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Reader Q: Recommended guyline lengths for backpacking shelters

A client on one of my 5-day guided trips in Colorado recently asked:

What guyline lengths do you recommend for my shelter?

In this case, the client has a 8′ x 8′ flat tarp. But I’m going to expand my answer to include all common backpacking shelters: tents, mids, A-frame tarps, flat tarps, and hammocks.

These recommended lengths assume that you’re using my recommended guyline system, which relies on 2.5 knots — the bowline, trucker’s hitch, and McCarthy hitch (which is half of the truckers hitch). Other systems may consume different amounts of cord (e.g. a figure-8 on a bite needs more cord than a bowline loop), and therefore may call for different lengths.

Not too little, not too much

An extra foot or two of cord weighs very little, just a few grams. And the value-added of this extra length can be huge — it can often make the difference of staking into firm dirt (instead of an impenetrable granite slab) or tying off to a nearby sapling (instead of into loose sand). So avoid giving yourself “just enough” cord for best-case campsites. That’s stupid light.

On the other hand, excessively long guylines are difficult to work with and tend to tangle. So don’t use longer lengths just because you can. Use what you need most often, and get creative when that’s not enough.

Cord loss

The minimum cord lengths are probably more than you would imagine, because knots consume cord and reduce the effective length. For example, if your anchor (e.g. stake, sapling, rock) is 1 foot away from your tie-out, you will need at least 2 feet of cord to complete a truckers hitch, because you will lose:

  • 3 inches to the bowline,
  • 3 inches to the slip loop, and
  • 6 inches to the slippery hitch

The McCarthy hitch would require even more than 2 feet of cord, because it requires two of the aforementioned knots (bowline + slippery hitch, for a total of 9 inches) and it doubles back on itself. With a 2-foot cord, the maximum distance between the anchor and tie-out to complete a McCarthy hitch would be about 8 inches.

The exact amount of lost cord will vary with the:

  • Cord thickness (thick cord = more loss),
  • Diameter of the loops (bigger loops = more loss), and
  • Length of your tails (long tails = more loss).

Tents & mids

Ground-level perimeter

For ground-level perimeter tie-out points like at the corners and vestibules, I recommend 4 feet of cord.

With a 4-foot length, the McCarthy hitch (my preference) can be completed if the anchor is less than 1.5 feet away. If the anchor is 1.5 to 3 feet away, I can use the truckers hitch.

4-foot lengths on the perimeter tie-outs

Side-panels

Many shelters have optional tie-outs at mid-height, for use during stormy conditions (e.g. high winds, heavy snow). The exact height and location of these tie-outs makes a difference in the recommended length. For example, I use a 5-foot cord for the tie-out above the vertical door on the Sierra High Designs High Route 1 FL. But I need an extra foot for a side panel tie-out on a traditional mid with sloping panels.

Normally I use a trucker’s hitch on this location, and may use a stick, ski, or tree branch in order to get more horizontal tension.

4-foot perimeter lengths, 5-foot side panel lengths, and 8-foot apex lengths

Apexes

The apexes on some tents and mids must be secured with line, including the ZPacks Duplex, Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo and Duo, High Route, and others.

For a 48-inch peak height, I use an 8-foot length. Unless I can tie it off to a tree immediately outside the door, a truckers hitch is required.

For apexes with 48-inch peak heights, I recommend an 8-foot length. The apex guyline on this shelter is too short, and would be problematic if a stake could not be placed in the ideal spot.

A-frame tarps

Ridgelines

For the head-side ridgeline, I use an 8-foot length, exactly the same as the apex on mids with 48-inch peak heights.

A shorter length can be used for the foot-side ridgeline, because that side is normally lower — maybe 6 or 7 feet, or keep it simple and cut another 8-foot length.

Sides

A 5-foot length seems to work well for the sides of an A-frame tarp. Normally I use a McCarthy hitch, and the sides end up being about 12-18 inches off the ground. With a truckers hitch, an airier pitch can be acheived.

8-foot ridgelines and 5-foot sides

Flat tarps

Admittedly, I’m still in the process of mastering the flat tarp. The versatility is appealing on paper, but in the field I find myself less enamored by the art and longing for a pre-shaped shelter.

