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Backpacking tents and shelters
Shelter options while backpacking come in a wide variety of styles and materials. While personal preference plays a role in your decision, so must the conditions in which you plan to be camping.
Bivy | Traditional three-season | Winter | Lightweight three-season | Silnylon | Cuban fiber | Condensation | Staking | Tarps | Tarp tents | Hammocks | Weight | Free-standing vs. non | Dogs | Manufacturers | Personal experience
Bivy tents (bivouac tents)
Bivy tents, originally designed for emergency use, have gained popularity amongst those looking to save weight. They tend to be just large enough to accommodate a hiker in their sleeping bag with no room to sit up or protect other gear. Some have support to help keep the bivy off the face. They can be claustrophobic. Their footprint is the smallest of all shelters other than hammocks.
Traditional three-season tents
Traditional three-season tents are two wall tents. The inner tent, with a full floor and walls that include bug-proof netting provides ventilation and a chance to use the tent without the fly should a warm night without chance of rain present itself. Some have netting panels with solid covers which zip over in order to extend the temperature range of the tent.
The fly, a separate cover over the main body of the tent, provides rain protection and collects condensation and keeps it off the inner tent so belongings stay dry.
These tents come complete with tent poles to provide rigidity. Some also provide footprint groundsheets. Some allow the fly to be set up with just the groundsheet.
Winter mountaineering tents
Winter mountaineering tents must be able to withstand much more rigorous conditions. They have more steeply sloped roofs in order to prevent snow from accumulating. Two doors provide an escape for those times when drifting snow may completely block one side of the tent. They may be two wall but are often single wall. Most name brand single wall tents were designed for extremely dry winter mountaineering and have no little to no ventilation. Condensation will almost always be an issue with them if used during three-season conditions.
Lightweight three-season single wall tents
Long-distance hikers have lead the pack in the development of lightweight single-wall tents designed for three season use. Lightweight options are usually made of silnylon. Ultra-lightweight options may be made of Cuban fiber. With warmer air and more humidity, it's important that these tents are well designed and offer a great deal of ventilation. These tents also frequently make use of hiking poles for their primary tent supports eliminating the need to carry separate and heavy tent poles. Poles are available as an option at times. Most pack to the size of a football when stuffed.
These tents tend to be much roomier than their traditional two-wall counterparts. Usually, there's enough room to lie down, site up, and keep all gear inside the tent with you in a solo tent that weighs just 1.5 pounds for silnylon, maybe less for Cuban fiber.
In humid situations, the condensation may seem excessive, but when you consider it's just surface condensation and not soaking the fabric, it's worth it. I use a small Packtowl to wipe down the inside of my tent in the morning if necessary.
During the day, if it's sunny, or even just dry and windy, I'll pull out my tent and it'll dry in just a few minutes.
Because I am tall and use a long sleeping bag which does brush up against the tent walls, I have a sleeping bag with a Pertex shell. It's not waterproof but does provide enough water resistance so while the shell occasionally looks wet, the down has never gotten wet.
Most of these tents can be pushed season-wise but since they are designed with ventilation in mind, when you start pushing the seasons, you end up needing a warmer bag because the increased ventilation means the tent won't retain as much warmth as a tent that can be completely closed off (but then you're back to condensation issues).
Wind can also limit the suitability of these tents. These tents, intending to be roomy, tend to have a large surface area with limited rigid structure. Set up in a protected environment, they work great. Set up in an extremely windy area, while the tent may withstand the wind, their flexibility means they often blow, flatten, and stretch. The tent may provide suitable shelter from the elements, but you may not get much sleep. For hikes where wind will predominate, look for more rigid structure along the walls of the tent.
The snow bearing potential of these tents limits their use to three season conditions. If you're looking for a winter shelter, make sure it can handle the weight of the snow, has a couple of access points, etc.
Siliconized Nylon (Silnylon)
The material of choice for most lightweight tents is generally 1.1 oz silnylon. It's a strong and lightweight waterproof fabric. Because it's waterproof, it doesn't require an inner tent to keep the fabric off of your belongings as rain will not soak through the tent.
Cuban fiber is an even lighter option than silnylon. It's primary drawbacks are susceptibility to abrasion and added expense. Unlike silnylon, duct tape will stick to it for quick repairs of small punctures or tears.
Any condensation that does form, and sometimes it just can't be eliminated regardless of the ventilation, can be wiped off with a small piece of Packtowl. I usually do this in the morning before I start moving around in the tent.
