Poll: Tarp/Bivy vs. Tent

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Home Forums Gear Forums Gear (General) Poll: Tarp/Bivy vs. Tent

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    Doug Johnson
    BPL Member


    Locale: PNW

    I'm mulling over my shelter choice, and I thought I'd poll the audience…

    Which do you use and why? A Tarp with or with out a bivy or a tent.

    Advantages of tarp/bivy – Flexibility, weight, views

    Advantages of tent – ease of setup/fiddle factor, weather protection, privacy

    The lightest full-protection tent I'm aware of is the GG one at 17oz.

    The lightest tent/bivy combo I'm aware of would be a cuben tarp w/bivy. Weight should be around 10 oz

    What is your choice and why?

    Linsey Budden


    Locale: pugetropolis

    For three+ seasons a tarp is my choice due to better ventilation, lower cost, palatial space, ability to cook underneath in inclement weather, and super easy to make yourself.

    Richard Matthews


    Locale: Colorado Rockies

    Hammock. Heavy but comfortable.

    OK, when there are no trees I use a tarp.

    For winter I use a poncho and bivy.

    John Frederick Anderson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Spain


    Weight, weight, weight.

    I moved from a 2.6 kilo tent to a tarp and bivy combination which weighs 1 kilo. My base weight is now less than the weight of the old tent by itself.
    I use a Shangri-La 3 and an Titanium Goat Ptarmigan bivy.
    Weight was the most important factor for me. Haven't noticed any loss in comfort, in fact I feel more in touch with nature than I used to in the tent.

    hope this helps,


    Art Sandt


    I use a small solo tent in winter and a tarp/bivy in spring/fall/summer.

    It may be a matter of opinion, but the Gossamer Gear One is not a tent. That's a shaped tarp with attached bug netting and a floor.

    Ross Bleakney
    BPL Member


    Locale: Cascades

    I use a tarp tent. Bug protection is a must for me. I could save a little weight by using a bug bivy and tarp (and have added flexibility) but I would have a lot less room in my bug shelter. The weight savings would not be that big, either (two person Refuge-X weighs 16 oz.).

    Lynn Tramper


    Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna

    I'm with Ross on this one. Bugs, plus the fact that a lot of my hiking is with my partner, makes a tarptent the only choice. Of course I also carry a bivy….

    Michael Wands


    Locale: Piney Woods

    Used to use a silnylon poncho and bivy with a built-in bug screen. Then decided to go "the full monty" and now leave them all at home. Carry a sportsman's blanket (12 oz.) that I have cut down. Set it down, lay down, pull one half over me, go to sleep.

    Low tech, blocks wind, keeps out flying pests. During summer I sleep in a silk mummy liner on top of the blanket folded over. Crawl in if it rains.

    Don't need to spend a bundle just to catch some zzzz's. By the time I get ready to sleep, I'm so tired that I don't want any hassles with setting anything up. I just want to set me down.

    When I was a kid I used to just carry a wool blanket or a cotton sleeping bag (can anyone say "duck print") and did just fine. Never needed more. Now that I am older and smarter (?), I should be able to get along with less.

    Editorial complete.

    BPL Member


    As usual, a lot will depend on your own priority/preferences!

    Some people like to get creative with setting up their tarp depending on weather and terrain. Others prefer something quick and simple.

    Some people don't mind slipping into a bivy and donning on the netting when skeeters strike — others prefer a protected interior space where they can still move around.

    One thing though: I think weight is now a non-issue. There are many tarp tents and even "regular" tents that weigh less than a tarp/bivy combo — and a lot less work to set up as well. So, really, there's very little left that will sway you one way or the other objectively — but almost all of it depending on your own preferences.

    jim jessop


    I use a terra nova 'competition' that weighs 1k (about 2 pounds)- they do a photon that weighs even less.

    This is for a two skin tent with separate inner and down to the ground fly sheet. (two skins vastly reduces condensation and keeps temperatures a bit more even). The inner has a good bath-tub groundsheet and noseeum mesh along the top of the inner door for bug protection and ventilation.

