The Best Ultralight Tent Shelter for Backpacking

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The Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid's unipolar design (right) sheds wind better and has a higher floor area to weight ratio than bipolar pyramids (left). Bipolar mids shed snow better than unipolar mids and are best for winter mountaineering.
Credit: Max Neale
What’s the best ultralight tent shelter? We tested 15 of the world’s best two-person trekking pole supported tents over three years of backpacking, climbing, and backcountry skiing. We assessed each model based on its weather resistance, livability, weight, durability, and adaptability. Whether you’re looking to go ultralight backpacking, alpine climbing, or ski touring our broad selection of products and testing throughout a wide variety of activities aim to highlight the best all-purpose two-person shelter, the best ultralight backpacking tent, the best value backpacking tarp, and the best value pyramid shelter.

Our Backpacking Tent Review compares double wall tents that include dedicated poles. See that review for tents that perform well for three-season backcountry travel and frontcountry camping. See our 4 Season Tent Review for bomber tents for the most extreme conditions or for tamer missions close to the car check out our Camping Tent Review.

Read the full review below >

Review by: Chris McNamara and Max Neale September 11, 2013

Top Ranked Ultralight Tents Displaying 1 - 5 of 15 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp
Read the Review
ZPacks Square Flat Tarp
ZPacks Square Flat Tarp
Read the Review
Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltraMid
Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltraMid
Read the Review
ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent
ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent
Read the Review
Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid
Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award      Top Pick Award   
Street Price $325$230$650 - $800$510$205
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100% recommend it (2/2)
Pros Only 10 ounces, highly adaptable, bomber alpine wind protection, most versatile type of shelter on earth.7.5 oz with guylines. Highly adaptable, bomber wind protection in "storm mode" custom guyline configurations.Very light for its size and weather protection, very comfortable for 6'+ tall people, 2 closable vents.Weighs 13 oz. with bug protection!, four sided weather protection, very comfortable inside.Sheds wind and snow very well, stable in high winds, easy to pitch, fits in small campsites, reinforced watertight zipper and zipper flap, two fabric options.
Cons Not as much weather protection as pyramid tarps, A-frame pitch takes longer than with catenary curve A-frame tarp.Super light cuben fiber is less durable than normal.EXPENSIVE, much heavier than a flat tarp, large footprint, not adaptable.Hard to achieve perfect drum tight pitch, can be hard to crawl inside, not adaptable like flat tarps, 3-season use only.Relatively small for two people, not adaptable, not as light as flat tarps.
Best Uses Literally everything; backpacking, climbing, skiing, cover picnic table, cover lean-to openingLiterally everything.Travel in exposed areas, ski touring, mountaineering, basecamp cook tent.Three-season backpacking and bike touring.Travel in exposed areas, ski touring, mountaineering
Date Reviewed Aug 17, 2013Jul 07, 2013Jul 01, 2013Aug 30, 2013Jan 01, 2013
Livability - 15%
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Weather Resistance - 30%
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Product Specs Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp ZPacks Square Flat Tarp Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltraMid ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid
Capacity 2-person 2-person 2-person 2-person 2-person
Type Flat Tarp Flat Tarp Pyramid Pyramid Pyramid tarp tent
Measured Weight oz 10.1 7.8 19.5 13.5 22.4
Measured Weight g 286 221 553 383 635
Measured Weight lb 0 lb 10 oz 0 lb 8 oz 1 lb 3 oz 0 lb 13 oz 1 lb 6.4 oz
Packed Size in 2 x 6 4x11
Floor Area sq ft < 72 < 72 63 35.5 44.5
Vestibule Area sq ft N/A N/A N/A 3 N/A
Peak Height in N/A N/A 64 48 N/A
Number of Doors 2 2 1 1 1
Number of Poles 2 2 1 2 1
# Tieouts 20 custom (20 tested) 13 9 12

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


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ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent
$510
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Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid
$205
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Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar
$185
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Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltraMid
$650 - $800
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ZPacks Square Flat Tarp
$230
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Black Diamond Beta Light
$199
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MSR Twin Sisters
$299
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Yama Mountain Gear Cirriform SW
$580
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GoLite Shangri-La 2 Tarp
$150
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Rab Element 2
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Six Moon Designs Haven Tarp
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The Ultralight Shelter
OutdoorGearLab divides different types of tents in to four separate reviews:

Camping Tents - palatial estates for car camping
Backpacking Tents - dedicated pole tents for car camping & backpacking
Four Season Tents - dedicated pole tents for winter and expeditions
Ultralight Tents - tents that pitch with trekking poles or other objects

Ultralight tents aim to provide the most weather resistance for the lowest weight and are best if you carry the tent, and other things, for the majority of the day on multi-day trips.

