Why use a shelter?

Shelters for pilots need to be lightweight, compact, versatile, and reliable. Those four simple criteria eliminate about 70% of the shelters marketed to campers. In this article I'll discuss different shelter systems and their pros and cons. No one shelter is best for all environments or conditions and they all offer trade-offs. I spend a lot of time in the bush, both flying and also kayaking, backpacking, mountain biking and four-wheeling, and I have seven different shelters at last count. Some shelters are ideal for extended stays in the bush, while others are small and light enough to live in the back of the plane for when circumstances conspire to make your five-hour fishing trip into a 48-hour impromptu camp out.

Before choosing a shelter system for your upcoming trip, give some thought to no shelter. Sleeping under the stars is a pretty nice way to go if there isn't a compelling reason to shelter in a tent. I personally sleep better without a tent because I feel like I have better situational awareness of my surroundings. Lots of folks are uncomfortable with just laying down on the ground and going to sleep, but once you get used to it you need a pretty compelling reason to sleep any other way. Some of those compelling reasons include rain, snow, wind, bugs, snakes, and pesky wildlife.

The author's "5-season" mountaineering tent next to his 1952 Cessna 170B, during a Death Valley rain event. Notice the flooding in the foreground.

While they provide no actual protection, grizzly bear experts pretty much universally agree that you are safer sleeping inside a tent than outside on the ground in grizzly country. No one is really sure what makes a bear overcome its natural revulsion to humans and pray on a sleeping person, but the tent seems to act as one more mental obstacle the bear has to overcome before they will attack. Doug Peacock knows as much about grizzly behavior as anyone on earth, and while he loathes sleeping in tents he reports that he always uses one in grizzly country. There's a whole lot more to sleeping securely in grizzly country than just using a tent, but I thought it was interesting that a tent has any deterrent effect at all.

Much more common animal encounters that a tent can alleviate are from rodents, insects, snakes and possibly an inquisitive skunk or raccoon. While exceedingly rare, I know of at least on person who was being cautiously investigated by a mountain lion while he slept in the open. When he tried to brush away whatever was next to his head he startled the cat and received one well delivered swat before the cat ran off. Providing it was just one swat I think that the damage would be more than worth the story, but that's just me.

Even in July it can get mighty damp, mighty fast. Having some sort of shelter with you just makes sense, whether you opt to use it or not.

Tarps

Tarp living is good living. Super lightweight and versatile, tarps are a favorite shelter among experienced backcountry travelers. With the ability to pitch them with the sides open, tarps provide a superior living space during inclement weather. You can cook under a tarp without worrying about spilled food or carbon monoxide poisoning, and six hours sitting under a tarp while the weather comes down is a lot less claustrophobic than the same hours inside a tent. If the weather is bad enough to make a tent worth having, then a tarp makes an excellent addition. A tarp strung over the front of a tent makes a dry space to get in and out of the tent, cook, or just hang out and watch the rain come down. If the weather isn't bad but you want to keep the dew off you, a high-pitched tarp does that while still letting you look a the stars and have a 360-degree view of your surroundings.

A super-light tarp shelter pitched in the Bob Marshal Wilderness, Montana.

Tarps excel at keeping precipitation, frost, and dew off you while you camp. Where tarps come up short is with bugs or horizontal rain or snow, or in areas where there is simply nothing to string them from. Unlike a self-supporting tent, with a tarp you not only have to find a flat place to sleep, but you have to find that flat place with suitable anchors for the tarp line. Tarps provide no protection from curious animals, and without a ground cloth they give no protection from ground moisture. Additionally, while enclosed tents provide a significant amount of thermal insulation, tarps do not.

Tarps made out of cuben fiber and silicone impregnated nylon (sil-nylon for short) are incredibly lightweight, completely waterproof, and surprisingly tough. To pitch a tarp you need a bit more creativity and ingenuity than just pitching a tent. You have to be able to string a line and tie a knot, and you need something to tie off to, though the strut of your airplane and a rock dead-maned in the soil will work just fine.

A good tarp costs some money, more than you might suspect, in fact. A decent sil-nylon tarp will run over $150, and a cuben fiber tarp the same size can be twice as much. The material is expensive to begin with, and there is a substantial amount of sewing involved in attaching the tie-out points and lacing the outside to keep it from tearing. Properly cared for a quality tarp will last half a lifetime, so it's money well spent.

Adding a tarp onto even a very large tent is a great way to increase livability during extended rains and adds little to the weight of your shelter system.

Tarp makers are apparently prone to the urge to fix what wasn't broke. Unsatisfied with an easy to pitch, versatile, rectangular tarp, they set about to create tarps which, if you ever get them pitched correctly, look more like origami than a place to sleep. While they can be hard to find, I highly recommend searching out a simple, flat, rectangular tarp and leave the origami tarps to the designers.

