Hiking Shelters 101
There are a range of shelters available for hiking including some “non-traditional” shelters for lightweight hikers. Most hiking shelters fall into one of four categories: Double-walled tents, single-walled tents, tarps, and hammocks (typically combined with a tarp). Ultimately it will be the style of hike, trail conditions and personal preference that will allow to to make a decision on what kind of shelter is best for you.
When most people think of a tent, this is most likely what they imagine. A double-walled tent is just that – a tent that has two walls. Typically this consists of an outer wall that acts as a rain-fly (which may cover the entire tent or only the upper half), and an inner wall that comes into contact with you and your gear while you are inside the tent.
Single-walled tents do away with the outer rain fly and just have one piece of fabric between you and the outside world. Because there is no rain fly, these tents can’t have an open mesh top, and must rely on strategically placed vents to prevent the humid air you are producing from condensing on the inside of the tent. If you happen to have a single-walled tent that doesn’t have proper vents, keeping the door partially unzipped is a good way to help keep things dry.
A “bivy” is a shelter that could be placed in the “single-wall” category. A bivy can most certainly be used as a stand along shelter. However, with lightweight backpacking, bivies are often used in conjunction with a tarp.
Tarps are just that – a tarp! There is no floor to these shelters; you just set up the tarp to cover you and your gear. Typically the tarp has no poles – the hiker’s trekking poles are used instead, thus saving even more on weight. (For those who don’t use trekking poles, lightweight single poles can be purchased). These tarps are not your average tarp, however. These tarps are made of very light material, ranging from the silnylon used in many high-end double-walled tents, to cuben fiber – one of the lightest and strongest materials used in the outdoor industry today.
Hammocks are a fun and lightweight alternative to all of the shelters we have discussed so far. Using a hammock for backpacking will require two stout trees to anchor to. Tarps are set up over the hammock to offer rain protection. If trees are not available, hammocks may also be used as single-wall tents or as part of a tarp system.
Each style of hiking shelter comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. The “best” shelter is the shelter that allows you to be comfortable and enjoy your time hiking. While I would love to pack around a 115 gram cuben fiber tarp, it just doesn’t suit our needs right now. My wife and I love the spaciousness and protection that our double-walled tent provides. Our tent is one of the lightest double-wall tents available. If you’d like to keep your traditional tent but still go lightweight, it can definitely be done. If you feel like experimenting with some even lighter options, give some of these other shelter styles a closer look!