Ultralight Tents: Common Pitfalls and Complaints

ultralight tents: pitfalls and complaints

While ultralight tents are easier to carry because they weigh less, you usually have to sacrifice something in terms of comfort, ease of use, or weather protection to use one. The weight reduction doesn’t come for free, even if the tent is made with an ultralight material like Dyneema Composite Fabrics. I’m not trying to dissuade you from buying an ultralight tent but to help calibrate your expectations. I’ve heard too many stories from people who’ve bought an ultralight tent and end up hating it because it isn’t as comfortable, warm, or easy to use as they expected.

What is an Ultralight Tent?

There really isn’t a good definition of what an ultralight tent is and isn’t. It has to have a roof, a floor, a door, and usually has some insect netting. Weight is also a factor, but whatever weight threshold you choose, be it 1 pound, 2 pounds, or 3 pounds is pretty arbitrary. The one thing that ultralight tents share is a common set of weight-saving design patterns and tricks to reduce gear weight such as single-wall construction, trekking pole setup, and the use of lightweight fabrics.

However, those weight-saving tricks require certain tradeoffs in terms of comfort, warmth, waterproofing, durability, noise, ease of setup, gear preparation, and cost that can generate user dissatisfaction. If you’re buying an ultralight tent and don’t understand the tradeoffs made by the tent designer, you’ll probably be surprised by its performance, perhaps in a negative way.

Privacy be damned. The best way to reduce internal condensation in a single wall tent is to sleep with the doors wide open.
Privacy be damned. The best way to reduce internal condensation in a single wall tent is to sleep with the doors wide open.

Ultralight Tents and their Pitfalls

What are some of the pitfalls that result from the weight-saving construction techniques used by ultralight tent designers?

Tent condensation

Many ultralight tents are single-wall tents that do not have a separate inner tent and rainfly. While this reduces tent weight, it often results in increased tent condensation and the transfer of moisture onto your sleeping bag or quilt where it touches the tent walls. While there are ways to avoid or minimize it, they require behavioral changes in how you ventilate your tent or where you pitch it. Even then, it can be hard to avoid. If you can’t stand the thought of getting your sleeping bag or quilt wet, even if it’s minor, you should probably avoid getting a single wall tent.

Draftiness, splashback

Many ultralight tents have vestibule doors that are half-length that don’t reach the ground. They’re cut short to promote airflow through the tent but can make the tent quite drafty and cold inside, or result in splashback, where rain hitting the ground, bounces back inside your tent. You can mitigate this by pointing the rear of your tent toward the incoming wind and weather. If you don’t want to think about the wind direction when pitching your tent, you should probably get a tent that has doors and walls that reach the ground.

While raised sidewalls and vestibules improve airflow, they can make a tent quite cold if its windy.
While raised sidewalls and vestibules improve airflow, they can make a tent quite cold if it’s windy.

Reduced durability, less waterproof

A common tactic to reduce fabric weight is to use thinner, lighter, and lower denier fabrics (like 7d or 10d), even though they are less durable and less waterproof. If you don’t want to carry a tent footprint to protect the bottom of your tent from abrasion or you can’t reliably find tent sites with good drainage, you should probably avoid getting a tent made with very thin (low denier) fabrics (except if it’s made with Dyneema Composite Fabrics, which are every waterproof).

Expensive, bulky to pack, poor privacy, hot in sunlight

Many ultralight tents are made with Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) which is an ultralight material that is much lighter weight per yard than more conventional tent fabrics like nylon or polyester. In addition to making a tent much more expensive (usually by a factor of 2), DCF tents are bulkier to pack than those made with nylon or polyester, they are translucent so people can see through the tent walls, and they can be insufferably hot and unusable in bright sunlight. If cost, packability, privacy, or day-use are priorities, you should probably skip getting a DCF tent.

Slippery floors, tent walls sag when they get wet

Another popular lightweight fabric is siliconized nylon (silnylon). Tents made with silnylon have very slippery floors so your sleeping pad will move around at night inside the tent. Silnylon also has a lot of stretch to it when it gets wet in the rain. This can result in internal condensation dripping from the ceiling and walls onto your gear or loud flapping sounds if it’s windy.

While tent poles are heavier than trekking poles, they make it possible to have vertical walls and curved ceilings.
While tent poles are heavier than trekking poles, they make it possible to have vertical walls and curved ceilings. This REI Quarter Dome Sl 1 weighs 31 ounces, which is still pretty lightweight.

Poor headroom and cramped interior space

Many ultralight tents require trekking poles to set up instead of hubbed, collapsible tent poles. While this saves weight, the tents are highly angular with diagonal ceilings and sidewalls, instead of the curved ceiling and walls that you can create with modern aluminum or carbon fiber tent poles. As a consequence, trekking pole ultralight tents are usually more cramped and best used for sleeping only, instead of hanging out. Even then you may wake up at night with tent fabric an inch or two above your face and feet, which can be pretty claustrophobic.

