Ultralight Backpacking Shelters

When it comes to backpacking, there are really only four necessities: food, water, clothing and shelter. To reduce pack weight, focus on the shelter first.

An ultralight backpacking shelter will make the most difference because ultimately you have the most control over it. You can't dehydrate water. The weight-savings of dehydrated food is counteracted with the necessity of a stove and fuel, and the longer the trip, the more the food. And with clothing, modern outdoor fabrics and down (feathers) aren't likely to get any lighter; you can just opt to be selective (though there is an art and science to it, for sure).

Realistically, ultralight backpacking shelters are coupled with a sleeping bag, which can also make a huge weight difference, but here we discuss just the shelter. Most ultralighters travel solo or with one partner (or, in larger groups, each pair will carry one tent). For that reason, we'll limit ourselves to talking about "one-man" and "two-man" shelters.

Backpacking tent materials and designs have followed a general trend of becoming lighter and lighter, and the number of options has grown accordingly. Minimalists can still go out carrying just a tarp, but with so many choices adding mere ounces to your pack, why not splurge and carry extra protection?

The spectrum of different ultralight backpacking shelters runs the gauntlet in terms of price, weight, and size. For the fastpackers looking to cover 20 miles or more a day with less than 10 pounds of equipment on their back, there's always the good-ole bivy sack, with some systems weighing less than a pound. At the other end, full solo tents with ample room weigh in at approximately 3 pounds. Each backpacker has to choose his own adventure, factoring in every consideration before coming to a decision.

If you're unfamiliar with the bivy-sack, you may want to keep it that way. Originally developed by mountaineers for emergency situations, in recent years lightweight backpackers have increasingly used them as minimalist shelter. Essentially a lightweight waterproof cover for your sleeping bag, some incorporate a little extra height around the head. What you lose in weight, however, you'll gain in discomfort. Unless there's a record attempt on the line, it's probably unnecessary to subject yourself to breathing through a straw. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but many people find comfort in a good book at the end of a hard day, and that's simply impossible in a bivy.

In terms of weight, next comes the backpacking tarp tent. This option is still being discovered by many in the hiking community, but (at least in some circles) it represents the future. These aren't the standard blue tarps strung up haphazardly by rope; several companies now manufacture sophisticated systems that repel rain, snow, and bugs. www.Tarptent.com sells a "1 " Contrail line for 199 dollars, weighing in at a pound and a half.

Finally, there's always the standard tent, manufactured by companies like The North Face, Sierra Designs, and Mountain Hardwear. The lightest of these are single-wall designs. Think of the standard tent: the actual tent is mesh, with a waterproof rainfly added on top. Single-wall tents combine these two, saving a considerable amount of weight. One compromise is condensation; with nowhere for water to escape, on humid nights it gathers on the inside. Ventilation is also not as effective as a standard tent.

With so many options, you may even want to consider purchasing two separate shelter systems for different situations. Weight isn't everything; when shopping for an ultralight backpacking shelter, you should also remember that about half your hiking day is spent inside its confines.

All pages on this topic:
Ultralight | Fastpacking: Carry Less, Go Further | Top 10 List for Lightweight Backpacking Gear | Ultralight Backpacking Gear: For the 21st Century Hiker | Ultralight Backpacking Shelters | Ultralight Backpacking Shelters
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