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Buyer’s Guide + my Go-to Systems: Backpacking tents, tarps & hammocks


This is a multi-post series on backpacking shelter systems. Start with the Introduction or skip to:


Making camp in Alaska's Hayes Range during peak bug season.

Making camp in Alaska’s Hayes Range during peak bug season.

There are literally thousands of backpacking shelters — multiple styles of tents, tarps, hammocks, and bivy sacks, plus accessories like guylines and stakes — from which to choose. How is a new backpacker, aspiring thru-hiker, couple, Philmont-bound Boy Scout, or even a veteran looking to upgrade, supposed to sort through the paralyzing volume of options and find the best shelter system for them?

I hope that this buyer’s guide will help. In it, I will try to:

  • Distill relevant information, with maximum signal and minimum noise;
  • Present my own time-tested setups, which can be replicated exactly or which can serve as a model for a more customized system;
  • Discuss viable alternatives that may better match your preferences, budget, and normal use.

I will also strive to avoid:

  • A “buyer’s list” that merely presents options, with scant guidance, firm recommendations, or system-level perspective;
  • Unintelligible marketing hyperbole, which manufacturers use enough of already;
  • Absolutism, since there are many good options out there that will perform as well as mine, and sometimes better and sometimes worse.

If you find this buyer’s guide useful, you may also want to read my series on Core Clothing and Stove Systems.

My go-to systems

For the type of backpacking that I do, I have whittled my list of backpacking shelter systems to just three, listed below. Each is summarized further down this page, and will be discussed in-depth on a dedicated page over the coming days (or weeks, if I’m slow to write the rest).

With these configurations, I believe I struck a balance between being properly equipped and being practical. That is, I always have an optimal system for backpacking:

  • In all three-season conditions and moderate winter weather, and
  • Throughout North America — notably the Eastern woodlands, Mountain West, Desert Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska — and by extension many other parts of the world.

But I achieved this level of performance while dedicating relatively little cash or storage space, versus owning many more shelters that are more niche and specialized, and less versatile.

Realistically, how many shelters might you need? Absent a change in group size, most backpackers only need one. A second or third is really only justified if your trips have significant differences in objectives or conditions, e.g. sometimes casual, other times intense; sometimes stormy and buggy, other times benign and bug-free. Of course, a shortage or abundance of funds may affect your perspective.

Apples-to-apples

My three systems are wildly different animals. They excel in different conditions (and suck in others), and I’d recommend them to different types of backpackers or backpacking.

Ultimately, a buying decisions should be driven by function. But system weight and cost are considerations, too, so for the sake of this series I tried to create comparable numbers. Specifically, these one-person systems all:

  • Protect against precipitation, bugs, wind, and groundwater, although with varying levels of success due to inherent limitations of the shelter;
  • Are sized generously, so as to not feel like a coffin in inclement conditions, especially for larger-bodied backpackers;
  • Feature run-of-the-mill fabrics that perform and cost about the same;
  • Use the exact same stakes, groundsheets, and guylines, unless these components are included;
  • Rely on manufacturer spec weights and retail prices; and,
  • Are available from reputable manufacturers with reliable quality.

System summaries

Modular Tent

If I had to own a single shelter system, this would be it. It can be used successfully in all 3+ seasons and in nearly all locations, with relatively few tradeoffs. The same cannot be said of my other shelter systems, which perform better in niche settings but which have more limitations.

The backbone of my system is the Sierra Designs High Route Tent, which I designed with SD’s technical help for the specific purpose of being a one-shelter quiver. Viable alternatives include other fly/nest combinations, single-wall tents, freestanding tents, and mountaineering tents.

My one-shelter quiver: with relatively few tradeoffs, it is suitable for nearly all locations in three-season conditions and moderate winter weather.

My one-shelter quiver: with relatively few tradeoffs, it is suitable for nearly all locations in three-season conditions and moderate winter weather.


Tarp & Bivy

On summer and fall trips in the Mountain West, I normally go to bed under cloudless skies and with no bug pressure. For these conditions, the Modular Tent is overkill, so I instead carry a Tarp & Bivy. The tarp offers insurance against the occasional rain event; I rarely have to pitch it. And the bivy protects me from early-morning mosquitoes and any crawling insects. The weight-savings of the Tarp & Bivy is significant, but many backpackers will find it too minimalist.

For more benign conditions, I pack this minimalist setup. The tarp is insurance against just-in-case precip, and the bivy offers basic defense against insects and wind.

For more benign conditions, I pack this minimalist setup. The tarp is insurance against just-in-case precip, and the bivy offers basic defense against insects and wind.


