When you go backpacking, the number one goal is to keep your equipment minimal and light in weight. Doing so will increase your maneuverability, speed, and stamina on the trail. You also need to consider the kind of weather you should be preparing for. Ideally, you’ll have that perfect fall (or spring) breeze but the likelihood of actually getting the ideal situation is minimal at best, see Murphy’s law. Shelters are usually rated for the number of seasons they are intended to be used to help you take the guesswork out of what it will be able to shelter you from. A note for readers: for the purposes of writing this article, I am assuming you are only planning on a shelter for 1-2 people.
1-2 Season Shelters:
These shelters are great for warm-month camping or any area that doesn’t get much colder than 50 degrees (Fahrenheit) or receive much precipitation. These shelters’ primary goal is only to keep the rain/dew off of you during the night. They might include some netting to keep the bugs off of you. They are really light, pack small, and typically provide shelter for 1-6 people. Some of the more expensive shelters may include gear lofts (a hammock of sorts big enough to store pocketable items like a wallet, flashlight, and pocketknife) that suspend from the roof of the sleeping quarters. The only real problem with these shelters is in the colder and windier months it won’t provide the insulation or wind-breaking necessary to stay comfortable (unless you’re packing some seriously insulated sleeping bags). Experienced warm-month backpackers will often go in to the wilderness with nothing more than a tarp and a groundcloth (or hammock if permitted) for their shelter preparations. New campers and backpackers may not be comfortable being that close to nature (bugs, snakes, etc). A couple of considerations you may need to think about comes when you are considering the area you will be camping in. If there aren’t any trees big enough to support your weight, you won’t be able to take a hammock. If the ground isn’t such that you will be able to drive stakes into it, you’ll need to find a free-standing shelter (one that includes poles that support the structure of the shelter). It’s all a matter of choosing what is appropriate.
3-4 Season Tents:
In the colder months you will be better off using a 3 or 4 season tent for your shelter. When you get into the 3 and 4 season tents you need to begin to consider the complexity of what you’re dealing with; you want something that’s easy to set up, take down, and air out when you return home. Options you may have when looking at these tents will include vestibules (weather-protected storage areas outside of the sleeping quarters for gear), gear lofts, internal guying (guylines inside the tent used to strengthen the structure in high-wind situations), bath tub floor (a preventative measure that raises the lowest seams of the tent off the ground keeping the inside of the tent drier in rainy weather), vents, specialized zipper mechanisms, removable tent components, and more depending on the tent manufacturer. When you get these bulkier tents you will need to consider the ability to split it across the backpacks of the crew you will be sheltered with, distributing the load according to the abilities of your crew members.
To get the best of both worlds, you might find a convertible tent that can transform or pack down into a 1-2 Season configuration. I found one such tent awhile back and love it! Though I don’t usually like spending extra money on camping equipment to get the upper-class brand name stuff, my Sierra Designs Omega 2 is built to withstand the elements and the test of time. It is considered a 3-4 Season Convertible Tent. With the accessories I purchased it can convert all the way down to be nothing more than a sun (or beach) shelter: 1 Season. Or, by configuring the internal guy-line system, clipping the tent to the rain fly, and staking it down using the fly’s guy-lines it can be a hardened structure for the windiest winters you’ll experience: 4 Seasons. Or even still – by removing the sleeping quarter door (leaving a full-sized mesh window), a couple of pole sections, and the rain fly or any combination of those items it can be a lightweight backpacking tent preparing you for whatever you’re up against: 2-3 Seasons. Good tents like this are becoming easier to find, but often have a higher price associated with them. Being that I am planning on using this tent for a long time, I was able to justify the almost $500 I spent on this. Sierra Designs backs up their products with a fairly reasonable statement “Sierra Designs guarantees that the materials and workmanship in every product we make will stand up to the use for which it was designed”, nothing special but it is worded such that it is a “lifetime” guarantee.
Summary of Considerations:
- Bulk (space consumed in or on your backpack)
- Size (how many people it will contain)
- In multiple person shelters, the ability to split up the pieces across multiple backpacks to “share the load”.
Pricing a Shelter:
If you go with a 1-2 season shelter, you can expect to pay anywhere from ~$10 to upwards of $250 depending on what you get. Here are a few examples of tarp shelters that could double as a dining or cooking rain fly: 8’x10′ Polyethylene Tarp $9.99 (maybe cheaper at a hardware store), Coated Nylon tarps $30-$40, ultralight backpacking tarps like Kelty’s Noahs Tarp 12 $69.99 retail, or even MSR’s Twing Shelter $229.99 retail (featured on Rial and Molly’s REI Wedding Registry). Other shelters could be a “Bivy Sack” (a rain cover for you and your sleeping bag) like the Slumberjack Taku $99.99 retail, or a jungle hammock like the Grand Trunk Air Bivy $148.95 retail. As for groundcloths or vapor barriers out there, the prices vary on those as well. Some examples of those you may find in use can be anywhere from a Heavy Duty trash bag split so it provides body length coverage $nearly-free, a cut-to-size piece of plastic dropcloth $cheap, or a GoLite Shelter Floor $50.00 retail.
If you go with a 3-4 season shelter, you can expect to pay anywhere from $35 for a Walmart-shelved tent to upwards of $700 for a wind-tunnel tested expedition tent. I highly recommend spending around $130 on a decent long-lasting tent. Here are a few examples of the ranges you might find (all of which I would recommend): Kelty Yellowstone 2 $99.90 retail, Eureka Timberline 2 $139.90 retail, Sierra Designs Omega 2 Convertible $349.00 (now discontinued – seems to be replaced by the Mountain Meteor 2). Don’t forget about the groundcloth, vapor barrier, or “footprint” as they’re sometimes called and any other accessories that would be necessary to make it do what you need/want it to.
A quick hint about purchasing a tent: Tents come in “model years” just like cars, and like cars they try to get rid of the tents when the model year is ending. If you can find years’ previous models of the tent you are eyeing you may be able to get significant discounts off the retail price.
Personal Preferences and Conclusion:
In doing some research for the article I remembered a couple of things I particularly look out for when choosing a tent. Something that is very important to me is how the poles support the tent. Pole sleeves bug the heck out of me, especially if I’m assembling the tent on my own. Tents that “clip” to the poles are much simpler to set up IMO. Another thing I look out for is the inside height of the tent and whether or not I’ll be able to sit up inside the tent. Yet another feature I look for when choosing a tent is zipper quality. The last thing you want to be fiddling with when you’re needing to pee or trying to get inside out of the rain are those damned zippers. Lastly, in the event of needing to repair poles, material, or grommets – I ask myself how easily available are the materials to do such repairs?
I would highly recommend that you demo the tent if at all possible before purchasing it by asking a sales rep at your local REI, Sports Authority, or any other camping warehouse type store if you can set it up to get a better feel for it. Many stores may even match a price (or give discounts) if it is a known outlet for camping equipment. A very important step once you choose a tent or shelter is to set it up before you get to the wilderness. By doing so you will familiarize yourself with it’s little quirks, verify you have all the components, and learn how to pack it back up.
Let me know if you have any questions by leaving a comment below! I’ll try my best to give you a timely answer.