From Tarps to UL Tents — What Shelters I Have, When I Use Them

Rafael 'Horsecake' Mujica
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For years, my shelter choice was always a flat tarp paired with a groundsheet or bivy. 

Analysis paralysis. Everyone gets it from time to time. It's hard to piece together "the perfect kit" for all occasions. Even my general three season gear list is more of a template most of the time, than a hard set checklist. Different environments, seasons, and varying trip lengths call for different gear, as no piece of gear is truly perfect.

You wouldn't use the exact same shelter you used on a thru-hike of the Arizona Trail in October, as you would use for a weekend hike of Virginia's Triple Crown Loop in July. The former is mostly an arid environment with little bug pressure, while the latter has a decent amount of bug pressure in a heavily humid forested environment.

Over the years, I've acquired and used numerous shelters across the backpacking spectrum. From free-standing tents to tarps paired with groundsheets and an umbrella. Here’s a dive into my bin of shelters, with an explanation of how I use them based on the challenges of my trips.

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This is what I mean by using an umbrella as part of my shelter on the PCT, the Umbrella Bivy. When my flat tarp was set up as a half-mid, the umbrella was especially effective at keeping rain away from my face


Ultralight State of Mind

The Altaplex Tarp and the Katabatic Piñon Bivy

When ounces count, I usually go with this setup. It’s ideal for long days, big weight carries stemming from an abundance of water or food, and/ or larger multi-day trips or thru-hikes. My biggest concern in these instances is tempering my weight down, and thus making these trips less intensive than they already are. The less weight on my back, the less tired I am at the end of the day, and the more prone I am to put up big miles, day after day.

As a desert hiker, I’m pretty good at avoiding the big bug seasons that most other regions experience. I don’t need the big sprawling noseeum mesh walls that other backpackers crave. I can usually get away with just using a ground sheet, if I’m not bringing along my bivy.  Since I have to travel to other regions to backpack them, I can plan to avoid their bug seasons too. You won't catch me in the Winds in July, just like you won’t see me in the southeast anytime between March and October.


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The Altaplex and Piñon Bivy paired together in the wild, off trail in the Sierra Nevada. This is my current setup, which is meant to maximize weight savings — paired with the Solo Quilt, the Sea to Summit Aeros UL pillow, and the Cnoc Cork Trekking Poles. Also pictured are the Fractel Cap, a set of Goodr Sunglasses, and the Town Shirt Mariposa

The Altaplex Tarp paired with the
Piñon Bivy weighs in at around 15.04 in freedom ounces, or 426 grams for the metric system users. In the past, I’ve gotten a similar shelter system down to just a hair under 11 ounces, or 308 grams, using a bivy made of 0.51 oz/sqyd DCF and 0.50oz/sqyd noseeum mesh. However, DCF can take up a lot of valuable volume within a pack. The genius about pairing the Altaplex Tarp with the Katabatic Piñon is that you get the waterproofness of the DCF rainfly, with the compactness and water resistance of the nylon bivy.

“But Raf.” I can hear you saying, “Zpacks no longer carries the Altaplex Tarp. What should I do?” No worries, I got you. 

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The Katabatic Piñon Bivy completely set up for maximum room. 


Ounce Design Tarp

I picked up this innovative DCF tarp earlier this year because of its unique design. Whereas most hexamid shaped tarps have two doors that allow for a vestibule, this tarp does away with such unnecessary luxury by going with an isosceles trapezoid shape instead. The unique shape shaves about 14 grams or 0.50 ounces off of my current setup, while adding a fully waterproof zipper, and the ability to set up practically anywhere I want with such a small footprint. I only need FOUR STAKES to set up this fully seam-taped tarp, but I choose to use five so that I can maximize my interior space. For most mid-shaped tarps and tents, you need a minimum of six stakes. After just one successful trip, I’m excited to continue to use the Ounce Design Tarp. This tarp will hit the GGG website soon.

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The Ounce Design Tarp, in the wild. At 201 g, or 7.09 oz, it’s almost too ultralight. As you can see, it doesn’t need a lot of space to set up.

