Shelter and Ground Cover

This section has been UPDATED:

Link to Shelter Jabber Blog Post


To shelter or not?

If you prefer “Cowboy Camping” or sleeping under the stars, then you can enjoy a few less pounds of weight in your bag and a lot fewer decisions, that is unless a thunderstorm comes along . . .

Types of shelter:

  • Tent
  • Tarp
  • Hammock
  • Bivy

Tent decisions:

(1) RATING:  3-season tents are most common, with 4-season reserved for those doing winter camping. You definitely want waterproof vs water resistant.

(2) SIZE:   Interior dimensions are usually a much better indicator of size than the generic “one or two person” label. I recommend you pay special attention to floor or footprint dimensions, as well as height dimensions, especially if you are tall, large or claustrophobic.

(3) SET UP:  I prefer free-standing tents as they can be set up anywhere, can be relocated easily, and are usually quicker and easier to set up than stake dependent shelters, which tend to weigh less and pack smaller but can be problematic in rocky and hard soil areas.  As a result, some tents can now be set up using hiking poles as the support.

(4) ENTRY:  Side or front entry is really a personal preference. For me this is one of those “line in the sand” decisions. It’s side entry or nothing!  The reason for this preference is ease of getting in and out of the tent. Front entry requires crawling, while side entry allows for swinging your legs out of your sleeping bag and into your shoes, as well as plopping your fanny on the bag (and pad) upon return to remove your shoes, and with a quick swing of the legs your back in your bag. A wonderful luxury especially for those middle-of-the-night escapades.

(5) CONSTRUCTION:  My preference is double-wall (aka rain fly) construction; however, the weight and packed size of single-wall construction make it a more difficult decision. The negatives of single wall can be condensation problems, so if you are thinking of going this route, be sure to read the reviews on the models considered. There may be other trade-offs, such as with my current single-wall tent which has low to the ground ventilation making for chillier sleeping, thus requiring more weight in sleep clothing. You most likely will need to seal the seams of a single-wall tent.

(6) WEIGHT & PACKED SIZE: Several factors affect weight, most significant are size, fabric, construction and frame. Packed size is based on similar parameters. The most common waterproof, lightweight fabric today is silnylon (silicone coated nylon). Cuban fiber is lighter, but is also significantly more expensive. Denier nylon, taffeta and polyester are the mainstay of medium weight backpacking tents.

(7) STORM PERFORMANCE:  I can’t emphasize enough my recommendation to read reviews about the performance during a storm. Wind, rain, hail, thunder and lightening WILL happen in the mountains. Go prepared!

MY wish list for a PERFECT tent:

  1.   Side entry, both sides
  2.   Double wall construction
  3.   Freestanding design
  4.  Tall bathtub sidewalls, all sides
  5.   360 mesh top two-thirds of tent
  6.   Less than 2 pounds
  7.   Compact packed size
  8.   Reasonable price

I started with a Sierra Designs Zolo 1, and while I LOVED this tent, it weighed about 5lbs with the ground cloth and took up a lot of pack space. As I looked to lighten my load, this was the first item to go. After much research, I purchased a Rainbow Tarptent. I don’t love it, but I’m living with it for now. I like that I saved about 3lbs, that it compresses quite small and it can be free standing with the use of hiking poles. I don’t like the short bathtub floor, the near ground level mesh, and the vulnerability I feel in a storm as compared to my previous tent. Many others love this tent, so I’m committed to improving the setup. I also made the semi-fixed rod easily removable which has made packing much better. My current gear envy tents are the Big Sky Revolution 1P. and the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1.

Just like with packs, you will find a much different selection at the large box retailers versus the specialty ultralight companies. You’ll be hard pressed to find sub 2lb tents locally, that are 3-season and waterproof.

There are several popular ground cloth options.  I use Tyvek or Polycryo with my Tarptent.  For the Zolo, I use the matching ground cloth. 

Tarptent Rainbow Solo

Additional Resources:

Next Topic – Sleeping Bag & Pad

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