Top Ten Backpacking Shelters Of All Time

Every year, around both the holiday season and before backpacking season starts, there is a spate of TOP TEN PIECES OF GEAR posts.

Nearly one new piece of gear per month to test?


So here’s my contribution…done in my own way.

  1. Some sort of tarp 

Old photo from 2003. But how much has tarp technology changed???

As Dave C said of the simple flat tarp, it is shit that works.  Simple. Effective. Light. Comes in options from a nylon tarp found at Wally World or a hardware store, to the old reliable of  my silnylon tarp to the more exotic and lighter, but expensive  Cubic Zirconia Dynamic Fiber (or whatever they call cuben fiber now…) Feeling salty? There are some minimalist shelters that are essentially tarps, too.

2. Six Moon Designs Skyscape Trekker

For shoulder season, buggy times of the year or my increasingly rare group trips (when I can’t use a large footprint), the SMD Skyscape Trekker is a reasonably light solo shelter. A little funky to set up at first, but once the learning curve is achieved, it is a nice little shelter. The  Skyscape Scout is 10 oz more in weight and $100 less but is otherwise the same shelter. A good choice if looking for a budget shelter that is still effective.

SMD Skyscape Trekker PCO SMD


3. Six Moon Designs Lunar Duo (2011 edition)

The Lunar Duo is my two person backpacking shelter of choice. Once in a great while, I’ll take a friend, but more often than not, the Lunar Duo is used with someone. The Lunar Duo is a lightweight tent that is spacious for two, sturdy and does not feel too minimalist. And has two separate, and relationship saving, vestibules. Fantastic.

Picture a short, bald guy in here. Or not. PCO Six Moon Designs.

4.  Black Diamond Firstlight

At sub-3lbs, single wall, free standing shelter ideally suited for winter backpacking when on the move and not making an extended basecamp. Technically the shelter is for two people; really better suited for one.  At the end of a day of winter backpacking, I just want to set up something quick, get in my bag and get dinner going. The Black Diamond Firstlight fills that role. A bit of a splurge because the range of use is limited..for winter backpacking only.  Does not breathe well, but in the cold and dry Colorado winters that is fine. The addition of a candle lantern makes the long winter nights a bit cheerier and helps cut down on condensation, too.

My room with a winter view

5 through 10.

None.  Zip. That’s it. No more backpacking shelters to list.

How many backpacking shelters can a single person have, use and truly evaluate in a given year? 🙂 Even if I was lucky enough to get out every time I wanted to as a working stiff, there is only so much saved up in the time bank to give truly meaningful reviews.  When I do have time, I’d rather take the gear I know and trust. And when I can get out again on a trip of a few weeks, there will only be one shelter taken. I am more likely to try out new gear when it is time to replace existing gear or when there is a niche to fill (such as our car camping tent).

Our niche tent. Wild Rivers Recreation Area – Rio Grande del Norte, New Mexico


Honorable Mention – Kelty Zen

The Kelty Zen is the oldest shelter I own.  I rarely use it for backpacking any more personally. Hence the honorable mention. For some reason, though, I always find a use for this tent.  It is the tent I loan out,  tend to use on overnight trail work trips and is perfect for road trips/solo car camping.  Simple and quick to set up and still weather proof years later. A good, solid, tried and true design. Still sold as essentially the same tent in the form of the ALPS Mountaineering Mystique for $120.

From Da Google Image Search.

….and those are my favorite backpacking shelters of all time. Not by coincidence, they are also the only ones I own and use currently. The winter tent is the only new shelter. The Skyscape is two years old, the Lunar Duo and the REI tent are about five years old each. I’ve been using a tarp since 2001. And the Kelty Zen is as old as many backpackers now…. (Off. Lawn. Now.)

If I want to do the BEST TENTS OF 2017 I better start buying up more gear.

Or maybe not.

I like what I have.


13 Replies to “Top Ten Backpacking Shelters Of All Time”

  1. Very interesting post. I’ve never tried a tarp as a shelter. Well…I did once but I didn’t sleep in it. It was more of a rain shield. I usually prefer tents. I also have never tried a natural shelter and don’t know if I want to either. Funny post and thanks for the contributions.

  2. Oh the numberless nights I’ve spent in my SMD Skyscape Scout, far, far away from the hand of man and deep in the heart of the Olympics. STILL just $125! My personal choice for best bang fer yer buck piece of kit.

  3. I like # 5-10. I’ve aleady got a tarp, and you just spared me from having to read more boring gear reviews, or contemplating whether my tarp is good enough. Much appreciated!

  4. First-time poster here, and I want to first of all thank you for your awesome blog, which has helped me get into backpacking. I have used a number of tips from your posts and have enjoyed several backpacking trips that I learned about here.

    Due to a recent injury (torn Achilles), I’m trying to figure out how to further lighten my load so that I can hike more safely. I am considering switching from my tent (which is almost 4 lbs with footprint) to a flat tarp. My question is, how often are the bugs a problem for you? I haven’t been bothered by bugs at all in my several trips between mid-Aug. and mid-Sep. here in CO, but I’m worried I just haven’t noticed them because I was in a tent. I really don’t want to mess with a bivy or bug netting, because at that point I’d prefer to just get a “tarptent” style shelter. But I am drawn to the simplicity of the tarp, especially because I prefer sleeping under the stars anyway (plus, I imagine it would allow you to sleep in many spots where a tent would not fit). Do you ever need extra protection from bugs, and if so, in what conditions (what times of year and what locations)?

    1. Hi Ryan,

      The only time I notice any issues with insects in Colorado are low lying areas near water in the early part of the summer (say June or so when the snow is starting to melt). There are exceptions. Last year when we had a massive snow dump in May, this pattern persisted well into the summer. Otherwise Colorado is pretty bug free in the high country. Something like this is simple and effective. Used something like it (may even have been the same brand) in the Sierra around snow melt time. Let me know if you have more questions!

      1. Thanks! I think for now I’ll just buy the tarp, and start off late-season (late August or Sep.) so that I don’t have to deal with bugs. Then, if I become a tarp convert and want to use it when bugs are out, I’ll try the bug net. Would you say that an 8×10 tarp is big enough to keep a tall person (who is a novice) dry in his down sleeping bag?

        1. Not sure how tall you are, but I’m 5’6″ and find it a palace. Obviously I am not tall. 😉 Probably enough room for someone up to 6’2″ easily. After that? I am not sure to be honest. See above about me not being tall. 🙂 If you are not sure, grab an inexpensive 8×10 tarp from the hardware store and set it up. Enough room for your height? You are out less than $10 for this test and can use the tarp for something else. And you know to buy a larger tarp.

          1. Thanks again for the tips. I ended up buying a “Bearpaw Lair” tarp (similar to the ZPacks Hexamid) because I found one used and cheap. My recovery from injury is going quite well and I happen to have a free long weekend at the very end of July… the mountains are calling! Do you think that bugs will be an issue this year in the high country at the end of July? (for something like the 4-pass loop or the Pawnee-Buchanan loop, etc). In light of my recent Achilles injury, I’d feel a lot safer backpacking out there if I can ditch the tent and go with the tarp.

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