Freestanding Tents vs Floorless Pyramids: Winter Bakeoff

Black Diamond First Light Tent Duomid Tarp in the Snow

Black Diamond FirstLight Tent and a very stealthy MLD cuben fiber Duomid

Sub-pound, floor-less pyramids are very lightweight, but free-standing tents pitch in minutes. Which is the right choice for winter backpacking and mountaineering, when pack weight and space are at a premium?

Pitching a floorless pyramid on snow takes time. Start by finding a fairly flat pitch and stomp down the snow with my snowshoes to form a platform. If the platform isn’t completely level you can pile more snow on top of it with an avalanche shovel and dig some anchors around it while the platform area started to harden. This is one nice thing about winter camping; weather permitting, you can alter the landscape, but still conform to LNT principles, because your structures will simply melt away.

Mountain Laurel Designs Tarp on Snow
Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid Tarp on Snow

The problem with anchors is that they can take up to an hour to firm up, even after you’ve packed the snow down around them. For example, sugary snow can take an hour to harden, which is a long time to stand around in damp clothes. Once the anchors set, you can carve out a sleeping platform under the tarp, before setting up your sleeping pad and sleeping bag and changing into dry camp clothes.

Like tents, a shaped tarp like a pyramid must be ventilated to prevent internal condensation buildup at night. If weather conditions prevent this, you may want to bring a waterproof bivy sack to provide additional moisture protection for your sleep system.

Black Diamond Firstlight Tent
Freestanding Tent: Black Diamond Firstlight

Pitching a Freestanding Tent on Snow

I’ve owned a truely freestanding¬†Black Diamond FirstLight tent, going on 9 years now.¬† Weighing just 2 lbs 11 oz, it compresses down to the size of a loaf of bread and comes with two DAC collapsible poles. Since it’s freestanding, it doesn’t need to be staked if it’s not windy, and I can set it up in under 4 minutes in the dark with a headlamp.

If I’m in a hurry to get out of wet clothes, I can often set up the Firstlight without stomping out a platform first in the snow and letting it harden up. I just set up the tent which has a rectangular footprint, move it where I want it, and plunk it down. The snow under the tent will harden by itself.

When I go to sleep, I usually leave the front door of the tent half-way open for ventilation and this is usually enough to prevent internal condensation.

Safety vs Weight Trade-offs in Winter

These are still preliminary conclusions because I haven’t tested the mid in wind above treeline and in heavy wet snow. However, the experience of waiting around for over an hour for my anchors to harden was sub-optimal.

Further, when you factor out the added weight of a bivy bag required to sleep under a tarp in winter (17 oz mid and nylon anchors + 18.5 oz bivy) vs. a freestanding lightweight tent (43 oz tent only), the weight advantage of a floor-less pyramid doesn’t obviously trump the delay associated with pitching it on snow.

Food for thought.

Especially when you consider that using a flat tarp under similar snow conditions, above treeline, takes the same time to pitch.

Updated 2016.

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  1. I've never pitched in snow, so your experiences are useful to know.

    • Shure you can setup a tent fast when needed ( storm comming for example) but a tent needs to be anchored and it will take the same time for the snow to sinter wether you use a mid, a tarp or a tent.

      • That’s not exactly true. I hardly ever stake out the Black Diamond freestanding Firstlight tent. The 50 pounds of gear inside is usually more than adequate to keep it from flying away when we pitch at a campsite protected from the wind, which is most of the time.

  2. I find that you can speed up the sintering process a lot with a little water. Flatten out the platform for your tent, prepare the holes for your anchors, and then make a pile of snow with your shovel and march on it a little to mix it up, pile it up in a pyramid shape and poor a little water on it (you can always replenish your stocks later with some snow). Voilà! instant snow-cement. Bury the anchors with the mix, stamp it down and within ten minutes or less you have solid anchors to tauten guy-lines with.

    You don't even need that much water, certainly not enough to soak all the snow, just a few hundred millilitres to turn sugar-snow into something a little more sticky.