Because silnylon fabric doesn't breath, it's important that silnylon tents be designed with plenty of ventilation. Sometimes a wall or two will be mesh with an "awning" that resembles a fly. Sometimes, they are designed so that the bottom can be raised well of the ground to allow air to enter from below.
The greater ventilation requirements for three season tents preclude their use as winter mountaineering. In true winter mountaineering conditions, tents need to be fully enclosed to deal with the worst of winter weather.
Some tents come with stakes. Some don't. Depending on the conditions you expect to use your tent may determine the type of stakes you choose to use. Given that, some manufacturers, mostly for the lighterweight tents, do not include stakes therefor allowing you to choose the stakes best for your duty.
Stakes are made of many different materials and in many different shapes. While most are designed for dirt, there are also sand stakes and snow stakes.
Many times, stakes don't work well for a variety of reasons. In these cases, don't be afraid to think outside the box. If the ground is too hard or rocky to get stakes into the ground, use large bowling ball sized rocks to hold down the tent corners. Use some extra line to tie the tent to a nearby tree or bush. Use dead men, bags or cloth pieces, filled with sand or snow instead of stakes.
Tarps designed for backpacking are no longer large rectangular plastic sheets. They are now made out of lightweight material and shaped specifically for optimal staking. With tarps, it's absolutely essential to be able to read the terrain enough to know that streams will not run through or puddle under your tarp site during or after a storm. Best to choose an area with a slight rise rather than a slight depression which might collect or channel water should it rain.
Backpacking hammocks are not the same backyard hammocks used to pass a summer afternoon. They are designed to be lightweight shelters suitable for backpacking anywhere hikers can find trees between which to spread the hammock. They eliminate the need to find flat spaces to pitch tents. They are enclosed shelters with bug netting and suitable covers to shed rain. They can be staked to eliminate swinging in the worst of wind. Hikers sleep nearly flat by stretching out on the diagonal.
Hammocks don't benefit from the heat retaining capability of the ground so extra insulation either inside the hammock or under the hammock is necessary for cooler weather. Those using hammocks to save weight may find they lose that benefit in cool weather. Hammocks are for individual hikers only so there's no sharing body warmth as is possible in a two person tent.
Hammocks may prove too confining for claustrophobic individuals. They also require you to leave the bulk of your other gear outside the hammock. While your backpack may be able to share the same rain fly, it may need additional protection for times when the rain blows or it's inappropriate to leave your pack on the ground..
Hammocks also require knowledge of the trees in the area where you will be hiking. You must be able to identify trees that won't be harmed by your setup. Wide straps and multiple turns around the tree can help alleviate stress on the tree and its bark.
Lightweight single-wall tents of silnylon start out in the 1.5 pound range. The two person versions start out at around two pounds. And like the solo version, they are much larger and roomier than their comparable two layer (body plus fly) tents.
Traditional bivy sacks, made out of heavier material, weigh about the same as the single-wall tents but without the extra room.
Traditional two-wall tents start at around 4 pounds for a solo tent with very little interior space.
Winter tents start out where two-wall tents start out. They are made of heavier materials and have necessary extras such as two doors which contribute to the weight and bulk.
In 2006, Ron Moak of Six Moon Designs previewed a completely new two person tent at the ALDHA Gathering that was not yet on his web site nor in production yet. But if you can get one of those, it was sweet. While it was only designed to sleep two, I thought four could easily sit inside to play cards or whatever. And I think it still topped out at 2 or 2.5 pounds.
Free-standing versus non-free-standing
On the surface, free-standing tents seem like the way to go. You can erect the tent and then maneuver into its ideal position.
However, the drawbacks of free-standing tents and the advantages of staked tents are worthy of consideration when picking tent styles.
When using free standing tents, you should always stake down your tent. Your gear is not enough to hold down a tent should an unexpected strong gust of wind come along. (I know people who have literally lost their tents when they weren't staked down.) Plus, it's really not all that hard to stake out a small tent. Non-free-standing tend to be much lighter.
Dogs in the tent
For links to these manufacturers, see my chart of manufacturers of lightweight gear.
I have both a Wanderlust Nomad and a Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo. Both are good tents with plenty of room for me and my gear. Even at 6'1", I am able to sit up, lie down, and have all of my gear and boots inside the tent with me.
Before I bought my Nomad, I bought a Eureka Zephyr, a lightweight solo tent. It would have served the purpose well and did for a few hikes but it was significantly heavier and bulkier than the Nomad without providing any additional functionality.
The first tent I ever bought, a 2-3 person North Face tent, has since been relegated to use as a very expensive car camping tent.
Last updated, July 18, 2010.
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