Backpacking shelters for the BIG & tall, and those who sprawwwl

Backpacking tents and tarps are generally not designed for the big & tall and for those who love to sprawl. Many designs are cramped and claustrophobic for these users, which may hinder a night of quality sleep and lead to a soaking-wet sleeping bag from condensation-covered walls.

If this sounds like your nighttime experience, this article is for you. It will help you to find a new shelter that is sized properly for a backpacker with your dimensions and habits.

Very limited information is available about shelters for larger people. I’ll address this problem not with another list-icle (i.e. “10 Best Tents for Tall Backpackers in 2020”) but with a revolutionary new system for measuring the usable area of tents and fixed-shape tarps. Then, using this system I will offer standards for comfort and I will examine several popular models.

Key takeaways

This is a thoughtful post about an important topic, and the word count reflects that. Here are the main takeaways if you’re short on time:

There are very few tent options for hikers who are taller than 6’4”. If this is you:

  • The Lightheart Gear SoLong 6 could be your best tent option, but;
  • Flat tarps with a bivy are infinitely customizable; and,
  • Companies like Mountain Laurel Designs make a wide variety of pyramid tarps that are large enough to fit a circus elephant, and a tarp with a large inner net can be just as luxurious as a traditional tent.

There are many more options for people from 5’11” to 6’4”, and many traditional tents may even fit you depending on your sleeping habits. If you need more room then you might consider larger models like:

Proposal: A new standard for measuring tents

For a moment, imagine buying new pants without a waist or inseam (leg length) measurement. Instead, the pants are measured by their total length and by the square footage of the fabric.

With enough pants-buying experience, you may learn that you need pants that are three feet long and that are made with five square feet of fabric. But doesn’t that sound insane? Those measurements aren’t helpful, because they don’t really give you a sense of how they will fit YOU.

The same thing happens when buying a tent. 

Today, tents are primarily measured and compared by their:

  • Peak height,
  • Floor length and width, and
  • Floor square area.

But just like the contrived pants measurements, these numbers are only loosely correlated with usable interior volume, which is the metric about which we really should care.

Three alternate measurements would be much more informative and revealing:

  1. Sleeping length: The length across the sleeping area of the tent, measured one foot off the ground, which will be comfortable for a sleeper using an inflatable sleeping pad and a sleeping bag.
  2. Sleeping area: The total usable sleeping area created by the sleeping length and the width at the head and foot, all measured one foot off the ground. This forms a long trapezoid.
  3. Headroom: The available headroom while sitting, measured three feet off the ground, in a diamond shape.

Results

  • For measurements of popular tents, go HERE;
  • For measurements of popular mids tarps, go HERE.

If a shelter you’d like to buy is not on one of these spreadsheets, let your favorite tent company know about this article. I’d be happy to measure their shelters, or they can adopt my new standard, which would save me a lot of work, and give them a leg up on this new system.

General case studies

Let’s look at some simplified examples to see how different tent shapes affect sleeping length and headroom. The diagram below shows a 6-foot tall person sitting up and laying down in a sleeping bag on a sleeping pad.

From this we can adopt some general rules:

  • Increasing the height primarily affects the headroom and has a smaller effect on the sleeping area.
  • Increasing the length primarily affects the sleeping area and has a smaller effect on the headroom. Note that the long pyramid has a slightly lower peak than the pyramid but has the same headroom.
  • Adding struts (or pitchloc’s) has the same effect as increasing the length while reducing the footprint.
  • Adding a domed tent pole increases both the sleeping area and headroom and also reduces the footprint.

How much room do you need?

Follow this simple rule of thumb: Your sleeping length should equal your height plus five inches, to make room for your sleeping bag insulation and angled feet.

Several factors can affect this rule of thumb though: 

  • If you sleep on a thick or a thin pad. Add 2-4” for a thick pad (4”) or subtract 2-4” if you use a thin pad (1”). Make larger adjustments for a tent with angled walls and less for a tent with steep walls.
  • If you sleep in a single wall tent and want to avoid condensation. Add 2” for each single wall by your feet or head. Two at the most.
  • If you sleep in a low-tension (droopy) inner net (does not apply to traditional double-wall tents where the inner net is high-tension). Subtract 3” since the netting will not compress your sleep insulation.
  • If you are claustrophobic or toss and turn. Adjust accordingly!

NOTE: You can get away with a shorter sleeping length than this rule of thumb dictates. It is only a starting point that should work for most people. 

Keep in mind that headroom is also largely a personal preference. Also, torso size can obviously vary between people of the same height. If you have a long torso then you will need more headroom than a person of a similar height but with a shorter torso. If you like to spend time in your tent after hiking, or if you plan to hike for several weeks or months, then you may also prefer having more headroom because it’s just more livable. 

