If cost were no object: My go-to backpacking shelter systems, gone ultralight

This is a multi-post series on backpacking shelter systems. Start with the Introduction or skip to:
The lightest modular double-wall tents weigh about 12 oz less than the High Route Tent. But at what cost, in terms of its price tag or performance?
The lightest modular double-wall tents weigh about 12 oz less than the High Route Tent. But at what cost, in terms of its price tag or performance?

The backpacking shelters that I presented in this series — a modular tent, tarp & bivy, and hammock — are middle-of-the-road systems. They are not ultralight or excessively heavy, not cheap or prohibitively expensive, and not benchmark-setting or under-performers.

This was intentional on my part. While they reflect what I personally use (in most cases, exactly), I also wanted them to seem accessible and to be roughly comparable. So I avoided exorbitant prices, unacceptably minimalist components, and niche products with limited applicability.

To hell with that.

In this post I will assume that cost is no object, and present an ultralight modular tent, ultralight tarp & bivy, and ultralight hammock to establish the lower weight bounds for these systems while still ensuring baseline defense against precipitation, insects, wind, and groundwater.

In some cases, weight-savings can simply be bought, i.e. spend more to carry less. In other cases it’s at the detriment of performance metrics, like size, ease of use, versatility, hydrostatic head, and lifespan. I will highlight the tradeoffs, but you’ll have to determine what is acceptable for you.

Jump to:

Ultralight Modular Tent

My original selection, the Sierra Designs High Route Tent 1FL, is a one-shelter quiver. It can manage moderate winter weather, be optimized for the full range of three-season conditions, and is acceptably light for benign environments. Read more.

But it’s oversized and made of mid-weight fabric. Let’s lighten it up:

The Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1, the more affordable cousin of the Platinum. The two tents are nearly identical, except for fabric and pole substitutions.
The Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1, the more affordable cousin of the Platinum. The two tents are nearly identical, except for fabric and pole substitutions.

What you get, in addition to weight-savings

The Big Agnes Fly Creek Platinum has a foolproof pitch and is conveniently semi-freestanding. Its packed size is also smaller.

What you give up, in addition to relative affordability

Two major compromises were made to achieve such a low shelter weight:

  • Space. After a few days of wet weather, I imagine that the Fly Creek feels like a glorified coffin. The difference is particularly dramatic when the shelters are used in fly-only mode.
  • Wispy fabrics. The Fly Creek fabrics are gossamer, but I have heard mixed reviews about their initial and long-term waterproofness. Please chime in if you have first-hand experience.

Even if they were comparably sized and made of the same fabrics, the Fly Creek and High Route perform differently in the field. The High Route is not as intuitive, but the Fly Creek lacks:

  • Dry entry and exit, and
  • Best-in-class ventilation. It only has one door, and the fly cannot be opened when it’s raining without exposing the vestibule or interior.

Alternative: Mid + Nest

If you did not blink at $500+, then consider a shelter system made of Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF). Refer to Question 5 in this post for an explanation of DCF’s virtues.

A pyramid-shaped modular double-wall tent like the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid ($425, 12.5 oz) and InnerNet ($245, 7.5 oz) is more similar in nature to the High Route Tent: fussier than a freestanding model, but otherwise higher performing.

The weight-savings cost is $25 per ounce. 14.8 ounces saved at a cost difference of $370. Damn, DCF is expensive!

Nitro Joe with a mid tent made of DCF. It was September so he left the matching inner tent at home.
Nitro Joe with a mid tent made of DCF. It was September so he left the matching inner tent at home.

Ultralight Tarp & Bivy

My tarp & bivy system is my lightest, least expensive, and most minimal go-to shelter system. I use it on trips in the West in benign conditions. Read more.

The components are relatively simple already, and the opportunities for weight-savings are limited. Basically, make everything a little bit smaller, and swap out run-of-the-mill coated nylons for DCF.

A 7-oz A-frame tarp made of DCF, pitched in a place that it has little business being in bad weather.
A 7-oz A-frame tarp made of DCF, pitched in a place that it has little business being in bad weather.