Choosing The Right Ultralight Tent For Your Needs
This review assesses tents for ultralight travel in all conditions and all locations. In an effort to find the best tents for specific applications (e.g., three-season backpacking, alpine climbing, and ski touring) we compare four different types of tents:

A-frame tarp - Uses a "catenary cut" (curved) ridgeline to create a permanent A-shape. Pitches with 2 poles. The best value for three-season backpacking.

Flat tarp - Flat and generally square. Pitches with 1-4 poles. The lightest, most adaptable, most versatile type of tent. Also the safest and most durable for use in serious three-season storms.

Pyramid tarp - Enclosed on 4 sides. Pitches with 1-2 poles. The most comfortable type of tent. Best for use in winter or very exposed areas. Heavy for three-season backpacking and not adaptable.

Tarp tent - A-frame or pyramid with enclosed bug netting and sometimes a waterproof floor. The lightest tent for three-season backpacking in buggy conditions. Not adaptable and poor for winter use.

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Types of ultralight tents, left to right: A-frame tarp, flat tarp (can be pitched many other ways), unipolar pyramid, bipolar pyramid, and tarp tent.
Floorless?
A floorless design offers numerous advantages for ultralight travel: (1) it allows you to bring wet things into the tent and to cook inside; (2) Eliminating the floor saves weight and allows you to use other items as a floor, if needed (e.g., groundsheet, backpack, pack liner, packraft); (3) It allows you to dig down into snow to increase the interior volume; (4) A floorless tent can be used with modular accessories, such as bug inserts and water resistant bivy sacks, that optimize performance for specific environmental conditions. For these reasons a floorless tent is the most versatile type of tent and our testers' preferred type for different conditions and different activities.

Poles?
Excepting the MSR Twin Sisters, the shelters tested here do not include poles. Use trekking poles, paddles, carbon fiber tent poles, or other objects to support a shelter. Check out our Ten Reasons For Trekking Poles article if you don’t use poles (and get a pair ASAP).

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Floorless shelters are more adaptable than dedicated pole tents. Modular components like a water resistant bivy sack (shown here), a ground cloth, or a bug insert allow you to optimize for the number of people and expected environmental conditions.
Credit: OutdoorGearLab
Criteria For Evaluation
Weight
Fabric type and design complexity are the primary drivers of weight. We measured each shelter in its stock configuration without stakes and guylines and then after seam sealing and adding our preferred amount of guyline. If saving weight is your top priority and you have the cash to push the performance envelope cuben fiber, or non-woven dyneema, is the best possible fabric option. Some companies offer shelters in both silnylon and cuben fiber.

At 6.1 oz., without guylines and 7.8 oz with them the ZPacks Square Flat Tarp is the lightest shelter tested. The 31.9 oz. mountaineering specific MSR Twin Sisters is the heaviest.

Livability
Here we assessed how comfortable it was to spend time inside a shelter. We considered the floor area, number of doors, peak height when the shelter is pitched tight against the ground, door design (can one person get out without forcing the other person to move), and condensation resistance. Bipolar pyramid shelters are the most comfortable ultralight tent but A-frame and flat tarps don’t have center poles and can used with a double sleeping bag. We give the Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid top marks here because it has enough space to comfortably sleep three people and is a palace for two. The bivy size Rab Element 2 is the least comfortable shelter tested.

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Square flat tarp with two Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pads. The Alpacka Explorer 42 raft and dry bag style pack liners are used as a ground cloth.
Credit: Max Neale
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Inside the ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent with the Them-a-Rest NeoAir Dream (rear) and Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Camper (front) sleeping pads. The tent is much more spacious than tents that weigh 2-3 times as much.
Credit: OutdoorGearLab
Weather Protection
Here we assessed how well each shelter protects against wind, insects, and all types of precipitation. Floorless tents offer a significant advantage over double wall tents with dedicated poles in that they allow you to built a shelter system that can adapt to variations in weather and site conditions.

