Selecting a Shelter

I can't come to a logical conclusion. I can't seem to prioritize all the different aspects, features, strengths, & weaknesses of different lightweight shelters for what I like to do. Maybe if I write about it all, that will get the finer points out into a well-thought-out decision.

It would be great to use one shelter year-round, but that might be where I'm having problems deciding.
In summer, I hike, but I don't like trekking poles unless it's rough going. I feel like I walk faster without them and I like walking fast. This means, in regards to my shelter, I either get one that has it's own pole(s), I bring trekking poles, or I bring a pole in lieu of a trekking pole support, which the latter seems dumb until you remember that other shelters have integrated poles and every shelter needs some sort of vertical support. But I cannot get past seeing this as 'extra weight,' since a pole that only holds up the shelter is not a multi-purpose item and is, therefore, probably not going to make it into my pack.

If the shelter uses trekking pole support, that means it's not free-standing and needs to be staked. Not a problem in summer, something I actually prefer in summer to save weight, but definitely a potential problem in winter in Interior Alaska, where our snow is like sugar: dry & as unconsolidated as it gets. Last winter, we had to stomp down a tent space in sugar snow and let it set up for over an hour and a half before it kind of held the snow stakes and snowshoes. Then we had to let the anchors freeze into the snow for another hour or so before tightening the guy-outs. It was my GoLite Shangri-La 3 and needed six anchor points. I told myself no more non-free-standing shelters after that 30 below experience. Not in Interior Alaska, at least, where we don't usually have deep snow to work with, regardless of how unconsolidated it might be. We didn't have wind, but I had a dream that night about the wind howling down the drainage and ripping the shelter out of the snow. Could have easily happened. I don't like that - both that possibility and also non-free-standing shelters in snow. I prefer finding a protected spot and setting the free-standing tent down in it, with little need to secure it to Earth... or, at least just ensure it doesn't blow away, instead of giving the shelter all its strength from being staked out tightly.

Which leads to (heavier) free-standing shelters. The Black Diamond Firstlight is the only one I'd consider. I don't like the internal poles, as I found with the Lighthouse I used to own, but nothing else is as light and proven/time-tested. I can get past the need to crawl inside and velcro the poles to the roof. Hey, at least I'm inside and not out in the storm, pushing poles through sleeves.
The new North Face Assault 2 is similar, possibly better, but it's new, looks to be a little heavier, not quite as good of a design, and hasn't seen years of testing or perfection in design. It may be good, but goodbye Assault.
I was looking into the Hilleberg Unna & (non-free-standing) Akto, but, while free-standing, the Unna is quite a bit heavier and the Akto has gotten really poor reviews when compared to the Tarptent Scarp. The Scarp & Akto use approximately the same design, but the Scarp is much more pleasant to be in and supposedly stronger in the wind. Goodbye Akto.

While the Scarp is not free-standing, it has gotten raving reviews, many from the UK, where the wind blows like mad (one more here). That's reassuring, but I don't like that it isn't free-standing and the same weight as the Firstlight, which is free-standing. The weight of the Scarp is in the double wall, which stops all drafts from whatever wind that may blow, and the struts which help solidify the otherwise weak corners. The double wall is pretty nice when it's -20F and howling, peppering any exposed skin with spindrift of little ice pellets. But guess what? The Firstlight seals up tight, too - with one wall, not two. Twin vestibules on the Scarp are luxurious, but I don't mind cooking inside my tent, either.

Speaking of double walls, contrary to popular belief, they are supposedly only a few degrees warmer, according to the legendary Roger Caffin. Worth the weight? No. Instead of carrying weight to gain an extra 5F inside my shelter overnight, I'll pick a better spot to camp that will be warmer & more protected from the weather. Here's one point to the single wall or pyramid shelters, especially since I'm looking at solo tents and will not be benefiting from having another warm body in the tent with me to help keep it warmer (and produce more condensation on the walls). PLUS, with any shelter in the cold, you must leave the vents open to reduce condensation. Open a window in your home overnight during the winter and tell me it doesn't cool your house down. You're choosing to sleep outside in winter. It's going to be cold. Face it.
Here's another link for further reading on the double vs single-wall debate.

