Shelters for Backpacking
Updated: Oct 5, 2019
One of the attractions of backpacking is the self-sufficient nature of carrying everything you need on your back. It strips life down to the simplest needs. Food, Water, and shelter are all you need to hit the trail. So you've got your backpack but what kind of shelter are you going to carry. Depending on the season and weather conditions you expect to encounter your shelter will need to protect you from rain, wind, cold and bugs. As well, in busy areas, it provides you with some privacy. When it comes to a backpacking shelter, most people think of a tent but you can also use a hammock, tarp, bivy sack or an Appalachian-style lean-to if they happen to be on the trail you are hiking.
Whether you are looking for a luxury basecamp or want a fast and light shelter to make hiking long miles more comfortable you have more options than ever before. I will spell out the different styles of shelters, the benefits and drawbacks, and what to look for when choosing your backpacking shelter.
Sleeping in a tent is what most people think of when backpacking. From the old school pup tent to modern ultralights, tents come in all shapes and sizes. A tent will usually be made up of a tent body, rain fly and poles. There are models where the tent body and rain fly are built together to save weight but these will be more prone to you getting a little wet due to condensation as the bug net doesn't keep you away from the outer surface of the tent.
For backpacking, you should aim to keep the weight down so target 2.5 lbs per person or less. If you are sharing your tent you can share the weight with one person carrying the poles and pegs and the other the fabric.
Some tents are freestanding while others need to be pegged to the ground to stay up. Freestanding tents offer the benefit of being easy to set up when you don't have good ground to peg them to and can be easily picked up and moved while assembled. A tent is pretty universal as far as backpacking shelters go as they can be used in any environment from Eastern forest to Southwestern desert. While finding a level spot can sometimes be a challenge, with experience you can usually find a functional location to put up your tent. Most prepared campsites in parks or on thru-hiking trails are created with tents in mind.
Self-contained with everything you need in one package
Easy to setup
The fully enclosed design gives the best weather protection
Can share with others if your tent is big enough
The most privacy of all the shelters
Condensation can be an issue if the tent lacks adequate ventilation
The need for level smooth ground to set up.
Sleeping on the ground can be uncomfortable even with a sleeping pad
It can be hot in warm weather, especially with multiple people in the tent.
I'll be upfront about this one. Hammocks are my favorite way to sleep when in the backcountry. You don't have to kneel down and crawl in as you do with a tent so getting in and out is easier. As long as there are trees you can set up anywhere. Rough or uneven ground isn't an issue with a hammock. But it isn't a good choice in places like the desert as there aren't trees.
A hammock camping system includes a hammock, suspension straps, tarp, bug net, and insulation for underneath. With a hammock, you will swap a sleeping pad on the ground which insulates from the cold of the ground to a pad in the hammock or underquilt to insulate from the cold air circulating under your butt. The tarp hung over the hammock and pegged out to the ground protects you from rain and the wind.
While hammocks are generally for one person, some are big enough to share. Just keep in mind that you better be comfortable snuggling together as they don't give you a lot of room. A better way to be together when hammock camping is to put two hammocks under one tarp. For your whole system, aim to keep it under 3.5 lbs with your under insulation.
If you have a sleeping pad a hammock system can be used on the ground as well when you experience areas without trees. Your tarp gets setup lower and the bug net from your hammock can keep the bugs off of you.
More comfortable than sleeping on the ground
You don't need a level smooth spot to set up
Reduces condensation as there is more air flow
Can be cooler than a tent in warm weather
You need trees to setup so not useful in the desert or above the treeline
Not as easy to share
There is a learning curve on how to hang a hammock properly
The system can be more expensive than the equivalent gear for tent camping
Harder for group camping as good places to set up may be spread out or hard to find for a lot of hammocks
Using a lightweight tarp and your walking poles can be one of the lightest backpacking shelters available. But unlike a tent, it's up to you how well it gets erected. During bug season a bug net can be hung under the tarp. This is a good option when you want to go light and aren't expecting extreme weather. This can be a good option for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail if you plan to use the shelters along the trail.
Even with guy lines and tent pegs, the weight of a tarp can be under a pound while being large enough for two people. If you use a tarp consider bringing along a piece of Tyvek as a ground sheet so you don't have to put your sleeping pad on the ground. You can get this at Home Depot.
Versatile as there are countless ways to set up a tarp
Doesn't give as much weather protection as a tent
It takes more skill to erect a tarp well
A bivy sack is a waterproof shelter that goes over your sleeping bag and pad. Think of it as a tent only big enough for you and your sleeping gear. Due to the minimal material, they can be very light and compact. When looking for a place to make camp you only need enough of a flat spot that your sleeping pad fits. If you are claustrophobic this might not be the right fit for you as you don't have much extra room.
They are usually made from a waterproof-breathable material like Gore-tex as well as having some venting. The opening will have bug netting making them good for wet, cold or buggy conditions. Many also have a single pole that works to keep the fabric off of your face if you need to close up completely.
A bivy can also be added to your sleep gear to extend the temperature range of your kit. I use one in the winter to turn my 3 season sleeping bag into a winter bag.
Lightweight and compact
Need very little space to set up
Versatile as it can be used as a shelter or part of your sleep system in colder weather.
Very little room
Condensation can be an issue
Some areas like the Appalachian Trail or the Adirondack Mountains have onsite shelters you can use to camp in. Referred to as lean-tos, they look like a log cabin that is missing one wall. With 3 side coverage and a roof overhead, they offer good protection from the elements as long as the wind direction isn't blowing right in the front. Most I've encountered are good for 6-8 people and work on a first come, first serve basis.
If you choose to use the lean-to shelters make sure to bring a backup as you don't want to be stuck out if all of them are full. In the Adirondacks, in the offseason, I use the shelters as it's easy, out of the weather and there is very little traffic. As well, from late August on you don't have to worry about bugs.
The easiest camp to set-up as you just put down your sleeping pad and bag.
First come, first serve so you better get there early.
You have to share with other people so don't expect any privacy
They can be spaced pretty far apart so you have to go until you get there. No early camp.
Each type of backpacking shelter has its place. When I can I will sleep in a hammock due to the better quality of sleep but use a tent when we go down to the desert in Utah or Nevada. I'll often use a tent in winter as it is warmer with more protection, especially if I'm sharing a tent with friends.
Comment below about your favorite type of shelter and why.
Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard