When we began looking for the best ultralight tents and tarps, we learned right away that shelter preferences are much like pie preferences. Rhubarb, cherry, or key lime? No one can agree. Some of us at iRunFar are happy under simple and versatile flat tarps while others are only comfortable when encapsulated in a fully enclosed tent. Some of us fastpack with running poles, which can be used to pitch non-freestanding shelters. Others don’t fastpack with running poles and need an ultralight tent with a dedicated pole set. But one thing is for certain, there are quality contenders in each of these categories of shelters, and we wanted to find them.
We tested both single-person and two-person shelters for this guide. We also tested simple tarps, single-wall tents, and modular, double-wall tents composed of both an inner mesh tent and a fly. Some of the single-occupant tarps we tested are large enough to accommodate a partner. If a one-person ultralight tarp is large enough for two, we note it in the review.
To accommodate various shelter preferences, we researched over 50 ultralight tents and tarps and tested 14 of them in Silverton, Colorado, the Uinta and Wasatch Mountains of Northern Utah, and in various locations throughout the Colorado Plateau. Unsurprisingly, no single shelter was top-ranked by all of our testers, but 11 of them stood out as being light, stormworthy, versatile, and durable enough to suit a variety of fastpackers with various needs.
Use these links to skip quickly to the kinds of shelters you’d like to learn more about:
- Best Double-Wall Trekking Pole-Supported Tents: Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL, Durston X-Mid 2, and SlingFin SplitWing Shelter Bundle
- Best Dedicated Pole Tents: Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 Solution Dye and Tarptent Double Rainbow
- Best Tarps: Yama Mountain Gear 1P Cirriform Tarp – Min, Zpacks Hexamid Pocket Tarp with Doors, Paria Outdoor Products Sanctuary SilTarp, Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape, and Tarptent Preamble
- Best Bivvy: SOL Escape Bivvy
Best Double-Wall Trekking Pole-Supported Tents
The Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL is our favorite one-person, double-wall fastpacking shelter because it is light, easy to pitch, super-durable, stormworthy, and supremely versatile, accommodating both solo and partnered fastpacking trips. It has also stood the test of time, with one of our testers spending more than 120 nights in it without issue.
The tarp itself weighs 16 ounces, and with sealed seams and long guylines, it’s still only 18.2 ounces. With the inner, this shelter becomes a fully enclosed tent weighing 30.1 ounces without stakes. It pitches with four stakes, but nine are recommended for a sturdy pitch. With nine stakes, the whole package weighs just over two pounds.
One of the absolute best things about this ultralight tent is its rectangular base. The fly can be pitched easily and quickly with only four stakes so that you can get out of the rain before setting up your sleeping area. This is not possible with most freestanding tents with a dedicated pole, which means the shelter comes with its own pole or poles rather than requiring the use of a trekking pole.
To pitch the tent quickly, simply stake out each of the four corners making sure that each one is at a right angle to its neighbors. Then insert the handle of your trekking pole into the apex of the tent and extend the pole. This whole process can take as little as 60 seconds, no joke. This matters when those afternoon thunderstorms roll in and you need to get out of the rain ASAP. The rectangular shape also tensions the perimeter, making this shelter very stable in wind. Once situated and warm, you can add more stakes and improve the pitch if need be.
While not as light as the Zpacks Hexamid Pocket Tarp with Doors, the lightest shelter on our list, this tent provides all-sided protection and enough space for two people without the inner at a very reasonable weight. Unlike many flat and shaped tarps on this list, this tent can pitch all the way to the ground without sacrificing very much internal volume.
For such a spacious shelter, this tent packs down very small, about 4 x 14 inches for the tarp, inner, and nine stakes, but it will squish down much smaller than that in your pack.
The 20-denier silnylon that Mountain Laurel Designs uses for this shelter sags less when wet and seems to remain waterproof longer than other silicone- and polyurethane (PU)-coated sil/PU) fabrics we’ve tested. The high-grade silicone coating does tend to attract sand, however, so be aware that the shelter will need substantial cleaning after a trip through canyon country. The zipper on this tent is a very burly #8, the largest and most durable zipper of any on our list.
The only real bummer about this shelter is that it’s pricey — $275 for the tarp alone and $455 when you include the inner. The lead time is also long, often about six to eight weeks, so plan ahead if you want to add the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL Tent to your kit.
To learn more, read our Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL review.
Type: Double-wall pyramid tent
Advertised Weight: 16 ounces (454g) tarp only without seam sealing and guylines, 11 ounces (312g) inner only, 27 ounces (765g) complete tent before seam sealing and guylines
Actual Weight: 18.2 ounces (516g) tarp only with seam sealing with guylines, 11.9 ounces (339g) inner only, 30.1 ounces (855g) complete tent
Packed Size: 4 x 14 inches (10 x 35cm) complete tent
- Versatile and can be used as tarp or tent
- Durable materials
- Large #8 zipper
- Double-wall helps with condensation
- Roomy and sleep one or two
The Durston X-Mid 2 is one of the most hyped products in the ultralight backpacking world, and it lives up to, and maybe even surpasses, that hype. This impressive shelter is a double-walled, modular, two-person, two-door, trekking pole-supported tent.
