Thursday, December 18, 2014

Backcountry Gear Choices: Tent Or Tarp?

Campsite on MacDonough MountainFew backcountry gear decisions seem as daunting as picking a shelter. Some prefer to sleep John Wayne style (under the stars), others prefer lean-tos, but most carry a shelter of some sort on their back – tents or tarps.

Tents are easier to set up (though I’ve seen exceptions), but are often heavier to carry. Compared to tarps tents offer less ventilation, critical when sharing the space with an aromatically challenged companion. Free standing tents are easier to set up and move – an important consideration in locating a good tent site while bushwhacking.  On the other hand, tarps are better in rain. Erecting the tarp over your gear in an emergency can keep you and your gear drier.  An open tarp provides more ventilation, which also allows for quicker drying.

A tarp system reigns supreme in the weight department, but smaller poles and hi-tech fabrics on new tents continue to chip away at the weight differential.

My history with shelters reads like something out of “A Christmas Carol”, with ghosts of shelters past, present and future.

The ghosts of shelters past include tents, tents and more tents. In those early backpacking years, portable shelters began and ended with a tent; nothing else was even on my radar screen. Most everyone engaged in tbackcountry camping owned tents, and so did I.

My first tent was a Eureka Timberline Deluxe, which I bought at the Eureka Camping Center in Binghamton, NY, during one of their legendary discount sales. Saying that tent was roomy would be an understatement. A traditional A-frame, it had room for two people and all the gear they could possibly carry.   The Timberline Deluxe accompanied me on my first backpacking trip, which introduced me to the Five Ponds Wilderness Area. It kept me dry on my first encounter with Mount Marcy, where it withstood a torrential downpour at Slant Rock.  The tent was a worthy companion for a couple years, but it weighed nearly as much as a week’s worth of food. With its unbending, thick aluminum poles, nearly the diameter of my middle finger, the two doors, and the thick fly, it weighed-in, if memory serves me, at about eight pounds.  It was far more than a single person needed, so after a couple years I started looking for a replacement.

Its successor was the Eureka Timberlite, another two-person A-frame, but with a single door, that allowed for a tapered opposite end that considerably reduced the weight. The poles were shock-corded aircraft aluminum – thin, sturdy and much lighter.  This tent shaved at least three or four pounds from my base weight – a considerable accomplishment before lightweight gear became popular.  The Timberlite became my go-to shelter for early solo trips, accompanying me many times into the Five Ponds Wilderness. It was the tent that I had during the mayhem of the 1995 microburst, as well as numerous trips in the High Peaks Region at the beginning of my quest to become a Forty-Sixer.

Over time, I found myself spending more and more time in lean-tos, and less in my tent. The tent became a security blanket, but it would only see the light of day when a lean-to was occupied (and the next too far away). But for a back-up shelter, there had to be something lighter.

The quest for a lighter back-up shelter led me to my last Eureka tent, the Gossamer (talk about brand loyalty, right?). The Gossamer was a one-person tent, though it functioned more as a bivy sack than anything else. It was only big enough for a single sleeping bag, and due to its small size, required crawling into feet first. With little room for gear, the backpack pulled double duty as a large and somewhat bulky pillow. The Gossamer quickly became my go-to shelter on any hike that promised the possibility of a lean-to. It accompanied me on my solo Northville-Placid Trail trip, but it mostly just went along for the ride, as I only needed it near the end at Wanika Falls.

Despite the lower weight, the Gossamer left much to be desired. The tent was not for the claustrophobic, which I am not. Although spending lengthy rain delays in such a small place stretched even my tolerance for confined spaces. Also, I never failed to get wet while exiting in a rainstorm, which quickly dampened my enthusiasm.  The Gossamer’s shortcomings put me on a search for alternatives that coincided with the burgeoning lightweight materials movement. I made a more radical switch from tents to the wild world of tarps. Here was where the ghosts of shelters past gave way to the ghost of shelters present.

