When it comes to shelters there seem to be an unlimited number of options out there, yet the tasks they are designed to handle are the same. To protect the backpacker from elements such as: wind, water and precipitation. They can also be a safe haven from the bugs. In this post I will go over different shelter systems available, considerations to be made when choosing, and the advantages and disadvantages of each shelter.
The materials from which a shelter is designed can greatly affect many factors such as weight, durability, breathability and even water resistance. Three of those materials you will commonly see used are nylon, polyester and Dyneema® Composite Fabrics (cuben fiber).
Nylon is fairly lightweight, abrasion resistant and breathable whereas polyester absorbs less water, is less breathable and stands up longer to UV damage. Cuben fiber is extremely lightweight, reportedly 15 times more stronger and can come with a hefty price tag.
Some considerations you'll want to keep in mind when choosing from one of the types of shelters listed below (or something entirely different) are: Weight, Adaptability and Performance.
Weight can become important when your trip location is a place like the Long Trail. With constant change in elevation here, a lightweight shelter would not only help lower pack weight but could also help achieve long distances while making them enjoyable. I've slept in many different places with many various shelters and lightweight is always a characteristic I look for.
Adaptability can change with any given trip, its time and location. You may find yourself during June on the AT in Vermont wanting optimal protection from black flies or you could be out on a rainy weekend trip in the White Mountains. Having an adaptable shelter will help address the different changes with ease.
Performance is what we all look for in a shelter. How well does it perform against heavy winds? How is the ventilation? Will it protect me from rain or snow? These are questions that should be answered and relative to your trip location.
Double Wall Backpacking Tents
Double wall tents are one of the most popular options out there. Most consist of a waterproof nylon floor (mainly in a bathtub style cut) with attached no-see-um mesh walls and doors, and a ceiling. A rainfly rounds it out to offer additional protection and cover the exposed mesh walls and doors. The rainfly will either offer full coverage to the ground, which can also act as a vestibule for gear protection and as a wind block when boiling water, or just enough coverage for the mesh parts of your tent (pictured below).
Double wall tents can be easy to setup and offer a fair amount of resistance against condensation. While many can weigh around 4-5 lbs, there are still some great lightweight options available here if you prefer this type of shelter. Prices range between $100 to $600, with the upper end of this range applying to lighter weight or more features. If you're in a group for your trip, it is helpful for everyone to split the tents components up and carry them individually (e.g. a 5 lb 2-person tent carried by you and your partner will weigh 2.5 lbs each).
Footprints are a custom cut sheet that protects the tent floor from abrasions and tears. They can be purchased separately if desired, though there are many alternatives out there to replace this with. There are also mixed opinions on whether or not to go with one. If you are experienced with campsite selection chances are you won't need one for your trip. Footprint/rainfly setups are another option that is available with double wall tents. This setup utilizes the rainfly, tent poles and footprint of your chosen tent (most can adapt to this). This can help cut down on weight, but offers no bug protection.
Pros: User friendly, reasonably priced, great 3-season protection, great against bugs, ventilation
Cons: Can be heavy, higher cost with lighter weight, condensation can be an issue if not set properly, adaptability is limited
Single Wall Backpacking Tents
Single wall tents are designed with a waterproof floor and a waterproof breathable canopy. This makes this type of shelter ideal for harsh conditions, winter trips and mountaineering. Most are setup internally which makes them great for when a heavy snow is coming down. Single wall tents can still be relatively light in weight (pictured above, Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2, 2 lbs 15 oz), but some can end up weighing close, if not a bit more, to a double wall tent due to the fabric used throughout. Prices for a good single wall tent start between $300 - $400 and can increase in price.
These tents can still be used for 3-season, but they may not be suitable depending on the design and location as both could result in poorer ventilation. Most single wall tents use a waterproof/breathable fabric for the tent wall and canopy. These tents are simple, durable and can be a great choice in the right conditions.
Pros: Simple, setup protection, withstands harsh elements, great for winter and alpine environments
Cons: Can have poor ventilation, limited in 3-season, can be heavy, high price
Tarps & Tarp Tents
Tarp tents are a blend of double wall tents and modular tarp systems. These crossover shelters consist of a waterproof canopy, mesh walls and a waterproof footprint connected as one piece. This enclosed design is similar to a single wall tent, which can result in poor ventilation in less than ideal conditions. Though tarp tents can combat this by leaving the tarp fly open in certain conditions. Tarp tents are usually setup by using trekking poles, and staking out guylines helping cut down in overall weight. Tarp tents can range in price between $250 and $500.
