The Best Ultralight Tent Shelter for Backpacking

Click to enlarge
Does it get any better than this? Afternoon nap time under the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp after another 14er climb. Guanella Pass, Colorado.
Credit: Brandon Lampley
What's the best ultralight tent shelter? During our updated 2015 review, we tested 10 of the best and most popular 2-person tarps, pyramids, and feather light tents. To compare them side-by-side, we took them backpacking, peak bagging, and bicycle touring throughout the Rocky Mountains. We rated each shelter for weather resistance, measured weight, livability, adaptability, durability, and ease of set up. We are now in our fifth year testing ultralight tents and shelters, logging hundreds of nights in more than 20 models! Ultralight backpackers, alpine climbers, bicycle tourists, and all outdoor adventure enthusiasts will almost certainly find a perfect shelter for their needs among our award winners and the other excellent shelters we've reviewed.

We evaluate several categories of tents here at OutdoorGearLab. Our Backpacking Tent Review compares over 20 double-wall tents with dedicated poles, a few of which are as light as the shelters in this review. For bombproof tents appropriate for winter use and extreme weather, visit our 4 Season Tent Review. Our Bivy Sack Review highlights the best lightweight, weather-resistant sleeping bag covers; and for luxury car camping, check out our review of the best Camping Tents. Into the hanging around style? See our review of the Best Hammocks.

Read the full review below >

Review by: ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab

Top Ranked Ultralight Tents

Displaying 1 - 5 of 10 << 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 Hexamid Twin Tent
ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent
Read the Review
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter
Read the Review
Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo
Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo
Read the Review
Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum
Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Top Pick Award  Editors' Choice Award    Best Buy Award  Top Pick Award 
Street Price Varies $300 - $330
Compare at 2 sellers
$530Varies $675 - $714
Compare at 2 sellers
$170$550
Compare at 3 sellers
Overall Score 
100
0
83
100
0
78
100
0
76
100
0
75
100
0
72
Editors' Rating
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
User Rating Be the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate it
Pros Only 10 ounces, highly adaptable, bomber alpine wind protection, most versatile type of shelterWeighs 14 oz. with bug protection!, four sided weather protection, very comfortable inside.Light, compact, top quality cuben fiber, excellent construction quality, LineLocs, strong reinforced points.Generous coverage for a 2-person A-frame, weighs 18 oz with guy lines, available in SilNylon or cuben fiber, three interior hang loopsExtremely light, easy to set up, clips separate the inner and outer tents
Cons Not as much weather protection as pyramid tarps, A-frame pitch takes longer than with catenary cut tarpHard to achieve perfect drum tight pitch, not as adaptable as a tarp, 3-season use only.Relatively small tarp creates low peak height, beak attaches with snaps that can come undone in high windsNot as adaptable as flat tarps or as weather resistant as pyramids and tentsNot strong, not durable, rear walls cave in during high winds, small vestibule, expensive, not adaptable
Best Uses Alpine climbing, backpacking, skiing, cover picnic table, cover lean-to opening, expert usersThree-season backpacking, thru-hiking and bike touring.Ultralight backpacking and thru-hikingThree-season backpacking, thru-hikingLightweight three-season trips
Date Reviewed Aug 19, 2015Aug 19, 2015Jun 23, 2015Aug 19, 2015Aug 19, 2015
Weighted Scores Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum
Weather Resistance - 30%
10
0
7
10
0
8
10
0
9
10
0
6
10
0
9
Weight - 30%
10
0
10
10
0
9
10
0
7
10
0
9
10
0
7
Livability - 15%
10
0
7
10
0
8
10
0
6
10
0
8
10
0
6
Adaptability - 10%
10
0
10
10
0
3
10
0
7
10
0
6
10
0
4
Durability - 10%
10
0
9
10
0
8
10
0
9
10
0
8
10
0
6
Ease Of Set Up - 5%
10
0
5
10
0
8
10
0
6
10
0
7
10
0
9
Product Specs Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum
Type Flat tarp Pyramid with floor A-frame tarp A-frame tarp Double-wall tent
Capacity 2-person 2-person 2-person 2-person 2-person
Fabric CF8 Cuben Fiber .51 oz/yd Cuben Fiber, Mesh, 1 oz/yd Cuben Fiber Floor CF8 Cuben Fiber, Mesh, CF11 Cuben Fiber Floor SilNylon Ripstop Ultralight SilNylon PU Ripstop, Mesh
Total Weight 10.2 oz 1lb 3.4 oz 1lb 12.3 oz 1lb, 3.1 oz 2lb, 1 oz
Weight of Components 9.9 oz tarp and guylines, .3 oz sack 14.5 oz tent with guylines, 4.6 oz bathtub floor, .3 oz sack 9.0 oz tarp and guylines, 14.5 oz mesh liner, 4.5 oz beak, .3 oz sack 1lb 2.3 oz tarp with guylines, .8 oz sack 1lb 12.1 oz inner, fly, and poles; 4.9 oz stakes
Stakes Included? No No No No Yes, 11
Packed Size (inches) 8 x 6 x 3 11 x 6 round 12 x 7 x 6 8 x 6 x 4 19 x 5 round
Floor Area N/A 28 sq ft 24 sq ft N/A 28 sq ft
Max Floor Dimensions (inches) N/A 50 x 90 52 x 84 N/A 52 x 84
Vestibule Area N/A 4.5 sq ft 8.5 sq ft N/A 7 sq ft
Peak Height (inches) N/A 47 37 41 36
Doors N/A 1 1 N/A 1
Pockets 0 0 0 0 3
Number of Poles None included, 1 or 2 adjustable trekking poles required None included, 2 adjustable trekking poles required None included, 2 adjustable trekking poles required None included, 2 adjustable trekking poles required 3 DAC Featherlite connected at hub
Number of Tie Outs 16 perimeter linelocs, 5 field guy out points, 2 inner d-rings 6 perimeter stake out, 2 field guy out points 8 perimeter linelocs, 2 inner d-rings 8 perimeter linelocs, 3 inner clip rings 4 fly stake out, 4 fly guy out points
1-person version? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review