An open tarp isn't as warm as an enclosed tent but it keeps you dry and provides a 360 degree view. Despite owning it for years I've never figured out how the Kelty Noah's Tarp is supposed to be pitched, nor have I found anyone else who owns one that's figured it out. A simple rectangular tarp is the way to go in my opinion.

The odd-shaped but possibly multi-useful Kelty Noah's Tarp. Alan Grinberg @Flickr.com

Bivy sacks

Not really shelters in and of themselves, bivy sacks are water-resistant covers that go over your sleeping bag and provide some additional protection from the elements. Some of them have a tented area around your head and a small pole to keep the fabric off your face, usually with some bug netting. Bivy sacks do a pretty decent job of keeping mist and frost off your sleeping bag and can be a real bonus to people camping under a tarp when the wind kicks up, as they give some protection from both the moisture and the wind. If you like using your wing as your shelter a bivy sack will keep you drier when a bit of rain blows through during the night. They are also good for people camping in the snow, but regardless of what they're made out of they are inadequate to protect you in even a moderate rain. I used them extensively in the past but was never really thrilled with them. I always found my bag got much damper and clammier inside a bivy sack when it wasn't raining, and didn't stay a whole lot drier when it was. They make an adequate emergency shelter, but for just a little more weight and bulk you can have a proper one-person tent— an increased comfort factor of at least ten-fold. Like many things, if they appeal to you then you just have to try one and see how it works. Just don't expect it to be a completely dry alternative to a proper shelter when the weather really goes south.

A bivy sack is essentially a weather layer for your sleeping bag.Russell Neches @Flickr.com

Mids

Also called pyramid tents, mids are a hybrid between a tarp and a tent. Made out of either sil-nylon or cuben fiber, they are single-wall shelters which are staked to the ground and supported in the center by a pole or suspended from a line from above. There is no floor, and depending on how they're pitched they can have a few inches of open space at the very bottom near the ground. They are very lightweight and easier to pitch than a tarp since you don't need two points to string a line between. You do have to either drive in 8 stakes or figure out another system to keep the floor tie outs secured to the ground. I've pitched them on solid rock by making loops of cord and tying them around rocks instead of using stakes.

The resulting shelter has a large floor space but relatively small interior space since the walls go up to a single point. Because they are single wall, condensation forms on the fabric and you really don't want to be touching the walls while you sleep or lounge, further reducing the available living space. Black Diamond claims their MegaMid will accommodate five people and that's simply ridiculous. It's a fine shelter for two people, and three people could make it work in a pinch, but that's about it.

Black Diamond MegaMid pitched on a sand bar in Idaho. Mids are very versatile and provide a large shelter for the size and weight.

While better than tarps, mids provide limited protection from wildlife. A determined person can make one almost mosquito-proof, but they are no substitute for a tent in bug country. Bugs, rodents and snakes have free access to the interior, and if you cook in your tent you'll have rodents in short order. In one rather strange incident a fox stuck its head under our mid and tried to pull the sleeping bag off my wife while she slept. They ended up in an honest to god tug-o-war until she had enough of it and slapped the fox across the face. In another incident a mouse bit my wife on the hand while she was sleeping. We couldn't find the mouse so we don't know if it's okay.

A mid and a tarp in combination makes the perfect shelter for a early-spring kayaking trip that guarantees rain every day for two weeks. Notice there is some rope work involved in getting the tarp pitched correctly.

There are a growing number of ultralight shelters which are a cross between a tarp and a tent similar to a mid, but shaped differently and usually relying on guy-outs and trekking poles for support. Some of them are modular so you can add bug netting when you need it, but not have to cary it all the time. Most are made by small companies and their usefulness is probably more dependent on a person's ability to pitch them properly than anything else. They are true minimalist shelters targeted at through-hikers and sheep hunters and other people who cut the strings off tea bags to save weight. If you choose to use one as your emergency shelter make sure you become expert at pitching it before packing it away.

With no floor in your shelter, you could be snuggling with some friendly critters like this little fellow.

Hammocks

Hammock camping is my absolute favorite form of camping when I'm alone. I sleep better in my hammock than anywhere else, and if it wasn't for my desire to be next to my wife I'd sleep in one year-round. It's not for everyone though. The general consensus is that people will either love it, or hate it. I think a fair number of those who hate it do so because of a poorly pitched hammock, but I guess that counts too.

