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Comparison Review of Tarps and Other Floorless Shelters


by the Product Review Staff | 2003-09-29 03:00:00-06


The objective of this review is to provide an overview of the floorless shelters for lightweight backpackers. Herein, we review products from GoLite, Integral Designs, TarpTent, Oware, Granite Gear, and Campmor (Equinox).

Included are several tarps, tarp-tents, and hybrid shelters that provide the essence of shelter for the lightweight hiker – overhead protection from the elements. In some cases, shelters provide ample wind protection, snow shedding capabilities, and insect protection. After this extensive review, which has encompassed nearly two years of product testing and design evaluation, we were both surprised and pleased to see remarkable innovation by both cottage and major manufacturers alike. Further, we believe that ultralight floorless shelter design using silicone-treated fabrics will continue to be an area of innovation for some time to come.

Most significant among emerging innovations are “pre-shaped” shelters (as opposed to flat sheets) that are designed to be pitched with their edges directly to the ground. The result is simplicity, speed of pitching, fewer guylines, and better storm resistance. Further, while catenary curvature is beginning to appear on ultralight tarp shelters, we expect this trend to continue, as ultralight hikers communicate to manufacturers their need for ultralight shelters for use in inclement conditions.

Review Summary

The following Adobe PDF file can be downloaded to view a detailed summary of the results of this review:

Floorless Shelter Review Summary

Tarp Technique

Previously, we published other articles related to tarp design and camping technique. You might find both these technique articles as well as the following reviews more valuable as a cohesive unit of information.

Shelters Reviewed

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Rating Criteria Defined

Resistance to wind: shelters that can be pitched with a low profile (surface area exposed to the wind) and/or pitches that result in minimum flapping/maximum panel tension get the highest ratings. Shelters get points if they can be pitched to the ground surface. Shelters using poles for structural stability get points. This rating assumes that all available tie-outs are used to best advantage. Therefore, a large tarp that has a proportionally large number of tie-outs may still get a good rating. Best: Hex, Tarptents Worst: Some poncho/tarps

Storm Protection
Resistance to precipitation, including rain and snow: Shelters that can be pitched with full coverage, with the perimeter at the ground surface, and no leakage through vents, doors, windows, etc. will get the highest ratings. Shelters that can be pitched with steep walls for snow shedding will get the high ratings. Best: Alphamid and Hex Intermediate: Tarptent, Silshelter, Lair Worst: Small rectangular tarps and poncho/tarps

Ventilation / Condensation Resistance
Shelters that offer the greatest air circulation get the best ratings. Note: many of the variable pitch shelters have dramatically different ventilation / condensation resistance depending on how they are setup. Either the best value, or sometimes a range of values, is listed. Best: Rectangular tarps Worst: Hex, Alphamid, George Tarp, and Silshelter when pitched low to the ground and closed up for storm protection.

Pitch Flexibility
Points given to shelters that allow for multiple pitch variations to control the above three criteria (not necessarily all at the same time) get the highest ratings. This reflects a shelter's ability to configure to multiple sets of environmental circumstances and shelter performance criteria. Example 1: to provide protection from gentle overhead rain in a humid environment while keeping condensation low and maximizing the sheltered area. Example 2: to provide a stable pitch for high winds and afford maximum protection from driving rain at the expense of sheltered area and condensation resistance. Best: Rectangular tarps and Silshelter Worst: Hex, Tarptents

Ease of Pitch
Shelters that can be pitched with the fewest number of stakes and guylines for full storm protection (see that criteria above) get the highest ratings. It takes little time to pitch these shelters and usually it's obvious how to set them up. Best: Tarptents, Lair Worst: Silshelter, rectangular tarps

Insect Protection
Fully enclosed (floored) shelters get the highest ratings; floorless shelters that can be pitched with a completely enclosed perimeter get the next highest ratings Best: Tarptents with netting and floors. Intermediate: Hex, Alphamid, Silshelter Worst: Rectangular tarps

Weight, unless noted, does not include stakes, guylines, stuff sacks, and any support poles that could be replaced with a trekking pole or stick.

Surface Area
This is the ground area that a shelter covers/protects. For variable pitch shelters or shaped shelters, this is the area covered by the "fully enclosed" pitch. For tarps and poncho/tarps, this is the area covered by a standard A-frame pitch. It is approximated with a 30-degree pitch angle for the "roof."

Sq ft/oz - Sq m/kg
This is a rough measure of how much sheltered area (as defined above) you get for the weight of the shelter. It does not take into account that shelters with additional weight may have highly desirable features such as support poles and increased stability and/or more ventilation and storm protection options.

Number of tie-outs
This is reported for tarps and poncho/tarps only. It gives some idea of the flexibility and stability of pitches available with the shelter. Look for more tie-outs as the size and/or complexity of the shelter increases.

A highly subjective rating that takes into account all of the above criteria and the shelter's price. Shelters with low cost, good performance and a high area to weight ratio get the best ratings. Some adjustment is made for the type of shelter. For example, the area to weight ratio of a flat tarp is not directly compared to the area to weight ratio of a structured shelter like a Tarptent. For poncho/tarps this considers their protection as a shelter and not their performance as rainwear. Best: Oware Cat Tarp, Tarptent Squall


"Comparison Review of Tarps and Other Floorless Shelters," by the Product Review Staff. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2003-09-29 03:00:00-06.