Around that same time, a camping buddy introduced me to Golite, a company that produced a commercial version of Ray Jardine’s lightweight gear designs (unfortunately Golite just recently went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy). Although I found the lengths Jardine went to in order to lighten his base weight somewhat bizarre (a photo of him using a map slightly larger than a postage stamp comes to mind), I found his tarp ideas intriguing. It did not take long before I became the proud owner of the Golite Cave and Nest.

The Cave is a peaked tarp weighing in at a paltry two pounds or so. It came without poles – trees, downed branches or homemade hiking poles worked well as substitutes. The one-person size was easily big enough for two average-sized adults, plus it kept the weight in check. The downside was it had 12 guidelines, though half were optional. The number of lines were often a trip hazard on late night bathroom runs.

The Nest is an enclosed shelter, made largely out of insect netting, which hangs beneath the Cave. Although modular, I rarely used the Cave without the Nest during warmer weather, since being savaged by mosquitoes is not my idea of a good time. I bought one sized for two-people, which comfortably accommodates two average-sized individuals and their gear. Zippers add weight, so a flap of insect netting acts as a door.

This tarp system has been my go-to shelter since 2001. Although it’s really lightweight, it has some drawbacks. The many guidelines require a pretty large footprint, which can be a problem when bushwhacking. The guidelines also increase the set-up time compared to a tent, as finding ideal branches for poles adds to the effort.

Earlier this year, I contemplated buying a lightweight tent to replace the tarp, a ghost of shelters future. I looked at a Big Agnes Fly Creek 1 Platinum, which weighs less than two pounds, but costs $450. I was so serious about it that I placed silhouettes of masking tape on the floor of my living room to compare the different footprints – a kind of weird tent crime scene.  In the end, a poor review of the durability of the floor material made me I decided against it.

So for now, it looks like I’ll be dusting-off the old tarp again next year.

Photos: Tarp near MacDonough Mountain in the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

22 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Glad to hear you raise the bug issue. Seems like the biggest issue for the tarp option?

    Also, if you were to opt for the tarp option out west you would have it blow away on probably the first trip. I have experienced many afternoon thunder storms there at high altitude (an their accompanied high winds) where it was only my weight that was keeping the tent from blowing away and being shredded.

  2. Have you ever tried a hammock/tarp combo? It gets you off the ground (rocks & roots) and keeps you dry. In rain you can string the tarp first then set up the hammock from the same trees sheltered from the rain. After going through a couple of tents and restless nights on inadequate pads I went with a hammock and never looked back.

    • Dan Crane says:


      I have never used a hammock/tarp combo before. When I did the northern two-thirds of the Northville-Placid Trail back in 2008 or so, one of my companions used such a system. He used it again when we did a small section of the John Muir Trail in 2009 too. It seemed to work pretty well, but I’d rather not spend a lengthy rain delay in it.

  3. Pete Nelson says:

    When going solo I prefer a foam pad, bivy sack, a small tarp (4 x 6) for over the head and enough light rope to secure the four tarp corners. It’s fast, light and effective against both bugs and rain, plus you can pitch it anywhere imaginable.

    For sleeping with Dan Crane I’d opt for my Eureka Wind River 4 with a ridiculous amount of room.

  4. Good article! My preference is a 4×8 silnylon tarp. I pre-tie some thin cord on the corners with nite ize figure 9’s ( about halfway down each. They adjust easily when setting up camp. Like you said it makes for a lighter pack with more room. I use this in combination with an Integral Designs eVEnt bivy that’s waterproof/breathable.

  5. Bill Colucci says:

    I still can’t make the jump.

    I almost made the move to a Six Moons Design Solo but my five year old Sierra Designs Lightning at 3lbs 6 oz is tough to beat..and it is a 2 person tent.

