Subscribe Contribute Advertise Facebook Twitter Instagram Forums Newsletter
Tarps vs tents vs bivys: What's your $0.02?
Display Avatars Sort By:
Tyler N

Locale: Vuur-Gin-Yaa!
Tarps vs tents vs bivys: What's your $0.02? on 01/20/2014 11:40:46 MST Print View

Howdy folks! Getting gear together for 3-season packrafting adventures & I'm considering the sleep system. Tarp, tarp+bivy, UL tent - ???
The main considerations are weight+size, RELIABLE protection against rain, and feedback based on trip reports. Possible camp sites on southeast coast will include beaches/shorelines that will be potentially more cold + wet than land-locked hiking. Also, at warm temps bugs & mosquitoes will be guaranteed. I'll have a Sawyer paddle + usual packrafting gear so I can definitely double-dip some gear as needed (paddle for tent/tarp poles, etc). Any system/setup ideas appreciated!

Joe A
(dirtbaghiker) - M
tarp/bivy on 01/20/2014 13:14:08 MST Print View

My tarp I carry and use, if needed due to weather, is a MLD Patrol shelter(cuben). In the warmer and buggy months I just use a bear Paw Wilderness bug bivy. If it rains, I will pitch the patrol shelter over winter and colder months I use A Bristlecone bivy from Katabatic gear..same idea though, if its gonna rain or snow I will pitch the Patrol shelter over that too. The combined weight of the bug bivy and patrol shelter is 17 ounces. The weight for the Bristlecone bivy/patrol shelter is 14 ounces. The biggest exspense was the cuben patrol shelter, but it is something I SHOULD have for a long long long time. I love this setup, it works for me, its lightweight and it takes up no space in my pack. It also leaves me with every option needed to sleep outside in all weather/seasons..respectivly...bivy alone, tarp alone or bivy and tarp together.

Edited by dirtbaghiker on 01/20/2014 13:16:03 MST.

John H
(pastyj) - F

Locale: SE US
Enclosed shelter on 01/20/2014 14:30:55 MST Print View

3 days of solid rain the Olympics in a tiny tent taught me that while almost any shelter is awesome when the weather is good, when the weather is bad comfort is harder to come by. I now carry a ZPacks Duplex (21 oz) on all trips. Love being able to set it up in the rain and have the interior still be dry. Love being able to get in on one side, sopping wet, changing out of wet clothes and drying off on that side while my sleeping gear is safe and dry on the other. YMMV. The joy of backpacking is that everyone gets to decide what works best for them.

tarp on 01/20/2014 15:09:33 MST Print View

When its raining, a tarp is great. You can pitch it and rest under it, cook there, etc. You dont usually want to get into your tent all wet.

A tarp, with an inner net is the best , if the net can be set up under the tarp while its erected.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
tarp on 01/20/2014 15:36:36 MST Print View

Well, there is a time and place for any of the three. Generally speaking, I like a tarp with a seperate net or full bug tent inner. I do not care for bivies, as a rule, they always condense in cold weather or are too warm in bug season.

Dean F.
(acrosome) - MLife

Locale: Back in the Front Range
mid and bivy on 01/20/2014 18:59:09 MST Print View

I've been tweaking my Ideal Universal Solo Shelter concept for years, and I've sort of settled on an MLD Duomid and MLD Superlight bivy or their equivalents. (Oware mid and Katabatic Bristlecone, etc.)

