The Best Ultralight Tents, Tarps and Shelters
Tents range from house-like to ultralight, and in the ultralight category, variation abounds. We researched 45 options, choosing 10 bests to test side by side. From 2-person tarps to pyramids to feather-light traditional tents, our experts compared them side-by-side while backpacking, peak bagging, and bicycle touring throughout the Rocky Mountains. The testers compared the models based on their weather resistance while keeping track of their weight and ease of setup. Throughout it all, our experts took detailed notes on the contestants' livability, noting the features they liked and didn't. With this mountain of data, we compiled a review that cuts through the noise and helps you narrow down the daunting selection to find the right tent for you.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated May 2017
As summer objectives loom, we updated this review as of May 2017 to include product changes and updates. Three of our award winners, from Big Agnes, Mountain Laurel, and ZPacks received significant updates in late 2016. We also added charts and graphs that give you at-a-glance product comparisons. While researching the current market, we ensured that our Editors' Choice winner is still the cream of the crop.
Best Overall Ultralight Tent
Out of all the ultralight tents we've ever tested, the ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent was by far the best. In August 2016, ZPacks replaced this model with the Duplex Tent, which adds a sewn-in floor, better views, and better airflow. With these updates, it still cashes in on the staples of the original Hexamid, which one for its weather protection and livability. The Duplex weighs in at 21 ounces, and its predecessor was the best "do-everything" shelter and hands-down our favorite for three-season backpacking and bike touring. Its unique shape provides excellent wind and rain protection on all four sides and has more room for two than similar products. We think it will last most users for many, many years of light and fast adventures.
Weighs 14 oz. with bug protection!
Four-sided weather protection
Very comfortable inside
Hard to achieve perfect drum tight pitch
Not as adaptable as a tarp
3-season use only
Read full review: ZPacks Duplex
Most Bang for the Buck
Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo
At only $170, the Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo combines high-quality fabric with a superior floor plan. In 2016, the tent's fabric was upgraded to a new Pro SilNylon material designed to make the tarp more waterproof while improving its strength. This comes with a 4-ounce weight loss, which we can't complain about. This is the best value ultralight tent or shelter we've tested because it's more comfortable and more protective than other similar tarps and it performs well in the majority of three-season conditions. Whether you're making the transition from a heavy dedicated pole backpacking tent or are simply value conscious, this tarp offers fantastic performance for three-season backpacking. Its largest drawback is its limited adaptability. We find that flat tarps (like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp) perform much better in very exposed conditions and for climbing. The Grace Tarp receives our Best Buy Award because it offers the most value of all the products we tested.
Generous coverage for a 2-person A-frame
Weighs 18 oz with guy lines
Available in SilNylon or Cuben Fiber
Three interior hang loops
Not very adaptable or weather protection
Read full review: Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo
Top Pick for Expert Users
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp
If you want the lightest 3-season shelter, with the most adaptability for rough terrain and off-the-beaten path bivouacs, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp is a perfect choice. Its A-frame and storm mode pitches are only two of many that skilled users can adapt to exposed, small, and rough campsites, high in the mountains or deep in the woods. Weighing in at 10 ounces with the included guylines, this is the lightest product we tested. Used with a light bivy sack or modular inner tent, a flat tarp provides the lightest, most versatile, bombproof protection in exposed mountain environments. Although Hyperlite has been known for long ship times in the past, products generally ship within several days now.
Only 10 ounces
Bomber alpine wind protection
Most versatile type of shelter
Not as much weather protection as pyramid tarps
Long pitching time
Read full review: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp
Top Pick for Ease of Use
Big Agnes Fly Creek HV2 Platinum
Weighing in at 28 ounces without the included stakes, the Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Platinum was the lightest dedicated-pole, double-wall tent we had ever tested. Updated for 2017, this tent is now the Fly Creek HV2 Platinum, which includes a new hub design, resulting in a 20% volume increase. An issue with the older model was the lack of head space, so are encouraged by this update. Our tests revealed the Platinum as the quickest shelter to pitch, and it earned the highest weather resistance rating as well. We loved it for backpacking, thru-hiking, and bike touring. Some users will also like that when you order the Fly Creek, it comes with everything you need. You don't need to debate over modular components or purchase stakes or guy lines separately.
Easy to set-up
Clips separate the inner and outer tents
Read full review: Big Agnes Fly Creek HV2 Platinum
Analysis and Test Results
During the testing period, our team of experts assessed each model in individual key areas of performance while heading out on ultralight adventures. We divide the criteria for evaluation for our ultralight tent shelter category into 6 categories: Weather Resistance, Weight, Livability, Adaptability, Durability, and Ease of Set-up. Check out the table above to see how each tent ranked in Overall Performance. Below, we describe what was considered within each criterion, as well as identifying top performers in each category.