One of our testers has used this ultralight tent as his primary two-person fastpacking shelter for about a year and a half and has nothing but good things to say about it. It’s huge, stormworthy, comfortable, inexpensive, and durable.
One of his favorite attributes is its rectangular base. With only four stakes, you can pitch this tent on just about any terrain. The rectangular base doesn’t just make pitching easy, it also tensions the entire perimeter, creating an incredibly sturdy structure. Once pitched with four stakes, you can throw your pack inside to get it out of the rain before adding additional stakes or setting up your sleeping area. And speaking of rain, because this tent is constructed from a sil/PU polyester, it doesn’t stretch or sag when wet.
While 37.4 ounces may sound like a lot for a fastpacking tent, it provides a lot of space for the weight. The X-Mid 2 has two doors, each with a huge vestibule, so each person can organize and manage their own gear without bothering the other. The tent is also tall enough for both occupants to sit up without scraping the roof.
Plus, because this is a double-walled modular tent, you don’t have to take the inner if bugs aren’t going to be an issue. The fly alone is only 22.2 ounces and sleeps up to three people comfortably. It also serves as a party tent for up to seven, as we discovered one snowy afternoon in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
Type: Two-pole, double-wall pyramid tent
Advertised Weight: 35.4 ounces (1kg)
Actual Weight: 37.4 ounces (1.06kg) entire tent, 22.2 ounces (629.4g) fly only
Packed Size: 6.5 x 12 inches (17 x 30cm)
- Versatile and can be used as a tarp or tent
- Roomy and beyond comfortable for two
- Can sleep up to three without inner
- Sil/PU polyester doesn’t sag when wet
- Short corner guylines need to be replaced with longer ones
The SlingFin SplitWing Shelter Bundle is a modern take on the traditional A-frame-shaped tarp pitched with two running poles. It’s a modular shelter that can be pitched tarp-only or with an inner to make it a complete tent. Two people will fit in the inner mesh body if you don’t mind smashing together like sardines.
Unique in this category, the tarp has two small wings at its opening to deflect rain and snow. In a backyard rain test, we were surprised by how well the tarp’s wings worked. During three days of almost constant rain, the inner tent remained completely dry. This was mostly vertical rain though — if it was super windy, you might want to add the vestibule beak to the tarp. The beak is a small triangle of fabric that attaches to the trekking pole handle and clips on either side of the doorway creating a vestibule and increasing the stormworthiness of the shelter substantially.
The guylines on this ultralight tent are absurdly short and have only about three inches of actual adjustability. On rocky terrain, they make it difficult to find a decent place for a stake. We would recommend replacing these guylines with longer ones — at least for the corners — so you can pitch this tarp on variable surfaces.
Like the Yama Mountain Gear Cirriform Tarp – Min, this shelter was most interesting to us as a simple tarp. It only weighs nine ounces, pitches taut and low to the ground, and resists rain and wind quite well. This tarp’s silnylon was far more resistant to water absorption and sagging than any other nylon we encountered except for the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL.
All in all, the SlingFin SplitWing Shelter Bundle is a high-quality, ultralight tent in need of a couple of tweaks. We’d like to see longer guylines and to see it rebranded as a one-person shelter or made larger to fit two more comfortably. As is, we’d recommend it as a one-person shelter that can accommodate two when sleeping comfort is far less important than pack weight. For two, it’s just barely a step up from a bivvy.
Type: Double-wall catenary-cut tent
Advertised Weight: 21 ounces for the complete bundle (224g)
Actual Weight: 9 ounces (256.2g) tarp only, 11.5 ounces (326.1g) inner only, 2.3 ounces (64.7g) beak only, 22.8 ounces (647.5g) complete bundle before stakes
Packed Size: 4 x 7 inches (10.2 x 17.8cm) tarp only, 5 x 11 inches (12.7 x 28cm) complete bundle
- Lack of tarp zippers great for desert use
- High-quality silnylon
- Very small for two
- Short unadjustable guylines
Best Dedicated Pole Tents
The Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 Solution Dye is the latest iteration of a tent that has been in the Big Agnes lineup for a long time. It’s a tried-and-true shelter. One of our testers reported that her seven-year-old version has performed admirably through two multimonth New Zealand bikepacking trips and many multiday fastpacking adventures in Colorado and is still going strong.
The HV in this latest version’s name stands for high volume, and this tent is indeed roomier than older versions our testers remember using nearly a decade ago. The solution dye process uses less energy and water than other Big Agnes tent fabrics and results in a more UV-resistant material.
This ultralight tent, with its dedicated pole set, is a great option for fastpackers and ultralight backpackers who don’t carry running poles. For two medium-sized adults, this shelter is comfortable when sleeping but cramped when preparing for bed or getting dressed for the day. The single front entrance makes entering and exiting a sensitive procedure with a sleeping tent partner right there. All that said, the tent’s small size keeps the weight low enough — 31.9 ounces — for it to qualify as a fastpacking shelter.