Sleeping hammocks are cut different than "lounging hammocks." A person in a properly pitched sleeping hammock lays at a slight angle to the supports, and quite flat. I can even sleep on my stomach in the hammock when it's pitched right. Hammocks eliminate the need to find flat, dry ground, they keep you away from all the creepy-crawlers, and they eliminate hot spots caused by insufficiently flat ground or overly thin sleeping pads. So called “jungle hammocks” have a built-in bug netting which, in addition to keeping bugs at bay, creates a wonderful (or horrifying, depending on the person) cocoon effect. A tarp strung above the hammock provides protection from the elements, and the hammock doubles as a chair when you're cooking or eating or just reading a book. It's a good living space: the tarp gives you a large dry area to relax and do chores while your bed hangs above you, completely dry and protected. Unlike a tent, a hammock never gets flooded out from saturated ground or puddling water.

As close to heaven as anyone deserves...hammock camping on the headwaters of the Middle Fork Salmon, Idaho.

There are some nuances to hammock camping that deserve mention. For one thing, correctly pitching the hammock is a bit of an art with a definite learning curve. An inch difference in height or tension on either line makes a noticeable difference in how you lay, and if the trees you hang from are small enough to flex with your weigh, that has to be taken into account as well. A novice can figure on getting up and adjusting their hammock at least half a dozen times (or more) before they find a proper pitch. Eventually you figure out what works best. Don't wait until dark to see if your pitch is correct. I can pitch my hammock, lay in it for ten seconds and then make a final adjustment and I'm set, but it took a lot of pitches to get to that point.

A creative person who's good with ropes and has no other option for sleeping can pitch a hammock almost anywhere, but finding trees of the correct diameter and distance apart for a perfect pitch isn't as common as you might think. Some pretty serious tinkering is necessary at times. In most country I've found there's little difference in difficulty between finding a flat spot to pitch a tent and finding two proper anchors to pitch a hammock. Obviously deep in the jungle a hammock is going to be the superior shelter, while on the Mongolian Steppes a hammock is of little value.

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I've been tempted to try and rig an airplane-based hammock support, but keep shying away from it. The vector-force of a weight suspended by two lines is much greater than the weight itself, and there's some bouncing and jostling involved in getting settled down, which increases the force on the anchors. All in all I just don't see enough of an upside to subject the airplane structure to that abuse.

A hammock, tarp and suspension lines are about the same weight and bulk as a one or two-person tent, so there's really no weight savings. The cost is about the same, too. More if you opt for the under quilts that make hammock sleeping soooo much more comfortable.

Despite what we all learned watching Gilligan's Island, a person in a hammock still needs insulation underneath them, either in the form of a foam pad or a special quilt that hangs outside the hammock. Your body weight compresses both your tissue and your sleeping bag agains the fabric of the hammock, depriving them of any insulating value. Even in very warm climates some sort of insulation is necessary. I found this out the hard way when I spent a month in the Thai jungle wilting with heat every day, then freezing every night. Even in the warm soft tropical air I was terribly cold for lack of insulation beneath me, while the top of me was fine with nothing more than a long sleeve shirt. The only time I haven't needed insulation under me was in Death Valley in July where the temperature never dropped below 98 degrees and I had to sleep wrapped in a wet sheet.

The two ways to insulate your hammock is to either bring a foam pad or Thermarest inside the hammock with you, or to purchase a specially fitted quilt that attaches to the outside of the hammock where your body weight will not compress it. Of the two, the quilt is much more comfortable and convenient, while the foam pad is cheaper and more versatile…it gives you something to sleep on if you can't find a place to hang your hammock. Dedicated hammock sleepers who have invested in an under quilt often save space and weight by using a down top quilt in lieu of a conventional sleeping bag. A pillow is just as nice in a hammock as it is on the ground, though you can get by with less pillow in a hammock and still be comfortable.

There are several brands of sleeping hammocks available. Hennessy Hammocks pretty much started the whole hammock camping craze, and they make a good product in different sizes and configurations. One option I really like is the sleeve for a foam pad so you don't have to wrestle with it inside the hammock. I haven't used them, but Warbonnet is another well regarded hammock manufacturer. There are at least a dozen individuals and small companies making sleeping hammocks for sale as well. Hammock camping is almost a cult, so there's no shortage of information, good and bad, on the web.

A sleeping hammock is a substantial investment, especially with an under quilt, and there's a bit of time and effort that needs to be invested before a comfortable night is assured. Even with a perfect pitch, some people simply do not like sleeping in a hammock. It's not for everyone, but if you're curious, I highly recommend giving it a try. Simply put, I sleep like a drunk baby on Xanax in my hammock. It is hands down the best nights sleep I ever get...not just in the field, but anywhere. Your milage may vary.

