Ultralight equipment keeps getting lighter, and seemingly more expensive. Along with your sleeping bag and sleeping pad, choosing a tent is one of the most important decisions you'll make before embarking on a long-distance hike. Our Buying Advice article is here to demystify the ultralight jargon so you can make better decisions. The range of tents, tarps, and trekking pole supported pyramids we tested side-by-side in our Best Ultralight Tent Shelter Review each have their own advantages and disadvantages, which is something we talk about in depth in our review.
First, let's discuss moving to a very lightweight backpacking kit by defining what we feel ultralight, and lightweight mean when it comes down to pack weight. Skip on down to Safety and Shelter Choice if you know you're ready for the lightest possible shelter. There, we detail the four types of ultralight tent shelters, how much protection each type provides, and how much skill or experience each requires for best use.
The term ultralight bounces around the outdoor gear world a lot these days, but what does it mean? Are you an ultralight backpacker? Lightweight, super ultralight, minimalist, extreme ultralight? Are you a fastpacker? The terminology all gets a little silly, but behind it, all is an obvious goal: to carry as light a load as is practical and safe for you while enjoying your own backcountry adventures.
After talking with thru-hikers, alpine climbers, and our testing team, we've come up with a few reasons why you might want to go ultralight:
It's Easier on Your Body
Perhaps the best reason to backpack with as light a load as is safe for your experience level is to be kind to your body. When you start carrying a lighter pack, your feet, ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and back will appreciate it. If you've spent some time lugging around a 50 lb. pack, it should be obvious that cutting that weight in half would be more comfortable and kinder to your body. Invest in good, lightweight gear now, and you'll still be able to do what you love in the future since your legs will still work.
You Want to Hike a Lot of Miles Each Day
Some of us really enjoy pushing the mileage envelope each day just for the fun of it; there's nothing quite like settling into a scenic backcountry camp after having hiked a marathon's worth of distance on the trail. And if you're setting out on a thru-hike, you likely have a practical time limit and need to eat up the miles each day. Once the hiking becomes a much more significant part of each day, and the time spent in camp is more of a nightly pit stop, you're going to want to reduce your load as much as possible.
Having More Fun
Being gentle to your body, moving further and faster each day, and li ving simply all translate into the bottom line of having more fun. Having fun and challenging ourselves is ultimately why 99% of us choose to play in the outdoors, so it only makes sense that we keep this goal in mind. Want to know a great way to Not have fun? Try lugging a behemoth of a pack around for a week, stressing your back and knees in the process, struggling to stick to the itinerary and make it to camp each night, and then spending all your non-hiking time futzing with complicated and overly gimmicky gear. Lighter is more fun! If you're trying to get your friends or loved one into backpacking, a heavy pack is a huge detractor. Hook them up with the proper lightweight equipment, and you'll have adventure partners for life.
Lighter Is Safer
Regarding alpinism or any time you're operating in narrow weather windows, it's better to move quickly through dangerous and unstable environments like glaciers or areas where you may be exposed to rock or icefall. There are obvious limits to this thinking and go as light as possible, and leaving essential equipment behind is not safer.
Thinking of Your Shelter as Part of a System
To keep your pack weight light and comfortable, think of your complete backpacking kit as several central systems: shelter, sleeping, clothing, hydration, cooking, and a pack to carry them. Hike, Drink, Eat, Sleep. It is that simple, and the systems above encompass the majority of the gear you need. Maps or a GPS unit for navigation, first aid supplies, and a few bits and pieces round out an ultralight backpacker's standard kit.
It is useful to pay close attention to what hikers call the "Big Four" when you want to lighten your load — Shelter, Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad, and Pack — as these are usually the heaviest individual items you carry. Your shelter and sleeping systems need to complement each other for warmth and weather protection, and the backpack needs to fit all your gear and consumables (food, cooking fuel, water) without wasted space. Add your clothing, hydration, and cooking systems, and you have the majority of your kit. All these systems work together for a fine-tuned ultralight backpacker.
Base Pack Weight
How light does my load need to be to be considered ultralight? And how light does my shelter need to be to achieve it? While ultralight to us mainly means carrying as little as possible to remain safe and warm given your skills, it's useful to define some weight ranges when selecting all your systems.
Here's our perspective on base weight and terminology, and how consumables add up for a weekend or week-long backpacking trip.