On the note of single walls & pyramids, the lightest, most tested, best designed, & most available in the U.S. is unmistakably the Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid. However, the STRONGEST is unquestionably the Trailstar, as it doesn't have the long sides to catch the wind. I'd probably suck it up and get the cuben fiber one, as I'd most likely only be using it in summer. Although... I've used my Shangri-La 3 in the winter with success and the Duomid would be half the weight and palatial for one! Back to the non-free-standing in snow argument, though, I don't like that. So, I guess it would be delegated to summer use, even though you can stake it down to the ground and probably seal out any spindrift, which would also kill airflow, increasing condensation inside. Strictly using it in summer, though, would be fine by me. As I said before, in the cuben version, it's half the weight of my SL3 and I could get an inner net tent for it, upping the weight to about 22 oz. Not bad for insect-free, bomber summer shelter. However, jump back to my first paragraph (& rant) about how I don't use trekking poles. Well, maybe I just need to get some really light collapsible ones and I'd be happy. They could hang out either on my pack or in my hands. I'd only bring them, though, if my shelter needed it, which is probably for certain in summer, as I honestly prefer only one thin layer of fabric above me. Roman Dial agrees, and Ryan Jordan couldn't have it otherwise.

If you are wise, you've noticed I've left out the Warmlite 2C. It's been highly recommended by a bunch of my friends who have used it, but I don't like it's poles or venting options, especially the latter since it's made of silnylon, which has no breathability. They say you can get pretty wet inside and need a towel to wipe it down. Hmm, reminds me of my old Tarptent Squall in a 35F wet snowfall. The poles are theoretically stronger than anything else available, but their thin walls are really easy to crack at the tips. Oh yeah, it's also non-free-standing, although it only needs to be pulled taught lengthwise. Fragile, poor venting, & non-free-standing? No thanks. Excellent shelter for some, but not me.


So where does this leave me? I'll discuss a few remaining topics before giving you my final thoughts on shelter choice.

1. How often am I going to stop and set-up the shelter for a break? Pretty much never.
I go fast, light, and don't like to stop for long breaks, as my muscles tend to not like it. Continually in motion is better for my body. I'll opt for natural cover instead of taking the time to unpack, set-up, and re-pack the tent. This summer (2011), I did a few trips where I hiked 30 miles each day, took my pack off 0-3 times per day for no longer than 5 minutes each time, and never sat down between the time I got out of my sleeping bag and the time I set-up the tent for the night. This is my style, not everyone's, but it's important that I make this a part of my shelter decision - how big of a priority is a fast-to-pitch shelter? For me, not huge. It's another deciding factor in why I like bomber rain gear that I always wear because it's so breathable. I'd rather keep moving than stop and be protected by the shelter.

2. I strongly believe people put too much emphasis on the storm-worthiness of shelters.
Yes, it's important, especially if you're climbing mountains, but there is almost always a way to get out of the major blast of the wind or under natural shelter from falling snow, the latter of which is usually less important. Hence, more emphasis should be put on the weight, internal space, and pack size of the shelter, plus site selection to erect it. However, it all depends on where you're doing your trips. I have a buddy who lives in Nome, Alaska where he gets hammered by coastal winds every second he's outside. I agree with his opinion that enclosed tents are a must in those conditions, but in Interior Alaska, in the land of spruce forests, maybe that's not the case. Farther north, beyond treeline, yes, just like Nome.

3. Consider the style of trip you will be on: hiking, rafting, skiing, biking?
Hiking & biking, I don't bring trekking poles, but skiing I do. Rafting, I have a paddle. Here's a big difference if you need trekking poles to support your shelter. If I'm biking, space is also a huge concern, as there's not a lot of room to put stuff on a bike. Less is more, in this application, especially since winter bike trails tend to be in the woods, out of the strength of the wind.

Ok, here we go... Yes, I was able to make a decision.
Summer: MLD Trailstar in cuben fiber, 11 oz. Inner net 8 oz.
Winter: Black Diamond Firstlight, ~40 oz including guylines & post-date-with-my-scissors

The Trailstar is everything a summer shelter needs to be and nothing more. That sentence perfectly defines the exact shelter I am looking for for all seasons.
The Firstlight is the same, except it also has the simplicity of being free-standing. Lay it out, insert the poles, sleep. No need to get it taught by staking to use it. There's simplicity in design & in function, both of which are not always present or important.
In this case, they are.
Regarding it's long, unsecured walls and tendency to be thrown around, I'll sew or glue on some guy-out tabs, like on the Assault.

