One of the biggest decisions you have to make as a hiker, especially a thruhiker, is what kind of shelter will be your home while you are on trail. I say shelter because there are so many options: tents, hammocks, tarps, bivy sacks, you name it! In this post I’m going to share a little bit with you about what we saw on trail, what seemed to be working and failing, our own tent choice and touch on walking the fine line between comfort and lightweight.
It’s kind of amazing how many different shelter options are out there. Before beginning our research for the AT Kyle and I had been using a four pound two-person MSR Hubba Hubba for backpacking and work with ACE. But we knew that we were going to want something lighter than the Hubba Hubba so we began the search. Due to my extensive research I was a gear talking fiend once we got out on trail. One of the things that is prevalent, especially when you first get on trail, is gear talk. All you talk about with people is gear, because other then your very recent reality of thru-hiking, it’s really all you have in common. So I got down on the gear talk and mostly I talked about tents. Every gearhead knows that feeling, you just see a new tent or backpack and you can’t help but want to spew words like ripstop nylon, cubic inches, and brand names.
Most people on the trail have one of the many lightweight tent options that are available. In general this leaves people with tents ranging from two to four pounds. The tent of choice this year was the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL, which weighs in at 2 lbs 2 oz. This tent was about as common on trail as Granite Gear packs and Sawyer Squeeze water filters. Lightweight and inexpensive were clearly pros for this tent, however, our biggest warning with this tents and, in general, ones that are made out similar fabrics is that they have some disadvantages in the rain. Many of the fabrics used to build tents are not fully waterproof and actually absorb water when wet. What this means is that if it rains enough, your tent fabric is going to get saturated with water. It will be heavy and take a long time to dry out. It will also begin to sag, potentially touching your tent’s mesh and causing water to drip in. Not to mention, fully enclosed tents condensate worse than tarps or tarp tents. But many of these tents are free standing, which can be very advantageous, as we will discuss later and are fully enclosed to protect you from bugs.
Then there were the hammocks. Lots of people used and loved their hammocks. For a person traveling alone they can be a very lightweight and apparently comfortable option. I can only see a few drawbacks to them. As a couple they were never an option for us but on top of that they do not provide you with a place to escape. Imagine it’s the heat of summer, you are surrounded by mosquitos and everything is sticking to you. You can’t cook in your vestibule to avoid the bugs because you don’t have one and when you do finally get in your hammock fabric is going to be cradling every inch of your sweaty skin. Other positives though, the “rain fly” part of the hammock is great for throwing up if caught in a sudden thunder storm and seeking shelter! Last possible issue with hammocks… no trees… Usually on the AT you are never without trees, however, sometimes the trees are too close together or too small to be used with a hammock. In these situations your options are seriously limited, especially considering most hammock users hike without a sleeping pad in the warmer seasons to loose weight.
Lastly, let’s talk about hardcore ultra lightweight shelter options: tarps and bivy sacks. We only ever met one person traveling with a bivy sack and he seemed happy with it. I have very little experience with bivy sacks, my only word of the warning would be the same as a hammock, it cannot provide you the space and shelter a tent can during the summer when the bugs are bad. Lots of people we met had tarps, or at least started out with them. A tarp can be great in the rain if set up correctly, gets almost no condensation and is super light. However, while tarps may work out flawlessly for lots of other hiking trips I wouldn’t suggest using one for the entire AT. When you have been practically running down the trail all day long, swatting at mosquitos and gnats, getting bit by black flies and having spiders crawl all over you during your breaks, picking tics out of your legs… the thing you look forward to the most at the end of the day is escaping to the safety of your fully enclosed tent. Trust me, from experience, you do not want to further expose yourself to bugs that carry diseases like West Nile and Lymes Disease.
Now, on to our tent choice, or should I say “tarp tent”… When I was researching tents and tarps and bivys and hammocks and all the options open to us it took me a long time to narrow it down to two options, Zpack’s Hexamid Twin Tarp Tent and Mountain Hardwears SuperMega UL 2. Zpacks is a tiny company run out of the owners garage in Florida, where they make extremely light gear out of innovative and new materials. The SuperMega UL intrigued me because it was slightly lighter and the same general shape as the Big Agnes Fly Creek but seemed to get more positive reviews from users. When shopping for outdoor gear always read the customer reviews, but take them with a grain of salt. Everyone’s comfort levels, camping expertise and expectations for their gear varies. Unable to decide between the two of them I ordered both, planning to return whichever one I liked the least. However, the Mountain Hardwear never arrived and we were “forced” to choose the Zpacks Tent.