Selecting the Right Product


The nine of the ten ultralight tents and shelters we evaluate here are two-person models and all of them aim to provide the best weather protection at the lightest possible weight. We've tested and rated products with different geometries and designs, from tarps to double-wall, ultralight tents. First and foremost, a shelter must keep you dry when it rains, snows, or hails - and all of the products in this review provide good coverage for two people when used properly. Protection from wind and blowing rain, insects, or the soggy ground beneath you are traditional aims of a tent. Many of the ultralight tents we tested here function as a system of modular components; using optional inner net tents or waterproof floors to provide these protections when you choose. Mixing and matching modular components is great way to customize a shelter to best suit your needs. Visit our Modular Accessories for Floorless Tents article for an in depth discussion.

In addition to choosing an ultralight tent or shelter suited to the demands for weather protection where you play, consider your experience level. Many seasoned ultralight enthusiasts describe a years long progression - preferring a double-wall tent at first… later a lighter, enclosed tarp tent… and finally a flat or A-frame tarp. More experience gains you invaluable site selection practice and rigging skills, the ability to better predict weather conditions and choose modular components, and likely a desire to spend more time camping in rough or exposed terrain where adaptability is king.

Check out ourAsk an Expert section to read about one such evolution in shelter choice.

Below we outline the different types of ultralight tents we tested and their advantages. We also describe the top performers in each of our rating metrics. In each product's individual review, we detail the rating in each metric, compare similar models, and discuss the modular components and optional features and parts. Be sure to visit our Buying Advice article that accompanies this review, where we delve deeper into the ultralight approach and sleeping systems.

Types of Ultralight Tents & Shelters


Some may say we're comparing apples and oranges with this range of products, but when we researched the best shelters for ultralight backpacking, several styles surfaced. All but two of these models require adjustable trekking poles to set up; our favorites are compared in the Best Trekking Pole Review. If you're seeking a very lightweight tent with dedicated poles, in addition to the two reviewed here, check out the lightest models in our Backpacking Tent Review.

Tarps


Click to enlarge
Flat and A-Frame tarps provide the most coverage for their weight, and can be used with modular inner mesh inserts for additional weather and bug protection.
Credit: Brandon Lampley
Click to enlarge
The tarps we tested require two adjustable trekking poles (not included) to set-up, and you'll also need to purchase your stakes of choice separately.
Credit: Brandon Lampley
Flat Tarps
Flat tarps are the lightest and most adaptable type of ultralight tent shelter; they are the best choice for expert users seeking maximum versatility. Our Top Pick for Expert Users, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp, measures 8.5 feet x 8.5 feet, but is also available in rectangular versions measuring 6 x 8 and 8 x 10. With many pitching geometries possible, flat tarps are the most secure shelter in serious 3-season storms. We find a flat tarp is the best choice for alpine climbing and very rough campsites, and when used with a bivy sack, it provides bombproof storm protection.

A-Frame Tarps
Dedicated A-frame tarps are constructed with a "catenary cut" (curved) ridge line to create a permanent curved shape that is easier to pitch taut. These tarps pitch best with two adjustable trekking poles, and are the best value for lightweight backpacking and thru-hiking. The Best Buy Award winning Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo in SilNylon is by far the best value we tested, and provides more coverage than many similar A-frame tarps. The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter is very light and minimally-sized for a two-person A-frame, and the modular inner net tent and removable vestibule provide class-leading weather protection.

