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Insect Protection with Ultralight Tarps and Shelters

Insect Protection with Ultralight Tarps and Shelters

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

  1. Bivy Sacks
  2. Bug Bivies
  3. Net Tents
  4. Floorless Tarps w/ no-see-um Skirts

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. Floorless Tarps w/ no-see-um skirts sewn around their bottom perimeter are almost equivalent to a full tent but are usually used with some sort of footprint for dirt and moisture protection which can mitigate their weight savings.

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. (see Katabatic Gear, Borah Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs).

  • 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 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. (see Mountain Laurel Designs, Paria Outdoor, SlingFin, Yama Mountain Gear).

    • 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
    • Leading Mfgs of Bug Bivies:

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. (see Six Moon Designs, Hyperlite Mtn Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs).

      • 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

Floorless Tarps w/ no-see-um Skirts

A pyramid tarp with perimeter noseeum netting
A pyramid tarp with perimeter noseeum netting

Floorless tarps w/ no-see-um Skirts have netting that hangs below the bottom hem of the tarp, usually a mid-style shaped tarp, and closes the gap between the tarp and the ground. While they don’t provide the same degree of security that a single-wall tent with a floor does, they do a pretty good job at keeping flying and crawling insects and scorpions out of your shelter at night. (see Six Moon Designs).

  • Advantages
    • No additional setup up required since they’re part of your tarp
    • A few ounces lighter weight than carrying a single wall shelter with a floor
    • Provide some splashback protection in rain
    • Remarkably effective at blocking crawling and flying insects
  • Disadvantages
    • No dirt or moisture protection underneath you; most people carry a footprint too
    • Mice can get in but they can’t get out
    • The netting is a dirt magnet, particularly after it rains.

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 / ModelWeightOpening
Katabatic Gear Pinon Bivy7.3 oz / 207gTop
Borah Ultralight Bivy5.0 oz / 142 gChest
Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Bivy5.5 oz / 156 gSide
Paria Outdoor Breeze Bivy13 oz / 369gTop
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 2 Insert14.8 oz / 419gSide
Mountain Laurel Designs Bug Bivy6.5 oz / 184gTop
Six Moon Designs Serenity Net Tent11 oz / 312gSide
Outdoor Research Bug Bivy16 oz / 454gFront
SlingFin SplitWing Mesh Body11.2 oz / 318gFront
Yama Mountain Gear 1P Bug Shelter9.3 oz / 272gFront
Six Moon Designs Deschutes Tarp (with skirt option) 16 oz / 454gFront

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.

See Also:

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  1. For solo trips I have used the floorless tarp with skirt for years – first a SMD Wild Oasis and later their Deschutes Plus. They have been very effective at keeping out bugs in some pretty buggy conditions, like late spring/early summer Adirondacks. I would add two additional disadvantages to your list though – 1) the netting can pick up a lot of dirt and duff – especially after a rain, and 2) Mice can get in, but they can’t get out – this has happened to me several times when camping at impacted sites. I will continue to use the Deschutes though – I have not found a better solo shelter weight and protection solution for me.

    • Dave, I’m also a Deschutes Plus fanboy. For solo UL ground camping, especially thru-hiking, I don’t think there is a better option available when all factors are considered. I’ve carried one for over 500 nights of backpacking never gotten wet or bothered by bugs. Even considering the fact that I wore one out and am on my second, that’s well under a $1 per night. I want to meet someone whose done that with DCF. I wish more companies would make a tarp with a net perimeter. Gossamer Gear made one called the Whisper, but it was a pricey DCF limited edition.

    • I’ve modified my flat tarps for years (decades) by sewing a net curtain around the perimeter. I use rectangular strips along the sides and elongated triangular sections along the front and back which I close with little plastic clips. This limits me to some variation of an A-frame. On one version the netting is a bit longer and I can use it either for sleeping on the ground or with my hammock. I haven’t had a problem with dirt but leaves and sticks can sometimes get tangled in the netting. Crawling insects, such as ants, spiders, and slugs can get in. I’ve also had mice and moles running around inside a few times (mice run much faster than moles). I use a Zpacks bathtub groundsheet, which I normally have flat but I can hook up the sides to form the bathtub if I am in a lousy campsite during heavy rain. My favorite version is my Zpacks 7×9 tarp. With the netting modification, generous lengths of guy lines, bathtub groundsheet, and 8 stakes, it weighs a whisker over one pound. This particular tarp is my favorite because I can pitch it in non-existent campsites and I always stay dry. I’m surprised the net curtain approach for mosquito protection is not more popular, but I guess people are worried about rawling insects.

  2. Have a Borah Bivy and find it to be a great value and perfect combined with a tarp. Definitely get the side zip. While people comment about being claustrophobic it is really no different than sleeping in a mummy bag. If you just jump in and zip up it does feel confining. I find if I take about 15 minutes to settle in slowly I don’t notice any claustrophobic. Get in with the top fully open, in a few minutes pull the mesh over head, a bit later zip everything up.

  3. I just… why? Modularity, mainly?

    Comparing the weights of most of these options (minus the Borah and MLD), there’s no real benefit I see vs. a completely enclosed pyramid. In many cases there’s even a penalty, because it inefficiently doubles the amount of fabric required. And for the Borah and MLD, man, I don’t like premature coffins.

    • Better connection with the outdoors instead of hiding in your tent. Ability to cowboy camp. Use real wild craft skills (knots). The list of intangible benefits goes on. Hint – the limits of obsessing about weight.

    • There are not too many affordable full pyramid options that are as weight efficient as the Deschutes plus with a zpacks bathtub floor (<20 oz) – and I purchased the Deschutes plus used. I know there are various z-packs fully enclosed pyramid options but I believe they are all pretty big $$$.

      And modularity can be a big advantage sometimes. For areas where lean-to shelters are available a flat tarp with a bug bivy is a pretty good combination. Much less of an issue to use a bivy in a shelter when bugs are around vs a full up inner tent, which is usually frowned on. Also if the shelter is full you the flat tarp as an option.

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