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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.