What you get, in addition to weight-savings

Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) is a remarkable shelter fabric: it’s stronger and more waterproof than premium coated nylons that weigh twice as much.

What you give up, in addition to relative affordability

A one-person A-frame tarp leaves little margin for error. To defend against driving rain, splatter, or high winds, the lengths can be pitched against the ground and the foot can be dropped low. But the tarp begins to feel more like a burrow than a shelter. My recommendation: Suck up the weight of a Snickers bar and go with a two-person tarp.

The abrasion-resistance of DCF is average at best. A groundsheet should protect it, but just be aware of this issue. It’s also not as stuff-able as coated nylons; it is best to fold it before storing it.

Ultralight hammock

My hammock setup is comfortable and versatile, and will withstand heavy use and challenging conditions. A hammock excels in forested and high-use locations where ground sites are limited in frequency and quality. Read more.

A special thanks to Alan Dixon for suggesting this hammock setup:

Alan's UL hammock system, using a DCF tarp and Darien gathered end hammock
Alan’s UL hammock system, using a DCF tarp and Darien gathered end hammock

What you get

As with the DCF tarp in the Tarp & Bivy system, a DCF hammock tarp will be stronger and more waterproof than more conventional coated nylons.

What you give up

The Hex Tarp is notably smaller than the Mamajamba, leaving the occupant more exposed to foul weather. Again, a few extra ounces here go a long way.

The hammock body and suspension are made of lighter materials that will require more care and that cannot support the same amount of weight. The Darien hammock is shorter and narrower than the XLC; tall people would at least want the 11-foot version, not the 10-foot.

In addition, the bug netting is not detachable, which eliminates the weight of a long #3 zipper but which makes it less versatile. For example, the netting cannot be left at home outside of the bug seasons, and a more wind-resistant top cannot be used with it in winter conditions.

What are you willing to give up to save weight? What can be justified, and what is simply “stupid expensive”?

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Posted in , on November 23, 2016
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  1. Matt J on November 23, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    As a former owner of the Fly Creek UL2 you are correct on the coffin feel. And that’s the 2 person version. The materials though were possibly even more disappointing than the size (and fact that it’s not really a completely free standing tent.) It was no match for Hawaiian rain and the durability was highly questionable. I returned two because the “hub” over the front door easily wore through the material due to constant friction. Replaced it with the Lightning FL and have been much happier. Though after a couple of days in extreme heat this summer I longed for something with a removable fly for those conditions. If I hadnt’t just put $2k into my car to get back across the country I’d be picking up a High Route.

  2. Will T on November 23, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    You have been doing this for quite awhile I can tell. Your Fly Creek Plat guesses were really close. Here is what my scale says they are:
    fly w/guylines – 8.3 oz
    inner tent – 8.2 oz
    poles – 7.1 oz
    stakes – 4.3 oz

    Space is something you give up with this tent for sure, but you can do a dry pitch with it. This was a requirement of mine living in the PNW. The door can be unzipped about 1/2 way and still keep the interior dry though 1/2 your vestibule will be wet. A definite downside that could have easily been fixed with a slight design modification. It is no where close to having the ventilation (and interior space) of the high route, but I have have successfully kept myself and gear dry for a few continuous wet PNW days.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 23, 2016 at 4:58 pm

      Thanks for those weights, will update. I assumed 8 stakes — How many are you counting?

      How can it be dry pitched? Do have to set up the fly first then crawl under to clip in the inner tent?

      • Will T. on November 23, 2016 at 5:22 pm

        Yep the 8 stakes that came with the tent equaled 4.3 oz, though only 4 are really needed in mild conditions (2 at foot & 2 on mid sides). And correct you can attach the 3 ends of the pole system to the fly edges then hang the inner tent from within.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 24, 2016 at 8:11 am

      I just updated the spreadsheet with your weights. Did you realize that your weights are inconsistent with the spec weights?

      Fly with Guylines + Inner Tent + Poles
      = 23.6 oz
      Versus 22 oz spec weight, or 1.6 oz off

      Fly + Poles
      = 15.4 oz
      Versus 15 oz spec weight, or 0.4 oz off (more excusable)

      I have read elsewhere about the spec weight being too optimistic, though with the 2-person version.