The Hexamid Twin is a one wall tent with a waterproof top made out of cuben fiber, a mesh bottom that fully encloses the tent and a clip in waterproof bathtub that sits inside the mesh. It is not a free standing tent and uses trekking poles and eight guy lines to set up. The space inside it is pretty good for a lightweight tent, the roof slopes so the person sleeping closest to the door has more head room then their partner. You can sit up in it but once again, the person against the back of the tent has less height. It is extremely light, only 19 oz which is significantly lighter then any of the other tents on the market. Some
people might see not having a removable rain fly to be a draw back but to be frank, there was never a time when one could have comfortably traveled without a rain cover, so having a built in one was no big deal. However, there were drawbacks, especially for the AT. To begin with the square footage required to set up this tent with all eight guy lines is massive. You have to get very good at setting it up creatively, squeezing into small places and tying guy lines off to trees, using rocks to weight them down and pounding your stakes into logs. Also, it is not free standing, which didn’t really bother me except when the weather was really bad and I would have preferred to sleep in a shelter, but the bugs were also awful so we had to set up the tent outside in the rain. With a free standing tent one can set their tent up in the shelters, gaining shelter from the rain, a dry tent and no bugs. It is also not really big enough for two people and their packs, so when it rained we had to cover our packs with our rain covers and pray they didn’t get wet. My last complaint: this tent does not really protect you from the rain unless you have it set up perfectly and are camped in grass or have created a duff ring around the tent. The problem with this tent is that there is a four inch gap or so between the cuben fiber top and the cuben fiber bathtub, which is supposed to allow more airflow and decrease condensation. This works great most of the time and allows you to see out and feel more connected with the environment. However, when it rains really hard rain drips off the top and splatters off the ground back into the tent. We dealt with SO much rain on the AT. It rained every day we were in PA. Eventually it got very frustrating and uncomfortable to deal with a tent that lets in rain, you can never really sleep when it’s raining because you constantly have to check to see if water is coming in.
Overall if you are looking for a really lightweight option I do think our tent is one of the best options out there. If we were doing it again though, I don’t know if we would use the same tent… we loved it for so many reasons but in the end a tent in your pack should make you feel like, no matter what weather you encounter, you will have shelter and be secure later in the day. By the end of the hike I had begun to feel completely hopeless if it started to rain, knowing that even setting the tent up wouldn’t give us a dry warm spot to escape the storm.
This is where we come to our last topic, comfort vs weight savings, which we will probably write an entire post on at some point. I think, as a lightweight backpacker, the best time for ultralight weight techniques are on shorter trips, like a week, or even a month. But when you are going to be living in the woods for five to six months it becomes important to walk a fine line between lightweight and miserable. So some tips on how to be lightweight (around twenty pounds, including food and water):
– Make sure your pack, shelter, sleeping bag and sleeping pad are light but that you are still comfortable when using all of them. For example, pick a lightweight pad but make sure you still get a good night sleep on it. These are the top four items you should spend money on.
– Don’t just listen to the sales person at REI! Do your research and find little companies that are making lighter and more innovative gear. Check out companies like enLIGHTen Gear, Zpacks, Feathered Friends, Hyperlight Mountain Gear, Tarptent, Lightheart Gear, Jacks R Better, Gossamer Gear, Katabatic Gear, Mountain Laurel Gear, and more!
– Read articles and how too’s online. Looking into websites like Outdoor Gear Lab and Backpacker magazine’s website for articles on the best lightweight gear is a great option. Outdoor Gear Lab has already done all the work for you when it comes to comparing different pieces of gear and brands!
– Don’t take too many clothes. I saw a lot of people on the AT that still had two or three shirts half way through the hike. It’s the AT! You don’t need to be clean, you don’t need to have a change of clothes, it just weighs too much! Be smart about what you’re carrying so you are safe in case of an emergency but don’t go overboard with clothing.
– Look at your secondary gear like your stove, cooking pot and utensils, water filter, water bottles, first aid kit, etc. Try to buy the best gear you can that uses lightweight materials. Investing in lightweight gear really will make all the difference when you’re hiking.
– Start hiking but be willing to let go. Everyone starts a thru-hike with things they think they will use and then when they don’t they either get rid of them or don’t and stubbornly carry them for miles and miles. After your first week on trail, its pretty safe to say that if you haven’t used something yet you probably won’t. Except your bug nets, never get rid of your bug nets.
I hope that this review will help people looking for a tent and trying to stay lightweight. Always remember, even if you have been backpacking forever, there is always room to grow and learn, especially as new technology hits the market. Kyle and I had never used a tarp tent or one that wasn’t free standing. We knew it was pushing us out of our comfort zone and we liked that.