    Still hoping to switch on e day…but I too am enjoying the lean tos more and more especially late fall w/less buggies

  6. Marco says:

    The GoLite Nest with a tarp (or the Cave) over it works well. I took this along the NFCT when I retired. The next year, I dropped the nest for solo use and switched to a 1 pound tarp using a small piece (48’x54″) of netting to avoid most bugs (at 2-3oz.) Like you, I use lean-to’s if possible.

    The tarp, netting, stuff sack (pillow,) get treated with permethrin. While not really a repellant, it works well to deter a lot of insects: bed-bugs (from lean-to’s,) fleas, various mosquitoes, black-flies, etc. A small smouldering fire works pretty well to drive off the worst of the bugs. Punkies and stable flies don’t seem to respond well to to DEET.

    When you can smell yourself, it is time for a bath, ha, ha. Yeah, it is OK and inevitable to stink in the woods.

  7. Gerry Rising says:

    I am surprised to find no one else using a hammock. Light weight, netted against bugs, no footprint, all you need is two trees. Except in the warmest weather you still need a mattress, because cold air gets under you.

  8. southcove says:

    So I am not the only one with tape residue on my LR floor?!

    I recommend you look at the Mtn Hardware Hoopla tipi type w its ample space, fairly low weight and unique peak configuration…very useful to me and my companions kayak camping but in all likelihood too large for less than 2 folks.

  9. Hawthorn says:

    I have tried and successfully used a hammock in the past, and it does have certain advantages but I eventually tired of the cramped sleeping position. I am one of those people that sometimes sleeps on one side, sometimes the other, sometimes on my back, and sometimes mostly on my stomach, and often all in the same night. I’m also the type of sleeper that gets up several times during the night for various reasons. Always have and always will. Plus, the hammock takes lots of fiddling to get everything just right, and I am not a fiddler by nature. I like to be able to set and break camp in a matter of minutes, not significant fractions of an hour.

    • Hawthorn says:

      Ha, I forgot to add my main point! In general, if you get the right tent it too is less fiddly by nature–one way to put it up and you’re done, but if it is self-standing you can then move it around the area until it is positioned just right for the circumstances. It often takes a lot of trial and error to get the tarp placed just right and there are usually more compromises made with regard to that and the ground you’ll be on. Plus a tent provides bug protection!

  10. Curt Austin says:

    Eureka spitfire for me, a small but full-featured tent. I prefer a clear distinction between inside and outside.

  11. Dan, I have a question for you. I’ve been contemplating using a tarp, but after a pretty rough thunderstorm at Little Tupper Lake this past Summer, I wondered about rain getting under the tarp while I was under it. How do you prevent the rain from running off the tarp and running underneath while your under there?

    • Dan Crane says:


      I’ve had a few experiences related to water running off the tarp and underneath. They are somewhat unique to me, given my situation with the Golite Cave and Nest, but I will relate two here that might be insightful.

      Site location is very important. It is best to set up on the tops of hillocks, where the topography slopes down slightly in every direction. This ensures that the water generally runs away from your shelter, not under the tarp. Unfortunately, finding the ideal site is often very difficult.

      Last year, when hiking through the Jay Mtn Wilderness, I pitched my tarp hurriedly late in the day in an unexpected location. The slight slope did not seem to be such a problem, especially with the sun quickly setting. But when thunderstorms set in later in the night, I woke and found pools of water inside the Nest. Apparently, the insect netting had slid down the slight slope and outside the tarp, so that when it rained the runoff went right inside my shelter, soaking much of my stuff. Location matters!

      Also, the ground type of your site matters. Once, I set up under some ancient hemlocks trees. The years of leaf litter build up formed a nearly impenetrable surface, so when a sudden downpour appeared, there were puddles underneath my Nest – it was like lying on a water bed!

      After the rain died down, I went around the perimeter of the tarp and poked holes into the ground, breaking the barrier, which allowed the water pouring off my tarp in a subsequent shower to harmlessly make its way into the ground and not under my tarp.

      Perhaps I should write an article here about campsite selections with regards to rain. These two anecdotes would do nicely in describing some of the most salient points.

