It’s no secret that cutting down on weight is one of the biggest favors you can do yourself when backpacking. When hauling heavy loads over long distances, ditching just a few extra pounds can really make all the difference in how fast you move, how much energy you expend, and over long distances, exactly how far you can go. And if shedding weight is a priority, one of the best places to start is by making the switch to an ultralight tent or shelter.
Ready to take your ultralight backpacking to another level of comfort and lighter loads? Here are some of our favorite ultralight tents and shelters for long-distance backpacking.
So what kind of options are there for ultralight shelters? Besides the classic tent, there are also tarps, which provide the lightest and simplest shelter, and camping hammocks, which are a bit more intricate but are far more comfortable. Below we explain each option and provide a few of our favourites.
No surprises here. Most backpackers will opt for a tried-and-true ultralight tent. These will provide the best balance of coverage, with two layers of protection from the elements – the tent itself, as well as the outer rain fly. Full tents are usually the best option for backpacking in the mountains, due to the unpredictable weather higher altitudes often bring. The tent also protects you from bugs, which can make a good night’s sleep challenging.
A tent is generally the heaviest option, but you can find ultralight tents weighing a pound or less if you’re willing to invest the cash. If you’re backpacking solo, you can even opt for a 1-person tent, which will save valuable weight and space in your pack that a 2-person (or larger tent) would take up.
Our favorite 1-person tent is the MSR Hubba NX, which weighs only 2 pounds, 7 ounces when packed and is suitable for most 3-season situations. And if you ever want to ditch the tent, the Fast and Light option lets you use jus the rainfly, poles and footprint for a tarp-like setup.
An even lighter choice is the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1. This bad boy clocks in at a minimum of 1 pound, 10 ounces, but is suitable for 3-season backpacking. It’s designed to be ultra-waterproof, silicone treated with 1200mm waterproof polyurethane coating and taped seams.
For a 2-person tent, you could look at the MSR Freelite 2, which, with 29 sq. ft. of space, fits 2 people comfortably while leaving room for gear. And it only weighs about 2 pounds, 6 ounces on the trail. It has a door on either side, so you don’t have to climb over each other, as well as two large vestibules for your boots and pack – totaling 17 square feet.
You might also look at the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2, which fits 2 and weighs 2 pounds 15 ounces – so not as light as the Freelite 2, but still relatively comfortable. The seams are all taped for waterproofness, and Big Agnes included a variety of storage pockets – several mesh pockets, and 2 media pockets for listening to tunes (though we definitely prefer going tech-free when camping out).
And if you’d like to go as ultralight as possible, Big Agnes’ Scout 2 is an excellent option. It fits 2 but weighs only 1 pound, 8 ounces on the trail, using a traditional single-wall, A-frame design that relies on your trekking poles for support, cutting out the weight of tentpoles. You’ll need a 45” trekking pole for the front and a 33” for the back, and when you set it up, you get a spacious 33 sq. ft. interior.
In Canada, MEC has a range of cheaper, but a bit heavier backpacking tents. The MEC Volt LT 2 is similarly not quite as light as other tents, at a full 3.4 pounds packed on the trail. But it’s spacious and is equipped for 3-season use in all weather; the floor and fly are both polyurethane coated, rated to 5000mm and 3000mm respectively. And the ripstop fly is UV-resistant for protection from the sun and doesn’t stretch when it gets wet.
Lastly, the Kelty Salida 2 isn’t quite as large or as light as some of the others, but if you need a good budget tent, it is one of the cheapest. The Salida 2 comes in at 3 pounds, 14 ounces on the trail, but gives a nice 30.5 sq. ft inside and a dead-simple setup. For ultralight backpacking on a budget, the Salida 2 will do just fine.
If you really like to save on weight, a tarp tent is the way to go. Most people already care a tarp as part of their emergency kit, so upgrading your tarp to a bigger one and suitable as shelter means a negligible increase in weight.
Tarps definitely don’t offer as much protection as a full tent but are a good way to keep rain and light snow off you. They are small and take up essentially zero space in your pack and add very little weight. You can easily find tarps weighing less than half a pound.
Tarps are better for warmer weather and times when you don’t expect snow or a windy downpour, where the lack of walls can mean you get wet. We like tarps for warmer backpacking where you don’t need the extra wind blockage and insulating power of tent walls.
Our favorite tarp is the Sea To Summit Escapist Tarp Shelter, which at 10’ by 10’ (large size) still weighs only 12.3 ounces, and the medium (6’ x 6’) weighs only 9. It fits two quite comfortably and is made of waterproof 15-denier, Ultra-Sil® Nano fabric, coated with silicone/polyurethane to repel water.
The RAB Siltarp 2 is another good option that is for fast and light bivy’s. It’s only 14.4 ounces and is roughly 10’ by 8’. This is a versatile tarp, and can be quickly set-up for a lunch break, added to a tent for additional protection from the elements or used as a tarp for nighttime.
No doubt about it – hammocks are the most comfortable way of sleeping out under the stars – provided you are a back sleeper. Stomach sleepers won’t enjoy a night in a hammock, as they won’t be able to comfortably sleep on their back.
For side and back sleepers, hammocks rock. Compared to the hard, cold ground, a good camping hammock feels downright luxurious. You’ll never have to worry about finding flat ground again, as any two appropriately spaced trees will do, even on the side of a mountain. And, they can still be light and compact, especially for one person.
With a camping hammock, you’ll still have to purchase a rain fly or tarp for keeping the element at bay. You’ll also probably want to invest in an under quilt and appropriate sleeping bag to stay warm in cold weather, as you won’t have the insulating effect of the ground under you. But once you get used to hammock camping, you may never want to go back.
The Hennessy Ultralite Backpacker is a very lightweight choice for a hammock, topping out at 1 pound, 15 ounces, with a weight capacity of 200 pounds. It’s 6 feet long but packs down to a compact 4″ x 6″ x 9”. A No-See-Um mesh keeps the bugs off, and it comes with an optional 30D ripstop rainfly, that weighs 9 ounces itself. As each member of the party needs their own, it may not be the lightest choice overall, but is about as light as you will find for hammock camping.
For a less expensive option, you could check out the Therm-A-Rest Slacker. Therm-a-Rest’s hammocks aren’t quite as heavy-duty and featured as other brands, like Hennessy. But the hammock alone weighs 1 pound, 4 ounces, and is made of supremely soft polyester fabric that is durable and quick-drying. And it can hold 400 pounds. You’ll need to purchase a rainfly, quilt or bug net separately, but the Slacker is an affordable, simple, and totally relaxing hammock that will serve you well both on the trail and off.
Ultimately, you need to examine what type of backpacking you plan on doing and then make the appropriate choice.
For many of the 10Adventures crew, we use ultra-lite 2-person backpacking tents, with MSR and Big Agnes our favourite brands. They are pretty bomb-proof and ours have lasted 10+ years on average. On a per use basis these quality tents are a great investment, and are also good for car camping.
Yes, tents weigh a bit more than tarps, however we spend a lot of time backpacking in the Rocky Mountains, where adverse weather is common and bugs in summer are a nuisance. We accept the extra pound of weight on a good tent and look to save weight elsewhere in our pack, such as taking canned beer instead of heavier bottles!
We’d love to see your tent set-up in a beautiful backcountry camp – share it with us on Instagram @10adventures.