The Anda Burrito

I’ve come to know Dan Gerken of Anda Ultralight as a friend this past year. We trade trip ideas, and debate different materials for shelters just for funsies. Dan definitely knows his stuff. He has put hundreds of miles and hours into his gear, and the quality shows. Gurken even uses high-quality recycled SilPoly, making his bivy and tarps environmentally friendly, in comparison to other materials and companies, on top of being ultralight.

When the day comes that I have to let go of my trusted Piñon Bivy, this will be the bivy that replaces it. It barely weighs more than a Cosmic Brownie, coming in at six ounces. If you want to really expand your skill set, you can pair the Burrito with an Anda tarp. The Uno Mas tarp weighs just shy of 9 ounces, or you could wait for the El Jefe to come out (ETA is the end of summer), which is a 10 x 8 flat tarp, with 12 tie out points, and weighing 12 ounces.

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Anda Ultalight’s newest shelter, the Jefe. In an A-frame setup, it can cover two people underneath it.

Tarp Alternatives

SMD Gatewood Cape

11oz / 311.84g

1 Trekking Pole

Anda Uno Mas Tarp

8.50oz / 240.97g

2 Trekking Poles

Gossamer Gear Solo Tarp 

7.50oz / 240.97g

2 Trekking Poles

Slingfin SplitWing UL Tarp

7.9oz /223.96g

2 Trekking Poles

Hammock Gear Traverse Flat Tarp

13.37 oz / 379.03g

1 or 2 Trekking Poles

Bivy Alternatives

Anda Burrito Bivy

6.4oz / 181.44g

Katabatic Bistlecone

7.80oz / 221.13g

Slingfin Splitwing Mesh Body

11.20oz / 317.51g

Terra Rosa Gear’s Tyvek with Mesh Hood Sleeping Cover

8.82oz / 250g

Luxury Ultralight

Gossamer Gear The Two

Sometimes I don’t want to crush miles. Sometimes I just want to take a lazy promenade to a lake or scenic overview, and soak up the views. The sort of trip where the company in tow and the landscape itself is the point, not the destination. For these types of trips, I take Gossamer Gear’s The Two.

I’ve put two years worth of trips into The Two, and have decided that it is the epitome ultralight luxury. It’s spacious for one person, and adequate for two very close people. It’s lightweight (23.52 oz/ 666g) because it uses trekking poles for structure, rather than requiring a backpacker to carry a set of poles specific to the tent. It’s easy to set up, even without any other prior experience with trekking pole-style tents. The fabric is forgiving enough to make most pitches work, and also makes the entire shelter very compact in your pack.

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From this view, you can see just how big the vestibule area of The Two is. As you can also see, the SilNylon sagged a tad overnight.



Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2

In the days before my ultralight conversion, I used to own a Tiger Wall UL2. It was a fantastic tent that could be set up almost anywhere. Although, as my skills with knots improved, and I turned to lighter solutions for my trips, it got regulated to car camping duty before being sold to a friend.

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2

If I had to buy a new tent that came with proprietary poles today, I’d probably opt for the Copper Spur UL2, as it's a fully freestanding tent, and it sports two side-entry doors. You can practically set this tent up anywhere, and Big Agnes also has a fairly robust warranty for their products.

Slingfin Splitwing Shelter Bundle

If you wanted to go with a super modular set up, you can’t go wrong with the Splitwing Shelter Bundle. SlingFin has already made a cameo earlier in this article separately as a bivy and as a tarp, but if you bundle them together you can make a double wall ultralight trekking pole shelter. 


Big Agnes Tigerwall UL2

42oz / 1.19kg

Semi-Free Standing

Splitwing Shelter Bundle

21oz / 595.4g

2 Trekking Poles

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2

5lb 4oz / 2.38kg

Free Standing

Lunar Duo

45oz / 1.28kg

2 Trekking Poles

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The doors of The Two are fairly high, but its bathtub is also quite substantial. So even when the doors are closed, there is still some amount of ventilation, without allowing for splashback from rain drops.