Lightweight Backpacker: base weight of 20 pounds or less
A great "Big Four" goal is 8 pounds total.Example backpacking trips with a 14 lb. base weight:
6-7 day trip, 26-28 lbs. with food and fuel, 2-6 lbs. water = 28-34 lbs. total
2-3 day trip, 18-20 lbs. with food and fuel, 2-6 lbs. water = 20-26 lbs. total
Ultralight Backpacker: base weight of 12 pounds or less
A great "Big Four" goal is 5 pounds total.Example backpacking trip with a 9 lb. base weight:
2-3 day trip, 13-15 lbs. with food & fuel, add 2-6 lbs. water = 15-21 lbs. total
6-7 day trip, 21-23 lbs. with food & fuel, add 2-6 lbs. water = 23-29 lbs. total
Trekking Poles & Shelter Choice
Now that we've set up some loose definitions for what ultralight means and why you might want to go ultralight, we're ready to dive into the different types of ultralight tent shelters and which one will best meet your needs. However, first, we need to ask the important question of whether or not you hike with trekking poles? Most of the models we tested require trekking poles for set-up (or require the purchase of dedicated poles). The exception to this statement are the three double-wall, dedicated-pole tents that we tested.
From what we've seen from this year's crop of PCT hikers, trekking poles are pretty much the norm, so many ultralight designs rely on trekking poles as their primary means of support. Hiking with poles allows you to transfer a little weight off your knees, which adds up over many miles. If you don't like to carry poles, most manufacturers offer a lightweight, foldable alternative, but the weight of these poles isn't included in the manufacturer's total listed weight. Be sure your poles are adjustable since lightweight fixed length poles may not fit your tent. See our favorites the Best Trekking Poles Review.
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 folks who "basecamp" for a few days prefer a dedicated-pole tent.
Safety & Shelter Choice
Rain, wind, condensation, wet ground, and bugs; traditional dedicated-pole, double-wall ultralight tents will protect you from, all these elements. On the other hand, other shelter choices like tarps, tarp tents, and pyramids may not offer you all the protections you may need. In this section, we will outline how these four types of shelters differ not only in form, but also in the amount of protection they provide, their best uses, and the skill level required.
You can stay safe, warm, and dry in the backcountry in a snowstorm with only a tarp for a shelter if you have the skills to rig it properly. Lightweight equipment depends on your skills and abilities to properly use it. Be honest with yourself before you get in over your head, and make sure you have the proper wilderness survival know how before you start backpacking with minimalist shelters.
Tarps with Permanent Floors a.k.a. Tarp Tents
A tarp with a permanent floor and permanent, complete bug protection is the best choice for ultralight enthusiasts that seek the most traditional shelter protections at the lightest weight. If your trips span the late spring to early summer season when mosquitoes and other bugs are out in full force, the bug proofing is fantastic. Our Editors' Choice winner, the Zpacks Duplex is the lightest shelter we tested that meets most of the traditional shelter protections.
We found the five permanent floor models we tested to be among the most difficult to quickly set up initially, although with practice, they become relatively easy. Most use your adjustable trekking poles for support, and we recommend adding some length markings on your poles with paint or nail polish to hasten set-up.
The most noticeable downside to a single-wall shelter such as these can be condensation. Without a dedicated or modular inner mesh tent, in humid environments, you need to be careful not to touch the ceiling if it gets wet with condensation. Another minor drawback is that these tents are not modular except for the Tarptent StratoSpire, meaning that you never have the option to remove the inner protection and save weight if it's not needed.
Pyramids with No Floor
These pyramids use your trekking poles to support a single layer of waterproof fabric overhead without a permanent floor. That said, instead of the floor, you have the option of choosing to add a modular inner tent that provides complete bug proofing, a waterproof floor, and protection from condensation. All three of the models we tested that fall into this category provide rain and wind protection from all four sides. They also provide privacy in camp when the doors are closed, but the single wall design doesn't retain a lot of warmth. We found that they also tend to have the largest interior space of all the types of tents we tested, as well as the highest ceilings, making them a good option for those who don't want to skimp on comfort.
