But first, we discuss moving to a very lightweight backpacking kit and we define what we feel ultralight and lightweight mean in terms of pack weight. Skip on down to Safety and Shelter Choice if you know you're ready for the lightest possible shelter. There, we detail the four types of ultralight tent shelters, how much protection each type provides, and how much skill or experience each requires for best use.
The term ultralight bounces around the outdoor gear world a lot these days, but what does it mean? Are you an Ultralight Backpacker? Lightweight, Super Ultralight, Minimalist, Extreme Ultralight? The terminology all gets a little silly but behind it all is an obvious goal to carry as light a load as is practical and safe for you while enjoying your own backcountry adventures.
After talking with thru-hikers, alpine climbers, and our testing team, we've come up with a few reasons why you might want to go ultralight:
It's easier on your body
Perhaps the best reason to backpack with as light a load as is safe for your experience level is to be kind to your body. When you start carrying a lighter pack, your ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, back, and feet will appreciate it. If you've spent some time lugging a 50 lb pack, it's obvious that cutting that weight in half would be more comfortable and kinder to your body.
You want to hike a lot of miles each day.
Some of us really enjoy pushing the mileage envelope each day just for the fun of it. There's nothing quite like settling into a scenic backcountry camp after having hiked a marathon's worth of distance on the trail. And if you're setting out on a thru-hike, you likely have a practical time limit to meet and need to eat up the miles. Once the hiking becomes a much bigger part of each and every day, and the time spent in camp is more of a nightly pit stop, you're gonna want to reduce your load as much as possible.
Simplicity is a goal
Living simply, with a focus on experiences, is a philosophy that crosses right over into the backpacking world. It is about having just the right amount of the best equipment, and utilizing it to stay warm, dry, and happy, while seeing the sights and creating the experiences you want in the backcountry. When you carry the minimum of clothing and gear, you want to be sure that you have the best and most functional pieces.
Best Uses for Ultralight Tents & Shelters
Whether headed out overnight backpacking, climbing, skiing, or bike touring, every ounce matters when you're ambitious about the amount of ground you want to cover. Traveling as light as possible while remaining safe and adequately equipped pays its dividends no matter how far you travel in a day. Why carry more than necessary?
Lightweight & Ultralight Backpacking
There are two main reasons to travel as light as is safe and comfortable when backpacking. First, if you are ambitious about the mileage you want to cover in a day, the more weight you shed from your pack, the lighter you'll be on your feet, and the miles will add up with less effort. Much of the trend of "going light" is due to emphasizing the hiking part of backpacking versus the camping part of backpacking. By selecting a minimum of lightweight equipment based on your experience level and terrain/weather conditions, you'll be primed to cover a lot of miles in a day that is if you want to. Second, even if you're not focused on covering a lot of miles in a day, carrying a light pack is much more comfortable than lugging around the kitchen sink. New materials and innovative equipment designs means you can still have a comfortable camping experience in the backcountry without carrying a back-breaking load.
All of the ultralight tents and shelters we tested are good choices for the weight-conscious backpacker.
"Thru-hiking" is a term first coined for backpackers hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in one season. With the increasing popularity of the long National Scenic Trails - the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail - the range of ultralight equipment available grows every year. When you are carrying your home on your back for four months or more, every ounce you can save is important.
On shorter thru-hikes stretching a few weeks to a month, pack weight is just as important. Maybe more so, as during a multi-month hike your body has more time to adapt and you gain your "trail legs." The John Muir Trail in California's Sierra, the Benton MacKay Trail in the Southern Appalachians, and the Camino de Santiago in Spain are popular shorter thru-hikes you'll enjoy more by hiking as lightly loaded as possible. Becoming an ultralight hiker has its perks. Deciding to carry a nice camera or a couple of books, or any other relatively heavy luxury item, is an easier choice when your base weight is very light.
Top Picks for Thru-hiking:
ZPacks Duplex: Lightest shelter with complete protection
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter: Light, stormproof, and adaptable with modular components
ZPacks Duplex: Lightest shelter with complete protection
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter: Light, stormproof, and adaptable with modular components
Touring the mountains or countryside by bicycle is an increasingly popular way to spend time outside, and every ounces matters here as well. Chances are you won't be taking along adjustable trekking poles on your bike tour (although several of our testers do take trekking poles along when camping from a bicycle). Dedicated-pole double-wall tents are a traditional choice. But you also have options. A tarp is a versatile choice that can be pitched from trees or a fence without poles. Lucky for us, most manufacturers offer custom length aluminum or carbon fiber poles for models that would otherwise require adjustable trekking poles.