Ultralight Made Easy

Maybe you don’t have the time to set up a tarp and bivy. Perhaps you’re like me and don't hike with two trekking poles, or don't want to fiddle around with long tent poles at the end of a hard day of hiking. You just want to get to camp, set up your shelter in as little time as possible, and pass out.

Totally understandable, and believe me, I get it. I used to own the Zpacks Hexamid Solo, and still believe it's one of, if not the most, ingenious shelter of all time. I hope it comes back again in the future, and I choose to die on this hill. You just stake out the back corners, insert your trekking pole, set up your main guyline, then finish staking out the other corners. I can do it all — while wolfing down a Cosmic Brownie in one hand — in about four minutes. 

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Setup of the Lanshan 1 Pro took about four minutes, after finding the perfect spot.

3F UL Lanshan 1 Pro

However, this ease of setup is true of all single-walled, single-trekking pole shelters. Enter the Lanshan 1 Pro. It’s my current “no-drama” shelter. The Lanshan 1 Pro sports a highly water resistant SilNylon floor and rainfly that will stay compact inside of your pack. At 23.35 oz, or 662g, for the tent itself, it’s lighter and cheaper than many of the shelters covered thus far.

There are two downsides to the Lanshan 1 Pro, the first being that you MUST seam seal it yourself, as the coating on the SilNylon does not work well with seam tape, even when done at the factory. Seam sealing can be a bit tedious, especially if it's your first time. If you order from Lashlan’s website directly, they do offer a seam sealing service.

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Seam sealing can be hard. It took about two hours to completely seal the stitches of the Lanshan. And then I had to let it dry for about six hours. 


The second downside is that SilNylon in general tends to sag when wet, as well degrade faster than SilPoly when exposed to UV rays over time. In the last few years, many ultralight backpacking manufactures such as Anda Ultralight and Six Moon Designs have moved away from Nylon to Polyester. However, with some decent site selection choices and by limiting your time in camp, the difference in material should be near inconsequential.

At this point you may be thinking to yourself, “Hey, the Lanshan 1 Pro is a single walled shelter, so shouldn’t condensation be an issue?” Well, sort of. Both single wall and double wall shelters collect condensation. The difference is that in double wall shelters, there is a bit of space between the noseeum mesh of the inner wall, and the rainfly, allowing condensation to roll directly to the ground. Well engineered single wall shelters will connect the bathtub of the tent to the rainfly by sewing on a strip of flat noseeum mesh, allowing the condensation to roll through the mesh, instead of directly onto you.

Single wall designs are not as good at dispersing condensation as their double walled counterparts, but can still disperse condensation effectively if built correctly. I just wanted to address the fallacy that “all single wall shelters WILL cause condensation.” Thanks for reading my brief TED Talk on this small, but important distinction ; )

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The Lanshan is pretty roomy on the inside too. 



The Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo

If I had to buy a “no-frills” tent all over again, it would be the Lunar Solo. They have great customer service, and have been making the Lunar Solo since 2005. If it wanted to, this tent could register to vote. Six Moon also offers lifetime support on their products; something that will truly be missed when you choose to buy a third-party tent off of Amazon.

Six Moon knows what they’re doing, and have been making improvements to the Lunar Solo tent throughout the years to make it even lighter and better. In 2018, they switched from SilNylon to SilPoly, addressing consumer concerns with SilNylon. At $260 and weighing 24 ounces, the Lunar Solo continues to be an incredible bargain for what you get, which includes an appropriately sized stuff sack and guylines. 

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Photo Credit to my friend Riddle, who’s Lunar Solo looks immaculate out in the Texas Hill Country


Shelter Accessories 

If you’re looking to round out your shelter with ultralight accessories, check out these options.

  • BoglerCo Ultralight Trowel - Yes it’s a poop shovel, but let me explain. If there are several tough  spots of hard ground, the serrated edges of this trowel can loosen the ground before embedding your stakes. The holes in its design not only cut precious grams, but they can also act as anchors for guylines. So if there is an especially tough spot one of your stakes can’t get through, you can swap in this trowel instead. Just make sure you pre-dig your cathole for the morning.


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The different versions of the Ultralight Trowel Ben from BoglerCo went through before settling on the amazing current design.