Harder to set up on hard surfaces or small tent sites

Ultralight trekking pole tents are not freestanding or semi-freestanding, which can make them harder to set up on solid surfaces, like tent platforms, where it’s difficult to secure tent stakes. Freestanding and semi-freestanding tents are also much easier to pitch on bad tent sites, especially smaller tent sites that don’t have space for long guylines.

Wrap up

Ultralight tents are made with certain design tradeoffs that sacrifice comfort, weather protection, ease of use, and durability in order to reduce their weight. It’s important to understand what tradeoffs have been made when you’re shopping for an ultralight tent, so you know what to expect when you use it and whether you need to learn new skills or buy extra gear to compensate for them. You can also put it like this: there’s no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to reducing the weight of your backpacking gear. You always give up something. My aim here hasn’t been to dissuade you from investing in an ultralight backpacking tent, but to alert you to the tradeoffs inherent in ultralight tent design, so you’re not blindsided when you make a purchase.

Here are some links to articles that address many of the issues I raise above and how to adapt to them:

35 comments

  1. Great article Philip. I know you cover these cons in your reviews, but it’s great to see them all in one place. Circe.

    • I started out with the best of everything , with comfort being my #1 objective . Glad I did . I’m 67 hike with 50 lbs with full food and water . My osprey 70 liter pack carries it like I have nothing on my back , worst part is taking it on and off . I always try to do that on a table , log or rock . Love my big Agnes dcf 3 p carbon fiber tent with 2 foot prints to protect the tent floor from the pressure of my helinox cot and helinox chair . I have the best !!!

  2. My Gossamer Gear The One tent (silnylon) has a very slippery floor. My sleeping pad slid around even on very flat ground, let alone if I had to pitch on any kind of slope. I bought a roll of that grippy shelf liner from the dollar store, cut two pieces about 12×12 inches (about 1.5 oz), and I place them under my sleeping pad near my chest and near my knees and the sleeping pad no longer slides.

    • Good man – we often have to tweak products to match our needs. I’m a big gear tinkerer.

    • More stuff to carry and increase’s weight and time of setup and dismantling . I understand not everyone’s budget fits the purchase of the best equipment . And I find people like to give up comfort for lighter weight . Not me ! : )

    • Good to know that it only takes a lit bit, I bought some recently and it’s surprisingly dense, I wasn’t going to bring it if I had to bring a substantial piece.

  3. They always gave me the creeps. Not that I had one. But after watching Dixie’s Oregon and WA state traverses (PCT) seeing how wet she got, especially through all that wet snow, I thought…. too dangerous. She does seem to have a ‘charmed’ aire about her, or she has a very high pain/discomfort threshold. I see that The Hiking Rev. was successful with his ultra light, but I don’t recall him hitting heavy snows. I always liked my solid tents. Especially my Moss Outland. OK it’s heavy, but I knew I was going to be dry, ventilated, and decent amount of room. This year I bought a MEC Spark2 one person and though untested, the set up was nice and I felt well covered inside..

    • I like many UL tents, but the trick is knowing when and where to use them (environmental factors). For example, some people think they’re basically 1-season (summer) tents like a lot of UL clothing and gear. But most people can’t afford to own a summer UL tent and one for the other three seasons.

      PS – I gave up watching TV about 15 years ago due to all the commercials. Youtube is a million times worse.

      • Been wanting to get into backpacking, but im a bit overwhelmed by all the information when it comes to make the right, usually very expensive, purchase. Taking all of these cons into account is there a “lighter” tent that you would recommend? I know it won’t ever be perfect, but I would love a tent I can count on to work, even if it does weigh a little bit more.

        • I happen to like the REI Quarter Dome SL 1 pictured in the article quite a lot. I use it when I don’t want to think too hard about bringing the perfect ultralight tent or searching for the perfect campsite for an ultralight tent. It’s quite adaptable and easy to pack.

      • Before taking the plunge into ultralight equipment think about your preference: camping and comfort vs hiking. If you prefer to camp more and walk less you may want to avoid the cost of ultralight equipment.
        Pmags has an ultralight for ultra cheap list that can provide budget alternatives that I would recommend checking out if you are budget minded.

      • Hi Philip, if you have a YouTube subscription, you won’t see a single ad.

    • I would recommend anyone that is new to backpacking to get a less expensive and heavier version of everything then work your way into specific technical gear. It’s a lot of money to spend on a hobby you may not like. You can honestly get geared for a night or two for $200 bucks with Amazon/deals/gear trade. Avoid REI as they will rip you off with intermediate level gear.

      • Do you have personal issues with Rei? Curious as to why you would say something so negative about them.

      • I think their return policy is just what people new to backpacking need!

      • I own the Quarter dome SL1 and absolutely love it, REI I’ve had nothing but great luck with the company. I’m basically a hammock guy ,but really enjoy using tents and tarps also. Having options is key.