The Duplex with the optional carbon fiber poles is our favorite bike touring shelter. The Fly Creek HV2 Platinum is an excellent choice also, and easier to pitch.
Alpine climbing places a huge premium on reducing equipment weight as much as possible. The rope, rack, the rest of your climbing gear adds weight to your pack, so choosing the lightest shelter and sleeping system is of utmost importance. Because spacious camp and bivy spots are often hard to find in the mountains, we highly recommend a tarp for alpine climbers seeking to shave ounces. We prefer a flat tarp due to the myriad pitching geometries, but an A-frame tarp is a good if less adaptable choice. An ultralight sleeping bag paired with a minimalist water-resistant bivy sack, all covered under a tarp with your partner, should be a system that you can keep to two pounds per person for in-season alpine climbing.
We have found a square flat tarp is the best, most adaptable choice for alpine climbing. Our Top Pick for Expert Users, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp is very light and durable.
Thinking of Your Shelter as Part of a System
To keep your pack weight light and comfortable, think of your total backpacking kit as several main systems: shelter, sleeping, clothing, hydration, cooking, and a pack to carry them. Hike, Drink, Eat, Sleep. It is that simple, and the systems above encompass the majority of the gear you need. Maps or a GPS unit for navigation, first aid supplies, and a few other bit and pieces round out an ultralight backpacker's kit.
It is useful to pay close attention to what hikers call the "Big Four" when you want to really lighten your load - Shelter, Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad, and Pack - as these are usually the heaviest individual items you carry. Your shelter and sleeping systems need to complement each other for warmth and weather protection, and the backpack simply needs to fit all your gear and consumables (food, cooking fuel, water) without wasted space. Add your clothing, hydration, and cooking systems and you have the majority of your kit. All these systems work together for a fine-tuned ultralight backpacker.
Complete your kit by checking out our reviews of the Best Ultralight Sleeping Bags and the Best Ultralight Backpacks.
Base Pack Weight
How light does my load need to be to be considered ultralight? And how light does my shelter need to be to achieve it? While ultralight to us mainly means carrying as little as possible to remain safe and warm given your skills, it's useful to define some weight ranges when selecting all your systems.
Base pack weight refers to the total weight of all equipment you carry, not including consumables: water, food, and cooking fuel. Base weight is a perfect measurement, as you will likely carry nearly the exact same gear and clothing for two nights or ten, only the consumables' weight increases. As a guideline, to be Ultralight, you should seek a shelter system (not counting the weight of poles) less than 1 lb per person, and for Lightweight less than 1.5 lbs per person. With shelter weight split between two people, all of the shelters we tested meet these goals for a couple.
Here's our perspective on base weight and terminology, and how consumables add up for a weekend or week-long backpacking trip.
Ultralight Backpacker: base weight of 12 pounds or less
A great "Big Four" goal is 5 pounds total.
Example backpacking trips with a 9 lb base weight:
2-3 day trip, 13-15 lbs with food & fuel, add 2-6 lbs water, 15-21 lbs total
6-7 day trip, 21-23 lbs with food & fuel, add 2-6 lbs water, 23-29 lbs total
Lightweight Backpacker: base weight of 20 pounds or less
A great "Big Four" goal is 8 pounds total.
Example backpacking trips with a 14 lb base weight:
2-3 day trip, 18-20 lbs with food and fuel, 2-6 lbs water, 20-26 lbs total
6-7 day trip, 26-28 lbs with food and fuel, 2-6 lbs water, 28-34 lbs total
Trekking Poles & Shelter Choice
Now that we've set up some definitions for what ultralight means and why you might want to go ultralight, we're ready to dive into the different types of ultralight tent shelters and which one will best meet your needs. However, first, we need to ask the important question of whether or not you hike with trekking poles. Most of the models we tested in this review require trekking poles for set-up (or require the purchase of additional dedicated poles). The exception to this statement are the double-wall, dedicated-pole tents that we tested. Here, we talk a bit about the different types of poles available and their pros and cons before continuing on to shelter choice.
Our observations show many backpackers use trekking poles these days. And we feel confident saying a large majority of thru-hikers and long distance backpackers are using trekking poles. Trekking poles not only aid your balance in rough terrain, but let you transfer some of the effort to your upper body, saving a bit of wear and tear on your lower body. You have several options for type of trekking poles. Race-style fixed length poles are the lightest, but aren't appropriate for setting up most shelters. Adjustable length poles are necessary for shelter set up flexibility. Most top quality poles are three-piece, and these are the best option. Two-piece adjustable poles can work as well, they just don't get as short. You can find our favorites in our review of the Best Trekking Poles.
