Portable Backcountry Shelters

This is part 1 of a multi-part series on backpacking equipment

  1. Portable Backcountry Shelters
  2. Staying Warm At Night In the Woods
  3. Fueling the Furnace
  4. Dressing Appropriately
  5. All the Other Stuff We Like To Pack
  6. And, Finally, What To Put It All In
  7. An Example Gear List

If you plan on spending much time out in the backcountry you will eventually want to spend the night.  This transformation from a day hiker to a multi-day hiker is about the biggest that you will generally face, at least having to do with wilderness travel.  There are some significant obstacles that must be overcome to spend the night outside of a house/hotel/RV.  These include: staying warm, staying dry, being comfortable and not sacrificing too much of yourself to mosquitoes and other blood sucking insects.  This post will focus on the back country shelter:  staying dry and out of the reach of creepy crawlers.  Staying warm at night will be the topic of a later blog.

There are a variety of shelters that backpackers use, but the most common is a tent.  Other options include tarps, bivvies, hammocks and none.  Shelters come is a variety of sizes and shapes and for different seasons.  Before selecting a tent you will need to know what you generally intend to use it for.  Are you solo packing over long distances, traveling with a group, setting up a base camp or winter traveling with a significant chance of snow and/or heavy wind?  A more difficult question is your tolerance for discomfort and/or pain.  How willing are you to sacrifice some comfort for a weight reduction.

I am generally a solo backpacker, but even when out with others I prefer not to share a tent.  I am a light sleeper and a snoring tent-mate will keep me awake all night.  Most of my backpacking trips are just 2-3 days, but I generally make at least one extended trip a year.  I do not generally travel in the winter so am not concerned with the snow carrying capability of the shelter; but rain and bugs are a frequent issue where I spend most of my time.  So my shelter can be as small as will comfortably fit my 6’2” height, should be lightweight but not to an extreme, should be fully enclosed to keep out the mosquitoes and flies, needs to handle rain well but with no concern for the snow.

I have had several tents over the years.  The first was a two man pup tent from a local big box store.  First time out it rained for three days and the inside of the tent was pretty soggy.  Not fun!  Next was a cheap three man free standing tent with a bit of a rain fly.  It was palatial and reasonably dry, but heavy.  Neither of these tents have been used for years now.  My first real backpacking tent was an REI half dome.  This was lighter and smaller than the previous tents, with enough room for a second person if needed, reasonably roomy and dry.  This eventually became the tent I took when I expected a lot of rain and anticipated spending camp time holed up.  The Sierra Designs CD Lightyear eventually became my go-to tent.  This was a small solo tent that was plenty long enough for me and almost tall enough to sit up in.  Both of these tents have the option of pitching just the rainfly along with a ground cloth if no bugs were expected, thus reducing the tents weight, but I have never used that option.

I have occasionally considered using a tarp rather than a tent.  A tarp definitely has a weight advantage over a tent.  But, while I generally don’t have much of an issue with bugs when out and about during the day, I cannot bear the thought of fighting them all night.  And my only encounter in camp with a tarp camper removed any desire for using just a tarp.  He told about an experience where he had a field mouse run across his face one night.  No thanks!

Bivvies also had some appeal because they seem like a lightweight alternative to a tent.  A bivy is just a waterproof cover that you place over your sleeping bag.  Some, but not all of them, also include a little micro tent of fly screen that goes over your head to protect from bugs.  But they really need to be used in conjunction with a tarp for rain protection, and by that point you are up to the weight of a lightweight solo tent, without as much room.

The major disadvantage of all of these is that you end up sleeping on the ground.  And even with a 2 inch Big Agnes Air Core, the ground just got to be too hard and my hips were sore long before I ran out of dark.  And after about 3 nights I was dreading bedtime.  I had seen ads for hammocks for several years and had thought about trying one, but my little experience with cheap camp hammocks had not left me too impressed with my ability to spend the night in one.  Plus I had never seen anyone actually using one.

That changed at the end of the hiking season 3 years ago.  My buddy and I shared a small lake with a guy using a Hennessy Hammock of some type, and he swore by it.  I looked at it closely and began researching hammocks in earnest once I got back home.  During the research I found the Hammock Forums and was able to read the opinions and experiences of many hammock campers.  I ultimately bought a Blackbird from Warbonnet Hammocks, a small cottage shop.  This hammock allows you to sleep somewhat diagonally for a flatter night’s sleep and has a fly screen cover.  With an 8’ by 10’ tarp to stretch over it, I stay dry, protected from the bugs, and most importantly, sleep comfortably.  Easily the best night’s sleep I have ever had in the woods is when swinging between two trees.

There is one important trade off to be aware of though.  When using a tent you need a bare level place the size of the tent to pitch it.  With a hammock the surface you hang over is not really important, so long as it is not brushy.  What does matter is that you need a couple of trees that are big enough, between 12 to 20 feet apart and with no ‘low to the ground’ branches between them.  I seldom camp out of the trees so this is generally not an issue for me, but it does require a shift in thinking as to what constitutes a good camp site.

6 thoughts on “Portable Backcountry Shelters”

  1. "when swinging between two trees." I also have the blackbird hammock. It is an awesome, comfortable sleeping experience, much preferred to sleeping on the ground. I also recall swinging between 2 trees in Oregons eagle cap wilderness in a stormy night with winds up to 60 miles per hour. We hammock sleepers rock and roll.


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