If someone tells me to save the money and get silnylon for the Trailstar because it's stronger, I gladly will.
And if you can persuade me that free-standing in winter isn't as important as I feel it is right now (I doubt it), I'll get a Scarp 1.

The challenge is on. 
Or, just your thoughts, experience, and wisdom on this topic would be greatly appreciated :)  Thanks!

And if anyone is interested, I spent 7 hours working on this post.


I’ve come to a conclusion after writing & thinking all this and reading all of your blog posts, comments, and in between the lines, then reflecting that back onto the thousands of nights I’ve slept outdoors.

I want a free-standing shelter in winter. Period.
(Not in summer, though!)

So, let's get dirty...
From the triple-crowner who has hiked over 10K miles on his long-distance hiking adventures and wishes to remain unnamed, comes the best description I've read, thus far, of the Tarptent Scarp 1. He didn’t comment here, but e-mailed me a massive deluge of experience & wisdom in response to many of my original questions.

'Get a Scarp. It is the next best thing on the market right now, hands down (behind the Black Diamond Hilight & Firstlight).' 
He then went on to say, ‘For me, with gloves on at the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is deal with those grommets, buckles, Velcro, vent lifters, eight clips, and cord locks to get the ideal internal space. I don’t even want to eat at the end of long days, I just want to sleep, but I would rather eat than deal with clips and things.’

This is exactly how I feel about ALL my winter gear: shelters, clothing, bags, pads, stoves, etc. Simplicity rules all and usually low weight is synonymous with this. Therefore, I like the Black Diamond Firstlight the best.

Simply put, here's my explanation on shelter simplicity and view on the Firstlight, Warmlite 2C, and Tarptent Scarp 1:
Firstlight: a bag with two poles and a door
2C: a bag with two poles and a door and needs to be pulled tight
Scarp: a bag with a cover and three poles and two doors and needs to be pulled tight

For the sake of good discussion and learning opportunities for all, let’s address everyone’s thoughts.

I don’t want to have to take the crossover poles for the Scarp. Triple-crowner said the same thing, that they're needed in high winds. If so, I’d rather have a Hilleberg Unna. Both of these options are heavier than I’d like, however. In that case, I’d rather take less shelter and deal with finding a safer spot to pitch it. Glad to hear the Scarp is bomber in apocalyptic conditions, though!

Regarding the Trailstar, I love my GL SL3 in summer & winter for its ability to be pitched tight to the ground (pretty much). The same goes with the Trailstar, except for the one side. Even in the Alaskan summer, with our raptor-sized mosquitoes, there are times when I just take a headnet to sleep in, instead of a mesh inner, when using the SL3. I would not be able to do this with the Trailstar, since it has the open 'door.' I also think I’d feel vulnerable with the open side in winter… Maybe I’m a little too soft to use tarps in winter…

Solid point about the long sides of the Duomid being vulnerable in winds. I’ve heard this before and don’t like that. A square, pentagon, or hex is much preferred to a rectangle for the same reason I’m not a fan of dual trekking pole or dual peak shelters… they have a long, vulnerable side. What about guying out the long sides of the Duomid? Would that help?

Is the Solomid big enough? I think the Cricket Tarp is probably a better shelter, ‘ey?
I have considered the Speedmid. Although, are the walls to shallow to pitch it tight to the ground, like I described above? Would that lose too much space? Seems like a great shelter for two in summer.
For solo summer use, Trailstar, Cricket Tarp, or Solomid
I think maybe an 11 oz cuben Trailstar is the perfect blend of space, weight, strength, and ability to use for two people, as well.

I was checking out the Khufu in relation to the Duomid and it seems a tad lighter, but have reservations regarding the overseas, translation, & currency thing. Probably not as good of customer service as just simply calling up Ron at MLD :)
Thanks for the wisdom, Martin! And thanks for following!

That’s the same boat I am and have been in for a while. Hmm, is the SL3 the best? No, but it’s great. So what is???
The Rabs are cool and I’ve also heard good things about them, but, yeah, too heavy.
Thanks, Korpi!

