9 Best Ultralight Tarps & Tents of 2018
A backpacking tent will be among the heaviest items you carry on wilderness adventures, so it’s a good place to cut down on weight. If you’re an ultralight backpacker, a long distance thru-hiker, or just someone that likes to keep weight to a minimum, an ultralight tent can be a great choice.
Ultralight tents do have some downsides as well though, and they tend to be more specialized than my favorite lightweight freestanding tents, so I generally don’t recommend them for casual backpackers. There are pros and cons with any gear choice, so make sure to read through my “critical tent considerations” section below before making a final decision. If your main goal is keeping weight to a minimum and you’re willing to accept a few tradeoffs, an ultralight tents can be an excellent choice.
For more of my top gear recommendations, have a look through these popular CleverHiker Gear Guide links:
CRITICAL TENT CONSIDERATIONS
PRICE - You shouldn’t have to spend a fortune to get a great backpacking tent, but ultralight tents do tend to be the most expensive options. If you backpack a lot, it may make sense to spend more on a quality product that will get many years of use. If you're looking for choices that will be easier on your wallet, check out my budget and lightweight backpacking tent recommendations.
WEIGHT - A few ounces here and there might not seem like a big deal, but keeping pack weight down is critical for enjoying backpacking trips. Lightweight tents make hiking more fun, and that’s what it’s all about. Your tent will be one of the four heaviest items you carry (shelter, backpack, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad), so it’s a great place to keep weight to a minimum. If you're willing to carry a little more weight for increased comfort and convenience, check out my favorite lightweight backpacking tents.
PROTECTION - A backpacking tent that doesn’t protect against the elements is worse than worthless, it’s dangerous. So be careful about extreme budget tents you'll find elsewhere. Every tent on this list will provide excellent storm protection to keep you safe, dry, and warm when properly used.
INTERIOR SPACE - Backpacking tents keep weight to a minimum by limiting interior space (and thus, use less material). Most two-person tents have room for two sleepers and a few stuff sacks, with backpacks and extra gear stored in the vestibules. If you want more interior space for camping comfort, you may want to bump up one size in tents (for example, buy a 3-person tent to fit 2 hikers). Just remember, interior tent space is a tradeoff between comfort and weight. If you prefer hiking light and crushing miles, stick with a 2-person model for two hikers. If you’re willing to carry more weight for camping comfort, you may want to bump up one tent size.
CAPACITY - 1-Person tents are great for dedicated solo adventurers looking to hike fast and light. 2-Person tents tend to be the most popular, because they strike a good balance between weight and interior space, just don't expect the interior to be palatial. 3 & 4-Person tents tend to get crowded and impractical, though they can be a good fit for 2 or 3 hikers wanting more interior space for gear storage and extended hangouts.
SEASON RATING - 3-season shelters are the most popular backpacking tents and the style I’ll focus on for this guide. They're built for spring, summer, and fall trips where you’ll need to keep bad weather out while promoting air circulation. 3-Season tents can usually handle a little snow, but they’re not made for heavy snow and winter conditions.
DESIGN - A single design flaw can easily ruin an otherwise solid backpacking tent. Great tents keep design elements simple and include multiple doors, adequate vestibule space, lots of headroom, air vents to reduce condensation, and interior pockets for gear storage.
SETUP - Freestanding tents are generally prefered because they’re easier to use and quicker to pitch. They come with a fixed pole system that can be set up almost anywhere, even on solid rock. Non-freestanding tents (like the ultralight tents listed below) use stakes, guylines, and trekking poles for pitching. They save weight by cutting out tent poles, but require more time and space to pitch, and will take more practice to master.
WALL CONSTRUCTION - Double-wall tents come with two separate parts – a mesh tent body and a rainfly. The mesh inner-tent acts as a barrier from any condensation that forms on the inside of the rainfly. Single-wall tents reduce weight by ditching the mesh inner-tent, but that leaves hikers vulnerable to interior condensation in wet/cold conditions. Rubbing up against a wet tent interior is the pits, so that's why I mostly recommend double wall tents, unless you generally backpack in dry climates. If the double wall options on this list aren't quite what you're looking for, check out my favorite lightweight backpacking tents.
