How to Choose Your Camping Shelter: Tents, Tarps, Bivies and Hammocks
If you are looking for a tent to buy you might get pretty confused by all the choices you have on the market. There are dozens upon dozens of companies producing a variety of shelters. How can you choose one that would fit your needs? I prepared a handy guide that will make the decision making easier.
It might be that you are looking for your very first tent or maybe you need to retire you old family tent serving you for the past few decades. The most important thing is to realize your needs in order to narrow down your choices.
Below I gathered some questions and things to think about to help you figure it all out easier. Just a fair disclaimer - I'm a bit biased as a big fan of tents over other camping shelters. But I hope I can fairly present you with all the options you have.
When are you going?
Depending on the season you plan on camping, the shelter you choose might vary. If you only plan on going to a few summer camps, you might not need a very sturdy and advanced tent. The harsher the conditions you might encounter, the better tent you should pack. For someone who thinks of serious winter camping, only expedition level, 4-season tents would fit.
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Think of what are the typical conditions you might encounter - do you generally camp in hot, dry environments? Or maybe you hope to go during the lovely spring and fall months? Even if you go during a summer time, if you go to places like Scotland or Iceland, you have to prepare for heavy rains and cold winds.
The hotter the weather, the more ventilation you need. If there is very low risk of rain (as when camping on desert) - you might want to go with just the inner tent and leave the fly at home.
How are you getting to your camp?
First of all, you need to figure out what is the most common usage of your tent. Do you like to go backpacking, carrying all your stuff by yourself?
Do you enjoy car camping with very limited load carrying time? Or maybe you need a multiple-person tent for family trips?
Car camping tents
If you don’t need to worry about the weight of the tent, you may look towards bigger and heavier (but usually also cheaper) options out there. They are generally comfortable and provide ample of space inside the tent and under an awning. On the downside, they also weight above 3 kg so aren’t really made for long hiking. If you tend to stay in one place for many nights – you have the luxury to choose a big, comfortable tent that can easily fit all your family and pets.
Check a few options for comfortable and multiple-persons tents here:
If you rather would something smaller and lighter – keep on reading.
How big do you want your tent?
First of all, it’s about the size: how many people are supposed to sleep in it? If you hike solo it does not necessarily mean a single person tent is the best choice. Have you seen 1-person tents? They are tiny – the size of your sleeping mat and rarely much more. They are designed to keep your gear outside, under an awning or a tarp.
How much space inside do you want?
If you want to keep all your gear inside, I advise getting a 2-person tent. From what I’ve seen, many of the 2-person tents are really 1,5 – there is hardly any room for two sleeping mats and forget any gear!
If you hike often with a friend/partner check carefully the size of the tent’s floor. Does the manufacturer expect you to sleep feet-to-head? Are you fine with that style of sleeping?
Is there any room for backpacks? If you want enough space for the two of you and your gear, you might need a 3-person tent or a 2-person with big enough awning or vestibule for all your gear.
If you have a chance - go to an outdoor store and check any pitched tents. Get inside and see what it feels like. Do you feel comfortable? Would you be OK living in it for x number of nights?
How much vertical space do you want in your tent?
A lot of light-weight tents are made into burrow-like shapes, providing shelter and not much else. There is enough room to lie down in your sleeping bag, maybe to have some gear or even a backpack next to you. But forget about sitting up – no room. Some have enough room to sit right in the opening.
If you don’t mind the lack of vertical space and want just a quick and light shelter for the night – it might be a good option for you. For some hikers who start early on and hike all day just to pitch the tent and go to sleep, it might be just the perfect idea. If it sounds like something you want - read also about bivvies, a bit down the article.
But you need to ask yourself – can I spend a day in it if I get stuck during a bad weather day? How do I generally change my clothes – can I do it while lying down? How much time will I spend in this tent?
If you like the idea of a cozy and very light shelter – check some of those ideas:
What kind of a tent shape is the best for you?
Igloo/Dome - style
This is a very popular shape. Easy to set up and most of the time free-standing. Some of the igloo-style tents have no awning whatsoever, though. Make sure it’s practical for you – do you camp in places where it rains a lot? Can you enter the tent without soaking the interior? Can you prepare a meal if it is raining? Do you want some protection for gear (boots, dirty trekking poles, etc.) outside of the tent?
If you hike and camp in very dry areas and rain is not an issue, you might like the idea of a simple igloo tent, like the ideas below. Or - you may find an igloo/dome shaped tent with a nice awning or a vestibule.
