Massdrop 101: Intro to Shelters
Home in the Wild
With so many sizes, styles, materials, and features to consider, looking for a camping shelter can feel a little like looking for a house. And that makes sense. After all, whatever you choose—be it spacious tent or minimalist bivy sack—will serve as your home away from home in the great outdoors; a barrier between you and the elements.
First, the basics: Your shelter should provide adequate protection from wind, rain, insects, and the soggy ground beneath you. Beyond that, you’ll want to think about livability, adaptability, durability, weather resistance, ease of setup, and weight, and how important each of these is to your experience. Generally speaking, a tent that uses lighter, more advanced materials or one that has additional features will have a higher price tag.
Your shelter should be well suited to the environmental conditions you typically find yourself in, and should offer the level of comfort you want after a long day on the trails. Traveling to buggy climes? A mosquito net might be top priority. Going to sunny, hot terrain? Pick an opaque material that minimizes the light and heat filtering into your structure. Like to keep gear out of the rain—and out of your sleeping area, too? Look for a tent with sufficient vestibules made of fabric with higher waterproofness than silnylon.
Finally, think about whether you’ll need to learn any new skills to successfully pitch and use a new type of shelter. Many campers start with a traditional double-wall tent, and as they gain experience and pare down their packs, progress to a tarp tent and sometimes eventually to a tarp.
Black Diamond Skylight in Hidden Valley, West Face of Mount Shasta
Single-Wall & Double-Wall Tents
The most familiar shelter type for most campers, traditional tents provide full-coverage protection and easy setup. Complete with an integrated floor, they’re not the lightest option and not particularly adaptable, but with a range of shapes and construction styles, they’re good choices for car camping, backpacking, and bicycle touring. Plus, they’re often sold with all the poles and stakes necessary for setup. (Remember to always set up your tent at home as a test before using it in the field.)
What's the Difference?
It’s just as the name implies: A single-wall tent is constructed with a single wall of fabric, while a double-wall tent is constructed with two walls, typically the tent body (breathable but not waterproof, usually mostly mesh) and a separate rain fly (waterproof but not breathable).
Originally used almost exclusively by mountaineers and now widely available for all kinds of adventures, single-wall tents are quicker and easier to set up, and weigh less than double-wall tents with the same size and season rating. They’re best suited to cold, dry alpine environments.
Black Diamond HiLight
Double-wall tents help mitigate internal condensation, a common complaint with single-wall tents, and generally offer more dry gear storage in the form of multiple doors and vestibules. However, they’re heavier and you’ll have to spend more time on setup, staking the vestibules and adjusting the rain fly. These are best in rainy, humid environments and any time you need extra gear storage.
Big Sky Chinook 2P
Freestanding or Non-Freestanding
Freestanding tents require poles to stand up, and because they’re not attached to anything, they can be picked up and moved without losing their basic form. They come in handy when you’re camping on ground where it’s not possible to use stakes, like a rock ledge, wooden platform, frozen surface, or very loose sand. All freestanding tents benefit from the use of stakes for structural integrity, and nearly all require stakes for the vestibule/s.
Big Sky Soul 2P
Non-freestanding tents must be staked into the ground to keep their shape. They’re generally lighter than freestanding tents and more likely to hold up in high winds, when properly set up.
A-frame tents are lightweight, simple, and relatively inexpensive. However, their sloping walls may limit headroom and aren’t designed to withstand strong winds.
Modified A-frame tents offer more interior space and structural stability than traditional A-frames, using a center hoop pole, a ridgeline pole, or curved sidewalls.
Mountainsmith Mountain LT
Dome tents typically feature arched ceilings and provide ample interior space and solid stability in wind. These are the most common commercially available tent shape.
Kelty Salida 2P
Hoop, tunnel, or tube tents offer a good balance of weight and weather-readiness, but because they’re not freestanding, require appropriate staking to maintain their shape. Generally the most wind-worthy tents, tunnel tents are more common in alpine environments and more popular in Europe than in the US.
Terra Nova Wild Country Zephyros 2P
Wedge tents are higher at the head end and lower towards the foot, and designed for the low end to be pitched into the wind.
Big Sky Wisp 1P
Floorless Pyramid Tents
When seeking to emphasize the hiking—or biking, climbing, or rafting—part of the experience, rather than the camping part, outdoor enthusiasts may choose to move away from the traditional tent in order to reduce their pack weight.
A floorless pyramid tent is a natural transition, offering a lot of livability for the weight. It consists of a vertical center pole and a rain fly, which is staked out to form a pyramid shape. Because it doesn’t have a permanent floor, it makes site selection less limited when you’re camping on uneven ground. For the same reason, it’s not the best choice for dished-out tent sites that pool water when it rains. These are more commonly used in winter.
Black Diamond Mega Light
Tarp tents are the newest development in tents, and are typically a hybrid single/double wall. These provide all the traditional protections for three-season backpacking at a light weight. Nearly all have some bug netting and an adjustable, waterproof bathtub-style floor, so that you’re completely enclosed. They’re great for backpacking, bicycle touring, and thru-hiking. Most are not freestanding and some require adjustable trekking pole/s for setup.
Big Sky Mirage 2P
Constructed with a “catenary cut” ridge line, A-frame tarps have a curved shape that’s easier to pitch taut. They’re a good value for lightweight backpacking and thru-hiking, and like all tarps, require a pair of adjustable trekking poles for setup (or two trees in the right setting).
Zerogram Minimalist Nano Tarp
The lightest and most adaptable type of ultralight tent shelter, flat tarps offer serious versatility and call for the skill set to match. When pitched properly, they’re among the most secure shelters in heavy three-season storms. Because they have so many different pitching geometries, they’re a good choice for alpine climbing and challenging campsites, and are sometimes paired with a bivy sack for extra protection.
Bearpaw Designs 10x10
First developed as solo shelters for mountaineering, climbing, adventure racing, and ultralight backpacking, bivy sacks—short for “bivouac sacks”—were once little more than waterproof slipcovers for sleeping bags. They kept the bags dry and increased their warming capacity, but didn’t do much in the way of ventilating vapor produced by body heat. These days, they’re usually made from highly water-resistant or waterproof fabric, the bottom layer a heavier fabric (similar to what’s used for some tent floors) and the top a lighter, breathable fabric.
Lightweight and extremely portable, bivy sacks allow you to venture around, pick a site, and be ready to go to sleep in a matter of minutes. You won’t need a lot of space to set up camp (just an area the length and width of your sleeping bag), which makes this shelter ideal for solo trips, winter camping in snow caves, and the like. Bivy sacks can be used on their own, with or without a sleeping bag inside, or in conjunction with a tarp.
Borah Gear Snowyside 2.0 eVent Bivy
Hammock camping gives you an unprecedented level of site selection. Because you’ll be sleeping a few feet in the air, you needn’t worry about those sharp rocks, that pesky tree root, or sloping terrain. And because you won’t have a ceiling above you, you can enjoy ample airflow and a clear view of the stars at night. Along with saving weight and space in your pack, modern hammocks offer many of the same features as tents, including mosquito netting, rain protection, gear lofts, and storage pockets.
Byer of Maine Traveller Lite
There you have it: an introduction to camping shelters. But that’s only the beginning. Stay tuned for posts that dig deeper into some of the topics we touched on here, along with other ways to make the most of your time out in the wild. Hit the "Follow" button to get notified about future posts from this account. In the meantime, if you have questions, comments, personal recommendations, or stories to share, leave them below. We’d love to hear them—and see pictures, too!