Tents, Tarps, Bivy's and Hammocks - Which shelter is right for you? Choosing which shelter system to use can be overwhelming. Do you need a 3 or 4 season shelter? Are you going alone or sharing? Do you want some space? Do you want freestanding? ... So may questions!



The most common backpacking shelter by far is a tent. Tents offer the most weight to setup ratio and most amount of space. Having the extra space enables you to hop in your tent at night and spread out your gear, especially if it's raining outside.

A tent is also the option which requires the least amount of skill to set up. Having said that, it requires you to find fairly flat, clear ground and even then, the ground isn't always comfortable.

Finally tents are a little heavier than other shelters. If you're just starting out you generally aren't going to be hiking in Winter so a 3 season tent would be a great option.

ultralight hiking tents



A Freestanding tent is a tent which stands alone without staking. It sets up and supports itself with its own designated tent poles. The good thing about these tents is you don't really have to worry about the type of ground you set up on for it to be rigid and taught. The only issue is these tents tend to weigh a little more.

black diamond first light freestanding tent


The body of the tent sets up like a freestanding tent but with a rain fly. The rain fly goes over the top of the mesh inner and needs to be staked out to keep it taught.

semi freestanding tent


A non-freestanding tent sets up using your trekking poles, stakes and guy lines. They do not have a designated set of tent poles which saves a lot of weight.  They do initially take a little more skill to set them up but once you get the hang of it, it's just as easy as anything else.

zpacks duplex dyneema non-freestanding trekking pole tent


DOUBLE - A double wall tent you can just sleep in the mesh body part exposed which will give your protection from the bugs, enable you to star gaze at night and keep you really cool on a hot summer's night. There is less chance of condensation issues because condensation typically collects on the rain fly and drips down the walls onto the ground rather than the mesh inner.

It has been said that double wall tents do tend to keep you a little warmer than a single wall tents but that is debatable. A double wall tent is a little heavier because they are generally made from nylon and have more material because of the double layer. Nylon also tends to hold onto water when it gets wet, increasing the weight.

SINGLE - With a single wall tent there is less material and no designated tent poles, making them a much lighter option. Having only the single wall makes it better for setting up in the rain, with less rain getting inside your tent as you're setting up.

The downside to a single wall tent in condensation. Without have that inner mesh barrier like a double wall tent, where condensation collects and drips down. A single wall tent means the condensation forms on the single layer, inside the tent. By leaving one of your vestibule doors open and increasing ventilation it can help elevate the problem, but not completely. 


To protect your tent it is really handy to use a ground sheet. You can use a piece of tyvek which is probably going to be lighter than the manufacturers ground sheet or you can go even lighter with a polycryo ground sheet.

polycryo ground sheet

Just be sure you cut your ground sheet to a little smaller than your tent foot print. If it sits larger than the tent footprint, rain tends to run down and pool between the 2 layers and you may find yourself with a puddle of water under your tent.

tyvek tent ground sheet


Tarts are just a more minimalistic version of a tent. Tents and tarps are generally made out of the same fabrics and because of the minimalistic version, they are going to weight less. Most people who use a trap use some sort of ground sheet where they sleep to help with moisture, to keep their gear out of the dirt and also to protect their sleeping pad.

You set them up by tying the ends to trees and using trekking poles to stabilize and lift the middle section. When using a tarp set up, you need to be quite well practiced before heading out on a hike.

hiking tarp setup


In addition to a tarp a lot of hikers use a bivy. Using a light weight bivy along with a tarp gives you better protection from bugs and the weather along with adding some warmth to your set up. A bivy protects your quilt or sleeping bag from rain slashing up at you during rain or storms. Sometimes you can get condensation issues due to bivy's being so confined and they also tend to feel a little costraphobic. Due to the limited space you will need to keep your gear outside the shelter, exposing it to rain and animals.

bivy sets up for hiking


Hammocks are increasing in popularity with hikers. People often comment how comfortable they are compared to a tent. They are convenient to set up in areas where it's extremely rocky or there are loads of tree roots - as long as you have some trees around. 

You are not going to be able to spread out as much as in a tent if you have a hammock set up and you lack privacy because of the lack of walls.  Plus it's a litter harder to keep your weight down as there are a lot of components which go along with a hammock set up. Depending on the equipment you have chosen you may need extra bug protection, a tarp overhead to keep the rain out and an under quilt to stop the draft and cold on your back.


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Lisa Pinder
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