This is the third post in the DEFINING ULTRALIGHT series. Read the previous posts here.
After the backpack, the most critical items that will make or break your ability to keep a low pack weight are found in your sleep system. The sleep system to me is broken into three parts. The Shelter. The Sleeping Bag. The Pad. All three are critical and are the main components of a backpacking system that vary between overnight stays and day hunts. Most all of the other gear after the sleep system could as easily be found in a day pack as it could in a backpacking setup.
Out of these three components, the shelter is easily the most variable in weight and design. Everything from an 8lb, 4 season shelter to a .5lb tarp can be found in this category, not to mention all the options in between. The needs of a hunter in various seasons and terrain types also largely dictates what kind of shelter is appropriate and what will suffice.
For the sake of trying to simplify and organize all of the thousands of options available I am going to divide the shelter options on the market into the following four categories.
· Bivy Sacks
· Floorless Shelters
There is a multitude of options that fall within each of these subcategories, and many that also blur the lines from one to the other. Instead of talking models and brands, I think it will be far more useful to talk about the pros, cons, and applications of each of the fore mentioned. The best way to shop for a shelter is to first understand what each type has to offer, and to then take that knowledge and apply the proper piece of gear to fit your circumstances.
I will work from what I see as the least protection to the greatest, but not necessarily the lightest to the heaviest.
A bivy sack is essentially a bag that surrounds your sleeping bag much like beer cozy holds a can. They offer various levels of protection depending on the model. Some bivy sacks are labeled as bug bivys which are essentially a waterproof underside for a floor, and a netting over the top to keep mosquitoes and ants at bay. Obviously, these serve little to no weather protection, and are usually paired with some sort of tarp.Other models will have water resistant tops to help with windblown or splashed rainfall under a tarp, and the heaviest bivy sacks are fully waterproof and can be used as a standalone shelter in fair weather.
I used a bivy sack exclusively when I got into backcountry hunting for about 8 years. In my mind the biggest upsides to a bivy sack are the ease of setup, which is as easy as unpacking your sleeping bag, and the ability to camp in very tight quarters. If you spend a lot of time in fair weather camping in deer beds, bivy sacks are tough to beat.
A bivy sack is a relatively light option and will usually weigh between 1-2lbs when talking models that are waterproof. Some of the ultralight water resistant or bug bivy type models can be had for as little as half a pound. This being said, they typically are heavier than a tarp and provide less coverage and weather protection. However, if your main priority is fast setup and takedown, this is as good as it gets.
The downsides of a bivy sack are typically focused around condensation and lack of weather protection. A good bivy will keep you dry even in a fairly heavy rain, but there is nowhere for any of your gear to take cover, and you will fight condensation from breathing inside the waterproof shell. Also it tends to be a fairly miserable shelter in extended wet weather because the only possible way to take shelter in one is to lay down inside your sleeping bag.
Anymore, after as much as I used a bivy sack, I believe the only way to really use on an extended hunt is to do so with a synthetic sleeping bag. Too many times I had condensation and moisture build up into the down of my sleeping bag over a few days. On a couple of occasions, I had to pack out and drive 2 hours round trip to the laundromat to dry my sleeping bag before returning to the mountain. Now days I don’t tend to use one at all, as I believe the tarp tends to be a more versatile and effective option to the bivy.
The best use I see in the bivy sack category would be in the bug bivy option for mid-summer scouting or backpacking when the mosquitos are bad. Outside of that, I generally tend to steer people away from them other than in the occasional case of August mule deer hunters in very dry climates.
If you know me at all, you may be well familiar that tarps are one of my absolute favorite shelters that can be had for a backpacker. The setup options for a tarp are virtually limitless. Tarps tend to have the least amount of condensation and can provide everything from shade to significant weather protection.
The biggest upsides to a tarp are their versatility, low weight, and cost. Tarps tend to be the cheapest and lightest option for shelter that you can buy which is a rare combination in the backpacking realm. When pitched correctly they provide great weather protection all the way up until significant snowfall, at which point drifting snow will find its way under or around some part of the tarp. For any sort of rain/hail/ sleet combos though, a tarp is a fantastic option.
The downsides to a tarp mostly come in the form of length of setup time and snow protection. Like I mentioned, snow becomes a problem, and while a surprise snow flurry at night won’t be a killer, significant snow, especially dry snow, will be. The slow setup time is relative depending on your experience. Surely one can get quite fast at pitching a tarp, and it can be accomplished in a couple minutes under the right circumstance and site location. However I often find that each spot requires a little bit different pitch and tweaking and adjusting after the tarp is mostly pitched is needed.
Tear down time is quick and is much faster than setup typically. A tarp also usually stows in a stuff sack so not needing to roll one like a tent makes for quicker camp cleanup in the morning. Because of this tarps are a great option when utilizing a “bivy style” where you move camp daily.
The last major downside to a tarp is the potential bug annoyance in the summer months, especially in mosquito dense areas. A bug bivy like mentioned earlier can remedy this, but it only provides relief when you are inside your sleeping bag. By the fall hunting months though this is a non-issue in most areas.
When choosing a tarp, you will have to decide on what size tarp you are looking for. On the small side is something around the 9’x5’ tarp, which is about as minimal as I personally would want to go. A 9x5 offers enough protection from rain when pitched low to the ground, but in doing so you sacrifice head room, and won’t be able to sit up while under the tarp. In decent weather or light rain a 9x5 can be pitched high and will be pretty comfortable.
