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Best tent alternatives



Hulking around a heavy tent is no way to maximize your adventure, so it might be time to turn to some lightweight tent alternatives.

Ultra-light tents have come a long way, but their fundamental design has limitations that may never be overcome. How can an Adrenalist lugging around an ultra-light tent travel even lighter? Leave the tent at home and try some alternative survival shelters. All those aluminum poles and excess fabric are still the heaviest pieces of gear in your backpack. By embracing some alternative designs, or strategically positioning yourself under an over-hanging boulder, you could save weight and have a more pure experience. Here are five alternative survival shelters to tents that will keep you just as comfortable and dry, with the added bonus of leaving some excess weight behind.


Why lug poles around when the forest you’re hiking through has millions of trees? That’s just one obvious benefit of the performance hammock, which is a far cry from the knitted lazy-day affair propped up in your backyard. Newfangled hammocks are tight as a drum, and made from the same ultra-light, super-strong nylon as traditional tents. Plenty of hammocks come with a zip-up cover that will protect you from the elements. The real kicker here is that they pack up into the size of a football. Not carrying around aluminum poles is just one advantage of the backpacking hammock, which is about as heavy as a sandwich baggie. Once you get used to sleeping in it, this survival shelter is as comfortable as a king-sized bed.

Bivouac Sack

The bivouac, or bivy, sack is a sleeve of nylon into which you slip your sleeping bag, before climbing in the combination yourself. Mountaineers often rely on them for life-saving weatherproofing on exposed ledges. Many other outdoor enthusiasts seem to forget they are lighter than lightweight tents and can be more efficient as a survival shelter. The four-season models can withstand super-cold and wet winter conditions. Most also come complete with mosquito netting and a miniature pole to create a dome around your face. For emergency purposes, or when your excursions truly call for prioritizing a minimum of weight over comfort, nothing can beat a bivy.

Pole Tent

You’re already carrying hiking poles, so why not use those to make a tent? That’s the idea behind canopy tents, which protect you from the top, but come without a bottom. The bottom component in most tents is made of heavy, waterproof, reinforced nylon. Dispense with the tub, as the bottom is called, and you’ll save weight while providing a roof over your head. Unfortunately, these tents leave open large gaps for mosquitoes and black flies to wander through, so they might not be the best pick in insect-infested locations. Pole tents do, however, let a breeze flow through your sleeping area as if you had no tent at all, while still giving you an outdoor shelter that keeps you perfectly dry from light showers. Most of the time, you won’t even miss the tent floor. The ground is perfectly dry underneath us more often than we realize.


Generations of Boy Scouts learned to set up camp under a tarp. These survival shelters worked for them and it can work for you, too. Tarps can be a bit thick, heavy and difficult to set up. For your money, however, there is no better portable shelter. If you master the tarp, this super versatile sheet of nylon can serve as a ground cloth, protection from rain, privacy barrier in a campground and even a tool to help insulate food cooked in the ground. Someday, you might just find yourself far from a big-box store or gear shop in need of a tent. Odds are you will still be able to find a tarp. If you know how to use it, you won’t need anything else.

Au Natural

Most of the time you’re in the wilderness, you don’t need a tent or any covering at all. For starters, we most often head for the wild when the weather is clear, choosing to avoid precipitation from the start. Tents offer a sense of security, but if you can embrace the uncertainty of an early morning drizzle, or withstand the added chill you might experience without a tent, then you can reap the rewards of a night au natural. If shelter is truly needed, it can often be found in the surroundings. An overhanging rock or a thick fur tree can provide all the overhead shelter needed to weather a rainstorm. Natural shelter may even prove to be more comfortable than the stuffy, tight-quarters of a tent.

If none of these survival shelters suit your adventuring needs, check out our list of best tents for extreme camping.

Cover Photo Credit: Kevin Teague /

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