Tents proper

Unlike the other shelters discussed here, tents are free-standing, fully enclosable shelters with floors and their own support structure. Some need to be staked to the ground to stay erect, and most will have a secondary sheet of fabric (a fly) that covers the tent to protect it from rain and snow.

There are so many tents and tent manufacturers out there that it's impossible to give any sort of rundown of what's on the market today. Instead I'll point out some of the key features to consider in choosing a tent and leave it at that.

To start with, do yourself a huge favor and do your tent shopping at a climbing or mountaineering store, not at Discount Sports or Bass Pro Shop or Big 5 or (god forbid) any store ending in "mart". The no-name or house brand tents they sell are heavy, weak, leaky, low quality garbage that do little more than clog our landfills and waste money, energy and resources that could have gone towards a shelter worth owning. If you'll spend $100 on a jacket you shouldn't think twice about spending $500 on a tent. There's way more than five times the work and material in a tent, and it's your sleep that's at stake here. You're a pilot for crying out loud, have some pride in your gear. Nemo Losi 3 and Kelty Noah's Tarp

Tents made by companies with a mountaineering background are lighter weight, better quality, stronger, drier and longer-lasting. Not every tent The North Face makes is a mountaineering tent capable of withstanding 70 mph winds for days on end, but every tent with that name on it is a well designed, quality product with a high strength-to-weight ratio and warranty you can hang your hat on. Marmot, Terra Nova, The North Face, Big Agnes, Mountain Hardware, Sierra Designs, Hilleberg, Black Diamond, Nemo, and MSR are brands that won't let you down. There are other quality brands out there for sure, but these are some of the most common. Keep in mind that many of these manufacturers make both expedition quality mountaineering tents and family-camping tents designed to keep the bugs away on clear, calm nights. It's up to you to pick a design that fits your needs.

With that admonishment out of the way, there are two general considerations in choosing a tent: how big do you want it, and how robust does it need to be. Both of these factors will influence the weight and cost of the tent.

First, size: Good lord they make some monster tents these days. I cannot believe some of the enormous, multi room, standing height monstrosities that some people choose to use. I guess if you don't mind lugging a forty pound tent around and are happy spending an hour setting it up in the afternoon and another hour packing it away in the morning, then these mega-tents have some advantages. Mainly, they give other people something to laugh at. That's worth a lot, but I still don't recommend them.

The larger a tent is, the more wind it catches and the more snow it carries, thus the stronger it has to be and the heavier it is. Also, the larger a tent is, the more moisture it's going to hold when you pack it up in the morning after a heavy dew or night of rain. You can easily add twenty pounds of water or frost to a large tent, more if it's made out of canvas.

Size is a personal preference sort of thing in the end. I find the convenience of a larger tent is almost always offset by the weight penalty and increased difficulty in pitching and striking them, so I tend to be more conservative. That said, the people tent manufacturers use to determine the holding capacity of their products are apparently very small and very good friends. A family of Chinese acrobats is my guess. As a general rule, I find that a two-person tent is good for one person, a three person tent is good for two, a four person tent is good for three, and past that I don't know since it's never occurred to me to have more than three people inside the same tent.

June in Death Valley

Stoutness: There are a lot of ways to make a tent with the same square footage, and thus there are a lot of tents that seemingly fill the same niche but have different weights and costs.

Tents are broadly categorized as 2, 3, 4, or 5 season tents. There can be a lot of variation within that classification, but it gives us somewhere to start. Keep in mind that tent size and design will directly affect how a tent performs. A low-slung wind shedding two-person, 2-season tent will likely survive harsh weather better than a standing-room-tall five-person, 3-season tent.

A 2-season tent is a lightweight affair that will keep dew and rain off of you and withstand some wind, but not a lot. Generally it'll have a couple support poles and require that all four corners be firmly staked to the ground in order to stand erect, making them a poor choice in snow or on hard frozen ground. The fly will be very light, and it will cover the top of the tent but generally stop short of the ground, and there will be minimal tie out points. The floor is likely to be joined to the tent walls with a single seam along the ground, and the vents are rudimentary and will be covered with bug netting but won't be closable. The advantage to this tent is that it is lightweight. By minimizing the thickness and quantity of the materials and making some of the structure dependent on the ground stakes a lot of weight can be saved. For the same reason they are less expensive than more robust tents which have more material and more complex design. Often the seams will not be sealed against moisture, though you can seal them yourself. In heavy rain water might get inside, and they will withstand a limited amount of wind. They are not designed to withstand snow loading but will do fine with a couple inches. I've gotten very, very good service out of two-season tents, in part because they were small enough to pack places a larger tent simply wouldn't have worked. Bicycle touring, working as tree faller on forest fires and camping out of a Cessna 140 are just a few instances where size and weight trumped everything else and a 2-season tent was perfect.

