Few 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.