Tent, Tarp, Hammock, or Bivy – What Is The Best Shelter For Hiking?

What Shelter Is Best For Hiking

One of the most important decisions for any backpacker to make when putting together a gear setup is the kind of shelter they will use. As one of the “Big 3” pieces of gear, a shelter can make or break the entire backpacking experience. A big, strong shelter might keep you warm and dry at night, but its weight and bulk will make your hiking more difficult. A small, lightweight shelter might easy to carry around, but could leave you cold and wet as you try to sleep.

I’ve put together the pros and cons of the four most common options for shelter for hikers and backpackers: tents, tarps, hammocks, and bivys. My hope is to give you the information you need to find the option that is best for you and how you like to hike and backpack.

Because I like how I sleep in them, because you can use them wherever there are two trees, and because they take up relatively little space in my pack, I prefer hammocks. However, you may decide that the privacy and extra protection that tents provide are the way to go. Or you may prefer a more minimalist approach, which tarps and bivy sacks can provide. regardless, I hope this article helps you make the best decision for you.

What Shelter Works Best For You?


Tents are the most familiar and common type of shelter for hikers and backpackers. Providing the most shelter, privacy, and peace of mind, it is easy to see why so many choose to find shelter at night in a tent.

Tents can be set up almost anywhere

There are many different sizes and setups for tents, with pros and cons for for each particular variety. You can choose from varying capacities (one-person, two-person, or larger) or setup (freestanding, semi-freestanding, or non-freestanding). You can also choose from differing levels of insulation and durability with either single-wall or double wall options. Let’s take a look of each of these options:

One-Person or Larger?

The amount of space you will have in your tent is an important consideration. If you are hiking solo or don’t plan on sharing a tent with anyone else, you certainly could choose a one-person tent. They are smaller, weigh less, and usually cost less. However, when most tent manufacturers say their tent is for one person, they mean it. That means that your pack and gear will not likely fit inside the tent with you.

Many tents do have a vestibule outside the tent that provides cover from the rain, so you can still protect your gear. Or, you can size up to a two- or three-person tent that will provide more room inside the tent itself, allowing you to really have a home away from home, protected away from the elements. Just remember, as you select a larger tent, you will pay more and carry more.

More and more tents come with more than one door – even one-person tents. This provides an extra level of comfort with more options to ventilate your tent and also enjoy the outdoors.

Tents provide excellent protection against even the worst weather

The Setup

There are three main ways that tents are set up – freestanding, semi-freestanding, and non-freestanding.

Freestanding: Freestanding tents have an external pole system and stand without any external support. They are usually more spacious than other setups and are more versatile, as you are able to set up almost anywhere – even if staking would be difficult. They are also more stable during bad weather. Freestanding tents usually come with a rain fly, tent body, stakes, and poles. As, freestanding tents take up more space and weight in your pack.

Non-Freestanding: These tents do not stand up on their own—they require trekking poles and stakes for stability and structure. Non-freestanding tents are also more difficult to set up and require some practice. Many ultralight backpackers prefer non-freestanding tents, as they can be extremely lightweight and take up less space, with no need for a rain fly or poles. In order to provide needed durability and weather protection but remain ultralight, non-freestanding tents are often made with expensive materials such as Dyneema – and therefore cost a good deal.

Semi-freestanding: Semi-freestanding tents are not as common as freestanding or non-freestanding tents. Like freestanding tents, they also have a separate pole system, but need to be staked down for full stability and floor space. These tents also come with a tent body, a rainfly, a pole system, and stakes. They offer similar weights and take up similar space as freestanding tents.

Double-Wall Tent with a rain fly

Single-Wall Or Double-Wall

The main difference between a single-wall and double-wall tent is generally down to the existence of a rain fly. Non-freestanding tents are usually single-walled, while freestanding or semi-freestanding tents, with their additional rain flys, offer real protection from condensation due to better ventilation and an extra, outer layer to collect that moisture.

