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The primary purpose of hiking shelters is for protection from wind, precipitation, warmth, and insects at night while resting. In inhospitable weather shelters may also be used to provide protection during meal or rest breaks. The most commonly used shelter types are listed below.

Tarps / Ground Sheets

Bivy Sacks (Bag Covers)

Bivy Tents



Snow Caves

The most popular shelter type is the tent, but each of the other shelter types are preferred by some hikers, and each have their advantages. Many hikers own more than one shelter type and choose which type to carry based on trip conditions.

Besides the amount of protection provided and comfort desirable features in a shelter include durability and ease of setup. Sometimes privacy in busy hiking areas is also a desirable shelter quality. The linked pages discuss the pros and cons of each shelter type in some detail. Here is a comparison of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the most important factors for the main shelter types.

Shelter Options (Rated on a scale of 1 to 3, 3 being the best or most desirable and 1 being the worst.)

Factor Tarp Bivy BivyTent Tent Hammock
Cost 3 2 2 1 2
Weight 3 3 2 1 2
Space 3 1 1 2 2
Setup 1 3 2 2 2
Wind 1 3 3 3 2
Rain 3 1 2 3 3
Bugs 1 2 3 3 2
Total 15 15 15 15 15

Weights: It has become common practice in magazine reviews and elsewhere to list incomplete weights for many shelters omitting the weight of required tent pegs and line for example. However all weights referred to in the discussions of shelter types here are trail ready weights including the weight of all required components.

Space: When evaluating the amount of space a shelter option provides, consider not only square feet of floor space, but also cubic feet of volume and headroom. A bivy tent may actually have more sq. ft. of floor space than a solo tent, but without the headroom to sit up inside it will be much less comfortable for waiting out a storm than a small, one-man tent.

Setup: Most backpacking shelters are made from fabric. For them to function properly in wind and/or rain they must be setup properly. I have seen many discouraged hikers who have suffered an unpleasant, stormy night not because their shelter was inadequate, but simply because they did not have their shelter pitched to properly to cope with the weather.

In part successful setup depends on site location. Your location should protect you as much as possible from wind and should be a site that will drain well.

A part of the ease with which a successful setup can be accomplished lies in the shelter's design. Different shelter types and different models may be inherently more difficult or easier to setup based on their design. This is something often overlooked when considering which shelter to purchase or take on a hike.

A rough but easy measure of setup simplicity can be made by counting the number of poles, pegs, and lines required. The smaller the number of each of these the better. This often also translates into lighter weight as well.

Wind: The wind can rob you of warmth even when you are inside a sleeping bag by carrying away the warmer air surrounding your bag allowing your body's warmth to conducted away at a faster rate. Shelters that provide a layer of still air between you and the colder outside air will let you use the same sleeping bag in colder conditions.

Rain: Any insulating material used to keep you warm will loose a great deal of its warmth when wet, especially down insulation. A cold rain can be miserable without adequate protection. And often when rain is falling humidity is high. So condensation inside a shelter is much more likely to occur. Shelters that keep the rain off but still allow a good air flow during rainy conditions will help keep you and your sleeping gear drier and warmer. Tarps followed by double walled tents generally provide the best rain/condensation protection.

Bugs: Certain conditions seem to generate hordes of whining, biting insects. The most common offender is the mosquito, but flies, chiggers, ticks, and ants can also pose problems. While hiking they usually don't bother us too much, but when you stop to rest a good shelter can help preserve your sanity. To properly protect against bugs your shelter needs to fully enclose the space you occupy. Floored tents that can be zipped completely shut with noseeum mosquito windows and doors provide the best protection against bugs.

Related Information:

Gear Types

Sources for Shelters:

Altrec, Bent Gear, CampSaver, Rock Creek, Sierra Trading Post

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