moisture inside the tent evaporates through the mesh walls of the inner tent and adheres to the underside of the rain fly, away from you and your gear. In recent years, the weight of double-walled tents has plunged, to the point where they’ve become competitive with other ultralight shelter types.

Some of the most popular lightweight double-walled tents include:

Note: Tarptent is the name of a company and a type of ultralight shelter characterized by single walls called a tarp tent or (tarptent.) It’s doubly confusing here, because Tarptent has started making double-walled tents in addition to the single-wall shelters listed in the next section. 

Advantages

  • Easy to set up
  • Bug proof and slither proof
  • Usually has a vestibule for covered gear storage
  • Can be used in virtually all three-season weather conditions provided you have enough space to pitch the shelter on flat ground
  • Inner tents tend to have deep bathtub floors that can prevent flooding if water pools underneath
  • Higher ambient temperature than other ultralight tents and shelters

Disadvantages

  • Prone to internal condensation because they have relatively poor ventilation
  • Tend to be heavier, bulkier, and more expensive that other types of ultralight shelters
  • Most double walled shelters (with the exception of the Tarptents listed above) require that you pitch the inner tent before the rain fly, resulting in a wet inner tent in pouring rain.
  • Usually require that you carry tent poles which are awkward to pack in a backpack
  • Warmer in hot weather
  • Requires that you dry off the rain fly in the sun to manage dampness level of your gear on multi-day trips

Best Used When…

  • When camping at established tent sites that have packed earth tent pads or dished out tent sites that pool water
  • In sustained bad weather when you want more interior room to hang out and keep your gear under cover in a vestibule
  • Some double-walled tents are freestanding and can be pitched without tent stakes making them very convenient for camping on rock ledges, sandy soil, or wooden tent platforms.
The Tarptent ProTrail Tent is basically a pup tent made with an outer fly and a bathtub floor suspended with bug netting.
The Tarptent ProTrail Tent is basically a pup tent made with an outer fly and a bathtub floor suspended with bug netting.

B. Tarp Tents

Tarp tents are single walled shelters where the walls are part solid and part mesh. This improves airflow through the tent and helps to prevent internal condensation. Most tarp tents have a fully integrated bathtub floor which is sewn to the walls of the tent making it easy to pitch and keep dry if you have to set up in the pouring rain. Many tarp tents also have an integrated front beak or awning that can be used to cover gear or cook under in bad weather. These awnings do not come down to the ground like a full vestibule in order to maintain good airflow through the shelter.

Some popular models, include:

Advantages

  • Easy and fast to set up
  • Excellent airflow which virtually eliminates internal condensation
  • Living area of the tent stays dry when pitched in pouring rain
  • Lightweight and compact
  • Usually set up with trekking poles, which helps eliminate some weight
  • Fast drying
  • Bug proof and slither proof
  • Aerodynamic  shapes  provides good wind resistance
  • Most provide some covered storage for gear outside the living area
  • Waterproof, after seam sealing, providing good protection from rain as long as you pick campsites that don’t pool water

Disadvantages

  • Lower ambient temperature due to increased airflow through the shelter
  • Walls of bathtub floors are not as high as on double-walled tents, requiring somewhat better campsite selection skills to avoid being flooded out at night by pooling water
  • Difficult to pitch on wooden platforms and rock ledges because they require tent stakes
  • Seam-sealing is required before use because these shelters are usually made by small manufacturers that skip that step to save cost

Best Used When…

  • Pitched on flat ground for maximum comfort
  • Winds are moderate to light
  • Great in warm weather when other tents are too warm
  • Your campsite is large enough (long and wide) to secure required guy-lines
Ultralight Pyramid Shelters
Ultralight Pyramid Shelters

C. Pyramids

Pyramids, often abbreviated as “Mids”, are floorless shelters with a pyramid-style shape that have solid floor-to-ceiling walls on all sides (except for the side with a door). They’re designed to shed high winds from all directions, eliminating the need to repitch your shelter if the wind changes direction at night. Most mids do not come with a bug proof inner tent or bathtub floor, but one can be added for more comfort. Mids are commonly pitched with a center pole, although smaller mids can be pitched with trekking poles arranged in an inverted V so they take up less interior living space. The best way to regulate the amount of internal condensation in a mid is to pitch it so that the base of the walls are a few inches off of the ground. Many mids also have top vents which can help vent moisture in stormy conditions.

