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Ultralight Backpacking Pyramid Tent and Tarp Primer

UL Backpacking Pyramid tent and Tarp Primer

Pyramid tents and tarps are shaped backpacking shelters that can be sized for one, two, or multiple people. Often called “mids”, short for pyramids, there are many pyramid tent and pyramid tarps available today ranging from ultralight minimalist shelters to multi-person winter tipis, complete with stove jacks and wood stoves.

Despite their cosmetic or functional differences, all pyramid shelters share a few common properties.  They are exceptionally wind and weather resistant, they have a single peak, and solid walls. This makes them a good choice for camping in exposed terrain that doesn’t have a lot of natural windbreaks like trees or vegetation, and for winter camping, where the steep side walls of a pyramid can help shed snow.

A Selection of Pyramid Manufacturers and Models

Pyramid Tents and Tarps

What’s the difference between a pyramid tent and a pyramid tarp? Pyramid tents are usually just pyramid tarps with an optional add-on inner tent that has a floor and mesh netting to protect occupants from ground moisture, insects, and creepy-crawlies. If you use an inner tent with a pyramid tarp, you’ve effectively turned it into a double wall tent, with all of the advantages and disadvantages commonly associated with them. On the plus side, many pyramid inner tents can be set up after the outer tarp when it’s raining, so they stay dry. They’re also optional, so you can leave them at home when you want to save gear weight or bulk.

Golite Shangri-La 3 (now available as the Pyramid 3 from My Trail Company) pitched with its inner tent. While comfortable, the inner tent significantly increases the shelter weight.
Golite Shangri-La 3 (now available as the Pyramid 3 from My Trail Company) pitched with its inner tent. While comfortable, the inner tent significantly increases the shelter weight.

If you opt not to use an inner tent in a pyramid tarp, you can use a lightweight footprint, like tyvek or window wrap, as a waterproof groundsheet, or an ultralight bivy sack with a mesh hood for added insect protection. Another common alternative is to purchase a half-sized inner tent that only fills part of the pyramid to save weight and so you can safely cook in the floorless half in bad weather. Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Bear Paw Wilderness Designs sell half mids that can be used for this purpose. When purchasing a pyramid, make sure to look for ones that have interior gear loops or attachment points so you can conveniently suspend accessories in the interior.

You can use a pyramid like you would any single wall tarp, with a UL groundsheet and UL bivy sack.
You can use a pyramid like you would any single wall tarp, with a UL groundsheet and UL bivy sack.

Center Pole

Pyramid tents and tarps are called monopole shelters because they only require one pole to set up. The pole is usually placed inside the peak in the center of the pyramid, although it can also be slanted with the base off-center to provide more interior room. The peak itself is usually reinforced so the center pole doesn’t puncture it. Most peaks also include an air vent to release the water vapor and warm air that can cause internal condensation.

A pole is often included with the shelter or available as an option. Most smaller capacity pyramids (1-3 people) can be set up with a trekking pole instead of a separate tent pole, which is common with the ultralight pyramids made by cottage manufacturers. If your trekking pole is not long enough, you can lash it to a second trekking pole with a Voile ski strap to create a longer pole, or extend it with a pole jack, which is essentially a tent pole repair sleeve that fits over your trekking pole tip to make it longer.

Front Door

Most pyramid tents and tarps have a single front door, which can be problematic depending on its position and the number of people sharing the shelter. While not an issue for solo use, you’re probably going to wake up a partner if you have to get out of a multi-person pyramid at night. When evaluating multi-person pyramids, try to find ones that lets you orient your head facing the front wall so you and your partner(s) have equal access to the door, rather than pyramids where you’re lying perpendicular to the door.

Wide air gap between the bottom of the tarp and the ground.
Wide air gap between the bottom of the tarp and the ground.

Another option is to get a pyramid that is larger than necessary so you have more room inside to move around. For example, the GoLite Shangri-La 3 (now sold as the MTC Pyramid 3) is a spacious 2 person mid, but can be awkward for 3 adults to share given the center pole position and angled front door.

