First, lets discuss moving to a very lightweight backpacking kit by defining 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 feet, ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and back will appreciate it. If you've spent some time lugging around a 50 lb. pack, it should be 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 and need to eat up the miles each day. 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 going to want to reduce your load as much as possible.
Simplicity is a Goal
Living simply, with a focus on experiences rather than possessions, 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.
Having More Fun
Being gentle to your body, moving further and faster each day, and living simply all translate into the bottom line of having more fun. Having fun and challenging ourselves is ultimately why 99% of us choose to play in the outdoors, so it only makes sense that we keep this goal in mind. Want to know a great way to Not have fun? Try lugging a behemoth of a pack around for a week, stressing your back and knees in the process, struggling to stick to the itinerary and make it to camp each night, and then spending all your non-hiking time futzing with complicated and overly gimmicky gear. Take it from us, lighter is more fun!
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 really 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 bits and pieces round out an ultralight backpacker's normal 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 loose 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 three 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 also 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 types 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 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 when selecting from 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 their enclosed nature, these shelters also contribute 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. These are also the best option if you are looking for an ultralight tent for uses other than backpacking — like bike touring or river trips — where carrying trekking poles is inconvenient or simply not an option. They are also a great choice for base-camping, where you plan to hike in, set up camp, and stay for a few days, because they allow you to use your trekking poles if you have them, rather than tie them up in your tent as long as it is set up.
The ultralight tents we tested were among the easiest 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. The Nemo Hornet 2P was the highest scoring dedicated pole, double-wall tent, and received our Top Pick as such.
Since they have two complete pieces of fabric to serve as protection, as well as dedicated poles, these tents are the heaviest type of shelter in this review. We also found that in order to save weight, their footprint tends to be pretty small. While the ones we tested were all called two-person, they were all really tight for two people, and are probably too cramped for large or tall people, or two people who are not a couple. In general, we found these tents to be far more comfortable for one person than two.
Tarps with Permanent Floors a.k.a. Tarp Tents
These tarps use your trekking poles to support a single layer of waterproof fabric overhead and incorporate permanent floors and bug mesh. For example, the Zpacks Duplex Ultra-light 2 person has a permanent waterproof floor and permanent bug mesh while providing rain and wind protection on all four sides. The MSR Flylite 2 has a similar amount of coverage, in a much different design. These two models both provide privacy when the vestibule doors are closed, but the single wall design doesn't trap warmth as well as a double-wall shelter.
A tarp 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 to be among the most difficult to quickly set up, although with practice they become relatively easy. 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 tarp tents 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.
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. Another minor drawback is that these tents are not modular, meaning that you never have the option to remove the inner protection and save weight if it's not needed.
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. All three of the models we tested that fall into this category provide rain and wind protection from all four sides. They also provide privacy in camp when the doors are closed, but the single wall design doesn't retain a lot of warmth. We found that they also tend to have the largest interior space of all the types of tents we tested, as well as the highest ceilings, making them a good option for those who don't want to skimp on comfort.
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 when you don't.
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. We found the Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid 2 easy to set-up once you've lashed your trekking poles together or found a rock to balance one on, the Black Diamond Beta Light to be simple but usually needing slight adjustments for setup, and the Six Moons Designs Haven Tarp to be one of tougher shelters we tested to pitch and tie out well in a hurry.
In general, these floorless pyramids have few downsides. Bug protection is the main one, which can be addressed with modular components. Worth noting, however, is that adding modular components such as bug netting with a floor, which is available for all three of these models, adds cost, weight, and bulk to the system. If you know that you will always want bug protection, then a dedicated pole tent or tarp tent simply makes more sense. As a single wall shelter, condensation can also be a concern with these pyramids.
We tested two tarps for this year's review, a flat tarp and an A-frame tarp. 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 more 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. 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 favorite tarp, 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, is the most affordable shelter in this review.
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.
The open nature of a tarp does little to retain warmth or provide privacy. Adding a head net, minimalist bivy sack, or modular inner tent may be necessary for bug protection when the season demands. Of course, these modular accessories also add cost, weight, and bulk when employed. While most of the downsides of a tarp can be mitigated with good site selection and rigging, they become very apparent on the rare night when circumstances conspire to leave you with a poor or unprotected campsite.
Modular Components for Ultralight Tents & Shelters
Shelters comprised of modular components are a 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 lines, 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 if 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 DCF (formerly known as Cuben fiber) or SilNylon. DCF 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, DCF fiber, and the PU coated fabrics used in most traditional tents.