Gathered End Hammock

To understand why hammocks are a legitimate backpacking shelter, take a stroll on the Appalachian Trail or in a National Park like Glacier or Rocky Mountain with designated backcountry campsites. You will find a dearth of quality ground sites, and a prevalence of horrible ones: hard-packed, standing water, sloping, rocky and rooty, and inhabited by “mini-bears” like mice and squirrels.

Hammocks are the solution. For a night of consistent and comfortable sleep, needed are just two sturdy trees about five stride-lengths apart. Throughout the eastern woodlands, they are easy to find.

Good ground campsites are rare in high-use areas in the East and in some National Parks. The solution is a hammock.

Good ground campsites are rare in high-use areas in the East and in some National Parks. The solution is a hammock.

14 Responses to Buyer’s Guide + my Go-to Systems: Backpacking tents, tarps & hammocks

  1. Fearless Foods - JC November 13, 2016 at 12:15 pm #

    Andrew, great write-up and system based approach! Do you have an opinion on the Z-packs Duplex tent? It’s expensive but has all of the features I desire in one shelter that would work well for 90% of the trips I go on (sometimes solo, sometimes with two). I like the fact that it saves wieght by integrating the ground sheet, bug protection, and tarp. Or do you think it is too limiting because of this?

    • Matt November 13, 2016 at 6:32 pm #

      Where are you camping? What time of year?

      If it meets 90% of your desires why are you not buying?

      I am just curious. I buy for me based on my needs and my judgment. I read the info for what I can assimilate.

      Curios about your question

      • Fearless Foods - JC November 13, 2016 at 11:21 pm #

        Hi Matt, valid curiosity. I wanted to see what Andrew’s perspective was as I assumed he might have additional insight. I also have never used the Duplex and do not have any friend’s who use it. Typically my trips take place in CO, UT, and WA during the spring, summer, and fall, though I have also spent time in Europe, Iceland, and New Zealand on trips. For simplicity I like to own high quality, versatile gear that can adapt to the many different types of trips I go on and always like to read many different opinions on a piece of gear before buying it.

    • Andrew Skurka November 13, 2016 at 7:26 pm #

      Several clients have come on trips with it, but I have not spent a night in one myself. That said, some thoughts:

      1. It’s extremely light, but also very expensive. Is that premium worth it to you?

      2. The Tent version offers full-time protection from precip, bugs, and groundwater. But it’s not modular and therefore can’t be customized to a different set of conditions. If you need modularity, the Tarp version may be a better bet, although I don’t see a separate nest available for it.

      3. It’s not generous with interior volume, due to its A-frame shape. Head and foot are both close to the ceiling, on which condensation will collect in the right conditions. I know that pole-less shelters save weight, but the cost is a loss of interior volume, versus a tent with a dedicated pole-set that can create more vertical sides and concave ceilings.

      This would not be the right shelter *for me*, mostly due to the modularity issue. However, if I needed or wanted its (integrated) protections all the time, and if I was willing to pay $600 for a shelter, it would be a pretty strong candidate.

      • Fearless Foods - JC November 13, 2016 at 11:23 pm #

        Andrew, thank you for these excellent insights! In particular I had not reflected upon the space impact of orienting an A-frame perpendicular to your sleeping direction versus parallel like a tarp. I look forward to reading your future posts on this topic!

  2. Nick November 13, 2016 at 5:41 pm #

    Hey Andrew, I like this article but was hoping for a few more recommendations on the buying guide part. If you wouldn’t mind sharing, what tarps and hammock do you use?

    • Andrew Skurka November 13, 2016 at 7:15 pm #

      I’ll get there. This is going to be a 5-post series. This page is comparable to my introduction for stove systems, http://andrewskurka.com/2015/backpacking-stove-systems-gear-lists-soloists-couples-groups/

      • Nick November 14, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

        Got it, I should have read the first bit! You have quickly become by #1 resource for backpacking advice and ideas. These recent guides have been awesome and full of valuable information. I look forward to the next posts!

  3. Tink November 14, 2016 at 7:21 am #

    Don’t see a thing to argue with here. Short of niche scenarios I think you have three solid choices. The devil is in the details of course! Looking forward to the next four articles.

  4. Lucas Trilling November 14, 2016 at 4:28 pm #

    What would be the reason for buying your high route tent vs a free standing tent of comparable weight?