On my 9 x 9 tarp, I use eight 8-foot lengths, and keep them permanently attached with a bowline. This is sufficient for nearly all pitches and scenarios without needing to relocate any of the guylines. But 64 feet of cord is a lot, and I’ve considered shortening some of the lengths and attaching them with a girthhitch instead, for easy relocating.

A flat tarp (left), with 8-foot lengths; and an A-frame tarp (right) with different lengths for the front apex, rear apex, and sides.

Hammock tarps

The size of the tarp will affect the recommended lengths by a foot or two. Larger tarps need shorter cords, because they reach further to the ground and cover more of the space between the trees.

Ridgelines

My hammock tarp has an 11-foot ridgeline, and I have found that 10-foot guylines work well. Even with a thick tree, the tarp can be 3 or 4 feet away from the trunk, which is sometimes necessary due to branches or nearby trees.

Sides

I use 8-foot lengths, which gives me the option of going straight to the ground, “porching” it with a trekking pole, or tying off to a nearby tree. Most often I use a truckers hitch.

Alan Dixon’s hammock setup, on which he appears to use 10 foot ridgelines and 8-foot sides.

Your turn: What guyline lengths do you use on your shelters, and why?

16 Responses to Reader Q: Recommended guyline lengths for backpacking shelters

  1. Randy May 3, 2018 at 3:57 pm #

    This is a timely post. I’m primarily a hammock camper but just ordered a 10’x10′ tarp (15 oz.!) with loads of tieouts that I’m looking forward to playing with, for ground setups on occasions when I’m unable to use my hammock (which is basically never in my area but hopefully venturing further soon). Glad to get a few ideas here. My initial thoughts were to cut a few lengths, half of them longer and the other half shorter, with bowlines tied in the ends so I could hitch them anywhere I needed them. I’ll just have to play around with various setups to see how many and what lengths seem practical. Would like to hear from other flat tarp users for what they use.

    My hammock’s hex tarp has an 11′ ridgeline and I use Lash-It for my lines. Ripstop By the Roll sells Lash-It (and Zing-It) in 25′ lengths so I just cut it in half and have 12.5′ attached to either end. I tie a bowline in one end and girth hitch each one through the tarp’s D-rings for easy removal to another smaller diamond fly. My cinch buckle system has 12′ straps so both tarp and hammock have about the same span. Keeps it simple. Also, I recently discovered these really cool toggles on Jeff Meyers’ YouTube channel. I don’t mind knots and hitches but these were too simple, functional, and cheap to pass up. Look him up (not sure if I can post links here).

    Finally, I often use a marlinespike hitch for my stakes. Quick to tie/untie and uses minimal line.

    • Randy May 3, 2018 at 4:06 pm #

      Oh, and the sides of my hex tarp came with it. Never measured but their really light line and no shorter than 6′, probably longer. I’d never go shorter than that.

  2. Jay May 3, 2018 at 4:01 pm #

    For my 10×10 flat tarp, I have 4 foot lengths on the corners and two 10 foot lengths on the ridgeline, and I always carry 4 or so 6-8 foot lengths as well for panel tie outs and other perimeter ties if necessary. Line is so light and takes up so little volume that carrying that extra line tied up and buried in my bag isn’t a big deal, and I’ve had enough nights in rain and wind where I’d rather have it than not that it’s worth it.

    • Jay May 3, 2018 at 4:05 pm #

      I should add that everything’s attached with a bowline and just hitched to the tie out so it’s easy to remove. That’s my general setup, but I move them around all the time.

      I should also add that I generally enjoy puzzles and playing with pitches and knots, even at the end of a long day, so ymmv big time.

      • Randy May 3, 2018 at 4:12 pm #

        “I generally enjoy puzzles and playing with pitches and knots…” I think most tarp/hammock campers are generally of a similar bent.

  3. richard May 9, 2018 at 6:40 am #

    why did you cut off the line locks? They would seem to be a reasonable weight with a firm grip on the cordage and speedy when trying to add or remove tension the lines and with very little cord loss.

    • Andrew Skurka May 9, 2018 at 9:24 am #

      The line locks and my guyline system are kind of mutually exclusive. To complete the McCarthy hitch, you need a loop at the tie-out point, and it makes the most sense to use the bowline loop with which you attached the guyline to the tie-out.