While technically a 3-season tent, this Sierra Designs Bedouin 4 has a lot of wind-catching height and limited tie-outs to stabilize it. It's nice to be able to stand up in a tent, but a big tent like this weights more than a smaller 4-season tent and isn't nearly as weatherproof.

Upgrade to a 3-season tent and everything gets beefier. Fabric is generally heavier, poles are thicker, and the fly is larger. Rather than requiring the corners to be staked out for stability, a 3-season tent utilizes two or more extra poles to make it free standing. The extra poles also make it stronger in regards to wind and snow. The fly is larger and covers more of the tent and has more tie out points. Rather than being sewn at the ground level, the floor is a "bathtub" design where the seam between the floor and the walls is several inches off the ground. Vents can be closed to keep rain and wind from coming in during a storm. All seams are sealed against moisture. A properly designed and pitched 3-season tent will keep you dry in heavy rain and withstand reasonably high wind and some amount of snow load. 3-season tents comprise the bulk of the tent world. Sturdier and more weather proof than two season tents, but without the weight and expense of making it suitable for winter use.

This REI Nemo Losi is constructed with a mesh top, which provides great ventilation and star gazing while reducing weight, but it provides little protection from windborn dust or snow, even with the fly attached.

A 4-season tent is sturdier yet. That fourth season is winter, after all. It may look very similar to the 3-season tent but with additional features that make it able to withstand higher wind and heavy snow loading. The poles are stronger and connect to the tent with a more robust interface. Vents are numerous and more sophisticated in order to deal with venting in sub-freezing temperatures. They will have fabric doors that zipper completely over them to keep blowing snow or sand from coming inside. The fly will be heavier, go completely to the ground, and attach to the tent in multiple places instead of just the four corners. There are multiple tie-out points on the fly and on the tent, and the fly vestibule will usually have its own pole for support. A proper 4-season tent will withstand high winds, torrential rains, and heavy snow loads. It will also typically be nearly twice the weight and price of a similarly sized 3-season tent. A high quality three-person, 4-season tent will run $600-800, which is a fantastic bargain when you compare it to a $80 pair of shorts or a $400 rain shell.

This 4-season tent seemed like overkill for a trip across the Western US in July, but it proved itself worthwhile when a thunderstorm brought 50 mph winds, torrential rain, and coated a nearby hill in hail.

5-season tents: These are tents taken to the extreme. Think Greenland in winter. Essentially a 5-season tent is a tent capable of withstanding arctic conditions. They are heavy, expensive, and complete overkill for most people most places most times of the year. If you need one you already know it.

If you buy a tent from a reputable manufacturer the rating they give the tent will be pretty accurate, but there are nuances. Tall tents are less strong than squat tents because they catch more wind. Some tents are made almost extensively from bug mesh…the idea being that when it's not raining you can leave the fly off and look up at the stars without the mosquitos chewing on you all night. This works great, and it's a much cooler design in warm climates, but the mesh does little to keep dust or fine blowing snow out of the tent. Putting the fly on actually makes it worse, as the fly create an eddy where airborne dust or snow can settle out and fall through the mesh. After an afternoon wind storm in the Utah desert the inside of my Nemo Losi was covered in half an inch of the finest red dust you can imagine. Not nice.

It looks tranquil and it's certainly not raining, but this picture was taken during a three day stretch where the wind blew a steady, unrelenting 30-50 mph, day and night. The only reason this tent is still standing is because it's a 4-season mountaineering tent with extensive guy-out lines, top quality materials, and heavy construction. Lesser tents in the vicinity were shredded in a matter of hours.

Heated tents

These are essentially larger versions of the MID equipped with a stove jack and (usually) a titanium stove and pipe. Because they are single-wall, floor-less tents supported by a single pole, they are extremely light weight for their size. Like MID's, the holding capacity is based on the square footage at ground level and is generally really, really optimistic. I find an 8-person tent ideal for two people, though you could make it work for four.

Because they offer a large living space and a source of heat, these tents are a real game changer in bad weather and during extended stays. There is really no comparing the comfort of a warm, dry living space that can be used to lounge, cook, dry out wet gear, and sleep. During the shoulder seasons when the days are short and the weather is less than predictable a heated tent can mean the difference between enjoying your outing and not.

This lightweight tent stove is best used in the absence of pets, children, and/or accident-prone people.

Heated teepee tents are not nearly as common as other styles and there aren't as many manufacturers making them. Out of all the companies making them today I chose Seek Outside as having the best features and design, and I haven't been disappointed. Their customer service has been second to none and they make a quality product. They offer two different poles: one made entirely of aluminum, and one made from aluminum and carbon fiber. The carbon fiber pole is well worth the extra money. Not only is it lighter, but it's better engineered.