There are also the A-shaped and low, tunnel-like tents. Back in the day, A-shaped tents were the typical shelter shape. Nowadays some ultra-light companies go back to the classic shape but with new fabrics and NASA-level of tent poles materials.
Producers try new shapes to minimize the tents' weight and make them stronger against harsh winds. Some of the shapes make pitching the tents a bit of a challenge with complex poles' configurations. If you tent to hike and camp in very windy areas, exposed to the elements, you may want to grab a tent with low to the ground shape, tunnel-like or flatted A-shaped as they tend to behave better in such conditions. To learn more about pitching your tent in high winds, read this article.
Another issue related to the shape of the tent is the entrance. You can find the front or side entry. I find the side entry much easier and more practical - especially if there is a nice vestibule in front of it. For a tent made for 2 or 3 persons, it's much easier when there are two entries so you don't step over your partner to leave the tent.
Do you need a free-standing tent?
Free-standing tents are definitely superior (or even necessary) when camping on hard surfaces (rocky deserts for example). They tend to be heavier than some of the ultralight non free-standing options. If you hike and camp in forests and on softer soil you might not need it.
Check some great light and free-standing tents:
You might also find tents which can be made into semi-free standing. I have a Double Rainbow which is normally a regular, non-free standing tent but if there is a need (like camping on hard surfaces or wooden platforms) I can make it into somewhat self –standing using my trekking poles.
To cut on the weight, some ultra-light gear manufacturers create tents with no tent poles but rather using your trekking poles for the support. This way, you cut down on the weight of the poles.
One or two layer tent?
Most of the traditional tents are made of two layers - they have the inner tent and are covered with a rainproof fly. On the other hand, most of the ultra-light shelters are one-layer to cut on weight.
On the photo above, you can see a pretty nice two-layer hiking tent by Vango. You can read my review here.
With single-layer tents you need to be a bit more careful when it rains and with ventilation as there is a bigger risk of condensation. To fight it, those kind of tents have extra ways to help with the air flow. Which means, it can be colder in them. If you are serious about going lightweight, this might be the price worth paying.
Most of the ultralight tents are produced by cottage/garage companies with sales made directly through them. Check such companies as Zpacks, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, TarpTent, TrekkerTent or SixMoon Designs for ideas.
Other options of shelters beside tents
If you haven't found what you were looking for, you might want to check some other kinds of shelters beside tents:
Bivvies protect from rain and insects but nothing more. Some use them under tarps. They are basically bigger sleeping bags that you can slip into. They are absolutely not my thing. But who knows? It might be just the thing for you!
Most have some kind of tent-like structure over your head so you don't sleep with the cover on your face. Hardly any room for hiding other things, although some managed to fit a small backpack in (in the feet area, I guess).
They are perfect for people who like to wild camp without being noticed, those who stop at night just to get some sleep and move and fast as possible in the morning.
Generally, the ultra-light shelter options tend to be tarps. It's basically a rectangle of water-proof fabric that you spread above your sleeping bag and stuff using guy-lines, trees and your trekking poles.
Some tarps are A-shape, some are simple rectangular (more flexibility in set-up, but also require more experience).
But even the A-shaped tarps might be really difficult to set up, opposed to the most common two-pole dome tents, which can be pitched by a kid.
As you can imagine, they hardly give you much of a protection from the elements or random creepy crawly stuff. You need to ask yourself if you are ready to spend a night in such conditions. I know there are many ultra-light hikers out there who love the idea of sleeping under a tarp (sometimes in a bivy) so it might just be you are among them.
Some folks are hiking with trekking hammocks (you can't just take your regular garden hammock!) and you might want to consider it as your shelter.
First of all – they work only in the appropriate area. No trees – no hammock.
As you can see, a backpacking hammock is not your typical garden variety. It has protection from elements and is often equipped with mosquito net.
It needs extra protection from cold wind from the bottom. The one above is made by DD Hammocks. Good hiking hammocks weigh in around 1kg, so about the same as ultra-light tents.
Hammocks are better in areas with a lot of trees but poor ground.
To sleep on the ground you need somewhat flat surface... clearing it from stones and branches can also prove only partially successful. In such a situation hammock might be the better option - if you enjoy sleeping in it.
What is also important - hammocks have much poorer (or rather close to none) isolation.
You can't just use your sleeping bag unless it's a very warm summer night. There are various systems - some people use under blanket, some designated sleeping mat (regular one won't do).
Check some high quality backpacking hammocks below:
You also still need some protection from bugs and rain, depending on the area you hike in. People sometimes use the combination of a hammock with a tarp. Some hammocks are equipped with mosquito nets.