Wednesday 15 December 2021

Backpacking shelters: how heavy?

View from a tent with ample room for cooking in the porch

This article is an expanded version of one that appeared earlier in the year as part of a series of articles on tents and backpacking I wrote for The Great Outdoors in conjunction with Hilleberg. I posted the first article on choosing a tent last month and the second one on pitching a tent in bad weather last week. 

The lightest shelter is always best? Not necessarily. A tiny ultralight tent in which you get soaked from condensation before it blows down in a storm is not the best choice. Nor is a miniscule tarp that barely covers your sleeping bag if the wind picks up or the rain hammers down. 

This narrow tarp was fine until the wind picked up. I had a rather uncomfortable night.

Mountain camping in winter requires a different shelter to summer camping in a forest (though if you’ll be doing both and you only have one it should be the mountain tent – it’ll be overkill in the woods, but it won’t let you down).  Weight is more important on a long-distance walk than on shorter trips but so is comfort and durability.

Three factors determine the weight of a shelter: its size, its design, and the materials it’s made from. All three are important and need considering when thinking about weight. The best size, best design and the best fabric for your needs depends on when, where and for how long you’ll be using it. Here I’m looking at shelters for the British hills and other places where wind and rain are likely.


A large roomy tarp comfortable to live under in the rain

To take size first. Backpacking shelters range from tiny solo ones too low to sit up to large tarps, big dome tents, and tunnel tents that’ll take four people and all their gear. The first is by far the lightest of course but not everyone is happy with such limited space, especially on multi-night trips (I once met someone on a long-distance walk who’d swapped their ultralight bivi tent for a much heavier two-person dome). This is especially so in the long dark nights of winter. Summer or winter I like enough space to sit up and to cook and store gear safely.

Small shelters, whether solo or for two or three, require more effort to live in. Gear needs to be organised better and care should be taken not to push against the fabric and transfer any condensation to your clothing or sleeping bag (and condensation tends to be more copious in small tents and does occur in tarps). Extra weight means extra room. Which is most important?


A single-hoop tent

The lightest tents, often single hoop designs, are excellent for long-distance walks and can be used high in the hills if it’s not too stormy. For regular mountain camping, especially in winter, tunnel tents, pyramids, and domes are generally more stable, particularly if made with strong materials. That said, there are some heavier single hoop tents that work well in winter. Tunnels, pyramids, and domes provide more space too, particularly important in winter when you’ll spend far longer inside.

Tarps are more versatile than tents in that there’s no fixed shape so you can pitch them in different configurations. Low to the ground in storms, high and airy when it’s dry and calm. 


The best tent fabrics are very strong and durable whilst still being lightweight. Silicone nylon is the classic example. This is as strong as much heavier PU coated nylon or polyester and ideal for backpacking shelters. Even the heaviest silicone nylon, used for mountaineering tents, is lightweight. Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) is even lighter and used for ultralight tents and tarps. It’s expensive though. Silicone nylon isn’t exactly cheap either. PU coated nylon and polyester shelters are heavier and may not last as long as silicone nylon or DCF ones but there are good ones and they cost considerably less.

A DCF tarp

Poles and pegs are important too. Shock-corded alloy poles are strong and durable, if care is taken with them when putting the tent up and taking it down. Thicker and heavier alloy is used for mountain tents. Again, this is worth having if you’re planning on much high-level camping. Pegs may be aluminium alloy or titanium (steel I think is too heavy). What matter is that ones for key pegging points are long enough (I like ones at least 15cm long) and that you have a variety of shapes for different types of ground. I think the weight of a few extra pegs is always worthwhile. They can break and are easy to lose.

Target Weights

Given the vast number of tents available setting target weights is a useful way to whittle down the choices. Here are mine. For solo three-season use 1.8kg is my upper limit for short trips, under 1.5kg for long-distance walks where the weight matters more (and on recent long walks it’s actually been under 1kg). In winter I’m prepared to carry 2.5kg for security if the weather looks stormy. For camping with two I double those numbers. 

A heavy but stable solo dome tent


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