So, while taking into account the different advantages of each type of tent, let’s consider the pros and cons of tents vs. other shelters.

Tent Pros:

  • Offer complete privacy from others
  • Offers good protection against bugs and small animals
  • Is the best shelter available against bad weather
  • Many options are extremely lightweight
  • Usually simple to set up

Tent Cons:

  • Most ultralight options are very expensive
  • Cheaper options are generally heavier
  • Can be complicated to set up
  • Single-wall options, which are lighter, are nonetheless more prone to condensation
  • Even the most lightweight options tend to take up more space in your pack
  • Not a great option with uneven, hard ground

Highly-Rated Tents

If you’ve decided that a tent is the option for you, here a couple of tents that may pique your interest:

First is the Zpacks Duplex Tent. Able to pack down to the size of a football and weighing only 21 ounces, the Zpacks Duplex is one of the top-performing two-person, double-walled tents on the market. It comes with a bug netting and a bathtub floor to provide excellent protection against the elements. Made with Dyneema fabrics, it is more durable than many other tents despite the fact that it is much lighter.

The Zpacks Duplex

The Zpacks Duplex does require two trekking poles (not included) to be set up properly, and it takes some practice to find the right pitch for your poles and guy lines to set up properly. Despite it being a double-wall tent, it does have issues with condensation. And make no mistake, the Duplex is an expensive option, coming in at almost $600.

Another more affordable option to start is the 3F UL Gear Lanshan Pro 1. The Lanshan Pro 1 is a one-person, single-walled tent that weighs only 24 ounces. It has a bathtub floor that holds up well to wear and tear. It is made with a SilNylon fabric, which has good durability but weights a bit more than Dyneema.

The Lanshan Pro 1 requires a single trekking pole (not included) to be set up properly. It also does not come with its seams sealed, which means you have to personally apply a sealer to the seams in order to make sure that the tent is fully waterproof. However, at a price unde $160, this is an excellent option for those looking to start ultralight backpacking.


Tarps are a time-honored method of shelter for hikers and backpackers – they offer outstanding packability and lighter weights while providing the opportunity to sleep in a more natural setting than other shelter options. For some hikers and backpackers, this is the only way to truly experience the outdoors.

Tarps can also be set up in many different ways and in many different settings. This versatility allows you the chance to hike almost anywhere and set up camp almost anywhere. And while setting up a tarp correctly is likely more difficult than any other type of shelter, once you become good at setting up, you will be able to create a shelter that can actually provide more space than tents and similar protection against the weather.

Tarps are extremely versatile shelters

In extreme weather, however, a tarp does leave something to be desired. Because they are not enclosed, rain, snow, or high winds can cause harmful exposure that tents do not.

Tarp Pros:

  • Lightweight and relatively inexpensive
  • Takes up little space in your pack
  • Versatile
  • Creates the most space for you and your gear
  • Can provide good shelter against the elements if set up correctly
  • Minimizes condensation much better than tents

Tarp Cons:

  • Requires a good amount of expertise
  • No protection against bugs and critters
  • You need to pay more attention to natural barriers to cope with wind and rain
  • Will not stand up well to extreme weather
  • Does not lend itself to much privacy

Highly-Rated Tarps

If you are looking for a good, light tarp that can hold up to the elements and provide a versatile range of setup options, a good candidate is the Gossamer Gear Twinn Tarp. Meant to set up with two treeking poles, the Twinn Tarp can comfortably provide shelter for two. The seams are sealed to ensure top protection against rain and moisture.

Gossamer Gear Twinn Tarp

And because it has tie-out points at each corner as well as two side-wall tie out points, you have the ability to set this tarp up in several different configurations, depending on your campsite. The Twinn Tarp is made from SilNylon, weighs only 9.7 ounces, and costs less than $150 – a great value for a dependable, lightweight tarp.