    If it's warm, little chance of rain and not too windy (so in the UK that's hardly ever!) I use a Henry Shires Contrail.

    To get anything like similar levels of protection I'd have to use a tarp, bivy and some kind of bug proof inner so the weight saving would be negligible.

    I don't know if Terra Nova are available in the US but sure you could find a retailer through a Google search that would be happy to mail. I buy lots of US made gear by mail order and it works fine, although I do sometimes get hit for import duties.

    If it's fine and the bugs aren't biting just leave the doors open for a bit of star gazing.

    Eric Fitz

    @pounce sells the Terra Nova tents. They are not cheap. Another option for a tent might be the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL1. I'm looking at this one. You can configure it with just the fly and footprint sans tent at 1lb 12oz. Not bad considering the BA eVent bivy is the same trail weight.

    Martin Rye
    BPL Member


    Locale: UK

    If it rains a lot were you are and bugs are a issue get a tent. If it is warmer and no bugs. Still get a tent. Dependable shelter and a porch to store equipment and cook in bad weather matter. Many folks will say that tarp and bivy is light. So are tents and tarp tents. Why do you need to be cocooned in a sleeping bag in a bivy under a tarp all night when you can relax and be comfortable in a tent – warm and protected from condensation with the inner. Also you don't need trekking poles to walk (though I think they help) so when adding up the weight tarp users don't factor trekking poles in to the total for their shelter weight (that will upset a few tarp fans). So I doubt the weight gains of tarps Vs modern light tents are so great to be worth it. On trekking poles tarp users say they are making use of something they use already, but they need them to pitch the tarp, and poles should count in the total shelter weight.

    Tom Clark
    BPL Member


    Locale: East Coast

    Douglas, Douglas, Douglas…

    With this crowd you should realize that you need to be very specific about where, when and how you plan to use your shelter.

    For example…

    Where – northeast US, Arizona, Sierras, Scotland, above treeline, etc.
    When – summer, winter, bug season, rainy season, etc.
    How – solo hiking vs. with partner, single vs. multiple nights vs. thru hiking, main shelter vs. backup to lean-to
    Priorities – weight, cost, flexibility, storm worthiness

    Without this information, you are just starting an endless discussion among passionate people…or maybe you're just another of those trouble makers. ;-)

    Brian UL


    Locale: New England

    You can use CF "tent" poles if you dont use trekking poles like the MLD ones I have for my tarp.
    OR better yet use trees or sticks to tie to your tarp saving even more weight.
    There is just somthing about the simplicity of a square piece of fabric..!
    The bivy does complicate it a bit but, when there are no bugs out sleeping under a tarp is the best.

    Rog Tallbloke
    BPL Member


    Locale: DON'T LOOK DOWN!!

    I'm liking my GG Spinnshelter. Properly waterproof, can be setup as a tarp on fine nights. Can also be setup as a down to the ground fully enclosed tent. I use a spaceblanket as a groundcloth: properly waterproof, and cheap to replace. I use a couple of sections of £1 fishing rod as a rear pole, and a handy stick for the front. Long enough for my 6' 8" frame with 102" between poles. Just big enough for two if they are thin and friendly.

    Only downside is that it seems to be a fly magnet. If anyone has info on dyeing spinnaker cloth I'm listening.

    Joseph Reeves


    Locale: Southeast Alaska

    We use a tarp and bivy here in Southeast Alaska no matter what the weather and the degree of bugs. In winter we will use a Pyramid.
    Tarp Camp at Cherokee Flats

    Craig Burton


    Locale: Smoky Mountains

    I currently use the GG The One, but unfortunately I've had very little time to play with it — the one chance I did get to use it was disastrous because of a bad pitch (my fault)! However, I plan to use this shelter, as long as it lasts, for 3-season trips.

    For winter trips, I am seriously considering a floorless shelter/bivy combo. I'm eying the BMW Vapr Pro and the GG SpinnShelter if they ever come back in stock. I'd prefer something that can shed a heavy snowfall, but I'm not very familiar with any sub-10oz shelters that fit the bill.

    jim jessop



    I use carbon pacer trekking poles whether using two skin tent or single skin tarptent. If I use my TN Laser Comp which needs its own pole I still have the weight of my trek poles (which I don't generally count as pack weight as I don't carry them in my pack!)