Tarps, especially flat ones, are the most adaptable type of shelter, and provide the most coverage relative to weight. A pair of adjustable trekking poles is necessary for set-up.

Pyramids with Permanent Floors a.k.a. Tarp Tents


Click to enlarge
Pyramids with attached floors, aka 'tarp tents', are a great choice for backpacking and bicycle touring in buggy areas. These models have permanent built-in bug protection.
Credit: Brandon Lampley
Click to enlarge
The two 'tarp tents' we tested require two adjustable trekking poles (not included) to set-up. While the Scout is sold with stakes, you'll need to round up your favorite stakes for the Hexamid.
Credit: Brandon Lampley
Also commonly referred to as "tarp tents," these shelters pitch with two adjustable trekking poles inside the peaks of the waterproof upper fabric. With permanently attached bug netting, you are always completely enclosed when in these shelters. The Editors' Choice winning ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent has a continuous bug netting floor, and a removable, waterproof bathtub-style floor. The Hexamid Twin is our favorite shelter for bicycle touring, and we highly recommend it for ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking too. The Big Agnes Scout Plus UL2 is a spacious A-frame shaped tarp tent with a large vestibule and built-in waterproof floor. While the Scout Plus is relatively heavy, it also has one of the most spacious living areas, and a large vestibule for gear storage.

Tarp tents are generally the lightest option for three-season backpacking in buggy conditions, and provide all the traditional shelter protections (rain, bugs, wind, and wet ground) at the lightest weight. Adjustable trekking poles are required for set-up.

Pyramids with No Floor


Click to enlarge
The two pyramids we tested with no permanent floor create the most headroom inside for the weight. Each can be used with modular inner bug tents if you desire.
Credit: Brandon Lampley
Click to enlarge
Two adjustable trekking poles (not included) are required to set up the Haven, and the Supermid requires a six foot pole (two trekking poles lashed together work great). You'll need to round up your stakes of choice as none are included.
Credit: Brandon Lampley
The Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid is the most spacious product we tested in this review; it can sleep four and is luxurious for two. It pitches with two trekking poles lashed together, a canoe paddle, or any other 6 ft long "pole." It is the best choice for a basecamp shelter in the snow. The Six Moon Designs Haven Tarp/Net Tent is a modular "duo-mid" shelter. Pitched with two adjustable trekking poles, it is unique in our selection: it has two doors located on opposite sides and sleeping space for two between the poles. These two characteristics make it the most convenient couples tarp. The modular inner tent is great for buggy season and has a waterproof floor. These are excellent shelters if you prioritize roominess and livability.

Floorless pyramid tarps create the most livable room inside relative to their weight, and the lack of a permanent floor leads to wide open site selection. Trekking poles are necessary for set up.

Double-Wall Tents


Click to enlarge
Double-walled tents provide the easiest set-up, and complete bug and weather protection. While double-walled tents score low for adaptability, they are solid choices for backpacking and bicycle touring.
Credit: Brandon Lampley
Click to enlarge
Double-walled tents usually are sold with everything you need for set-up; dedicated poles and stakes included. The exception is the Nitro, which requires one adjustable trekking pole for set-up. The Fly Creek Platinum and the O2 tent are sold with everything you need for pitching included.
Credit: Brandon Lampley

These ultralight tents are just as light as the complete modular tarp systems we've tested, when the weight of trekking poles is added in. Double-wall tents provide all-in-one protection from rain and snow, as well as wind resistance, bug protection, and an integral waterproof floor. The Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum is the lightest two-person "traditional" tent we've ever tested, and is very popular for three-season ultralight backpacking. We loved it so much that we awarded it our Top Pick for Ease of Use. It offers complete weather protection and is simple and easy to pitch. The North Face O2 ultralight tent uses an overhead pole and two small struts at the end to create a lot of interior headroom for the weight. The Marmot Nitro 2P takes an interesting approach, using one adjustable trekking pole, and two dedicated struts. While it delivers a lot of headroom, we found it awkward to pitch. Several additional very light tents are included in our Backpacking Tent Review, notably the Terra Nova Solar Photon 2 and the time-tested Tarptent Double Rainbow.

In our previous ultralight tent review, we did not include any dedicated-pole, double-wall tents. But we find many enthusiasts prefer the familiarity of a tent and their ease of set-up.

