Ditch the dome
Ah, the venerable dome tent! Roomy. Stable. Easy to erect and move around. Or is it? Is it really any more roomy than some of the other options available to us? Yes, it's stable – especially if it's got a nice geodesic structure – but complex structures come with a price: poles. Lots of them. Big, dangly, fold-away poles, held together with elastic cord, featuring bizarrely complicated joints and awnings over-designed to create as sci-fi a shape as possible (I know not all of those examples are strictly dome tents, but as a generalisation, you get my point). Then, of course, there are lots and lots of tie downs and guy cords to make sure your easily moveable shelter doesn't, well, easily move.
Mainstream manufacturers release a veritable plethora of tents every year, all designed to appeal to our senses and impress us with their technological ingenuity. I suppose the idea is that the more high-tech they are, the more we are likely to feel secure in them at night. Their latest tent will be the perfect shelter for all your needs, and hey, it's ultralight at 2.5kg/5.5lbs!
In reality, of course, there is no perfect shelter. There are only shelters appropriate for your needs, for the environment and climate you will be in, the time of year, the expected conditions, the amount of bugs etc. Traditional tents tend to be ridiculously over-engineered. You really do not need a double-walled tent with integrated bathtub floor and separate groundsheet/footprint to protect that floor. Traditional tents also weigh a ton. With profit margins always important, they are often not particularly well constructed, and with an abundance of poorly sewn seams it's inevitable that some will leak. And yet they remain so attractive...
For an ultralight approach, we need to embrace a shift in values; we must accept that all that extra stuff is simply not needed, and reject it. A shelter can be simple. In fact, that is precisely what the name suggests: it is a shelter, not a second home. It must protect you, keep you dry, offer you a place to hang out in poor conditions, and, ideally, not take up 75% of your pack weight (and space).
Through careful consideration of what we need from a tent, it is possible to drastically reduce the weight of this essential item, and consequently of our packs. You can easily cut the weight of your shelter by a half or more, simply by switching to a simpler alternative. But how simple?
Let's begin by simplifying the structure. Instead of two walls (one to keep out rain or moisture, another to keep out the rain or moisture that the first one doesn't keep out), could we perhaps get by with just one?
One wall or two?
We've been told we need two walls in a tent to reduce condensation, and provide an additional layer of protection from rain. But is condensation really all that bad? It only becomes a problem when you come into contact with it, or when so much is produced it splatters off when pounded by rain. In order to reduce condensation, tents are designed with ventilation flaps and other contrivances to encourage airflow. With that taken into consideration, what if, instead of fighting condensation, we simply accept it as part of the experience? Then we quite literally open up our shelter options.
Most ultralight shelters are single wall, floorless designs, either in the shape of tarps (essentially a sheet of material suspended as you choose to create an open shelter), or in the form of an enclosed (i.e. zippered) or semi-enclosed pyramid-style structure. There are many variations on these two designs, but in principle tarps and pyramids make a simplified categorisation.
But what about condensation?
To which I say: So what about condensation? Yes, it happens, somewhat inevitably. Because tarps and pyramids are designed to be open or raised shelters, there is plenty of airflow through them. But you will still get condensation from the temperature differential between your shelter material and the air. You don't even need to be in or under it to find moisture building up on the iside of your tarp (for much more info on condensation see the link to a Backpacking Light article at the end of this post).
Typically, the amount of condensation is nothing a micro-towel or a good shake can't deal with, then when you pack up camp you simply stuff the shelter into the outside mesh pocket of your new ultralight backpack, and hit the trail. You can always stop to dry it off if the sun is shining.
As for protecting your gear whilst you're inside the shelter, often there is so much room under your shelter that it simply isn't an issue. If you do brush up against it, it's not usually enough to wet out your nice fluffy down sleeping bag – which is what we really want to avoid. Some bags and quilts have a heavier duty material on the footbed and shoulder areas, or are constructed entirely out of a more water resistant material, and can be used under a tarp without the need for additional protection.
However, to be on the safe side, many ultralighters take along a bivy to use under the tarp or in their shelter. This adds a layer of protection against condensation, and the ingress of rain and/or bugs. Bivy bags typically weigh very little – far less than an inner tent – and, assuming you have a fairly good idea of the weather conditions, offer the flexibility of sleeping inside them without erecting a shelter overhead. When you combine a bivy bag (or bug inner) with a tarp or pyramid you effectively have a very flexible, modular system: a kind of two-wall shelter, that you can adapt to different situations and conditions.
