Backpacking Guides

A guide to shelter when backpacking

In an ideal world, we could sleep under the stars every night. Not only do backpacking shelters often shield us from the very thing we are trying to connect with, but they can weigh a lot and be difficult to erect in bad weather or in the dark after a long day on the trail.

I’ve spent many a night with the stars being the only roof over mv head. In that time, I’ve been pretty lucky. Once I woke up nearly face to face with a hungry raccoon and a few times I woke up with spiders in my sleeping bag that I could have done without meeting. Other than that, it’s been pretty’ uneventful. Stories abound, however, of backpackers sleeping with only a sleeping bag only to wake up to the sting of a scorpion, the bite of a snake or the creepy crawling of some large insect.

Not to mention that if the weather suddenly changes you could wake up with cold rain drops on your face!

For these reasons, bringing some form of shelter on your trip is a good idea. It could be as simple as a tarp or a bivvy bag or as elaborate as a fancy tent. Either way, just remember that you must carry your shelter with you so keep weight in mind while you assess the comfort and security of different shelters.

Simple Shelters

Simple shelters are lightweight, easy to set up and provide at least some protection from the critters and the elements. I classify both bivvy bags and tarps as simple shelters.

A bivouac bag, or bivvy bag, is nothing more than a waterproof sleeve you slide your sleeping bag into. Most bivvy bags have a hood that zips in place to keep water and bugs off your face. Bivvy bags are great because they are small, waterproof and still provide much of the “sleeping under the stars” experience. The downside is there is no room to move around or sit up so if you’re forced to weather a rain storm you have no way to hang out, read or anything else.

Still, bivvy bags are small enough that it’s not a bad idea to carry one as an emergency shelter even if you have another option in your pack.

Tarps are another shelter method that work well in mild weather. When constructed properly using trees, guylines and/ or trekking poles, a tarp can be configured in many different ways from a basic lean-to to an A-frame ridge tent. Tarps provide protection from the wind and rain and can be set at a height allowing you to sit up. This means you can cook, read or relax in relative comfort.

The problem with tarps is they provide no bug protection (although some manufacturers sell bug screens for use with tarp shelters) and you are still at least partially exposed to the elements. Especially in cold weather, this can be a serious problem.

If you decide to carry a tarp. something around 7’ x 11′ is more than sufficient. Two people could sleep under a tarp this size or one person with gear could sleep comfortably. It’s large enough to allow multiple configurations but doesn’t take up much space and only weighs a few ounces. Using a tarp you will also need high-quality stakes, rope and possibly trekking poles to erect the tarp depending on landscape. These items add weight but still usually not as much as a traditional tent.


I oversimplified bivvy bags and tarp shelters for one reason: I believe that you will enjoy your backpacking experience much more by adding a tent to your gear. No, I’m not talking about one of these 12 person “tent mansions” you see at local campsites and RV parks. A regular 1-2 person tent designed for backpacking is all you need. By shopping around, it’s entirely possible to find a decent three-season tent that weighs about five pounds including stakes and the rain fly. Not bad for decent shelter that keeps you bug-free and dry in a variety of conditions.

Modern tents are usually a two-wall design. This means the inner layer has mesh on the roof (perfect for stargazing in good weather) and a waterproof rain fly that goes over the top for additional warmth and protection from the elements.

When the weather is nice, you don’t even need the rain fly but it’s easy enough to put on when the weather turns on you.

When shopping for tents, you might be tempted to purchase one of the instant setup models. While I agree they are extremely easy to setup even in bad weather, they are typically about 25% heavier than the ones that require some assembly at camp every night. With practice, these tents can be setup in no time and the additional weight savings cannot be undervalued.

The biggest thing to consider when shopping for a tent is breathability. You want the material to be waterproof (for obvious reasons) but if there is no way for condensation to escape you could wake up soaked in water even on a dry night.

Condensation isn’t a problem if the rainfly isn’t used but when it is the condensation gets trapped on the rainfly. This moisture is supposed to be evaporated by airflow between the two layers but if there is no wind you often wake up with a rainfly soaked in water. No big deal except that it needs to be dried before breaking camp or at the very least put into a waterproof stuff sack so as not to get everything else in the pack wet.

Regardless of which brand tent you ultimately purchase, spend the extra few bucks to buy a bottle of seam sealer. Although most of the newer bathtub-style floor tents are reasonably waterproof from the factory, for ~S8 you can ensure the seams don’t fail if the weather is really wet. It only takes a few minutes to apply seam sealer and it works wonders (even on cheap tents that are only water- resistant from the factory).

Whenever possible look for a tent with aluminum poles. Although typically more expensive, the weight savings of aluminum instead of fiberglass makes a huge difference. Remember, weight is everything when it comes to backpacking.

Also, take the time to try out your tent before actually taking it out on the trail. Set it up and take it down at least a couple of times so you become intimately familiar with how it works. It may not seem like a big deal until you’re caught in a rainstorm. Setting up the tent as quickly as possible in those situations definitely makes the rain more bearable.

Finding a campsite

Most popular backpacking trails have designated camping sites along the trail where most people choose to set up camp for the night. By examining these sites when you find them you quickly learn what makes a good campsite. Mostly, you want level ground free of standing water, rocks and other debris. If you are using a tarp for shelter you also want to look for a site with nearby trees that can be used when setting up the tarp.

It can be hard to find a campsite that is perfectly level. If you must sleep at a slight incline, make sure your head is uphill (it will be much more comfortable). What I like to do is lay down on the ground before pitching the tent to check the area. This is also a great way to detect sharp objects on the ground that could puncture or otherwise damage your tent.

Also take into account the weather. If it’s very windy or rainy, seeking shelter under or near trees can be a good way to break up the weather. That said, high winds often knock branches from trees — a potentially hazardous situation when sleeping in a tent. Take this into account when selecting a site.

Staying safe

In addition to staying away from trees with dead branches, you should also keep in mind some of the other hazards that can affect your campsite. For instance, lightning can be a hazard during certain seasons. Avoid making camp in a large open area or above the tree line if the possibility’ of thunderstorms is present.

Storms can also present another risk in desert climate zones — flash floods. Be weary of camping in narrow canyons or other areas where flood waters have obviously eroded the land. A storm could be hundreds of miles away in the mountains and still create flash flood conditions in the desert below. Always be aware of your surroundings.

Sleeping bags

The goal of your sleeping bag is to trap heat while releasing moisture vapor to keep you warm all night. Sleeping bags come in many varieties that use different materials, fill weights, etc. depending on the use.

The fill of the bag is one consideration. You can choose from synthetic or down-filled bags. Although synthetic fill is usually less expensive and works better when wet, nothing can replace the warmth and compression ability of a down sleeping bag. What’s more, down bags tend to last for at least 12 years while synthetic bags only last around four years (assuming regular use). If you don’t mind paying a little more for a down bag and store it in a waterproof stuff sack to keep it dry, it is definitely the way to go.

The shell of the bag should also be considered but isn’t nearly as important as the fill. This is especially true with down-stuffed bags because they are almost always high quality (down is too expensive for manufacturers to justify cutting corners with the rest of the bag).

The size of the sleeping bag is also important. Mummy bags are popular because they work well at trapping heat close to your body. While rectangular bags give you more room inside the bag, they leave too much empty space which is quickly filled up with cold air. Find a bag that fits your body if you plan on camping in areas where the nighttime temperature is cold to maintain body heat throughout the night. Waking up shivering is no fun at all.