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

How We Tested Ultralight Shelters

Tuesday October 29, 2019

We started this review over eight years ago and since then have evaluated over 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 metrics listed below.

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.

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. 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. 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. We weigh each component to help you get a handle on what each parts weights
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

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. 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.

Set up on a day of severe wind for testing this shelter was not well suited to handle consistent winds like this.
Set up on a day of severe wind for testing this shelter was not well suited to handle consistent winds like this.

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.