I received an email from a reader out of New Zealand recently (uhh, awesome!) who found my website after researching backpacking footwear. He landed on my article about switching to trail-runners and when I asked him if he had any suggestions for content or if he wanted any questions answered, he responded with "it would be nice to see a post covering shelters options." So here we go! Thanks for reaching out and I'll dedicate this one to that reader and those of you who have questions about what kind of shelter to use when backpacking.
BEFORE I BEGIN
I'm going to keep this post pretty basic and refrain from going too far into tech specs. If you want to deep dive the numbers after reading this, then go on ahead because that's kind of the fun part! It's also a great way to see for yourself what I'm talking about.
There are three basic options to choose from when you're choosing a backpacking shelter;
- Bivvy (short for bivouac)
All three of these choices are valid options for backpackers and all three have their pros and cons. Most folks are likely going to choose the classic tent for their backcountry shelter, but sometimes that's not always the best choice. Depending on your type of backcountry trip, what your experience level is, and how comfortable you are with your environment, each one of these choices has their place. So let's sort it out.
The classic backpacking tent is the most common and likely the most versatile option for average backpacking adventures. There are three additional types of tents within this category that you'll come across. They are;
1. Double Wall - A double wall shelter is one that has two layers of protection between you and the outside world. The first layer looks something like a tent body consisting of a floor, door, and some sort of mesh netting. The next layer is a rain fly that goes over the body of the tent.
The purpose of a double walled tent is to reduce contact with a rain fly soaked in condensation from the night.
2. Single Wall - A single wall tent reduces weight by reducing layers of the tent. This kind of tent has one simple layer between you and the outside world. People who live in fairly dry climates use these types of tents a lot because they don't have to worry about coming into contact with a wet tent wall when inside. It's worth noting that by properly ventilating these tents (and any other tent), you can reduce condensation issues.
3. Floorless - Just imagine a single wall tent with no floor and you have yourself a floorless shelter. They're quick to pitch, but you'll have to be comfortable sleeping on the actual ground. The great thing about these tents is that you can reduce even more weight by cutting out the floor of a tent.
Tarps are an interesting shelter. They're incredibly useful in situations where you don't have even ground to pitch a tent on. Backpacking tarps have guy lines integrated into the design for the user to use as they see fit. You'll need to bring your own creativity to the table when pitching these because not every pitch is the same.
Hardcore tarp users swear by them because of how light weight they are (literally a flat sheet of fabric). The major drawback is how expose you are to the elements in terms of wind and bugs. Tarps are usually pitched to where you have only a single layer of fabric over your head to protect from rain, however the sides are normally exposed.
I personally own a tarp, but don't use it very often because of how hard it can be to pitch. To do it correctly, I'd need to practice pitching it over and over again, but right now I'm just not interested in doing so. That said, tarps are so light and compact that they're a no brainer to bring with you on a day hike to use as an emergency shelter.
Ahhhh, the classic bivvy sack! I've used a bivvy once or twice in my day and on a nice clear night with no weather, they're hard to beat. Imagine a weatherproof sleeping bag that you get inside once you're inside your actual sleeping bag. It's about as simple as it gets, but the downside is you're exposed to the elements.
My only issue with a bivvy, is for how much they weigh, you're not really getting a whole lot of bang for your buck. For just a few more ounces, you could have an ultralight single wall shelter and be out of the elements for sure. The thing is though, bivvy sacks are simple to use. Just toss them on the ground and you're good to go. You're essentially sleeping under the stars in a weather proof sack, nice right?
For some applications, I think a bivvy works. I'd consider using a bivvy if I'm trying to move light and fast and I'm in an environment that isn't buggy, isn't at risk of having a storm move in, or isn't windy.
So...What's the right choice?
It's a personal decision, but if you're new to backpacking and not sure what to get, I'd find yourself a nice lightweight double walled tent. If it's just you camping in the tent, go with a 1 person tent or a 2 person tent. If you're going to be sleeping in the tent with a friend, do yourself a favor and purchase a 3 person tent. Why? Because a good rule of thumb is tent manufacturers tent to be a little over zealous with their sizing of tents. A 2 person tent is cramped with two people in it...like really cramped.
You just can't go wrong with a standard lightweight tent. They're easy to pitch, livable, and fit nearly all of your standard needs when backpacking. Once you've been tenting for a while and you feel like you want to try a tarp, I'd point you towards a floorless shelter first. It will get you used to sleeping on actual ground, without going full tarp mode.
If floorless goes well and you're feeling frisky, try a tarp. Here's the deal though...I just think anything down from a floorless shelter is simply not worth the trouble for a backpacking trip. The only time I'd personally choose a tarp or bivvy is if I know for certain I won't be able to find a place to pitch a tent. For how much weight a tarp or bivvy weighs, it's just not providing much protection from the elements. Even if you don't expect high winds or rain, Mother Nature does what she wants and I'd rather be safe than sorry miles into the backcountry.
With both a tarp and a bivvy, you'll likely bring a ground sheet with you. If you're bringing a ground sheet, then you're adding weight to your pack so you might as well just bring a regular tent that has walls and a floor. Follow me? The attractive thing about tarps and bivvy's is how light weight they are and that is very much the truth, but you'll end up adding that weight back in anyhow with a ground cloth so...yeah...doesn't jive well with me.
I hope this article was helpful. I know it's not full of stats, but it's a good overview of what kind of shelter options are out there for you to choose from. They all have their place so it's up to you to choose which is right for you. My last and final piece of advice is to choose something that's not overly built and not ultra light. You want something that is a good mix of light weight, durable, and functional. Go too far in one direction and you'll wind up with something that isn't durable in the wind, won't stand up to weather, is a pain to pitch, or feels like you're hauling a bowling ball around.
Til next time!