This is a multi-post series on backpacking shelter systems. Start with the Introduction or skip to:
- Six questions to ask before buying a tent, tarp, or hammock
- Modular Tent: Gear list & discussion
- Tarp & Bivy: Gear list & discussion
- Hammock: Gear list & discussion
- If cost were no object: My go-to shelter systems, gone ultralight
- Stakes & Guylines: My top picks
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?