The 15-denier nylon fabric on this tent has been silicone coated on the outside and polyurethane (PU) coated on the inside — called sil/PU nylon for short. Because it is a low-denier fabric with a PU coating, it sags more in rain than silnylon, the material on the SlingFin SplitWing Shelter Bundle. In our three-day backyard rain test, we observed this tent sagging markedly more than silnylon tarps and tents.
For the most part, this tent’s major shortcoming — the light and saggy fabric — is completely acceptable and understandable. We don’t think it needs better fabric, a better overall design, or better poles. We do, however, wish the guylines were longer and adjustable. Short, nonadjustable guylines are tolerable on tundra or in grassy meadows but not on sandy or rocky sites where pitching is difficult.
The short non-adjustable guylines also make it difficult to re-tension the tent in the rain when the material starts to sag. We found ourselves having to pull up stakes and pound them back in about three inches out from the original stake locations. If this shelter had line tensioners and longer guylines, all you’d have to do is re-tension each one in a quick, 20-second lap around the tent. If you buy this tent, replace its guylines with longer ones and use a trucker’s hitch to re-tension the shelter during a storm.
Big Agnes makes a huge assortment of tents to suit a variety of needs, and we are aware that they make tents even lighter than this one, but the significantly higher price and reduced durability of these options drove us to choose this tent over them. The Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 Solution Dye made our list because it is light, inexpensive, compact for a hub and pole tent, stormworthy enough, and durable enough to be used on fastpacking trips where weather uncertainty is ever-present.
Type: Semi-freestanding, dedicated pole tent
Advertised Weight: 31 ounces (879g)
Actual Weight: 31.9 ounces (904.2g)
Packed Size: 5 x 20 inches (12.7 x 50.8cm)
- Major manufacturer
- A good option for people who don’t use running poles
- Reasonable price
- Small for two
- Bulky to pack
- Short, unadjustable (but replaceable) guylines
The Tarptent Double Rainbow is one of the only two-person, two-door, dedicated pole tents in the two-pound range that we could find that was also priced reasonably. The single-pole design saves weight but is not freestanding. The single-wall design eliminates the mesh between the sleeping area and the fly, making it feel gigantic inside. And because there are two doors, you can get out of the tent to pee in the middle of the night without waking your tent partner.
Single-wall tents are generally less stormworthy than double-wall tents because there is no mesh body to catch condensation dripping from the fly. We found this to be somewhat of an issue with this tent.
This shelter is constructed from a very high-quality 30-denier silnylon. For context, this fabric is about twice the thickness of the sil/PU nylon fly fabric on the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 Solution Dye that we reviewed above and is this tent’s primary competitor on this list. This tent’s fabric doesn’t sag much when wet and is likely quite durable judging by the thickness.
Folks who don’t use running poles and who appreciate the bug protection a fully enclosed tent offers may want to consider this shelter. Even though this tent doesn’t require running poles for setup, it is not freestanding and requires careful staking for a sturdy pitch. That said, you can make this tent freestanding by clipping your trekking poles to the base of the tent at the head and foot where the single pole terminates. We appreciate this feature for pitching on rocky terrain where it’s difficult to drive stakes into the ground. This will make the tent somewhat sturdier, but you will still want to stake it out.
Type: Dedicated pole tent
Advertised Weight: 35.8 ounces (1.01kg)
Actual Weight: 37 ounces (1.05kg)
Packed Size: 12 x 6.5 inches (30 x 17cm)
- Two doors mean you won’t bother your tent partner
- High-quality silnylon
- Don’t need running poles to set up
- Single wall not great for condensation
The Yama Mountain Gear 1P Cirriform Tarp – Min is the most refined take on the traditional A-frame, two-trekking-pole, shaped tarp that we have ever seen. It’s constructed from high-quality recycled silpoly, pitches taut and low to the ground, and looks nice to boot.
When setting up this ultralight tarp on a particularly rocky campsite in the San Juans of Colorado, we appreciated the long guylines because they allowed us to search a large radius for soil into which we could drive stakes. Shorter guylines, like those on the Tarptent Preamble — which was set up beside the Min that night in Colorado — made pitching more difficult on the rocky terrain. We think fastpacking tarps should have long guylines because we never know where we’re going to end up for the night: sand, slickrock, snow, or tundra, and we want our tarp to be able to adapt to any of these surfaces.
This shelter’s catenary curves give it an aesthetically appealing shape, making it one of the best-looking shelters of the entire bunch. But they do more than that: these curves also make for a tight pitch. Because this tarp pitches super taut and low to the ground, it performs superbly in the wind — assuming you’ve got it well-staked.
In a backyard rain test, the silpoly fabric on this tarp absorbed less water and sagged less than other shelters constructed from silnylon, or sil/PU fabrics. We left it out for three days in a near-constant deluge and it didn’t droop or sag in any observable way.
