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6 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Backpacking Tent, Tarp, Hammock or Bivy


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


Questions are normally followed up with answers. But one question that will simply beget more questions is, “What shelter should I buy for backpacking?”

Actually, there is an answer, but it’s not helpful: “I don’t know.” Because to nudge you in the right direction I need more information about your preferences, intentions, and budget. And then maybe we could discuss specific models of tents, tarps, hammocks, and bivy sacks.

The six questions below should give useful context to your shopping. They do not serve as a decision-tree, but should help you identify the type of shelter that is generally best for your needs.


1. Specialization: How many shelters are you willing to own?

Backpackers need at least one shelter, and for many that is sufficient: their expectations of their shelter never change, or the shelter can be adapted to match the current conditions.

If you are willing to own two or more shelters, however, you can select more specialized models that perform better in niche conditions than a generalist, but worse in others. When the latter will be the case, you carry a different shelter.

Of course, this analysis ignores the possibility that your group size may change. If it is not practical to use an oversized (and slightly heavier) shelter that can accommodate an extra body, then this will likely multiply the number of needed shelters.

If you have ample funds and storage, the sky is the limit, and you can have a shelter for every niche situation imaginable. But it's more practical to keep a tight collection of more versatile shelters that perform well most of the time.

If you have ample funds and storage, the sky is the limit, and you can have a shelter for every niche situation imaginable. But it’s more practical to keep a tight collection of more versatile shelters that perform well most of the time.


2. Modularity: Do the protections you need or want from your shelter vary or are they constant?

Personally, I backpack year-round and throughout the country. As such, I encounter diverse conditions, in terms of temperatures, precipitation, wind, humidity, bug pressure, and the frequency and quality of campsites.

The protections that I need from my shelter vary. For example, in the High Sierra in July, I need robust mosquito protection. But for the remainder of the year I do not, and during these times I consciously leave at home this type of protection.

Other backpackers in the exact same situation may decide differently. They want to be fully enclosed all the time, whether necessary or not. If that improves their sleep quality, I say go for it.

If you are in my camp, a modular shelter with independent components and multiple pitching configurations would be a good pick. If you always need or want the same protections, however, a simpler non-modular shelter may be better.

This single-wall tent has an integrated fly, floor, and bug netting. If these protections are needed or wanted full-time, this is a good setup. But other users may want more modularity so that, for example, the bug netting can be left behind on bug-free trips.

This single-wall tent has an integrated fly, floor, and bug netting. If these protections are needed or wanted full-time, this is a good setup. But other users may want more modularity so that, for example, the bug netting can be left behind on bug-free trips.


3. Livable space: Will you regularly camp in wet, stormy, and buggy conditions, and/or sometimes need room for one more?

Ultralight shelters often look better on paper than they perform in the field. There are exceptions, but in general they are ultralight because they are ultrasmall. And when conditions are routinely bad, you might be less thrilled about your decision to have sacrificed livable space in order to save a few ounces.

Larger shelters offer more coverage area for you and your gear, more interior volume in which to move around, and more space between your eardrums and whining mosquitoes outside. They do not weigh significantly more than a smaller shelter, due to the relationship between surface area and volume. And they can squeeze another person, although at the expense of livable space.

In generally benign conditions, a smaller shelter is a reasonable choice. You may have an uncomfortable night now and again, but overall the weight-savings would be worthwhile.

This full-sided fly is ideal for one person who has a lot of gear or who wants to spread out, and it can squeeze two. It weighs 22 oz. A true 1-person version would weigh only a few ounces less, probably about 18 oz.

This full-sided fly is ideal for one person who has a lot of gear or who wants to spread out, and it can squeeze two. It weighs 22 oz. A true 1-person version would weigh only a few ounces less, probably about 18 oz.


4. Tents, tarps & bivies versus hammocks: Where you plan to backpack, what is the frequency and quality of campsites for ground-based shelters relative to the opportunities for hanging?

Even with the best gear, a night of quality sleep is elusive without a good campsite. Site selection matters.

Overall, ground-based shelters are a more universal choice, i.e. I can think of many popular backpacking destinations where a hammock is impractical or very limited, but fewer places where that is the case for a tent, tarp, or bivy. Moreover, there are few options for multi-person hammocks.

That said, I would not to be forced into regularly using a ground-based shelter in areas with poor ground campsites, notably high-use zones in eastern woodlands like the Appalachian Trail, Long Trail, Smokies, Presidentials, and Adirondacks. In these areas, hammocks are the clear choice. If my second most visited backcountry area was Death Valley National Park or some other area with few trees, I would budget for a second shelter system.

The Brooks Range and many other high and dry parts of the world are suitable for ground-based shelters only.

The Brooks Range and many other high and dry parts of the world are suitable for ground-based shelters only.


5. Fabrics: To save weight, are you willing to pay a premium or to sacrifice performance?

By simply changing a shelter’s fabric, it can be made lighter, sometimes substantially so. But this material substitution normally increases price, degrades performance (in terms of tear strength, waterproofness, or durability), or both.

Shelters from conventional manufacturers like Big Agnes, MSR, and REI are available only in various types of polyester and nylon. If the fabric needs to be waterproof, such as for a fly or floor, it will be coated in polyurethane, polyethylene, or silicone.

