Anybody who has attempted an overnight backpacking trip will have been through the same dilemma: making sure they are safe on the trail whilst keeping pack weight to a minimum. Some seasoned backpackers will opt for a “bare minimum” shelter, whilst others value the comfort of their cozy tent at the end of a long day more than anything.
There are many different options for shelters whilst backpacking: from tents to tarps to bivys and more; and no two backpackers will have the same preferences. All will agree, however, that being best-prepared for your chosen trail is the most important consideration when purchasing gear.
So, do you really need a tent for backpacking? Depending on your location, season and level of expertise, you may not need a tent for backpacking. If you have experience in the area and have a decent emergency shelter, then you may be best suited to a more minimal option that will save you precious pack pounds. Other trails will absolutely demand a tent; with harsher and more unpredictable conditions in which you do not want to be caught unprepared.
When you will NOT need a tent
If backpacking in a temperate climate with low winds, little chance of rain and mild overnight temperatures, then you may well not need a tent. Arizona and Utah are great examples of popular “wild-sleeping” locations. Imagine sleeping under a sky full of stars in the Moab Desert!
You may lose a little luxury without your tent as a pop-up house, but saving on pack weight and space is a real bonus for savvy backpackers and adventurers.
Regardless of how certain you are that you won’t encounter adverse weather conditions; it is always recommended to have at least a lightweight tarp or rain fly that can be secured with a trekking pole and stakes – in case of injury or unexpected weather conditions.
When you DO need a tent
If there is the likelihood of rain, snow or cold winds on your chosen trail, then a tent is likely to be your best option for a shelter. Think of high mountains or the Pacific Northwest as examples of places that you do not want to be open to the elements!
Not all tents are created equal, either. If doing some serious mountaineering or setting out in winter, then a four-season tent is a must-have if you actually want to stay warm and dry. Many “good” three-season tents have failed their inhabitants because the poles weren’t strong enough for the winds, or the flysheet became saturated in the snow.
Alternatives to a tent
Most novice backpackers will start out with a tent, then start to explore their options further in an effort to trim the fat off their backpack. There are several viable alternatives to a traditional tent setup, and they can even be used in combination to provide a more substantial shelter:
The Bivy Bag (formal name: Bivouac Bag) is often a popular choice for mountaineers, cycle tourists or minimalist backpackers. It is essentially a smaller tent just for your sleeping bag, keeping the rain, wind and bugs off you whilst you sleep, and giving you an extra few precious degrees of warmth. They feature a single pole or hoop to provide some head space, and pack down much smaller and lighter than a tent.
They are generally not designed to store your pack in, so most backpackers will carry a small tarp to keep downpours off your precious goods. To get the most out of a bivy bag, it is worth investing in a good one and not opting for the cheapest option. Condensation can easily build up while you sleep, so properly breathable fabrics – like GoreTex – will help to ensure that you remain dry overnight.
The Outdoor Research Helium Bivy is a popular option for those who are equally conscious of “packability”, budget and build-quality.
Another popular option is a backpacking hammock. They are different to a traditional hammock because they include a tent-like flysheet to keep the elements out. They are generally lighter and more pack-able than a tent because they don’t need poles, but some campers find them difficult to get used to.
It is also important to research the type of terrains you will be backpacking through as hammocks require trees to hang from – you don’t want to be caught in lowlands with nothing but shrubs to string up to! Another consideration is that hammocks lose heat more readily than a tent, so many campers will use a roll mat or blow-up pad as an extra layer of insulation against the cold air.
Some models will enable you to hang your backpack on the underside of the hammock whilst you sleep, which is a pretty handy feature for keeping your belongings safe and dry.
Check out Hennessy Hammocks as a trusted range of backpacking hammocks from hyperlight to expedition; depending on your needs.