A mid is more of a "universal" shelter than a flat tarp IMO, at least in that if I could own only one shelter it would be a mid. I don't think there is any truly practical way to pitch a flat tarp in the Scottish Highlands during a blow, or during a prairie windstorm for example. A mid is much easier to set up in a very storm worthy way if needed, sheds snow decently well for winter use, etc. The drawback is that there is really only the one way to set it up. You can pitch it high or pitch it low, or leave the door open, but that's about the limit of versatility. But they are VERY easy to pitch well- the trick is to stake it out in a square before placing the center pole. Speaking of which, a mid is a natural for using your paddle as the center pole. Though I love mids some people whine about being bothered by that center pole, so I guess you'd have to find out if you're one of those who lack a tolerance for them. But camping solo in a 2P mid lets you cant the center pole to make yourself all sorts of room. I typically use my trek pole, though in most 2P mids you need to use a polejack or rock for a little extra length with most trek poles. But I do find that the extra room of a 2P compared to a 1P mid is WELL worth the weight. It lets you get un/dressed in the tent much more easily, allows for gear (or dog) storage, allows room to leave the door open if you prefer, or to cook under shelter (insert standard disclaimer here). 90% of the time you only need a mere four stake-out points with a mid. Yet when weather threatens the full 12-point stake out plan is hella sturdy.

But mids are generally floorless, and you mentioned bugs. Frankly, getting a floor or full mesh inner for a mid or other tarp sort of defeats the entire point IMO. You might as well just buy a TarpTent in such a case- it would likely not weigh much more while being less fiddly. The TT Moment is a good one. If you plan to spend significant lengths of time in your shelter doing things other than sleeping then a floorless shelter might not be a great idea and the aforementioned Tarp Tent might be a great option, but if like me you only really sleep in your shelter then a simple light bivy with bug net will keep the snakes/skeeters/wombats from troubling you. Perhaps an all-mesh one if you like, since the southeast can be quite humid. This is quite possibly lighter than a floor or footprint, and can be used with many different floorless shelters if you ever buy a new one or have a selection of options or to cowboy camp in good weather. It also adds a few degrees to your sleep system, and obviates the need for a groundsheet. An MLD Superlight with the cuben floor is 5.2 oz. IMO- and I may be totally off the wall here- a bivy floor is one place where cuben is worth the cost, for it's better waterproofness and easy repair with a drop of seam sealer.

Floorless shelters on sand can be a pisser, too, though I have happily used just my Superlight bivy to cowboy camp in deserts on many occasions. I guess you have to choose your priorities...

One possibility for a shelter that might tempt me from mids is the MLD Trailstar. I haven't had a chance to try one yet, though. I understand that it takes a bit of practice to pitch them well. But their innate simplicity (no zippers!) appeals to me.

Since you're going to be in the southeast I'll shill enough for flat or catenary tarps to point out that their ventilation cannot be beat, so their condensation problems tend to be minimized. Most mids do pretty well, too, especially if pitched high, but it's hard to beat flat tarps.

So, all said and done, as a compromise between functionality/durability/weight/cost I find a silnylon mid with a bivy to be my "sweet spot." Others will have different opinions, of course. If you decide upon something fully-enclosed with a floor I'm happy to make reccommendations there, too. I had a TT Moment for a while and was very impressed with it, for example, before I tried to simplify my style and went mid/bivy. Or, in the southeast there are ALWAYS trees around- have you considered a hammock with bugnet? Hands down the most comfortable nights I've spent in the backcountry have been in hammocks.

Edited by acrosome on 01/25/2014 12:50:17 MST.

Robert Kelly
(QiWiz) - MLife

Locale: UL gear @
Tarp, Tent, or Bivvy on 01/22/2014 07:44:12 MST Print View

Never been a bivvy fan. Not enough room, and too much interior condensation in my commonly frequented conditions. Tents are OK, but heavier than my favorite shaped tarps. My favorite is the Zpacks Hexamid with sewn-in netting, if you can affor cuben. If not, look at a Six Moon Designs Wild Oasis for a silnylon shelter with very similar footprint and peak height.

