Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Quick Guide To Backpacking Shelters

backpacking shelters, tarps, and tents

Keeping yourself relatively protected from rain, snow, wind, and sun while backpacking is essential. Sure, you can camp under the stars in certain weather, but weather is always uncertain. You can also hike in areas with dedicated trail shelters, but what if you get lost before reaching them? Thankfully, with only a thin sheet or two of nylon or other fabrics, you can protect yourself from most adverse weather conditions. As with all things backpacking, weight and size become determining factors. With ultralight materials and designs ever improving, the lines between tents and tarps are blurring as are their tradeoffs in weight consdierations. For the most part, backpacking shelters fall in three major categories: tents, tarps, and bivvy sacks. Let’s take a look at each, and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

tents for backpacking
Tents are the most traditional shelter for backpacking. Sizes, designs, and materials are all over the map. I suggest making sure you don’t carry more than 3.5 lbs. for solo use or 2 lbs. per person if sharing a tent. With lightweight designs becoming more prominent and more affordable each day, there is simply no reason to carry more weight than that. I would also determine if a free-standing tent is important to you (meaning it can hold its form without any stakes – though you should still stake out a freestanding tent to secure from wind.) Reasons for considering a free-standing tent are if you plan to camp on rocks or especially hard and difficult to penetrate ground. If you use trekking poles, you can save some weight on tent poles by looking for a tent design that uses your walking sticks for support (like this tent I use.) If you're heading out for serious mountain expedition in sub zero temperatures, you probably don't need this tent. If you think you might be camping in a lot of snow or serious winter conditions, you might consider looking at 4-season tents (most designs are 3 season.) Beyond those considerations, here a few of the pros and cons of tents.

  • Bug Protection
  • Privacy
  • Better all around protection from wind and precipitation
  • Often easier to pitch
  • More options for areas/landscapes to pitch (especially free-standing tents)
  • Heavier weight (though ultralight materials/designs are changing this)
  • Often more parts/pieces/complications
  • Ventilation/condensation can be an issue
tarps for backpacking
While I use a tent more often than a tarp, I must admit I find tarps sexier. They just seem more simple and more streamlined. And that’s because they are both of those things. I wouldn’t bother with a tarp that weighs much more than a pound unless you’re getting something really inexpensive to experiment with (you can make a tarp from Tyvek, probably for free with construction site scraps.) I have an 8 x 10 silnylon tarp from Etowah Outfitters that has held up well. Tarps will require either trees or trekking poles (or sticks/branches) and will also require learning a few knots for most pitches. One major reason to consider a tarp is that they can be used with hammocks, and many find quality sleep much easier in a hammock. Another advantage to tarps is their ability to be pitched in multiple configurations depending on site, weather, or other variables. Here’s an overview of those and other pros and cons:

  • Light weight
  • Simplicity
  • Versatility (can be pitched in multiple configurations)
  • Can be used with hammocks
  • Require some skills to learn to pitch (knots, configurations, etc.)
  • Require trees and/or poles/sticks
  • Require ground suitable for stakes (for most pitches)
  • Less protection from wind/precipitation in most common pitches
  • Less bug protection (can be remedied with bug nets and some pitches)
bivvy sack for backpacking
I must admit, I have no personal experience using a bivvy sack. I’m a tad claustrophobic, I’m a side sleeper, and I usually bring my dog even on “solo” trips. Those are the main reasons I’ve never felt compelled to give thema try. A bivvy sack is basically a body-sized mummy-like “tent” of sorts. They are barely larger than a sleeping bag but are waterproof and usually have some type of simple structure or support to give them a little form (so the fabric is not laying across the top of your body.) Given today’s ultralight tent designs, it seems the weight savings of bivvies are less an issue. I suspect, however, they do an excellent job of thermal insulation, having less area for one’s body heat to escape. For those backpacking in extremely cold climates, I can see this being an advantage.

  • Less material means lighter weight
  • Thermal efficiency
  • Lack of space/storage
  • Ventilation issues
  • A claustrophobe’s nightmare

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