It’s essential to bring along equipment that will allow you to get out of the conditions Mother Nature can throw your way throughout a backpacking experience. Every hiker on every trip into the wild should have the ability to create some form of shelter.
If you know how to build a natural shelter (and have the appropriate supplies and time) it is possible to utilize the resources that are provided by your destination to create a shelter (watch Drop Dead Ted turn a critical eye on his homemade test shelters). While we suggest everyone practice those types of essential survival skills, most of us that plan to spend a night or more in the wild will prefer to pack out a shelter that takes less time and energy to set-up.
When we are deciding on the appropriate shelter option for our adventures we focus on three broad categories. We are certainly going to consider how easily and quickly we can set a particular shelter up, the weight of the shelter and the volume the shelter will take up in our pack, but the majority of our decision making process will be included in these three categories: the weather, the terrain and our personal comfort threshold.
When it comes to the weather we break down our shelter need into three-season protection or four season protection. A four season shelter is typically a heavier shelter with a beefier pole structure and more enclosed canopy that is designed to bear the weight of snow and ice. Four season shelters usually perform better in cold winter winds (check out the Alti Storm from NEMO).
If we are not winter camping we typically prefer a three-season shelter. Three season shelters are usually lighter, pack down with less bulk and offer better ventilation.
In addition to the weather, the terrain we are hiking into will play a major role in many of our decisions concerning the design of our shelter. Some environments are just a better match for specific shelter designs.
Take sections of the Florida Trail for instance, if there is ankle high water on the ground all around you, a hammock may be your best option. Hammock shelters are growing in popularity, we are seeing more and more of them in the backcountry all the time. As long as there are trees readily available in the terrain you are exploring, utilizing a hammock will eliminate the need to find a level, rock free piece of earth to lie on.
The terrain will also dictate whether we choose a free-standing or a non-free-standing shelter. Free-standing shelters are designed with the ability to stand upright without the need of stakes or guy-lines (check out the Obi 2P from NEMO), whereas non-free-standing shelters will require stakes and lines to create the rigid support they need to stand upright (check out the META 2P from NEMO).
A trip into Yosemite National Park and the high Sierra will likely provide you an opportunity to sleep on a bed of granite, if you choose a non-free-standing shelter in that terrain, good luck getting the stakes in the ground. Sure, you can utilize rocks and boulders to pitch a non-free-standing tent on a bed of granite, but it will certainly be less convenient than a free-standing design.
We always pay close attention to the relationship between weight, comfort and convenience with all of our gear choices.
Non-free-standing shelters can offer a weight savings, but they can also sacrifice convenience by being more difficult to pitch in some types of terrain.
We definitely love to see innovations that offer a weight savings. The Meta 2P utilizes trekking poles to support the non-free-standing design (weight you are already carrying for your on trail support), and shelters like NEMO’s GOGO Elite, a featherweight superbivy that not only saves weight with a minimalist design and lower volume bivy style, but trims the weight even more by eliminating the need for poles thanks to air support technology.
Another design comparison that can impact weight, comfort and convenience is that of single wall vs. double wall shelters. The single layer of waterproof breathable nylon used in single-wall shelters like the META and GOGO offer a weight savings versus the two “walls” (an internal layer of nylon and no-see-um netting and an external removable waterproof nylon rain-fly) of a double wall design like the Obi, but you may be inconvenienced by the lack of versatility regarding breathability and star gazing and you may sacrifice some comfort dealing with the typical increase of condensation created by the single-wall design.
In addition to the weather and terrain considerations it is critical that you find a shelter that will accommodate your personal comfort needs. Some of you will not get a good night sleep in the banana shape of a hammock, some will find the bivy a bit too confining, some may find condensation annoying and we will all get frustrated if the shelter doesn’t pitch quickly in a downpour.
Be sure you set up your shelter in the shop, before you make the purchase. Take your time, get inside, check the head room and be sure your toes and head don’t touch the walls. Are the zippers smooth and easy to operate (even with gloves on)?
Your necessary level of comfort is a very personal decision, just remember, backpacking is not punishment and it is very possible to get a good night sleep in the backcountry, maybe even the best sleep of your life!
For more on tents check out this Tent Buying Guide by Backpacker Magazine’s Gear Editor, Kristen Hostetter: http://www.backpacker.com/tent-buying-guide/gear/15054
See You Outside,
Sheri and Randy Propster
For more backpacking essentials check out: AS SEEN ON TOUR