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Lightweight Alternatives for Weary Backpackers - Sleep Systems
You are six miles in to a twelve mile hike towards your next camp somewhere on the Appalachian Trail and all you can think about is how heavy your pack is. As you round a bend, you notice a large fallen tree that has been pushed to the side of the trail and decide it looks like a good place to take a five minute break. You curse to yourself for packing such a heavy bag as you unclip the buckles on your 60L pack. Despite the weight, you cannot turn back now, you are three days into a five day backpacking trip. As your mind wanders onto what you did wrong, or what you could have left behind, your tent pops into mind. You're carrying a two person camping tent and it weighs slightly over five pounds. You now begin wondering if you made a mistake on bringing along the tent you brought. After all, you only just started backpacking for the first time early last April when the snow cleared from the trails. The more you think about, you vow never to carry a five pound tent ever again!
To start off, there is some good news and there is some bad news. Here's the good news, there are many sleep systems manufactured and sold for backpackers just like you who are also looking for alternatives to the all-to-often heavy camping tents. Here's the bad news; you have tons of options and you’re going to have to make a choice on what suits you best! Not so bad after all, huh? On this article, four less burdensome alternatives will be discussed along with a couple of tips on how to further cut back on the weight your sleep systems force you to carry. For each alternative, three products will be discussed based on price and quality. Don't however mistake the lower priced alternatives for being bad quality. All products on this article are here because they have been proven time and time again.
Despite the fact I just finished discussing how burdensome tents can be, there is definitely room in this article for discussing certain tents that easily stand aside from the common heavy camping tent. Those looking for a non-burdensome tent can turn their sights towards single person "backpacking" tents and single-walled tents. Single person tents are more or less, bivy sacks with more room from the inside. They are pitched up like a normal tent, but are built very slender and can only handle one person. Single-walled tents vary from most normal tents in that when fully pitched, they are only made up of one wall. Most tents are double-walled. The distinction comes from the fact that most tents are built with a waterproof bottom and non-water proof nylon/mesh sides. Double-walled tents come with an extra rain fly in order to hold back rain. Single walled tents benefit from the fact that all material in the making of the tent is waterproof, thus foregoing the need for a weight-adding rain fly.
The first tent to be discussed is the Solitaire Tent manufactured by Eureka. Eureka self-describes this tent as their "most compact solo tent. [The] Eureka Solitaire is a perennial favorite of backpackers everywhere." The Eureka Solitaire weighs in at a minimum weight of two pounds and nine ounces, nearly half the weight of the proverbial five pound tent. Eureka has been around for over one hundred years and has had a long time to prove themselves in the outdoor market. At ninety dollars, the Eureka Solitaire is best for novice backpackers and/or backpackers looking for a good quality single person tent that does not break the budget. Though low in cost compared to many other tents on the market, the Eureka Solitaire is well proven and delivers a great cost-to-quality ratio.
Here are the full specs from the Eureka Website:
2'8" x 8'
21.33 sq. ft.
4" x 17.5"
2 lbs. 9 oz.
Marmot Eos 1P
The second tent is a Marmot Eos 1P. This solo tent weighs a minimum of two pounds and seven ounces. While only two ounces lighter than the Eureka Solitaire, this tent make significant jumps in quality. There's probably an expensive brand name hidden somewhere in that price as well. At two hundred and forty-nine dollars, this tent is a bit more of an investment. The tent features DAC poles which are made from a unique alloy which makes them much lighter than other similar aluminum poles. Marmot describes their Eos 1P as a tent "for solo outings, whether through-hiking or just kickin' it outdoors for a night, the EOS provides a sturdy, lightweight shelter with ample space for one and their gear." The tent is a made with a free-standing design and is a perfect backcountry shelter for backpackers who want a premium tent without paying premium prices.
Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1
The final tent is a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1. Much like the last two tents, this is a three season, solo tent created for backpackers working to cut weight from their already heavy packs. This tent wins the race by a longshot, weighing in at a minimum weight of only one pound and fourteen ounces, breaking the two pound barrier. This tent utilizes a silicone treated rainfly as well as polyester mesh and ripstop walls. This is by far, one of the highest quality backpacking tents on the market and the price definitely reflects that at three hundred and twenty dollars. Many backpackers will shy away due to the price, but those who do make the investment will not regret it. This tent packs to a size of 5" x 19" and has a floor area of 22 square feet.