      I’m even more appalled by this exercise now. The weight difference between a full High Route and a Full Fly Creek Platinum is 11.4 oz; the difference when in fly-only mode, just 3.7 oz.

      The 11.4-oz weight-savings might be justifiable for a small person, or an average-sized person who does not see much foul weather. It does not come cheap, though, at $18 per ounce. If I were a bigger person or if I regularly saw tough conditions (wet, humid, windy) it would be pretty easy to size-up.

      The paltry 3.7-oz weight-savings is entirely unjustifiable, especially at $70 per ounce! In fly-only mode the High Route offers SO MUCH MORE.

      • Will T. on November 24, 2016 at 9:37 pm

        That is really disappointing about the spec weight being off so much. Understating the weight by over 7% is a pretty big margin of error that apparently is still within the bounds of a company being able to get away without much backlash.

        It looks like if someone camps similar to your style of using fly-only mode the majority of the time, the High Route would be the way to go IF you already hike with poles. If not, then throwing the weight of poles into the equation could be the deal breaker (weight wise or money wise).

      • Scott N on January 19, 2017 at 3:29 am

        I think I might be able to shed some light on the platinum weight errors, though not definitively. Like the regular fly creek series, BA has switched the platinum over to HV, their abbreviation for high volume. Near as I can tell the original platinum is now discontinued. I’m guessing weight differences come from their being two different production models. The fly, inner tent, and poles of mine come in at the advertised 22oz.

        The “fast fly” mode of the fly creeks is dependent on the footprint… but there is not really a reason to buy the BA footprint, I’ve made one from mylar and polycro using gorilla tape to sink grommets into. If you choose to go this route there is not reason to make your custom footprint the same size as the inner tent, you can cut it almost to the dimensions the rainfly covers and have much more livable space.

        The BA does pack up into a truly miniscule package. It often allows me to do summer weekenders carrying a 22 liter pack.

        There is a mod on BPL I’ve been meaning to try where people have basically created a nylon cord frame to hold the poles together if you were so inclined and didn’t want to use the footprint.

        I have a regular UL2 for when I’m with the dog, and a Platinum 1 HV when I’m solo. Since I’m mostly getting 3 day weekend trips in and can really only get out for a week or more a few times a year the space hasn’t really bothered me. I live in the cascades, and the fast fly can be really nice for if you get totally wetted out on a trail and just want to hang out for a bit. The pack size of it is ridiculously tiny. I replaced the stakes with the MSR carbon cores, which I think might get into Andrew’s definition of stupid light in some cases, but I’ve never had them fail. I only pack 7 of them, I’ve found you can tie the guy lines to pretty much anything. I’ve not had an issue with the hub over the door abraiding the fly, but with the platinum the denier of the floor of the inner tent worries me… can’t remember what it is, but it’s thin… hence the homemade footprint.

        Let me know if you have any questions. I don’t think your exercise was a bad one! I’m a no trekking pole person, so it’s what took me in the direction of the fly creek in the first place.

  3. spelt on November 25, 2016 at 8:15 am

    Cuben only makes sense to me when you get into large square footages of fabric. For smaller shelters the weight savings aren’t as significant. If money were no object, though, I don’t see why not.

    In other areas I’ve found useability trumps weight. I had an UL hammock with UL fabric, and the stretch just made it uncomfortable to lie in. I’ve basically quit hammocking except for hanging out in the park on nice days. If I get into it again it’ll be with something I DIY so I can fiddle until it works right.

  4. Brendan on November 25, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    Doesn’t the cuben grace solo (7oz) save 5 oz over the silnylon grace duo (12oz) by the MLD specs? Your spreadsheet is only showing a 2.2 oz saving.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 25, 2016 at 9:26 pm

      Good catch, thanks. I was pulling the price from the Duo, but the weight from the Solo.

      If you have been on MLD’s site I hope you can forgive the data error. Heard that a new site is in the works for Q3-Q4 of next year, finally.