Internal Condensation

Pyramid tents and tarps are prone to internal condensation just like any other single or double-walled tent and shelter. The best way to reduce or eliminate any internal condensation is to maintain as much airflow as possible. While many pyramid shelters have a vent in the peak, this isn’t usually sufficient by itself to vent moisture built-up.  While sleeping with the front door rolled open in fair weather can be quite helpful, the best way to ensure good airflow is to maintain a wide air gap between the bottom edge of the tarp and the ground so breezes can pass through the tent. Lengthen the center pole a few inches to raise the peak, and stake out the base as normal.

The least amount of overhead clearance is at the head and foot ends under the slanted walls.
The least amount of overhead clearance is at the head and foot ends under the slanted walls.

Interior Volume

While the head room at the center of a pyramid tent or tarp is usually quite good, letting you sit up with ease, the interior can be awkward to use depending on the slope angle of the walls and their distance from your face and the top of your feet. While elevating the center pole can help increase the distance between the tarp and your face, there’s always going to be less clearance at the edges of the tarp farthest away from the center pole. If this bothers you, look for pyramids with a higher peak height and steeper side walls. The shape of the footprint –  circular versus square or rectangular – can also have an impact on in the amount of edge clearance you have. Edge clearance is usually less of an issue in winter because you can dig a pit into the snow under the pyramid to create more headroom.

It can be challenging to wedge a pyramid in between trees in dense forest
It can be challenging to wedge a pyramid in between trees in dense forest

Campsite Selection

Pyramid tarps and tents have a fairly large footprint, which can make it difficult to pitch in heavily forested terrain where you need to wedge them between trees. They also work best on flat and even ground, unlike a flat tarp, where you can pitch one side considerably higher than the other and still get a viable shelter. If the only ground you can set a pyramid up on is uneven, you’re probably going to get some “wall sag” instead of a drum-tight pitch on the high side. This can reduce the amount of useable space you have inside, but is unlikely to have a serious functional impact.

When camping in exposed and windy terrain, it’s best to set up your pyramid with the door facing away from the wind or at an angle. You should also stake out the sidewall guy-out points for added security and to prevent wind pressure from bowing the walls into your living space.

It best to pitch a pyramid with the door facing opposite the wind
It’s best to pitch a pyramid with the door facing opposite the wind

Summary

Pyramid tarps and tents are a popular ultralight backpacking shelter option because they’re relatively lightweight and wind resistant. If sleeping on the ground doesn’t appeal to you or if you need insect protection, you can add an inner tent to a pyramid tarp to create a double-walled tent. Internal condensation is best addressed by encouraging plenty of airflow through a pyramid, by keeping the front door open or pitching them so plenty of air can blow through, low down near the ground. Most ultralight backpacking pyramids can be set up using a trekking pole(s), but you can usually obtain and carry a separate tent pole if you don’t use them. Pyramids work best on flat ground with fairly open campsites because they require a fair amount of space to set up and stake down. While headroom is quite good in the center of a pyramid, the ends can be quite low above your face or the tops of your feet. This can be addressed by getting a larger capacity pyramid that provides more living space, although it will be heavier to carry.

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2 comments

  1. I would add the Six Moons Design Gatewood cape paired with their Serenity net tent as another great option for a solo travelers. I’ve had it in some ugly downpours with great results plus you get a free poncho at no additional weight.

  2. A Golite Hex (renamed Shangri-La 3) is the tent I’ve most used in past 10 years or so. It’s quite nice in winter, if snow is banked around its edges. Overlooking this step results in vastly diminished performance. One can, to a limited extent, apply the principle using dry leaves, or even (with some care) rocks and/or logs, although not as effectively. Early Boy Scout manuals and perhaps Kephart, included instructions for pitching a flat tarp as an enclosed pyramid. Although at one time I could do this quite efficiently, it’s a bit involved and I’ve lost the knack.

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