When hiking with trekking poles, it is compelling from a weight savings standpoint to use them for shelter supports when you camp. A few experienced backpackers prefer a dedicated-pole ultralight tent even though they hike with trekking poles, but if you want really want to get ultralight, choose a shelter supported by your poles. One important consideration if you "basecamp" in the backcountry, camping in the same place for a few days, and head out on hikes or climbs from camp, you'll probably want your poles free during the day. Two folks can leave a pair of poles set up in their shelter, and hike with one each of the other set, but most folks who "basecamp" for a few days prefer a dedicated-pole tent.
Safety & Shelter Choice
Rain, wind, condensation, wet ground, and bugs traditional dedicated-pole, double-wall ultralight tents will protect you from all these elements. On the other hand, other shelter choices like tarps, tarp tents, and pyramids may not offer you all the protections you may need. In this section we will outline how these four types of shelters differ not only in form, but also in the amount of protection they provide, their best uses, and the skill level required.
As you read through this section, we strongly encourage you to be honest with yourself regarding your skill level and to be realistic about the amount of protection you will need to keep yourself safe. Ultimately, a shelter's job is to protect you as you explore the backcountry, and all of these ultralight tents will do that if you choose one that is right for you. Below, we begin with double-wall tents (which provide all of the traditional protections) and finish with tarps (which are the lightest and require the use of additional modular components to fulfill traditional protections when you deem necessary).
Double-wall Ultralight Tents
A very light, dedicated-pole, double-wall tent provides the most traditional protections of these ultralight tents and shelters. You are covered on all four sides from the rain and wind. The inner tent protects from condensation that may form on the underside of the fly in wet and humid conditions. Meanwhile, the waterproof floor isolates you from wet or muddy ground, and the inner tent completely protects you from flying bugs and any creepy crawlies. Due to the enclosed nature of this ultralight tent, this shelter also contributes to warmth, meaning you can get away with a slightly lighter sleeping bag than in an open shelter like a tarp. Additionally, depending on where you camp, you may appreciate the privacy a fully-enclosed tent provides.
We feel a dedicated-pole, double-wall tent is the best choice for novice ultralight and lightweight backpackers in all environments. Some very experienced ultralight backpackers prefer them for rainy season, and if you don't hike with trekking poles, you need a tent with its own poles.
The ultralight tents we tested were the easiest of the bunch to pitch, in part because they are set up the same way every time, and partly due to the fixed-length dedicated-poles. We recommend a very light, dedicated-pole, double-wall tent for novice backpackers who want to have a very light pack. While the versatility of a tarp or pyramid shelter with a range of modular components will appeal to most hardcore thru-hikers, double-wall tents provide the confidence of knowing you have all of the protection bases covered, and will give you peace of mind while you gain experience. Our Top Pick for Ease of Use, the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV2 Platinum, is the lightest and most protective "traditional" ultralight tent we've tested.
Pyramids with Permanent Floors a.k.a. Tarp Tents
These pyramids use your trekking poles to support a single layer of waterproof fabric overhead and incorporate permanent floors and bug mesh. For example, the Big Agnes Scout Plus UL2 has a permanent waterproof floor and permanent bug mesh that provide rain and wind protection on all four sides. The most noticeable downside to a single-wall shelter such as these can be condensation. Without a dedicated or modular inner mesh tent, in humid environments, you need to be careful to not touch the ceiling if it gets wet with condensation. It provides privacy when the vestibule doors are closed, but the single wall design doesn't trap warmth as well as a double-wall shelter.
A pyramid with a permanent floor and permanent, complete bug protection is the best choice for ultralight enthusiasts that seek the most traditional shelter protections at the lightest weight. If your trips span the late spring to early summer season when mosquitoes and other bugs are out in full force, the bug proofing is awesome. Our Editors' Choice winner, the Zpacks Duplex, is the lightest shelter we tested that meets most of the traditional shelter protections.
We found the two models we tested fairly easy to set-up and use. Both models use your adjustable trekking poles for support and we recommend adding some length markings on your poles with paint or nail polish to hasten set-up. With a few trips to practice, these pyramids can be set up and guyed out nearly as fast as a dedicated-pole tent. Most novice users can quickly gain the skill to pitch these well.