This tarp is very light at 13.1 ounces and packs down smaller than your rain jacket. We also appreciate that this tarp sets up the same way every single time, because at the end of a 30-mile day, you may not want to think about how you’re going to pitch your flat tarp. The 1P Cirriform Tarp – Min can also be paired with a bivvy such as the SOL Escape Bivvy or one of Yama’s bug bivvies to make a roughly 24-ounce shelter including stakes.
Type: Shaped tarp
Advertised Weight: 13.1 ounces (371g)
Actual Weight: 13.1 ounces (371g)
Packed Size: 3 x 6 inches (7.6 x 15.2cm)
- Very light
- Low profile good in wind
- Long guylines make pitching in variable terrain easy
- Fabric doesn’t sag when wet
- Low headroom
At 6.1 ounces, the Zpacks Hexamid Pocket Tarp with Doors is the lightest fastpacking shelter on our list. It is our recommendation for fastpacking in arid environments where we cowboy camp 90% of the time but want to carry a shelter in case of weather. One of our testers uses it as his primary fastpacking shelter in the Colorado Plateau region where rainfall is infrequent and storms are short-lived when they do occur. In these environments — where shelter use is unlikely — it makes sense to carry the most minimal shelter possible.
To make this shelter even more versatile, we like to pair it with the Borah Gear Ultralight Bivy. This way, we can cowboy camp most nights in the bivvy, only setting up the tarp when there’s a chance of precipitation.
Our biggest issue with this ultralight tarp is its length. It is advertised as being 102 inches long, but that’s only true of the front edge of the tarp, while the back edge is 94 inches. This starts to feel small when you’re waiting out an all-night storm. One of our taller testers found himself tucking into a ball to keep the foot end of his sleeping bag dry. Shorter people should have no issue with the length of this shelter.
Although $350 is a lot of money for a floorless tarp with no bug protection, it may be worth it for fastpackers prioritizing a light pack. If you like the feathery weight of the Zpacks Hexamid Pocket Tarp with Doors but want the security of a fully enclosed tent, take a look at the Zpacks Plex Solo Tent.
Type: Pyramid tarp
Advertised Weight: 6.1 ounces (173g)
Actual Weight: 5.3 ounces (151g)
Packed Size: 3.5 x 6 inches (8.9 x 15.2cm)
- Very light
- Lack of zippers great for desert use
- Very small
We initially wanted to test the Paria Outdoor Products Sanctuary SilTarp because it was the cheapest flat tarp we could find that appeared to be constructed with quality materials. We figured that even if it wasn’t the highest performing shelter on the list, its price could warrant its inclusion. We weren’t wrong.
This ultralight tarp is constructed out of 30-denier sil/PU nylon for durability and moderately low weight. With all guylines attached but without stakes, our 8 x 10-foot tarp weighs 19.5 ounces. This is not light compared to several other tarps on this list, but again, the price might justify the weight. Some of the extra weight comes from the tarp being a little overbuilt — there are a total of 16 ¾-inch webbing loops around the perimeter. This is great for versatility, but it does add up.
This shelter is large enough at 8 x 10 feet to fit two adults comfortably. It pitches with two running poles of any length but can also be set up in other ways. This tarp could be a good choice for fastpacking trips through piñon and juniper woodlands where there’s often an option to string it between trees, creating a comfortable and sheltered campsite for waiting out those desert monsoons.
Type: Flat tarp
Advertised Weight: 15.5 ounces (440g)
Actual Weight: 19.5 ounces (553g)
Packed Size: 4 x 10 inches (10 x 25cm)
- Versatile and can be pitched in many configurations
- Durable materials
- Fabric absorbs water
- Fabric coating seems less durable than some others
One of the best ways to lower your pack weight is to make sure individual items have multiple uses. Use your sleeping bag’s stuff sack as a pillow. Use your trowel as a spork. Well, maybe not that one. The Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape is a rain poncho and tarp in one, saving both weight and bulk over the typical setup of having both a rain jacket and a shelter. But does it work?
The answer is yes, but with some compromises. This ultralight tarp excels in specific use scenarios but is not right for all situations. One of our testers chooses it for on-trail ultra-minimalist trips with a promising forecast. She found it to keep her dry in both shelter and poncho form. It also sets up with her preferred hiking pole length of 110 to 115 centimeters and is easy to pitch once you get the hang of it.
Another tester agreed but added a couple of concerns. He noted that as a shelter, it doesn’t pitch taut and tends to cave in significantly with the wind. Therefore, he would not choose it for trips with a stormy-looking forecast. As a poncho, he did find it to effectively protect him from rain. Both testers said they would not recommend this poncho-tarp for off-trail use because it, like all ponchos, could get snagged when bushwhacking.
After weighing this shelter’s pros and cons, we ultimately decided that it deserved to make the list because of its price. The nascent fastpacker who has neither rain jacket nor tarp but needs both to embark on their initiatory trip may choose the Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape due to its reasonable price point of $155.