Tyler N

Locale: Vuur-Gin-Yaa!
Thanks! on 01/22/2014 09:06:36 MST Print View

Excellent insight - thanks everybody! I really like the concept of a bivy but I keep hearing caveats about performance and reliability. Especially since the nice ones are getting into the price range of tarps + other systems. I'm narrowing down to tarp shelters & tarp systems w/mesh inserts. I like the integrated shelter idea, but am tempted to go w/a tarp + insert so that I have more flexibility in multiple climates & conditions. Having a solid, bomb-proof tarp that has innumerable pitch possibilities seems to be a great solution that I keep hearing. And I love me my star-gazing as I drift off into sleep, so a full-view mesh insert/bug-bivy will definitely suffice during summer + mild evenings.
I may confront strong winds, ocean spray, and rocky/sandy soil from shoreline sites. Does anyone think that will affect shelter selection much? Are tarp shelters more "fiddly" to erect+maintain in harsh climate? I don't have much experience yet pitching on the shores so am curious if those conditions necessitate any other strategies. I figure as long as it's pitched low + site selection is best as possible that should overcompensate for any incoming storms.

Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

Consider a tent! on 01/22/2014 09:16:55 MST Print View

On shorelines, I encounter two things in a plethora: rocks and sand. Both aren't exactly conducive to tight pitching, since a stake can't get a great grip. Simultaneously, there's a good chance of high winds.

If that's really your most frequent area to camp in, I would consider getting a free-standing shelter just for your sanity. Trying to find the perfect spot, sheltered from the wind, and then getting a taut pitch will be more than a slight challenge in some areas and free-standing shelters offer a bit of an insurance policy. You can kind of "fudge" your pitch a little and be guaranteed a warm, dry interior.

That's my 2ยข, anyways.

Tyler N

Locale: Vuur-Gin-Yaa!
Re: mid and bivy on 01/22/2014 09:25:09 MST Print View

Dean - Fantastic advice; very well articulated. I definitely like the idea of hammocks; I'll most likely add one to the arsenal (and, on the other end, eventually some mid-style structure for hardcore 4-season frolicking). I'm brand-spanking-new to packrafting + amphibian adventuring so once I scout out the terrain I'll have more confidence about swingin' in the forest. You seem to know the area - there ARE trees just about everywhere; even on the coast they seem to be plentiful. Site selection will still be the most important factor and I probably won't be forced to hunker on a stone-covered sandbar in most areas with options in the coastal terrain.

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Re: Tarp, Tent, or Bivvy on 01/22/2014 10:44:22 MST Print View

Never been a bivvy fan. Not enough room, and too much interior condensation in my commonly frequented conditions. Tents are OK, but heavier than my favorite shaped tarps. My favorite is the Zpacks Hexamid with sewn-in netting, if you can affor cuben. If not, look at a Six Moon Designs Wild Oasis for a silnylon shelter with very similar footprint and peak height.
Remarkably close to what I may have written!

Anton Solovyev
(solovam) - F

Locale: Colorado, Utah
Tarps vs tents vs bivys: What's your $0.02? on 01/22/2014 10:46:49 MST Print View

1. A tarp did not work for me: in open windy areas with changing winds and no good places for stakes (or trees) it would get blown and torn, even with very heavy rocks for anchors.

2. I am using a bivy (TiGoat's) in some cases, it's great but not rain proof.

3. I am also using now MLD Duomid as main shelter and that seems to be a good compromise. I have changed my camp routine: in the morning I wake up and cook w/o getting out of the bag, warm and comfortable. There's lots and lots of space for one person. I can fully pack the camp in the tent and stow away tent as the last thing into an external pack pocket (wet). A non-freestanding pyramid shelter is a challenge to set up in desert with only rocks for anchors. It also takes a lot of space (corollary to having a lot of space under!). But I think I am now at piece with these disadvantages. The wind resistance seems pretty good (I survived a serious storm in Duomid in Wind Rivers).

4. When I was hiking West Coast trail I thought a hammock + tarp would have been much better than any tent. No need for a flat dry spot, camp anywhere! Want to try that.

