Ultralight equipment keeps getting lighter, and seemingly more expensive. Along with your sleeping bag and sleeping pad, choosing a tent or tarp is one of the most important decisions you'll make before embarking on a long-distance hike. Our article is here to help you sift through all the choices out there by educating you on the types of shelters and what to look for based on what you do. We'll outline what "ultralight" means, talk about budget, then move on to the types of shelters with key considerations to make in fabric construction and design for your next adventure.
The term ultralight bounces around the outdoor gear world a lot these days, but what does it mean? Lightweight, super ultralight, minimalist, extreme ultralight, fast packer? The terminology all gets a little silly, but behind it, is a clear goal — to carry as light a load as possible while enjoying your backcountry adventures. If you're somebody who appreciates just carrying what you need, instead of bringing the kitchen sink, this may be the market you for you. After collaborating with a group of our experts — professional guides, alpinists, long-distance overnight runners, and thru-hiking backpackers — it is clear why ultralight travel is the way to go for some, and perhaps not for all.
Long days on the trail under the weight of a heavy pack can be cumbersome, slow, and exhausting. While your body most definitely adapts to these conditions, lightening your load is the obvious choice to make backcountry travel more fun and enjoyable. It allows you to hike more miles, put less stress on your joints (especially in steep terrain) while giving the opportunity to pack more food for fewer fill-ups on, especially long trails. The result? You won't find yourself cursing while dragging a heavy pack through mosquito-laden swamp trails; instead, you can cruise through them more efficiently. Overall, carrying less, in our opinion, equates to more fun while hiking, the ability to do longer days, and less overall strain on the body.
While buying an ultralight shelter may be exciting, it's important to acknowledge that it's going to be costly. Tarps are the most affordable way to go, while tarp-tents are typically the most expensive. If you're willing to sacrifice some creature comforts like the ease of set-up or 4-walled protection, you can also purchase a tarp for a much lower price. If you're not, you're going to find yourself shelling out at least a couple hundred dollars. In general, the lightest and most durable tents are also the most expensive. To get the most value for your dollar, make sure to hone in material construction and consider if this is an investment you're willing to make.
Types of Shelters
Once you've decided that an ultralight shelter is for you, its time to look at the many different options out there. Before we begin, it's important to acknowledge that different types of shelters will offer different levels of protection and functionality. In this section, we outline the four different types of shelters and their respective pros and cons. When looking at options in our review, be sure to identify what type of shelter it is using this terminology.
A very light, dedicated-pole, double-wall tent provides the most traditional protection when selecting from these ultralight tents and shelters. It is constructed with an interior tent that has a rainfly that drapes over the top of it. Best for beginners and those that appreciate a traditional design that needs protection from all four sides and enhanced warmth. They are also a great option for those in humid environments where ventilation is key.
- You are covered on all four sides offering weather protection and privacy
- Better ventilation means less condensation on the interior
- The floor isolates you from the wet or muddy ground
- The inner tent protects you from flying bugs and creepy crawlies.
- Higher level of warmth and insulation, meaning you can get away with a slightly lighter sleeping bag than in an open shelter like a tarp
- More intuitive set-up with no need to use or carry poles
- Some affordable options out there
- Less adaptable to different types of terrain and need to set-up one way
- Typically heavier with more parts
- Less packable it has more parts.
A tarp tent is a shelter with a single wall and a floor and enclosure that is either permanent or can be removed. These shelters combine both the fly and the tent into one layer, making it a lot lighter than double-tent construction. This is our top recommendation for backpackers seeking an ultralight and protective option. Most use adjustable trekking poles for set-up. It's not the best for humid environments as ventilation and condensation can become a huge problem, so look for options with good ventilation.
- Ultra Lightweight construction with a small, packable profile
- Protective from bugs, weather, and other environmental factors
- Set-up becomes easy with practice
- Many options have removable components to help reduce overall weight
- Site-location is key as stakes need to be sunk with guy lines tension properly
- Not free-standing
- Single-wall construction doesn't breathe, resulting in issues with condensation
- Set-up takes skill and practice
- Many tents are not built with removable components to save weight
- Most are very expensive
Pyramids with No Floor
These pyramids use your trekking poles to support a single layer of waterproof fabric overhead without a permanent floor. These shelters have modular add-ons like bug-proof mesh and floors. With the option to add or move each, it offers the ability to add or deduct weight from the shelter system. A common use is as a base camp set-up on a glacier where snow can be dug out from underneath to accommodate a kitchen or a hang-out space.
- Very spacious interior is quite livable
- Easy to set-up, even in storms
- Lightweight and packable profile
- Complete rain, snow, and wind protection with a steeper wall profile
- More affordable options exist
- Modular add-ons for more protection available
- Good airflow unless the base of the tent is completely buried
- Adaptable to many environments
- Base models lack under-shelter and bug protection without add-ons
- Single wall construction and huge volume is not as warm as other lower shelter options
- Need to carry a groundsheet (Tyvek or Polycro is a good lightweight option)
A tarp alone is the lightest and least expensive type of ultralight shelter. It is the preferred mode of travel for experienced hikers as a result of its adaptability. With seasoned experience, you can even pitch it year-round, but it does require additional protective elements. There are two types of tarp set-ups that we've come across: A-frame tarps and Flat Tarps. While an A-frame (cheaper) tarp's catenary cut ridgeline makes it much easier to achieve a taut pitch, a flat tarp (more expensive) is more versatile and can pitch many more ways.
- Great airflow and ventilation
- The lightest and most packable option
- Very inexpensive in comparison to other shelters
- With practice, you can have excellent protection with wind and water
- A skilled eye for site selection is required, with protected sites being best
- Knot skills may be required for optimal set-up
- Need to carry a waterproof groundsheet
- Always an open-side when pitching the tent
- Lacks privacy
- No bug protection unless added
- May need to use a bivy sack or liner for additional protection
- Modular accessories cost extra and add weight and bulk when used.
Now that you've been introduced to the four different shelter options in the ultralight world make sure you think about the terrain that you're going to be camping in. What kind of weather will you encounter? Will you be setting up in bushes that could potentially tear the fabric? To find the best option that'll keep you dry with tent collapse, you need to understand the pros and cons of the different materials used in construction, which we cover in this next section.
In this section, we discuss tent fabrics, trekking poles, guylines, stakes, and modular components, which are all important considerations to make when looking at the overall construction and longevity of a shelter. Here we point out what to look for and the pros and cons of these components. On your search, be sure to consult "spec" sheets to see what the shelter includes and what is constructed out of.
There are four main types of fabrics you'll come across in ultralight tent construction. All offer different levels of durability with different pros and cons. All are waterproof and suitable for ultralight construction. Look for tents made out of either; Dyneema Composite Fiber (DCF), SilNylon, RipStop Nylon, and/or Polyester. This list reflects the strongest to the weakest fibers, with the strongest offering the most resilience and weather protection.
Dyneema Composite Fiber (aka. Cuban Fiber)
Originally developed as a fiber to built high-performance sails, this by far the strongest and most expensive fiber available. Heralded as the "strongest fiber in the world," it offers fifteen times the strength of steel, making it ultralight and ridiculously durable. Also, if it does tear, it is supremely easy to patch, using any tape on the market. Used in the construction of backpacks and other outdoor gear, this is the fiber to look for if you want your tent to retain its shape and strength even in the hairiest of weather and environment. Tents that use it are costly, but also the lightest options out there.
SilNylon is the combination of a waterproof silicone and nylon material. It's made by injecting a thin strip of nylon with this silicon material to make it more water-resistant and to improve strength. While this fabric isn't nearly as strong as DCF, it offers a higher strength than steel and is quite waterproof. In our testing, we've noticed that tents constructed of SilNylon, exposed to sitting water, eventually stretch, requiring you to adjust the tensile strength. While this is a minor drawback, it's still a less convenient fiber than DCF. That said, DCF costs about 500% more, according to Mountain Laurel Designs, making tents that are far more affordable.
