Tents, Tarps, and Hammocks, Oh My!

A big decision for the trail is what type of shelter do you want to carry? There are many different types nowadays. This is something you will have to discover for yourself which you may like the best. Shelters are important to protect you and your possessions from the elements, but they are also great for privacy. This post will help you figure out which system you may want and will include some of Mountain Crossings recommendations.


Tent city in Damascus Virginia for Trail Days

To carry a shelter or not?
The Appalachian Trail has shelters along the trail that could be between 3-20 miles apart. The shelters are three sided, and have one big platform where 6-10 hikers can lay their pads out to sleep. Of course shelters vary in size and structure. You could come across a shelter that has three stories (Plumorchard in Georgia) or one that can only fit 4 people! I have met few people who rely solely on these shelters and do not carry their own. Is this a good idea? It depends on a few things. First, when are you planning to hike the trail? If you are starting NOBO in the spring, it’s probably not a good idea to rely on trail shelters since they can fill up quickly. If you start a flip flop in spring, then you might be able to get away with snagging a spot in the shelters. You also need to be willing to plan your days around shelter hopping. If the next shelter is 20 miles away, then you will need to be able to go the distance to make it there. If a shelter is full, you need to be willing to push on or risk sleeping in the open. Shelters can be really convenient because most of them have a privy and a water source, but you could be missing out on other great camping areas. Personally, I think it is smart to bring your own shelter even if you don’t use it every night. There are some very lightweight shelters out there that are dynamite.

This is the most common shelter hikers are carrying on the trail. Tents come in two forms, double or single-walled. Double-walled tents are what most people think of when they hear the word “tent.” This means there are two different fabrics protecting you from the elements. It consists of a tent body and a rain fly. The body is usually made mostly from mesh material to allow ventilation and prevent moisture from condensing inside the tent. Your body puts out a surprising amount of moisture through your breath and perspiration so ventilation is very important. The rain fly will go over the body and protects you from outside weather. A single-walled tent only has the tent body which acts  mostly as a rain fly but has some mesh areas that are strategically placed to allow ventilation. Tents can also be free-standing or not. Free-standing means it contains poles that make it stand on its own and can be picked up and moved easily. Non free-standing requires the use of a guy line, stakes, or trekking poles to stand up. Once it is put up, it would need to be taken down if you need to move it.

Both styles of tents are great! Double-walled, free-standing tents will weigh a little bit more but they will be the easiest to put up and manage. The single-walled tents don’t provide as much ventilation but are usually lighter in weight. Non free-standing tents are also lighter because they don’t need the big tent poles to stand. It all depends on you. If you want something easier, and fool proof, go with the double-walled, free-standing tents. If you’re willing to experiment with trekking poles and guy lines, get a lighter weight single-walled tent. I’ve included some recommendations of tents below.

Big Agnes Copper Spur – The one-person style is pictured below. I carried this tent on the entire Appalachian Trail and never had any problems. It was so easy to set up and I could keep all my belongings in it. The two and three-person styles are great because they contain two doors and vestibules so they are ideal for couples. The one-person tent weighs 2lbs 8oz packed.

Big Agnes Fly Creek – This tent was the most common among AT thru hikers in 2016. The two-person model is lightweight weighing in at 2lbs 5oz packed and it can fit all your gear inside. This is also a double-walled, free-standing tent so it is easy to set up. This one differs from the Copper Spur the most in the opening which opens at the front and not the side.

Tarptent ProTrail – This single-walled, free-standing tent is only 1lb 10oz and uses trekking poles to stand. It is a single person tent and ventilates well. It has a bathtub floor and holds up in a storm. I know people that use this tent and love it.

These are becoming more and more popular on trail as hikers are deciding to go ultralight. Tarps can sometimes weigh only 4 ounces! They are exactly as they sound, just a tarp. There is no body, ground sheet, or poles that go to tarps You use your own trekking poles to set them up and guy lines to tie them down. Tarps are definitely the most tricky shelter. You need to practice your knot tying skills and practice setting up your tarp before you get it exactly right. In order for a tarp to work the best, it needs to be taught. Even the slightest bit of slack can make it noisy in the wind. Knowing certain knots, such as the truckers hitch, can help you adjust your guy lines easier to make it taught. You may also want to acquire a piece of Tyvek or related material to use as a ground sheet under your sleeping pad as well.

Tarps are not for the faint of heart, and not always the best depending on where you are hiking. In the middle of summer on the Appalachian Trail, you would definitely need to get a bug net to go under your tarp. If you are going to be in fierce climate conditions, consider getting a bivy sack to protect you and  your sleeping bag through the night. All in all, tarps should be more carefully thought out and practiced. Once you get a demo on tarps and practice putting yours up, they aren’t so bad. In fact, you will grow to love them because they are lightweight! I encourage everyone to at least look at some tarps and consider them. Do not be afraid!


Simple tarp

Who doesn’t love slowly rocking yourself to sleep? Hammocks are the rage nowadays because they are comfortable and you are suspended above the ground! Most people I’ve met that use hammocks say they just sleep better and are more comfortable in hammocks. They can be set up on rocky, or hilly terrain but the catch is, you need trees. The desert would not be a good place for a hammock. Hammocks need the straps for the trees, and a tarp you set up over them to protect from weather. You can usually fit your pack underneath the hammock to also protect it from rain or snow. In the colder months, an underquilt is needed to insulate you from wind passing underneath you.

It isn’t difficult to pick a hammock because all designs are so similar. Eno and Yukon Outfitters are the brands we carry in the store. Eno is the most popular brand but you need to buy all the parts separate. Yukon is made in the United States and some of the hammocks have the straps and carabiners included. Both brands can be as light as 1.5lbs and they also have some larger hammocks made for two people.


Two hikers enjoying lounging in their hammocks

How to decide
It all comes down to personal preference. You should really get a demo, or test these shelters out to decide which one you might like best. We are happy to help you decide so stop on by the store for a demo, or any other shelter advice you may need!


MTX employee Carlie does a tent demo for a hiker


4 thoughts on “Tents, Tarps, and Hammocks, Oh My!

  1. Any advice on putting up a double walled tent in the rain? Seems like the interior could get pretty wet before you have a chance to add the rain fly.

    • Some double walled tents (all Big Agnes’ backpacking tents, for sure) have the capability to be pitched in a style called “fast fly”. This means that you can pitch the tent using only the footprint and the fly of the tent. This not only gives you the ability to have an incredibly lightweight shelter if you choose not to carry the body of tent, it also seconds as an excellent trick for pitching your tent. When pitching a Big Agnes tent in the rain, you throw down your foot print first, keeping the body in your pack. Snap the tent poles into the grommets of the footprint and throw that rain fly over the top as fast as you can! Big Agnes rain flies have plastic buckles that connect up the the footprint and that will hold your rain fly on. Stake that puppy out so that you are getting maximum coverage and throw your pack and gear in there. Take out the body of your tent (keeping as much gear as possible in the vestibule area) and attach the grommets of the body of the tent to the corresponding poles. No big deal if the grommets are reversed for one night from the normal way you pitch it. Then you can situate yourself where you are sitting in the door of the tent and use the plastic clips to attach the body of the tent to the poles. It takes a little bit of nimble manouvering, but it sure beats sleeping in a puddling and having everything you own being soaked! Happy Hiking, David!

      (google Big Agnes Fast Fly and go to images for a visual!)

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