Different types of shelters offer advantages in different conditions. Four wall pyramids excel in very exposed areas and for winter use. A-frame tarps have two open ends and require technique for use in exposed areas (it can be important to find moderately protected campsites or to block one end with rocks, backpacks, snow, etc.). Flat tarps offer the best performance in high winds because they can be pitched close to the ground where wind speeds are lower. Enclosed tarp tents like the ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent and Yama Mountain Gear Cirriform SW have built in bug protection, which can be advantageous if you primarily backpack in buggy conditions with an inflatable sleeping pad.

With its spindrift stopping snow skirt, the bomber MSR Twin Sisters offers the most weather protection in winter conditions. The Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo is the scores the lowest in this category, but is still much more protective than the vast majority of other two-person A-frames. In other words, its low score results from product selection (we try to test only the best and best value products) rather than poor performance.

Almost all of the shelters tested here are stronger and safer than dedicated pole supported backpacking tents in serious three-season storms.

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The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter pitched close to the ground at 13,000 ft. in the High Sierra, California.
Credit: Max Neale
Ease of Setup
On average, unipolar pyramids like the Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid and DuoMid and Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltraMid are the fastest and easiest shelters to pitch. The Zpacks Hexamid Twin Tent is likely the slowest tent to pitch. However, ease of setup is not an important characteristic when choosing a tent because no tent is hard to pitch; we weight this variable as only 5% of the total score.

Adaptability
Here we measure the ability of a tent to adapt to changes in weather and terrain. This variable is perhaps the most important if you want one ultralight tent for a variety of activities or are traveling through in an area with challenging pitching conditions. Flat tarps, like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp are by far the most adaptable type of shelter because their potential pitching configurations are limited only by your imagination. Tarp tents and pyramids (ZPacks Hexamid, Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltraMid) are the least adaptable type of tent because they must be pitched in the same configuration every time, which can be a serious drawback for areas with few or small campsites.

The photos below illustrate several applications of a flat tarp, the most adaptable type of shelter.

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Flat tarps, like the ZPacks cuben fiber model shown here, are the most adaptable type of shelter. They can be pitched low to the ground in "storm mode" for bomber wind protection.
Credit: OutdoorGearLab
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Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp pitched with two ice axes tied together (With a 10" length of 2mm cord). Flat tarps are the best ultralight shelter for alpine climbing.
Credit: Max Neale
Durability
This variable represents our best guess estimate at the long-term durability of each shelter. Our ratings in this category are based on experience with these models as well as with the 50+ other tents covered in elsewhere on this site. Fabric quality is the most important attribute, followed by construction quality. Geometry is also very important to durability in the sense that some shapes are more resistant to snow loading and high winds.

Generally, nylon is more durable than polyester and silicone coated fabrics are stronger and more durable than polyurethane coated fabrics. (See our Buying Advice Article for more info on fabrics.) Cuben fiber is the best available material for use in tents because it is far stronger than silnylon per unit weight, doesn’t absorb water, doesn’t stretch, and is highly resistant to UV degradation. Though cuben fiber is more prone to puncture than silnylon its ease of repair make lightweight cuben fibers as durable as heavier silnylon fabrics.

All of the shelters tested here are significantly more durable than double wall backpacking tents in the sense that their pole(s) is highly unlikely to break AND that if a staking points fails the pole is less unlikely to puncture the fly material. This can be a huge advantage for use in high winds or on long trips.

Due to its simple design, top-tier fabric, world-class construction quality, and the fact that no pole lies underneath the canopy, the most durable shelter is likely the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp. The least durable shelter is likely the ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent. Although the tents tested here are ultralight they will last for at least one 2,000 mile thru-hike.

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Zpacks cuben fiber square tarp in the Olympic National Park, WA. With guylines, this shelter weighs only 7.8 oz!!
Credit: Max Neale

And the winners are…
Editor’s Choice Award: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp
If you want one tent for all ultralight activities, including backpacking, climbing, and skiing the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp provides unparalleled weather resistance, adaptability, and exceptionally low weight. With the included guylines this tarp weighs 10 oz. and is built with the best materials and highest quality construction. Flat tarps require an investment in learning different pitching techniques but the long-term payoff in comfort, versatility, and value can be tremendous. This is the best do-everything tent we’ve ever tested.