Type: Pyramid-style tarp
Advertised Weight: 11 ounces (311.8g)
Actual Weight: 10.2 ounces (289.9g)
Packed Size: 3 x 6 inches (7.6 x 15.2cm)
- Floppy pitch
- Awkward for running
- Not ideal for bushwhacking
If someone asked you to draw a tent in 10 seconds, you’d probably scrawl something like the Tarptent Preamble across your construction paper. This tent is appealing in part because it is blatantly non-revolutionary, proving that gear doesn’t have to be fancy and expensive to work. Indeed, this tent is simply a slightly improved reboot of Henry Shire’s very first Tarptent, complete with the retro purple color he originally used.
Essentially, this tent is a floorless shelter that offers bug protection. It is tapered from head to foot and has a catenary-cut ridge for a taut pitch. It has bug netting sewn around the perimeter and over both the head and foot openings. The netting zips closed along one edge of the head of the tarp. The head of the tarp also features a solid door, a triangle of fabric that creates a vertical panel, but no vestibule, when closed.
The fabric is 20-denier silpoly, a material you will probably be seeing more and more often on shelters because it is light, inexpensive, doesn’t sag in the cold or rain, and can be made from recycled polyester. After hours of rain, sleet, and snow, it didn’t sag at all, so we didn’t have to re-tension guylines in the middle of the night. The fabric is also super compressible. This tarp, with eight stakes and guylines, packs down to about the size of a large burrito.
Because there’s no floor, we’d recommend using some sort of ground sheet to prevent punctures when using an inflatable pad. The additional weight of the groundsheet will be worth it for most people. With a large piece of polycro for a groundsheet, this shelter still comes in under 24 ounces including stakes.
We were initially enamored with the simplicity of this tent, but it ultimately didn’t score very high on our list for a few reasons. While the interior floor space of this shelter is roomy for one, the headroom is poor. If you want to sit up in your shelter, don’t buy this one. And with two people inside, gear tends to migrate to the edges where it’s at risk of drifting out of the tent and getting wet. The light and floppy fabric that closes off the foot end of the shelter seemed ill-designed to us and tended to drift inwards with wind.
Called “the Model A of tents” by one of our testers, this design has been surpassed many times over by better-engineered shelters. But it could still have its place because higher-performing shelters cost a lot more. This tent makes sense for our list because it’s a light, compressible shelter with bug protection. The Tarptent Preamble impressively offers these things for only $200.
Type: Single-wall tarp/tent
Advertised Weight: 18.1 ounces (513g)
Actual Weight: 18.9 ounces (536g)
Packed Size: 4 x 10 inches (10 x 25cm)
- Small #3 zippers prone to failure
- Floppy, billowing foot area
- Low headroom
The SOL Escape Bivvy is a specialized tool for fastpacking trips with a mild forecast or when sleep isn’t really on the menu anyway. It weighs 8.6 ounces and packs down to about the size of a grapefruit.
This bivvy does not provide the same sort of storm protection as a tarp or tent. Our team takes this bivvy on trips with an emphasis on covering ground, not sleeping. When we tuck into this bivvy at the end of a long day, we try to find sheltered campsites, such as below the bows of a giant fir tree, or under an overhanging rock. Good campsite selection will increase the stormworthiness of this shelter. Some of us also like to use it in combination with a tarp if we know the weather is going to be gnarly.
This bivvy is not as light as SOL’s zipperless version, but our testers found the latter difficult to wiggle in and out of, so we prefer this heavier zippered version. Even this one is tight inside, but a smaller or medium-sized person can fit a sleeping pad, bag, and themselves in there when needed. Due in part to the reflective liner material, this bivvy also adds significant warmth to a sleep system. Condensation can occur inside the bivvy, especially around the feet, though we often find it to be frozen condensation, which is not nearly as bad as a sopping wet sleeping bag. Our team has also found this bivvy to be quite durable as some of us have had ours for years with no issues.
Finally, we can’t overstate how awesome the SOL Bivvy’s price point is. $63 is beyond reasonable for a bivvy that will last a long time and keep you safe on your most minimalist overnight trips.
Advertised Weight: 8.5 ounces (241g)
Actual Weight: 8.6 ounces (243.1g)
Packed Size: 3.5 x 6.5 inches (8.9 x 16.5cm)
- Readily available
- Packs small
- Specialized tool/limited use cases
Ultralight Tent and Tarp Fabric Glossary
Refer to this glossary for more information on a shelter’s fabric.
Siliconized nylon (silnylon): Nylon fabric coated on both sides with silicone.
- Low water absorption
- High tear strength
- Highly waterproof
Silicone-coated polyester (silpoly): Polyester fabric coated on both sides with silicone.
- Almost zero water absorption
- Highly waterproof
- Can be made of recycled polyester
Silicone and polyurethane-coated nylon (sil/PU nylon): Nylon fabric coated on the face with silicone and coated inside with polyurethane.