      I suppose you could tie a standalone loop to the tie-out (e.g. 6-inch length with a fishermans knot) and still thread the guyline attached to the line lock. This would give you some micro adjustment. But you’re still going to need to tie a truckers hitch or McCarthy hitch, so why not just tension the system then?

      I also don’t love line locks. They are sized for specific cord widths, and if you ever want to use a different cord (e.g. to save weight, to replace old cord) they no longer work. They don’t glide well when the cord is dirty or icy. And small line locks (for thin cords) have insufficient holding strength.

      • richard May 9, 2018 at 12:09 pm #

        I tend to use a girthhitch on my stakes and linelocks either attached directly to the loops or with some combination of shockcord, mini-biner, and linelock. I had considered wear on the shock cord but not the linelock. I had also considered all the different shelters and flat tarps give more options leanto, A-frame to as-a-bivy. But the best part… a damaged tarp is replaced at home depot and not waiting for a resupply.

        THANKS!

  4. David Terrie May 14, 2018 at 11:17 pm #

    Andrew,

    Great article. Have to laugh about how many times I’ve watched TV with a piece of cordage tying knots. What’s your take on using shock cord to keep damp silnylon taught? Just a short section to take up slack. I find an anglers knot holds well on shock cord, where a bowline fails.

    Thanks,

    David Terrie

  5. Chris S May 17, 2018 at 6:32 pm #

    What do you recommend for cordage diameter/type?

  6. Jimbo September 5, 2018 at 4:49 pm #

    Curious about your thoughts on mid panel/halfway up tie outs on mid (and other) shelters. I’ve seen some mids with another 8 tie outs above the perimeter tie outs. It seems unlikely anyone taking a lightweight shelter is going to bring 8 more lengths of guyline and 8 more stakes, unless they’re planning to be in a storm.

    When you put much tension on them they distort the shelter shape.

    So how useful are they really? How often do you use them? Is it optimal to have seperate stakes or could you run them to the ground level stakes? Is having a stick/spare pole for creating more horizontal tension a decision for increasing interior volume (but if you’re using enough tension to do this you distort the shelter and decrease volume elsewhere)? Or does it provide better wind resistance?

    • Andrew Skurka September 5, 2018 at 5:28 pm #

      I can only think of a few occasions where I wish I’d had line and stakes for those mid-panel tie-outs. In areas where I typically go, I can get below treeline if I’m dealing with that kind of weather.

      With small shelters, the tie-outs at the head and foot are useful for expanding interior volume. To minimize their distortion on the shelter, set it up as usual to start. And then put mild horizontal pressure (using a stick) to pull the panel out.

      If you’re dealing with wind, I think you just want to stake them out directly to the ground. You’re just trying to keep the panel where it is, rather than blowing inwards.

      • Jimbo September 6, 2018 at 2:31 am #

        Thanks! Makes sense to me. I’m figuring out how many lengths of cord to add. At the middle height, I have tie outs available on the middle of the panels and on the seams. Is it fair to say the seams are redundant?

        Also as a side note how are you liking the DCF mid? I’ve been using one lately and not been getting on with the fussiness of getting a really taught pitch with DCF, yet a lot of US folks seem to love it. I wonder if those folks have milder pct-ish conditions than we do in the UK.

  7. Nicolas October 1, 2018 at 2:38 pm #

    Hello Andrew,

    Quick question. I use the 2-1 pulley method on the bottom tie-out points of my SMD Lunar Solo tent. After 21 days straight in the High Sierra, the guy-lines have started to cut into the bowline-knot-loops through which they are fed. Have you encountered this problem? Is is just the “cost of doing business” or is it perhaps due to the particular guy-line I’m using (MEC 2.0 mm reflective)?

    Your feedback would be much appreciated — cheers!

    • Andrew Skurka October 4, 2018 at 6:21 am #

      Cord-on-cord friction will result in abrasion to the cord, which is why it’s not a best practice for climbers. It’s less consequential for us, but eventually you’ll want to replace the cord, probably more to reduce friction in the system than to prevent risk of cord snappage.

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