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Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp in the North Cascades, WA.
Top Pick Award For 3-Season Backpacking: ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent
The ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent is the best ultralight three-season backpacking tent we’ve ever tested. Nothing else comes remotely close to providing this much weather protection and comfort for so little weight—only 13 oz. with bug protection and 17 oz. with a bathtub style waterproof floor. If three-season backpacking or bike touring are your ultralight activities of choice, our tests show the Hexamid Twin Tent is the best available option. Unfortunately, this tent performs relatively poorly at all other activities.

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Here the front of the ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent is pitched about 6" lower than normal. Also note that the rear tieout uses a trekking pole that's wedged between two rocks. Long lines make it easy to pitch tents in a wide range of conditions.
Top Pick Award For Winter: Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid
The 30 oz. Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid is the best value pyramid tarp we’ve tested. It provides four sided weather protection, bomber performance in high winds, and sheds snow better than flat and A-frame tarps. This shelter can comfortably fit three-people and is a palace for two people, gear, and cooking. Critically the SuperMid is 60% cheaper than its closest competitor Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltraMid, which is cut from Cuben fiber. The SuperMid is a fantastic value for winter use or long trips in very exposed areas. However, like most pyramids, it is unnecessarily protective and relatively heavy for three-season backpacking.

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The Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid can comfortable sleep three people or an occasional fourth and weighs 30 oz. with guylines and seam seal.
Credit: Mountain Laurel Designs
Best Buy Award: Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo
Despite its top-tier fabrics and world-class construction quality the 18 oz. Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo only costs $110. This is the best value ultralight shelter we’ve tested because it’s more comfortable and more protective than many other similar tarps and because it performs very well in the vast majority of three-season conditions. Whether you’re making the transition from a heavy dedicated pole backpacking tent or are simply value conscious, this tarp is offers fantastic performance for three-season backpacking. It largest drawback is its limited adaptability. We find that flat tarps (like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp perform much better for winter use, very exposed conditions, and for climbing. The Grace Tarp receives our Best Buy Award because it offers the most value for three-season and light-duty winter travel.

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Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo. There's lots of space for two people. In exposed areas the sides walls can be pitched tight against the ground and perform well in high winds, unlike many other "2-person" tarps that are considerably smaller.
Credit: Max Neale

Best Shelter For Specific Applications
Mountaineering: MSR Twin Sisters

Recommendations for Solo Travel
Unless you plan to do 2,000+ miles of solo travel we do not believe it is worthwhile to invest in a solo sized ultralight tent. The weight difference between a one and two-person size tent is minor and the decreased comfort and protection from the smaller size greatly limits versatility. However, if you have the cash for another tent or do tons of solo travel we recommend the ZPacks Hexamid Solo Tent w/ Beak for three-season backpacking and the Mountain Laurel Designs Solo Mid in cuben fiber for winter travel.

Stakes and Guyline
Only a few of the shelters tested here include stakes and only a few includes enough guyline. See individal product reviews for specific recommendations. Generally, we suggest ZPacks 1.25mm Z-Line for three-season travel (9 ft. lengths for ridgelines, 6 ft. for corners, tie using these instructions) and 2.3mm Dyneema Reflective Glowire with MSR CamRing tensioners for winter use.

The Ruta Locura 9” Carbon Stake is best ultralight tent stake we’ve tested. We feel they are worth getting regardless of what stakes you own now or what type of tent you have. Getting a stake in a longer length, such as this model's 9 inches, can be helpful for cuben shelters (which transfer more force to stake points than stretchy silnylon) and for use in soft soils. The pointy end of this stake also goes into rocky alpine soils much better than Y or V-shaped aluminum stakes, and it doesn’t bend if you hit a rock. Eight 9” stakes weigh only 2.12 oz!! Though they are ultralight, more than 6 months of testing show that they are also very durable. Like any tent stake it's important to hit it with a rock in line with the direction of the stake (don't use your foot). One stake's cap came off, but has remained in place after pounding it back in. Overall, these are the best stakes we've ever tested; they are better than their closest competitors (Easton Full Metal Jacket, MSR Carbon Core, titanium "shepard hooks") because they have more holding power per unit weight.

Groundsheets, Bug Inserts, Bivies
Weather protection with a floorless shelter can be improved with bug inserts, bivies, and groundsheets. We discuss these in our Modular Accessories for Floorless Shelters Article.

Dream Backpacking Gear List
An ultralight tent is just one of many items featured in our Dream Backpacking Gear List. Check it out for other top-tier "dream" backpacking items.

Chris McNamara and Max Neale
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