It is this flexibility or use which we seek in the ultralight world. Why be limited to the defined design of a tent when you can have multiple shelter options with you: tarp only, tarp and bivy for rain/bug seasons, bivy only, or tarp and bug inner if you live in particularly hellish mosquito country. You carry with you the best of all worlds, and can adapt to the situation with ease.
So to summarize: don't fear condensation. When you think about how it magically forms out of thin air, it's quite a beautiful thing. When you consider that some tarps weigh a mere 200g (7oz) or less, even after adding the weight of stakes, cord, and seam sealer, you might still have shaved off up to 4 lbs (2 kg) from your load. Not bad.
How about no walls at all?
The logical extension of all this is to skip the shelter altogether if you know the weather is going to be fine. That's a nice idea, but I have yet to go hiking anywhere where the weather is 100% predictable. Even in desert climates I'd still take a simple tarp as shelter, and sleep under the stars only if conditions seemed appropriate. If it does rain, at least I have shelter. The weight of a tarp is a small price to pay for safety.
Sorry, did you say floorless?
In a tent, you usually have a floor. Then often another floor to protect that floor from the ground. With a tarp or pyramid shelter, there is far less between you and Mother Earth. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, the main advantage being, of course, less to carry. The main disadvantage is an increase in condensation, but this is largely compensated for by the open, ventilated designs of the shelters – and anyway, we just learned not to fear condensation anyway! Love it for what it is!
Personally, I think that it is precisely the proximity to nature offered by tarps and pyramid shelters that is their main attraction. To wake up under a tarp and see morning mist rising off dew-covered ground is something quite special. Throw in a couple of deer cavorting in a nearby dell, and you have an idyllic scene to accompany your morning oatmeal. Why hide away in a tent when the whole point of being outside is to be in nature. Under a tarp you are much closer to the environment, and your experience will be all the better for it.
Nevertheless, sometimes we need a little protection from the elements. It would be a shame to have to camp on less-than-ideal ground and get mud, sand, or moisture in our gear. The simplest solution is to carry a small sheet of polycryo or tyvek to provide a barrier between you and whatever surface you camp on. It need only be a little larger than your sleeping bag, and weighs next to nothing. Another option is to simply use a bivy; most have a more durable, waterproof material on the base.
Naturally, as with any tent, you'll probably want some form of insulating barrier between you and the ground to keep you comfortable and warm in the night. This will most likely take the shape of an air or closed-cell foam pad – and we'll look at those and some alternatives in part 4
Ah, but I live in bug country...
There are several ways to cope with bugs. Many summer bivy bags feature a bug window. Tie the bivy hood up to the top of the tarp, zip up the hood, and sleep in peace. Some bags feature a larger area which can be suspended or raised to give a less claustrophobic feeling. For the ultimate in luxury, and in my opinion indispensable in places such as Lapland and Minnesota, a solo-sized mesh bug inner will keep the bugs at bay and give you a little room to keep your sanity intact. There are as many bug inner designs as there are tarps and pyramids, so check out the manufacturer links at the end if you are blighted by bugs.
Aren't tarps hard to pitch?
Honestly, tarps and 'mids are no more difficult to pitch than any other tent. I'd even go so far as to say they are easier. A couple of stakes, some tensioning, maybe (but not necessarily) a knot, and you'll have a shelter more taut than any dome.
So which are better then, tarps or pyramids?
Neither. It all depends on where you'll be going and the conditions you expect. Tarps offer great flexibility: hang them high for palatial roominess, or hunker down to the ground in bad weather. They are more suited to forested areas or low country – they are not really intended to withstand very high winds.
Pyramids on the other hand are great for variable climates and/or winter use, but can still be opened up to create a lean-to like shelter. They also offer plenty of headroom if, like me, you are on the tall side. They shed wind better and, as they are surprisingly sturdy, can be used more readily in open spaces.
Are there any other options?