  • Lawson Glowire - At 2mm thick, it significantly cuts the weight off of some guylines that come stock with your shelter. That thickness also makes it pretty good at being resistant to tangling and bunching, like some 1.2mm variations of guylines out there. It’s reflective, weighs under two ounces for 50 feet, is USA made, and at $15, is one of the most cost effective ways to drop weight off of your back.
  • Polycro - Specifically the 1.5 mil  variety. I’ve found that the thinner 0.75 mil variation tears more easily, even over the course of just a few days. If you happen to cut the material in such a way that you are left with a jagged edge, the thinner version will shred even faster. For some context, I do hike in the desert a lot, and I tend to spin in my sleep like a rotisserie chicken. Meaning, even in my sleep, I can still be destructive to my gear. Though, at three ounces for a body sized 25 x 80 in groundsheet and rainskirt, this is another way to drop weight for not a lot of money. If you’re more careful with your gear than me, you could get away with using  the 0.75 mil version that SMD sells.

  • MSR Mini Groundhog and Carbon Core Stakes - I have shockingly used the same stakes for years now. With careful site selection, and using a small rock with minimal force, I haven’t had to replace many of them. Out of the two, the Carbon Core is a bit more flimsy, and I’ve bent three or so over the years. The only time I’ve had to get new Mini Groundhogs is when I’ve accidentally lost them.

  • Trekking Poles - As mentioned, trekking poles can serve multiple purposes, which is the lynch pin of any true ultralight piece of gear. Save weight off your back, and give trekking pole shelters a try. The Cnoc Cork Trekking Poles in particular are longer than most poles, and can extend up to 62 inches, which could translate to more headroom in any given pitch. 

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Bring back the Hexamid! You can see it in the background, with my old flat tarp in the foreground. Thanks for reading : )


Rafael is a freelance writer and adventurer based in the Mountain West. You can find him trail running, backpacking, or sampling the best tacos during his free time. Follow all his adventures over on Instagram, or read more of his work over on his website

Trail talk


Sam Andrews

Sam Andrews

I have no idea why my kids want to go on a camping trip this summer. Nevertheless, they should visit a supply shop to get the right equipment. It was nice of you to tell us that we need at least six stakes to keep mid-shaped tarps upright.



This is a great overview of the advangtages & disadvantages of different types of shelters — thank you! Like a lot of things, choices of shelters seem to by the kind of thing folks have a near-religious devotion to. I shudder in fear anytime someone asks “What’s better, a hammock or a tent?” in a FB group. There is no answer — it’s all about what’s best for you on this particular trip (if you have the luxury of multiple options) or what’s the best overall choice for you if you’re like most folks and you only have the budget or storage space for one option.

I’m primarily a hammock camper as even with a cushy pad I don’t sleep well on the ground. But I occasionally travel where there aren’t trees from which I can hang, so I have a tent as a back-up. I bought the SlingFin bundle several years ago, and I really love it. I’m struggling to find a sleep system that works with my dog. (He’s clawed the mesh of every tent he’s been in, and he’s content when I sleep in the hammock but he gets tangled up with tarps’ guylines.) I bought a Sierra Designs bug net in hopes I can use it under the SlingFin tarp. (My first season using the hammock I experienced a wee rodent walking over my face on a night I didn’t use the bug net. Based on that experience, I’m never going to ‘cowboy camp,’ even with a large mutt to keep rodents at bay.)

Even though I don’t get to hike as much as I’d like, I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to shelter options: the hammock set up (okay, I have two…), a Gatewood cape, the SlingFin SplitWing bundle, a bivy…. I just need to get out more and test all of these out! (Camping in the backyard isn’t an option — too bright, too noisy.)



You lost a reader when I reached “freedom ounces”. Come on now. Is that really necessary and important to you?



“Sometimes I don’t want to crush miles. Sometimes I just want to take a lazy promenade to a lake or scenic overview, and soak up the views. The sort of trip where the company in tow and the landscape itself is the point, not the destination.”

100% YES! I don’t understand the mindset of crushing the miles. (Please give your opinion if you disagree.) My time outside is about soaking it all in, not blasting through to get to the end.

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