I will not go into single-walled tents too much other than giving a few suggestions on products to consider. For ounce-counting backpackers, the Meta 1P by NEMO is sure to delight with a minimum weight of 1 pound and 12 ounces. This shelter costs $350 and foregoes all tent poles in exchange for a single trekking pole. Another option for more money conscious backpackers is the Mountainsmith Mountain Shelter LT priced at roughly $130. Though designed to shelter two adventurers, it weighs in at 1 pound and 15.5 ounces.
Tarp shelters are the ultra-light, minimalist brothers of tents. They are most common with ounce-counting ultralight backpackers and come in many different weights, prices, and sizes among other variations. In order to be a tarp camper, you must be okay with sacrificing almost all comforts that come along with sleeping in the backwoods in a tent. Though not entirely necessary, it is recommended to pack along a ground tarp for this type of camping.
Kelty Noah's Tarp
At only sixty dollars, this tarp will not even come close to breaking the bank. There are three sizes of this popular tarp, however the Noah's Tarp 9 will be covered here. Kelty describes their popular tarp shelter with the same mantra spoken over and over again in this article; "sometimes simple, lightweight protection from the elements is all you need. That’s why we offer the Noah’s Tarp. Great for camping, backpacking, and festivals, this simple shelter travels anywhere and sets up in a snap." At a minimum weight of only 1 pound and 8 ounces, this tarp covers 81 square feet and is the lightest shelter on this article so far. It should be noted that though this tarp requires two raised sections adjacent from each other, it does not come with poles. You can either use trekking poles or you can tie off the two ends between two trees. Also, take caution in high winds. While backpacking in the New Mexico mountains, this tarp blew over in high winds while I briefly left camp leaving everything wet and exposed. This should go for any tarp shelter using poles.
Eagle Nest Outfitters ProFly Rain Tarp
Though originally made for use with backpacking hammocks [see hammock section], these can easily be used independent of any hammock (or trees). Like the Kelty Noah's Tarp, this does not come with poles or stakes. This particular rain tarp has six guy points and was made to be strung between two trees over a hammock with two stake points and both sides. Trekking poles can also be used to hold up the tarp. When in use, this rain tarp resembles an a-frame shelter. Depending on whether you buy the classic or the silicone version, the price and weight vary greatly. The classic ENO ProFly weighs in at 1 pound, 6 ounces and costs $80. The silicone version weighs 13 ounces and costs $150. Both are good products and despite the weight and cost differences, hold up to rain equally well.
Bivy sacks vary little from their "body bag" brethren, the main difference being these are meant to preserve live people rather than the dead. Bivy sacks are mainly just a weather-proof sack meant to fit nothing more than a sleeping bag and your body. Bivy sacks often suffer poor reviews as most have problems with holding in condensation. I have done my best to find a wide range of high quality and highly rated bivy bags. Bivy sacks can also be a pain in the arse when facing rain or other precipitation, as it can be hard fit your sleeping bag and yourself inside or get out in the morning without exposing the interior. You also have no place to change in the morning if it is raining.
REI Minimalist Bivy
Coming from the well-known retailer of outdoor products, the REI Minimalist Bivy is perfect for backpackers looking to experiment with bivy sacks or for a cheap alternative to more expensive bivy's. Unlike some bivy sacks which have a raised section for your head, this one does not. The following is REI's description of their bivy sack: "leave the heavy tent behind! With its waterproof, breathable design and meticulous details, the REI Minimalist Bivy sack is perfect for use in snow caves and as an ultralight shelter." REI rates this product for all four seasons. The REI Minimalist Bivy has a length of 82 inches and a shoulder width of 32 inches. They also offer a "long" version. At a price of $100 and weighing in at 15 ounces, just under a pound, you can’t go wrong with the REI Minimalist Bivy.
