“Under most conditions, the best roof for your bedroom is the sky. This commonsense 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 which 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.
- 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 beat for ventilation.
- When pitched appropriately for the prevailing conditions, provides good protection against the elements.
- The “open” nature of tarps promote 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 (eg. 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.
- Poncho Tarp: Since 2008, my “go to” shelter for most three season conditions (i.e. Not for consistently wet & windy environments) has been a Poncho Tarp. This is a wonderful multi-purpose item that can act as your shelter (one person), rain protection and pack cover. I have two of them, both of which I would highly recommend: MLD Silnylon Pro Poncho and Integral Designs Sil Poncho. It is worth noting that Poncho Tarps are smaller than your average tarp, and therefore if precipitation is on the cards it is advisable to use them in combination with a lightweight water resistant bivy (see below). This has the dual benefits of keeping your bag dry from any splashes caused by a change in wind/rain direction during the evening, as well as adding between 5 and 10 degrees of warmth to your sleeping system.
- 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.
- 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 bivys’ (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.
There are two main types of bivy:
- The traditional variety which is a stand alone, waterproof shelter, which usually sports mosquito netting and a hoop to keep the bag off your head. This is the type I always found to be claustrophobic, prone to condensation and generally speaking, just as heavy as a significantly more comfortable one-man silnylon tent.
- The alternative bivy is much lighter (e.g. MLD Superlight Bivy or Katabatic Gear Bristlecone Bivy), has a waterproof bottom and a water resistant highly breathable top. Its primary advantages are a decrease in both condensation and weight. The catch? During wet weather, it needs to be used in combination with a tarp as the top of the bag is not waterproof.
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
- Generally cheaper and lighter than their double wall equivalents.
- Easier to put up and pull down; quick drying.
- Condensation can be an issue.
- Prone to sag in the rain and flap in the wind if not pitched tautly.
- Adjustable Pitch: Many lightweight single wall shelters, such as Tarptents, perform best when a trekking pole is employed in the set up. This gives you the option of adjusting the height of your shelter according to the prevailing conditions. For example, in high winds you will want your shelter to be as aerodynamic as possible. This is achieved by simply lowering the height of your front/trekking pole during pitching.
- Condensation: In certain conditions all single wall shelters will be prone to condensation. However, in my years of using Tarptents, I have never found this to be as big an issue as some people make it out to be. Tips: 1. Whenever possible, avoid camping in areas which 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, and; 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
- 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 centimeters of your face.
- Generally more expensive than their single wall equivalents.
Recommended lighter options, all of which weigh less than 1.3 kg (3 lbs), include Big Agnes Fly Creek, Big Agnes Seedhouse, MSR Hubba and Tarptent Scarp 1. Of these four shelters, I have had personal experience with the Hubba and Seedhouse, and have heard excellent reviews about the other two models from long-time hiker buddies.
HORSES FOR COURSES
When it comes to backpacking shelters, there is no one solution which is ideal for all types of conditions.
- In areas in which you are likely to encounter constant rain and wind (e.g. Scottish Highlands, SW Tasmania), your best bet is probably a double wall tent or a hybrid shelter such as the innovative MLD Trailstar.
- In the jungle or during bug season, take a single wall tent or a tarp with bug netting.
- In developing countries, where it is preferable not to have all your gear on display, take a lightweight tent.
- In the desert, if chances of precipitation are virtually zero, sleep under the stars. Carry a bivy or lightweight tarp just in case.