5. For desert camping a fully enclosed single wall tent like BD Firstlight can be great. It isolates you from blown sand and can be set up anywhere and very quick. This is also something I would like to have in my arsenal (if I could only get Black Diamond to start using a sunnier color, yellow, or red or orange, not that horrible "wasabi" thing)

Tyler N

Locale: Vuur-Gin-Yaa!
Re: Tarps vs tents vs bivys: What's your $0.02? on 01/22/2014 11:45:22 MST Print View

Ah hah - thank you Anton! I had a sneaking suspicion that was the case with coastal environments. It seems good to consider some other sources of structural integrity to combat winds & loose ground (i.e. closed mid-style structure, possible UL tent). Also the pyramid shape seems ideal to shed climatic events; a tarp is great but your comment confirms that there is a limit to its structural integrity especially in high, changing winds.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
Specialization and general use on 01/22/2014 12:38:34 MST Print View

TARPS-> great in bugless fair weather

BIVYS-> great in snow caves, quinzhees and igloos, snow trenches and foxholes to keep sleeping bags dry(er).

TENTS-> great ANY time and thus not specialized. No need for a bivy in a tent.

John H
(pastyj) - F

Locale: SE US
Specialization vs. General Use on 01/22/2014 13:01:41 MST Print View

>> TARPS-> great in bugless fair weather

This goes along with my previous statement that pretty much ANY shelter works great when the weather is great...but then, why have a shelter at all? What finally turned me against tarps was their performance in the wind...sure, you can pin them securely to the ground, but you still have 2 (or at least 1) open ends. The swirling rain/dust/dirt getting all over my gear, well...not for me.

>> BIVYS-> great in snow caves, quinzhees and igloos, snow trenches and foxholes to keep sleeping bags dry(er).

Like many others, I found bivys to have too much condensation in the winter and too hot in the summer. Love the idea, but combined with my experience with tarps, they just don't work for me.

>> TENTS-> great ANY time and thus not specialized. No need for a bivy in a tent.

So we finally arrive at a tent. When the weather is great, leave it in the pack and cowboy camp. When the weather is nasty, button it up and enjoy the dry, clean environment.

It's all about tradeoffs. The ones you make may be different from mine may be different form everyone else's. Try 'em all and pick the one you like best...but acknowledge that there will be a tradeoff involved.

Jeff McWilliams
(jjmcwill) - M

Locale: Midwest
Shelter classifications on 01/22/2014 13:23:08 MST Print View

I'm curious about the classification of tarp vs tent in the context of this discussion.

For example, the MLD Duomid is classified as a tent on their website, and I think that's how you folks are using it within this thread. Unless you add the bug nest, it's a single walled, (mostly) fully enclosed shelter.

The Six Moon Designs Wild Oasis and Haven are shelters that they categorize as tarps, but I'd judge them as offering the same amount of wind and rain protection as the Duomid. Like the Duomid, the Haven can be used with a net inner for full bug protection.

How would you categorize a shelter like the Borah Gear Borahgami? It's an 8x10 tarp with "wings" on each end that can used to close them off for better weather protection.

Tyler N

Locale: Vuur-Gin-Yaa!
Re: Shelter classifications on 01/22/2014 14:03:14 MST Print View

Well said. The defining terms themselves are becoming increasingly ambiguous considering the number of options & hybrid systems that have cropped up during this UL gear boom. And once we start discussing mesh inserts the "differences" become even more nuanced. Terms aside, I'm just seeing what has worked best for shelters specifically in coastal/packraft contexts. Any options & feedback are appreciated!

Edited by mantaray on 01/22/2014 14:04:03 MST.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Shelter classifications on 01/22/2014 14:21:02 MST Print View

Don't expect strictly defined categories. We've been at this for millennia. :)

Flat or catenary cut, open ends
Beaked tarp: as above with extensions on the ends to add protection
Shaped tarp: the above with even more fabric, bridging the gap and morphing into....

Floorless tents: a single wall shelter with coverage on all sides, but no floor. An inner tent can be added, providing a floor and insect netting, effectively turning it into a double wall tent.

Single wall tent: single wall shelter with a floor, typically with insect mesh vents and doors. There are dozens of designs.

Double wall tent: any one of dozens of designs with and without integral poles, free-standing or non-free-standing or somewhere in a God-less universe between, but all having two layers of fabric with a small separation and a plethora of zippers, doors, screens, poles and other cost and weight-adding features. They could range all the way from a simple pyramid or a-frame to a geodesic dome that Bucky Fuller would be proud of.