Best Uses for Ultralight Tents & Shelters


Whether headed out overnight backpacking, climbing, skiing, or bike touring, every ounce matters when you're ambitious about the amount of ground you want to cover. Traveling as light as possible while remaining safe and adequately equipped pays its dividends no matter how far you travel in a day. Why carry more than necessary?

Lightweight & Ultralight Backpacking


There are two main reasons to travel as light as is safe and comfortable when backpacking. First, if you are ambitious about the mileage you want to cover in a day, the more weight you shed from your pack, the lighter you'll be on your feet, and the miles will add up with less effort. Much of the trend of "going light" is due to emphasizing the hiking part of backpacking versus the camping part of backpacking. By selecting a minimum of lightweight equipment based on your experience level and terrain/weather conditions, you'll be primed to cover a lot of miles in a day…that is if you want to. Second, even if you're not focused on covering a lot of miles in a day, carrying a light pack is much more comfortable than lugging around the kitchen sink. New materials and innovative equipment designs means you can still have a comfortable camping experience in the backcountry without carrying a back-breaking load.

All of the ultralight tents and shelters we tested are good choices for the weight-conscious backpacker.

Click to enlarge
The O2 is an excellent choice for the budget-conscious backpacker looking to lighten their load.
Credit: Brandon Lampley

Thru-hiking


"Thru-hiking" is a term first coined for backpackers hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in one season. With the increasing popularity of the long National Scenic Trails - the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail - the range of ultralight equipment available grows every year. When you are carrying your home on your back for four months or more, every ounce you can save is important.

On shorter thru-hikes stretching a few weeks to a month, pack weight is just as important. Maybe more so, as during a multi-month hike your body has more time to adapt and you gain your "trail legs." The John Muir Trail in California's Sierra, the Benton MacKay Trail in the Southern Appalachians, and the Camino de Santiago in Spain are popular shorter thru-hikes you'll enjoy more by hiking as lightly loaded as possible. Becoming an ultralight hiker has its perks. Deciding to carry a nice camera or a couple of books, or any other relatively heavy luxury item, is an easier choice when your base weight is very light.

Top Picks for Thru-hiking:
ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent: Lightest shelter with complete protection
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter: Light, stormproof, and adaptable with modular components

Click to enlarge
The Six Moon Designs Haven Tarp (background) and our Top Pick for Ease of Use, the Big Agnes Fly Creek Platinum (foreground), pitched in the only melted out spot in miles. Super light packs made travel through deep and melting snow more bearable on this early season trip in the Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado.
Credit: Brandon Lampley

Bicycle Touring


Touring the mountains or countryside by bicycle is an increasingly popular way to spend time outside, and every ounces matters here as well. Chances are you won't be taking along adjustable trekking poles on your bike tour (although several of our testers do take trekking poles along when camping from a bicycle). Dedicated-pole double-wall tents are a traditional choice. But you also have options. A tarp is a versatile choice that can be pitched from trees or a fence without poles. Lucky for us, most manufacturers offer custom length aluminum or carbon fiber poles for models that would otherwise require adjustable trekking poles.

The Hexamid Twin with the optional three-ounce carbon fiber poles is our favorite bike touring shelter. The Fly Creek 2 Platinum is an excellent choice also, and easier to pitch.

Click to enlarge
ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent on a 3-day 350 mile bike ride around the Olympic Peninsula, WA.
Credit: Rip Hale

Alpine Climbing


Alpine climbing places a huge premium on reducing equipment weight as much as possible. The rope, rack, the rest of your climbing gear adds weight to your pack, so choosing the lightest shelter and sleeping system is of utmost importance. Because spacious camp and bivy spots are often hard to find in the mountains, we highly recommend a tarp for alpine climbers seeking to shave ounces. We prefer a flat tarp due to the myriad pitching geometries, but an A-frame tarp is a good if less adaptable choice. An ultralight sleeping bag paired with a minimalist water-resistant bivy sack, all covered under a tarp with your partner, should be a system that you can keep to two pounds per person for in-season alpine climbing.

We have found a square flat tarp is the best, most adaptable choice for alpine climbing. Our Top Pick for Expert Users, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp is very light and durable.

Click to enlarge
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp pitched in super low storm mode without stakes. (Extra long guylines wrap around rocks.) North Cascades, WA.
Credit: Max Neale

Criteria for Evaluation



Weather Resistance


Rain, light snow, hail, blowing rain, splashback from heavy rain…your ultralight tent shelter needs to protect you from all kinds of bad weather. How does it handle the wind? Do you have wind protection from all sides, or (as in the case of A-frame tarps) can rain blow in from one or two sides? Protection from inclement weather is the most important functional attribute of an ultralight tent, and our ratings for weather resistance account for 30% of each model's overall score. Be sure to visit the individual reviews where we discuss the effects of wind, rain, and wind-driven rain for each shelter. Our weather resistance ratings are for the system of modular components we tested. The Grace Tarp Duo would score higher if we tested it with an inner tent insert for example.