The next size up will be found in approximately an 8’x10’ model, which in my mind is about the do-it-all size for a solo tarp. 8x10 tarps provide enough protection while still having ample head height underneath in poor weather. They don’t weigh a ton more than the 9x5 and should still be able to be had for easily under 1lb. An 8x10 can also be used as a two-person shelter, especially if the weather is moderate or good. They do require a little more space to pitch, but still not as much as a typical tent. For someone new to tarps, the 8x10 is probably the ideal size to start with.
Lastly you have a tarp size around the 10’x12’ range. These are big tarps that are ideal for two people even in very bad weather. A solo hunter can pitch a 10x12 and still have enough room to walk under that tarp while also remaining dry. A 10x12 provides an enormous amount of square footage underneath while keeping you dry in some really bad conditions. It is also possible to use a 10x12 even in decent amounts of snow if you pitch 3 sides flat to the ground. This is probably the only size listed here that is big enough to get away with that sort of pitch.
There are certainly tarps available that are bigger than these mentioned sizes, but I haven’t dabbled in them much because I haven’t needed a shelter for more than two people.
When I look at the difference between a tarp and a floorless shelter, I define the line by deciding whether a shelter has a way that it is designed for it to be pitched. If it does and has some sort of shape, I consider it a floorless shelter. If it doesn’t then I consider it a tarp. Floorless shelters have probably seen more growth than other category recently and probably for good reason. They provide great weather protection, weigh much less than a tent, and often can be used with an ultralight wood burning stove as a heat source. I think it probably safe to say that these have become the most popular shelter option for backcountry hunters recently.
Floorless shelters will tend to be a little bit heavier than a tarp of the same square footage simply because more fabric is involved, but with that comes much better protection from the elements, especially in the snow. Shelters can also be quite a bit faster to set up because you are pitching the shelter in the same way every time, and there is less analyzing and adjusting to get it just right.
The downsides to a shelter over a tarp are that a shelter will be heavier, will cost more, and will require more space to set up. Because they lack a floor, the weight issue isn’t overly concerning in most cases, but some of these can get relatively heavy and require a lot of room, because they can be made quite large in size while still being packable.
In really bad weather, a quality floorless shelter, especially some of the tipi models with wood stoves, are second to none. With full protection and an external heat source, a guy or a couple of guys can wait out a lot of weather while remaining comfortable and potentially drying out some gear at the same time.
There are also some very lightweight floorless shelters that are used without stoves that are pretty ideal for early season trips. The main loss with these is that if the weather is nice you will not be able to raise the height of the shelter as much to use it as a sun shade for glassing. They will however protect you from bugs and wind better than a tarp will.
Honestly, I don’t think anything can touch a floorless shelter in the worst of conditions when wood is available and it is paired with a wood burning stove. These types of setups are overkill in good weather in my opinion, but for late season hunting in the mountain, these can quite literally be a lifesaver.
Before I finish up and go over 3 and 4 season tents, I thought ground sheets would be applicable to mention here briefly. Most people are going to want to use a groundsheet under a tarp or a floorless shelter to keep their sleeping bag and pad clean and dry. The two most popular ground sheets are Tyvek and polycryo.
Both of these materials are cheap and lightweight. Tyvek is more durable but is a couple ounces heavier and can be quite noisy, especially when new. Polycryo is incredibly lightweigh and is essentially a thin plastic film. It works well to keep things clean but it will provide less puncture and abrasion protection for your sleeping pad. Either one will work well, and you can a couple pieces of either one online or at a hardware store to try out for a few bucks. Id suggest trying both and seeing what you like. I go back and forth between them both still and have had good results in both cases. A small 4x4 piece of polycryo will also only weigh an ounce and is a good extra to keep in your pack to place meat on it while you work on an animal. It works great for a clean spot to work.
Lastly, we come to the traditional tent. The heaviest option in most cases, but also with the most protection. Anymore the only place I see real validity for a true tent is in the 4 season tents. A truly burly tent like a Hilleberg that can take extreme winds and snow loads has a definite place in the gear arsenal of anyone who hunts late seasons.
While some of the floorless shelters can indeed take weather very well, many of them are not designed to do so. And in either case I doubt even the best floorless shelters can take the wind and snow loading of a true quality 4-season tent.When you get to this category weight and ultralight is out of the question, but when you need protection in sub zero temps above tree line this is really your only option.
There are people that will use lightweigh 3 season tents earlier in the year, and there is absolutely noting wrong with that. They can provide good protection and comfort, but I think for the sake of how I look at gear, and for an ultralight series, they aren’t really in the list of options here. I personally will not buy a backpacking tent other than a hilleberg, and that is because my only place for a tent is in very bad weather.
I’ve had my hilleberg in deep snow and in winds over 60 mph. Every time I have used it in these kinds of conditions it always surprises me in how well it performs. I said I wouldn’t talk products here, but I guess this is the exception. There are certainly other good 4 season tents on the market as well, so if you want options feel free to look around.
Four season tents will be heavy, very expensive, and quite bulky, but they will provide the most protection when you need it. Their best use will be at or above treeline in poor weather when floorless shelter wouldn’t fair as well, and where little or no wood is available to burn. They will also need to be paired with a very warm sleeping bag in these situations as there won’t be external heat sources available. These are far from light, but in certain circumstances they are the only option.
So, in closing I tend toward tarps in the early season and through anything that is rainy. When the snow starts to accumulate and any time through the winter in timbered country I would lean towards a floorless shelter with a stove. Lastly, when there are no other options and you need the most protection, that is where I see the niche of the 4-season tent.
I hope this brief overview of shelters gives a little more explanation into the use of each, and hopefully helps you narrow down what would suit you best. If you want to talk shelters or any other gear fell free to send me an email or find me on social media