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From the day early man ventured into a cave to get out of the elements, we have always used shelter.

Shelters can be stationary and sturdy like a cave, a cabin or a mansion. They can be stationary but flimsy like a grass hut or a 50-pound canvas wall tent. Or they may be portable and lightweight, like the various types of backpacking tents we will examine.


Backpackable shelters come in a variety of sizes, shapes, materials and weights. Some are simple to set up and take down, requiring only one person and a few minutes. Others are more complicated and may take several minutes for two grown men and a small boy to assemble. The type you choose, especially if you want it for an emergency situation, will depend on why and when you want to use it. Do you want something that is quick and light? How many people does it need to accommodate? Are you comfortable sitting down all of the time when you are inside, or do your aging back and knees demand that you have room to stand up when you put your pants on in the morning?

We’ll examine three main designs/styles for backpackable shelters in this article. There will be something for everyone and for every situation, comfort level and number of people. But before we go there, we need to talk about some characteristics common to all tents.


Size: How big of a tent do you need or want? Can you carry it for 10 miles over rough terrain in the rain? The size of a tent can be stated by the standard height x length x width formula to see how big it is, and this is useful information to have when making your decision. But, most often, the size of a tent is based on the old mountaineering standard of how many people can sleep in it. So, a four-person tent has enough floor space to fit four adult sleeping bags in it. No packs, no extra clothing, no food or anything else—just the sleeping bags. Unless you plan to leave everything outside in the weather, you will want to divide that sleeping bag number by at least two, maybe two and a half if you like a lot of room. So, if you want something that will have enough room for two people, you will want at least a four-person tent.

Seasons: Just as a tent is rated by how many people can sleep in it, they are also rated by how many seasons you can use it in. For all intents and purposes, there are realistically only three ratings:

• A two-season tent can be used in mild weather like the summer and on the shoulders or overlap between summer and spring or fall. It will likely have good ventilation to handle warmer temperatures but will only be able to handle light rain and winds.

• A three-season tent will keep you comfortable in weather found in all three of the milder seasons: spring, summer and fall. It can stand up to mild rainstorms and winds and has enough ventilation to keep you cool when the temperature starts climbing.

• A four-season tent will handle everything the three-season tent will as well as the worst that Old Man Winter can throw at you in the continental U.S. It is much stronger in materials and support structures so that it can survive strong winds, pelting rain and hail and 3 inches of snow accumulating on it overnight. It will often have two tent walls to help keep condensation from accumulating and freezing on the inside of the tent, which can result in water dripping down onto you and your sleeping gear

Standing Room: Just because you are in a survival or emergency situation does not mean that you need to be miserable. As you decide what you want and need in your shelter, consider the following things: Will you need to be able to stand up straight and move around? Will you want to have an entry area—called a vestibule—where you can leave dirty clothing and footwear? Do you want windows so that you can see out or let the breeze come through? Finally, do you need a floor in the tent or will you be able to do it without a full floor?


Dome tents are very popular for family-sized groups due to extra interior room their more-vertical walls provide. Photo by Thinkstock

Dome tents are very popular for family-sized groups due to extra interior room their more-vertical walls provide. Photo by Thinkstock

Dome tents are made of a framework of curved poles that create an igloo-like shape that supports the fabric of the tent. The interior tent layer attaches to the poles and the rainfly goes on the outside of the poles.

They are a great shelter option, especially for the first-time tent buyer. They go up fairly easily, they handle heavy wind and rain well in the four-season models and they are self-contained so that, once you have them put together, you can pick them up and reposition them if necessary. As they have no center pole or ridgepole, they make the most of the available space.

The downside of dome tents is that they are heavier than other designs due to their multiple poles and the hub that holds them, plus their setup is more complicated. They are also harder to repair in the field if one of the poles or the hub break.

They can be single or double walled and can come with or without a rainfly. They also do not offer much headroom unless you get into the larger versions that sleep six or more people. You can also get them in pretty much any size. The one- or two-person models will have a low profile and will provide enough room for you and your gear but not much else. Larger models will accommodate two to three people, with the largest models having plenty of headroom and sleeping up to six or eight.


 Tipi or pyramidstyle shelters provide large interior room and headroom but remain light in weight. Photo courtesy of Golite

Tipi or pyramidstyle shelters provide large interior room and headroom but remain light in weight. Photo courtesy of Golite

Tipis, or pyramid-style tents, are normally made with a single center pole that supports the tent or flysheet. An inner tent, often made of mesh and called a “nest,” helps keep any moisture that accumulates on the flysheet from dripping on you and your gear.

A tipi is a great mid-range design and my personal preference for an all-around shelter when setting up a long term camp. It offers more headroom than dome tents due to their high center pole, they are much easier to set up and they come in one- or two-walled versions. While dome tents normally come with an integral floor or a separate ground cloth, tipis are normally used without a floor, which helps to reduce their weight and simplify their setup. This also prevents having to worry about tracking dirt or mud into the tent and getting the floor dirty.


Tarpbased designs are the most flexible and are well suited for a single person.

Tarpbased designs are the most flexible and are well suited for a single person.

A tarp, short for tarpaulin, is your most versatile option for a shelter. It is made of a square or rectangular piece of fabric with attachment points on several points along the edge and on the sides for attaching ropes for staking it down. Tarps can be supported by a single pole, multiple poles or no poles at all.

The simplicity of a tarp is its major benefit as you can set it up in more than one way, thereby adapting your pitch to what your needs are. You can set it up as just a flat rainfly to keep water and sun off of you, as an A-frame or diamond configuration to give you more protection from the elements or in a more sophisticated design to give you full coverage and protection from the elements.

Its weakness is that, in order to get full protection from strong wind or blowing rain or snow, a more sophisticated pitch is needed. Also, to make sure you know how to set it up properly, you will need more practice than you would for a dome or tipi shelter before you hit the trail.


Picking the right shelter for your use depends on a variety of factors, each of which is different for each person and situation. As you weigh the different options, consider the following characteristics:

  • How much does it weigh and how much weight can you handle in the scenario you are considering?
  • How much room will you need in the tent?
  • How many people will be in the tent?
  • What kind of terrain will the tent be set up on?
  • Do you need or want setup to be simple or will something more complicated or time consuming work for you?
  • What situation will you use the tent in? Is it going to be set up once and then left in place?

When you have answers to each of these questions, you will be able to pick the style and size of shelter that will fit your situation or situations. Remember, you might not be able to find one design and size that will fit all of your situations.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2014 print issue of American Survival Guide.