Shaped tarps can be exceptionally light weight while providing excellent storm protection. The downside of many shaped tarps is that they way you pitch them is limited compared to a classic flat tarp. Shaped tarps come in a variety of sizes and shapes. I have a separate post about “flat” tarps. There are also a number of ultralight tarp-tents which are very similar to shaped tarps. The cost of shaped tarps will vary significantly depending on what fabric is used. While expensive, I really love dyneema, especially if I am expecting extreme conditions because it doesn’t sag / stretch when wet and is extremely strong for it’s weight.
Impact of Shape
The most classic shaped tarp is a pyramid, sometimes called a miner’s tarp, which have a square footprint. Pyramids are quick and easy to set up, and shed snow and wind well. The taller the pyramid the better it sheds snow, but a higher profile makes it more susceptible to wind. A nice variance is a pyramid which rectangular footprint which works well for solo shelters. Some pyramids use two peaks which provide significantly more usable space because the walls are more vertical. These pyramids have a profile that looks a bit like a traditional A-frame tent. Ryan wrote a short piece on the versatility of the pyramid shelter. There was an interesting thread discussing the relative merits of shaped tarps in harsh conditions.
Hex-shaped or conical structures / tipi / teepee however you spell it are superior to pyramids in terms of shedding wind and snow, but more complex to set up. One downside of a conical structure is that while they have more floor space, it’s not as useful.
Solo Shaped Shelter
The case could be made that the Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape is the more weight efficient, full protection shelter in the market. It provides triple duty of rain gear, pack cover and shelter. It’s design provides full coverage with an easy to use zipper entrance while weighting a mere 10 ounces. The only complains I have heard are that the Gatewood Cape is a bit short for taller folks and is slightly tricky to pitch taut. You can combine the Gatewood cape with the SMD Serenity NetTent for a 21oz double walled shelter.
The Zpacks Hexamid Pocket Tarp at 3.3oz might be the lightest shaped tarp on the market. This tarp can work well in moderate three season conditions, I would want something with more protection in locations that are known for their strong winds, and especially side-blown rain. Oware used to make a half pyramid called the Alphamini and a variant the BPL Alphamid Nano which were the lightest full protection shelters at just over 7oz. I found this The Alphamid Nano sets up very quickly, did well in wind, and can handle some snow. Unfortunately, when staked to the ground for maximum protection the space would be tight for anyone over 5’8″.
The MLD SoloMid XL in Dyneema (Cuben) is a 12oz, $465 solo shelter which is amazingly versatile when combined with 8oz, $245 optional bug insert. Note: there are less expensive but heavier versions of this tarp. The MLD DuoMid XL provides luxury solo accommodations during harsh weather and can be shared with another person. The only downside I found was when using the original Inner Net bug shelter I regularly bumped into the netting was couldn’t use my normal reading position which is laying out, up on my elbows. I didn’t have this problem with the tarp itself because the footprint was larger.
Multi-person Shaped Shelters
There are a number of companies that make pyramid style multi-person tarps. My favorite are Mountain Laurel Designs, due to their high quality materials and attention to detail. MLD quality comes at a cost, especially for the lightest weight options due to the cost of Dyneema. I think the MLD DuoMid XL, a two person, slightly smushed pyramid is as closest thing to a do-everything 1&2 person shelter. I have heard that Locus Gear, might now exceed MLD excellent quality and is adding some interesting twists such as using waterproof breathable eVENT in one model. Hyperlite Mountain Gear also makes very well regarded, hyper-expensive shelters. At a more reasonable cost are some of the earliest ultralight pyramids from Oware and the double peak pyramid Black Diamond Beta Light. MyTrailCo is bring back a couple of the more popular GoLite Shangri-La tarps. There are also a number of Scandinavian made tipi style shelters that I have no experience with.
Six Moon Designs and Tarptent makes a number of shaped tarps with matching nests which are not pyramids. While these shelters won’t stand up to extreme weather as well as a classic pyramid, their space is much more usable.
There are a number of companies which are making less expensive shaped tarps. I don’t have personal experience with these companies. One of the price leaders is Appy Trails. While I would preference slightly different geometries, I can’t argue with the ~$100 price point which is significantly cheaper than many of the other options. Bearpawtents also makes some reasonably priced tarps. Liteway in the UK seems to make some reasonably price polySil tarps.
There are the two pole “pyramids” which have remind me of the traditional A-frame tents with a small integrated vestibule. The MSR Twin Sisters and BD Beta Light are two examples of this. My favorite was the MLD SuperFly which is no longer made. The SuperFly provides ~40sq ft of space, and weighs 10.8oz made from spinntex, w/ netting around the perimeter weights 17oz, costs $240. The Superfly has the same footprint as the DuoMid, but the second pole makes it feel much larger on the inside. A DuoMid feels small when I am sharing it with someone else while the SuperFly feels roomy. The cost of this extra internal space is a larger surface area which will be more effected by wind and snow that a center pole pyramid. Ron Bell recommends not using the Superfly when expecting heavy snowfall. The worse conditions I have personally faced was 45 mph winds, heavy rainfall, and light snow… it did great. There is a forum thread about using the superfly in high wind.
An innovative design is the five sided MLD Trailstar which has gotten a lot of good reviews but I have no personal experience with it.
Chad did a nice diagram showing several 4 season tarps.
Heated Multi-Person Shelters
The companies Titanium Goat, Kifaru, and Seek Outside, offer pyramid or tipi shaped tarps that are specifically designed to be used with wood burning stoves. They have a heat resistant port that accepts the stove pipe. These shelters are wonderful in extremely cold locations, especially for base camps.
Poles for Tarps
Many of the multi-person shaped tarps need a pole which is longer than a typical trekking pole. It is possible to supplement a hiking poles height by using a boot jack (or a nearby rock). Black Diamond and several other companies used to make pole couplers, but are no longer sold. There was a nice thread at BPL about connecting trekking poles together. Ruta Locura makes very nice carbon fiber tent/tarp poles if you don’t using hiking poles.