Going Lighter Guide: Ultralight Shelters

Lakeland Wildcamp

Using a tarp in the English Lake District 

OK, so here is the big one — a chance to go completely over the top and become a real ultralight fan boy! Of course, the lower down the weight scale we get the less things become about flightier weight and, often, more about enjoying and being at one with the outdoors.

Some of you may be generally interested in ultralight shelters while others of you may just treat this as a bit of entertainment while you scratch your heads and wonder what the hell this is all about.

But let’s dive into the ultralight world.

The Ultimate Ultralight Shelter — Experience

I added the word experience to this section very deliberately. For me, this should all be about the experience and not the gear! It should be about connecting you to the great outdoors as effectively as possible and not simply being a discussion about your next purchase! OK, so now you know where I am coming from.

Probably the best lightweight shelter from an experience and philosophical point is a simple straight tarp like that in the picture at the top of this piece. A tarp like this gives you shelter from rain and some of the other elements. Most particularly this kind of shelter allows you to sleep out under the stars with great visibility of what is happening around you. Tents often don’t do that for you. Some of my favourite moments belong to tarps, like the time a few years ago when, in the middle of night, a herd of mountain ponies came down to drink at the stream I was camped next to.

Tarps are very simple things and as they are usually suspended using the trekking poles you are carrying, they are as light a shelter as you can get. It takes a bit of practice to pitch a tarp effectively and there is a lot of messing around with chord and knots. But this simple tarp is pretty versatile. It can be pitched high in really good weather or pitched down lower as in the photo. You can peg out the sides of the shelter right down to the floor to protect against the wind, or pitch the rear end to the floor.

I remember the night in this photo well. I’d made wet up to the Lakes for the official launch of Martin Wainwright’s biography of Alfred Wainwright (no relation). It was a fine, fine evening. I sat all alone taking in the view and ate my meal that had been warmed over a wood burning backpacking stove. It was the ultimate overnight experience. Now somebody at this point will be muttering bivy bags but a simple tarp is a damn site more versatile and comfortable!

But here is the problem with the tarp. Next morning the weather had begun to draw in. The launch party assembled and together we climbed to the top of Helm Cragg where the launch ceremony was conducted. (Apparently Helm Cragg was a local peak that old Alfred never climbed — that kind of thing appeals to Martin). As we climbed rain began to fall. BY the time we got to the top the rain was pelting down, as it can only in The Lakes. The party beat the retreat back to a hotel. It was my intention to spend a couple of days or nights ambling around the hills. The Lakes are not one of my usual stomping ground and John Lee had sent me details of some secluded and high camp spots. But as we sat in that hotel lounge the rain came down heavier and heavier. A check often forecast suggested it might stay this way for several days — and often it can hereabouts. The wind began to pick up strength.

And here is a problem with a tarp in the UK. I quickly reckoned that this was not the shelter to have up high in these conditions. I discovered two of the soaked TV executives had booked a taxi to take them to the train station and I bailed out with them.

Tarping in the UK is wonderful. Tarping in the UK can be a dreadful experience. I want to enjoy my time in the hills. I don’t want to be up all night re-staking our pegs, worrying about changing wind directions and generally waiting for things to collapse. And believe me, I have spent nights like this.

So, a tarp is great but here in the UK the opportunities to use them regularly in the UK — in ways that would be pleasant and fun — are limited. I want my hiking to be fun. I don’t want to pretend that I’m in the SAS or on a five month hike on the PCT. I just want to have a great night sleeping out.

So, over the last decade or so we have seen the development of new types of shelters that are often hybrids of tarps and tents but that are very lightweight yet functional in poor weather.

Cuben Fibre/DCF

As we are talking ultralight here I am only going to considering Cuben Fibre fabric shelters, or Dyneema Composite Fabrics (DCF) as we are now supposed to call it. Many of shelter styles I list below are available in cheaper but heavier material such as sinylons. But, because this is an indulgence I shall ignore them.