Some popular models include:

Advantages

  • Excellent multi-side wind and weather protection in less-protected environments above treeline or on open ground
  • Most mids come with top vents which help limit internal condensation buildup
  • Bottom edges can be pitched off the ground to provide an air gap for better ventilation or pitched flush with the ground to protect against rain in bad weather
  • Large enough to cook inside with adequate ventilation and a well-controlled flame like a canister stove
  • Pyramids with highly angled walls shed snow well in winter, enabling 4 season use (silnylon is more slippery than cuben fiber and better for winter use)
  • Provides good cover in winter over a dug out snow pit
  • Provides excellent privacy

Disadvantages

  • Many pyramids pitch with a center pole, which cuts down on the internal space available
  • Must be pitched on a level surface because the corners are all the same length and must be pulled taut for structural integrity
  • Requires a large footprint, making them difficult to pitch in tight spots such as forests
  • Slanted sides can reduce interior livability. Most pyramids have a fixed wall angle, although the MLD Trailstar can be pitched taller or flatter based on conditions
  • Adding an inner tent to a pyramid shelter adds a significant weight penalty
  • Requires some form of bug protection such as a bug net or bug bivy

Best Used When…

  • Camping in high wind and/or horizontal rain
  • Bad weather with little landscape protection
  • Long distance, expedition style travel in hostile environments

Modified Pyramids

There’s also a sub-genre of modified Pyramids that have a pyramid shape but have one open side for better ventilation and livability is less extreme environments. These have become very popular in recent years but are not as windproof as four-sided mids.

Gossamer Gear CubicTwinn
Gossamer Gear CubicTwinn (Not Currently Available)

D. Catenary Cut Tarps

Catenary cut tarps or “Cat-cut” tarps for short, are simple tarps with curved edges that improve their aerodynamic performance and help ensure a very taught pitch without wrinkles. They have open ends and are usually pitched in an A-frame configuration using trekking poles or trees. In bad weather, cat-cut tarps can be pitched close to the ground to prevent rain or wind from blowing onto the occupants, but they’re normally pitched higher up to improve air flow. Cat-cut tarps are frequently combined with inner tents with bath-tub floors or bug bivies which drape over sleepers at night. Users also frequently sleep inside ultralight bivy sacks  that can add warmth to a sleeping bag or quilt by reducing heat loss from wind or prevent rainfall from bouncing off the ground and onto the occupant (called bounce back).

Campsite selection skills become more important when using a Cat-cut tarp because it doesn’t have a floor or end cap protection against the wind. Ideal campsites are protected from the wind by forest or landscape features and on level ground with good drainage to prevent rain pooling.

Some popular makes/models include:

Advantages

  • Very lightweight and compact
  • Catenary cut provides good wind resistance, a taut pitch, and eliminates flapping
  • Cat cut eliminates some fabric making this type of tarp lighter weight
  • Ends can be pitched using trekking poles or trees/shrubs
  • Excellent airflow virtually eliminates internal condensation

Disadvantages

  • Eliminates the flexibility of a tarp because you need to always pitch it in an A-Frame to get a taut pitch
  • Lower ambient temperature due to increased air flow
  • Requires some form of bug protection such as a bug net or bug bivy
  • Limited privacy

Best Used When

  • The weather is fairly dry
  • In well protected settings on fairly flat and well-drained ground
  • The wind is moderate to calm and doesn’t shift direction at night

Augmented Cat-Cut Tarps

There’s also a subgenre of Cat-cut tarps that have been augmented with additional beaks,vestibules, or end doors/walls for improved weather protection. These used to be much more popular in past years (you may have heard of the famous Rayway Tarp) and help extend the range of Cat-cut tarps in wetter and windier environments.

A Variety of Flat Tarp Pitches or "Shapes"
A Variety of Flat Tarp Pitches or “Shapes” all made with Square Tarps

E. Flat Tarps

Flat tarps are simple tarps that have a square or rectangular shape with 90 degree angles in the corners.  They can be pitched in many ways, including ones that incorporate landscape features such as tree trunks or hillside. The most basic A-frame style configuration is very easy to master when tied out to trees or trekking poles but many other pitch “shapes” are possible ranging from awnings, caves, and garages to pyramids, depending on the size of the tarp, how you fold it, and tie it out. Unlike Cat-cut tarps, the guy lines on flat tarps are attached when pitching (since different tie-outs are needed for different shapes), and knotted rather than tensioned with line locs.

As with Cat-cut tarps, campsite selection become more important because flat tarps don’t have floors. Flat tarps can also be augmented with an inner bug bivy or bivy sacks to provide more bug or thermal protection, or to mitigate bounce back.

Ideal camps sites are protected from the wind by trees or landscape features with good drainage to prevent rain pooling. Unlike Cat-cut tarps, flat tarps don’t require level ground and can be bent around obstructions to create workable shelters.