Rain, light snow, hail, blowing rain, splashback from heavy rain your ultralight tent shelter needs to protect you from all kinds of weather. How does it handle the wind? Do you have protection from all sides, or (as in the case of A-frame tarps) can rain blow in? Protection from inclement weather is the most important functional attribute of a tent, and our ratings for weather resistance account for 30% of each model's overall score. Be sure to visit the individual reviews, where we discuss the effects of the wind, rain, and wind-driven rain for each shelter. Our weather resistance ratings are for the system of modular components tested. The Grace Tarp Duo would score higher if we tested it with an inner tent insert, for example.
While we discuss bug protection here, we do not penalize ultralight tents without bug protection in the weather resistance score; all can be used with an inner tent insert or a simple head net. Weather resistance is also related to adaptability (which we discuss below). For example, some products are more constrained in where you can pitch them, meaning it is more difficult to hide from the wind.
Two of the ultralight tents tested earned a nine out of ten, the highest score we awarded for weather resistance. When pitched low to the ground and using all the component parts, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter offers the best protection from rain, wind, and bugs. We wish its tarp were a little longer and wider. The Big Agnes Fly Creek HV2 Platinum provides excellent rain protection and bugs can't get at ya. It requires good guying out and an anticipation of wind direction in order for it to withstand strong winds. The ZPacks Duplex also earned a high score and provided the best four-sided rain and wind protection relative to weight. Due to its extra large coverage and ability to withstand high winds when guyed out well, the Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid also earned a high score.
While weather resistance is the most important functional criteria for a shelter, weight is equally important - whether on a thru-hike or headed to climb big mountain routes. Our weight rating contributes 30% to each model's total score. Our comparison spreadsheet and each individual product review detail the weight of the modular components of each shelter tested.
This metric is difficult to compare. To assign our ranking for weight, we compared the measured weight of each shelter with all tested modular components including guy lines, but without the weight of the stakes.
The lightest product tested is the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp, weighing 10.2 ounces with the included guy lines and stuff sack. The next two lightest products are the Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo, in SilNylon, at 19.1 ounces, and the ZPacks Duplex tent at 21 ounces with the bathtub floor, and 14.5 ounces without.
The Big Agnes Fly Creek HV2 Platinum is notable here. Let's compare it weight-wise to the ZPacks Duplex to see how tricky comparing shelter weight is. (If you want to be truly ultralight, you'll need to get into this ounce-counting game.) Weighing in at 1 pound and 10 ounces (not including the stakes), the Fly Creek HV2 Platinum is lighter than any other product tested with complete weather resistance once you add the weight of the adjustable trekking poles that are required for other designs. Most of the best and lightest trekking poles weigh in around 16 ounces. The result, when trekking pole weight is included, the Editors' Choice-winning ZPacks Duplex weighs 11 ounces more than the Platinum without stakes. The Duplex can also be set up with light carbon fiber poles (available from ZPacks) that weigh 10.2 ounces for a set. Add the included stakes to the Fly Creek, 2 pounds 1 ounce total. Add 8 of the same stakes to the Duplex, and you have 2 pounds 12 ounces with trekking poles, and 2 pounds 6.2 ounces using the lighter carbon fiber poles.
As you can see, there are many different ways shelter ounces can add up, or save ounces. Modular systems let you lighten your load based on weather, and hikers with trekking poles are carrying shelter supports. When thinking about lightening your shelter, consider your budget and the protection you need. Shedding ounces often requires a big investment meanwhile, an extra fourteen ounces may be worth it to have an inner mesh tent for your tarp when faced with mosquitoes swarms.
We quantify livability as how comfortable each model feels for two to live in: sleeping, sorting gear and waiting out storms. Ideally, we want a shelter with room for two full-length sleeping pads with a little space left over, enough headroom for two to sit up, and enough vestibule space to store shoes and gear, or cook during bad weather. Floor area, peak height and shape, the convenience of doors, and condensation management are discussed in each individual review. A shelter with a mesh liner protects you from condensation that may form on the upper waterproof fabric, tarps with open ends have enough air flow that condensation is not an issue, and most pyramids use vents to promote airflow and reduce condensation. Our scores for livability contribute 15% to each product's total score.
The Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid earned a perfect ten for livability, but it's a larger and heavier shelter than others tested, suitable for four people. The Big Agnes Scout Plus UL2 earned the next highest livability score. It's roomy for two people, there's space to sit up for most folks, and it has one of the largest vestibules. The Six Moon Designs Haven Tarp and the Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo also earned high livability scores. We love that the Haven has two doors and that there's ample room for couples to snuggle between the two trekking poles. The Grace Tarp Duo is the largest of the three tarps tested, creating more headroom when pitched with the sides close to the ground.
The double-wall tents tested all earned low livability scores - there's not much room inside, but most folks will be able to sit up in The North Face O2 ultralight tent. Finally, one of the highest scoring products overall, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter, earned a low livability score. We love its low weight and weather resistance, but we wish it were roomier.
