Leave Your Tent Behind: Alternative Shelters
There’s nothing quite like falling asleep in the wilderness in your trusty tent. But sometimes lugging that thing around isn’t practical, and you need a lighter, more compact alternative.
There are many alternatives to camping in a tent. I’ve been camping a long time, and have done a lot of camping without a tent for many different reasons: to save space, weight, and time, or because a tent simply wasn’t the best option for the place I was going. Here is a list of tent alternatives, with advantages and disadvantages of each, so you can pick what’s best for you.
A floorless tent is just that: a tent structure made without a floor. They usually have stake-out points and one center pole. Many tents can be pitched with just the footprint, poles, and fly to create a similar shelter and save weight.
Advantages of Floorless Tents
- Usually lighter than a traditional tent, with a lot of protection from the elements
- Great for camping with animals
- Great for cooking in
- Easy to set up on rocky surfaces, like glacial moraines
- You can get a fairly big structure for many people with minimal weight
Disadvantages of Floorless Tents
- No floor means bugs can get in
- You’ll need a tarp or bivy sack when camping on snow
- Not good in muddy conditions
- They often cost as much as a tent
- If you have a big one for multiple people, there’s no way to fairly split up the load—one person carries the tent material and one carries the pole, leaving others empty-handed
A bivy sack is essentially a sack made of a tent-like material. You and your sleeping bag go inside, and you zip up the bivy to protect yourself from the elements.
Advantages of Bivys
- Much lighter and more compact than a tent, with about the same amount of protection for one person
- Adds a bit of warmth to a sleeping bag, and you can use a bivy in conjunction with a tent, floorless shelter, hammock, or tarp
- Typically costs less than a tent
- Great for all seasons or if you need refuge from insects
Disadvantages of Bivys
- Very small and confined; not ideal for those with claustrophobic tendencies
- They can be tricky to get in and out of
- Unless you’re using another shelter as well, there’s little or no space to protect your pack or other gear from the elements
Hammocks are a great way to camp when you have well-spaced trees or structures to anchor them from.
Advantages of Hammocks
- Already light and compact, they often eliminate the need for a sleeping pad, further saving weight and space
- Very easy to set up if you have trees around
- Good for camping in areas where there the ground may be very wet or muddy
Disadvantages of Hammocks
- Must have trees or posts or something sturdy to hang them from
- Not much protection from insects (unless you get a hammock with mosquito netting)
- Not much protection from the weather (unless you bring a tarp to set up over your hammock, but this still exposes you to wind)
- Not well insulated, leaving you more vulnerable to cold air on nights you may have been fine had you been sleeping on the ground (one solution is lining the hammock with a foam sleeping pad to insulate against the cold air below)
Next to sleeping exposed on the ground, tarps offer the lightest, most compact way to camp, and for going super light in late spring, summer, and early fall, this is my favorite alternative to tent camping. You can use a tarp as a ground cloth to protect you from wet ground, use it as a blanket to protect you from rain, hang it from trees for a quick shelter, or prop it up with trekking poles to create a tent-like structure for more protection.
Advantages to Tarps
- They can be super light and compact, weighing next to nothing
- They can be the cheapest form of shelter
- Very easy to set up as a basic shelter
- They’re multipurpose; they can be used as wind breaks, sun shades, ground cloths, or rain covers when you’re camping with a tent, floorless tent, bivy, or hammock
Disadvantages to Tarps
- Minimal protection from the elements
- Can be tricky to set up with trekking poles
- Some ultra-light tarps can cost as much as a tent!
- Very little protection from insects
Although there are many ways and many reasons to camp without a tent, tents remain the most popular form of shelter when camping, due to the fact that they offer the most protection from the elements and insects, they’re roomy and comfortable, and there’s just nothing like being warm and dry in a tent while you wait out a mountain storm with your buddies or family.