Tarp tents are not interchangeable like other options out there. This can result in turning it into a heavier shelter and hinder breathability.
Pros: Lightweight, quick setup once dialed in, offers bug protection (modular tarp can be limited)
Cons: Condensation issues in humid climates, requires practice setting up, high price (with lightweight materials)
I've used hammocks year round, but there are times I still prefer a tent style shelter. Hammocks have great adaptability as you don't need flat ground to set them up as you would with a tent. They are compact and can provide a comfortable night's rest. Many hammocks are versatile, allowing for the removal and addition of components based on variable factors. This can result in making it one of the lightest shelter options out there, but it can still weigh just as much as a one person tent depending on things such as material weight and the items you may need for a given trip. Winter trips will require even more to sleep safely and comfortably in this type of shelter.
Hammocks can also adapt to varying conditions. Users can alter a tarp pitch to provide ventilation and protection from elements like wind and precipitation. Some drawbacks to using a hammock would be if there are a lack of trees in the area you are traveling in or an abundance of trees that are too close together to allow a proper setup. Manufacturer's may also design their hammocks to be setup with knots instead of using straps. Therefore, knot tying skills may be necessary depending on your choice of hammock. Other skills may be required to prevent tarp sagging due to moisture in the air. Hammocks are also not for everyone as some just might not like the feeling of elevated camping. Hammocks can vary in price depending on the setup you choose. On average you can get a complete system (hammock, rainfly, bug net, stakes, straps) for around $200.
Pros: Lightweight, versatile, comfortable sleep, not reliant on campsite selection, compact, reasonably priced
Cons: Can weigh as much as a tent with a full kit (e.g. stakes, bug net, tarp), anchors always needed, can require skill based on setups, not for everyone
Bivies are a personal preference in my opinion. I have only used one twice and have never gone back. In a true alpine setting I can see their advantages. From a backpacking standpoint, I feel they are widely scattered. I've tried this option in an effort to cut down on weight and save space in my pack. I also like to test gear and alternatives out as you'll never know until you try.
Most bivies are made of a waterproof nylon base and a waterproof/breathable top layer. They slide over a sleeping bag and sleeping pad to provide emergency protection from the elements. Some will also have a small pole that lifts a mesh screen above the users face.
Bivies can feel very restrictive. While some may prefer this with a tarp as their setup, I would opt to go with a one person tent or hammock. The fact they are so close to the body make the breathability performance almost nonexistent in all but those ideal alpine settings. It can also become unbearably stuffy inside. Bivies can be found between $115 and $300.
Pros: Compact, great emergency shelter and/or ideal for alpine conditions
Cons: Limited movement inside, not ideal if backpacking and waiting out a storm, condensation, poor breathability
I added backpacking shelters to this post because it can be another shelter option for many of us in a time of need. Whether it's a lean-to, cabin, lodge or anything else. These can be very beneficial when everything else can be compromised due to the elements, gear failure or another factor.
This would obviously be the lightest weight option out there because it doesn't have to be carried. Though it should never be assumed and planned on to stay in one of these places as an only shelter. Many backpacking shelters are first-come first serve and can be at full capacity when you arrive. Other drawbacks with a backpacking shelter are that they can also seem noisy at full capacity, especially if you are looking for a little peace and quiet before a following big day. This may not just be due to other hikers, but also to the "mini bears" (e.g. mice, chipmunks, raccoons) that may reside near there. In other cases, you could be on the trail for a couple of days and see no one. The sight of other hikers and communal gatherings can be both welcoming and a morale booster. While many backpacking shelters don't require a fee, some may in order for you to stay the night there.
Pros: Great emergency shelter, can offer comforts in a time of need, can be a great communal place after long miles of hiking solo
Cons: May be at full capacity, can have unwanted guests, not for everyone, can be exposed to insects depending on location and shelter type
What is your favorite style shelter to use on a backpacking trip? What made you choose it?