You’re so eloquent. Perfect explanation of the Warmlites. So true, in every way.
(Everyone, please read his description below if you haven’t. Great insight from a Warmlite user.)

Yeah, I’d also laugh hysterically at the price tag on a cuben 2 or 3 X, R, or C!!!

Luc told me a few months ago I should look into making my own shelter from silnyl.
Maybe I should come up with the best tent in the world. Might have to put on some Tenacious D for that :)
The tent would, undoubtedly, be a single-skin pyramid, very similar to the cuben ones on the Arctic 1000, but maybe with a Velcro-on mosquito netting/floor bottom similar to summer-use Tarptent models, as to not waste weight in double walling. Hmm…
Thanks, Steve!

Oh yeah! A BROKEN WARMLITE POLE!!!  (scroll down on the page about half way)


I think it’s funny to have hiked through the rise and, what seems to be from some people, the potentially upcoming fall of trekking poles? They’ll never go away, because they're so good in certain conditions, but it’s comical for me to look back on how revolutionary they were when I first used them and now, years later, I almost never do. Oh, how we learn and change.

What about cuben and exposure to sunlight? I’ve read that Zpacks backpacks are only good for one thru-hike because they’ll fall apart after the sun exposure. I would imagine the same is true for cuben, in general, especially when used for shelter? That makes a cuben Duomid a pretty pricey throw-away item!!!

And yes, the Hexamid is REALLY appealing at under 10 ounces for a bug-proof summer shelter!
Hexamid or the 11 oz BOMBER cuben Trailstar?
Thanks, Dave!

Thank you, again, to all who have helped with this selection.
I think it’s a great discussion to have, especially the collaboration of so many experienced adventurers sharing their thoughts in one place, on one topic. I hope to see more!

I was in a training today at work and we learned how collaboration via dialogue helps people learn, find truth, produce results, and strengthen relationships. I love this and it was the exact point of this post.
Keep it up, both outdoors and on the web!


  1. I had a Scarp 1. Solid in bad weather . I did not like the original flysheet and Henry agreed and changed it. He even gave me the new updated one free. But I dont have it now. I sold it as I use a Trailstar. Huge space and flexible pitching options. I also rated it over my DuoMid which was sold on.

    So the Scarp for winter. I expect it will be fine for you. I dont do much winter stuff so could not pass a true judgment. Its good in the wind and the crossover poles will add strength and stop collapse under snow loading.

    The crossover Poles make the Scarp a semi freestanding shelter - but not a true one.

    One word of caution and why I dont use the DuoMid still. Storm worthiness is a discussion you raised as not a big issue. For me wind is the biggest risk on exposed scottish hills. I found the problem with the DuoMid is the long side and narrow side designe means the long side is pulled in to a steeper angle and catches the wind a lot more. Which I did not like when the sided deformed in strong winds at times.

    I aslo have a SoloMid which when the long side edge pushes in the trekking Poles (Pacer poles and you walk fast with them) as a inverted V stop the sides bashing in so much.

    The MLD Speedmid would offer a more even wind shedding profile and a lot of space. Have you considered that or is the weight saving the main reason for the DuoMid?.

    But to add to your decisions check Locus gear out. they sell a light centre pole so no trekking poles needed.


    But if a door is no issue a Trailstar is superb for outside winter and has loads of room, and you can get a mesh inner for the bugs as well.

    Interesting thoughts and points raised by your post. Hope your choice in the end works for you.

  2. A good post once again. I'm pondering (again, seems to be an annual thing) that should I change my summer shelter (Golite SL3) to something else...

    Just to throw in another option: Rab also makes single skin tents from eVent. A bit heavier than Black Diamond shelters but maybe better from some perspective... See: http://rab.uk.com/products/equipment/bivis.html

  3. I agree with your conclusions on the Warmlite tents, as they are definitely a "thinking" person's tent that requires a thoughtful set-up and take-down process, as opposed to fleet tents that you can essentially abuse (i.e. Mountain Hardwear Trango) and they will still perform.

    The tent was designed for the alpine environment of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, home of the strongest clocked wind on planet Earth. While this environment exists in large quantities in Alaska, it's not the only one to consider.