Ready to cut pounds and up your game? Consider backpacking with only a tarp. Not like your traditional tarp for throwing over your vehicle or wood pile; backpacking tarps are specially-crafted to be lightweight and watertight, yet durable and breathable. There are a few configurations for tarps, but the most common is a ‘pyramid’ structure, which uses your trekking poles and a few stakes to keep it in place.
Some models also come with a built-in bug net, or you can throw them over your bivy as an added layer of protection. Despite their minimalist look and feel, tarps can be more expensive than even some of the most popular tents. This is because they really are the crème-de-la-crème of lightweight, watertight materials, and are to be treated with special care if you want them to last well.
This is why tarps are usually used by more seasoned backpackers who are looking to shred those last few unnecessary ounces from their pack. It is also worth noting that tarps are not considered substantial enough for serious snow or high-altitude trails – you have been warned!
ZPacks offer a great range of tarp only or tarp-and-inner combos in many different combinations. If you’re looking to get into tarps for backpacking then they are a great place to start.
For the past couple of years, I have been using the MSR Hubba Hubba NX. This is a hugely popular two person tent and a firm contender year-to-year in the “lightweight but sturdy” backpacking tent category. It is surprisingly spacious and I have used this tent in deep Patagonia, the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and around the UK.
There is a one-person version, but I wanted to have the option to keep my pack inside in terrible weather, and I prefer a little luxury as opposed to trekking super lightweight. There have been times when my knees have cursed me for this decision, however…
Not all tents are created equal, and the “right tent” is hugely down to personal preference. The best way to chose a tent is to head to your local REI or outdoor retailer and scramble inside the demos. Even if you aren’t ready to buy yet – it is a fun day out at the least! Don’t forget to take proper care of your tent or any shelter you end up buying.
Also read: What Is the Best Two Person Tent?
Rinse and air dry after every trip, and try to store it in a well-ventilated, dry area whilst not in use to prevent mold or mildew from growing.
So there you have it: a whirlwind round-up of shelters for backpackers. Everyone will have their own preferences, and what works for you may not work for your trail buddy. There is one consistent thread that links all of these options together, however, which is that you should be totally familiar and comfortable with your tent or shelter before you rely on it in the wilderness.
Practice setting it up, taking it down and spending a few nights in it in your backyard – you will thank yourself for it when you do finally hit the trail!
Do you need a tent on the Appalachian Trail?
The AT is dotted with specially-built shelters along the trail, which can be used by those thru-hiking the whole trail or single sections. It is, however, generally advised to bring your own tent or alternative shelter for maximum comfort.
The built structures aren’t always in the best condition and can be crowded or home to noisy inhabitants. Bringing your own tent gives you the option of camping elsewhere, should the shelters not be to your liking.
The trail can also have significant snowfall in the southern mountains – even into April when many backpackers begin – so a tent will give you that extra layer of protection against the cold.
Can I use a tarp as a tent footprint?
It is always recommended to use a footprint underneath your tent, to protect the base from getting snagged or ripped, and to help keep out moisture. Most tents will have a specially-made footprint which you can purchase, but many backpackers use a simple tarp to do the same job.
Just ensure that your tarp doesn’t extend the boundary of your flysheet – otherwise the rain will have easy-access to the bottom of your tent, and you’ll wake up wet!
How long does it take to get used to sleeping in a Hammock?
Sleeping in a hammock is not for everybody, and it can take a little while to get used to. On the contrary, there are backpackers who will never go back to sleeping in a tent after using their hammocks!
The break-in period differs person to person, but it is always recommended to do a few test nights in your hammock, in a back yard or local space, to make sure you are comfortable with it before heading out on your backpacking trip.
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Suzie Hall has a passion for all things wild and is a scuba diver and Orcalab researcher based in Hanson Island off the north coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She spends most of her time exploring this great wide earth and her travels have taken her to some remarkable locations including Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan and the wild British Columbia coast. Fueled by a drive to protect our wild spaces and their inhabitants, Suzie works in conservation projects around the globe and lives to write about the amazing people, places and wildlife she encounters.