Twelve Ultralight Backpacking Tents and Shelters: Part 1

Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid picthed for Heavy Rain
Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid pitched for Heavy Rain

I’ve bought and owned 12 ultralight shelters in the past 6 years. Several of you asked what they were, and wanted to know why I bought them and then moved on to others (See also How to Choose an Ultralight Tent or Shelter: Part 1 and Part 2).

I wish I could tell you that I knew what I was doing when I bought all of these tents and shelter. I didn’t. In most cases it’s because I’d never owned a tarptent, or a hammock, or a pyramid tarp before and only had a hazy notion of what conditions they were good in. There’s only so much you can really understand about a new type of tent or shelter until you try one and see how it performs in dry weather and rain, and in hot and cold weather.

For example,

  • I bought my first  tarptent when I started experimenting with  ultralight backpacking.
  • I bought a hammock when I decided that I wanted the flexibility to sleep anywhere there were  trees.
  • I bought a winter tent when I started winter backpacking and mountaineering.
  • I bought a pyramid tarp when I wanted to backpack across windy Scotland.

If there’s a moral to be learned from my experience, it’s this. When you buy your first tent or shelter in a new “category,” try to buy the least expensive one you can or borrow one from a friend for a few trips. Buying the most expensive model, say in cuben fiber, when you’ve never tried one in that category before, might provide financially disastrous if it doesn’t work out as well as you hoped.

Experience really does pay off. The trick is to pay as little for it as possible.

My Shelter History

Here are the tents and shelters that I’ve owned in chronological order of purchase. I’ve split this post into two parts, so I’ll cover the first six today and bring you up to date on the last six in Wednesday’s post.

      1. Tarptent Squall 2
      2. Six Moons Lunar Solo
      3. Oware 1 person cuben fiber tarp
      4. Hennssey Hammock
      5. Jacks ‘R’ Better 8 x 8 silnylon tarp
      6. Black Diamond FirstLight tent
      7. Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Duo
      8. Tarptent Scarp 1
      9. ZPacks Hexamid
      10. Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid
      11. Outdoor Equipment Supplier 10 x 10 Square Silnylon Tarp
      12. Tarptent Notch

Tarptent Squall 2

Tarptent Squall 2
Tarptent Squall 2

The Tarptent Squall 2 was the first ultralight shelter I ever bought. At 34 ounces, it was by far the lightest tent I’d ever owned and it was the first tarp tent I tried. It was very comfortable to sleep in, it had a lot of space to spread out my gear because it was a two-person shelter, it rarely suffered from any internal condensation except in exceptionally heavy rain, and it was easy to pitch. I still think it is a fantastic value, especially for someone converting over from a double-walled tent to their first ultralight shelter.

Still, the Squall 2 had a pretty big footprint in terms of the area required to pitch it and requires a separate hooped rear pole. I knew I could slash my gear by another 9 ounces (which seemed important at the time), so I bought a 23 ounce Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo. I still hung onto the Squall 2 though.

Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo

Six Moon Designs Luna Solo on The Long Trail, 2008
Six Moon Designs Luna Solo on The Long Trail, 2008

I can’t remember my exact rationale for purchasing the Lunar Solo, but at the time I was infatuated by ultralight backpacking and slashing the weight of my pack. My first UL backpack was also a Six Moon Designs Starlite, which probably factored into the decision to buy a tent from them.

The Lunar Solo was a fine tent in dry weather. Pitching it could be a little finicky because it has a 5 sided shape, but it had excellent ventilation. It also had a front beak that pitched over the front guyline like the Squall 2 and provided a place to keep gear if it was raining. It’s only weakness was internal condensation over the foot area do to low hanging fabric. I believe Ron Moak revised the design later to take care of that problem. Still the smaller footprint made it easier to find good natural tent sites in forests and it took up less space in my backpack. I really liked it.

 Oware Cat-cut Spinnaker Tarp

Oware Cat-Cut Tarp
Oware Cat-Cut Tarp

I can’t remember buying this spinnaker (predecessor to cuben fiber) tarp. Total amnesia. Someone told me it was likely private labelled by but sewn by a company called Oware, that they outsourced their shelters to. I found it when I was cleaning out my gear closet one day. I never used it and ended up selling it because it was too small. I don’t like tarps that are that confining and I don’t think they’re weatherproof enough for New England backpacking. You want something larger like a two person tarp.