DOORS & VESTIBULES - If you plan on sleeping two people in your tent, it's more comfortable to have two doors and vestibules. Having separate entrances will ensure that you’re not climbing over a tentmate and two sets of gear every time you want to get in or out of your tent. That’s a huge benefit, and it's why almost every tent on this list has two doors/vestibules.
DURABILITY - The main tradeoff with ultralight tents is that they're built using thinner materials that tend to be less durable than heavy-duty shelters. That said, ultralight tents will last for thousands of miles if treated with a little care. It's also important to remember that a sharp stick will go through just about any kind of tent fabric. So if you're tough on gear and don't want to deal with lightweight materials, have a look at my budget tent picks, which tend to be made with thicker material.
FOOTPRINT - Most tents don’t come with a footprint these days and many lightweight backpackers view them as unnecessary. The main benefit of a footprint is adding durability to the floor of your tent. A footprint will protect your tent floor from abrasion, so it will last longer and need fewer repairs. If you’re willing to carry some extra weight to extend the life of your tent, consider picking up a footprint.
BUYING ONLINE - Check the seller's return policy before you buy, but you can almost always return an unused tent within a certain timeframe after purchasing. I recommend buying your top choice, testing it at home, and returning/exchanging it if it doesn’t feel quite right. I’ve been buying lightweight tents online for years and I’ve yet to have a single problem.
We're currently working on the detailed write ups for these tents and I hope to post them soon. Please look through the following top pick list while work on the product detail sections. Thanks for your patience and understanding.
BEST ULTRALIGHT TARPS & TENTS OF 2018
- ZPacks Duplex - 2-Person, single wall, DCF tent.
- Sierra Designs High Route 1FL: 1-Person tarp w/inner net.
- Tarptent Notch & Saddle 2: 1 & 2-Person tarps w/inner nets.
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid 2: 2-person, DCF pyramid tarp.
- Sierra Designs Tensegrity 2FL: 2-person single wall tent.
- Tarptent ProTrail & MoTrail: 1 & 2-Person single wall silnylon tents.
- SMD Skyscape Trekker & Lunar Duo Explorer: 1 & 2-Person single-wall silnylon tents.
- LightHeart Gear Duo: 2-person hybrid single/double wall tent.
- MLD SoloMid XL & DuoMid XL: 1 & 2-Person tarps w/optional inner nets.
Tarps are great tools for lightweight backpackers. A skilled tarp user can save a lot of weight in their pack and still have a very flexible, comfortable shelter. Tarps are also a great way to create dry hangout space for your group during a wet trip.
Many backpackers pair their tarps with bivy sacks, bug bivys, or net tents to add weather and mosquito protection. Many tarp manufacturers build net tents that are designed specifically to fit their tarps. Choosing a tarp and net tent can maximize your shelters flexibility while still providing great rain and bug protection.
The tarps listed below are great choices for hikers that are willing to sacrifice a little comfort to travel fast and light. That said, the weight gap between tarps and ultralight tents has greatly reduced in the past couple of years. Freestanding double-wall tents are generally considered the most convenient and comfortable shelters, so you might want to take a look at my Best Ultralight Backpacking Tents page for comparison as well.
TARPS WITH INNER NETS
These are non-freestanding tarps that come with inner nets. That means they can function like a double-wall tent, or you can leave the inner net at home to reduce weight. These tarps essentially function like non-freestanding double-wall tents, so you might want to compare their weights and costs to some of the selections on my Best Tents Page.
- ZPACKS DUPLEX - 2-Person single-wall cuben fiber tent. Trekking poles and 6 stakes minimum.
- TARPTENT PROTRAIL - 1-Person single-wall tent. Trekking poles and 4 stakes minimum.
- TARPTENT MOTRAIL - 2-Person single-wall tent. Trekking poles and 4 stakes minimum.
- SIX MOON DESIGNS SKYSCAPE TREKKER - 1-Person partially single-wall tent. Trekking poles and 5 stakes minimum.