    The moisture management is a huge issue with this tent, but at least it's limited to the ends where that reflective inner fabric isn't sewn in, and a sponge/shimmy towel does help. Facing either end of the tent does not appear to influence build-up one way or another...and at -30 it's gonna be snow instead of droplets, which is easy to shake out.

    The poles definitely need to be taken care of, but their pre-curved design retains all of the aluminum's strength, so I don't think a crack is as likely in these poles since you never have to actually bend them. Getting the poles together and in their respective sleeves consumes most of the sub-5 minutes it takes to set up the 2C. It is a pain in sugar snow, given its non-free-standing design...but the biggest benefit is the weight savings in a tent built for severe conditions, which makes it worth bringing along in other scenarios, even summer when one of MLD's cuben fiber 'mids would definitely be more ideal.

    It would be interesting if the Stephenson family started making the 2C with cuben fiber...although I would likely laugh at the price tag. $500 for a non-free-standing silnylon tent is bad enough.

    Josh...if your ideal year-round shelter doesn't exist, perhaps you should design your own?

  4. Good post. I've had many of the same thoughts of late, especially concerning support poles (usually have a paddle, increasingly don't like trekking poles). I've brought along one of my BD Distance poles on a few trips this year mainly to use as a shelter support pole. They fit nicely inside a pack, which is cool.

    My favorite solo shelter is the spinnaker flat tarp I made earlier this summer. It does require good site selection, but getting into the trees is really easy here in Montana. Easy to pitch with scavanged stick or trees, and adaptable to the situation at hand.

    One really nice thing about spinnaker/cuben v. sil is the lack of sag during a wet night. Waking up after a night of heavy rain or snow to a still drum-tight tarp is pretty cool.

    Our two person shelter is a Shangrila 2, which sheds snow well and is easy to set up, but the two pole requirement is a bummer. I've been contemplating a Duomid v. Hexamid Solo-plus to augment it, with the SL2 still around for winter use.

  5. Dang, dudes, thanks for all the insight & advice. Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't like comments over 4,096 characters, so I have put my response to all contributing commenters at the end of the post, below the last photo, as I feel so many people miss out on the real morsels of knowledge by not reading comments and only viewing the post.
    Please read, as I address everyone, thus far.

    Thank you! and keep following!

  6. Collaborative thinking is superb and way to go. For another insight on that broken Warmlite my take on the trip is here:


  7. To be clear, when things get serious I like poles (wouldn't do the Classic without 'em). For more leisurely outings I prefer to not use them, often train without them (better training!), and like being able to stash them for brush and such.

    It's interesting that with mids the tradeoff is often wind resistance v. snow resistance. The Speedmid is also attractive to me, though I worry about the cat cut bottom edges.

    The Trailstar is a sweet design, which does well in the wind if you can get good anchors. I find the SL2 considerably less fiddly to pitch.

  8. Why not considering a Hilleberg Unna and leaving the inner tent at home if not needed?
    It is freestanding and easier to set up and roomier than a firstlight, and I guess even lighter (without the inner tent for sure).
    And if used for mountaineering or costal windy areas or mountaineering you can still use it with the inner tent.

  9. I really rate the BD FirstLight for proper winter conditions. It survived an Arctic storm, clinging to edge of the Finnmarksvidda mountain plateau in northern Norway, with me cowered inside promising myself I would never camp in such ridiculous conditions ever again. The wind pummeled and shook it all night long but it just flexed and absorbed it all. It's not perfect though, the door design isn't very clever and the poles can freeze up after a few days use but it's light, simple, spacious (for one) and fast to put up.

    I like a DuoMid for most trips during the rest of the year but you have to decide what YOUR critical design aspects are. Martin (and many others in the UK) swear by the Trailstar and there is a very good reason for that, getting 'away from it all' in search of 'wilderness' in the over-crowded UK means heading up onto the hills, and straight into the wind. The Trailstar is proven in it's wind shedding capabilities. Here in Scandinavia we can get a taste of 'wilderness' without perching ourselves on windy summits so I prefer to find sheltered pitches and use a DuoMid or my SpinnTwinn tarp.

