Ultralight tarps can be convenient to simply throw in your daypack if hiking in an area where “true” shelter could be important. If you find yourself lost or injured in a cold, wet, or otherwise challenging locale, you'll be glad to have something designed to keep you protected from the elements. Many backpacking tarps are extremely lightweight, pack small, and can be supported with cord, trekking poles, or found sticks. I have a very simple 8’ x 10’ silnylon tarp from Etowah Outfitters that I love. It weighs less than a pound and backs up to roughly the size of a Nalgene (this is the tarp photographed in the title image above.)
You don’t have to splurge for a dedicated backpacking tarp, however. “Utilitarian” tarps like those found in hardware stores can be used, but they can be bulky and heavy. They are cheap and readily available, however. Other items to consider are tent footprints, but test them to make sure they are waterproof. Tyvek (the white paper-like stuff they wrap homes in after the framing stage) is another great, lightweight, readily available option. You can probably get a free piece of scrap from a construction site by simply asking.
One last option which is especially useful is a hybrid poncho tarp, like this one from GoLite for $60. This is a very smart multi-use item that will keep you and your pack dry while walking, but can also provide a nice dedicated shelter to sleep under or wait out a storm.
This model from REI is only $100, weighs under a pound, and gets mostly good reviews. Other designs I see on REI’s site weight two pounds or more. Again, as someone who has never used a bivvy, I wouldn’t bring along something so restrictive in the same weight and price range as an ultralight two-person tent. Perhaps the sheer simplicity and thermal trapping are what inspire advocates. Make your case in the comments section, bivvy users! I’m sure advantages exist of which I’m truly ignorant.
In addition to a “real” bivvy as described above, other items more designed for temporary or emergency situations are sold as “emergency bivvys.” These are basically simple, heat reflective sacks. They range from about $10 for the simplest models, $30 for a bit more substantial one, and $50 for the SOL Escape Bivvy which I’ve been circling around for a while now but haven’t yet pounced on it. What I like about the looks of the Escape Bivvy is that it seems substantial enough to use as an ultralight sleeping bag during warm weather months at a measly 8 oz. If I ever pull the trigger and purchase one, I’ll update this post.
SOL Emergency Blanket is only $5 at REI and weighs in at 2.5 oz. An even cheaper alternative is to simply bring your own plastic sheeting or a large contractor grade garbage bag.
Most of the options listed above are not intended to provide a warm and cozy night blissfully sleeping in the snow. These are mainly survival items designed to keep you from getting hypothermia or frostbite until you can get out of or be rescued from a tough situation.
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