Now that we are through the less fun, but probably more important subjects of footwear and clothing, lets go through some of the rest of the gear you need to safely navigate the backcountry. Here in Part 3, I’ll discuss the various types of backacking shelters and their various advantages and disadvantages. Just look for “The Quick and Dirty” if you’re in a hurry, if you want to learn the ins and outs of backpacking shelters just keep reading The Nuts and Bolts!
The Quick and Dirty
Get a lightweight 2 person double walled 3-season backpacking tent that uses standard poles. Buy as light of a tent as your budget allow. Divide the tent up between two people to save weight. That will provide to most versatile option for all outdoor activities.
The Nuts and Bolts
I have another general rule to add to the first 2. This applies to all backpacking gear, not just tents.
Rule number #3: go as lightweight as possible while still maintaining comfort for yourself and your group.
You will be surprised at the things you can go without and still be comfortable, and the the lighter you can go the happier your body will be. The amount of difference between a 27lb pack (my usual 3-4 day pack weight including food and water) and a 50lb pack is probably about 10 miles of distance per day. The energy savings of less weight are astounding! Go light or go short, your choice!
Keep that in mind when choosing each piece of gear. Ask yourself: “what features don’t I need to be comfortable?” And choose whichever option has all the features you need for the least amount of weight. I also highly recommend trying or renting a piece of equipment before you buy it. REI and other outdoor stores commonly have rental gear that you can try.
So with all that said, Here we go!
This is usually the first thing that people think of when they start looking for gear, and it’s probably going to be the single biggest expense aside from maybe footwear.
There are several different types of shelters for backpacking and each has a set of advantages and disadvantages.
This is essentially a waterproof overcoat for your sleeping bag. I have never personally used them so I can’t offer any good firsthand advice. What I can tell you anecdotally is that they are somewhat claustrophobic, and if you are in a mosquito infested area, be prepared to have the little buggers whining in your ears all night.
They aren’t especially cheap or comfortable, but their biggest advantage is total weather protection without the weight of a tent. They also take practically zero setup so they are great for fast mountain climbs or solo backpacking in rugged terrain. Based on market research I would recommend Marmot, Outdoor Research, REI, Kelty, Mammut, or North Face.
This is the ultimate minimalist shelter favored by practically every successful thru-hiker of the PCT or Appalachian trail. It is effectively a floor-less, wall-less tent that will protect you from rain while carrying the absolute minimum weight possible (these things can weigh as little as 4 ounces!). These are easy to make or improvise at home, and require 1 large piece of waterproof fabric (silicon impregnated nylon, Cuban fiber, etc) and some paracord.
The disadvantages to these are the psychological point that they don’t feel as protective as a tent, they aren’t great in the snow, they won’t protect you from bugs, and they have a steep learning curve on how to use them correctly. If used correctly, however, they are highly effective even against driving rain and wind. There are a few commercial models available by Kelty, Sierra Designs, Eno, MSR, and Kijaro, but the vast majority of “tarpers” just make their own.
Single Walled Tent
This is the lightest type of tent because unlike your typical car-camping tent these don’t have a separate rain fly. The tent walls are all one single piece of waterproof fabric making them lighter but less durable. Single walled tents come with either the traditional tent pole free standing setup or as a “trekking pole tent.”
A trekking pole tent is one that uses your trekking poles (or simply 1 or 2 sticks) to provide a lifting point for the roof, and does not use any tent poles at all. I own the NEMO Meta 2P pictured above and like it immensely. It is not free standing, meaning it will not stand up unless it is staked to the ground and the tension from the stakes holds it rigid. This can be a pain in windy conditions and takes a bit more effort to set up than a traditional pole-tent, but I think the extra effort is worth the weight sacrifice. The entire tent weighs only 2.4lbs!
Single-walled tents have a big disadvantage that is often quoted: condensation! Without the space between the rain fly and the walls, condensation from your breath will bead on the walls and slowly fill the floor of the tent. Or at least, that’s how the argument goes, and was absolutely true even 5 years ago. Today’s designs have accounted for this deficiency and employ a clever system of ventilation and drip holes to prevent condensation buildup. Yes there is always moisture on the ceiling, but I’ve never woken up wet in my single walled tent even when it was raining and cold out. Another minor point is that they can’t be divided between multiple people since they are one piece of fabric. Whoever carries the tent carries all of it.
For single walled tent brands, I like my Nemo tent, but Big Agnes, Black Diamond, and REI all make excellent tents too.
This is the traditional type of tent that everyone knows and loves. It is also the heaviest type of tent on average. However, this is the 21st century and we have some amazing new technologies that are finally being applied to backpacking gear. The tent pictured is the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 and weighs only 2.6lbs and is one of the lightest double walled backpacking tents in the world.
In fact, as happy as I have been with my single walled NEMO I am strongly considering moving back to the double walled tent for the fact that it’s free standing, can be split up, and will produce less moisture on the inside. While I haven’t woken up wet, I have sat up and gotten a smear of water across my forehead from the ceiling. Free standing tents also have the advantage that they can be moved (say to avoid a root or rock) after they are set up, while non-freestanding tents will collapse the second they aren’t staked down. Double walled tents come in both free standing and non-free standing models. I always recommend the former.
The best tent brands in my experience are: Big Agnes, Marmot, REI, Alps Mountaineering, Black Diamond, and North Face. They all make high quality and lightweight tents.
I won’t discuss hammocks here since I have a number of problems with them and don’t use them. I have used them and don’t like them. If you’re interested in hammock camping just comment on this article and I’ll talk a bit more about them. In short, however, they are a massive expense (since most accessories are specialized or custom made) for little too no gain in weight, shelter, or comfort.
In summary, if you want easy fast and light full weather perfection, or if you’re solo mountaineering a bivy might be a good choice. If you want ultra lightweight and don’t mind work and minimal protection from nature, get a tarp. If you want a full tent that is the least amount of weight possible, look at the single walled variety. If you want comfort and stability and don’t mind the extra weight, look at double walled tents. Keep in mind that double walled tents can be divided between multiple people, and make the most lightweight choice your budget can afford!
Well that’s my two cents on tents! I hope that I’ve given you at least somewhere to start when choosing which shelter is right for you.
In part 4 we’ll get to water filtration, camp kitchen, backpacks, and some of the other little miscellaneous things you’ll want to stay comfortable and safe. See you next time!