Now why would I ignore them?

DCF is an extraordinary fabric which was initially developed, as I understand, for use with performance yacht competition. DCF is not a woven fabric but one that is created with a resin, rather like fibreglass. Strands of Dyneema fibre (that stuff they make bullet proof vests out of) are encased in a resin. This stuff is exceptionally strong. It can be punctured more easily than other fabrics but the ‘hole’ will not run as in a fabric. It can easily be repeated with a DCF patch or if it is small enough with seam sealant. I once put a trekking pole through one of my shelters, swore and then simply dabbed some seam sealant over the hole — that sealant will last as long as the shelter. DCF is more subject to damage from abrasion but today’s shelter use different weights of this fabric to ensure that there is more protection to high wear areas of equipment.

So, DCF is extremely light but it is very, very expensive (which is why we have the sinylon options). Normally I would hesitate to focus on something this pricey but we are talking about the extreme end of the lightweight scale.

For the price though DCF offers some really great properties aside from weight. DCFG/cuben does not absorb water and so when you carry wet tent it is pretty easy to avoid excess water and to shed what water is left as you walk. DCF does not sag in wet weather. You won’t be waking up as often to find your perfect pitch of the night before looks ragged and saggy. And — as I’ve referenced before in this series — DCF — is not only light but it compacts down into a very small package which is ideal for smaller packs.

So, if the fabric of choice is DCF/Cuben, where do we go with design? (What follows are my own categories)

Pyramid Tents

These are often known as teepee tents, often four sides where each side stretches to the floor. The shelter is suspended from a single trekking pole in the centre of the tent (hence the teepee shape). Here are some on the TGO Challenge.

 

Gleann Gaorsaic Wildcamp

Myself and Phil Turner camping just below a summit ridge

These tents come in various sizes, or capacities. Most useful here is something that often gets described as a two person pyramid shelter but which tends to be the most ideal for one person.

These tents can be great. They can be pitched in a very stable way with panel pull out chords protecting from winds. But they have, in my experience, several downside which affect choice.

Firstly, while you have tons of room inside the shelter space can be limited by the centre poll. However, in a decent two person pyramid you have lots of space for yourself on one side of the pole and for your gear on the other.

Secondly, they can be a pain to pitch tightly on uneven ground. It is amazing how often you can’t get a really taught pitch. Then the next evening you pitch perfectly. You think you’ve discovered the secret of a great pitch. Only the next night you totally fail again. This is due to the geometry of the pyramid. (Don’t bother telling me I am wrong and useless — I am totally right on this occasion — oh yes I am.)

However, I’ve spent many happy days on multi-day trips with my pyramid which is the DuoMid from Mountain Laurel Designs. The shelter can be pitched down to the ground for protection in windy conditions and raised slightly higher for nights when you want greater airflow to prevent condensation.

This design is very popular and you will find lots of reviews of these shelters online, both in written form and on YouTube. As I say, you often have the option of buying in cheaper sinylon. Many different manufacturers have versions of the pyramid tent. Backpackinglight.co.uk carry a range of these that are very competitively priced and popular and Bob and Rose don’t go anywhere near anything as expensive as DCF.

Here in the UK — for all year camping — you will need to buy an optional bug net which are nearly always available. An alternative is to use a very lightweight bivy made to be used under a tarp. I have one of these. It is great. Until you have to use the damn thing. If you think a mummy sleeping bag can be claustrophobic then wait until you have to spend a night enclosed in one of these lightweight bivy bags! 

 

The ‘Beak Mid’ for the single hiker

 

Camp at Loch Osian.

My Tramplite Shelter on the side of Loch Ossian

But can we improve on both the form factor and performance of the pyramid shelter. Well, yes you can.

Imagine half a pyramid tent. As you can see here, the shelter pitches to the floor at the rear but the front features a peak, in other words this front panel doesn’t reach right to the floor. Your sleeping area is along the rear of the tent. The beak area creates a very large vestibule space for storing gear, for cooking, etc.  The raised beak — and often the ability to adjust the opening — allows you to have a tarp-like experience, for example sleeping out under the stars.