Because of their design, large teepee tents are completely dependent on the single center pole and ground stakes to keep them erect. The consequences of a tent blowing down are significantly higher when there's a red-hot stove inside, so careful consideration and common sense needs to be applied. Where and how you stake them down is important…wire stakes in dry sand is just not going to work.

The small wood stoves work fantastically well to heat the envelope of air inside the tent. The stoves are small and extremely light weight. You can't just chuck large pieces of wood inside them like you do with the cast iron stove in your kitchen. Firewood needs to be careful selected and cut to size; saw and axe skills are necessary.

Obviously there is a safety issue with having a fire inside your tent. Putting a red hot stove and chimney in a small space requires care. If the tent is properly pitched and care is taken in how the stove sits and whats around it, it's reasonably safe. Large dogs, small children, and accident-prone people should not be invited inside a heated tent.

Whether the expense and complexity of a heated tent is a good fit for you depends a lot on how much time you spend in the bush, and how much you push the weather. If backcountry flying to you means July at Thomas Creek, it's overkill. But if you love the early spring and late fall seasons and regularly go places you can get weathered-in for days at a time, they can be priceless.

Pitch it right

Pitching a tent well is as important as purchasing a quality tent to begin with. At the very least, free standing tents need to be staked at all four corners lest a wind gust send the tent and its contents tumbling across the ground. Tents and kites are built remarkably similarly, and a couple sleeping bags and pads will not keep a tent on the ground in any sort of breeze. All the extra tie-out points on expedition quality tents don't do any good if you don't use them. A properly guyed tent will withstand many times the wind of a poorly guyed one. The guy-outs not only keep the tent attached to the earth, but they keep the wind from bending the tent over to the point that the poles break. Part of guying them properly is using the right tent stake…they are not all created equal and different stakes are best suited to different conditions.

Tent stakes are an integral part of the shelter and should be selected with care.

Tent stakes are an integral part of the shelter and need to be selected with care. Some work better in hard soil, some excel in sand, and some aren't stakes at all but small sacks that are filled with snow and dead-manned in more snow. Good stakes are surprisingly expensive but worth the money. The inexpensive aluminum tent stakes made by Collins look the same as the ones made by MSR, but they're not. The MSR stakes will outlast them ten-to-one. Plastic tent stakes are worthless in anything but farm soil or sand...don't even consider them.

Where you pitch a tent matters. No tent will keep you dry if it's sitting in two inches of water because you pitched it at the low point of a meadow. And while water might get in a tent, it's wind that will destroy a tent. There's a lot to be said about a campsite with a view, but views come with exposure. If high winds or thunderstorms are part of the weather system, forgo the view and pick a sheltered area for your tent.

Take care of your tent(s)

A good quality tent will last many years if properly cared for. The two things that will destroy a tent in short order are UV radiation and mildew, neither of which is covered by any warranty. UV radiation is just a fact of life. I do a lot of desert camping and my tents are exposed to a whole lot of it, and they're going to fail sooner than they would if I was always camped under thick tree canopy in the Pacific North West. It's not that big a deal, as I still get many years use out of a tent before the fabric is so compromised that it's unfixable. What you don't want to do is pitch a tent in the back yard for the kids and leave it up for weeks on end. That sort of day-in-day-out exposure to radiation will put a years worth of UV deterioration on a tent in a few weeks.

Mildew is another story. A new tent can be rendered useless in a few weeks if allowed to mildew. Mildew forms when a damp tent is rolled up and stored without being allowed to dry properly. The damage mildew does to tent fabric is unrepairable and terminal. Packing a wet tent in the field for a couple days isn't a big deal, but before you store a tent for any length of time you need to hang it out and get it completely dry. In the winter that means hanging it inside a heated building. Dirt holds moisture so make sure your tent is reasonably clean and separate dirty stakes from the rest of the tent for storage. Don't store a tent in a damp basement or crawlspace, either.

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I will typically have the zippers on my tents replaced once or twice in the life of the tent. Whether I'm particularly hard on zippers or whether I just use my tents more than most people I don't know, but I've yet to own a tent that didn't need the zippers replaced at least once. This is one of the many ways in which buying a quality tent pays off…reputable manufacturers will repair or replace the zippers for free.

I always use a ground cloth under my tents. Doing so protects the bottom of the tent from the abrasion and micro-punctures of being pressed into the ground and keeps the fabric more waterproof. To date I've never had to replace a tent because the floor became too porous.