Black Diamond Twilight Bivy
Made from the very well-known and reputable brand Black Diamond, this bivy sack costs $150 and weighs in at only 10.7 ounces, perfect for ounce counting, ultralight, minimalist backpackers. Black Diamond rates this pack as perfect for all four seasons of the year and recommends it for alpine use, backpacking, and expeditions. The Twilight Bivy rolls out to 82" x 33" and has an area of 18.75 square feet, it's a snug fit, but then again, all bivy sacks are. The following is Black Diamond's description of this awesome bivy sack: "the minimalist, four-season Black Diamond Twilight Bivy is built from water-resistant and breathable NanoShield fabric that keeps weight to an absolute minimum and packs down incredibly small, making it ideal for an emergency shelter or as a sleeping bag cover. Built with a zippered entry across the shoulders, it’s easy to get into and use while sitting up." Like the previous bivy, this product also does not have a raised section for your head.
Outdoor Research Advanced Bivy
Though expensive at roughly $320, the Outdoor Research Advanced Bivy is a bivy sack well worth the money. Though this product weighs 2 pounds and 5 ounces, over a pound heavier than the last two bivy sacks, its backcountry quality is well worth the extra weight. With an innovative two pole design, you are given the ability to adjust the awning to fit you better. With the ability to change the angle of the awning along with the zipper opening, you can adjust your bivy to change with environmental conditions. In addition to high-quality materials, the Advanced Bivy provides room under the awning to place your boots, straps to secure you sleeping pad underneath you, a small mesh pocket on the interior and six loops for guy lines in high winds. This particular product has an interior height of 20 inches, a floor space of 87 in. x 19 - 26 in. and a packed size of roughly 15 in. by 4 in. Coming with a lifetime warranty from Outdoor Research, you cannot go wrong with their Advanced Bivy.
Unique and relatively new to the backpacking scene, backpacking hammocks are much different from classic porch or backyard hammocks. These unique hammocks are almost reservedly made out of parachute nylon and pack into very small, self-contained stuff sacks. Backpacking Hammocks are special because they make no contact with the ground. They however, are limited in that you need two points of contact, but work great with the fact that you can place them on steep, rocky or boggy ground where ground shelters would fail. They are also special in that they provide no pressure points on your back, thereby decreasing many aches and pains common with sleeping on the ground. While they do not vary much in materials, weight, quality or price between companies, I will cover several different types. Almost all hammocks are rated to 400 lb. (200 lb. per strap). I do not recommend hammocks for winter camping because much heat is lost out the bottom. There are under quilts made specifically for hammocks which are, while expensive, made by most hammock companies. By far and wide, the two most common companies in stores are Eagle Nest Outfitters (ENO) and Grand Trunk. Between these two companies, almost all outdoors and sports stores will have some stock of camp hammocks. Other great companies include Exped, Hennesy, Lawson Hammock and Clark Jungle Hammocks. It should be noted there are many great hammock companies not listed here. If you can think of any, feel free to list them in the comments section.
Single hammocks are by far the most common design. ENO names theirs the SingleNest. This hammock weighs in at 17 ounces and packs to 3.5 inches x 4.5 inches at a cost of $60. The Grand Trunk single hammock is nearly identical however it weighs in at 16 ounces and costs $55.
Though almost every manufacturer runs a "double" line, I personally do not recommend trying to fit two people into a hammock, gravity has a way of uncomfortably pulling the two parties together at the center. This however, does not mean double hammocks are in any way pointless or bad. They benefit from providing more room to lie down in and because the sides tend to pull upwards under your weight, provide more protection from wind and hold in more heat. I personally own both a Grand Trunk Single Hammock and an ENO DoubleNest. ENO's DoubleNest Hammock weighs 1 pound and 4 ounces, packs to 4 inches x 5 inches and costs $70. Grand Trunk's Double Hammock weighs the same as the DoubleNest and is five dollars cheaper at $65.