- Can be seam taped
Silicone and polyurethane-coated polyester (sil/PU poly): Polyester fabric coated on the face with silicone and coated inside with polyurethane.
- Can be seam taped
- Can be made of recycled polyester
Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF): A non-woven fabric consisting of a lattice of ultra-high-molecular-weight-polyethylene (UHMWPE) fibers laminated between two sheets of polyester.
- Extremely high tear strength
- Very waterproof
- Very light
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose an Ultralight Tent or Tarp
Types of Shelters
There are three main categories of shelters: freestanding shelters, non-freestanding shelters, and bivvies. Within the non-freestanding category, there are four main types of shelters: flat tarps, catenary-cut tarps, single-wall tarp tents, and double-wall tents. Some of the shelters in our list can be used either as tarps or tents, which we’ll explain below.
Freestanding, dedicated pole set shelters require no staking for setup, although even freestanding shelters MUST be staked for use in inclement weather. These shelters utilize an included, dedicated pole set to make them freestanding. The Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 Solution Dye is the closest thing we have to a freestanding shelter, but even it requires staking out the foot end to fully extend the fly.
Trekking Pole Supported
Most of the shelters on our list are non-freestanding, requiring trekking poles and stakes for setup. A trekking pole-supported shelter such as the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL, which we reviewed above, is generally lighter and packs much smaller than a freestanding tent with a dedicated pole set.
A tarp is a floorless shelter, usually supported by trekking poles or strung between trees.
Flat tarps are rectangular or square and can be pitched in many different configurations. They are super versatile and light. They also take a bit of practice to master setting up. The Paria Outdoor Products Sanctuary SilTarp, which we reviewed above, is an example of a flat tarp.
A shaped tarp is constructed with a curved or catenary-cut ridgeline and edges to make the pitch very tight. These tarps tend to flap less in the wind than flat tarps. People usually choose shaped tarps over flat tarps for wind performance. The Yama Mountain Gear 1P Cirriform Tarp – Min, which we reviewed above, is an example of a shaped tarp.
Tents are fully enclosed shelters, meaning they consist of a tarp or fly, bug netting, and a floor. They offer more protection from weather and bugs than ultralight tarps do. Tents can be either freestanding like the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 Solution Dye, which we reviewed above, or non-freestanding like the SlingFin SplitWing Shelter Bundle. Tents can also be either single-wall or double-wall, which we’ll explain below.
Single-wall tents, sometimes called tarp tents, such as the Tarptent Double Rainbow we reviewed above, are a single layer. Tarps are also a single layer, but they don’t include the bug netting or floor. With single-wall tents, the bug netting is sewn to the fly and the floor to save weight. These tent designs can sometimes suffer from condensation issues.
Double-wall tents, like the Durston X-Mid 2, which we reviewed above, consist of two separate pieces: a fly or tarp, and an inner tent that has bug netting and a floor. You can also think about many double-wall tents as modular tents because either part of the tent, the fly or the inner, can be pitched separately.
The main benefit to double-wall tents, besides modularity, is their increased weather performance over other types of tarps or tents. The floor provides protection from the wet ground, the bathtub walls on the floor protect the sleeping area from spindrift and splashing rain, and the mesh tent body protects the sleeping area from condensation.
As moisture accumulates on the inside of the tarp and drips off, it will land on the mesh rather than your sleeping bag, rolling down the outside of the tent inner toward the ground. This will help keep your sleeping bag dry. It’s worth noting that you could experience condensation both in a wet meadow under a clear sky and when it’s dumping rain. In both situations, a double-wall tent will outperform a single-wall tent.
While the fabric on every one of the shelters on our list is different, we can narrow them down into five categories: siliconized nylon (silnylon), silicone-coated polyester (silpoly), silicone- and polyurethane-coated nylon (sil/PU nylon), silicone- and polyurethane-coated polyester (sil/PU poly), and Dyneema composite fabric (DCF).
The Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL is an example of a tent constructed from silnylon. This 20-denier fabric is coated on both sides with silicone. It is a long-lasting, very waterproof fabric with high tear strength and low sag. The only real downside of this fabric is that it cannot be taped and therefore the seams have to be sealed by hand using Gear Aid Silnet Silicone Seam Sealer. Most manufacturers offer a seam-sealing service.
The nylon fabric on the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 Solution Dye is also silicone coated, but only on the outside. The inside of the fabric has a polyurethane coating so the seams can be taped. This fabric is referred to as a Sil/PU nylon. The PU coating decreases the tear strength and increases the sag in comparison with a fully silicone-coated nylon. One of the benefits of PU is that it attracts less sand than fully silicone-coated nylons, making it a good choice for desert outings.
It is widely agreed upon that polyester has slightly lower tear strength than nylon, but how much lower is up for debate. Additionally, the tear strength of nylon may drop when it is saturated with water. But here’s where polyester really shines: it doesn’t absorb water to the same degree that nylon does. This means that it won’t sag when wet and it will not be as heavy in your pack as saturated nylon would be after a night of rain. The Yama Mountain Gear 1P Cirriform Tarp – Min is an example of a shelter constructed from polyester that has been coated with silicone on both sides. This shelter’s fabric is also made of recycled materials, something very difficult to accomplish with nylon.
