Everything on this page refers to "typical" 3-season conditions. See my page on Winter Camping for snowy conditions.
A shelter is anything that protects you from environmental conditions to provide an adequate living space for brief periods of time in the wilderness. Since different environments have different needs many different types of shelters have been developed.
- Freestanding Tents: easy to set up but can be heavy
- Pyramid Shelters: uses trekking poles (which many people bring anyway) to create a "circus tent" like structure.
- Tarps: Typically use in a A-frame configuration alone but may also be incorporated into hammock or biyv sack systems
Shelter Fabrics: Waterproof Materials
Cuben Fiber: Also known as Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) is a grid of dyneema fiber which is the strongest fiber in the world. These fibers are embedded in a translucent and flexible polysester film.
- Ultralight, extremely durable and waterproof
- Doesn't stretch, so pitching shelter and stuffing it into a small pack can be a pain.
- Not widely available.
Basics of Freestanding Tents
The traditional freestanding tent has several different parts to make a water, wind and bug resistant shelter.
- The support structure for the tent body is provided by poles.
- The inner tent walls are composed of varying degrees of mesh and a water resistant fabric like sil-nylon to increase ventilation while still providing protection from bugs.
- The floor of the tent is the only part that is truly waterproof (at least in theory). This "bathtub floor" is much thicker than the other walls and usually extends several inches up sidewalls.
- The outer tent (or fly) is more water resistant than the non-mesh parts of in the inner tent. It is important to note that the function of the outer tent is shed water or snow to the ground and not to be a impenetrable barrier to water. Water is easily transferred from one side of the tent walls to the other, (this is easily seen by just touching the tent whiles during a rain storm). As such the fly should be set a minimum several inches away from the inner tent. Once the water has been shed to the ground it should not come back in contact with the main tent body. Thus the fly should be staked out as far away from the main tent as possible.
- The last part is the footprint or ground cloth. Anyone in the outdoor retail industry will tell you that this is required but this is not really true. The main reason to use one is that the waterproof coating on the bathtub floor is degraded by abrasion etc. The first use of a brand new tent should see no benefit of a footprint. However, I tend to use mine simply to provide an extra layer of protection for the floor of the tent ("protect my investment etc"). DIY options for ground cloths include simple household options like painters drop cloths, a wax table cloth, as well as more sophisticated options like tyvek, polycryo, and mylar sheeting. A final point about the ground cloth is that it should be slightly smaller than the extent of the fly. If it were larger it would simply collect rain as it ran off the fly and eventually wind up inside the tent.
Tent stakes are like socks-you're always losing them. I don't know why they don't paint these bright orange or neon green/yellow. That would make them much easier to find in the morning when you're packing up. Some options for replacement stakes:
- MSR mini-groundhog. A good option. They have never failed me.
- Avoid really cheap stakes like these. Despite saying all the right things (0.5 oz each, anodized, aircraft grade 7075 aluminum which I doubt is true) they bend easily when stomping them into the ground. That said, the price per stake is hard to beat ($1.50 each).
- These Kungix stakes are a slightly better option for very cheap stakes. They are slightly heavier but it's worth it.
Tarps are new to me (as of Jan 01, 2018) so we'll learn together. I did a practice set up of my new cuben fiber tarp from Mountain Laurel Designs today in the courtyard of my condo building.
Some good info on mids from Dave Chenault:
Guylines are attached to the tarp with a Bowline knot and tensioned and secured to the stake with a McCarthy Hitch. There's a video below of Andrew Skurka demonstrating these knots. Andrew's page on guylines and tension systems is here.
These days my preferred shelter is a floorless tarp of one kind of another. For a ground sheet I use my trash compactor bag internal pack liner laid on the ground and and a mylar emergency blanket over that. The trash compactor bag is pretty robust but the mylar is quite delicate. To protect the mylar, I put the compactor bag under my torso where weight is highest and wear and tear from abrasion will be highest.
- Barebones Emergency Blanket: 52" x 84", ~1$ each. Very Delicate.
- SOL Emergency Blanket: 2.5 oz, 56" x 84", ~4$ each. I prefer this heavier, more durable version of the above because it will not shred if it gets a tiny puncture.
- SOL Survival Blanket: 2.88 oz, 60" x 96". ~$6.50 each. A larger version of the above SOL emergency blanket.