Summary

Deciding on a shelter for any given circumstance requires balancing a large number of factors, personal proclivities among them. I know folks who simply will not sleep in an open floored tent because it doesn't offer enough isolation from nature, and I know people who won't even pitch a tarp unless they're sure it's going to rain for more than an hour, preferring to get wet in the open air instead of be confined under a roof. Regardless of which system(s) you go with, buy the best quality available, pitch it with care, and store it clean and dry and it will give you many years of service.

  • Article written by Ravi Fry, 2016
  • Photos by Ravi Fry, lead photo by Brady Lane, homepage photo by Anthony Remboldt.

This is a living article in the Knowledge Base. If you have feedback on the accuracy or legitimacy of this entry, or would like to add more information, join the discussion below or email knowledge@backcountrypilot.org to volunteer your input. Suggestions and changes will be incorporated readily.

Overall Rating (6)

5 out of 5 stars
  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Nice article, Ravi!

  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Sounds like I need to try a hammock again after forty+ years of rejection, thanks!

  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Excellent write up Ravi! I really enjoyed it.

    A few questions. What type, and lengths of cordage do you carry with you in all these different scenarios? It seems that you would have a standard "list" of cordage for each type of setup. Or is this something that is just part of your kit that you always have with you regardless of the setup?

    Thanks for putting this together.

  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Well done. Excellent images. An wow..THANKS...that was a lot of work. I used to camp years ago when everything was Coleman including the green lanterns and stoves all fueled by white gas. Canvas tents reigned. Your article really helped bring me up to speed. Very helpful. Boy things have gotten fancy.

  • A few questions. What type, and lengths of cordage do you carry with you in all these different scenarios? It seems that you would have a standard "list" of cordage for each type of setup. Or is this something that is just part of your kit that you always have with you regardless of the setup?[/quote]

    Good question regarding the cordage…it’s almost a article in itself, especially when it comes to hammocks, but I’ll give the basic rundown here. Believe it or not, this is the short version...

    For starters, line can add a lot of weight and bulk to a system, especially a hammock or tarp system that uses a fair amount of line to begin with. It doesn’t matter quite so much in an airplane, but for a long backpacking or pack rafting trip, replacing 2mm line with .75mm line can make a very noticeable difference. Ultralight line like Spectra and amsteel are the bees knees for weight-critical applications, but are often much harder to work with than nylon line. I have a few different cordage setups for different applications, mostly based on weight.

    Some of the images show pretty large lines being used on tarp pitches. Those are river throw bags that got hijacked because there wasn't any other option. I don't recommend using cord that large if you have a choice.

    Tents:
    All my tents have around ten feet of line for every tie-out. I generally use 1.5~2.5mm nylon cord, or whatever came with the tent, as most high-end tents come with guy lines. For the heated teepee tent I rigged up a half dozen amsteel whoopey slings…sort of a crude version of my tie downs which utilize the same friction splice, but which cannot be released while under load. That’s not an advantage…just the result of a simpler system. I went to the trouble of making those because the teepee tent catches a lot more wind, and the consequences of tent collapse are a lot higher with a lit stove inside. At 550 pounds breaking strength and zero stretch they’re overkill for most applications.

    A word on using dymenav fiber (amsteel…ZingIT…etc.): It’s the lightest and strongest fiber made, but it’s not the best for every application. For one, you have to splice the ends to keep it from unraveling since it doesn’t melt well. For another, it is too slippery to work with 90% of the knots people commonly use. Finally, because there isn’t any stretch in the fiber, it can be hard to tension a ridge line or guy-out. A line with some stretch in it will tension much better than a line without any…imagine trying to pull a steel cable tight between two trees and tie it off.

    Some people have come up with clever little pieces of hardware to replace knots when using small dynema line like ZingIT, and while they do work, they’re somewhat of a pain in the arse to use and they cause a lot of tangles. If weight isn’t a super-critical part of the matrix I’d much rather just use good nylon line and a knot.

    Tarps:

    For the Tarp I usually cary 150 feet of 2.5mm nylon line for the ridge line. It’s usually way more than I need, but sometimes that extra length really comes in handy. To reduce tangles I feed the line into the bottom of the stuff sack that carries the tarp and use the sack like a rope bag after I pull the tarp out. If I only need 40 feet of line the other 110 feet stays in the bag, which just hangs there after I tie it off. You don’t coil the line into the bag…just thread it in and it stays remarkably tangle-free.

    If I’m going ultra-light I substitute 150 feet of ZingIT, which is very thin dynema line. As mentioned above, the reason I don’t use dynema all the time is it’s harder to work with…thinner, slippery, and difficult to to tie a good knot in. You cannot use a taut-line hitch with dynema, for example, and you cannot use a simple Prussic hitch to secure the tarp ends to a dynema ridge line because it’s too slippery.

