Ultralight Tents and Shelter Guide: Pros and Cons

Ultralight Tents and Shelters Guide Pro and Cons

Ultralight backpacking tents and shelters come in all shapes and sizes, but each type has pros and cons 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:

  1. Single Wall Tents
  2. Double-Wall Tents
  3. Pyramid Tarps
  4. Catenary-Cut Tarps
  5. Flat Tarps
  6. Hammocks

For the purposes of this article, I am defining an ultralight tent or shelter as one that weighs 3 pounds or less. Some of the categories listed above overlap, so if you think I’ve misclassified 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 siliconized nylon (silnylon) or siliconized polyester (silpoly), if available. Some of the shelters listed are also available in Dyneema Composite Fabrics (DCF) and weigh considerably less but are much more expensive. For brevity, I’ll cover the differences between silnylon, silpoly, DCF, and polyurethane (PU) 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.

1. Single Wall Tents

Lanshan 1 Pro single wall tent
Lanshan 1 Pro single wall tent

Single-wall tents don’t have a separate inner tent and external rainfly. Instead, they have one wall with a mesh door or vents that improve airflow through the tent and help to prevent internal condensation. Most single wall 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 also have an integrated front vestibule 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 examples include:

Pros

  • Easy and fast to set up
  • The living area of the tent stays dry when pitched in the 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 provide good wind resistance
  • Most have vestibule storage
  • Waterproof, after seam sealing, providing good protection from rain as long as you pick campsites that don’t pool water

Cons

  • Prone to internal condensation which is a nuisance
  • 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 may be required before use

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

2. Double-Wall Tents

Nemo Hornet 2P double-wall tent.
Nemo Hornet 2P double-wall tent.

Double-wall tents are designed to protect occupants from internal condensation (see How to Prevent Internal Condensation). They’re called double-wall 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 rainfly, away from you and your gear. In recent years, the weight of double-wall tents has plunged, to the point where they’ve become competitive with other ultralight shelter types.

Some popular examples include:

Pros

  • Easy to set up
  • Inner tent prevents internal condensation from making your gear wet
  • Insect proof and slither proof
  • Usually has a vestibule for covered gear storage
  • Can be used in virtually all three-season weather conditions
  • Inner tents tend to have deep bathtub floors that can prevent flooding if water pools underneath
  • Less drafty and warmers than other ultralight tents and shelters

Cons

  • Prone to internal condensation because they have relatively poor airflow
  • Tend to be heavier, bulkier, and more expensive than other types of ultralight shelters
  • Most double-wall shelters (with the exception of the Tarptents and X-Mid listed above) require that you pitch the inner tent before the rainfly, resulting in a wet inner tent in the pouring rain.
  • Tent poles can be awkward to pack in a backpack
  • Warmer in hot weather

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 undercover in a vestibule
  • Freestanding double-wall tents can be pitched without tent stakes making them very convenient for camping on rock ledges, sandy soil, or wooden tent platforms.

3. Pyramids (also called Mids)

Ultralight Pyramid Shelters
Ultralight Pyramid Shelters

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. This can virtually double the weight of your shelter system, however. 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 examples include:

Pros

  • 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 Dyneema DCF and better for winter use)
  • Provides good cover in winter over a dug out snow pit
  • Provides excellent privacy

Cons

  • 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 very windy terrain
  • Bad weather with little landscape protection
  • Winter when combined with snow structures
  • Long distance, expedition-style travel in hostile environments

4. Catenary Cut Tarps

Shaped catenary cut tarp
Shaped catenary cut tarp w/ a bivy sack for insect protection

Catenary cut tarps, also called shaped tarps, are simple tarps with curved edges that improve their aerodynamic performance, reduce weight, 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, catenary 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 airflow. Catenary cut tarps are frequently combined with an inner tent with a bathtub floor or an ultralight bivy which can provide insect and moisture protection.

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:

Pros

  • Very lightweight and compact
  • The 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

Cons

  • Not as flexible as a flat tarp because you need to always pitch it in an A-Frame to get a taut pitch
  • 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
  • Sleeping on the ground and not on wooden platforms

5. Flat Tarps

A Variety of Flat Tarp Pitches or "Shapes"
A Variety of Flat Tarp Pitches or “Shapes” all made with Square 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 boulders. 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 often not attached when pitching, since different tie-outs are needed for different configurations or “shapes”, and are knotted rather than tensioned with line-locs.

