Author's Experiments with Wilderness Shelters

I have experienced a wide range of fabric shelters in the wilderness (i.e., excluding cabins and wood shelters). I have owned five single-walled tents (including a two-person Army surplus coated nylon mountain tent and a four-person REI “Mt. McKinley” pyramid tent). I have owned four double-walled tents of different configurations and three hybrid tarp-tents without floors. I have done a fair amount of camping in the high country with tarps and bivy sacks of various kinds. I have bivouacked during the summer season without any real shelter four or five times.

From this experience and my analysis, several conclusions are forthcoming. Some are obvious and some a matter of judgment and opinion. The first is that no single shelter type is ideal for all conditions. Selecting a shelter is a series of compromises based on individual priorities and the conditions expected in the field. The logical end-point of this position is to own or have access to a number of different types and sizes of shelters. Ideally, the shelters would range from ultralight nylon tarps on one end of the spectrum to a three season, double-walled tent for base camping on the other end. In the middle somewhere would be a hybrid tarp-tent or two. Finally, for sleeping under the stars, add a sleeping bag with a waterproof and breathable outside cover to complete the repertoire of options.

Roomy, bomb proof, four season expedition tents are over kill for most people. They take too much time to setup, take up too much space, weigh too much and are too expensive. They are definitely an option if one is doing much winter camping or mountaineering.

After being forced to hunker down for a few days of bad weather, strongly resist the temptation to carry a free-standing, roomy, heavy weight double-walled tent. Part of this conclusion is based upon the fact that weather forecasters, while not perfect, are getting better at predicting big weather systems. Granted that fast moving storms can strike in the mountains at any time, but they are usually of short duration. Having said this, I acknowledge that freestanding, double-walled tents are often the shelter of choice in wet mountain climates like the Pacific Northwest. If roominess in bad weather is a priority, then size up by one person. For example, take a two-person tent for one, a three person tent for two and a four-person tent for three people.

As I get older and have become more of a fair weather hiker, total shelter weight and simplicity of setup is rising to the top of my priorities. This reprioritizing translates into a natural bias towards tarps and hybrid tarp-tents. Nothing beats a quality catenary cut and ultralight tarp when the priority is to travel fast and light. Tarp add-ons (beaks, lifter tabs, bug netting tabs) are a plus. In many cases, tarp camping is best supplemented with a waterproof and breathable bivy sack or sleeping bag. With this addition, wind blown rain and unseasonal snowstorms can be tolerated.

If weight and simplicity are not the biggest consideration, carrying three types of shelters is ideal for trips lasting more than a couple of days: (1) a lightweight tent for bugs, rodents, warmth, bad weather and security of gear; (2) a tarp for midday stops out of the sun and rain as well as for cooking and eating and relaxing in camp; (3) a waterproof and breathable bivy sack or sleeping bag for sleeping out in the open in good weather. Sleeping only in a bivy sack is an ideal hot weather option (crawling into the sleeping bag when temperatures cool off towards morning). Lightweight bivies also functions as an emergency shelter on day trips out and away from base camp, and to supplement a lightweight sleeping bag in cold weather. Depending upon the design and size, all three of these shelter elements (tent, tarp, bivy) could be quite reasonable regarding total weight per-person.

If I were forced to own only one shelter to cover the widest range of conditions and trips, the best compromise would be is a two-person, single-walled hybrid tarp-tent. The tarp-tent would be a hybrid A-frame and tunnel design. It would have high-low ventilation options (the “stove pipe effect”) to combat condensation and a goodly amount of bug netting. The tent would use trekking poles in the setup. Such a shelter is quick to set up and will handle moderate level winds. The shelter could easily be collapsed in high winds. It would be lightweight, weighing in the 20-30 ounce range for two persons (excluding the poles).

When there are at least two in the party on longer trips with marginal weather predicted, have access to a single walled, pyramid tent made of silnylon or comparable material (e.g., Black Diamond’s “Megalite,” Oware’s “Alphamid,” Mountain Laurel Design’s “SpeedMid” or “SuperMed,” Golite’s “ShangriLa”). This option will keep the total shelter weight down to 0.5-1.0 pounds per person. The steep walls provide good rain and snow protection. The ability to stand up provides more comfort when pinned down by the weather. The height of the tent can be easily raised or lowered as the weather dictates.

These are my conclusions regarding backcountry shelters based on years of experience and analysis. What are yours? For an in-depth analysis of this topic, click on this link: “Tents, Tarps and Bivy Sacks?