- SIX MOON DESIGNS LUNAR DUO EXPLORER - 2-Person roomy single-wall tent. Trekking poles and 6 stakes minimum.
- HYPERLITE MOUNTAIN GEAR ULTAMID 2 - Mesh inner net without floor and with floor are optional at extra cost.
- HYPERLITE MOUNTAIN GEAR ULTAMID 4 - Mesh inner net without floor and with floor are optional at extra cost.
- MOUNTAIN LAUREL DESIGNS SOLOMID - Mesh inner net with floor and floor without netting are optional at extra cost.
- MOUNTAIN LAUREL DESIGNS DUOMID - Mesh inner net with floor and floor without netting are optional at extra cost.
- MOUNTAIN LAUREL DESIGNS DUOMID XL - Mesh inner net with floor and floor without netting are optional at extra cost.
- MOUNTAIN LAUREL DESIGNS SUPERMID - Mesh inner net with floor and floor without netting are optional at extra cost.
Bivy sacks are lightweight body-shaped enclosures that will provide additional protection from rain and bugs. They're usually only slightly larger than your sleeping bag, but they can actually be quite comfortable to sleep in. Bivys are a great tool to pair with a tarp when you're looking to go ultralight but you want to make sure to stay dry and away from the mosquitoes while sleeping.
When choosing a bivy sack, make sure to choose a size that will be long/wide enough to fit your body and your sleeping pad. Also, consider using a lightweight groundsheet and choose your sleeping spots carefully to keep your bivy from developing small rips and tears in the bottom.
Mountain Laurel Designs
5.5 - 7.25 oz
MLD’s Superlight Bivy has a cuben fiber flooring option for extra water protection and reduced weight. Their large size provides room for thicker sleeping pads like the NeoAir. The Superlight Bivy comes with a full net hood or half moon mesh hood design. The full net hood is a good option for increased breathability and visibility.
Raven Omni Bivy
6 - 7.2 oz
The Raven Omni Bivy is wide/long enough for thicker sleeping pads like the NeoAir. It also has a zipper that runs mid-way down the side of the bag, which makes getting in and out much easier. The Omni's materials are highly water resistant and breathable to reduce condensation. The full net hood option is a great option for ventilation and it's worth the extra cost and weight.
Breeze Dri-Tech UL Sleeping Bag Cover
6.3 - 8.3 oz
The material of Montbell’s Dri-Tec Sleeping Bag Cover provides excellent waterproof protection for cold and wet trips. The downside is that increasing water protection reduces breathability and increase condensation on the inside of your bivy. The Breeze also comes in a wide/long option that will provide room for thicker sleeping pads like the NeoAir and will definitely be better for larger hikers. This model has a draw cord hood, but doesn't have a net to keep the bugs out.
Groundsheets can be a great way to protect the bottom of your shelter from rips and tears, add additional water protection, and help keep your expensive gear out of the dirt. They shouldn't be considered essential though, because most full shelters these days have waterproof floors built in. For that reason, many UL hikers with lightweight tents will choose to leave groundsheets behind to save weight.
Lightweight groundsheets are also near essential for use with with tarps and bivys. They have a variety of uses around camp and are extremely light and affordable. They can be purchased or easily constructed from online retailers or your local hardware store.
Whatever option you choose, make sure to cut the material of your ground cloth so it fits under your shelter without any material sticking out. If your groundsheet sticks out the sides of your shelter it will collect water and run it under your shelter.
Tyvek Ground Cloth
1/3 oz per sq foot
Tyvek is another popular groundsheet material that is tough and highly water resistant, but it is slightly heavier and bulkier than plastic groundsheet alternatives. Tyvek is commonly used in home construction and you'll sometimes be able to find large scraps of it in construction garbage piles. You might also be able to purchase small quantities of it at your local hardware store.
For more of my top gear recommendations, have a look through these popular CleverHiker Gear Guide links:
- CleverHiker Top Gear Picks
- Best Lightweight & Budget Tents
- Best Backpacks & Stoves
- Best Sleeping Bags & Sleeping Pads
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