The Zpacks 7 x 9 Flat Tarp is a smaller, ultralight option that provides outstanding coverage for a single hiker. Made from Dyneema, the Zpacks Flat Tarp can be used with trekking poles as well as longer sticks for a number of configurations, thanks to eight tie outs. This tarp weighs and incredible 5.2 ounces and costs $235.

The Zpacks Flat Tarp


Hammocks have become a more popular shelter in recent years. They offer some important advantages over other shelter options that many (including me) have embraced.

Hammocks can be set up anywhere you have two sturdy trees. You don’t have to worry about finding an spot with even, ground without roots or rocks. and you don’t have to worry about bugs or critters getting into your tent or under your tarp. Further, the sleeping experience is really outstanding – and better rest allows for better hiking.

Hammocks can go up almost anywhere

However, there are some downsides to using a hammock for shelter. Most importantly, you do not enjoy the same level of protection against the elements that a tent or tarp provide. Further, a hammock is not as minimalist as a tarp or bivy, as you need a tarp, suspension, and an under quilt to optimize the experience.

The underquilt is very important – as it will insulate against the loss of heat on the bottom of your body as you sleep.


  • Extremely versatile as long as there are two good trees to hang from
  • Relatively lightweight
  • Easy to put up
  • Offers an excellent sleeping experience for many people
  • Offers protection from critters, bugs, and wet ground


  • Usually requires accessories (tarp, straps, under quilt) which add weight and take up space in your pack
  • Expensive when factoring in accessories
  • You are confined to a small space, unlike a tent
  • Requires some expertise – especially if you use a tarp for added shelter
  • Unusable in treeless areas
  • Does not lend itself to much privacy

Highly-Rated Hammocks

An excellent option for backpackers who want to use a hammock for shelter is the ENO Sub6 Hammock. By itself (with no straps), this hammock weighs only 5.8 ounces and costs less than $70. Despite its low weight, the ENO Sub6 provides excellent strength, and can support up to 300 pounds of weight. And it packs up to the size of a softball, keeping a low profile in your pack.

ENO Sub6 Hammock

ENO also offers good prices on necessary accessories for their hammocks, including rain flys and hammock straps. Altogether, this setup weighs about 36 ounces and costs less than $180.

Full hammock setup with tarp, underquilt, and hammock straps

However, you may want to include an underquilt to your hammock setup for much-needed insulation. If so, the OneTigris Twilight Trekker is a good and inexpensive option.


Bivys, or bivouac sacks, were originally invented for climbers who wanted to carry lightweight protection for their sleeping bags against harsh weather during their ascents.

The first type of a bivy is the sack – an actual sack that offers an extra layer of protection against the environment for your sleeping bag. A bivy sack slips over your sleeping bag and is constructed of waterproof or water resistant materials. They also typically include a bug net that lies over your face to protect against bugs.

Bivy sacks can be set up in most locations

The second type of bivy – a bivy shelter – is almost a mini-tent as it has a hoop over the head to provide some head room and keep the bivy off your sleeping bag. Like the bivy sack, it has a waterproof bottom with a bit more structure to it. This small enclosure is very easy to setup and can be relatively weatherproof, but some hikers do feel claustrophobic lying inside a bivy.

Even though most bivy sacks and shelters are waterproof or water resistant, many hikers and backpackers prefer to lay a lightweight cloth or ground cover beneath their bivy for extra protection. Tyvek is a good option – it is durable and weather resistant, but weighs very little.


  • Extremely versatile – can be set up in almost any location
  • Lightweight – Some types weigh less than a pound
  • Takes up little space in your pack
  • Offers a true “cowboy camping” experience
  • Can offer good protection against the elements in most cases
  • Less expensive than tents or most hammock systems


  • Condensation can be a big issue
  • Can feel a little claustrophobic
  • Offers little space to keep your gear protected or you comfortable
  • While usually waterproof, you are quite exposed to bad weather
  • Offers no privacy without an accompanying tarp

Highly-Rated Bivy Sacks

The best bivy shelter for backpackers and hikers is the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy. Coming in at only 16 ounces, this bivy shelter still offers excellent protection against the elements, and because of the internal poles, lifts the sack away from your head and face, reducing your feeling claustrophobic.

