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Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp Review
Cons: May need to be paired with a bivy sack for added weather and bug protection, lacks privacy, expensive
Bottom line: The best tarp that we have ever tested is super adaptable and by far the lightest shelter in our review.
Simple tarps have a diehard following in the ultralight and thru-hiking world and offer many advantages over tents and other ultralight shelters. They are the most adaptable type of shelter, and also the lightest, two very praiseworthy virtues. This year we tested three tarps, and yet again the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Tarp was without a doubt the best of the bunch. Its flat design allows for the most set-up configurations, and its DCF material offers countless advantages over its SilNylon peers, including lower weight, better water resistance, and greater durability. While tarps have a few disadvantages in comparison to other forms of ultralight shelter, users don't have any problem overlooking them in favor of their weight and adaptability. If you are in the market for a tarp, we feel that this is the best one for you.
RELATED REVIEW: The Best Ultralight Tent Shelters of 2017
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp is the lightest ultralight shelter we tested and — in the hands of an expert user — defines shelter adaptability. A creative camper can pitch it for weather protection just about anywhere you can sit or lie down. Your adjustable trekking poles provide the support for the most common pitches. Adding a ground sheet or inner tent or bivy sack extends severe weather protection. For more information and advice about mixing and matching components, see our Modular Accessories for Floorless Tents article.
While we tested the square flat tarp with dimensions of 8.5'x8.5', this tarp also comes in two different rectangular versions with dimensions of 6'x8' and 8'x10'. While the squareness of this tarp makes it ideal for pitching in all the different ways one can think of, it also makes it slightly harder to pitch in A-frame mode than a standard catenary cut tarp, like the Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo.
The Value of a Tarp as Your Shelter
It is admittedly hard to compare a tarp shelter like this one to fully enclosed or free-standing shelters as we have in this review. Perhaps no piece of outdoor equipment can be viewed in such an opposite manner by two different people as a tarp. The previous head tester for ultralight tents was a very experienced thru-hiker, and was sold on tarps because of their adaptability and light weight, and had this rated as the highest scoring product in this review. On the other hand, the current head tester, while he doesn't feel prejudiced against tarps, also wants potential purchasers to be aware of the flaws, such as a need for more components to offer adequate weather and bug protection. In turn, these factors add cost, weight, and bulk, which have not been accounted for in the numbers quoted for this review, and complicate a supposedly simple system. While this tarp is still the best we have used, its score has dropped a bit this year in our comparative rankings. This drop is not because it has changed, but only because we are trying to compare all the products as objectively as possible, using what comes with your purchase, rather than conceiving of all the potential modifications, as our standard. If you love tarps, we encourage you to simply look for the gravy in this review. If you aren't sure, then hopefully this review will help you understand both the pros and cons of this system of shelter.
The Square Flat Tarp was the highest scoring tarp in this review, but was a tier below the highest overall scorers, highlighted in blue in the following chart:
This tarp is made with the best DCF fabric that gives it ultimate waterproof-ness, means it won't stretch when wet, and enables it to be used in low storm mode, close over a lying down person, all in contrast to SilNylon. That said, its weather resistance depends on its pitching configuration. A-frame mode provides rain and wind protection in well protected to moderately exposed areas (e.g. the entire Appalachian Trail and most of the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails). Storm mode offers adequate protection in very exposed areas and is one of the great advantages of a flat tarp, catenary designs such as the MLD Grace Tarp Duo, simply cannot be deployed in this fashion. The HMG Square Flat Tarp features an incredible number of tie out points. Sixteen line-locks are spaced around the perimeter of the tarp, and five guy out points are located in the middle (or field) of the tarp. No matter how you fold or pitch it, there's likely to be a guy out point right where you need it!
Perhaps the greatest drawback to a flat tarp is its lack of four-sided weather protection. Storm mode protects against wind and precipitation from three sides but occasionally spray and wind can whip around into the entrance. In windy and wet weather, we like to seal off one side of the entry of a storm mode pitched tarp with a full-zip rain jacket, backpack, rocks, or snow. In the winter, you can close off one side with snow and "seal" the other (the door) with a jacket or pack. The same technique can be applied to an A-frame or other pitching configurations. If you want the best protection available, then pairing this tarp with a lightweight water resistant bivy sack could be your best bet. While there are plenty of work arounds to help a tarp be as weather resistant as possible, we still think that a fully enclosed pyramid tent, like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid 2, provides a more bomber four-sided shelter.
When pitched as an A-frame close to the ground, this flat tarp offers lots of space for two people to spread out but limited headroom for sitting up. Two D-rings along the inside ridgeline will help hold an inner tent, such as the Echo II Insert sold by HMG ($315, 14.6 ounces). Storm mode offers even less room to sit up but has lots of floor space for two people and all of their gear. Other configurations, such as lean-to style, can be very comfortable and provide a fantastic view.