Nylon or Ripstop
As the most common tent material out there, it is a strong fiber that offers decent water resistance and durability. It's not as strong as DCF or SilNylon but provides a better strength-weight ratio than polyester. It provides some stretch, which promotes more strength than polyester, which doesn't stretch easily. That said, the reason SilNylon stretches is that Nylon expands when exposed to water. This results in saggier fabrics when wet. It's susceptible to UV damage but actually provides excellent abrasion resistance overall.
This fiber is quite durable but stiffer and not as strong as Nylon. Typically it is quite heavy and not used for most ultralight tent constructions. You'll typically find it more "car camping tents". In general, if there is a tent with this composition, know that its exterior fabrics offer a nice taut pitch, but because there is no elasticity in the fiber, it more prone to wear and tear.
You may notice that many tent fabrics have a "D" rating that stands for "denier". A higher denier number means a higher woven density of the material of choice. Based on the material, the thread count, or the number of fibers per square inch, will vary. But within the same fabric, a higher number is better. This equates to more durability and better strength overall, so look for this. Avoid lower counts, especially when they match at higher prices.
Trekking Poles Considerations
When hiking with trekking poles, it is compelling (from a weight savings standpoint) to use them for shelter supports when you camp. A few experienced backpackers prefer a dedicated-pole ultralight tent even though they hike with trekking poles, but if you want to get ultralight, choose a shelter supported by your poles. One crucial consideration — if you "basecamp" in the backcountry, camping in the same place for a few days, and head out on hikes or climbs from camp, you'll probably want your poles free during the day. Two folks can leave a pair of poles set up in their shelter, and hike with one each of the other set, but most people who "basecamp" for a few days prefer a dedicated-pole tent.
If you prefer a pole-pitched tent, be sure to buy trekking poles with adjustments, not a fixed length. This will provide more adaptable set-ups and options for those types of shelters. Those that go at least to 125 cm will accommodate most tents; however, we'd recommend going longer than shorter. So, if you only need a pole that'll go to 125 cm and there is a longer option, opt for that as you can often make a shelter with more headroom and better livable space.
Stakes & Guy Lines
Most of the ultralight tents and shelters we tested include guy lines, but you'll need to purchase stakes separately for most options. Be aware that the stakes are also not typically included in the listed weight of the manufacturer. So if you like to weigh your gear meticulously, be sure to include the stake weight with that measurement.
Paracord & Guy Lines
While your tent might come with the guy lines provided, it's important to bring a little extra cord with you to increase adaptability. If you find a rocky site, for example, that the guylines simply can't reach, or you can't stakes into, extra pea cord is incredibly handy to wrap around rocks as alternative anchors or to increase the length to reach to areas that might be better to put stakes into the ground. Bringing at least 30-feet of additional paracord (that is incredibly lightweight) is cheap insurance to ensure that you can set-up in most types of terrain.
There is a world of different stakes out there, and several ultralight versions are available. Unfortunately, these aren't always the most durable. Several times we've hammered them into the ground, finding that the "neck" of the stake is the weakest point or bending or flexing under the force. See our favorite guy line and stakes article for what to look for.
Modular Components for Ultralight Tents & Shelters
Modular components are those that you can add to or take from your tent set-up. Those that offer options for a removable bug net or floor, for example, offer great ways to customize it for weight and necessity. These options are typically much more versatile over a wide range of missions. Visit our article that details a discussion of groundsheets, bivy sacks, and other components to pair with floorless shelters for increased weather and bug protection.
Related: Modular Accessories
How Much Should you Carry?
When going quick and light, it's important to be picky about weight and packability. As a result, you should consider your "base pack weight".
This weight refers to the total weight of all the equipment you carry, not including consumables: water, food, and cooking fuel. Base weight is a perfect measurement, as you will likely carry nearly the same gear and clothing for two nights or ten, only the consumables' weight increases. As a guideline, you should seek shelter system (not counting the weight of poles) less than 1 lb. per person, and for lightweight, less than 1.5 lbs. per person. With shelter weight split between two people, you can optimize space to bring along other essential items like food, water, and clothing.