Real case studies

Now let’s look at measurements for a few tents pitched in the real world using this system. Hopefully, you’ve got some idea of where you fall due to personal experience with one or more of these models. Obviously, there is some variability between pitches of the same tent, but I estimate that the measurements are pretty accurate, more so for poled tents than tarps or mid-style shelters.

For a higher resolution diagrams, go here.

Summary and advice

  1. Understand your personal needs. 
  2. Look for a tent that accommodates your needs. 
  3. Realize that your needs are unique to YOU. 

AGAIN: Don’t let some random internet stranger convince you that you should feel comfortable in a tent that doesn’t fit you.

PERFECT EXAMPLE: My friend (and guinea pig for this article) is 6’7”. He sleeps in a Fly Creek UL2, even though he is way too big for it according to my new standard of measurement, but he has accepted the tradeoffs and is happy because it meets his needs. Meanwhile, I’m about 6’ and find that tent unbearable. Our needs are different, so it is not productive to argue about what size person fits in what size tent. It’s apples to oranges. 

However, using my system we can objectively agree that a Copper Spur is roomier than a Fly Creek. Therefore you should look at the objective measurements in this article and determine what meets your specific needs. 

Keep in mind this project is just getting started, but my goal is to set a new industry standard and I need your help! Let your favorite tent company know that there is a better way to help their customers choose a shelter that will reduce costly returns, increase profitability, and consumer satisfaction by referring them to this article. Everybody wins! 

Thanks for reading, and happy trails.

Questions or thoughts? Leave a comment.

Posted in on August 11, 2020
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33 Comments

  1. Brian on August 11, 2020 at 2:36 pm

    You should add ZPack’s Altaplex to this analysis. It’s marketed to tall hikers up to 6’6″ and only weighs 15.4oz.

    • MattyIce on August 11, 2020 at 10:17 pm

      I am 6’6″ and tried the Altaplex. Still didn’t work. The SoLong 6 from Lightheart Gear or a hammock tarp and ground sheet are all I’ve tried that have ever worked for me.

    • Spencer on August 12, 2020 at 4:20 am

      Too bad the company sucks now and there quality control has fallen

    • Gerg on August 12, 2020 at 10:48 am

      I am 6’6″ and can confidently state that this marketing is nonsense. Both head and feet touch or come very close to it (depending on quality of pitch) due to the steepness of the slope of the walls.

      My buddy also tried it. He’s 6’1″ and barely fit.

      What works for me is a Zpacks Duplex with cups and poles pulling out the center panel tie outs providing more head/foot clearance. Diagonal sleeping not needed but can do that for even more room.

    • Jesse Liesch on August 14, 2020 at 4:54 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion. There are several tents I would like to measure. The Altaplex is at the top of the list.

      I avoided assigning a height to a tent since it is so subjective. What may work for one 6’6″ person may not work for another 6’6″ person. The tent measurements stay the same.

  2. Crocamole on August 11, 2020 at 3:02 pm

    This seems very useful. It makes much more sense than the current data available. The pants analogy sums the situation very well. Here’s hoping outdoor gear manufacturers adopt this or a similar system.

  3. Edward on August 11, 2020 at 6:31 pm

    I really like this idea. I’ve been looking at the LightHeart Gear SoLong 6 and Firefly. While I still may purchase a different brand, I now know which of the two LightHeart Gear tents I’d buy.

  4. TallTerry on August 11, 2020 at 7:42 pm

    I’m a 6’6″ backpacker so I appreciate you bringing this issue to light. Measuring tent size from one foot off the ground is brilliant. I’ve found that even tents marketed as having 7.5 feet of length can be too short for me if the ends of the tent are steeply sloped (nothing worse than being on top of a mountain and having cold feet all night because the down in your sleeping bag is compressed against the tent wall). I ended up just buying a two person shelter and sleeping diagonally and dealing with the extra weight. Also, as you point out, tarps can work very well if you camping somewhere without too many bugs. The BD Beta Light is incredibly spacious and weighs very little—if you don’t need netting.

  5. Rocky on August 11, 2020 at 8:09 pm

    I’m only 6’2” (96th percentile American male) but my last tent purchasing experience was exasperating, mostly because of missing information like what you propose.

    Started down your path. Measured my sitting height, added 4 inches for the pad, plus another 4 inches for clearance around my head. Needed at least 45 inches of “peak height” (slippery concept). Also figured I on at least 84×30 inches of sleep area and “not to steep” walls or add more fudge factors. Slim pickings if you want light weight and fully enclosed. Bought a Skyscape Trekker, happy so far after two trips.

    Long way of saying, I hope your system takes off.