The overall weight of a shelter can be dropped by at least a few ounces by using, say, a 15-denier coated fabric instead of a 30-denier version. All things being equal, this lighter fabric will not perform as well, and it will probably add cost. It will add even more cost if the performance was retained through better technology, perhaps on the order of about 25 percent more at retail.

Cottage brands like Hammock Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs, and Zpacks have another trick up their sleeve: Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), aka Cuben Fiber. DCF is remarkable: it weighs one-third to one-half the weight of conventional coated polyesters and nylons, yet is more tear-resistant and more waterproof.

But the raw cost of DCF is exorbitant, which translates into retail prices that are about two-times more for the same shelter or a very similar one. Is that premium worth it to you?

Same shelter, different fabrics. The shelter on the left, made of Dyneema Composite Fabric, retails for $425 or $445. The shelter on the right, made of a sil-nylon, costs $255. The DCF versions weigh 20 to 35 percent less.

Same shelter, different fabrics. The shelter on the left, made of Dyneema Composite Fabric, retails for $425 or $445. The shelter on the right, made of a sil-nylon, costs $255. The DCF versions weigh 20 to 35 percent less.


6. Convenience: With how much fuss are you willing to deal?

The classic two-pole dome tent is the most user-friendly shelter on the market. Without the assistance of my parents, I could set one up in my backyard shortly after I’d entered grade school. Meanwhile, I have watched many adults with advanced degrees struggle night after night to master the pitch of an A-frame tarp — or, even worse, a flat tarp.

But “fussy” shelters have many advantages. Without a custom pole set, they are lighter. With interchangeable components, they can be configured more precisely to the trip conditions. Without a fixed shape, their pitch can better match the weather and campsite. And with a simpler construction, they are less expensive.

What is convenience worth to you?

If the advantages of "fussy" shelters like flat tarps are not worth the inconvenience, avoid them.

If the advantages of “fussy” shelters like flat tarps are not worth the inconvenience, avoid them.


Any critical pre-purchase questions that I missed? Leave a comment.

7 Responses to 6 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Backpacking Tent, Tarp, Hammock or Bivy

  1. john xcar smith November 14, 2016 at 11:43 pm #

    Andrew,

    I think the other thing that you address in a round-about way is hiking style versus camping style. When I backpack solo I tend to spend long days hiking, often hiking until and past dark. The diminished light limits my ability to pick out camp sites that easily conform to some styles of tents. For this reason I often use a bivy. This has allowed me to be able to more easily pick out sites because the footprint of the bivy is typically quite small, I do not need to stake it out and the time to set up is insignificant. There are tents that have quite small foot prints as well but I have yet to see any that have as small of a footprint. I have been willing to backpack with bivys that are heavier than other tents I own simply so I can hike the way I want, rather than be forced to start limiting my day in case I can’t find a decent site for my tent. I will often backup my bivy with a tarp but that is only for use if I expect an extended stay at a site.

    I think hiking style/goals is a huge factor in shelter selection, and perhaps with the exception of expected weather the most important.

    • Andrew Skurka November 15, 2016 at 7:18 am #

      You’re right, I didn’t ask that question directly. It gets touched on here and there, but that was probably an omission on my part. I guess I almost assume this question by now, since I’ve been harping on it for years.

  2. Brum November 16, 2016 at 5:28 pm #

    Andrew, I think John is correct, choice of shelter does come down to personal hiking style/goals. I’ve carried and used bivys, tarps, light weight backpacker’s tents, and jungle hammocks. The bivys are fast and easy to set up in minimal space, but the critters that crawl and slither over my torso and face makes a bivy (for me) functional only in scorpion and snake free areas. A tarp is your fair weather friend and will let you down in a rain with a slight breeze. Hammocks work suspended from objects as designed, or can be used as a tent when placed on a small tarp on the ground and use a couple of sticks to keep the screen netting out of your face. Hammocks also allow you to camp on rocky or uneven ground, I’ve even camped in my hammock over water in a Louisiana swamp.But, tents are the best over all. I use a NorthFace two-man backpacker’s tent, with a rain fly if needed, which allows room for me, my gear, and my Euro Boxer dog. The NorthFace tent weighs in at only 4 lbs., and has two collapsible poles that can be slid in through the sewn pockets across the top in about 2 minutes time. The tent is free-standing and I can hang it from a limb while still set up to dry the bottom before storing it in my backpack. The last time I slept in my bivy I awoke at 3am to something very large breathing and snorting in my face. I found that you can roll while still in a bivy at a fairly high rate of speed when trying to escape the unknown. Turned out just be a nosy cow. Brum

    • Andrew Skurka November 17, 2016 at 8:16 am #

      That’s a great cow story.

      • Brum November 19, 2016 at 9:47 am #

        It took a while before I could laugh about it. And it took a longer while to clean the cow poop I’d rolled through off of my bivy sack.

  3. Conjou November 19, 2016 at 9:51 pm #

    Hey Andrew, I am backpacking in the Sonoran Desert–Cabeza Prieta–in late Dec/early Jan. Any recommendations for the best sleep system for the conditions, including scorpions that like getting into and under fabric? I have a tent (big Agnes ul 2) that is pretty light, but given the amount of water we are going to have to carry, I was hoping to trim weight where possible. Thanks.

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