Pyramids with No Floor
These pyramids use your trekking poles to support a single layer of waterproof fabric overhead without a permanent floor. That said, instead of the floor, you have the option of choosing to add a modular inner tent that provides complete bug proofing, a waterproof floor, and protection from condensation. Both of the models we tested that fall into this category provide rain and wind protection from all four sides, but for example, the geometry of the Six Moon Designs Haven Tarp doesn't lend itself to use in high winds. These two pyramids both provide privacy in camp when the doors are closed, but the single wall design doesn't retain much warmth. While we tested the Haven Tarp with its matching mesh inner tent, we feel both of these models are best matched with a simple, waterproof groundsheet and head net or bivy sack when you need bug protection.
A floorless pyramid is a great choice when you want complete rain protection, but either do not need to be protected from bugs, or want to save weight by sleeping with a head net when the bugs fly. Being floorless, most hikers will carry a waterproof groundsheet to use with these shelters. If you enjoy sleeping out under the stars with no shelter, a.k.a. "cowboy camping," a floorless pyramid and Tyvek or Polycro groundsheet is a great choice very light, four-sided rain protection when you need it, and a simple groundsheet for clear weather cowboy camping.
While having the option of carrying an inner tent, adding a groundsheet or a head net, or forgoing them altogether is a great feature for experienced ultralight hikers, it requires the knowledge to make the right choice on which modular components you'll need. While we find the SuperMid easy to set-up once you've lashed your trekking poles together, the Haven is one of tougher shelters we tested to pitch and tie out well.
We tested three tarps for this year's review, a flat tarp and two A-frame tarps. While an A-frame tarp's catenary cut ridgeline makes it much easier to achieve a tight pitch, a flat tarp is more versatile, and can be pitched many ways.
A tarp alone is the lightest type of ultralight shelter, and with careful site selection and an eye towards wind direction when pitching, provides excellent rain protection. Wind protection is largely a function of how skilled you are at rigging and anticipating the prevailing wind direction. At the minimum, the majority of users carry a waterproof groundsheet to pair with their tarp. Condensation is rarely an issue with a tarp, as the open nature of the pitch promotes airflow. A head net, minimalist bivy sack, or modular inner tent are options to add bug protection when the season demands. The open nature of a tarp does little to retain warmth or provide privacy. In short, a tarp will keep a skilled user dry in the rain at the lightest weight and provides you the ability to pick and choose what additional protections you want to add when necessary. Our Top Pick for Expert Users, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp, is the lightest and most adaptable shelter for expert users. The Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo, our favorite A-frame tarp, won our Best Buy award.
In general, you'll get more protection from a tarp or a floorless pyramid if you choose the right modular components, select your site carefully, and employ proper rigging techniques.
Tarps are the preferred shelter for many experienced ultralight hikers due to their light weight and adaptability. We feel an A-frame tarp is the best choice for ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers on a budget. Most established campsites offer some wind protection, which makes using a tarp more comfortable. Additionally, the ability to add an inner tent or bivy sack to your tarp when you decide additional protection is necessary - or lighten your load when not — is a major plus when counting ounces. A flat tarp is the ultimate choice for lightweight adaptability, especially for alpine climbers. Folks that camp or bivouac in all sorts of rough terrain find the many pitching options unmatched.
Tarps require the most skill in rigging and the most experience in site selection to achieve their best rain and wind protection. Because there are open sides to all tarp pitching options, choosing a sheltered site or features to block the open end is key.
Modular Components for Ultralight Tents & Shelters
Shelters comprised of modular components are perfect way to customize your shelter to the expected weather, and shave weight when you're confident you can forgo some protections. Visit our article that details Modular Accessories for a discussion of groundsheets, bivy sacks, and other components to pair with floorless shelters for increased weather and bug protection.
Stakes & Guy Lines
Most of the ultralight tents and shelters we tested include guy line, but you'll need to purchase stakes separately for most. The manufacturers often have several types of ultralight stakes available, but you may want to carry as many as four different types is you're really counting the fractions of an ounce. See our favorite guy line and stakes here. You may want to add additional guy line to your set-up kit or replace the stock lines with lighter options.
Several of the products we tested here are available in either Cuben fiber or SilNylon. Cuben is significantly more expensive, but lighter, supremely waterproof, and less prone to stretching. Visit this section of our Buying Advice for Backpacking Tents for a detailed comparison of SilNylon, Cuben fiber, and the PU coated fabrics used in most traditional tents.