Here is my shelter pitched with the front rolled back. 

My Scottish Home

My shelter pitched near the Minnigaig path, Scottish Highlands

This design allows me to fully open one side of the ‘door’ or both as below:

 

TGO Challenge 2015 (8 of 14).jpg

In summer I often spend still nights with the doors/beak open like this, essentially giving me the same experience as in my tarp.

Although this is a simple form factor many different producers offer many variations on the design. Some have a beak/door that can split in two — as above. My door pulls together using a zip which can be a bit dodgy. Some avoid using zips and use various other clip systems (Z Packs). Some dispense with the split beak/door completely, for example Mountain Laurel and including Colin in the latest iteration of the design I use).  You will find design innovation here but essentially the design is the same.

Where things begin to diverge is when we consider how to deal with bugs. In the UK, in summer, you will need bug protection. The Tramplite Shelters and the Mountain Laurel shelters are designed to work with an independent inner — these may be light but are totally bug free.

Other manufactures build single wall ‘mid’ shelters. You will have  DCFG bathtub floor that is connected to a sewn-in bug net which acts as an inner door (though you have no inner). These shelter can be fine and bug free. They are obviously a few grams lighter because they don’t have an inner.

An inner will not only give you bug protection but extra heat which might be important in the climate you are hiking in. Or, on cold nights you can simply rely on your other sleep gear to keep you warm in a single skin version.

The choice is yours and there is no right or wrong.

The front beak may not extend to the floor but gives you more than enough protection in rain. In strong winds you will want to pitch rear end into the wind, or say to pitch with the protection of trees. But either way, my mid shelter has seen me through some horrendous weather. Ir is pretty easy to raise the pitch a little to maximise airflow though these designs are inherently less problematic when it comes to condensation.

Some Other Key Considerations with Beak Shelters

So, your choice may be influenced by whether you want a bug inner or are happy with the integrated, single shell approach. You may be happier with a zip or want two avoid the rosie of zipper failure at all cost. But there are other issues to look out for.

The main issue here is size, or rather the right length to house you comfortably whatever your height.

Most of these shelters seem to work well for people up to six feet tall. If you are taller than this then other design considerations come in to play. If you are taller you will probably want more head room which will mean you have to use a poll that can extend to the max (above 50 inches) or you will have to use a pole jack — a small length of tube that your pole slips into and sits on top of. The width of the shelter will have to be longer to accommodate taller people and this as well will demand a higher pitch/central pole.

If you are over six foot it pays to research carefully. Z Packs have recently re-introduced a mid that is designed for taller people. Colin’s Tramplite designs accommodate long people not least as Colin is very long himself. You may well find your height is the single most determinate factor in choosing a particular beak/mid tent.

There are many manufactures out there now and I’m not going to focus on many of them. I would say thought that Henry Shires over at tarptent has now started making ‘lithium’ versions of tried and tested designs that are made of DCF. Henry’s design skills alone would mean I would be checking out these at the beginning of my search. And Henry now makes a single person beak/mid himself (DCF) which employs his unique end venting system. I’ve used this system on my Stratospire II tent and I love it. At each end of the tent are two short carbon rods which allow the sides to be tensioned and raised a little — a great piece of design. The downside of this design of Henry’s is that the tent will not compress as much because of those carbon rods (there is another in the roof). This may be a deal killer if you are concerned about compact packing — with my Stratospire I have to change my usual packing technique. But, if you are 6 feet and under, want a single shell ultralight shelter this would be where I start looking. (If you don’t agree just say so politely!)

Beyond Beak/Mids

There are other designs of course especially when you have to accommodate two people.

At the single person end you have shelters with bug nets, or built-in bug protection, that mirror a tarp shape. They may employ two poles one at the front and a lower pitched one at the rear. These designs are very popular with some people, thought not with me!

