Backpacking Shelter Systems


The primary purpose of a backpacking shelter system is to defend the occupants from environmental factors like precipitation, insects, wind, and ground water that could compromise a night of quality sleep.

It often is, but need not be, a conventional tent — other systems like tarps and hammocks can provide adequate protections while sometimes offering additional advantages like weight-savings, ventilation, or comfort.

In this six-post buyer’s guide, I have detailed my three go-to systems, discussed their merits relative to each other and to other options, created ultralight equivalent setups, and recommended alternatives for backpackers with different circumstances or preferences than mine.

Buyer’s Guide + my Go-to Systems: Backpacking tents, tarps & hammocks

By Andrew Skurka / November 13, 2016 /

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…

6 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Backpacking Tent, Tarp, Hammock or Bivy

By Andrew Skurka / November 14, 2016 /

Questions are normally followed up with answers. But one question that will simply beget more questions is, “What shelter should I buy for backpacking?” Actually, there is an answer, but it’s not helpful: “I don’t know.” Because to nudge you in the right direction I need more information about your preferences, intentions, and budget. And…

Gear List || One-shelter quiver: Modular double-wall backpacking tent

By Andrew Skurka / November 15, 2016 /

What is a backpacking tent? I’ll define it as a full-sided, fixed-shaped, and holistically designed portable shelter that protects its occupants from precipitation, wind, groundwater, and insects. A few models do not fulfill this entire description, but it generally works. Tents grossly outsell tarps, hammocks, and bivy sacks. This is partly due to deeply embedded mindsets (“I…

Gear List || Backpacking Tarp & Bivy: Ultralight minimalism

By Andrew Skurka / November 20, 2016 /

In a normal winter, the Sierra Nevada, Pacific Northwest, and Rocky Mountains get hammered by systems that roll off the Pacific Ocean and drop hundreds of inches of snow. The summers, however, are sunny and dry, with only occasional precipitation related to the North American monsoon. Storms can be violent, but they are normally short-lived and…

Gear List || Backpacking Hammock: Forest & high-use zone specialist

By Andrew Skurka / November 21, 2016 /

A night of quality sleep in the backcountry depends on multiple factors. A shelter and sleep system that defend against precipitation, wind, insects, groundwater, and cold are the most obvious prerequisites. But equally important is campsite selection, or the art of finding a comfortable location where you can hang your hat. When using ground-based shelters…

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

By Andrew Skurka / November 23, 2016 /

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,…

Top picks: Stakes & guylines for backpacking tents, tarps & hammocks

By Andrew Skurka / November 26, 2016 /

I will finish this series on backpacking shelter systems with a discussion of stakes and guylines, which have a critical role but which are normally treated as an afterthought. To maximize the usability and performance of your tent, tarp, or hammock, give them some attention. Stakes If stakes are included with the purchase of a shelter,…