Shelter selection should be based on how much room you need and the conditions you expect to encounter (rain, snow, wind, bugs, blistering heat, etc). For example, if you only camp in mild weather it would be silly to buy a mountaineering tent designed for expeditions since it will be more expensive, heavier, and not be as well ventilated as a shelter designed for three-season use. If you are camping in the Canadian lake district in June, taking a tarp without any bug protection would be stupid. If you are above tree line in the winter, it would be suicidal not to take a four season shelter designed to handle high winds and snow load. A corollary is that there isn’t one shelter which is perfect for all conditions… so if you adventure out in all seasons you might want to think about owning at least two different shelters. The issues I consider when looking at a shelter are:
- appropriate protection in view of the conditions expected
- ability to handle snow loads (sidewall angle / material)
- blocking spin-drift (solid walls, if not snow skirt)
- ventilation (summer want a lot, winter I don’t want ventilation other than high vent)
- bug protection
- user friendly / low hassle
- ease of a basic pitch
- ease of a storm worthy pitch
- ease of entry (I like side rather than front entry)
- need to tighten at night? (DCF, spinnaker set and done, SilNylon stretches)
- how much visibility of your environment
- usable space (sloping sidewalls can limit this) given number of people. See Andrew’s article about calculation usable space and the related space spreadsheet
- footprint size (smaller for more usable space good)
- how it looks (I like clean lines)
The weighting of these factors varies person to person. In fact, my weighting of these factors depends on where I am going to use the shelter. I have noticed that some people tend to gravitate to shelters that are as open as possible. They want to be as fully connected to their environment as possible. I often see these people using flat tarps. Other people want their shelter to be enclosing and protective. Walls and floors are important. While I have used a flat tarp and cowboy camped, I find that I often like some sense of boundaries, especially on solo trips. I know that I could easily live without my “walls”, they can give me a psychological comfort that makes the trip more enjoyable.
I am often asked to recommend a free-standing, two man, three season shelter with two doors. I think the REI Quarter Dome hits the price/performance sweet spot. The Big Agnes Copper Spur 2 Platinum is more than twice the cost for a shelter that is around 2/3s the weight. If the free-standing requirement is removed I strongly recommend selecting one of the better ultralight tarp-tent shelters. Want a do everything shelter that can be used in all four seasons, can be used by two but light enough for solo use? Check out the MLD DuoMid XL plus their inner-net. Dan Durston’s X-Mid 2P was a versatile shelter at a great price $200 when in stock with drop.com
My Choice of Shelters
I have used tarps and tarptents on the majority of my trips. The ZPacks Hexamid (my review) is my current solo 3-season shelter. In recent years I have been using a Big Agnes Copper Spur for trips with my wife. I use a pyramid tarp for winter trips.
- Ultralight Light Shelters (sometimes called tarp tents)
- Shaped Tarps
- Traditional Tents
- Winter Shelters
Nothing can beat the price / performance of a sil-nylon flat tarp. For completely cheap use a 3 mil plastic sheet. Set a line up which will be the ridgeline. Tie some guylines to the four corners using a sheet bend knot, and stake the corners out. If you want a double wall tent, look for a closeout of a better brand such as Sierra Designs, MSR, or REI at places like Sierra Trading Post. I generally don’t recommend buying used tents unless you know it was well cared for and it is in good shape. Waterproof coating can degraded, fabric can weaken due to extended exposure to UV, and improper care can result in mildew.
Classic Scouting / Club Tents
There are a few manufacturers who seem to have captured a significant portion of the “club” market. By this I mean organizations which have a stock of gear which is loaned, or rented at low cost by their members. Clubs typically look for low cost options which can stand up to people who don’t treat the gear carefully. The two largest supplier to clubs seem to be:
- Alps: I have no personal experience with Alps, but have a number friends who have used them. Alps seems to be commonly used by the boy scouts and budget conscience folks. They seem to be better made than wal*mart / target / etc specials. They are not as light or as well made as many higher end tends made by companies like Sierra Designs. You should never pay suggested retail price for Alps tents. A bit of careful looking should lead you to prices around 60% of MSRP which makes it a good price / quality ratio. Full price is cheap, but not a good value.
- Eureka!: In the 70s, 80s, and maybe later, the Timberline was “the” standard tent used by many boy scouts troops, YMCA outdoor programs, etc for backpacking. They weren’t the lightest free standing tents, but they were value priced and fairly durable. I still have fond memories of timberline tents even though there were better shelters, even then. I have been much less impressed with Eureka’s dome tents, having seen a number fail in strong winds.