  5. Mark Roberts on November 27, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    Andrew what is your take on the Tarptent brand tents. I have had a Rainshadow 2, three man tent and it is a place for two people.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 27, 2016 at 7:04 pm

      Relatively little first-hand experience, only two one-week trips in Alaska in the MoTrail with completely dry weather but terrible mosquitoes. I’ve seen most of the models on guided trips over the years.

      My overall impression: innovative designs, reasonable prices, and a good balance of weight, size, and features. For more than that, you’ll have to consult someone with more familiarity.

      • Herbert Sitz on December 19, 2016 at 5:50 pm

        That sounds about right. I would say that the Tarptent Notch, at 27oz including stakes, could have been substituted for the Fly Creek Plantinum in this analysis and compared even better to the SD Highline. (This is primarily b/c Notch uses two trekking poles, which appear to be assigned 0oz weight in the analysis b/c they’re already carried.) An additional plus is that the Notch costs a few dollars less than a Highline.

        The Notch is somewhat similar to the SD HIghline in design (or maybe should say, SDH is similar to the Notch, since Notch existed first). Main differences, I think, are that the Notch’s innernet footprint is a bit smaller (15.2sf vs 18.8), and the Notch is somewhat easier to set up because (1) you can leave innernet attached to fly and both walls go up a single piece, and (2) the Notch is symmetrical and default setup uses only 4 stakes. Also, although innernet footprint dimensions of Notch are 6″ shorter (84″ vs. 90″) the Notch has a really clever cantilever design at head and foot ends that (a) extends usable interior volume beyond the footprint, and (b) keeps head and foot ends of tent high off ground so, e.g., no issues with feet hitting tent above.

        I’m sure the Notch innernet is more fiddly to attach and remove from the fly. This seems generally acceptable, since the typical user will leave the net attached virtually all of the time. Also, the SDH innernet is roomier than Notch’s, though I’ve never been in a Highline to get a feel for the difference. I would say the Notch’s subjective feel of interior space is a bit better than it seems from the paltry footprint, because the inner is all net (i.e., you can see through it everywhere) and there’s very large amount of room underneath they fly (i.e., large vestibules on both sides give feeling of more room, even though your movement is constrained by the innernet.

        Finally, the Notch innernet weighs, I think, only 11 oz; so you don’t pay much of a weight penalty if you want to take it along and use it only as a groundsheet; (I have not attempted this, but I think it would work fine to just unclip the inner in four places to “let the net down”, then just sleep on top of netting and the built in — and still attached and tensioned — groundsheet; I would not have thought of this but the use of netting as goundsheet seems to work okay in ZPacks tents.)

    • Jack on March 3, 2019 at 9:35 pm


      I purchased a Rainshadow II and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. It weighs 43 ounces, 1 more than advertised. It can actually sleep 3 fairly comfortably and for 2, has a plethora of room. It is fairly quick and easy to set up by one person and with maximum ventilation set up, I have not experienced any condensation. I bought my tent 3 years ago and there is a newer version being sold by Mr. Shires at this time. Since my wife cannot hike anymore due to a bad hip, when I do go backpacking, it is solo,so I now use a Lite Outdoors 8′ x 10′ silnylon tarp (11.5 oz.) and a Borah Gear Bug Bivy (8 oz.), so I have a great UL shelter system for less than $160.00 and have yet to experience any condensation.

  6. Haiku on December 4, 2016 at 9:49 pm

    I thru hiked the AT in a Fly Creek UL1 last summer. I didn’t have a problem with space in it but most people i knew were moaning about it…most seemed ok in the UL2 though a few wanted more space. For me I want something even lighter, saving a pound off my back would make it worth spending more $$. By the way, I got my fly creek new for under $200 from backcountry, if you use sales no reason to spend $500.

    Surprised you didn’t mention any of zpacks’ products, I am looking at getting a mid tarp + sea to summit nano net setup, with a ground cloth of some sort. 1lb, bug-enclosed shelter? Yup. Also doable under $500, less if you get used. The zpacks Duplex was one of the most popular tents on the trail last year, for those who like more space everyone I met spoke highly of it.

