Long Distance Hikers Review Shelters

It is truly said that the past is a foreign country; backpackers of the 1980s resemble their ancestors of the 1940s about as much as scarlet tanagers do pterodactyls.  Nowhere are the contrasts more evident than in camp.  Those cold-blooded reptiles felt feathers (tents) were for sissies; the gaudy-plumaged wildlander of today considers tarp-sleepers barely a figleaf from stark naked.  Betraying saurian predjudices, the first edition of this manual discussed tents only after extravagantly praising tarps.  However, public opinion has prevailed and here tarps have been shuffled off to chapters end.  Perhaps in another decade they’ll have gone the way of the Trapper Nelson and tricouni and dehydrated spinach.   —“Backpacking, One Step at a Time” by Harvey Manning

Counter to Harvey Manning’s 1986 prediction, tarps have not only “hung in there”, but have splintered into tarp and tent hybrid that has been creatively termed the tarptent.  Backcountry travelers of today have boundless choices when it comes to picking a shelter.  They can choose to enjoy the security of four walls and a roof, sleep al fresco under a few threads of silnylon, or even hang from trees while keeping contributions to pack weight to a minimum.  In fact, modern shelter choices are so limitless and high tech, they would surely have bewildered our backpacking ancestors from the early 1900s.  Were we to exhume, reanimate, then plunk Galileo down in the control center for the Hubble Space Telescope, we might get close to imagining how Teddy Roosevelt would react in an REI.

For the would-be shelter shopper, the sheer number of options available can make the nomintion process a troublesome endeavor.  Thankfully, despite an alphabet soup of seemingly endless selection, there are few basic decisions to be made before trying to decide whether to go with the VX6 or the VX7-A1 or the thru-hiker extreme pro plus.  These decisions will help narrow down the field.

The first decision considers the following questions:  What do you want to get out of your backcountry experience and what do need to make your adventure worthwhile?  These are questions about style and will help guide you to the basic shelter technology that is most likely to keep you happy.  Think about it:  Do you value staying dry under all circumstances or are you willing to get a little wet on an especially rainy night for something that might weigh or cost less?   Do need to be able to make camp on any ground surface at the spur of the moment?  Do you freak out without four walls around you at night?  Are you interested in experimenting with new technology or would you rather go with old standards?  There are always tradeoffs.

The next decision to make is based more on climate and geography:  Where will you be hiking and at what time of year?  If you’re winter hiking, you’ll probably be heading for a setup designed specifically for winter use.  If all you’ve got are cactus stumps and tumbleweed to hike around, then you shouldn’t choose a shelter that needs trees.  Otherwise, you’ve got a full range of shelters available.

So you’re thinking of piling up some miles on the AT or PCT?  Which shelter do you pick?  It can help to know what others who have come before have done and what they liked and disliked about their choice.

Distancehiking.com surveyed 1,024 hikers who hiked more than 500 miles on the AT and PCT in 2013 and 2014 and asked them about their shelter choices.  481 AT and 543 PCT hikers were asked the following questions:

  • What kind of portable shelter did you use the most often?
  • What did you like the most about your choice? (pick 2)
  • What did you like the least about your shelter choice? (pick 2)

Shelter Choices on the AT and PCT

Pie Chart of Shelter Choices AT and PCT

The traditional tent with rain fly and the tarp tent made up the lion’s share of shelter choices on both trails combined.  A stalwart 5% of hikers chose to shed portable shelters entirely!  When the trails were separated, did the distribution change?

Pie Chart of Distribution of Shelter Choices AT Picture of Shelter Choices PCT

It seems as though there were a few differences, not surprising given the geographical differences between the trails.  Hammock users were almost exclusively AT-bound.  There were more tarp tent users on the the PCT and more traditional tent w/ rain fly users on the AT. Also, interestingly, most of the non- portable shelter users were on the PCT; 9% PCT vs. 1% AT.  Considering the availability of permanent shelter on the AT, one would have expected that more AT users would chose to not to use a portable shelter.  But despite the permanent shelter system on the AT, many hikers still chose to carry and use (we didn’t ask how often) portable shelters.