If you really can't stomach the idea of a single wall shelter, there are a few well regarded ultralight tents out there. Using simpler, lighter materials, they offer the same comforts as traditional tents but usually with a higher price tag. Alternatively, how about a hammock? There are a couple of ultralight hammocks with integrated bug netting, and a tarp rain fly for around 700g. Pretty good, if that's how you hang...
What does Backpacking North use?
My journey towards using ultralight shelters was probably fairly typical. A few years ago, I was in InterSport in Rovaniemi, and made an impulse purchase of a Haglöfs Genius 21 dome tent.
It was spectacular. I loved it. Small, Norwegian pensioners admired it at the top of large Norwegian mountains. It weighed a ton! Remember the 343 principle I wrote about in part 1? The Genius 21 weighs 4kg (8.8lb)! Not so genius after all. Sure it could fit 2.1 people (go figure), and when split between two it wasn't quite so bad to carry. But When I took it on a solo hike with my dog (who, incidentally, refused to carry half of it; so much for man's best friend) I was utterly exhausted. Great tent though. Tough. Reliable. Green. I took it to Utah last year with a friend. It was such a pain to pitch in the high winds blowing down from Forty Mile Ridge. So much for the ease and simplicity of a dome. (Well, to be fair, it would have been hard to pitch anything on slickrock with a storm raging.)
Just before moving to Minnesota, I decided I wouldn't carry such a ridiculous weight with me ever again, and went in search of a solo tent. After reading recommendations in Colin Walker's and Chris Townsend's books, I plumped for a Hilleberg Akto.
Perfect for one man and his dog. And much lighter than the Genius at 1.4kg (3lbs 2oz). Today, that seems to me like a fairly heavy shelter. I still like the Akto, but ultimately I decided to sell it, as I just wasn't using it any more.
When I finally decided to truly go ultralight, I took a dive off the deep end and purchased a Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn.
A simple tarp, made out of spinnaker fabric, (used, like cuben fiber, for yacht sails). When it arrived through my post box, I couldn't stop grinning. It weighs 300g, seam sealed, with cords attached. Let me repeat that:300g (something like 10oz) – and that's for the two person SpinnTwinn. That's 3700g lighter than the Genius 21. Or 1100g lighter than the Akto. It felt as if weighed nothing at all. I still laugh deliriously when I think about this. I'm doing it now.
And the fact is, it's a great shelter. Simple to pitch, easy to re-pitch and modify if the weather changes. Beautiful. Elegant. Its taut catenary curve is truly something to behold. To see the world slipping into darkness under it is so soothing. To wake up under it is an invigorating delight. I feel more a part of nature under the SpinnTwinn than I do in any other shelter. Admittedly, compared to a really basic rectangular tarp (without a catenary curve) it is a little limited in pitching options (or at least, you need some creativity and skill) but I love it. It achieves everything I need.
So why did I need to go and buy a DuoMid?
Well, under a SpinnTwinn in bug country you are going to want some protection. A bivy is fine, but a little limiting. Also, I wanted something for the more exposed conditions of Lapland, and something that I could use in winter – something, in other words, with a door. The SpinnTwinn is great but in a snowstorm... no thanks.
My Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid has a bug netting perimeter to keep the worst of the mosquitoes at bay, and can be pitched high or low for additional space. It is already huge, with more than enough room to sit or half stand. Pitch it high and it becomes palatial. Open the doors wide and it's like my own personal laavu (lean-to). I can shut out the wind and the snow. I can cook inside. I can fit all my gear in and still have room to lounge around. It's light – 614g – still 3400g lighter than the Genius 21, and like the SpinTwin pitches perfectly with my trekking poles (just one, in fact). Plus it has one additional feature...
It's bright yellow.
There's a lot to be said for blending into the landscape, but there's a lot more to be said for waking up under a sunny yellow pyramid of joy. These days, I reach for my DuoMid more than any other shelter when heading out. Although sleeping under a tarp is wonderful, there is something about the DuoMid that just feels right. It might not be the lightest pyramid or tarp, and I will definitely need a really good bug inner to truly cope with the summer mosquitoes in Lapland that will push the weight up a little more, but sometimes, you know... weight isn't everything. I'm still carrying less than ever before. I'm protected from the elements. And I'm happy. And that's what counts.
