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Make a Backpacking Tent, You DIY Ultralight Hiker!

Updated on December 15, 2010

Intro to Ultralight Backpacking Tents

There are an abundance of fantastic tents on the outdoors market, and if it’s bells and whistles you want the sky’s the limit. However, as a passionate hiker, there’s a lot to say about making your own backpacking tent. No, it’s not just for show, or so you can say, “hey, everybody look how hardcore I am” (although I do tend to say that). There’s actually a real, meaty reason to make you own tent, and that, when it all comes down to it is flexibility.

This is the flexibility to go where you want to go, not being weighed down (literally) by bulky, exhaustive limitations. Your back will sweat less, and you feet will callous...less (get it?). Tents can easily weigh 15 lbs, and even a lightweight, 5 lb single person sleeper can be awkward, as framing kits, as light as they often are, can be cumbersome to pack, leaving a bit of a footprint. When you’re backpacking with ultralight supplies, you award yourself with a whole new range of mobility. You don’t have to take your backpack off to retrieve it later next time you want to climb that rock - when you’re packing small and light, you just step up, go for it, and keep moving.  not to mention, when packing an emergency backpack, this is element is essential.

Of course, flexibility doesn’t just apply to the mobile element, it also ties in to location. When you’re packing with a traditional, store-bought unit, you’re generally limited to flat, level ground, within a certain set of dimensions. When you’re setting up your own shop from scratch, you open up a lot more potential. There’s also something to be said about falling into the rhythm of the world around you. When you’re sleeping in an open air tarp tent, like the one we’ll discuss in a moment, you’re more connected to the outside. Some people may be turned off by this, but they’re probably shouldn’t be backpacking in the first place.

I realize that there are clear advantages to using a professionally manufactured name brand tent. They tend to be more resilient, all weather friendly, and easier for a novice to set up - generally speaking - they’re more forgiving. However, as listed above, they’re heavy, awkward, and limiting, not to mention, tend to be more expensive. If you prepare ahead of time, travel within reasonable conditions, and practice a little, making your own backpacking tent can be far more rewarding.

Pack Light, Go Big

How To Make a Backpacing Tent

We’re going to cover the basics of making a tent using a tarp ground sheet, as opposed to a bivy bag. Bivy bags certainly have some appeal, but they tend to be for the more hardcore. They’re tighter, lighter, more exposed, and definitely an acquired taste; essentially glorified sleeping bag covers. If you want to give it a shot, more power to you, but I’m going to cover the method that I prefer.

First, get your supplies together:

  • The first, arguably most important thing you’ll need is the tarp. I recommend silicon impregnated nylon (silnylon), as it’s extremely lightweight, and provides a nearly impenetrable moisture barrier. Silnylon is a bit pricey, so for a cheaper alternative, consider Tyvek. A 10x12’ cut is perfect.
  • Sleeping on the open ground is a popular past time for some, but it’s not for everyone. If you want a ground sheet, get yourself a 2 mil drop cloth at a hardware store. This will give you just a touch of separation from the ground below.
  • You’ll also want some thin nylon rope to serve as a guy line for structure.
  • Finally, you’ll need some stakes for support. Cut yourself some sturdy sticks if you’re serious about your lightweight adventure.

Put it all together:

  • Find yourself an ideal location. Try to stay clear of any surface that has the potential to develop into a small pond - you don’t want to wake up in a puddle. You want to build your tent perpendicular to the wind (against it), so determine which way it’s blowing, and begin setting up accordingly.
  • Tie your rope tightly between two sturdy trees (as long as there isn’t a lightning storm), for the most effective support. Also, take a good look up to see what you’re dealing with - you don’t want to get nailed with a 50 lbs branch in the middle of the night. If you are expecting lighting, i recommend the standalone method used in the video below
  • Fold your tarp over the rope so that it’s even on both sides If the tarp isn’t “pre-holed”, now’s a good time to make holes in all four corners, and two on either side of the middle.
  • Drive your stakes into the holes evenly, forming your rigid, A-frame sleeping structure. Once the stakes are in place, give the nylon guy lines one more tighten-up to keep the moisture repelled.
  • Finally, you can lay down your groundsheet, and catch some z’s. You’re now kind of comfortable, only a little cold, slapping at mosquitoes, and beautifully one with nature.

Sleep tight!

Standalone Tarp Tent


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