As to a Borahgami, I would call it a floorless a-frame tent with tarp overtones :)

Dean F.
(acrosome) - MLife

Locale: Back in the Front Range
tent/tarp definitions on 01/25/2014 12:39:14 MST Print View

To me, a "tent" is something fully enclosed on its own. (May not be bug-proof, though.) If it isn't fully enclosed on its own with a floor etc then it's just a very complex tarp or fly. TarpTents are, technically, tents by my definition. Most are single-walled, some are double-walled, and some are hybrid 1.5-walled, but they are tents nonetheless. I'm a bit conflicted on those old-timer A-frame tents that are made with flaps at the bottom to shovel dirt on to keep the critters and wind out. I guess that when used as-designed they are fully-enlcosed and thus tents.

Even a mid is a "pyramid tarp" according to most sources, if it lacks a floor. It's just a somewhat specialized one. And of course adding an inner net makes it indistinguishable from a tent, really, since it negates any weight saving while adding complexity and fiddliness, and is thus a net loss. If you want that then just get a tent to begin with- TarpTents are nice, and the Moment is a pretty decent 1P TarpTent. It only requires two tie-out points, so it's pretty easy to go without stakes at all and just use trees or rocks. A Moment is also one of the fastest shelters to erect- the second time I set mine up it took about 60 seconds flat.

Hammocks are probably different enough to deserve their own category, so we can probably divide all popular backpacking shelters into: tents, tarps, hammocks, and built structures like debris shelters and igloos. Warbonnet and Butt-In-A-Sling seem to have good reputations as hammock makers, but if this option interests you then you should check out

Regarding choosing between flat tarps, catenary tarps, mids, tarptents, 1-wall tents, 2-wall tents, hammocks, igloos, etc., I'll just say this:

They ALL have drawbacks and benefits. We can sit here and discuss/contrast them all day. But since this is BackPackingLIGHT I would propose that we're probably being asked about lightweight options. Heck, Big Sky makes some pretty impressive lightweight double-walled tents if that's what you're looking for, and I've heard that their logistical problems are a thing of the past, but they are expensive. I'd probably recommend a TarpTent first.

I've never had condensation problems in a bivy, but then I've mostly been out west where the humidity is tolerable, so YMMV. I can easily imagine condensation being a problem on the east coast. But I very specifically mentioned all-mesh bivies, just for keeping the bugs out. Hard to imagine much condensation in those. MLD makes one called the Bug Bivy- I'm sure that others make them as well. MLD will also custom make a Superlight with a much larger mesh window if you ask- mine is like this, to avoid the claustrophobic feel and for better ventilation.

Perhaps Tyler could give us some idea of his priorities? Can you rank these:

Simplicity/ease of use
Snow-loading capacity


Ah, wait, he did say that his priorities are weight/size and proof against rain. By size do you mean packed volume or do you mean footprint size?

For combining weight and rain-proofness I'll stick to my guns with the mid/bivy combo, but the footprint is large by some standards, as it is for the TrailStar. A decent TarpTent would be second choice, for me. For coastal rain I would avoid a small flat or catenary tarp, because wind direction can change and catch you off guard. (But then, lots of people are happy with their flat tarps...) Or, y'know, you could just use a bigger tarp but then why not get a mid for the same weight? And mids are DEFINITELY easier to pitch than any rig you've every seen for a flat or catenary tarp.

Edited by acrosome on 01/25/2014 13:14:41 MST.

Lance Stalnaker
Tarp w/hammock on 01/25/2014 14:55:46 MST Print View

I have used all and think there are scenarios where one is better than the other, they have all ben mentioned. My preference here in the midwest/east where trees are plentiful, I find a hammock with a tarp is the best option for comfort in all conditions. You can sit in your hammock and cook, read, relax, etc all off ground in pouring rain with the tarp in "front porch" mode. My set up with HammockGear Cuben hex tarp weighs in at 26 oz. And as we say, any day above ground is a good day...