  3. The DuoMid is not a tarp, it is a Pyramid shelter – a tarp is open. Ron calls them "Pyramid Tents", btw.

    Waiting for snow to set and anchors to harden is not a big problem, one can use the time to to melt snow/ boil water/ eat/ go to the toilet/ enjoy the landscape; except the last one likely tasks one needs to do either way at camp, and which can't be done in a tent/ shelter without some risks.

  4. The extra ~8oz of weight probably is good trade for the extra hour of hiking on a winter's day. Good thought provoking review.

    In the quest for light weight using light weight techniques, I often see the extra time as a big downfall and more often than not ignored by many authors. To be willing to say that a heavier tent saves about an hour of hiking time means you can translate the extra 7.5oz directly to another mile traveled is a significant departure from most.

    Of course, it always depends on conditions for a quickie overnight.

    Well done and a Good comparison of the two types!

  5. With all of those little trees around, could't you just skip the snow anchors and tie off to some trees or bushes?

  6. You don't *need* a bivy under a 'mid, even in winter. If you were under a traditional tarp in winter, though, I'd definitely take a bivy along to block wind.

    Interesting that sunset there is roughly an hour earlier than GA, even though we're on the same coast.

  7. This is really interesting Philip, food for thought indeed. Thanks for posting it.

  8. That's a good idea Tomas. The only possible issue is that I have so little water left at the end of the day, and what I do have I need to keep as the seed for snow melting.

    Hendrik – whether it's a mid or a flat tarp is purely semantics. They're both floorless shelters that require anchors to pitch. But I wrote this post, because I think waiting 60-90 minutes for the anchors to solidify in these snow conditions is worth questioning. Hanging around above treeline, in full exposure, after spending 7 hours climbing a peak or doing a traverse is very physically draining. If you have to wait for the anchors to set up in your wet clothes, and don't get out of the wind, asap, you can find yourself in a world of hurt. The ideal would be to find an even lighter weight freestanding tent.

    KarlG – I could have used the trees, but I was trying to simulate above treeline conditions where I'd be forced to use snow anchors.

    Marco/Phil – exactly. I may use a flat tarp next time since the mid requires so much fiddling. Camping below treeline might be required, just to use some trees and avoid having to use anchors. But on the other hand, that tent is quite comfortable…

  9. Firstlight, Earlylite…what's with you and those ungodly dawn hours.

  10. I got to tell you – waking up at dawn with the sun shining through that tarp was great. But not as great as being able to see in the tarp at night by moonlight. That cuben is really translucent.

    Seriously – in winter, there is so little light, you need to get up and pack early, so you can start the day when the sun comes up. This is balanced however by being able to crash by 6 or 7 pm and catching 10 hours of shuteye. I love sleeping out in winter.

  11. True, water is scarce at the end of the day. Of course if you're not squeamish I am sure urine would do a decent enough job! Although those lovely exped snow anchors would probably never forgive you :)

  12. I've had a some memorable full moon nights in winter that were almost as good as daylight, but I wish I could get to sleep that early. My best is probably 11pm. Benadryl does weird things to me.

  13. Isn't the important question "am I going to be in a place where I would need to get shelter quickly?" If your health and survival would depend on getting the shelter up NOW, then the tent wins period. Otherwise I'm curious to see how this works out.

    In the south where winter is sort of a New England spring, we have the opposite order – since you can usually get a tarp or similar tarp-like shelter up a lot quicker and drier than most tents (and especially most two layer tents).

    by the way GA should be in the central time zone and up until some time after the 1950's was split down the middle. It's a bit disorienting when you move here from the northeast.

  14. Rob – I think you pegged it. Also, this is not your average winter tent, but goes up much faster.

  15. Like others here, I haven't pitched my Go Lite Shangrila and Big Agnes bivy in snow but I often think about the advantages/disadvantages of this system versus a lightweight tent. I like the flexibility of the pyramid/bivy but prefer the comfort of the tent in really wild conditions. Weight difference is negligible.