While we discuss bug protection here, we do not penalize ultralight tents without bug protection in the weather resistance score; all can be used with an inner tent insert or a simple head net. Weather resistance is also related to adaptability (which we will discuss below). For example, some of these products are much more constrained in where you can pitch them, meaning it is more difficult to hide from the prevailing wind.

Click to enlarge
All three components of the Echo II shelter system together, tarp, insert, and beak (with the beak and insert doors tied back). While modular in theory, we find all components necessary to provide great weather protection.
Credit: Brandon Lampley

Two of the ultralight tents we tested earned a nine out of ten, the highest score we awarded for weather resistance. When pitched low to the ground and using all the component parts, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter offers the best protection from rain, wind, and bugs. We just wish its tarp were a little longer and wider. The Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum provides excellent rain protection and bugs can't get at ya. Its one drawback is it requires good guying out and an anticipation of wind direction in order for it to withstand strong winds. The ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent also earned a high score and provided us the best four-sided rain and wind protection relative to weight. Due to its extra large coverage and ability to withstand high winds when guyed out well, the Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid also earned a high score.

Weight


While weather resistance is the most important functional criteria for a shelter, weight is equally important when every ounce counts - whether on a thru-hike or headed in to climb big routes in the mountains. Our rating for weight contributes 30% to each model's total score. Our comparison spreadsheet and each individual product review detail the weight of the modular components of each shelter we tested.

This metric is difficult to compare directly. To assign our ranking for weight, we compared the measured weight of each shelter with all tested modular components including guy lines, but without the weight of the stakes.

The lightest product we tested is the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp, weighing in at 10.2 ounces with the included guy lines and stuff sack. The next two lightest products are the Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo, in SilNylon, at 19.1 ounces, and the Hexamid Twin tent at 19.4 ounces with the bathtub floor, and 14.5 ounces without.

Click to enlarge
All the models we tested for 2015, with all tested modular components stowed in the included stuff sacks. Size comparison with a .5L (18oz) HydroFlask water bottle.
Credit: Brandon Lampley

Very notable here is the Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum. Let's compare it weight-wise to the Hexamid Twin to see how tricky it can be comparing shelter weight. If you want to be truly ultralight, you'll need to get into this ounce counting game. Weighing in at 1 pound and 12.1 ounces (not including the stakes), the Fly Creek 2 Platinum is lighter than any other product we tested with complete weather resistance… once you add the weight of the adjustable trekking poles that are required for other designs. Most of the best and lightest trekking poles weigh in right at 16 ounces. The result, when trekking pole weight is included, the Editors' Choice winning ZPacks Hexamid weighs 7 ounces more than the Platinum - that's without stakes. The Hexamid can also be set up with super light carbon fiber poles (available from ZPacks) that weigh 3.2 ounces for the pair. This equals a total of 1 pound 6.6 ounces with these carbon poles. Add the included stakes to the Fly Creek, 2 pounds 1 ounce total. Add 8 of the same stakes to the Hexamid, and you have 2 pounds 7 ounces with trekking poles, and 1 pound 10.2 ounces using the lighter carbon fiber poles. These Hexamid weights include the 4.6 ounces optional bathtub floor.

As you can see, there are many different ways shelter ounces can add up, or be saved. Modular systems let you lighten your load based on weather, and hikers with trekking poles are all ready carrying shelter supports. When thinking about lightening your shelter, consider your budget and the protection you need. Shedding ounces often requires a big investment…meanwhile, an extra fourteen ounces may be worth it to have an inner mesh tent for your tarp when faced with swarms of mosquitoes!

Livability


Livability is how we quantify how comfortable each model feels for two folks to live in: sleeping, sorting out gear, and potentially waiting out storms. Ideally, we want a shelter with room for two full length sleeping pads with a little space left over, enough headroom for two folks to sit up, and enough vestibule space to store shoes and extra gear, or cook during bad weather. Floor area, peak height and shape, convenience of exiting the doors, and condensation management are discussed in each individual review. A shelter with a mesh liner protects you from condensation that may form on the upper waterproof fabric, tarps with open ends have enough air flow that condensation is not an issue, and most pyramids use vents to promote air flow and reduce condensation. Our scores for livability contribute 15% to each product's total score.

