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Lightweight Backpacking Shelters and Tarps: A Primer

You don’t want that fancy looking tent at REI. The sales guy or gal will sell you a bill of goods that your back and pocket book will regret. For backpacking, tents are *completely* inferior to other options. Herein, I will attempt to explain these other options and how to successfully use, purchase, and understand them.
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Ultralight hiking has popularized ‘alternative’ shelter options – really most of them are in fact old school traditional shelters that work better, are lighter, and are often cheaper than that backpacking tent at REI. Also, they are often very high quality due to being handmade in the USA. Much of the ultralight world’s gear doesn’t hold up well to long term use, but when it comes to shelters, quite the opposite is true– nearly everyone would be better off using an alternative shelter. They do last, and they work extremely well. There is no good reason not too. Keep your tent for car camping!
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However, using an alternative shelter isn’t a brainless activity, which is a good thing really. Learning is fun, right? Plus, remember your skill set is what stands between you and harm in the mountains. You should be excited to learn! You mind, and what it knows in your greatest asset.
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Most alternative shelters require careful staking out, use of guylines, knots, trekking poles or trees, careful campsite selection, ect. Basically, practice setting up your shelter in the backyard beforehand (and hopefully sleep in it) and don’t pitch it in an area that’ll turn get flooded in a rain. If you don’t have trekking poles, you’ll find you soon want them. They are a backpackers best friend. Using them to erect your shelter make sense, lightens your pack, and fulfills the ‘multi-use’ ethos backpackers are so fond of.
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You’ll also want a ground cloth (most of these shelters don’t come with a floor) and pay attention to ventilation and wind direction when using a shelter. Incidentally, you should be doing these things with a traditional tent too . . . Basically you want the wind to be moving at a right angle to whatever part of your shelter is most open so you get some ventilation to reduce condensation (and thus moisture in your shelter). You do NOT want the wind blowing rain or snow directly in the open end of a shelter. Unless, you enjoy taking showers in your sleeping bag that is. Again, don’t think that traditional tents don’t suffer from condensation issues, they most definitely do.
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Also, it’s proper to mention a touchy subject. Generally when backpacking you don’t actually *need* any shelter whatsoever. Unless you’re in the habit of going backpacking in heinous rainstorms or otherwise foul weather a shelter really functions as an emergency tool, though one you *must* carry. After all, you’re supposed to be having a wilderness experience, right? Go sleep under the stars already! Most people sleep in tents because they are institutionalized to believe they can’t sleep or aren’t safe without four walls and a roof over their head. What rot. If you want privacy, don’t camp where all the muggles are camping. Practice leave no trace (really, no one should be able to tell where you’ve camped) and stealth camp where you please. If your sleeping bag gets a little wet from dew, no big deal. Dry it out at lunch the next day. If the weather looks iffy, sleep in the shelter. Once you acclimatize to sleeping out under the stars the smallest patches of ground become campsites. Your ability to find and use these campsites is a very useful skill your should attempt to cultivate.
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Flat Tarps
-Most versatile
-Cheapest option
-Incredibly simple
-Less privacy
-No bug protection
-Requires trees or trekking poles to set up
-Good size is 8×10 upwards is good for two people
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Canary Cut Tarps
-A subset of flat tarps, the only difference is a curve along the spine of the tarp which makes the pitch more taunt. This is a plus in an extended rainstorm, but reduces the tarps versatility in other pitch modes.
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Tarp Tents
-The most civilized option.
-Good bug protection
-Good privacy
-Expensive (in comparison, everything is relative right?)
-Are the most like a ‘normal’ tent (if you’re skeered of the woods this is nice)
-Some are free standing (a nearly useless feature, but some people can’t grasp that so . . . )
-Have an excellent reputation
-Are best for someone who wants all the features of a regular tent in a lightweight package and doesn’t mind spending extra money.
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Shaped Tarps
-One of my favorite options
-Shaped tarps are the bastard child of creative flat tarp pitching technique and tarptents. In my eyes the provide the best of both worlds.
-Can have bugnets, zip doors, privacy, vents–really anything but a built in floor.
-A pimped out shaped tarp will be quite similar to a tarp tent, while a basic model will be less so.
-A basic model is quite affordable costly little more than a flattarp, while providing better storm protection and privacy.
Models LaGarita, AT, Bear Den, Cub Den, Diamond, Ute, Lair, Luna, Canopy all fall under this profile
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Mids, otherwise known as Pyramids / Tipis
-Another favorite of mine
-Super classic, you can’t go wrong with one of these
-Are truly four season, you can winter camp or use mountaineering!
-Really these are a subset of shaped tarps. They are the original shaped tarp and are timeless. THE tent design.
-Tend to be a little more pricey than other shaped tarps due to the labor involved
-Are perfect for large groups (3+) or winter camping
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