For a bivy I use a Katabatic Gear Bristlecone (200g / 7oz) – a truly great bivy with plenty of room for all-year-round use, and a huge 180º bug netting window. As it has a waterproof floor, so I don't really need a ground sheet, but I generally take a 46g / 1.6oz sheet of polycryo, just in case.
As I mentioned earlier, the shelter you choose must suit your needs and the environment you most often hike in. No one shelter will be perfect for every situation. What's good for Lapland is overkill for Utah. When you're choosing a ultralight shelter, try and take a look at what ultralighters in your neck of the woods are using. It's highly likely that their gear choices will be appropriate for you. And with that thought in mind...
What do other people use?
While researching this article, I was amazed how many tarp configurations are available from different manufacturers. MLD, for example, offers seven versions of a simple rectangular tarp (and that's before we even get into TrailStars). As the emphasis of the Ultralight Makeover series is on proven gear, I'll once again be focusing on exactly that: gear which other bloggers and hikers regularly use and recommend.
If there's one thing to say about buying a tarp it's this: size up. They're so light you can afford the luxury of a two person shelter, and when you are stuck under one for a day you'll be glad you did. The weight penalty of choosing a two person tarp over a solo is usually negligible compared to the benefits of larger coverate.
Gossamer Gear C-Twinn / Q-Twinn
Updated versions of the SpinnTwinn – one of the most popular tarps created, perhaps because it is so easy to set up. With just a couple of trekking poles (I used Gossamer Gear's LT4 poles which are a match made in heaven) you'll have it up in under five minutes. The catenary curve limits its pitching options a little more than a straight cut tarp, but creates a very taut pitch that rain just trickles off. A taut pitch is important as the materials can be a touch noisy, and a well stretched pitch will limit any unpleasant nocturnal flapping (from the tarp... other wind noises are your own problem). I recommend switching out the provided spectracore line for a slightly thicker (maybe 2mm) cord. I find spectracore stretches when wet, causing the line to slip in the corner and side linelocs. The C-Twinn weighs a mere 324g (11.45oz) before seam sealing and without the cords attached, and costs $155. An even lighter option is the Q-Twinn, made of cuben fiber, and weighing just 197g (7oz). That on will set you back $315.
Backpacking Light gave the SpinnTwinn a coveted "highly recommended" rating, which you can read with a membership subscription here. The ubiquitous Mr. Morkel also liked his, at least until he got a...
Hyperlight Mountain Gear Echo I / Echo II
The HMG Echo is a nice modular tarp system. It takes the traditional rectangular tarp design and adds a few elements to make it more suitable for a range of conditions. The tarp itself is not dissimilar to the SpinnTwinn or CubicTwinn, but the accessories make it an interesting shelter. The beak encloses the front, and the innertransforms it into an integrated double-wall, bug-free shelter. As with all cuben fiber gear, it's a bit pricey at $270 for the Echo I, and $295 for the Echo II. As there's only a 1oz difference between the two (the Echo II tarp comes in at 9oz / 255g incl. lines) once again it pays to get the larger size.
I like the look of it, and so do Hendrik and Benjamin. Phil even thinks the beak can be used as a mini tarp, but then he likes dressing up as a penguin.
Many of the ultralight tarps use exotic materials and designs, and consequently cost a lot of money. However, if you're on a budget, there are a lot of basic rectangular tarps which in some ways are more flexible as they offer an almost infinite variety of pitching options. While writing this article, Tookie recommended a Alpkit Rig 7 tarp, which weighs 497g / 17.5oz, seems like a pretty good deal at around £45.
There is one shelter that has risen in popularity recently that, being semi-enclosed but doorless, doesn't fit into either of the main categories:
Falling somewhere between an open tarp and a pyramid shelter, Mountain Laurel Design's TrailStar has proven very popular, especially it seems with people in the UK. It might well be that its combination of luxurious space, simplicity of pitching, and the open "alcove"style entrance is perfect for the inclement British weather. Many people claim that its wind-shedding abilities are unsurpassed, and it certainly looks very sturdy for its 16oz / 450g of silnylon. It's a good example of a shelter that suits a particular climate, I think, and I'd hesitate to make it my main shelter in Lapland where, as it were, I need closure.
For persuasive arguments in its favour, seek out Summit and Valley, Colin Ibbottson, and Steven Horner. If you want to see how easy it is to pitch, check out this awesome video at The Pain Cave.