There is no doubt that livability is one area where using a tarp such as this one is simply not as comfortable or luxurious as using a fully enclosed tent, such as the Zpacks Duplex, our Editors' Choice award winner. When enduring a storm with the tarp pitched in storm mode, you will have no choice but to be lying down inside your bag, with little room to move about. Inside the Six Moons Designs Haven Tarp, you could easily be moving around, playing cards, or tinkering with gear with room to spare, while the storm rages outside. This tarp also doesn't have a floor, necessitating adding a ground cloth, or bug protection. And for those who like a little privacy where they can change clothes or clean up after a long day of hiking, you aren't going to find it here. In short, when using this tarp as your shelter, you are in effect living outside in the world, and this can be a great thing, or not such a great thing, depending on the weather, your needs, and your disposition.
Our Square Flat Tarp weighed in at 10.9 ounces, including the tie-outs which came along with it and the DCF stuff sack, making it easily the lightest shelter in this review. For those who value weight above all else, let this be enough of an endorsement!
As one would expect, the second lightest shelter in this review was the MLD Grace Tarp Duo, which is also a tarp but made of SilNylon. The third lightest was the Black Diamond Beta Light, a pyramid made of SilNylon, which weighed about six ounces more. The Square Flat Tarp has more included line-locks and tie-out cord than either of these two shelters, but still manages to weigh less. This is the advantage of DCF fabric! Of course, it remains worth pointing out that for all of these models, you'll have to add stakes and a ground cloth, as well a lightweight bivy sack or bug mesh, should it be needed, and two trekking poles for setup.
There is no doubt that this is the most adaptable shelter in this review. While we have mentioned A-frame mode and storm mode as the two most likely ways of setting it up for a good night's rest, there are countless other methods to pitch this tarp. Using two trekking poles it can be set up in lean-to mode, or some modification thereof, thereby making it wide enough for three. One also doesn't need to be confined to stakes and trekking poles but can use trees or branches, roots or rocks on the ground, or climbing gear (or rocks used as chockstones?) deposited in nearby cracks of rocks.
That said, we couldn't award it a perfect score regarding adaptability, simply because in order to be ready for any situation one might encounter in the great wide world, added components will be necessary. It is also worth noting that set up in some ways, like storm mode if it's windy and raining, it could be very uncomfortable to hang out it, unlike the Beta Light or UltaMid 2, which are very comfortable and relatively enjoyable tents to wait out a storm in.
Also, while it can be used in certain situations in the winter, we find the level of protection it offers if the weather got dire to be simply too much of a risk for the colder, stormier season.
Ease of Set-up
This tarp comes with ten included and pre-cut tie-outs, four of which are 6' long, and six of which are 4' long. Using these included guy-outs means, you will want to carry ten stakes with you. As there are 16 line-locks around the exterior of the tarp, and five more on the field of the tarp, you will have to move the guy lines around as needed. For added versatility, you may want to add a few lengths of much longer lightweight cord to your kit for rigging to trees or other natural anchors.
The easiest way to set this tarp up is in storm mode, and this can be accomplished very quickly with one person, even in a bad wind. Loosely stake out all four corners, then add the single short pole to the middle of the leeward side, and adjust as needed, adding more stakes for better security. Setting it up in A-frame mode can be quite a bit trickier with only one person, and requires a bit of practice. Unlike the MLD Grace Tarp Duo, this tarp does not have dedicated grommet holes at the ridgeline for slotting the tips of your trekking poles into, so the use of a clove hitch is necessary. Suffice to say that a knowledge of knots is mandatory for setting this tarp up, and the more experience you have with rigging, the easier it will be. That said, with practice it is not too hard, but it is still probably the most involved in this review, on par with the Six Moons Designs Haven Tarp and the Zpacks Duplex.
This tarp can honestly be set up just about anywhere provided you have the skills to do so but will excel for three-season backpacking and thru-hiking. In the past, our testers have also enjoyed it for bivvying beneath summer alpine climbs.
This tarp retails for $355, a reflection of the high-quality DCF material used. If you are confident that this is the shelter for you, then we feel it is certainly a good value. For those who would like a tarp but don't need the versatility of a flat one, the Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo only costs $165.
The Hyperlite Mountain Designs Square Flat Tarp is the lightest and most adaptable shelter in this review, making it worthy of your consideration. For those who want only the lightest shelter, then this is your jam. We think this is such a great tarp that we awarded it our Best Ultralight Tarp award. However, despite these awesome advantages, the trade offs are that it is not as weather protective as most other tents we tested, and is a compromise when it comes to livability.
— Andy Wellman and Brandon Lampley
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