Click to enlarge
Inside the ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent there is enough room for two people to comfortably lounge inside and even sit up near the door. We think our Editors' Choice winner strikes the sweet spot between low weight and good livability.
Credit: OutdoorGearLab

The Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid earned a perfect ten for livability, but it's a much larger and heavier shelter than others we tested, suitable for four people. The Big Agnes Scout Plus UL2earned the next highest livability score. It's super roomy inside for two people, there's space to sit up for most folks, and it has one of the largest vestibules for outside gear storage. The Six Moon Designs Haven Tarp and the Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo also earned high livability scores. We love that the Haven has two doors, and that there's ample room for couples to snuggle between the two trekking poles. The Grace Tarp Duo is the largest of the three tarps we tested, creating more headroom when pitched with the sides close to the ground. The double-wall tents we tested all earned low livability scores - there's just not much room inside comparatively, but most folks will be able to sit up in The North Face O2 ultralight tent. And finally, one of the highest scoring products overall, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter, earned a low livability score. We love its light weight and weather resistance, but we wish it were a little roomier.

Click to enlarge
Two folks can sleep in the back half of the large pyramid SuperMid, leaving plenty of room in the front. There's enough room to have an open space to stand and change clothes and all your gear too.
Credit: Brandon Lampley

Adaptability


Adaptability may be more or less important to you depending where you usually camp. Most well-traveled trails have established, often protected campsites in abundance where any ultralight tent or tarp can be pitched well. But in rough and exposed terrain, more adaptable shelters like tarps and floorless pyramids have advantages. Folks seeking a single model appropriate for a variety of adventures and seasons of the year will do well with a tarp paired with a mesh tent insert. Others will seek an ultralight tent shelter for a specific trip or style of travel. On the Appalachian Trail for example, you'll almost always find smooth, well protected campsites. Adaptability ratings account for 10% of overall scores.

A flat tarp offers the most adaptability for different terrain and weather, and the HMG Square Flat Tarp, with its 20+ tie out points can be folded and pitched myriad ways. It can be pitched to block the bad weather in all sorts of tight places; we recommend pairing it with a bivy sack or an insert tent for maximum versatility. The Echo II Shelter has the most modularity of the models we tested. The cuben A-frame tarp is super light, and the inner tent and beak add class-leading weather resistance if needed. Although double-wall tents need the same size smooth footprint every time (and thus lost points in adaptability), at least you can leave the fly off for stargazing. The Fly Creek 2 Platinum can also be pitched with an optional ground sheet floor and just the fly to save ounces. All floorless models earn a little bonus in adaptability, because you can pitch over small obstructions. A rock or tree stump inside is not a deal breaker as with an attached floor.

Click to enlarge
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


While materials and construction quality are important to a product's durability, appropriate site selection and care in pitching will lead to a long lifespan for these products. We expect all of these shelters to stand up to many years of weekend use, or at least one long thru-hike. Our durability rating accounts for 10% of total scores.

Fabric choice and quality, attention to detail in the construction, and geometry are all important, especially in high winds or unexpected heavy snow. Choosing the appropriate shelter for the conditions you will encounter, and for your experience level with site selection and guying and staking is very important. We tend to not purchase and use dedicated ground sheets with most tents, but the use of an inexpensive Tyvek or Polycro groundsheet will extend the life of a tent (especially an ultralight tent) with a dedicated floor. We find that SilNylon is more durable over time than PU coated nylon. Meanwhile, different weights of Cuben fiber are more or less prone to puncture, but simply will not tear under normal use conditions. Even if something goes sideways, repairing Cuben fiber is easy.

The two Hyperlite Mountain Gear models we tested earned the top durability scores for design, materials, and attention to detail in construction. The two Mountain Laurel Designs shelters and the ZPacks Hexamid Twin earned the next highest scores.

Click to enlarge
The Fly Creek Platinum (left) and North Face O2 Tent (right) are the only two products we tested in this ultralight review that come with everything necessary for set up included. These are also some of the least durable products we tested. Near the Rainbow Lakes, Colorado.
Credit: Brandon Lampley

Ease of Set-Up


The best shelter in the world is only useful when it is pitched well and secured against the wind. We brought out the stopwatch the first few times we pitched each model, and also noted how important site selection is to achieving a pitch that will resist the wind. We also noted if we could pitch the inner part of the tent (when applicable) after the outer is in place (this is an awesome feature when pitching or taking down in the rain.) We could with some, but not with the three dedicated pole double-wall tents. With practice, all of these shelters are quick and easy to pitch for two people. Our rating for ease of set up accounts for 5% of the total score.

A shelter that is easily pitched by one partner frees up the other to collect water, get dinner started, or build a fire.

The Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum, our Top Pick for Ease of Set Up, earned the highest score in this metric. Though you have to stake out the two back corners and vestibule, this is the closest thing to a free-standing tent that we tested. It goes up super fast. The North Face O2 ultralight tent, Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid, and ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent also earned high marks for ease of set up. Tarps require the most skill and experience to set up quickly and securely; in fact, our Top Pick for Expert Users - the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Square Tarp - earned the lowest score for ease of use. As the award name suggests, we recommend this model for experts, or we recommend that other users spend plenty of time practicing different pitches (and in inclement weather) before taking it into the backcountry. With practice though, all of these models are "easy" to set up. In each individual review, we detail our experience setting up these shelters, and point out whether set up by one person is a pain or not.

Click to enlarge
We found the Fly Creek Platinum very quick to set up and stake and guy out securely. One person can pitch it in just a few minutes, but in windy conditions like these, two sets of hands really helps.
Credit: Brandon Lampley

Key Accessories


Adjustable trekking poles are necessary to set up most of these products. Our favorites can be found in our Best Trekking Pole Review. Two of our favorites are the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork and the Leki Corklight.

The weather protection of a floorless shelter can be improved with mesh inner tent inserts, bivy sacks, and groundsheets. We discuss these in our Modular Accessories for Floorless Tents 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.

Editors' Choice Award: ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent


Click to enlarge
The Hexamid Twin is nearly the lightest model we tested, and no contest the lightest that provides complete weather and bug protection, all while delivering above average livability. It stayed put during high winds this day as we headed over to climb Colorado's Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Evans.
Credit: Brandon Lampley

The ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent is the best ultralight tent we've ever tested. No other comes close to the weather protection and roomy livability for such a light weight - 14 ounces with built-in bug protection and 19 ounces with the removable bathtub-style waterproof floor. This is the best "do-everything" shelter, and our hands-down favorite for three-season backpacking and bike touring. The unique shape of this trekking-pole supported "duo-mid" provides excellent wind and rain protection on all four sides, has much more room for two folks inside that similarly light products. We think it will last most users for many, many years of light and fast adventures.

Top Pick for Expert Users: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp


Click to enlarge
Chris Simrell leverages extreme adaptability of the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat tarp during an alpine ascent of Mt. Huntington in Alaska. We recommend our Top Pick for those with expert rigging skills.
Credit: Max Neale

If you want the lightest 3-season shelter, with the most adaptability for rough terrain and off-the-beaten path bivouacs, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp is a perfect choice. Its A-frame and storm mode pitches are only two of many that skilled users can adapt to exposed, small, and rough campsites, high in the mountains or deep in the woods. Weighing in at 10 ounces with the included guy lines, this is the lightest product we tested. Used with a light bivy sack or modular inner tent, a flat tarp provides the lightest, most versatile, bombproof protection in exposed mountain environments.

Best Buy Award: Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo


Click to enlarge
All of the products we tested are good choices for ultralight backpacking. Tarps like the Best Buy winner Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo, pictured here in Vedauwoo, WY, provide great coverage for their weight, and can be used with modular inner tents for increased weather resistance and bug protection.
Credit: Brandon Lampley

Despite its top-tier fabrics and world-class construction quality the 18 oz. Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo only costs $170. This is the best value ultralight tent or 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 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 in very exposed conditions and for climbing. The Grace Tarp receives our Best Buy Award because it offers the most value of all the products we tested.

Top Pick for Ease of Use: Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum


Click to enlarge
The Big Agnes Fly Creek Platinum delivers complete weather and bug protection, and is super quick to set up. If you do not hike with trekking poles, or just appreciate the ease of use and protection of a dedicated-pole double-wall tent, you will not find one lighter than the Platinum.
Credit: Brandon Lampley

Weighing in at 28 ounces without the included stakes, the Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum is the lightest dedicated-pole, double-wall tent we've ever tested. Add the weight of a pair of adjustable trekking poles to the lightest tarps and pyramids in this review, and they weigh as much or more than the Fly Creek 2 Platinum and its three dedicated poles. Our tests revealed the Platinum as the quickest to pitch of these shelters, and it earned the highest weather resistance rating as well. Poor adaptability and a lack of headroom limit its overall score, but we love it for backpacking, thru-hiking, and bike touring. If you don't hike with adjustable trekking poles, the Fly Creek 2 Platinum is an easy, super light choice. It's also a great option for those with less experience pitching tarps and guying and staking. Some users will also like that when you order the Fly Creek, it comes with everything you need. You don't need to debate over modular components or purchase stakes or guy lines separately.

