Tarp-tents and Other Ultralight Shelters

There are a number of excellent ultralight shelters in the market today. Originally there were a small number of options, which looked like a simple shaped tarp with bug netting around the perimeter. Today  there is a whole range of shelters including traditionally designed tents using exotic materials to move them into the ultralight weight classification. Many of the ultralight shelter designs came from people’s experiences on long thru hikes combined with a desire to find the lightest possible shelter while still providing adequate protection.

Best Options?

I can’t recommend one shelter as being the “best”. Giving equal weighting to the weight, internal “comfort” (able to sit up and move), small footprint, ease / speed of pitch, bug protection, survive high winds, rain protection, and ventilation, there is no clear winner. Add price and the field flattens even more. Depending on how you weight these issues will result in a different shelter being “the best”.

My Choice

In 2010 I decided that the ZPacks Hexamid (my review) at 8oz (10oz including door), $259 was “the best” option for my 3-season solo trips in California. This shelter is no longer made, so when my Hexamid wears out I will have to switch to something else. 

Quick Recommendations

  • MLD SoloMid or DuoMid XL with inner bug-netting which can be thought of as a “some assembly required” tarp-tent for a single shelter that can be used in almost any conditions.
  • Zpacks Duplex, 19oz, $599 for a lot of room for minimal weight. Great in milder conditions. This a logical successor to my Hexamid but uses two poles which provides better rain protection. It has a fair bit of unsupported fabric so I would  not want to take this into snow conditions or locations with extreme winds.
  • Tarptent Notch Li solo 20oz, $599 provides a very usable space which is more storm worthy than ZPacks shelters and feel more roomy that the SoloMid.  Inner tent is small but useable and can be set up after the outer tent is up. A good first look review of the Notch Li. Need room for two? Check out the Stratospire Li
  • Tarptent Motrail is a 34oz, $259 two person shelter. This shelter is the grand-son of one of the first commercial tarp tents, the Squall. This is a super easy shelter to set up and provides a livable space. I still miss my first generation Squall.
  • Big Agnes Copper Spur 2 Platinum is a 37oz, $599, A free standing 2 person shelter. Light, functional, but be careful because it’s a bit delicate.  I have owned numerous shelters, and this is only the second shelter whose fabric tore during “normal” use / conditions.

Limitations of Tarp-tents

Tarp-tents are ideal when facing moderate weather conditions combined with a desire for a bug free space. There are shelters that provide more protection, or are lighter weight, but few that will match a tarptent’s overall performance. There are a number of situations that I think there are better shelters:

  • Extreme Conditions.  Most of these shelters don’t handle extreme conditions well.  What’s extreme?  For me, winds consistently above 30 mph, standing water, or real snowfall. A little snow isn’t a problem, but when there is enough to pile up and get blown in to the shelter most ultralight designs just aren’t appropriate.
  • Extended trips in cold. In these conditions, having a double walled shelter can be a big advantage. Condensation might form outside the inner wall, or condensation does forms on the inner wall, it ‘s not forming in the middle of your sleeping bag / quit.
  • People who can’t control their movement and therefore need something to keep them from repeatedly rubbing against the condensations on the shelter walls. This is often a problem with kids.
  • People that can’t be gentle with gear, or who are extremely accident prone… e.g. will fall on top of their shelter several times due to coordination issues or carelessness.

Managing Condensation

People are often concerned about condensation in single walled shelters which most ultralight shelters are. My experience is condensation is not a big issue in well designed ultra light shelters which have adequate ventilation and reasonably steep sidewalls. Those made from Dyneema (formally called cuben) seem to have less issues with condensation.

Pretty much any night that the temperature drops significantly you will get some condensation (in the worse cases a fair bit), but so long as you don’t repeatedly brush against the walls the water won’t be a significant issue. In heavy winds or rains some water will shake off, but most will stay on the walls, or roll down to the edge without falling on you. The worse condensation will be nights were you have cold rain which cools your shelter, but the ground under the shelter is warm so ground moisture condenses on the shelters walls/roof. In the morning you wipe the inside of the shelter down with a bandana or pack towel and you are fine.

Some people perspire significantly more than others and might find that they will have more condensation that others using the same shelter, in the same conditions. Obviously two people will generate more moisture than one person.

SMD has a nice article about Getting the Most from your Ultralight tent. BPL’s single wall shelters and condensation has useful information.

Floors

Floors in ultra light shelters can be convenient, specially for people new to ultra light shelters or when you really need your shelter to be sealed against bugs or other crawling creatures, but they are rarely adequate if you are facing standing water which can’t be avoid in sold locations (like the flat midwest during a thunderstorm). There was a nice posting by Ron Moak about the limitations of ultralight bathtub floors.