Room for Two?

 While there are many different designs here one is beginning to dominate. Looks at the tarp picture at the top of the page. This is tarp big enough for two. The poles are at either end of the length of the tent.

The design that I think has now won is a relatively simple design in which a rectangular share is pitched with two trekking poles on either side at the centre of the fabric with each end effectively pegged to the floor. This is simple and efficient and can utilise the all in one bug net, single shell concept I discussed above or the variation which uses a fully independent inner/bug net.

The market leaders here are, probably, Z Packs and Tarptent.

The Z Packs Duplex is a simple design that employs in sewn-in bug net doors. There is a vestibule/entrance on each side of the tent which is brilliant when there are two of you on a long hike. Each person has their own sizeable vestibule to store packs and gear and to cook in (if they want to do this independently). Each person has their own door and so there is no crawling over each other in the middle of the night!

These tents are great for solo hikers when they are travelling in a pair. I have a now very standard layout in my vestibule; I instantly know where everything goes. In one of these tents I can still have my own vestibule and lay it out in the same way. A big plus.

Now, the Tarptent not only employs a suspended inner but is not quite a simple rectangular shape. Typically, of Henry Shires his design is ingenious and very effective. Here is a photo of my Stratospire II:

 

Glenfinnan

As you can see this is not a simple rectangle. Here the tent is using two trekking poles internally and the other two are being used to create ‘lifters’ for the end panels, which helps keep the fly away from your body. You don’t have to use lifters but can just peg out using straight chord though you do lose some space. Of course, with the Z Packs Duplex you can also use two poles as lifters (although the Duplex seems a pretty popular tent for solo hikers, especially the taller ones). The Stratospire also has the end carbon rod/vent system that I talked about earlier.

If you want fast and light then the Duplex is probably your friend. If you want a very sturdy construction and an inner it will be hard to beat the Stratosphere II (there is also a single person Stratospire). When I bought mine it wasn’t available in DCF although now it is — today I wouldn’t hesitate to spend the extra cash as my version does suffer from rain sag.

Other Brands and Options

There are many other options and brands and, if I’m honest, it is difficult to keep up with them. Do your research and pick out something that you think has the right feature set for you. And then use the lightweight forums to connect with people that have been using the tent.

It is true that many forums are dominated by ‘fan boys’ (almost always males) but there are many that will give you an honest opinion of their shelter and may well happily let you know what they are not happy about or what their next shelter might be.

As always a lot comes down to where you are hiking.

When I bought the Stratospire II I considered the Duplex but my partner didn’t like it. To be fair the Strat is really suited to camping out in the Scottish Highlands which is what it was bought for. But I am now planning an extended period in the High Pyrenees which in summer is very hot. Walking here can be hard. I will want a good weather proof shelter but don’t want something that holds water; I want something as effective and light as it gets. And for the moment the Duplex wins hands down and I will probably go for that.

I’ll make one final comment, indeed recommendation. The range of Henry Shires designed tents from Tarptent is now very extensive. Some use trekking poles and some conventional poles. Some have inners and some are single skins with built in big nets. They are all great designs and tried and tested in UK conditions. And now the whole range (or most of it) is being offered in DCF. For lightweight backpackers in the UK these are likely to be at the top of any audition list.

 

 

Above all else these tarps and tarp hybrids allow you to get the maximum outdoor experience, particularly on a summer evening. If you can afford one they are a fine investment. If you can’t don’t worry — you will not be any less of a good hiker!

 

Some manufacturers:

Tramplite Gear — Colin Ibbotson (UK)

Mountain Laurel Designs — Ron Bell (USA)

Z Packs (USA)

TarpTent (USA)

Six Moon Designs (UK)

…    to anybody I haven’t featured!

 

 

Comments

  1. Excellent piece Andy. Very informative

  2. Good basis for me to catch up on the available technology for the first TGOC in a decade and a half for 2021. Thx

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