Ask an Expert: Junaid Dawud


Click to enlarge
Credit: Junaid Dawud
An adventurer and guide based in Boulder, Colorado, Junaid Dawud feels at right home in the mountains. After completing the Pacific Crest Trail in 2006/07 and then thru-hiking it in 2010, he focused in on an idea… climbing all 58 of the 14,000 foot mountains in Colorado in one summer season, all on foot, "thru-hiker" style. The 2013 route covered over 1,300 miles and 300,000+ feet of elevation gain! Junaid and hiking partner Luke DeMuth raised funds for the nonprofit Big City Mountaineers along the way. Check out the chronicle of this first-of-its-kind adventure at 14ersthruhike.com.

When was your first overnight backpacking trip? Very generally, what type of equipment, including shelter, did you use?

During middle school, we lived in Olympia, Washington, and I got out on lots of trips with the Boy Scouts to places like Mount St. Helens and other weekend trips. Mostly I used borrowed and heavy equipment: rectangular sleeping bags, an external frame pack, and big old standard dome tents. These were great trips and I learned lots. I moved to Hawaii for college, and that's where I really became a hiker.

Tell us about your Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikes. What type of shelter did you use?

During my first PCT hike in 2006, I used an MSR Micro Zoid, a miniature one-person tent. It's a very barebones shelter space-wise - you're gonna crawl into it, and basically go to sleep or be miserable while waiting out storms, because there is no room… no room to move around or sit up or anything like that. You can go up on an elbow, but not sit up. It's tiny and coffin shaped, with a small vestibule for cooking in a pinch or stowing extra gear. I still have it, but haven't used it in years. At this point I have shelters that weigh less, pack up much smaller, and have way more room and coverage.

On my 2010 PCT thru-hike, I used a two-person tarp tent. By myself, there's tons of room inside, for me and my "pack explosion" (cooking gear and extra clothes and odds and ends). I could sit up, could have someone come join me and play cards or whatever. It was heavier than it needed to be for one person, but lighter than the Micro Zoid. During this trip, I also hiked for extended periods with another thru-hiker using a tarp… when it was rainy up north, we'd often share a single shelter (keeping one packed away and dry). I began to appreciate the versatility of a tarp. We'd sometimes set up the tarp pitched against a big fallen tree trunk for wind and weather protection.

What type of shelter did you use on the 14ers thruhike? And why?

By now I was definitely ready to start using a tarp. On the PCT, another thru-hiker had a large, custom-built, Cuben fiber tarp - rectangular with just a bit of a cat cut. As a tall guy I wanted a long one so I sourced materials from YAMA Mountain Gear to make my own rectangular Cuben tarp with just a bit of cat cut at the ridge. It ended up just a bit narrower than 8 feet and a bit longer than 9 feet.

When I'm outside camping what I really want is to be protected from rain and hail and snow. I don't care so much about being protected from a little bit of wind; wind is actually kind of nice because condensation is something you don't have to worry about with a tarp. And I don't worry so much about bugs because I can use a head net. I came to the conclusion that I didn't want ALL of the "features" a tent provides… what I really wanted was a cover. And I wanted one that was big, light, and versatile… and could be pitched many different ways.

What do you believe are the most important considerations for folks who are choosing an ultralight tent shelter?

First, don't rush the purchase. It's important to know what you want based on your experience level and where you plan to hike and camp. But if you don't know what you want, it's important to try out as many shelters as you can. You can find some at your local retailer, but friends, clubs, or online backpacking enthusiast groups are probably the best source. Your backpacking friends likely have similar levels of experience as you, and can provide invaluable advice, in addition to letting you borrow their shelters to check out.

When you've focused in on what features you want in a shelter, and you've picked a model, check with the manufacturer or retailer concerning their return policy. If you haven't been able to test-drive the exact shelter you're ordering, you may find you don't fit exactly as you've imagined. If you've only set up in your living room or backyard, and the shelter is clean and in mint condition, many times you can return it if you've misjudged the fit. For example, for me, it is important to have enough room to sit up and play cards or cook dinner, without being hunched over.

Once you have your shelter, set up and test your gear in the worst conditions possible. Set it up in your backyard, and spend the night in it, but also turn the sprinkler on and let it run all night. Camp out in your yard when it's windy and nasty to fine tune your staking and guying out techniques. If you get a shelter that's too small, sure it's nice and light, but if wind-driven rain makes its way in and soaks the foot of your sleeping bag, that's no good. Especially with a tarp, it is important to master a few foul weather pitching techniques that combat wind-driven rain. It's much better to experience this learning curve near the refuge of your house than in the middle of the mountains in a storm!

Brandon Lampley
Helpful Buying Tips
How to Choose the Best Ultralight Tent Shelter - Click for details
 How to Choose the Best Ultralight Tent Shelter

by Chris McNamara and Max Neale