“Come in” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm” -Bob Dylan, 1975


Last month we discussed ultralight backpacks, the number one piece of equipment that can immediately reduce weight by pounds. This month, we will discuss the number one most important item that you carry into the wilderness. In a survival situation, long before building a fire or foraging for food, you must have shelter from the elements. There are a multitude of options for shelters, such as tents, tarps, tarp tents, bivy sacks, and mud huts with thatch roofs. Since this is an article on lightweight shelters, we’ll skip the mud huts. With a little knowledge and a lot of shopping around you can find the near perfect shelter and keep it under three pounds.

I got my start camping at the ripe old age of seven. I struck out into the wilderness of my backyard with several other “frontiersmen”. We made camp under the stars in the far reaches of the outback… I learned two, well actually, three things that night. Number one, when the dew falls, it falls hard; number two, when it rains, it pours. Oh yeah, and number three, it is highly recommended to clear a “beeline” of any obstacles, prior to running for your life to the backdoor. I don’t rely so much on a beeline anymore, however, number one and two still haunt me.

“Rain drops keep falling on my head”  -B J Thomas, 1970

Here’s the trick: All the types of lightweight shelters can keep the rain off your head. How well they do this, while managing condensation inside the shelter, is the difference between a great shelter and a miserable time. To narrow the focus, let’s eliminate one of the options. Bivy sacks or bivouac sacks are designed for something more technical than a weekend trip to an alpine lake.  Not that you couldn’t use a bivy for this type of trip, however, there are tent and tarp options that are lighter and offer much more living space.

It would be the ultimate under statement to say that we have very wet conditions here in the Pacific Northwest. When a tent or tarp is setup on wet ground, the moisture from the earth combines with moisture that we naturally produce to ensure a humid environment inside the shelter. During the night, our bodies give off moisture. Most of the moisture comes from our breath, which is always saturated. The rest comes from the skin in the form of insensible perspiration. This moisture is warmer than ambient air, so, it rises to the ceiling. The moisture next to the skin is H2O in a gaseous state. This warm vapor rises through our clothes, through the sleeping bag, and into the ambient air. As the vapor rises, it cools from body temperature to ambient temperature. At some point, it reaches the temperature of condensation or “dew point”. This is the point that the molecules of vapor condense into molecules of water. In a perfect world, this happens outside our sleeping bag. Even better, outside the bag and with a gentle breeze carrying it away from our shelter, leaving us warm and dry. This is why ventilation is critical. The wetter the conditions and the colder the nighttime temperatures the more difficult it is to achieve. In extreme cold conditions, sometimes, the only option is a vapor barrier liner. A vapor barrier liner is basically a non-breathable liner inside your sleeping bag that prevents body moisture from escaping into the insulation in the bag. I don’t recommend using one unless you’re camping in sub-zero conditions. We’ll discuss this more in future articles.

“Brick house”  -Commodores, 1977

Tents have improved considerably over the years and most are designed to manage condensation fairly well. The common design incorporates some type of roof vent to let out the warm moist air and openings near the bottom to bring is fresh cool dry air. In wet conditions, no tent will be able to keep up completely. Three season tents tend to work a bit better than four season tents. The difference is the rain fly. A four season tent rain fly typically extend all the way to the ground. If you plan on camping well into the fall or starting early in the spring, a four season tent may be a better option. Just keep in mind that you will have to put up with more condensation. I use a four season tent made by Hilleberg. It has proven to be a bombproof shelter, however, the condensation is terrible. Neither three or four season tents work very well around here, even if they have huge vents at top and bottom of the fly. On many occasions, the only way to ensure enough ventilation is to keep the door or vestibule open. When shopping, carefully consider the design of the fly. Will rain water pour into the living space if the door is kept open?

One other thing to consider when purchasing a tent. What happens if you break a pole. In most cases, a tent is useless with a broken pole. Keep this in mind when shopping for a tent. Multiple poles could be multiple problems and add a lot of extra weight. A broken pole in severe weather could mean a survival situation. Choose wisely Grasshopper…

“Wind beneath my wings”  -Bette Midler, 1990

If you don’t mind the possibility of sleeping with a few bugs, your best option may be a tarp. With the ultralight materials available today, a tarp with twice the living space usually weighs a third of the lightest tent. You have to be more aware of weather conditions when choosing a setup option for your tarp, however, that is the beauty of a tarp….multiple setup options. If the rain is accompanied by high wind, you can pitch the tarp low to the ground. On nice nights, you may not even bother with the tarp at all, instead, opting to sleep under the stars. This is one of the advantages to tarp camping, connection to the nighttime environment, however, the primary advantage is complete ventilation. You just won’t have to worry about condensation under a tarp. You can also cook under a tarp, just be very careful to not let the stove come in contact with the tarp. One thing’s for sure, you won’t have to worry about breaking any poles. Trees are almost never in short supply and even if they are, you can always use your hiking poles to suspend the tarp.

If you’re undecided as to whether a tarp is right for you, it’s easy and not too expensive to give it a trial run. Tarps are available for next to nothing at K-Mart and other discount stores.  Pick up a tarp and take it on your next overnight trip. Set up your tent and then experiment with setting up the tarp. You can try sleeping under the tarp with the security of making a “beeline” for the tent if things get dicey. If the tarp works, then you can opt for a lighter, more expensive, high tech tarp.

The last option to consider is the tarp/tent.  Most tarp/tents are designed with a single wall rain fly with a sewn in floor, usually connected to each other with mesh netting. I have a Henry Shires tarp/tent. It is ultralight weight and has served me well in some pretty nasty weather. I’ve found that the bug netting does in fact, restrict airflow somewhat, thus increasing condensation. During a heavy rain storm on a summer night, I awoke to light sprays of water hitting me in the face. At first, I thought that the water proofing of the tarp fabric had failed. After a closer look, what I found was the heavy rain drops hitting the outside of the tarp were knocking condensation drops off the underside. Little micro-splashes of refreshing mist in my face all night long….wonderful…

“Still haven’t found what I’m looking for” -U2…AND ME 2

I’m still not completely happy with the ultra expensive Hilleberg tent that has served me so well for many years. Too wet most of the time. Tarp, too many bugs. Tarp/tent, not too bad, most of the time. My recommendation:  Keep it under three pounds. There are many tents available that weigh less than three pounds, so, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding something that works. If you’re committed to going ultralight, a tarp may be the perfect shelter for you, at around one to two pounds. If you find something that you’re completely happy with, please let me know.

Pat’s Shelter


Come ye, come ye, all those who are burdened and heavily laden,



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