Advantages

  • Very lightweight and compact
  • The most basic A-frame pitch is easy to master
  • Can be pitched using trekking poles or tied to trees/shrubs
  • Easy to adjust the amount of ventilation and eliminate condensation by raising side walls or orienting open ends towards  the wind
  • Does not require a flat surface to pitch
  • Can be configured in an infinite number of ways, including ones which incorporate landscape features such as fallen logs, boulders or pitches that are very weatherproof such as pyramids.

Disadvantages

  • Does not provide as much protection as a shelter with a floor that is fully enclosed on all sides
  • Requires some form of bug protection such as a bug net or bug bivy
  • Takes considerably more skill and practice to master advanced or ad hoc tarp “shapes” and guy line knots
  • Takes more skill to get a very taught pitch than using a Cat-cut tarp
  • Requires that you carry more stakes and guy lines because you never know what shape you’ll pitch in advance
  • Limited privacy depending on the pitch used

Best Used When…

  • You enjoy adapting the shape of your shelter to landscape features that present themselves
  • You’re bored with A-frame pitches
  • You have extra time to fiddle with your tarp pitch before it gets dark or the weather turns nasty
  • In protected settings on well-drained ground
  • The wind is moderate to calm
Andrew Skurka's Warbonnet Ridje Runner Bridge-Style Hammock
Andrew Skurka’s Warbonnet Ridgrunner Bridge-Style Hammock

F. Hammocks

Backpacking hammocks are very similar to double-walled tents except they’re suspended in the air rather than pitched on the ground. They have two components primary components, a nylon sling covered with a headnet that’s draped over the ridgeline and a tarp which is suspended overhead. Some popular models include:

Advantages

  • Great for camping in forests, especially when good ground-level campsites are scarce, because they can be suspended between trees
  • Bug proof and slither proof
  • Never have to worry about ground moisture flooding your shelter
  • Provides coverage for your gear at night and a place to cook out of the rain
  • Easy to pack and re-set up when used with snakeskins
  • Great leave no trace or stealth camping option

Disadvantages

  • Limited to warmer 3 season temperature ranges unless augmented with an insulating underquilt
  • Bulky and relatively heavy when compared to other ultralight shelter types

Best Used When…

  • You can get a good nights sleep in a hammock (terrible if you can’t)
  • Camping or backpacking in forested areas

Where to Start

Picking an ultralight shelter can be a confusing process, even for experienced ultralight backpackers, because it’s difficult to anticipate the livability, adaptability, or usability of shelters in different types of terrain and weather. This is further complicated by the fact that you can’t try most of the ultralight shelters available because they’re sold by smaller manufacturers with less flexible return policies. While you can do a lot of reading about different ultralight shelter types online, there’s nothing quite like trying one out to see if you like it in real life. Give it a couple of nights out so you’re not to hastey in passing judgement and by all means practice pitching it at home before you have to do it for real in the wild.

If you’re transitioning from a heavier double-walled tent and mainly want to cut your gear weight without sacrificing  much comfort, I recommend you borrow or buy a tarp tent from Tarptent.com or Six Moon Designs to get started. Tarp tents are easier to pitch than double walled tents, they have a fixed shape, they’re bug and slither proof, they have the widest range in terms of weather conditions, they’re largely immune to internal condensation, and relatively affordable. Both of these manufacturers will also seam seal their tents for you for a small fee, so you don’t have to do it yourself.

If you’ve already gone through the tarp tent “phase” and want to try a lighter or more adaptable shelter, carefully consider the environmental conditions you expect to use it in and the skills you are willing to learn. I’ve owned 12 different UL shelters in the past 8 years and sold most of them because I didn’t fully understand what I wanted (mainly in terms of comfort) or what I needed (in terms campsite types and weather conditions.) Do your homework and you’ll probably have to buy fewer UL shelters than me!

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6 comments

  1. Fantstic post! All the info in a very brief format so easy to digest. Well done Philip.

  2. I’m looking to get a lightweight 2 person shelter for backpacking in the Cascades. I’m currently considering the Black Diamond Beta Light and Six Moon Designs Haven Tarp. Any experience/thoughts on those?

  3. What shelters did you keep?

  4. Choice of Hilleberg Anjan 2 or ZPack 2 person. I have read the Anjan is as bombproof as any Helliberg but never having seen a Z pack in person I worry about durability. The cubean fiber is favored by many but weight should not be the sole criteria. Zpack at 1lb. 4 oz. Anjan 2 at 3lb. 14oz. Thanks.

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