    If I had to take a special pole to erect a tarp or my contrail I'd count the weight along with any guy lines, pegs etc, which I do count.

    If I use my trekking poles that I'd be taking anyway why would I count their weight?

    I'd like to see TN or other design a proper double skin tent that uses my pacer (or other) poles to erect, maybe with the option of a light connector between the two to make a ridge pole.

    Jeremy Greene


    Locale: North Texas

    This discussion may be evidence in favor of greater focus on skin out weight, rather than distribution. (Though distribution is revealing.)

    Monty Montana
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rocky Mountains

    About a dozen years ago I decided to give up my 6 lb Jan Sport dome tent in favor of a less than 2 lb gore-tex bivy. Doing so allowed me much more flexibility in choosing a camp site since I didn't need a huge, flat, brush free area to pitch a tent. If the weather turned really nasty I simply set up under a "dry tree". The bivy has netting to foil the skeeters, so they're not much of an issue.

    For winter, however, a tent is still preferred. I moved on to a 2.10 lb MontBell Mono Diamond; it's the lightest true double-wall tent that I'm aware of. And when the weather is really cold I'll add the bivy.

    This year I hankered to check out the wounderful world of tarps and settled on the Gatewood Cape, a kind of tarp tent/poncho and paired it with an Equinox bivy. Together they weigh about 1 lb. The first time I used it a couple of weeks ago it rained for 10 hours straight that night. I remained dry, warm, and snug as a bug!

    So to summarize, a bivy seems pivotal to all the various permutations of gear and seasons, and is great all by itself, too.

    Martin Rye
    BPL Member


    Locale: UK

    Jim point I am making is that most folks I come across in the UK who are getting into tarps use poles to put them up. You don't need trekking poles to walk, but I see tarp user's needing them to make their shelter work so the weight counts towards total carried. You lift that pole each step and carry it so it counts for total weight. I use trekking poles but don't need them, though I love using them – my tent goes up with out them. On tents your pacer poles could be used with, ask Chris Townsend as he used a Mountain Equipment tent that he erected with Pacer Poles on the GR20.

    Lynn Tramper


    Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna

    Trekking poles should not, IMHO, be counted as part of your shelter weight if you are going to carry them anyway. As an example, the tarptent Double Rainbow does not need poles to set it up as an almost double skin shelter, but if you have poles (or sticks or whatever) then you have the option of pitching the rain porch or reinforcing the structure in heavy winds. Is there are two of you and you both carry two poles, then you can pitch both rain porches, or you can find four sticks to do this. No way would you caount four trekking poles as part of the shelter weight. If you don't carry poles for a shelter that needs them then you may carry extra CF tent poles instead. In that case you would obviously count the weight of the poles.

    Sure, trekking poles count as part of your total weight, and trekking poles are always heavier than purpose built CF tent poles so it would be silly to carry trekking poles on your back just to set up a shelter.

    jim jimson


    I don't fit in a bivy. So tents all the way for me.

    Greyson Howard


    Locale: Sierra Nevada

    Living and backpacking in the Sierra, most nights I can leave the tarp in my pack, and hit the ground with the bivy for wind, bug, and even light moisture protection (My Titanium Goat Basic Bivy kept me dry during a 20 minute light rain).

    When it is raining, I like having a roof but no floor to worry about.

    Unlike most people here I suspect, weight wasn't my primary reason (although a clear benefit) I just like feeling like I'm sleeping outside.

    Eric Blumensaadt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Mojave Desert

    When considering weight, protection and quality I chose TarpTent's Contrail.

    I camp in both the desert and mountains and do NOT want creepy crawlies sleeping with me.

    Weather protection is paramount as well.

    Then there is ease of setup when you're bone tired or racing to beat an on-coming thunderstorm.

    Henry Shire's puts quality in his products and they last.

    And 24 oz. ain't bad for a roomy solo tent.

    The Contrail has all these bases covered very well and for a reasonable price.


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