    All the tie-out points on my tarp have 16 feet of either .75mm or 1.5mm nylon line permanently attached and rolled n’ tied into little sausages for travel. The .75 line is really a bit of a pain in the arse to use, but it’s light and adequately strong so long as it’s not abraded in any way. 1.5mm line is much easier to work with and lasts longer, but on a ultralight backpacking trip the weight actually does make a difference.

    Hammocks:

    Hammock rigging is the most line-intensive, and I have three different systems I choose between depending on weight and bulk. Hennessy sleeping hammocks come with the lines attached to the hammock. It’s lighter and more compact, and the manufacture can spec it with high quality line that nobody but an arborist or sailor would even know exists. It’s the lightest, most versatile, and simplest system, but the most inconvenient to adjust. Every adjustment means untying then retying a couple knots.

    With a hammock you have to decide if you’re going to suspend the tarp from the hammock lines, or if you’re going to run a “top line” above the hammock for the tarp. If you go for a top line you don’t need anything like 150 feet of cord, since you cannot hang a hammock from very wide supports regardless of how much line you have. Hammocks need to be hung with a distinct bow…they need to look more like a “U” than a “—“ to hang right. The distance between the supports is limited by how high you can secure the line in order to get the proper shape. So 30 feet of tarp line is usually more than adequate. Again, I generally use 1.5~2.5mm nylon line because it’s the easiest to work with, and dynema line when I’m going super-light.

    I use a wide webbing “cambium saver” strap around the tree to protect the bark, then tie or clip into that strap with whatever system I’m using that day. On a large tree with heavy bark (think ponderosa pine or Doug fir) you can skip the cambium saver…you can’t hurt that bark, and the straps I cary won’t go around a really large tree anyway.

    Not surprisingly, I use a set of my airplane tie downs to hang my hammock most of the time. They’re faster and more convenient than any other system because it’s super easy to adjust the tension of the lines, but if I’m going ultra-light I substitute 16 feet of 3mm spectra-core line on each end of the hammock and just tie knots. 16 feet is a lot more line than you’d think you need, but wrapping around a large tree eats up a lot of cord. I rigged my hammock so I can easily swap out the lines as I choose to.

    On my lounging hammocks that have hooks at the ends I use two sixteen-foot nylon kernmantle ropes about 5mm thick, with a loop tied in one end and a Prusik loop made from ZingIT amsteel cord attached. I just girth hitch the loop around the anchors, and the Prusik loop slides up and down the rope when not loaded, then cinches tight when you weight it. It’s the easiest set-up for a hammock that doesn’t have attached lines.

    There’s no single best cord or system for every application. They all have different trade offs in regards to weight, bulk, strength, ease of use, availability, and cost. Cord from reputable manufactures such as Sterling, Blue Water, Yale, Samson and Teufelberger will outperform the imported budget line from your local hardware store 10:1 and be cheaper in the end.

    Of course good line is of little use if you can’t tie a knot. Leaning even three or four good knots well enough that you can tie them with your eyes closed will halve the time it takes to pitch a tarp or hammock or tie out out a tent.

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by Hammer
  • "We couldn't find the mouse so we don't know if it's okay." I have to admit, I LOL'd at this...

    Awesome article! Thanks for taking the time to put this together!

  • Looks like you found some great spots to fly/camp. Any specifics on the locations featured in your photos?

  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Excellent article. Very persuasive in several ways:
    A. I'll never hammock camp.
    B. I'll never bivy camp.
    C. I'll never Teepee camp.
    D. Buy quality--with which I totally agree, if you're really going to use the equipment.
    E. Tie down well, every tie down spot on the tent. Even a quality tent can be damaged if it's not tied down well in a storm.
    F. I need to use the good tarp and poles that I bought a few years ago but have never used.

    About the only thing I disagree with is the idea of minimalizing, and that's just me. I've been accused many times of "glamping". Yeah, I can go minimalist, but I don't like to, especially at my age. I much prefer a good cot (both for sleeping and sitting), a thick Thermarest, and the ability to stand up. My 4 person Big Agnes Big House 4 is plenty comfortable for 2 people--it might sleep 3 in a pinch, but it'd be tight, and it would mean doing away with the cots. It only weighs 18 lbs, but for that weight, it provides lots of room, and a huge vestibule for getting things out of the tent but under shelter.

    All in all, an excellent article. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

    Cary

    from Fort Collins, CO, USA
  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Great article. VERY helpful. Thanks.

  • What tent would you bring to HSF in October. I need to buy one. Please be specific.

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While this knowledge base is a compilation of information from various sources, some official in nature, it is not a recognized or acredited source of aviation training information, and thus should be considered entertainment. Please consult a FAA-certificated flight instructor or mechanic prior to putting any information found here into practice.