  16. I have both these shelters and I'm glad my predictions played out in your testing Phil.

    I think Rob nailed it when he made the point about 'where' you use these shelters being the decisive factor. I love my DuoMid and it's versatility but I bought a BD Firstlight for particular conditions: the Norwegian winter, above the tree-line.

    While I quite enjoy fussing with guy lines in an unending quest for a perfectly taut pitch in '3 season' conditions, in deepest winter I want to be able to crawl into a shelter, get out of the wind and then worry about getting the thing storm-worthy. I also like that the Firstlight can be pitched with just a pair of skis and poles stuck in the corner tie-outs. Snowshoes, shovels and ice axes could also be deployed in a similar role with a bit of ingenuity. I'm looking forward to using mine soon.

  17. Interesting. Reading the comments here, I realized that I just take it for granted that I'll be camping below tree line these days. To me, camping above tree line is like asking to get hit by a freak storm, abominable snowmen, and sabre-toothed tigers all at once. Since I've been using tarps for so long now, I prefer only to camp on dirt, or in winter on nice deep snow. My winter trips so far have almost all been in a-frame tarps with deadmen instead of stakes, and it's worked out pretty well every time. So far….

  18. Treeline is all over the place in the Whites, but I'd estimate that I spend about 50% of my winter nights at the level of Krumholz or higher, where there is still significant exposure.

  19. Got to agree with Hendrirk that the DuoMid is NOT a tarp. It is just a single skined tent.

  20. Colin and Hendrik – You are both correct. A pyramid (mid) is not a flat tarp. So What?

    How does that fact change the need to set snow anchors to pitch a shelter above treeline? How does it alter the fact that a freestanding shelter is probably safer because it goes up faster, than one that requires snow anchors and waiting 60 minutes+ for them to set?

    Am I missing something astonishingly obvious here? I think everything I say about mids in this post applies just as well to flat tarps that require snow anchors.

  21. OK – I have gone removed every mention of a tarp (except) the final one in the conclusion. It is admittedly a more precise post, but I still don't see how the conclusions differ from what you'd experience with a flat tarp.

  22. I consider a 'mid a shaped tarp, as do most I think. A "tent" has a floor. I can't speak on setup in the snow above treeline, since you can't get above treeline here. We did use a Shangrila 6 on my WT3 blizzard trip, but didn't require snow anchors, even above treeline.

  23. Chris – I agree. But I don't want the message diluted by a terminology debate.

  24. Relax Phil! I have no problems with your findings but terminology is important (to me at least).

  25. Phil,

    I read about your try-out of the DuoMid with interest and can see the weighing back and forth between tent & tarp/bivvy. Very well done.

    I use a Gatewood Cape, but this is in the woods of western PA, where there are no risky krumholz areas exposed to high winds. I don't use a bivvy here and the weight savings between the Gatewood and the tent is significant. But where you're hiking? The weight difference between tent and Duomid + bivvy is getting close.

    Since you also tried out the KookaBay pad and since other folks I backpack with are interested, what was your opinion? Several of us are waiting with checkbook in hand. I currently use a BA insulated aircore with a Nightlite foam pad, but read in Backpacking Light where the BA pad seemed not to live up to its R 4.1 rating. Richard Nisely tested it to R1.5 fully inflated and R1.8 half inflated. Yikes! I sleep warm and with lots of insulated clothes so might not realize the difference. Any experience with this in winter?

    Thanks so much for your site. It's a favorite.

    Marty Cooperman

    Cleveland, Ohio

  26. What Colin says.

    Fear leads to the dark side, fear leads to weight, weight leads to suffering. ;)

  27. Hendrik – I'm surprised to see you write this after your post last week about the insanity of pursuing lightweight/ultralight gear uber alles.

