Lightweight Shelter Systems

Choosing a Shelter

10 years ago life was a lot simpler. If you wanted to be warm and dry you chose a tent and if you wanted to cope with a more hostile environment or carry less weight then you chose a bivi bag. My own concepts of shelter have evolved dramatically - see here.

In the last few years there has been a real revolution in all forms of shelter especially in the light and ultralight categories. Now it is more a case of deciding what your personal preferences are and the nature of where you are planning to camp out.

For example, if you like to camp out on the tops of mountains then you are unlikely to be using a tent simply because the ground will be almost impossible to penetrate with tent pegs and the winds that you might expect will easily flatten most tents. Instead you are more likely to choose some form of Bivi bag.

I think fundamentally the key change is that weight is no longer an issue when choosing your shelter. Let's illustrate this with some kit weights of commercially available tents etc.

The lightest single-skin tent or tarptent that you can buy is now round the 500g/1lb mark. For this sort of weight you can also buy a serviceable bivi bag that may have a fully enclosed hood. Similarly, there are a wide variety of ultralight tarps that have a basic weight well below 500g and may only just reach 500g even if you include the weight of pegs and poles.

In the 500g - 1Kg region of weights there is now a wide selection of Gore-Tex and high performance bivi bags that may also include hoops and other comfort features. There are also a number of reasonably serviceable ultralight tents that will withstand most normal 3-season weather. Finally, the range of tarps in the 500g to 1Kg weight bracket is huge.

If weight is not so much an issue for you and you are willing to consider a shelter with a packaged weight of 1-2Kg then your choice is vast and includes plenty of bomb-proof tents and bivi bags suitable for expeditions to most places in the world.

My own views on shelter are constantly changing and I have given details about this journey in outlook here.

Now let's look at some options as to the types of shelter that are available and what their respective benefits and limitations are.

Your shelter options are:


This is the most extreme lightweight option but can be very practical. The first question you have to ask yourself is what it is that you are sheltering from?

If the answer is "nothing at all" then why do you need any sort of shelter? If the weather forecast is for 'warm' weather with little or no wind and definitely no rain then there may well be no need for a shelter at all.

The lightest of groundsheets will weigh in at less than 50g - for a 2Mx1M piece of spinnaker cloth. At the less extreme end your local builder's merchant can sell you a nice lightish groundsheet that will weigh maybe 160g for a 2Mx1M piece.

One night on a recent overnighter I was in a sheltered spot in my bivi bag and looking at a clear starlit sky. I couldn't help but notice that my bivi bag had a reasonable amount of condensation in it (because of the still air) and that this meant that I was trying to keep warm in a damp sleeping bag. It then occurred to me that my sleeping bag had a pertex outer and so why did I need the bivi bag at all?

That night I slept on rather than in the bivi bag and enjoyed a warm and dry nights sleep. I woke to find that the only morning dew or condensation on my sleeping bag was at the very foot where my feet don't reach. Since the nighttime temperature was 10°C I was sold on the idea of a groundsheet being all that was needed sometimes...

Natural Shelter

In some terrains this is a viable option for some overnight stays. A cave (that is free of bears) will provide a stormproof shelter that weighs nothing (assuming that you leave the cave where you found it). A large tree in full leaf will also stop most of the rain and might be sufficient to allow you to just use your sleeping bag on a groundsheet.

In winter a standard survival technique is to use the natural snow-hole that will form around the base of a conifer as a make-shift shelter that requires very little work.

Bothy Bags

Bothy bags are probably the unsung and unloved heroes of the mountaineer. I think that where poor weather is common or expected then I think they should be the default emergency shelter for an individual or a group. For a family going into the mountains I think a bothy bag weight maybe 1lb/500g would be a useful thing for one member to carry.

The idea of a bothy bag is very simple. It is nothing more than a simple tent without a floor or poles. A group of people can put it over their heads and as a group obtain some shelter. They work very well, keep out the wind and the rain and allow you to rest in a dry warm place.

You can read more about bothy bags here.

Bivi Bags

I would class a bivi bag as a specialist piece of kit. Most people who buy bivi bags don't actually want or need one, what they instead want is a shelter for daytime use - such as a bothy bag. Bivi bags are worthy of a detailed discussion and so you will find one here and here.

If you have ever wondered what using a bivi bag might be like then read 'the bivi bag home experience' and recreate the experience in the comfort of your own home.


Tarps are big in America but almost unheard of in the UK. I've been experimenting with a number of different tarps starting with something that looks spookily similar to a Golite Lair and ending up using a 'standard' traditional rectangular tarp or basha with surprisingly good results. I am currently experimenting with a micro-tarp used in conjunction with a bivi bag. This seams to give me the freedom of a tent for the weight of bivi bag - proving that the weather is not grim.

On a recent trip I was sleeping under a small tarp and was happily watching a thunderstorm whilst staying warm and dry despite the torrential rain and the lightshow. My sleeping bag dig receive a few splashes from rain bouncing off the ground but since it was pertex it didn't matter. I had a comfortable night's sleep. I can tell you that I was surprised.

For most people in the UK backpacking community the idea of moving to a tarp is a big step. It is one that is well worth doing and it is one that you can try out for less than £10 if you are willing to 'slum' it on your first tarp test. You can read full instructions here. For a little more cash you can make a 'real' tarp. For full instructions see here.

You can read more about tarps here.

You can read about tarp use in the UK here.

Tents and TarpTents

I've put TarpTents in with the tent category for simplicity. If when it is pitched the thing that you are looking at looks strangely similar to a tent then I am going to call it a tent! You can read more about tarptents and tents here. You can also find out how to make one here.