Lightweight backpacking tents weigh less than 3 pounds. I just invented that standard, but it seems reasonable. The pup tents we used as kids were only about three pounds, and were as big as some of the new shelters. So with all the new materials available, it should be possible to keep it under three pounds without all the interior condensation problems of the old tents.
Fortunately there are a few lightweight backpacking tents out there that meet my standards, as well as tarps, bivies and other options. At the bottom of the page you’ll find an example of each (I haven’t used these particular items).
Do You Need A Tent?
Can you get by with a tarp or a bivy sack? It really depends on the nature of the trips you take, the terrain and climate, and your own needs for comfort. You need a lightweight backpacking shelter that you enjoy using.
Since even some of us who primarily use tarps like a good tent from time to time, we’ll start there. A tent has obvious advantages. It keeps you out of the weather more effectively. It gives you more protection from insects. It gives you more privacy. It can even be a few degrees warmer in a tent than under a tarp, because it is harder for the wind to blow away your body heat. The main disadvantage is obvious too; Even a good lightweight backpacking tent is heavier than your other options.
Saving weight is what got me started using a tarp for backpacking trips. I assumed that everything else about a tarp would be a disadvantage compared to lightweight tents. What I discovered is that I was able not only to stay dry and warm under my tarp, but I enjoyed the view too.
I also found that It was quick to set up and take down, once I got in the routine. I could dry it off more easily too. I prefer a tarp to a tent, and I would even if they were the same weight. The exception is when there are a lot of mosquitoes. Then I wish I was in a tent. If it is buggy, I’m okay with my head net, but only if it’s cool, since I have to stay covered.
A bivy sack used to be the lightest backpacking shelter you could use, but some of the ultralight backpacking tarps are lighter than bivy sacks now. A good bivy sure is simple though. Roll it out and climb inside.
Tents, Tarps, Or Bivy Sacks?
This is another one of those tough choices. Each of these options is covered in more detail on it’s own page.
Ultralight Tents has information on the latest lightweight backpacking tents.
Ultralight Tarps covers not only where to get them, but how to use them. Since mosquitoes are sometimes an issue, I’ll tell you where you can get lightweight bug tents that can be pitched under a tarp.
Bivy Sacks is about the lightest, the cheapest, and how to use them.
Making Your Own Backpacking Tarps And Bivy Sacks discourages you from the former, while showing you how to do the latter in just minutes.
Camping Without Even Tarp Shelters is about going without any shelter. Now that is lightweight backpacking (but not recommended).
Note: My 2011 update on the lightest gear: Lightweight Backpacking Equipment
Lightweight Backpacking Tents
Making The Choice
So which ultralight shelter should you carry? It’s a matter of place and time and personal preference. I love the open feeling of life under a tarp, at least until the mosquitoes come out. If it buggy and I’m not trying to go far, lightweight backpacking tents are a cinch to win. See the other pages for more specific recommendations.