Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lightweight Shelters

If you read BACKPACKER magazine, you’re likely convinced that a good lightweight, even ultralight shelter, should weigh between 4-6 pounds. If you then head to your local Walmart or REI, you’ll notice most tents are in this range which clearly means either BACKPACKER doesn’t own an accurate scale, doesn’t know the market, or doesn’t understand the options available to lightweight backpackers. I’m guessing it is a combination of all three. Despite being a subscriber to BACKPACKER and enjoying aspects of it, I’m convinced their editors live in an underground shelter which prohibits them from really knowing the market.

Although there aren’t a ton of lightweight tent options, there are some very good products on the market. Six Moon Designs (, Henry Shire’s Tarp Tent (, and products by Oware USA (, ) no doubt lead the race for enclosed tent-like structures. Other options, such as those offered by Mountain Laurel Designs (http://www.mountainlaureldesigns/) utilize a tarp with an optional mosquito insert which essentially makes it a tent. Both Backpacking Light ( and Gossamer Gear ( offer tarps of various configurations and frills. Another industry leader is GoLite ( which offers everything from tents to tarps and everything in between. A couple lesser known, but fully qualified are, and Black Diamond Equipment ( My personal favorite is the Lunar Duo offered by Six Moon Designs, the Alphamid by Oware USA, and tarps such as those offered by Gossamer Gear or Mountain Laurel Designs. There are also other others for shelters in the form of waterproof bivies and vapor barriers such as those offered by Integral Designs, which will be discussed on a later blog.

Tents or shelters made from Cuben fiber seem to be the next generation in going ultralight. Six Moon Designs is one manufacturer already offering a 27 ounce full coverage tent known as the Refuge X ( At $400 it isn't cheap, and there are plenty of unanswered questions about long-term durability, but it does provide a niche to those who have the ability to own one. It looks very similar to the Lunar and Lunar Duo models, of which I'm a huge fan, so it will be interesting to see how this tent and others shake out in the future. Oware USA also offers several options with Cuben.

Some very inventive folks use Tyvek, the material commonly used during home construction to wrap a home to aid in weather protection, to make a shelter. I've frequently used it as a ground cloth and it works great. It is very inexpensive, lightweight, and might have a market in the right circles. If you're interested in trying one, just head down to your local hardware store and buy a sheet. If you can figure out how to seal the and fasten joints and get it upright, you might just have a product for market.

Each of these offerings is made lighter through sensible design and lightweight fabrics. Each also uses other gear carried, for example, trekking poles, which serve as the shelter’s support while cutting down weight. When pitches correctly, there is no reason these lightweight shelters can't stand up to the elements as well as other mainstream options.

For the acquired taste, and spine, hammocks may also be a great lightweight shelter option. Some very capable manufacturers include Hennessey Hammocks (, Jacks R Better (, Speer Hammocks (, Eagles Nest Outfitters (, Jungle Hammock (, Mosquito Hammocks (, and The Travel Hammock ( Each system offers a little different variety, different sizes, and other frills, but each is for one occupant only an offers minimal storage. Each hammock can be hung between two trees or other objects regardless of ground conditions and packing is often no bigger than a volleyball. Course, heat loss is a reality with no ground contact and the wind will always be a factor in heat retention. Some manufactures allow for a pad to be slipped into the bottom or even a cocoon-like structure to be tied around the user from the bottom. Unfortunately, with the more options needed to stay warm, the heavier this shelter gets without offering more space or storage to more users.

Much like with any piece of backpacking gear, the choice of which shelter to carry depends on the experience of the user, environmental conditions, and affordability.

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