    • Sonoransurvivalist on August 12, 2020 at 10:13 am

      I’m 6’1″ and also chose the skyscape trekker as my first foray into ultralight tents. Love the space inside. There’s enough room at the top to store extra clothes, hat, pocket hardware, you can leave your boots/shoes covered from rain, the offset peak helps give headroom where you want it. I’ve taken mine on many trips the past year and a half and intend to keep going.

  6. mkt42 on August 12, 2020 at 5:37 am

    “Your sleeping area should equal your height plus five inches”

    I can’t figure out this sentence. Do you mean that the sleeping LENGTH should be my height plus five inches?

    • Jesse Liesch on August 14, 2020 at 4:58 pm

      You are correct. This is an error that we will fix. Thanks for pointing it out!

  7. MJ on August 12, 2020 at 11:04 am

    Yama Mountain Gear is making shelters & tarps that can accommodate taller hikers, all of outstanding quality.

    I’m 6’3″, sleep on a 2.5″-4″ pad, and fit comfortably in the Yama Swiftline 1p.

    Yama also offers extended lengths & other options on their tarps.

    Definitely worth checking out.

    • Jesse Liesch on August 14, 2020 at 5:00 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion. This tent wasn’t previously on my rada but it is now. I understand that Gen from YMG has quite a backlog but I’ll reach out and see if he’d like to work with me.

  8. Tore Landén on August 12, 2020 at 11:55 am

    Yes! This is great stuff! Thanks for writing this! Agree with all!

    Also, long persons often have longer feet and those need to be taken into account. Having your feet and sleeping with them against the wall of the tent can be ok during the warmer months but when it’s cold and condensation becomes an issue you can’t have your toes and sleeping bag against the tent fabric. So it’s not only mat and thickness of the bag, it’s also feet size.

    The negligence of large feet is also an issue with sleeping bags, no matter whay length/size of the sleeping bag, the foot area is made for size 10. Never a size 14.

    • Jesse Liesch on August 14, 2020 at 5:16 pm

      This is a good point. This article has a link to a spreadsheet that can calculate more exactly how you might fit in the different tents. Search for “For measurements of popular tents ” then follow the link. It includes foot length as well as foot sleeping angle which can even be more important than foot length.

      For the rule of thumb I found that height plus 5″ gets in the ballpark for most people. The added complexity of including foot length did not seem to be worth it. Most people probably don’t know how long their feet are, either.

  9. Anthony DeLorenzo on August 12, 2020 at 3:06 pm

    Thank you Andrew, this is incredibly helpful and timely. I’m 6-6 and right in the middle of designing my first MYOG shelter. I am using your system to ensure I have enough space in my 3D design.

    • Jesse Liesch on August 14, 2020 at 5:17 pm

      This is really interesting to hear. I am curious to know whether your tent design became larger, smaller, or stayed the same. How did this article inform your tent design?

      • Anthony DeLorenzo on August 28, 2020 at 1:48 pm

        My original design was just kind of winging it based on what I thought was long enough for my height. The height of the shelter is fixed at 130 which is my trekking pole length.

        i made a 3D box based on my dimensions and using the formula suggested in this article. When I stuck the box inside my virtual tent it became apparent that I needed to add a bit more length to get clearance for the tops of my head and feet. It wasn’t a huge amount but I think I added 15-20 cms in length.

  10. David on August 13, 2020 at 2:26 pm

    I’m not sure your factors took in to account if you are a side sleeper. In which case you have the width of your shoulders to consider rather than just head or feet.
    But not having done all the analysis, I guess that shoulders being part way in from tent edges mitigates the effect some.

    • Jesse Liesch on August 14, 2020 at 5:21 pm

      Yes, what you said is one part of the equation. Additionally, side sleepers consume less length than back and stomach sleepers because their knees are typically bent. Additionally, the shoulders and hips will sink into a sleeping pad which decreases their effective height. Speaking for myself, I sleep in just about every orientation and I’ve never had an issue with my shoulders brushing the side of a tent and I have fairly broad shoulders for my height.

  11. langleybackcountry on August 13, 2020 at 11:45 pm

    Correction in the data spreadsheet: You have TT “Double Rainbow” listed twice for 1P and 2p. The 1p version is the Rainbow. The 2p version is the Double Rainbow.

    I am also curious why the Double Rainbow would be a 10″ shorter sleeping length. The floor is pretty darn close to rectangular and they have identical floor lengths.

    • Jesse Liesch on August 14, 2020 at 5:25 pm

      This is something I have struggled with. Maybe you can help me out. The issue is that a a 2 person tent can be used by one person as well as by two people. A single person in a 2p tent will have more sleeping length than two people in a 2p tent because the sides of the tent are less likely to droop in on the single person.

