Backpackers need certain things from a shelter. Regardless of design or complexity a shelter has to have the following attributes:
- To be a waterproof sanctuary,
- A place to escape the wind
- The ability to withstand high winds and foul weather
- Enough space for the backpacker to cook, eat, sleep and store the kit out of the rain
- Be as light as possible.
- Easy to erect
- Have a small pack volume.
- Be bug proof.
So what are the alternatives?
The first is the humble tarp. With a modicum of practice it is possible to make a very secure, stable, weatherproof shelter. Tarps are usually lightweight for the area of shelter they provide and can be highly adaptable to different conditions. For example, the standard “lean-to” is great for nice days, the “A-frame”shape is good at keeping rain away while the “Flying Diamond” shape provides extremely good protection from foul weather. All of these shapes allow the backpacker to have good views of the area and allow a much more connected “feel” with the environment. It’s also very easy, and safe, to cook under a tarp. The weak points of tarps are: a) they aren’t bugproof, b) they can be draughty, and c) there’s not much privacy. Many people use a light Bivi bag with a tarp to overcome the first two drawbacks and to ward off any dew, or drips, from condensing water. However, a Bivi bag does add weight. As does some sort of inner sanctum that keeps out midges and other biting insects. Most backpackers tend to use their trekking poles as tarp poles so there is a weight saving there.
I’ve made quite a few posts about tarps which you can find elsewhere in my blog. Look under the category “Backpacking”. I’m especially fond of poncho tarps because for the same weight you get a shelter and rainwear. My favourite is the Six Moons Design Gatewood Cape along with the matching Serenity net tent. It’s absolutely first class and very light at 500g for the whole kit. Also good are the Golite Poncho and the MLD poncho. The Golite Cave 1 is a top class shelter too.
Some people favour using a totally weatherproof Bivi bag in conjunction with a micro tarp. The advantage of this system is that you can sleep anywhere where there is room to lay down. But it’s a real pain in rain to do things like getting changed or cooking. For me, it’s a good option when the weather is behaving itself.
Moving up a gear, we come to tarptents. These are fully enclosed shelters and are also lightweight. Typical examples are Henry Shires’ products like the Contrail (now improved and called the ProTrail) which features a bathtub floor and is bug proof. They are lightweight too – the Contrail is about 0.78 of a kilo and offers great weather protection and room. The old Golite Shangri La 1 and 2 are also good examples as are a new company called TrekkerTent. These tents pitch quickly and usually trekking poles are used as supports. A special mention should be made of the MLD TrailStar. This is basically a pentagon shaped “mid” design and is exceptionally good at dealing with high winds and snow loading. A lot of these tarptents can be fitted with an inner to ensure a bug free shelter. As such they are almost “proper” tents.
Proper tents tend to be heavier because they have a two wall construction i.e. an inner as well as a flysheet. They also use tent poles for the support. Typical backpacking tents include the Terra Nova Laser Competition and the Hilleberg Akto amongst many others. All of them offer good protection and space. One that I am fond of is the Luxe Hex Peak. Weighing 1.25kg it is a “mid” tent that offers a huge amount of space, a draught-free inner that is very roomy and an escape from midges. Unusually it can be pitched with a trekking pole in place of the dedicated pole.
At the top end of the scale there are proper expedition tents. Backpackers tend not to use them because they are overkill in terms of strength and weight. However, if you are planning a trip to the Artic or Everest they are the tent for the job.
Most shelters nowadays are made from Silnylon or similar materials. Silnylon is waterproof and very light. It is also pretty strong and (relatively) cheap. It does tend to sag after pitching because it stretches so the shelter guys will have to be adjusted after about 30 minutes. After that it’s fine. Be warned that Silnylon is not breathable so you must leave airgaps. It is also flammable unless treated so be careful cooking in vestibules.
The other material of choice is Cuben Fibre. Designed originally to make sails for yachts, it is very light and incredibly strong. It doesn’t sag either. It’s disadvantages are a) it’s fairly see through, b) unforgiving when pitching and c) very expensive.
To conclude. Tarps and Bivi bags are a great, lightweight solution but not much good on a proper campsite as there is little or no privacy. Bugs are a problem too. The poncho tarp offers great weight savings as its dual use and they are probably the cheapest form of shelter on the market if you buy something like a MilTec army poncho (check the weight). TarpTents are the halfway house as they handle bad weather well and offer good space within the shelter. Dual-skin tents are usually heavier but can handle bad weather extremely well and, because of the inner, tend to be warmer too. Unless you’re an avid gram counter, or rich, Silnylon is the best option.