One of human beings’ three basic needs, shelter can be the largest and heaviest of the backpacking “Big 3”.
The “Big 3” are the three items in a backpacker’s set up that will most effect the weight they carry on the trail, the other two being the sleep system and the backpack itself. There are three main varieties of shelter and each is best suited for different terrain and weather conditions.
Single wall shelters are typically ultra light offerings made from high end specialty fabrics and with few to no tent poles keeping them erect. The single wall design serves double duty as protection from the elements and as a layer between you and the outside world.
Double wall shelters were, until the recent UL Hiking movement, the most common type of shelters at campsites. These tried and true trail dwellings are what you think about when you envision a “tent”. They are comprised of two “walls”; one inner wall – typically a combination of a lightweight synthetic fabric with a mesh material for bug protection and ventilation, and one outer wall – usually made of a heavier treated synthetic like nylon, Silnylon (nylon impregnated with silicone), or a high end specialty fabric like Dyneema Composit Fabric (aka Cuben Fiber), to act as a rain fly around the inner living space. Almost all double wall shelters will be freestanding, needing one or more poles specific to the structure to be used in the set up. In non-windy conditions, most double wall shelters are “free standing”, meaning they can stay erect without the use of stakes.
These shelters offer the most protection from the elements, but at a weight penalty. Different models are available for different “seasons”, with “Four Season” tents able to stand up to high winter winds and heavy loads from snowfall.
Suspended shelters used to refer specifically to hammocks, however there are now many companies that sell structures the same size and shape as a classic double wall shelter, but suspended above the ground on tension straps from three or more trees. I have no experience with the later, which judging by their size and weight are probably more suited to base camps and “Glamping” than for use while hiking from place to place each day.
Hammock camping is a great option for many people. Not having to worry about what is under foot or finding a root underneath your ground pad in the middle of the night is a big advantage that hammock campers have. Hammocks themselves tend to weigh less than most other shelters, but when you start adding in accessories like straps, rain flies, and under-quilts, they can be just as cumbersome as a lot of double wall shelters. Also, side-sleepers may not find hammocks to be the most comfortable option.
Check out my reviews of all types of shelters that I’ve used and liked (or not) by following these links: