The Appalachian Trail has nearly 250 shelters, spaced approximately a day’s hike apart. Why would anyone want to carry the added weight of a tent or some other type of shelter? For me, the main reasons are crowds, mice, norovirus, and snoring. If, after a hard day of hiking, you arrive late to a shelter and the proverbial inn is full, what do you do for shelter if you didn’t carry a tent? The shelters are notorious for being infested with mice that chew your gear, eat your food, and (worse) scurry across your face while you try to sleep. Pack a dozen hikers with dubious hygiene practices into an enclosed space and you have all the ingredients for the norovirus outbreaks that are reported every year. Add to the above a night’s slumber interrupted by a couple of hikers with snores that could wake the dead, and ………….well, you get the picture.
Where the A.T. passes through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, regulations require you to sleep in a shelter unless it is full. Outside of that, having a tent helps you to avoid the problems listed above and gives you maximum flexibility on where you can camp for the night. Even if your plan is to sleep in the shelters as many nights as you can, I believe it would be foolish to attempt a thru hike without an alternative shelter. Want to experience the social aspects of shelter living? Fresh water sources are usually located near the shelters, so set up camp nearby and join the shelter campfire.
There are thousands of available shelter options, including tarp and bivy sack combinations, hammocks, tarp tents, and single or double wall tents, in freestanding and not freestanding flavors. If I were hiking out west where rain was infrequent and bugs were not an issue, I would be all over the Tarp and bivy sack combo. This is probably the lightest and most packable option, but since bugs and rain pretty much define the east coast, I eliminated this option early. Still, approximately 5% of A.T. hikers choose to go this route.
Hammocks are growing in popularity and approximately 15% of A.T. hikers have adopted this sleeping system. The cost and weight of the hammock system are comparable to the other lightweight options in warmer weather, but the necessity for an under quilt in colder weather makes this a heavier alternative. I have never slept in a hammock, but my perception is that it would not be compatible with my “rotisserie” sleeping style and that it would feel more confining than a mummy sleeping bag (which I also dislike). Because of my lack of familiarity, and the system’s lack of privacy, combined with the necessity to find two appropriate trees for set-up, I have decided not to become a “hanger” for this trip.
The last tent that I took backpacking was a Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight CD. That tent kept me dry in torrential storms, blocked all bugs, had a nice vestibule for my gear, and was durable. Unfortunately, it weighed well over four pounds! What I want now is a shelter that will perform the same, but weigh less than two lbs. To achieve that will require a fully enclosed shelter designed for 1-person that is constructed of either silnylon or Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF). The following tents meet the above criteria, have all received multiple positive reviews, and are popular with A.T. hikers.
The Big Agnes Fly Creek series of tents is the single most popular tent on the A.T. This is not surprising since Big Agnes is a huge mainstream equipment manufacturer and their products are available at all big box gear stores such as REI. The Fly Creek is a freestanding tent with poles and a separate rain fly, and the 1-person version is available in the Platinum version, made with ultralight silnylon (22 oz. trail weight for $500), and the UL (and new HV UL) version, made with silnylon (27 oz. trail weight for $320). Note that trail weight only includes the tent, poles, and fly (excludes stuff sack, guy lines, and stakes). Big Agnes tents are made in China and there have been some reviews that mention that these low weights are achieved by using such a light grade of silnylon that durability is in question. I am anxious to see how these actually hold up on the trail.
Tarptent is a cottage industry manufacturer, based out of Nevada City, CA, and has been in business since 1999. The Tarptent design combines a lightweight waterproof tarp with a detachable bug netting and bathtub floor enclosure that is supported by trekking poles. Constructed with durable 30D silnylon, their ProTrail model weights 26 oz., and costs $225. Touted for their excellent customer service, Tarptent has an unlimited guarantee on materials and workmanship and a 90-day return policy. Carried by approximately 15% of A.T. thru-hikers, Tarptent products are manufactured in the USA.
Following a design very similar to the Tarptents ProTrail, Six Moon Designs offers the Lunar Solo with similar materials, yet it is slightly larger and only weighs 24 oz. at a cost of $210. Six Moon Designs was once a cottage industry manufacturer, but has grown to international distribution through select (non-big box) retailers. Fortunately, two of their retailers are located on the A.T., which might be advantageous if you need repair or replacement parts. You can also order directly from their web site. Featuring an unlimited guarantee on materials and workmanship, and a 30-day return policy, 6% of A.T. hikers carry SMD products. Either the ProTrail or Lunar Solo would be an excellent choice for the value-oriented hiker.
Where the rubber meets the road (and the money leaves the wallet), however, are tents made with Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) which weigh about one pound. Yep, you read that right. Enough money can buy a waterproof one-person tent that weighs the same as a large bag of potato chips. Luckily for all of us, John Abela of www.HikeLighter.com has graciously done the leg work on this one and created a downloadable spreadsheet listing all of the fully enclosed shelters available that weigh under 20 ounces. Based on his research, there are 13 shelters within this elite group that meet that criteria.
So how do you choose among the elite 13? All of the shelters on this list are made by just five different manufacturers e.g. Mountain Laurel Designs, Yama Mountain Gear, ZPacks, Trekker Tent, and Six Moon Design. The first thing I did was eliminate the shelter made by Trekker Tent because it wasn’t made in the U.S.A. (Scotland). And then there were 12. Since the remaining options are all high quality products, you need to look closely at the subtle differences to decide what works best for you.
The list is comprised of two basic shelter styles, A-frame and multi-sided pyramid, that require either one or two trekking poles to erect. These two styles are further sub-divided into double wall construction and hybrid single wall construction. The A-frame style (think pup tent) requires that you enter through one end and they generally stand up better in high winds and snow. The multi-sided pyramid allows you to enter through a large side entry. Double wall construction is essentially a tarp covering a separate inner tent consisting of bug netting and a waterproof bathtub floor. This style provides the ultimate flexibility because the components can be set-up individually depending on the conditions (the inner tent can be set-up inside an A.T. shelter to provide bug protection). Hybrid single wall construction is where the “inner tent” is sewn to the tarp creating the traditional tent with its ease of set-up.
Based on my expected use, I decided that the pyramid style would suit me best. While there is room to sit upright in all of these shelters, the pyramid design places that area in (or near) the middle of the shelter as opposed to being near the entrance, like with the A-frame design. The pyramid design, to me, provides more perceived living space for days when you have an “extended stay” due to bad weather. Additionally, my disdain for A.T. shelter life means that I will be spending the majority of my nights in a tent. For that reason, I prefer a hybrid single wall tent that can be set-up quickly at the end of the day. Finally, I showed pictures of each shelter to my Trail Coordinator (wife) and she picked the ones that she liked. Based on the above, the choice is now narrowed down to two tents, both of which have received outstanding reviews.
ZPacks: “Solplex” – The default material on ZPacks shelters is .52 oz/sqyd DCF for the canopy and 1.0 oz/sqyd DCF for the floor. It can be ordered with .74 oz/sqyd material for the canopy at an additional weight of 1.5 oz. This tent has entrances on two sides to provide better access to the vestibule spaces, requires eight tent pegs, has a 30″ x 90″ x 8″ bathtub floor (18.75 square feet), and has a center height of 48″. The total weight is 15.2 oz., it packs into a 6″ x 12″ sack, and it costs $555.00 ($570.00 with the heavier canopy material).
Six Moon Designs: “Skyscape-X” – This tent is the only DCF tent sold by Six Moon Designs and the canopy and floor are made with .74 oz/sqyd material. It has entrances on two sides to provide better access to the vestibule spaces, requires five tent pegs, has a diamond shaped bathtub floor with a claimed space of 23 square feet, and has a center height of 45″. The total weight is 17 oz, it packs into a 5″ x 14″ sack, and costs $565.00.
There are so many similarities between these two products that making a choice is difficult. Six Moon Designs products are in stock and are sold on a couple of websites, so there is a possibility (though small) of snagging one on sale sometime during the year. The ZPacks Solplex currently has a 2-week lead time and the only “sale” I have ever seen at ZPacks was $25 off around Christmas. The only obvious difference is that the Skyscape-X doesn’t appear to have the substantial 8″ side height on the bathtub floor that the Solplex has.
So which tent did I choose? Actually, none of the above (sort of). I decided to go with the ZPacks: “Duplex” tent. This tent is identical to the ZPacks Solplex tent in every way except it has a 45″ x 90″ x 8″ bathtub floor that gives me nearly 10.0 square feet of additional interior space at a cost of 5.5 oz of additional weight. The total weight is 21.0 oz. I have read on multiple sources that I will never regret the extra space.