As with Cat-cut tarps, campsite selection becomes 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 prevent rain from bouncing back under the tarp and making your sleep insulation wet.

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.

Some popular models include:

Pros

  • 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 toward the wind
  • Does not require a flat surface to pitch
  • Can be configured in an infinite number of ways, including ones that incorporate landscape features such as fallen logs, boulders, or pitches that are very weatherproof such as pyramids.

Cons

  • Does not provide as much protection as a tent
  • 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
  • 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

6. Hammocks

Porch-mode in the Hammock Gear Wanderlust
Porch mode in the Hammock Gear Wanderlust

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, an insect net that’s draped over the ridgeline and a tarp that is suspended overhead. If you’re new to hammocks, we recommend starting with a complete hammock system including a hammock, tarp, and suspension. It will save you a lot of time and money.

These are great lightweight options:

Pros

  • 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
  • Great leave no trace or stealth camping option

Cons

  • Bottom insulation (foam or undequilt) is usually required

Best Used When…

  • Camping or backpacking in forested areas
  • You sleep poorly on the ground

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 research 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 too hasty in passing judgment 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 an inexpensive seam-sealed single-wall tent like the Gossamer Gear  “The One” to get started. The Lanshan 1 Pro and the Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo are also excellent picks, but you’ll need to seam seal them if you camp in the rain.

If you want to try a hammock, I’d recommend getting an All-in-One kit to start like the Hammock Gear Wanderlust to reduce the hammock camping learning curve, which can be very steep if you buy the components separately. I use the Wanderlust myself because it is best-of-breed and I love it.

If you want to try a pyramid tarp, or a flat or catenary cut tarp, you’ll probably want to buy a bug bivy or ultralight bivy sack to go with it for insect and moisture protection. This can add significant weight to these options and it is useful to weigh them against the other alternatives listed above.

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7 comments

  1. Great article! I agree with everything. I am a minimalist tarp user. For me the main advantages of a tarp are I can find a place to pitch practically anyplace I can lay down. This is important if you stealth camp in an area with aggressive terrain like the White Mountains and you can’t use a hammock. Also, I love the aesthetics of tarp camping because you feel more connected to the outdoors, especially during storms. So far I’ve caught 6 T-storms this year and have stayed dry (nice, protected campsites). The fact that my whole shelter setup, Zpacks 7×9 tarp, mosquito netting, groundsheet, guy-lines, and stakes, weighs a whisker over a pound is icing on the cake.

  2. One of your most thorough outdoor guides yet. Thank you for your time and efforts!

  3. Good stuff, hits most of the things I care about. I’m still struggling with how much of a weight saving is worth to change what I have.
    I have a Tarptent Double Rainbow that I feel it’s a little too much for when I would be solo, but I can’t decide how much lighter a new system should be. I can go with just a tarp but would rather have a a tent, while I’m a little apprehensive about a hammock (and I wouldn’t really save weight). The REI Quarter Dome SL1 seems to be the best compromise but it’s less than a pound lighter and I’m not sure how weather worthy would be. First world problems here.

    • I focus less on weight and more on comfort and ease of pitch. I own an REI Quarter Dome SL 1 and while I give away most of the shelters I review, I’ve hung onto it because I like using it so much. It’s perfectly weather worthy, but it pitches inner tent first, which might not be optimal if you backpack in rain. A double rainbow would be a bit much, but it doesn’t suffer from that issue. Nor does a hammock. I like the hammock (a wanderlust system) because it’s so damn comfortable and it’s very easy to camp whereever I want if there are trees around.

    • I started with the tarptent double rainbow, and also decided it was too much when in my own. I ended up choosing the gossamer gear “the one” for my solo tent. I was a bit worried about the specs (very thin material), but it’s been great so far, including through some storms. And a significant weight savings.

  4. When I was a poor backpacker (2 little kids, a wife and on a teacher’s salary) I used a tarp and/or a plastic “tube tent”. BUT NO MORE.
    Now I use a Tarptent Moment DW for winter and Tarptent Notch Li for 3 season. Both are one person tents and very light but also very well designed.

    • Tarptent Moment DW is my almost ideal tent, could be even freestanding, and 1,15 kg for full setup.

      What’s missing is a polyester, taped fly (doesn’t soak water and doesn’t sag) or better a dyneema fly (above, and lighter).

      Two stakes pitch is quite ingenious, not because I’m lazy, but because of rocky terrain (good luck to anybody to pitch 6 stakes in the rocky terrain in high winds ;). I plan to myog rock pockets for these two stakes.

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