      In the spreadsheet, the “Double Rainbow” is the same tent in each row — just measured as if one person were sleeping in it, and as if two people were sleeping in it. This can quickly get out of hand though since a single person can sleep diagonally for more room. Do you have any suggestions on how to make this more clear?

      • Michael Bergantzel on September 7, 2020 at 8:01 am

        Maybe just provide the “sleeping width” in addition to the sleeping length, and let the consumer decide how they would like to interpret the data point for their own needs.

  12. Christine Martens on August 14, 2020 at 10:48 am

    My husband is 6ft4 and we share a tent. The only two person tent that has worked for us is the SMD Haven. Great 2P tent.

    • Sean on August 23, 2020 at 1:45 pm

      I love me some SMD tents. Looks like they fixed my complaint in the 10 years it’s been since I bought their Trekker and gave it a tub floor for better head room when laying down.

  13. John M. on August 14, 2020 at 4:48 pm

    I like this. I would add some considerations regarding sleeping length. I’m 72 inches, and a stomach sleeper. I have size 13 feet. So with my hands over my head and toes pointed, my sleeping length is close to 84 inches.

    • Jesse Liesch on August 14, 2020 at 5:36 pm

      I think there is a lot of variability when it comes to stomach sleepers. Sometimes I sleep on my stomach with an arm out (I call it the Freddie Mercury pose), sometimes my arm is under my head. Thanks for sharing. I’ll have to think about how to capture this concept.

      • neal on August 16, 2020 at 8:47 am

        The Freddie has just entered my lexicon of sleep. Also, what a great real world look at this subject, thank you!

  14. Zach on August 16, 2020 at 4:26 pm

    I am 6′-5″, 260 lbs, size 14 shoe and really didn’t like many of the options out there. I felt like my forehead and toes were touching the tent. I ended up going with the Big Agnes Scout UL Plus a few years ago because it has a vertical wall at my head and feet and is 86 inches long. I really like it to sleep in but it is not great for sitting in and has some other drawbacks. It is a 2 person tent but I love it on solo adventures.

  15. Mike on August 19, 2020 at 1:15 pm

    I’m 6′” and tried many tents over the years. I have to disagree about the solong 6. Despite being long it was really hard to not brush the ceiling and there is no mesh at the ends so condensation drips right onto the floor. Really I’ve not found a pyramid tent that works. I’ve also accepted that I will touch the ends of any tent so it had better be double walled, and preferably if it is a dome, there should be a guyout at the ends to pull the fly away from the body. I’ve given up on single wall tents trekking pole tents. I’ve yet to find one that really works for a tall person. I’ve decided traditional 2 person pole tents are your friend for the tall. There is way more space under a circle than a triangle. These days I mostly use tents from Big Sky, they are long enough that I don’t touched too bad. I’ve found a few discontinued tents that work, especially tunnel tents. The Sierra Designs nightwatch 2 is a good one for tall people with vertical ends. Although heavy their older convert 2 was a great tall person tent, another tunnel with vertical ends. I actually find the hubba hubba nx works well as it’s walls are pretty vertical at the ends. At one point I had a Tarptent scarp 2 which is a great tall person tent but I found it very fiddly to setup so got rid of it.

  16. Sean on August 23, 2020 at 1:43 pm

    I’m just gonna say I’ve had a Solong 6 for about 10 years now and it is my go-to hiking shelter if I’m not using a hammock. I’m 6’2 and the Solong is *so* roomy.

    My loaner backpacking tent is a 6 Moon Design Trekker, which I would in theory love, but it desperately needs a bathtub floor. Justification- bathtub floors raise the wall angle up anywhere from 3-6 inches. So when you lay down, the tent angle is higher above your head than otherwise. My trekker angles in at just the right angle that I can feel my breath bounce back from the fly netting and it gives me a claustraphobic feeling.

    Note: Apparently the trekker has gone through a few redesigns since I bought mine and it looks like it has a tub floor now, which if so, makes it *awesome* and I suggest Six Moon Designs for people to consider. If you’re one of those people that loves to sleep under the stars but is in a bug heavy area, the Trekker & Scout are great compromises- You can fold up 90% of the tent and have a clear head view and total mesh panel walls for ventilation. In storm weather it lashes down and if you put your feet into the wind it’s super stable.

  17. Scott Greene on September 5, 2020 at 4:21 pm

    Great article, and very helpful for us y’all guys who feel left behind sometimes. I’m 6’4”, and I’ve enjoyed using a SMD Skyscape Trekker for several years. Now that I’m planning a JMT trip, I’ve been looking to see if there’s a better option. It doesn’t sound like it! They have improved the few things I felt needed it, with a second door and more robust spreader bar at the top. I’m pleased to see the other options you noted here, the real-world dimensions, and comparison of so many choices. Thanks!

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