At a cost of less than $180, the Outdoor Research Helium packs down extremely well inside your pack while still offering many of the same benefits of a tent.

An even more minimalist option is the Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy, which weighs in at 13 ounces and costs less than $110. It includes waterproof material and a bug net to provide relief against weather and bugs, but does not offer the same level of space that the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy provides.

Tips For Setting Up Your Shelter


Setting up a freestanding tent can be a very simple exercise. Because they only need their poles to achieve their structure, you can literally be set up and safely sheltered in your tent in less than five minutes.

Non-freestanding or semi-freestanding tents do take more time and expertise to set up, because you need to stake out your tent body and then use internal poles or your trekking pole to achieve the correct pitch and structure.

Tent setup

A further consideration not to overlook is where you choose to set up your tent. Because you are sleeping on the ground, you need to find a spot that is relatively flat, which keeps you from sliding downhill. You also will want to find an softer sleeping area, free of rocks and roots that would be uncomfortable to sleep on.


Because you will be sleeping on the ground with a tarp, many of your considerations about where to set up are the same as with a tent. Finding a flat, soft spot is paramount to getting the best night sleep as possible.

As far as set up with your tarp, the difficulty of getting it staked and tied in just the right position to provide requisite protection against the elements really depends on your expertise. Some hikers who are very experienced with tarps can usually put together an excellent shelter in less than ten minutes. Others – especially those who are using a tarp for the first time – could struggle for a long time to construct an adequate shelter with their tarp.

You can use a tarp to great effect for shelter

In times where weather is rapidly deteriorating, time is of the essence to you keep you and your gear safe and dry. So take the time before a hiking trip to perfect several different setups in your backyard or at a nearby trail.


Hammock setup does require a level of expertise, although perhaps not to the same level as a tarp.

A proper, secure hammock system usually includes a tarp or rain fly above the hammock to protect a hiker from weather during the night. You will need to know how to properly secure the tarp to trees and stake it to the ground – again, practice makes perfect.

It is a good idea to use a tarp with your hammock

Likewise, hanging the hammock itself requires some practice. Hammocks are usually most comfortable when hanging at a 30-degree angle (30 degrees between the ground and the hammock straps themselves). And elevating the foot end vs. the head end is usually a good idea for optimal sleeping.

But the good thing about hammocks is that the actual physical setup is really all you have to worry about. If you have two strong trees about 12 to 15 feet apart, you can set up anywhere, without worrying about uneven, wet, and rocky ground.

Bivy Sacks

The setup for a bivy shelter can be the most fast and simple, depending on how much you really want to “rough it.” If you anticipate good weather and want to camp out under the stars, then setup is simple; simply find a good spot of ground that is no larger than your sleeping bag and put down the bivy.

If you want a bit more shelter and are anticipating some bad weather, you may want to set up a tarp to give you more protection. As noted above, this does require some expertise on your part.


Ease of SetupComfortLightweightPackabilityCost
Free and Semi-Freestanding Tent***************
Non-Freestanding Tent**************


So – which shelter is best for you? What do you value most from a shelter? Ease of use? Cost? Weight and packability? There are many different variables that can influence what type of shelter you prefer. Ultimately it comes down to your own preferences as well as the terrain and weather for your upcoming hiking trip.

The most important factor is your own comfort. If you are unsure about what will work best for you, don’t rush out to spend a lot of money on a shelter that you may not even enjoy. See if you can borrow or rent some of this gear and take it on an overnight hike, or even sleep in it in your backyard. See what you like best, and make your decision from there.

Happy Trails!

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