    I have spent the past two years trying to reduce my mountaineering (winter backpacking) base weight under 25 lbs, and I'm at the point of giving up, because yes, I am afraid, very afraid, of the consequences and not certain that my skills can compensate. I've also run out of money to buy down the last few pounds.

  28. Philip –

    Sadly the Tarp/Tent silliness has shifted focus from what I consider a very useful post for those of us that occasionally have to deal with a bit of elevation/exposure. As a user of shaped tarps/single skin shelters/whatever I have had some concerns about the requirement for a fair amount of tension on some of the pegging points, something I just don't know that I could achieve in all snow conditions (simply because I haven't tried it – I need to dust down those snow anchors…).

    My winter backpacking experiences have always come with the luxury of a descent to a lower, more sheltered elevation, and I think in an emergency I'd be relying on my ability to utilise the snow itself for shelter or in combination with some fabric bodgery. If I CHOSE to camp high in bad conditions (perhaps as part of an alpine climbing summit attempt) the Trailstar/DuoMid would be pretty low down on my list, for the very reasons you suggest.

    The BD FirstLight and Integral Designs/Rab equivalents seem an ideal counter to these issues, and I'm looking forward to Joe's experiences in the Norwegian mountains – an ideal testing ground in my opinion.

  29. Marty – Western PA gets plenty cold. I grew up in Pittsburgh after all, and hiked up in the Laurel Highlands area a lot.

    The Kookabay is plenty warm, but I found it rather narrow, so my arms, elbows down, sort of fell off its sides. But, the narrowness and mummy cut are good in that they fit into a bivy better. A wider square cut can create compression on the sleeping bag's top: for example the much wider Exped downmat 7 does this for me because there's less slack fabric. In the end, my bivy (read straight-jacket) kept my arms in tight and prevented them from hitting the snow.

    I guess it depends on how wide you are. I may also try the new winter NeoAir or even switch to two foam pads for maximum reliability.

  30. Thanks for the reminder Phil – let's all stay on topic from here on out. We can thumb wrestle in the pub.

  31. Travelling light is easier at low elevations. Higher upI think it gets more difficult to stay light, colder temperatures and much more strenuous activity require more gear. I inhale food when I go hiking in rougher terrain during Winter, there is no end to my appetite. More food, more fuel, more layers.

    When it's solo the increase in risk is not only significant, but I also become much more aware of the risk. I tend to be far more careful when I am alone than when I am with company. To me this means weight becomes less of an issue, I stop, snack and rest often, to make sure the decisions I make are made with a calm, logical thought process. The times on solo hikes that I felt like I've put myself in danger, are usually times when I made decisions in a hurry. To counter this I move slower, more carefully, never rushing.

    It's definitely fun running up slopes on day trips when you have nothing to carry but some lunch, but on multi-day trips in the hills having more weight is a necessity that no amount of skill negates, and it's even more fun going up the hill knowing you don't have to come down again in a hurry :)

  32. Phillip,

    'new winter NeoAir'?

    Really? Where did you find this?


    Marty Cooperman

  33. So here's a quick question… Would it be possible to cut out most of the floor (leaving, say, an inch or so around the perimeter) and still maintain structural integrity?

    That would create a kind of floorless, free-standing shelter, at an even lighter weight. I doubt you'd want to try this, but theoretically, what do you think?

  34. It wouldn't really save that much weight, but it's the right idea. I think ID's siltarp does something similar, but still has to be staked. Kind of like a scarp 1 without the annoying corners.

  35. So.. when is someone going to make a floorless freestanding tent like a Golite Utopia in Cuben Fiber?

    I am a long time tarp guy (Chouinard Pyramid for 15 years) but when it came time for my thru hikes I turned to a modern ultralight Non-freestanding tent.

    I loved the extra ventilation and light weight of the shelter but the penalty was set up time and fussing with stakes and guylines.

    It rarely was a major problem but it was always in the back of my mind. Even without the snow anchor issue, a rain and wind event high on the Continental divide can make you question the weight vs setup time & non freestanding issue.