The Durston X-Mid 2 is constructed from polyester with a silicone coating on the outside and a thin polyurethane coating on the inside. This sil/PU material has very little sag, in our experience. It’s also inexpensive, so it helps keep the price down on this tent.
DCF, or Dyneema Composite Fabric, is a non-woven fabric consisting of a lattice of ultra-high-molecular-weight-polyethylene (UHMWPE) fibers laminated between two sheets of polyester. The only tent on our list constructed from DCF is the Zpacks Hexamid Pocket Tarp with Doors. There are many excellent DCF shelters out there, but in the interest of making fastpacking more accessible to more people, we have left these pricey shelters off the list. DCF is lighter than the other fabrics on this list, has an astonishingly high tear strength, and doesn’t absorb water. There is some evidence showing that DCF doesn’t last quite as long as high-grade silnylons.
Denier is a rough estimate of the thickness of an individual thread in a fabric. Tents and tarps in this list have fabrics that range from 10 to 30 denier. Higher denier fabrics are generally stronger than lower denier fabrics, and lower denier fabrics are lighter. The construction and coatings of a fabric make a difference as well. The 10-denier silnylon on the SlingFin SplitWing Shelter Bundle, for example, absorbed less water and sagged less than the 10-denier sil/PU nylon found on the Gossamer Gear Twin Tarp, which did not make the list because of the relatively poor fabric performance. In other words, it’s important to know the denier of a shelter fabric, but it doesn’t tell you everything.
The waterproofness of a fabric is measured using the hydrostatic head test. This test measures how much water pressure a material can handle before moisture begins to seep through. Fabrics in this buyer’s guide range between 1,200 millimeters (Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 Solution Dye) and 3,500-plus millimeters (Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL). The higher the number, the more waterproof a fabric will be.
Our preferred guyline length for most shelters’ corners is at least 12 inches, and ideally 24 inches. While line tensioners are ideal, not every shelter on our list has them, and that’s fine if the guylines are long enough to tie a clove hitch or trucker’s hitch to tension them.
Why You Should Trust Us
The iRunFar team has been fastpacking for over a decade, and we have watched the adventure niche grow. What started off as two separate endeavors — ultralight backpacking and adventure running — have now merged into one, fastpacking. Because of the overlap in gear needs, fastpackers have been using ultralight backpacking shelters since the sport’s inception.
To develop this list, we considered over 50 shelters and tested 14 of them in Silverton, Colorado, the Uinta and Wasatch Mountains of Northern Utah, and in various locations throughout the Colorado Plateau. Some ultralight tents and tarps had been in our team members’ quivers for more than five years while others were new to all of us. Different users with different needs tried each shelter to ensure that we weren’t overlooking any shelter’s blatant flaws or unexpected boons.
To no one’s surprise, no single shelter performed perfectly under all conditions, but nine of them stood out as being light, stormworthy, versatile, and durable enough to suit a variety of fastpackers with differing needs.
Frequently Asked Questions About Fastpacking Tents and Tarps
What is fastpacking?
Fastpacking is essentially the combination of ultralight backpacking and adventure running. Want to utilize your entire weekend by linking two 30-mile runs with a night out under the stars? Fastpacking. Want to push yourself to do a 100-mile thru-hike in only three days? Fastpacking.
When fastpacking, you take the absolute minimum equipment you’d need to safely spend the night in the wilderness, and then hit the trail. Run a little, hike a little, stop to hone your amateur naturalist skills, and then run and hike again. With a pack in the 15-pound range, running often isn’t very realistic, especially when moving over rough terrain. But if you can get your pack weight low enough — and hopefully, the shelters on this list will help — you can have a bit of a pep in your step on the flats and when cruising downhill.
Do I need a shelter for fastpacking?
We don’t recommend that you embark on a fastpacking trip without a shelter because we believe some protection from rain, sleet, or snow is mandatory for safety. At a very minimum, carry a small pyramid tarp such as the Zpacks Hexamid Pocket Tarp with Doors, or a bivvy such as the SOL Escape Bivvy. These items, which we reviewed above, are tiny and light and will help keep you safe if the weather turns wet.
Do I need bug protection?
Well, sometimes. Throughout most of the year, roughly August through April, bug protection is not necessary on the Colorado Plateau where many of our testers live and play. Early-season and late-season alpine zones are also typically bug-free. For this reason, many of us here at iRunFar don’t use fully enclosed tents much of the time, opting instead for flat and catenary-cut tarps.
Of course, your local playground could be different. Depending on where you live, ticks, scorpions, sand flies, and mosquitoes can be nearly constant concerns.