Eagle Nest Outfitters makes a completely different type of hammock, the ProNest Hammock, though it also achieves a light weight. Weighing in at 13 ounces, this packs in its stuff sack to 4 inches x 4 inches and costs $65. Grand Trunk makes a similar hammock called the Nano-7. This extremely lightweight hammock weighs only 7 ounces but will cost you $80, making it the most expensive hammock listed here. Grand Trunk in particular also makes a very cheap-costing lightweight hammock called the "Lightweight Travel Hammock." Weighing in at only 12 ounces, this hammock costs $20. Though this hammock is relatively good quality, its light construction has made it prone to breaking in some rare instances. The two hammocks are completely different in durability and design and thus the price should not necessarily be a main deciding factor. You should also consider durability, quality of material, etc.
Hammocks by themselves are not always fit for use in all instances. By themselves, they offer zero protection to insects, precipitation and the extreme cold. Almost all companies offer some form of bug net, rain tarp and premium straps among many other accessories. As for Eagle Nest Outfitters, they offer the Guardian Bug Net ($60), a line of several straps (I personally recommend paying extra for the SlapStrapPRO which is $25), and a line of mainly three different rain fly’s/tarps, the DryFly ($80), the FastFly ($80) and the ProFly ($80). The DryFly's dimensions measure in at 10' 6" x 5' 2" and weigh in at 1 pound and 6 ounces. Its name should be self-evident in that it works the hardest to keep your living space dry. The FastFly weighs in at 1 pound and 6 ounces as well while covering an area of 11' 9" x 11' 9". Its name should also be self-evident in that it is the fastest of the three main rain fly’s to set up. It should be noted however, the FastFly does not carry the same level of rain protection that the DryFly and ProFly do. The final of the main three is the ProFly. I personally have the ProFly and love it. The ProFly is the balanced medium of the two, weighing in at 1 pound and 6 ounces and measuring 10' 6" x 6' 4". As you probably noticed, they all weigh the same. The main difference between the last three comes in their shapes and dimensions with the exception of the FastFly which has less rainproof fabric. They also offer a silicone version of the ProFly that weighs in at 13 ounces and costs $150. Three other unique rainfly's manufactured by ENO are the Silicone HouseFly which is the most roomy and encompassing of ENO's rain fly’s and the FlexFly whose flexibility can only be described in pictures. Grand Trunk also offers a Mosquito Net ($80), Tree Slings ($20) and an All Purpose Rain Fly ($75). Please note that the rain tarps from both companies do not come with stakes. I recommend the MSR Groundhog Stakes. They are the lightest on the market and are very small. The last main accessory is underquilts. Underquilts are necessary for cold weather camping. I will not delve into them too much other than noting that ENO sells a range of three different levels. Also the Therm-a-Rest Tech Blanket or a Silk Liner (I recommend the Sea to Summit brand) will work in mild temperatures. Sleeping bags do not work because the filling tends to become crushed and split underneath you which defies its purpose of keeping you warm. Ground pads also do not work because their shapes do not conform to that of hammocks. It should not go without saying that both Eagle Nest Outfitters as well as Grand Trunk have a wide range of accessories on their website that are too numerous to mention here. Also, most of the accessories should work across company lines.
Other Random Tips
It should be noted that there will still be trips where you inevitably have to pack a large, heavier tent. Maybe you're not quite ready to buy one of the alternatives in this article or maybe you are bringing along an extra person and you plan on camping in the same tent. If you are going solo, consider buying the MSR Groundhog stakes to lighten your load. If you are backpacking or hiking out overnight with a buddy, consider splitting the poles/stakes with one friend while you carry the fabric of the tent. If there are other tips you think of that are not listed here, feel free to leave them in the comments section.
After having been presented with four alternatives, you can now see there are many different types of backcountry shelters you can use. In my opinion, the best sleep systems are lightweight solo tents and hammocks. For me, lightweight tents deliver extreme cuts to weight without sacrificing too much comfort. Also hammocks may not be suitable depending on you location, however I love their uniqueness and special benefits they deliver. If you are looking for extreme weight cuts and minimalism, then turn you head to tarp shelters and/or bivy sacks. All in all, they each have something to give and something to sacrifice but it depends on you circumstances and your personal preference.