      • Intermediate can often be the sweet spot that’s needed. Between sale price and return policy and a basic understanding of what you need and don’t need, intermediate can become ideal!

      • I mean. As intermediate gear goes, REI isn’t bad. Sure, you can probably do cheaper online, but their stuff is pretty good and they provide fantastic support and service.

        I would agree though, they hedge slightly toward value over absolute cutting edge in most cases.

    • I dunno. Dixie does seem to catch charmed, near misses with grace, but also the grace of experience to take an awful lot in stride.

      Some of her videos and choices very much nudged me back toward, “Yeah, that’s not for me” territory, lol. Tough if cheery gal, that one.

      I think Philip put it really well: Research and understand the tradeoffs being made with ultralight gear. The experience of others is a helpful tool there.

  4. Used to be on BPL

    Two thumbs up.
    Excellent write up.
    This is motivating me to call in sick and get my tent out from the garage.

  5. I own 2 Trekking poles tents and when I know I’ll be on a wooden tent platform I bring a handful of drywall screws to use as anchors. They don’t have to be in very far and have never failed me..

    • I can’t see the platforms lasting very long if everyone used screws to hold their tents down!
      Just use your normal tent stakes and loop the guyline around the stake about halfway and slide the guyline between the gap in the boards and tension the line to bring the stake up to the bottom of the boards. It works great and you don’t have to bring anything extra to pitch on a platform.

  6. Good article Philip! This was the article I needed 2 months ago :-D

    This was the first time I had heard about DCF being hotter during the day. Not seen or heard that mentioned before in tent reviews.

    Top Tip from me is don’t take your brand new tent out for a trip without setting it up first. Seems obvious but I was super excited to try it; first night was an utter fail and tent was no longer returnable as it had been used.

  7. Good article. We have three dcf tents, with a fourth on the way. The place where ultralight tents shine is for those of us for whom packweight is a make or break factor in hiking. It’s for those of us who have foot or back issues, or those wanting to hike big distances. For strong folk, the money might be better spent getting to amazing destinations because half a kilo here or there will make little difference to their enjoyment.

    Ultralight gear has been a revelation to me because it has opened up hiking doors that were previously closed. Ultralight tents are a part of that, but you are 100% correct that you need a new headspace when using them. Some are closer to conventional tents: Tarptent’s Stratospire Li has an outer and inner wall.

    My dream tent would be the Xmid pro with a solid inner: ultralight, double skin, down to ground coverage., and one of the few two person tents that’s genuinely soaciius for two people, rather than a theee person tent.

    Helen, Slowerhiking

    • Back issues here also. Xmid pro looks great to me as well. I’d add the roof vents are a big plus not seen on some other popular dcf tents. I can only hope that some day they’ll be available again.

  8. Christopher Marshburn

    One very popular ultralight tent, the Zpacks Duplex, does have an optional frame that permits it to be free standing. Good for those times when pitching a trekking pole tent is challenging. I don’t have it yet but people that have it seem to like it. An added bonus is it makes it easier to get in the tent through that rainbow opening.

  9. In the backyard I once set out a silnylon groundsheet with a silnylon bivy bag on top of it, just to see how ridiculous it would be. Suspicions confirmed. I painted some strips of silicone on the bivy bag later, always found it interesting how a thick layer of silicone is grippy while a fine coating is slippery. I’m easily amused.

  10. I think there are double wall options that solidly qualify as ultralight. I’m a fan of the TarpTent Notch Li. The Notch Li is a dyneema tent with two options for an inner tent. One of bug netting and a bathtub floor, and the other a combination of bug netting and fabric and a bathtub floor. And, because the design is of the type where the inner tent is hung from clips inside the outer tent, which can be pitched alone, it also make a great fly only tent for extreme minimalist excursions in spring and fall.

    The design of the Notch Li overcomes most of the concerns you raise. It has two full vestibules and doors, can be pitched at variable heights to either promote ventilation or limit it, and is roomy enough for me to use a full sized pad, sit upright, and hang out, cook and dress when rainy. Ive pitched mine in the open in winds gusting to 40. Its only collapsed once and that was from a direct gust at one end due to a single stake in soggy ground. I now carry a few extra long stakes all year long.

    No doubt dcf tents are warm in direct sun, hut so are my two Hilleberg 4 season tents. Any structure with limited ventilation setup in the sun is going to get warm. But honestly, how often does one set up a tent in the sun on a warm day and want to be inside it?

  11. Buy an old North Face Windward. Ultra light and no issues of draftiness, leaks, ventilation or comfort for two in a three-season tent with full coverage fly and ample separated vestibule which accommodates two packs.

  12. Nemo Hornet 2p is just over 2lbs. Double wall. Held up for me in a couple of really heavy rains and on some windy mountain tops last year. Not sure I would be able to say the same for much lighter stuff, given my inexperience with all the issues here mentioned.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Clicky