      I hope this helps.

    • Marco says:

      Alan, forgive the intrusion as you were directing a comment to Dan. But he really didn’t answer your question.

      1) Choose a slightly mounded piece of ground. This insures that water will run off, not towards you.
      2) Avoid grassy meadows. Capillary action will insure a wet morning if not a wet night. Condensation is also a problem over grasses.
      3) Set up a low shelter, several inches above your feet and shoulders. This will give you maximum overall coverage over the ground and be more resistant to winds.
      3a) This also reduces the splash/back spatter from rain drops & runoff.
      4) Use roots, and other ground features to form natural run-offs and dams.
      5) Check for signs of run-off, ie gulleys & puddling, before setting up.
      6) Bring ear plugs. Rain pelting on a roof 12″ above your face is LOUD.

      Hope this helps… I have been out in some pretty severe storms with a tarp including a tornadic storm several years ago. Last year was mild in comparison despite wide spread power outages while I was on the NPT. A sort-of neat thing, the tarp doesn’t hold as much water as a tent making it lighter to carry, even in the rain.

  12. Lily says:

    I am mildly amused by this discussion. As a woman who has done countless solo wilderness trips over 40 years, the option of sleeping in anything but an enclosed tent never occured to me. A tent affords privacy which is a level of safety for a solo woman traveler. Despite numerous encounters with wildlife and wild weather over the years, the only thing that truly threatened my safety were men.
    It didn’t happen often, but I can tell you those times I was harrassed by guys I encountered informed my strategies to stay safe on future trips. Never thought I would do this, but as I plan for a retirement filled with travel, a conceal carry permit is on the to-do list. I am curious, guys, does your personal safety from others out there ever register as an issue for you?

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Thank you or this distressing and honest post. This issue – the safety of women in the back country – almost never gets raised.

      My answer to you is a definite no: my personal safety has never been an issue in any substantive sense. But there have been a couple of times when I was aware that being 6’3″, 190 lbs and male was useful to me.

      Thank you again for your forthright voice.


    • Hawthorn says:

      Lily, that is a unfortunate truth you state. As a man I have only rarely worried about my safety in the Adirondacks. The few times I can recall were due to hunters imbibing alcohol with loaded weapons handy, or just hunters shooting in places they shouldn’t be. in general, once you get a couple of miles from any trailhead you would be as safe sleeping in the Adks as you would in your own bed at home. One thing you can do with a tarp and a hammock is to pitch camp well off in the woods, far out of sight of any trail. You don’t need a flat or clear area. I have done that numerous times and the chances of someone stumbling upon me are near zero.

      • Hawthorn says:

        By the way, I think if you look at the statistics you will find the number of incidents in the backwoods are tiny. Makes sense–the farther you get from civilization the fewer the people you will encounter. What are the chances that someone with criminal intent will happen to come across you in a remote location?

  13. Amy Nelson says:

    Hawthorne’s first comment was sufficient. Women’s perspective lacking in his case, perhaps the follow-up comment could’ve remained under his hat; Statistics don’t make us feel any safer. Lily’s out there, doing her thing, facing all the same dangers as every other man but while carrying around the extra “weight” of too many men’s perceptions. Statistics aside, there is no guarantee anywhere that any of you nice gents can give us. I wonder how many men might scrape up the courage to go and have this conversation with at least one woman backpacker they know. I’ll toast to that possibility.

    • Hawthorn says:

      Really? Looking at the perception of the situation is more important than the reality? I’m married to a woman who went to Europe when she was fifteen and traveled all over the place by herself. She grew up playing in the woods at her home in the foothills of the Adks and has zero fear in the woods. She frequently goes on day hikes in the Adks by herself. She traveled all over the West with girlfriends, hiking into remote backcountry and camping out. She’s been in places in South and Central America by herself that many men were afraid to visit, irrationally. I have no doubt she would hike to and camp in any place in the Adks without a second thought to her safety, and she would encourage our daughter to do so.

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