It weighed 4.8 oz which probably contributed to my purchasing it in an ultralight backpacking fugue. Buying a shelter purely in the basis of weight is a bonehead reason to buy a shelter. I probably lost money when I sold it, but I can’t find any record of what I paid for it originally.

Hennessey Hammock

Hammocking in the Adirondacks
Hanging Out in the Adirondacks

If you camp enough in the Northeast, it’s easy to justify switching to a shelter that you can hang between two trees.  I bought a Hennessey Ultralite Backpacker Asym Hammock because I could see myself backpacking through the mountains with it and sleeping on rocky slopes where good campsites are difficult to find.

Unfortunately, I could never sleep comfortably in my hammock because I was too cold at night. I tried buying thicker undershield systems from Jacks ‘R’ Better (JRB) and Hennessey, but that didn’t work. I tried adding additional sleeping pads and even a down underquilt (shown above) which helped somewhat, but was still insufficient to keep me warm.

This went on for quite some time until I gave up on hammocks, concluding that they were  never going to be a weight or pack-volume efficient shelter option for me because of their limited temperature range. It’s too bad because they have some real attractive properties, but they didn’t work for me at the time.

I ended up selling all my hammock gear, except for a $80 green silnylon Jacks ‘R’ Better 8 x 8 tarp that I hung onto. They don’t make it anymore. I love it.

Jacks ‘R’ Better 8 x 8 Tarp

JRB 8x8 Square Tarp pitched as Adirondack Wind Shed in the 100 Mile Wilderness
JRB 8×8 Square Tarp pitched as an Adirondack Wind Shed in the 100 Mile Wilderness

I started using my JRB 8×8 Square Tarp toward the end of 2008 as a fall back shelter on the Long Trail in Vermont. The Long Trail has a shelter system like the Appalachian Trail, but the shelters are much nicer, often with four walls and a door.

I was hiking the LT off-season so I almost always had the shelters to myself. But I carried the tarp along just in case I didn’t end up at a shelter by nightfall. Weighing 9 ounces, my little tarp made a perfect just-in-case shelter. I did use it once when I got to a shelter that was under repairs and boarded-up. I’ve since done the same thing on AT section hikes, carrying an ultralight tarp as a hedge against not getting a shelter spot at night. It depends on the time of year and section you hike, but by carrying a tarp instead of a tent, you can lighten your pack or carry a day or two more food between resupplies.

Several years later I got very interested in flat tarps(with 90 degree corners) and how to pitch them in all kind of different shapes. Learning these pitches and how to incorporate landscape features into a tarp pitch is a real throw-back, old-school skill. But it really adds a rich  dimension to campsite selection that I enjoy. If you’d like to learn more, check out Square Tarp Pitches.

I still own this tarp and doubt I’ll ever sell it. It’s the best $80 I ever spent on a shelter.

Black Diamond FirstLight Tent

Black Diamond Firstlight Tent (Freestanding)
Black Diamond Firstlight Tent (Freestanding)

I bought the Black Diamond FirstLight for cold weather and winter backpacking, five years ago, I think. I still own it and continue to use it in those conditions.

If you read my post How to Choose an Ultralight Tarp or Shelter: Part 2, you’ll see that I deliberately left out a shelter category called Single-Walled Tents. These are different from tarp tents because they don’t have any bug netting sewn into the walls. This design is only used for winter mountaineering tents where light weight is more important than comfort and where internal condensation is mitigated by colder, less humid air. I didn’t list a Single Walled Tent category in that series because they are very few tents like this available.

I bought the Black Diamond FirstLight because it was the lightest 4 season tent with a floor that I could find (43 ounces). It’s a single-walled freestanding tent which pitches using two collapsible poles that run from corner to corner inside the tent. Being freestanding is its greatest virtue, making it very fast to erect without the need to wait for tent stakes to sinter (freeze) in place beforehand. I also bring this tent on trips where I know I’ll have to use wooden platforms.

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