“Under most conditions, the best roof for your bedroom is the sky. This common-sense arrangement saves weight, time, energy and money.” ~ Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker 3, 1989.
Your choice of shelter should reflect a balance between your individual needs and the dictates of the environment in which you are hiking. The perfect shelter for all conditions does not exist, however, generally speaking, we are looking for something that keeps us dry when it rains, holds up well in high winds, keeps out the bugs and doesn’t weigh the proverbial tonne. There are three principal options: tarp, bivy, and tent.
Since 2003, tarps have been my “go-to” shelter for most three-season conditions. The exception being consistently wet & windy environments, such as Tasmania, South Island of NZ and the United Kingdom.
- Relatively inexpensive.
- Spacious & lightweight (best space-to-weight ratio of all shelter options).
- Versatile – can be pitched in a multitude of configurations.
- Can’t be beaten for ventilation.
- When pitched appropriately for the prevailing conditions, provides good protection against the elements.
- The “open” nature of tarps promotes a heightened feeling of connection with your surrounding environment.
- No protection against bugs, unless you add some netting or use it in combination with a lightweight/breathable bivy sack (see below).
- Less privacy if camping at established sites.
- Practice multiple pitching configurations (e.g. Lean-to, A-Frame, Half-Pyramid and Flying Diamond – see Videos below) at home before embarking on an overnight excursion into the backcountry. This is not a skill you want to be learning in driving wind and rain after a long day’s walk.
- Creativity: Tarps are more versatile than tents, but they require more creativity on the part of the hiker. If you don’t hike with poles you will need to rely on trees, sticks, logs or rocks in order to erect your shelter.
- Knots: If you are planning on using a tarp, you need to know some basic knots. See Knots in the SKILLS section for details.
- Tent pegs and guylines: A tarp should be pitched tautly. The key to a taut pitch is an even distribution of tension. In order for this to be achieved, you should always have sufficient guylines and tent pegs.
- Above Treeline: If you are hiking above treeline, your tarp pitching options may be limited unless you are hiking with poles. That being the case, it is essential that you plan ahead. If rain is a possibility, plan on either being below tree line or alternatively carrying with you one or two appropriately sized sturdy sticks with which to erect your shelter.
Four Keys to a Successful Tarp Pitch
- Campsite selection.
- Appropriate configuration for the conditions at hand.
- Knot tying proficiency.
- Sufficient guylines and tent pegs.
- Videos: The first video shows a basic Lean-to pitch; the second video has step-by-step instructions for A-Frame, Half Pyramid and Flying Diamond configurations.
There are two main types of bivy. The first is the traditional variety which is a stand-alone, waterproof shelter. It usually sports mosquito netting and a hoop to keep the bag off your head. The second type of bivy is significantly lighter, has a waterproof bottom, a water-resistant breathable top and a bugnet window (e.g. MLD Superlight Bivy or Katabatic Gear Bristlecone Bivy). I prefer the latter, which I generally use in combination with my tarp.
For the full skinny see The Essential Guide to Ultralight Bivy Sacks.
- Lightweight and versatile – their small footprint and lack of pegs, ropes and poles, means you can pretty much sleep anywhere.
- Increases the warmth of your sleeping system.
- When there is no rain or bugs, it’s nice to have the sky, rather than a piece of nylon as your roof.
- In traditional waterproof bivvies (see below) condensation can be an issue.
- They can feel a little claustrophobic (particularly when it’s raining).
- There is usually no room for your pack inside the bivy. The exception to this final point is if you are traveling in an ultralight fashion, in which case you will probably be able to fit your pack underneath your feet at the bottom end of the bag.
You can’t beat a tent for all-around comfort, protection, and privacy. However, when it comes to the question of weight, not all tents are created equal. For all but consistently wet or sub-zero conditions, I recommend using a single wall tent over a double-wall tent. The weight saving can be as much as 2 or 3 kg (4.4/6.6 lbs), without unduly sacrificing comfort or safety.
Single Wall Tent Pros:
- Generally cheaper and lighter than their double-wall equivalents.
- Easier to put up and pull down; quick-drying.
- Prone to sag in the rain and flap in the wind if not pitched tautly.
- In certain conditions all single wall shelters will be prone to condensation. However, in my many years of using Tarptents, I have never found this to be as big an issue as some people make it out to be.
Tips to Minimize Condensation: 1. Whenever possible, avoid camping in areas that lend themselves to condensation (see Choosing a Campsite in the SKILLS section). 2. Keep the tent taut. 3. Avoid excessive contact with the sides of the shelter. 4. Before packing up your tent, wipe the inside with a bandana, sponge or small camp towel. 5. As soon as practical, stop and dry out your shelter. If the sun is out, silnylon shelters can dry in a matter of minutes.
Double-Wall Tent Pros:
- The inner layer acts as a barrier between you and any condensation buildup. This helps to keep your sleeping bag dry in case you happen to brush up against the sides of the shelter during the evening.
- If the inner layer is made of fabric or a combination of fabric and mesh, it can help to block wind as well as provide additional warmth.
- A mesh inner layer pitched by itself can be a great option on clear, warm and buggy evenings. It provides the views of “cowboy camping”, without the incessant bugs flying within a few centimetres of your face.
- Often more expensive than their single-wall equivalents.
- Longer to put up and take down.
- Uses up more space in your pack.
Tent Recommendations / One Person Models (in alphabetical order)
- Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 1 – 27 oz
- Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL1 – 34 oz
- Gossamer Gear The One – 22 oz
- Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid / Solomid XL – 13 oz DCF
- Nemo Hornet Elite 1 Person – 23 oz
- Sierra Designs High Route 1 FL – 37 oz
- Six Moon Designs Deschutes– 8 oz DCF / 13 oz
- Six Moon Designs Skyscrape Trekker – 28 oz
- Tarptent Notch – 19 oz DCF / 27 oz Silnylon
- Tarptent Aeon Li – 17 oz
- Tarptent ProTrail – 26 oz
- Tarptent Moment DW – 34 oz
- Yama Mountain Gear Cirriform – 21 oz
- Zpacks Solplex – 15 oz
Two Person Models
- Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 – 44 oz
- Gossamer Gear The Two – 29 oz
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid – 19 oz
- MLD Duomid – 14 oz DCF / 18 oz Silnylon
- MLD Trailstar – 12 oz DCF / 18 oz Silnylon
- Zpacks Duplex – 19 oz