To Tent or Not to Tent

Mountain Education Resources
To Tent or Not to Tent

Whether you decide to carry a tent, a tarp, or nothing at all, is your personal choice based on your assessment of the consequences and the amount of risk you’re willing to endure.

A waterproof/breathable tent (either single-wall or double-wall) tries to provide a secure encapsulation to protect you from the wind-driven elements, insects that want to eat you, little animals that want to eat your food, run-off water beneath you, and the cold outside. Typically, the more the tent provides along these lines, the heavier and bulkier it will be, but you may sleep better and have a shelter you can live in for extended periods of time if the weather continues to blow.

Tarps and other one, two, or three-sides structures sacrifice some of a tent’s abilities in order to provide less weight and bulk. They are the shelter of choice to those who decide they don’t need some of these abilities, like bug or horizontal rain protection. If that is you, don’t take a tent – you have decided that you don’t need all its features to be content.

Where’s the risk, you ask?
Insufficient sleep can cause bad decisions leading to injury. Wet clothing or sleeping bags can lead to hypothermia and hazardous decisions that night or the next day. A scorpion, tick, or spider bite has taken me to the hospital in the past.

Typically, we carry three different kinds of tents depending on the season or conditions:

Early Spring and Fall, when there are no bugs out and it isn’t likely to snow, we may take a simple tarp and ground cover (usually we don’t, opting for the weather-security of a 3-season tent),
Summer, when the rain, bugs, and chipmunks are common, we’ll carry a full, 3-season tent with tub floor and full fly,
Winter, for the snow load, we pack heavy, 4-season tents.

For example, you don’t need a tent if:

– you like sleeping out under the stars or stealth camping in small areas and you have a cover for your gear and bag,
– it’s not likely to rain, storm, or snow, or, if it does, you’re content to wrap yourself up and deal with the wet, cold, and lack of sleep,
– you’re stopping around dark and leaving around sunrise, all after and before the animals typically go after your food and the bugs seek to eat you (you don’t mind the occasional mosquito buzzing around your head at night),
– you don’t mind dealing with condensation getting your bag wet at night in a waterproof bivvy sac or tarp closed around you for warmth,
– your desire for light weight and a small pack outweighs your interest in greater comfort, warmth, and security, especially when conditions turn for the worse.

However, you might like to bring a tent if:

– you like to “camp” in areas that are a little bigger, more “established” and,
– you don’t like the risk of getting cold and wet at night, even if from condensation off the walls,
– you like having a little more room inside your tent for your gear or just to sit up and move around should you become stuck inside for a multi-day rain event,
– you hate the idea of blood-sucking ticks, spiders, scorpions (yes, this has happened), and mosquitoes,
– you sleep better knowing that the rain is not going to blow in and get you wet from under the edges of a tarp or tent fly high off the ground,
– you like the security of four walls.

Decide what works for you on pre-hikes or in your backyard, what you’re willing to be without (and the consequences thereof), and proceed ahead without worry because you know what you’re getting into.

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