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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.