A floorless pyramid is a great choice when you want complete rain protection, but either do not need to be protected from bugs, or want to save weight by sleeping with a head net when the bugs fly. Being floorless, most hikers will carry a waterproof groundsheet to use with these shelters. If you enjoy sleeping out under the stars with no shelter, a.k.a. "cowboy camping," a floorless pyramid and Tyvek or Polycro groundsheet is a great choice — very light, four-sided rain protection when you need it, and a simple groundsheet for clear weather cowboy camping when you don't.
While having the option of carrying an inner tent, adding a groundsheet or a head net, or forgoing them all together is an excellent feature for experienced ultralight hikers, it requires the knowledge to make the right choice on which modular components you'll need. We found the Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid 2 easy to set-up once you've lashed your trekking poles together or found a rock to balance one on, the Black Diamond Beta Light to be simple but usually needing slight adjustments for setup, and the Six Moons Designs Haven Tarp to be one of tougher shelters we tested to pitch and tie out well in a hurry. The Zpacks Hexamid Solo also fits in this category but has bug netting covering the floor. It still needs a ground sheet to avoid ripping the bug netting and to keep your things out of the mud and was also quite challenging to set up.
Double-Wall Ultralight Tents
A very light, dedicated-pole, double-wall tent provides the most traditional protection when selecting from these ultralight tents and shelters. You are covered on all four sides from the rain and wind. The inner tent protects from condensation that may form on the underside of the fly in wet and humid conditions. Meanwhile, the waterproof floor isolates you from saturated or muddy ground, and the inner tent completely protects you from flying bugs and any creepy crawlies. Due to their enclosed nature, these shelters also contribute to warmth, meaning you can get away with a slightly lighter sleeping bag than in an open shelter like a tarp. Additionally, depending on where you camp, you may appreciate the privacy a fully-enclosed tent provides.
Overall, dedicated pole double wall tents are easier to set up and a better option for beginners who have less experience rigging bomber tarps. They are generally more weather resistant than a poorly rigged tarp or floorless tent shelter. The downside is that they are the heaviest of the ultralight shelters.
We tested two tarps for this year's review, a flat tarp and an A-frame tarp. While an A-frame tarp's catenary cut ridgeline makes it much easier to achieve a tight pitch, a flat tarp is more versatile and can be pitched many more ways.
A tarp alone is the lightest type of ultralight shelter, and with careful site selection and an eye towards wind direction when pitching, provides excellent rain protection. Wind protection is mostly a function of how skilled you are at rigging and anticipating the prevailing wind direction. At the minimum, the majority of users carry a waterproof groundsheet to pair with their tarp. Condensation is rarely an issue with a tarp, as the open nature of the pitch promotes airflow. In short, a tarp will keep a skilled user dry in the rain at the lightest weight and provides you the ability to pick and choose what additional protections you want to add when necessary. Our favorite tarp, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp, is the lightest and most adaptable shelter for expert users. The Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo, our favorite A-frame tarp, is the most affordable shelter in this review.
Tarps are the preferred shelter for many experienced ultralight hikers due to their light weight and adaptability. We feel an A-frame tarp is the best choice for ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers on a budget. Most established campsites offer some wind protection, which makes using a tarp more comfortable. Additionally, the ability to add an inner tent or bivy sack to your tarp when you decide additional protection is necessary — or lighten your load when not — is a significant plus when counting ounces.
Tarps require the most skill in rigging and the most experience in site selection to achieve their best rain and wind protection. Because there are open sides to all tarp pitching options, choosing a sheltered site or features to block the open end is vital.
The open nature of a tarp does little to retain warmth or provide privacy. Adding a head net, minimalist bivy sack, or modular inner tent may be necessary for bug protection when the season demands. Of course, these modular accessories also add cost, weight, and bulk when employed. While most of the downsides of a tarp can be mitigated with proper site selection and rigging, they become very apparent on a rare night when circumstances conspire to leave you with a poor or unprotected campsite.
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. The manufacturers often have several types of ultralight stakes available, but you may want to carry as many as four different types if you're counting the fractions of an ounce. See our favorite guy line and stakes here. You may want to add additional guy line to your set-up kit or replace the stock lines with lighter options.
Modular Components for Ultralight Tents & Shelters
Shelters comprised of modular components are a perfect way to customize your shelter to the expected weather, and shave weight when you're confident you can forgo some protections. Visit our article that details Modular Accessories for a discussion of groundsheets, bivy sacks, and other components to pair with floorless shelters for increased weather and bug protection.