    Thanks, appreciate your knowledge and willingness to share

    • Andrew Skurka November 14, 2016 at 5:34 pm #

      I could give you a whole list of reasons for and against, but I think it would be more relevant if you share some context about you. Specifically, where and when are you planning to go backpacking, and what other shelters are you considering?

      • Lucas Trilling November 15, 2016 at 6:55 am #

        Hi Andrew thanks for the reply

        I would call myself an “intermediate” backpacker with both on-trail and off-trail experience but I have always carried an embarrassingly heavy pack and am looking to whittle it down.

        I’m taking 3 weeks off of work late summer to do some off trail, high-route style backpacking. I’ve found some interesting routes in the Beartooths, Bitterroots, and I’ll probably check out a loop of your WRHR (will purchase your guide soon I promise). Some freestanding or semi-freestanding tents I’ve been eyeing are the Big Agnes Fly Creek or Copper Spur or the good ole’ REI quarter dome. I found a deal on the fly creek for 30% off making it $280.

        Is it a challenge to find suitable ground for staking out a non freestanding tent in the high country?

        Thanks for your help

        P.S. you’re my hero

        • Andrew Skurka November 15, 2016 at 8:05 am #

          That helps, thanks.

          Weight. Any of the shelters under consideration would help with your pack weight, the Fly Creek the most (by about a half-pound for fly & tent body). The High Route and Quarter Dome are the difference of a Snickers bar in their full configurations, not really noticeable.

          Modularity. In late-summer the bugs will be gone (definitely at night; there may be occasional light activity during the day) from all of the locations you specified, and you could leave an inner tent at home, saving considerable weight. Instead, simply bring a ground sheet. With the High Route Tent, I would recommend a space blanket ($2). With the Fly Creek, you need the custom footprint, which has matching connection points for the fly (add $60 retail). The Quarter Dome has not fly/footprint option — you’re committed full-time to its 2 lbs 2 oz (before stakes). In fly/footprint mode, the High Route is 24 oz and the Fly Creek is 20 oz. Those extra 4 oz have a huge reward, as I will talk about shortly.

          Pitch. The Fly Creek and Quarter Dome have the advantage of convenience. Super easy to pitch, and you can be more careless about where you set up because they’re freestanding or semi-freestanding. You still can’t camp on a granite slab (because they need to be staked out to have proper tension and ventilation), but the stakes do not need to be as bomber.

          The High Route’s pitch is fast & intuitive, but it’s not as foolproof as a freestanding tent. And the stake placements need to be solid. I’ve never had an issue achieving that in the mountains, so long as you have guylines (the High Route’s stock lines are long enough) and a pounding rock. Personally, the only situations for which I have started to eye freestanding tents is in southern Utah (super sandy) and in the winter in CO (deep snow). In other environments, I have pitched non-freestanding shelters thousands of times (literally). If you’re a self-described intermediate backpacker, you probably are willing to accept some additional fuss if you get something in return.

          Livable space. Inside the inner tent, livable space is about equal. The High Route is taller, but the Fly Creek and Quarter Dome have more efficient geometries.

          If you leave the inner tent behind, however, the difference is dramatic. Simply put, the High Route is huge. It’s big enough for two if you wanted. For one, it makes for a very comfortable space in crappy weather, which was the intention. It’s 10 inches (25 percent) taller than the FC and QD, and twice as wide. You can easily sit up, turn around, even walk in a crouched position. This is what you get for the extra 4 oz in the fly/footprint mode. During consecutive days of bad weather, ultralight/ultrasmall 1-person shelters start to feel like coffins.

          Ventilation. The final big difference I would mention is ventilation. Because of their dome shapes, the FC and QD present a mutually exclusive decision: ventilation or precipitation protection. That is, if you open up the doors to vent, you let precip inside. You still have perimeter ventilation, but in calm and humid conditions this will be inadequate most of the time to prevent condensation buildup. Whereas with the High Route, you can open both side doors completely or partially, even when it’s raining, and the interior space remains completely protected. This cross-shelter airflow will dramatically cut down on condensation.

          Hope this helps. If you have more questions or you need clarification, I’d be happy to discuss more.

  5. Eric Blumensaadt December 12, 2016 at 5:21 pm #

    I prefer an enclosed tent so I’ve chosen a Tarptent moment DW solo tent.

    I’ve altered it for 4 season use for hunting and winter camping because it is very “wind-worthy” and with its X-ing pole run beneath the fly will take a heavy snow load.

    One thing I’ve learned is that a tent fly or tarp needs to have several hem stake loops to stake it down well. This prevents flapping in high winds AND keeps snow buildup from pushing the fly inward against the tent body.

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