  10. Dave,
    I would also take poles on a Classic-like trip, where I will continue moving as fast as possible, regardless of how tired I am or how rough the terrain.
    Snow vs wind resistance of mids... interesting. Good observation. That is ironic that it's pretty much one or the other, rarely both.

    I love the Unna. I've used it before, it's BOMBER, great design, easy to use and pitch, and the list goes on. All this comes at a cost of weight, though. Maybe it's worth it?
    I did consider the Unna, originally, with the same thought - drop weight and leave the inner at home. Catch is, the fly & pole only pitch would probably be similar in weight to the BD tents, but the Unna would remain floorless and not truly sealed up to weather, although the fly does literally extend to the ground.
    In the summer, even with the mesh inner, it would be a far heavier tent than I'd prefer to carry, since you can use it as a couple, but not really with two, even friendly, dudes. And, it would be a lot more shelter than needed for nearly all summer trips that I do.
    One hell of a tent in winter, though, if I decide the weight is worth it. I do like the fly-only pitch and how bomber, and easy to set-up, that would be. Maybe I need to reconsider it, since I'm looking at the BDs as winter-only tents, too? Thanks.

    First off, thanks for everything you've previously written about the Firstlight.
    Second, what about the Hilight, as it has larger vents and can be pitched perpendicular to the wind, behind brush, in order to let the wind blow through, broken by the brush and across the tent? The brow pole is off-set to one end, creating a triangle in the upper pole structure, which helps strengthen it. Think this is better than the Firstlight? Thanks!


  11. Josh, I would be happy to try a HiLight, it's basically the same tent as the FirstLight but with the door configured on the side instead of the end. Pitching it 'side-on' into the wind might not be as good as 'end-on' but, as you point out in your post, where you go you can nearly always find some shelter.

    The BD shelters can be lightened even more by removing the insect screen door and inner pockets. The insect screen door in particular, for me, seems superfluous on a shelter I will only ever use in winter.

    On the DuoMid's ability to withstand the wind I think it might be increased by using one of these:


    It will allow you to use your trekking poles (if you carry them) in a 'V' configuration and should, like the SoloMid, help support the longer side of the shelter. I won't get to test mine until the Spring but I'm hopeful.

  12. I dropped quite a few ounces off my Lighthouse by removing the pockets and screen door & extra zipper on the body. I agree. It's really stupid that the BD tents are marketed as three-season when they are truly one-season tents.
    After looking through photos from the past few years of all the places I've camped, it was blatantly obvious that in every photo there was some sort of natural shelter or break from exposure to wind. There are very few times when you can't find brush, a depression, rock, or something, even when on the wide-open tundra. I'd rather have to be choosy about where I camp than carry the extra weight to not have to be.

    I think I'm going to make a DPTE. I had seen that before and I bet it works beautifully. I've set-up my SL3 with dual packraft paddles and it worked great... just tricky to get it solid.

  13. If you end up getting a first light (or find a local store who carries them) I would love to check it out. I have been very tempted to get one, but decided in the end it would be too short for me for winter camping, as they don't appear to be all that long.

    Mike Currak used a NEMO tent on his '10 identi-tour and seems pretty happy with it -
    http://lacemine29.blogspot.com/2010/04/in-search-of-good-nights-sleep.html . Apparently he was able to get it to the slightly over 3lb range...

    Good luck with your tent hunt!

  14. I appreciate this was posted a while back, but I'm just reading it now. I've had some experience of using the Akto in the wind, and it will stand up to a lot of punishment in that regard. The only downside in fact, apart from it's relatively high weight, is that with too much shelter you can get a build of condensation. It really is bomproof though, and far more stable than any of the dome tents I've ever owned.

  15. Fellows,
    I'm much out of my league in this discussion, living in Ohio where trees are everywhere, but... I find tents to be a disadvantage in winter. Snow always gets inside and melts and...that's not so good. If I wanted to risk cooking inside the floor would be an additional hazard. I very much like tarps in winter but they are more time-consuming to set up and trickier to get into a proper taught configuration than a tent. So...what about a BD Firstlight without most of the floor? Perhaps with diagonalcross panels where the floor used to be to hold it in shape, perhaps with enough flap on the interior to keep the wind out, with gear holding those flaps down. Lighter weight, fast to set up? Any thoughts? Thanks, Marty Cooperman Cleveland, Ohio


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