So, if you fastpack mostly through the tick-infested Appalachians or the mosquito-infested Wind River Mountains in July, bring a shelter with bug netting. Several tents on our list will protect you from creepy crawlies. The Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL, the Durston X-Mid 2, the SlingFin SplitWing Shelter Bundle, the Tarptent Preamble, and the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 Solution Dye will all shield you from biting and stinging insects.
Should my shelter have a floor?
That depends. Tent floors protect you from the wet ground and your inflatable pad from sharp rocks and debris. These are protections you might not always need. If you camp mostly in bug-free, arid landscapes such as the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau in autumn, you may not need a shelter with a floor. And if you use a foam pad instead of an inflatable, there’s nothing to puncture.
How light should my shelter be for fastpacking?
As with every other item in your tiny fastpacking backpack, the lighter the better. A lighter shelter will reduce your overall pack weight, allowing you to move faster on the trail. But lighter weight can translate to lowered durability or decreased storm protection in some cases. Be sure to ask yourself if your shelter is “stupid-light” considering the weather conditions you could encounter on your fastpacking trip.
No one at iRunFar would take the SOL Escape Bivvy on a weeklong jaunt through the Weminuche Wilderness of Colorado, for example. Those mountains are unpredictable, so, in this case, we’d happily take the weight penalty of a fully enclosed tent in exchange for some storm protection, durability, bug protection, and peace of mind.
Are bivvies as good as tents? When would I use a bivvy?
Bivvies do not offer as much weather protection as ultralight tarps or tents, but they have their place. Their primary appeals are their low weight and ease of use. When you stop for the night, just throw it on the ground, climb in, and go to sleep. Their primary downsides are their low comfort and susceptibility to condensation, and thus a wet sleeping bag. Our testers like to take bivvies on trips when there is a non-threatening forecast.
Because bivvies can be light, we also like to use them when sleep is a lower priority than moving fast through space. For these reasons, we chose the SOL Escape Bivvy for our list. It is light, inexpensive, and will protect you from weather when you need it. It’s a specialty tool, and most of us at iRunFar prefer tarps or tents for 95% of trips.
I don’t use running poles, but I still want a double-walled pyramid tent. What should I do?
If you don’t use running poles but you still want a double-walled trekking pole-supported tent, you aren’t out of luck. You can still experience the joys of a pyramid tent such as the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL by purchasing it with this carbon fiber pole. This will add three ounces to the shelter for a total weight of 33 ounces without stakes.
But why, you might ask, would anyone choose this pyramid over a dedicated pole, semi-freestanding tent such as the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 Solution Dye, which weighs only 31.9 ounces before stakes? The short answer is that most people wouldn’t. Dedicated pole tents are simple and largely foolproof. But the SoloMid XL can be set up tarp-first in a downpour, which keeps your sleeping area from getting wet. It’s also constructed from higher quality silnylon, which is stronger and sags less in the rain than Big Agnes’ sil/PU nylon.
The SoloMid XL is also just roomy with nearly half of it a vestibule. Ultimately, there’s no right answer. Some people will prefer trekking pole-supported pyramid tents, and some will prefer dedicated pole tents. Even if you don’t use running poles, you can use either type of tent.
Is Dyneema Composite Fabric worth the money?
Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) is lighter and has better tear strength than the silnylons or silpolys found in this list. It also doesn’t absorb water, so you can shake much of it off before stuffing the DCF shelter back into your pack. These are worthy attributes and will understandably push many to choose DCF shelters. But DCF is very expensive, and this is the primary reason we only have one DCF shelter on our entire list. We want to make as many items as possible accessible to fastpackers of all income brackets.
We have also found that most DCF shelters thrash in the wind while nylon or polyester shelters have some give to them. This means that the guylines on a DCF shelter will be under immense stress. Stakes on DCF shelters are thus more likely to pull out of the ground than stakes on nylon or polyester shelters. This strain also can cause DCF to deform, especially around the hem and at the corners where stress is greatest. Eventually, it becomes difficult to get a good pitch on a DCF shelter.
Some of our testers have observed that zippers on DCF shelters don’t last as long as zippers on nylon or polyester shelters. This is due, most likely, to the inflexible nature of DCF which puts strain on the zipper slider. The high tension grinds sand into the metal slider, wearing it out quickly. Fortunately, it’s easy to replace zipper sliders.
What kind of running poles do I need for these shelters?
Most non-freestanding shelters on this list use poles ranging from about 110 to 140 centimeters, with the ideal length being about 125 centimeters. It’s easiest to use adjustable three-piece or two-piece poles, as they’ll allow you to get a tight pitch, but fixed poles can be used as well.
If your running poles are too short for your preferred shelter, you can add these carbon pole jacks to reach the shelter’s ideal pole height. Some taller tents even come with jacks. It’s also possible to lash two fixed-length trekking poles together with a bit of paracord or two Voile Straps to achieve a taller pitch height.
Call for Comments
- What’s your favorite ultralight tent or tarp?
- Have you ever fastpacked without a shelter?
- Do you prefer ultralight tarps, tents, or bivvies for fastpacking?