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

How We Tested Ultralight Shelters

Tuesday May 21, 2019
The Flylite 2 set up in the Khumbu of Nepal. Two adjustable trekking poles are needed on either side of the door  and a short pole  included  provides the height in the back. Notice the large area needed for setup.
The Flylite 2 set up in the Khumbu of Nepal. Two adjustable trekking poles are needed on either side of the door, and a short pole, included, provides the height in the back. Notice the large area needed for setup.

The year 2018 marks our seventh year of testing and evaluating ultralight tents and shelters, including tarps, pyramids, and super light double-wall, dedicated pole tents. Over that long period, our testers spent hundreds of nights in these shelters in the Sierra Nevada, Cascades, Rocky Mountains, Utah desert, and far beyond. Fast and light bicycle trips, long alpine routes and traverses, and trips along the Continental Divide Trail all provided us great perspective on each product's performance in the past. This year the testing took place over five months of trekking, backpacking, and car camping in the Himalaya of Nepal, the Colorado Rockies, the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, and the desert of Southwest Utah.

The most important aspect of our testing is using products in the field, as they are meant to do. We have found that only by using these tents on our crazy adventures are we able to hone in on the things that work the best, and those that don't. It is these experiences that form the bulk of our impressions and assessments of these products. However, for some metrics, we also devised specialized tests to help us solidify our opinions.

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 snow storms in the Himalaya, that isn't exactly what they do best. 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 in equitable 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.

Set up on a day of severe wind for testing  this is what it was like on the inside of the Solar Photon  which was not well suited to handling consistent winds like this.
Set up on a day of severe wind for testing, this is what it was like on the inside of the Solar Photon, which was not well suited to handling consistent winds like this.

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 ton of covered and protected space for you to spread out your sleeping equipment and other gear. Unlike the Zpacks Duplex  it has an offset design  where one side of the tarp is longer than the other.
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. Unlike the Zpacks Duplex, 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 dedicated aluminum poles  and most are sold without stakes.
Many of these models require adjustable trekking poles rather than dedicated aluminum poles, and most are sold without stakes.

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  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!
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.

While it takes a minute or two to set up both the interior tent  as well as put the rain fly over the top  we found this to be one of the more intuitive tents to set up  and the pole locking attachments help for setup with only one person.
While it takes a minute or two to set up both the interior tent, as well as put the rain fly over the top, we found this to be one of the more intuitive tents to set up, and the pole locking attachments help for setup with only one person.