  7. hunter hall on January 14, 2017 at 2:38 pm

    Personally, I’ve tried a lot of these setups myself and I settled on the ZPacks Duplex Cuben Fiber tent. 21oz all in, plus 3.2oz for the stakes. It’s the best combo of space, weight, ventilation and versatility I’ve seen yet. Very durable, easy to repair, etc.


    For super mild conditions, you can just open both the vestibules, for rain, you close them, for snow, you can use the optional free-standing poles ( http://zpacks.com/shelter/duplex-flex.shtml ) with/or without your trekking poles, and for snow, you can use the ‘double wall’ insert to fight condensation.


    Yeah, all that is super pricey, ($600 tent/$25 for 8 titanium v stakes//$125 freestanding poles/$85 insert/but you get what you pay for.

    The ONE drawback I’ve seen thus far is that setting the tent up in the high altitude, exposed, windy Sierra is a pain in the ass. I damn near lost the tent in a mega gust on Mt. Whitney in late October. It’s also noisy and you have to stake it down super tight with rocks in those conditions.

    The BA FCP 2 is a great tent as well, and my go to for freestanding tents, especially for bike-packing.

    For winter use exclusively, I got the Mountain Hardware Direkt 2 and the EV2 to test out in Mammoth this season only in snow situations. I’ll report back. 🙂

  8. Jeff on January 17, 2017 at 4:09 pm

    I’d go with the Nemo Hornet before the BA Fly Creek. Tent+Fly+Poles+4 stakes comes to 1 lb 10.5 oz, and side entrance is 10x more natural and (more importantly) allows one (male) to pee at night by rolling over and whipping it out.

    • josh on June 26, 2017 at 1:04 pm

      i agree i think i’d go with either the Nemo Hornet or the Tarp Tent Notch or ProTrail boy 27oz

  9. Travis Briles on January 15, 2018 at 6:12 pm

    This is probably a small point considering that the intended customers of the Fly Creek UL1 are mostly interested in summer conditions, but it completely fails with even a moderate snow load. Pictures of the failure here: https://www.bo-co-wandering.com/winter-camping.html

    Might be an interesting point of comparison to the High Route Tent, or mids.

  10. Haiku on January 16, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Hey Travis Briles- not sure if issue with just your tent? I didn’t have a failure of my tent in similar conditions (actually about 10″). A good thing in any event is if you wake @ night to just tap the roof to dislodge snow. My fly creek also has done well in high winds as well, certainly much better than my tarp.

    No vested interest here, as I use a hexamid and I think in general this post was about typical 3-season conditions, which all these tents deal with great.

  11. Travis Briles on January 21, 2018 at 8:52 am

    Hi Haiku- I’m skeptical that the issue was just with my tent but I suppose it’s possible. The pictures were taken in the morning after I’d cleared snow (off the sides) as you suggested. The sharp ridgeline doesn’t retain much snow on top anyway. Even with clearing it off the sides it was still heavy enough to seriously distort the shape. Maybe the difference in our experiences had more to do with the fact this was very early season snow and it was extremely wet and heavy?

    I guess I wasn’t clear but this was a planned as a 3-season trip in the Colorado Rockies and this was a “surprise” snow storm. My point was more that there might be other options that perform better with unexpected changes in weather (as happens in Colorado all the time).

    Cheers, -Travis

  12. William Nesper on March 26, 2018 at 8:32 pm

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for sharing your insight.

    I noticed you recommend the MLD cuben fiber 0.75 tarp. Is the 0.51 tarp too thin?
    Just curious because there is a lighter option.



    • Andrew Skurka on March 27, 2018 at 9:22 am

      For its weight, the 0.51-oz Cuben is remarkable stuff. But I’d rather carry a little bit of extra weight (i.e. 2 or 3 oz) in order to get a fabric that will have a longer lifespan, especially in consideration of the cost of Cuben shelters.

  13. John Gillespie on March 5, 2020 at 1:33 pm

    Is Nitro Joe pictured using a Mountain Laurel Designs Supermid? Looks larger than just a Duomid.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 5, 2020 at 5:32 pm

      I’m pretty sure that’s just a Solomid.

      • John Gillespie on March 5, 2020 at 5:36 pm

        great, thanks. a dual pole pitch seems like the way to go, particulary on a smaller mid

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