Adaptability may vary in importance depending on where you usually camp. Most well-traveled trails have established, often protected campsites where any ultralight tent or tarp can be pitched. But in rough and exposed terrain, more adaptable shelters, like tarps and floorless pyramids, have advantages. Folks seeking a single model appropriate for a variety of adventures and seasons will do well with a tarp paired with a mesh tent insert. Others will seek an ultralight tent shelter for a specific trip or travel style. On the Appalachian Trail, for example, you'll almost always find smooth, well-protected campsites. Adaptability ratings account for 10% of overall scores.
A flat tarp offers the most adaptability for different terrain and weather, and the HMG Square Flat Tarp, with its 20+ tie out points can be folded and pitched in many ways. It can be pitched to block bad weather in tight places; we recommend pairing it with a bivy sack or an insert tent for versatility.
The Echo II Shelter has the most modularity of the models tested. The cuben A-frame tarp is light, and the inner tent and beak add class-leading weather resistance if needed. Although double-wall tents need the same size smooth footprint every time (and thus lost points in adaptability), at least you can leave the fly off for stargazing. The Fly Creek HV2 Platinum can be pitched with an optional ground sheet and the fly to save ounces. All floorless models earn a bonus in adaptability because you can pitch over small obstructions. A rock or tree stump inside is not a deal breaker, as with an attached floor.
While materials and construction are important to a product's durability, appropriate site selection and care in pitching will lead to a long shelter lifespan. We expect all of these shelters to stand up to many years of weekend use, or at least one long thru-hike. Our durability rating accounts for 10% of total scores.
Fabric quality, attention to detail in construction, and geometry are all important, especially in high winds or unexpected heavy snow. Choosing the appropriate shelter for the conditions you will encounter, and for your experience with site selection and guying and staking is important. We tend to not purchase and use dedicated ground sheets with most tents, but the use of an inexpensive Tyvek or Polycro groundsheet will extend the life of a tent (especially an ultralight tent) with a dedicated floor. We find that SilNylon is more durable than PU coated nylon. Meanwhile, different weights of Cuben fiber are prone to puncture, but will not tear under normal use. Even if something goes sideways, repairing Cuben fiber is easy.
The two Hyperlite Mountain Gear models tested earned the top durability scores for design, materials, and attention to detail. The two Mountain Laurel Designs shelters and the ZPacks Duplex earned the next highest scores.
Ease of Set-Up
The best shelter in the world is only useful when it is pitched well and secured against the wind. We brought out the stopwatch the first few times we pitched each model and noted how important site selection is to achieving a pitch that will resist the wind. We also noted if we could pitch the inner part of the tent (when applicable) after the outer is in place (this is an awesome feature when pitching or taking down in the rain.) We could with some, but not with the three dedicated pole double-wall tents. With practice, all of these shelters are quick to pitch for two people. Our rating for ease of setup accounts for 5% of the total score.
A shelter that is easily pitched by one partner frees up the other to collect water, get dinner started, or build a fire.
The Big Agnes Fly Creek HV2 Platinum, our Top Pick for Ease of Setup, earned the highest score in this metric. Though you have to stake out the two back corners and vestibule, this is the closest thing to a freestanding tent that we tested. It goes up fast. The North Face O2 ultralight tent, Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid, and ZPacks Duplex also earned high marks for ease of setup. Tarps require the most skill to set up quickly and securely; in fact, our Top Pick for Expert Users - the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Square Tarp - earned the lowest score for ease-of-use. As the award suggests, we recommend this model for experts, or we recommend that other users spend time practicing different pitches (and in inclement weather) before taking it into the backcountry. With practice though, all of these models are "easy" to set up. In each individual review, we detail our experience setting up these shelters and point out whether setup by one person is a pain.
Adjustable trekking poles are necessary to set up most of these products. Our favorites can be found in our Best Trekking Pole Review. Two of our favorites are the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork and the Leki Corklite.
The weather protection of a floorless shelter can be improved with mesh inner tent inserts, bivy sacks, and groundsheets. We discuss these in our Modular Accessories for Floorless Tents article.
Dream Backpacking Gear List
An ultralight tent is just one of many items featured in our Dream Backpacking Gear List. Check it out for other top-tier "dream" backpacking items.
Most of the two-person ultralight tents and shelters reviewed will provide you with the ultimate weather protection, all wrapped up in a light package. We've tested tarps, double-walls, and ultralight tents, searching for the best that will keep you dry in all sorts of weather, while offering protection from snow, bugs, or the soggy ground. In addition to choosing one to suit your needs, remember to keep your experience level in mind. Many seasoned ultralight enthusiasts recommend a double-wall tent, followed by an enclosed tarp tent, progressing and ending with a flat or A-frame tarp. More experience gains you invaluable site selection practice and rigging skills, the ability to better predict weather conditions and choose modular components, and likely a desire to spend more time camping in rough or exposed terrain, where adaptability is king. If you are looking for more tips on selecting the right product, refer to our Buying Advice article.
— Brandon Lampley
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