Tarp Systems

A close relative of the ultralight shelter / tarp tent are flat tarps combined with “netting” tents, and  shaped tarps combined with optional bug netting and/or floors. While these shelters weight more than an similarly size ultralight shelter, they have a couple of advantages. The first is that the bug netting can be pitched separating from the tarp which is great when there are bugs and good weather. Secondly with the floor separate from the canopy it’s easy to replace a damaged floor, you can pack your “dirty floor” separately, and most importantly, it’s easily to manage wet unless there is standing water. When it’s raining hard you can go strait into your shelter and close the door. Sort of like a vestibule, but larger. The excess water can typically be absorbed by the the ground. Finally, most shaped tarps are more storm worthy than most tarp-tents, especially when facing heavy winds.

Other Options

Other interesting ultralight shelters include:

  • Dan Durston X-Mid:  28oz, $199. Looks like an easy to pitch shelter, storm worthy, and reasonably priced shelter. I don’t have personal experience with this shelter. Interesting thread on BPL: announcement, background, possibility of a 2person model.
  • Gossamer Gear The One: 21oz, $299. A single person shelter with plenty of  room for me that’s fairly easy to use. I used the first version for a couple of years. I had troubles getting a really taut pitch. The current model has been updated and I understand pitches better.
  • LightHeart Gear shelters. I wrote up my experiences with a Solo+Awning.   A diamond shaped floor that makes use of two hiking poles. This shelter provides a double walled solo shelter with a lot of room, good views when the fly is pulled back, good insect protection, and decent weather protection.There are some good discussions at lightheart@whiteblaze and lightheart@bpl.  I wouldn’t trust this shelter in high winds, but in places that have some wind protection it would be very nice. This shelter is very similar to the Wanderlust Nomad. 
  • The Sierra Designs High Route 1 designed by Andrew Skurka weights 37oz including tarp and integrated bug nest. Reportedly good in stormy weather.
  • Six Moon Designs makes a number of ultralight tarp-tents. My favorite is the Skyscape which stands up to wind better than the Lightheart Solo. I found it fairly easy to set up and provides a comfortable living space. On paper Six Moon Designs shelters are nice, but for whatever reason I never used one of their shelters for more than a few trips.  If they bring back the 16oz Dyneema version of the Skyscape, I would be very tempted. 
  • Tarptents has a number of other shelters which are attractive and well designed shelters. I think the most versitile model is the Tarptent Double Rainbow (DR): ~32sq ft + 20 sq ft vestibules, 40oz, $299. Very usable shelter for two that weighs less than 2.5lbs. The design keeps netting between you and the sil-nylon which might accumulate condensation virtually eliminated the danger of getting condensation on your sleeping bag. Adequate living space for two 6ft people, though the top is narrower than the floor so you have to be a bit careful not to bump the sides near the top of the shelter. Typically purchased with a bathtub style floor which can be relaxed for better ventilation. There are a pair of high vents which are slightly helpful with the vestibules are closed. The DR can be pitched free starting if you have a pair of long hiking poles or it can be staked down (what I did most of the time). Double vestibules have a fabric extender which lets you turn them into rain porches. If you expect to face strong winds get wind stabilizer anchors added. Can be pitched in under 4 minutes.  The DR, especially if you add extra guy points can survive surprised harsh conditions as described in this thread about Tarptent Double Rainbow in strong winds. I am comfortable using the DR in anything but a real snowfall.  Stratospire 2 (and the Dyneema Li version) looks nice, but I haven’t used one.

Historical

BPL’s Single Wall Tents: State of the Market gives a nice summary of the options in 2008. They also did a Floorless Shelter Review and  Single Wall Tents & Shelters Review in 2004. There are some shelters I thought worth noting which are no longer made.

  • Tarptent Squall: One of the lightest 2-person shelter of it’s day: 23oz for a floorless shelter with flying bug protection, 30oz with a sewn in floor. I found the Squall Classic to be one of the fastest shelters to set up. It had simple but elegant design with beautiful lines. Plenty of room for two people sleeping, but only one can sit up at a time. Later, Gossamer Gear Squall Classic made a spinnaker cloth version. This saved weight, but didn’t pitch as well due to the lack of stretch of the spinnaker material.
  • MSR Missing Link : lots of room for two people in this 37sq ft shelter + a huge overhang. But this weights more than 3lbs (1lb more than most of the other ultra-light shelters). There are some people who have a fondness for this shelter, but I was disappointed in it’s performance in any sort of storm. I never owned this shelter, but have been on several outings where the people with me were using a Missing Link and had problems.
  • Six Moon Designs Europa: A light weight, single walled tent for two people (36oz). This hybrid shelter has most of the advantages of a double walled shelter at the weight of a single walled tent. It is natural for me to compare this shelter to my favorite, the Squall2. Advantages for the Europa are slightly better ventilation, it’s a bit easier to keep dry during a rain storm and it is less likely for you to brush against condensation on the body of the shelter. I found that the Europa is a bit harder to get a good pitch, doesn’t pitch as taut, and therefore isn’t as good in high winds. The Europa has more square footage, but doesn’t have sidewalls that are as steep or as much headroom of the Squall2. There was a nice review comparing the squall2 and six moon designs europa.
  • Wanderlust made a number of light weight shelters that were loved by their owners. Alas, this cottage business got overwhelmed seemed to stop doing business in 2003. If you want a Wanderlust shelter, check out Lightheart Gear which has a very similar design.

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