The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of gear

How We Tested Ultralight Shelters

Wednesday February 10, 2021

Where We Test


We started this review over eight years ago and since then have evaluated 50+ different tent and tarp options. We've set them up on granite ledges in the Sierra Nevada and put the tents and ourselves through the wringer while taking on the buggy backwoods of Virginia. Fast and light bicycle trips, long alpine routes and traverses, trips along the Continental Divide Trail, and overnight running missions on the Colorado trail are different ways we've tested each shelter. With international and snowy action in the Nepalese and Alaskan mountains, we are happy to say we've got a good handle on what makes a bomber ultralight shelter. Each is rated according to five key metrics.

This is one of the many tents we've tested over the years. Here, we...
This is one of the many tents we've tested over the years. Here, we travel to the Khumbu of Nepal to see how it does in this extreme and mountainous terrain. All of our tests are extensively tested in extreme conditions ranging from highly variable mountain weather to humid climates to buggy lake country.

Testing Metrics



Livability


Once again, assessing for Livability was mostly a function of using these tents while on backcountry adventures. Sleeping in these shelters with two people revealed which ones were long enough, wide enough, tall enough, and had features that contributed to our comfort level or drastically impaired it. Since we were testing these shelters during the buggiest time of the year — spring and early summer — we also usually purchased and tested the modular bug netting components for those that didn't have it included.

The Haven Tarp is plenty tall enough for sitting up inside and has a...
The Haven Tarp is plenty tall enough for sitting up inside and has a ton of covered and protected space for you to spread out your sleeping equipment and other gear. It has an offset design, where one side of the tarp is longer than the other.

Weight


To assess for weight, we took each new shelter out of its stuff sack, decided what elements were necessary and which were not (some came with added components that don't factor into the performance of the tent) and weighed them all on our independent scale. We weighed each part of each shelter, such as the stakes, tarp, guy lines, etc., separately and detailed them on the product pages. We then removed the weight of stakes from those shelters that included them and compared all shelters for their weight.

Many of these models require adjustable trekking poles rather than...
Many of these models require adjustable trekking poles rather than dedicated aluminum poles, and most are sold without stakes. We weigh each component to help you get a handle on what each parts weights
Photo: Brandon Lampley

Weather Protection


The main weather aspects we were most interested in were how well a tent protects from rain and wind. While we did sleep in a few of these tents during some rather intense snowstorms in the Himalaya, that isn't exactly what they do best.

Let her rip! High winds throughout the night made sleep nearly...
Let her rip! High winds throughout the night made sleep nearly impossible, especially when the poles bowed up and down, but the tent remained standing in the morning.
Photo: Matt Bento

During our adventures, we experienced many nights out in bad weather, but when we weren't "lucky" enough to experience a storm while sleeping in a particular tent, we made sure to understand its performance inequitable ways. When thunderstorms were impending near town, we would run down to the park and set some tents up in the gusty winds and rain to be sure that we knew which protected particularly well from the weather, and which didn't.

When we couldn't go backpacking, we'd set these tents up...
When we couldn't go backpacking, we'd set these tents up side-by-side during weather, sleep out in them and see how they do in all types of weather. here we see how each fairs in the stormy weather of the Colorado Rockies...our backyard...literally.
Photo: Amber King

Adaptability


For supremely adaptable shelters, like flat tarps, we made sure to play around out in the field (on a nice weather day) by setting them up in as many ways as possible. We also played around with the pitch height of pyramids, and by using dedicated pole tents both with and without the rain flys. We assessed how many different ways a shelter can be set up, how many different ways to use it, and how appropriate it is for different seasons and climates.

Simply playing around with different tarp setups in the Dark Canyon...
Simply playing around with different tarp setups in the Dark Canyon, we found that set up in lean-to mode, there is then plenty of room for three people to sleep side-by-side under this flat tarp, and a nice view!

Ease of Set-Up


There's no doubt that some of these shelters had a learning curve associated with setting them up quickly and perfectly, so we made sure to withhold judgment until after a few practice rounds had taken place. Then we timed how fast we were able to set up each tent, alone, in a windstorm, with prior knowledge of how to do so.

How easy is it to set up on its own? Here we work to do it over...
How easy is it to set up on its own? Here we work to do it over harder ground, next to a raging river, in windy conditions.
Photo: Amber King