    One wonders when an ultralight gear manufacturer is going to offer a free standing design.

  36. Phillip,

    In an earlier post you said: 'I may also try the new winter NeoAir'.

    I haven't heard mention of a pad like this.

    I did hear about POA having a new 3-season pad.

    Could you tell me where you found information about the new winter NeoAir?


    Marty Cooperman

  37. I could have sworn reading about it in a BPL OR winter market summary, but I can't find anything in google about it. Does anyone else out there have a pointer for Marty or did I imagine this?

  38. Ya, just as I get a NeoAir they announce a 4 season version, sigh…

    I enjoyed the winter tent/tarp comparison. I've been struggling with winter shelters as well. I tried an Outdoor Research NightHaven, but wasn't happy with the amount of condensation that soaked into my bag. I could add a bivy like you suggest, but again that would add enough weight to justify a full on tent. I also don't have the funds to jump up to a cuben shelter and I'm not certain that I'd be comfortable going floorless in the winter.

    Have you tried any of the winter hammock designs? I know I've seen something like a pea-pod that wraps your down bag around the outside of the hammock to avoid compressing the insulation.

  39. Matt,

    A thought. I've spent some winter nights under a Gatewood Cape. Big Agnes insulated air-core & Gossamer Gear Nightlite pads. WM 10 degree bag. Toasty. Pads combined are R-6.35. Until I roll off. Then it's R-.005 as I wake up with my feet on the ground and my head lying outside the Cape with snowflakes idly drifting down on my face.

    Just saw in Backpacking Light report, MLD is making a 4-ish oz. bivvy. Very breathable top, not suitable for serious rain, but good DWR.

    Would hold all gear in place, including me and Mont Bell pillow which tries to escape each night and which I have to grope outside the Cape to try and retrieve.

    Cost is somewhere in the high 6 figures plus your firstborn, but may be worth every penney.

    No doubt Earlylite will have this one tested when they come out in spring and will report if the bag is breathable enough to prevent moisture buildup in cold conditions.


    Marty Cooperman

    looking forward to floundering in some fine breakable crust and bottomless snow up in Dolly Sods this weekend.

  40. I'm going on strike against the extortionist pricing at MLD. It's out of control. You can't buy an ultralight philosophy.

  41. 2/3'rds of my big three are now MLD. (Exodus pack, Spirit Quilt) It would be all three as I had my eye on a Patrol shelter in Cuben fiber. I ended up sewing my own version out of sil-nylon but it ain't the same.

    Why is everything MLD makes so perfectly executed?!

    Hey Earlylite you should get a pro-deal since your reviews no doubt sell lots of MLD gear.

    This is a valuable site for information!

  42. Excellent review, and just in time for the arrival of another winter season. One minor point of clarification – Epic, ToddTex, and Nanoshield are three different fabrics, not different names for the same material. Nextec Epic is of course well known as a siliconized nylon fabric with water-resistant and breathable properties. ToddTex is actually a full-on waterproof/breathable 3-layer fabric with a light nylon or polyester outer face and (last time I saw it) a thin, water-trapping inner face. I always thought ToddTex must be an off-label use of Gore's Gore-Tex technology (just like the 3-ply TegraTex used by Integral Designs for their tents), but I could never get Todd Bibler to 'fess up. But compare the First Light to the similar-sized iTent – the iTent weighs more and is waay more expensive. That's the Epic/NanoShield vs. ToddTex. NanoShield is an unspecified fabric using some sort of nanotech coating to improve the water resistance while retaining the breathability of the fabric.

    I have an old ID MK3 tent that's been used everywhere from cold and dry (Bolivia in summer) to summer thunderstorms to at least one sustained storm system. No leaks and no significant condensation issues. Nonetheless I'm very interested in the First Light for the light weight (the Mk3 weighs 6 lb, more if we take the vestibule) and the breathability. Thanks for adding some very useful information to my thinking.

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