Shelter Reviews by Shelter Type

Hikers were asked to select up to two things they liked about their shelter choice and two things they didn’t like about their shelter choice.  The choices were based on open-ended responses from a previous pilot study in 2011.  For those of you getting ready to shelter shop, this should be a very informative section.

Tarp Tent

278 tarp tent users overwhelmingly voiced their enthusiasm for the lightweight nature of the design and were pleased about the ability of the tarp tent to keep the bugs away.  Tarp tent users were less than thrilled about condensation and found that there were limits to where their shelter could be set-up.  Users essentially pointed out the basic design limitations of the tarp tent; the single-wall design must simultaneously keep weather out, but have enough ventilation so as to prevent excess condensation.  Based on this survey, tarp tent designers seem to be prioritizing weatherproofing over lowering condensation, which makes sense!  Many tarp tents rely on staking and trekking pole support, which both limits the type of ground for pitching and makes tarp tents vulnerable to high winds, thus some dissatisfaction about where the tarp tent could be set up.

Graph of Tarp Tent LikesGraph of Tarp Tent Dislikes


 Tent with Rain Fly

The 434 hikers who used tents with a separate rain fly were a little more across-the-board about their likes and dislikes.  Perhaps this owes to the versatility of the design?  Similar to the tarp tent, hikers liked that this tried-and-true traditional design did a good job keeping the bugs out.  These hikers, however, seemed to be more praiseworthy of the tent/rain fly combo’s performance in bad weather.  115 hikers were appreciative of their shelters being both lightweight and easy to set up and take down.  Weight is a popular knock against the tent/rain fly design, but many hikers were not bothered by this, perhaps indicating that modern lightweight materials make tents with a rain fly more attractive.  This could also be because partners can share the weight of a 2-person tent.  In the same breath, just as many hikers were dissatisfied about the weight of the tent/rain fly combo.  So there’s a split opinion.

Graph of Tent with Rain Fly LikesGraph of Tent with Rain Fly Dislikes



There were 65 hikers who carried hammocks and these folks were positively fervent about the ability of the hammock to be set up just about anywhere.  Considering that most hammock users were AT hikers and the AT has plenty of trees, this makes complete sense.  It’s also important to note that many hammocks are also able to be used as ground-based shelters.  Hammocking hikers were not as unanimous about their dislikes.  The most frequently cited dislike, at 26% of hikers, was the hammock’s ability to hold up in wet weather.  This was followed by the inability to use the hammock with a partner….er…yeah…no thanks!

Graph of Hammock LikesGraph of Hammock Dislikes


Other Shelter Setups

Other shelter setups are grouped together for this post since their numbers are much smaller compared to the three previous designs, so it’s hard to draw too many strong conclusions. These setups include bivvies (13 hikers), tarps (38 hikers), and bivy/tarp combos (12 hikers). Probably the most notable conclusion to be drawn from the numbers is that hikers using tarps and bivy/tarp combos gave consistent praise for being lightweight, with the the other potential likes at much lower numbers. This makes sense as these designs skimp on creature comforts and built-in weatherproofing to get the lowest weights possible, although bivy/tarp combos can weigh at or above the lightest weight designs of other shelters.  Please note difference in y-axis scale when reading these graphs.  Exact numbers were omitted due to text crowding.

Graph of Other Shelter LikesGraph of Other Shelter Dislikes

So, now that you’ve looked over the reviews from other long distance hikers, are you feeling a little more informed?  Are you leaning toward a certain shelter type, one that matches your style and the geography of where you’re going? If you answered yes, then now is the time to start thinking of models and manufacturers.  This topic is beyond the scope of Ounces, which only considers basic shelter types so as to avoid being obsolete next season!  But there are lots of great resources for reading about models and manufacturers.  A large number of publications deal with gear reviews and distancehiking.com especially likes the following:

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