Basically, a tarp with a door, constructed typically (but not always) around a single pole to create a super-sturdy single-wall shelter. Not all are pyramid shaped, but it serves as a good indicative categorization.
By far the most popular pyramid shelter of them all, Mountain Laurel Designs knocked out another winner with the DuoMid. With their excellent construction and array of build-to-order options, the DuoMid is, perhaps, an ideal shelter. Pitch it open, pitch it low, get it with a bug netting perimeter, use it in winter (although it'll take longer to pitch) – it's such a good all-rounder. 16oz in silnylon, 12 oz in cuben fiber. But don't take my word for it. Witness the joys of yellow, grey and white at Thunder in the Night, Nielsen Brown Outdoors, Andy Howell, and Section Hiker.
As with rectangular tarps, the are many imitation DuoMids out there, so check the links at the end for other (often more readily available) options (e.g., Locus Gear).
Nigor WickiUp SUL 3 – a direct copy of the GoLite SL3 with arguably superior material construction.
The original Shangri-La, a twin-pole, single wall, pyramid-ish shelter gets a good testing from Nielsen Brown Outdoors who was very happy with its performance in Lapland recently. Alpinistlike it too.
It has a teepee style construction that offers a huge amount of space for the weight (2lb 7oz / 1.13kg) and has undergone something of a resurgence in 2013. It's sold with the mesh inner, for a complete (and fairly reasonable) weight of 4lbs 5oz. / 1.93kg.
There is one clear winner in the double-wall popularity contest:
Terra Nova Laser Competition and Laser Comp 2
Clearly riffing off the Hilleberg Akto, the Laser Comp (930g) gets a recommended rating from Backpacking LIght (members only).
The cuben fiber version, the Laser Ultra 1, also gets a recommended rating from BPL, a rave review fromPetesy, and some criticism from Colin Ibbotson. If you can afford the £650 or $699 for the 580g of the world's lightest double wall shelter, then you are both wealthier, luckier, and no doubt happier than I.
Lesser mortals might instead choose a...
Tartpent Scarp 1 & 2
Once all the rage, now not so much (perhaps owing to some reported quality issues), Henry Shires Tarptent Scarp (1 = 1.36kg / 48oz; 2 = 1.7kg / 60oz) got a recommended at BPL, a favourable review at Blogpacking Light, hesitant approval from Section Hiker, and tainted love from Backpacking Bongos.
Lastly, Gossamer Gear used to make a popular little 1lb tent called The One for fans of The Matrix. Sadly due to manufacturing problems they appear to have discontinued it.
Single Wall Tents
Favourites with alpinists and winter ski-tourers for their quick erections (the tent, not the climber/skier, although having said that...), the current belle of the single wall would be the...
Black Diamond Firstlight
Certainly overkill for summer, it makes a great, rapidly deployed winter shelter, when you really don't want to be messing around with snow anchors and DuoMids unless you've already lost all your toes to frostbite. Check it out at Alpinist, BPL (still members only, sorry), Section Hiker (of course), and Thunder in the Night. But watch out, Black Diamond... Mountain Hardwear has been spying on you...
Two hammocks stand tall (if a hammock do that) above the rest: the Hennessey Hyperlight Aysm Classic (1lb 9oz / 700g), and the Warbonnet BlackBird (weights vary, but around 24oz / 680g). I know nothing about Hammocks, but you can read reviews from users at Backpacking Light: Hennessey / Warbonnet. If you are interested, Hammock Forums is a good place to begin your research.
While I wouldn't recommend the uninitiated leaping with both feet into poncho tarp camping, there are several manufacturers catering to those with a hankering for some multi-use rain gear. Check out MLD's Silnylon Poncho Pro, Jacks'R'Better, Integral Designs SilPoncho, and Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape. or the GoLite Poncho Tarp. Mud and Routes has a review of the latter so you can see what you're getting into!
Other sites with alternative and additional info etc.
Brian Green has a great intro post on ultralight shelters.
Trailspace also offers a good post that covers hammocks too.
BPL: More than you'll ever need to know about condensation.
BPL: More than you'll ever need to know about catenary curves.
Mountain Laurel Designs
Hyperlight Mountain Gear
Six Moon Designs