Shelter and sleeping

In addition to your pack, your tent and sleeping bag are among your three most expensive purchases to get started. Many people have different views about what constitutes a shelter. I'll venture a personal perspective first. If I can get away without using one, I will. This is an army atavism. If I only need a sleeping bag - fine. A bivy bag, OK. A light ripstop nylon sheet (army vernacular, 'hootchie', or more formally 'Shelter, Individual'), then so be it. I hate tents.

I consider shelter as a 'zen' thing. Anything that keeps dew/rain off and wind out is sufficient. Other folks want the equivalent of a portable house. I'm not putting these people down, but consider whether it is necessary. Things are going to get cramped and wet in a tent anyway, at least you aren't as cramped in a lean-to shelter. There are exceptions, of course. If you are out in wild snowdrifts or horizontal rain, then a tent is a sensible option.

I've written throughout this site that this is not a gear review site - there are other sites where folks actually get their hands on stuff to test-drive them. The products below are just examples of particular points and considerations - not a relative evaluation. Let's look at the options and their pros and cons.

Tarpaulin

Military hootchies (shelter, individual)Hootchie camping shelter are small, light, and for some reason overly expensive for what they are in surplus stores. Remember, adding some camouflage splotches increases the charged price threefold!

I currently use the poor-man's equivalent - a general purpose trailer cover plastic tarpaulin. It is reasonably light, compact, and more than big enough for two people. I think mine cost $5. With parachute cord, some bungee straps - you can rig it anywhere in any configuration to withstand prevailing winds and so on. Mine fits in the sleeping compartment of my pack, and I can set it up in the dark in about 30 seconds. I found this out when I discovered why they call it 'rainforest', and I was caught out in nought but my sleeping bag in jungle. Tent poles are optional. Usually there are convenient trees or bits of loose wood lying around to expediently tie off on. A very useful advantage of setting up a lean-to with a tarpaulin is that you can set it to keep out the elements, yet still provide airflow. This reduces the condensation problem.

Hootchie site selection

Hootchie site selection
Step 1...

Barn drainage outlet
Step 2 - Done!

Hootchie Step 2

Tent

This is one of the few occasions in which I will say that it is worth looking at the more expensive models, with a few caveats. Pros: Better quality materials are usually more expensive; Lighter materials eg. for poles are usually more expensive; stronger stitching requires more labor and will cost more. Cons: Putting a well-known brand name on something or calling it 'technical' increases the cost automatically. Hey, I'm an iconoclast.
Most tents nowadays are double-skinned. There is an inner shell with a floor sheet and insect mesh, and an outer shell that keeps the rain off (hopefully). The support is typically some form of carbon fibre segmented framing that joins to make a bended frame. This construction has the good property of enabling the outer shell entrances to be kept open allowing air to pass through to keep the tent cool if required, and help remove moisture from condensation. Sometimes the moisture from breathing can make the inside of a tent as damp as the outside. This is where the 'zen' thing comes into it. You are not going to stay totally dry in a tent, so accept it. Embrace the suck! I say this only half tongue-in-cheek. As with boots, you are going to get damp eventually. So why spend time worrying about it?

Weight is usually related to cost. I had a $30 tent I used for over 10 years for car camping (yes, how the mighty have fallen). It was sound, as waterproof as tents can be - but there is no way I would consider carrying it hiking. Consider the 2-person Berghaus and Outwell models below. Both brands are good and well-made (I have a larger Outwell tent for car-camping), however they differ by 1.3kg (D'oh!), and £149 (Ouch!).

Berghaus Peak 3.2 Pro
2.0kg, £224

Berghaus Peak camping tent
Outwell Earth 2
3.3kg, £75
Outwell Earth camping tent

Which one to choose? Here's where you have to get out a magnifying glass and compare differences. For tents of comparable design and manufacturing quality (stitching, reinforcement) weight differences usually lie in the pole and flooring material. If the difference lies in the poles, considering buying a new set of lighter poles (you buy them as a kit from good camping stores) and replacing them. Examine the flooring material carefully. I've seen some lightweight tents use material for the floor that is a bit on the flimsy side. The heavier PVC-type is more robust. The choice is up to you - 1.3kg is a lot. And I'm kind of 'po (I'm so poor I can't even afford the extra '-or' to turn myself from po' to poor!). I would probably race back to my $5 tarpaulin!

Another comparison... Consider the next brands. As above, well known and well made. While of similar external design, these are aimed at different targets. Despite the appearance from the picture, the Vango Ark has a similar sleeping space, just pushed to one end to make a large sunny patio area (presumably to spread all your crap out in). As an aside, this can cause you to push against the fly at the end of the tent and get you wet. The Vango Ark is heavy - this is due to the poles and the clear PVC windows. The extra cost (compared to the Outwell Earth) is likely to be the PVC. Clearly this is better suited for a car or maybe bicycle camping. The Wild Country tent is advertised as a 'technical' tent (with associated cost difference!). It is still quite heavy though compared to the previous ones - possibly due to the poles.

Vango Ark 200+
4.6kg, £120

Vango Ark camping tent
Wild Country Trisar 2D
3.5kg, £250
Wild Country Trisar camping tent

So what is the take home message? The consumer has a lot of choices. Weight is obviously important for a hiker, but so is robustness of design. For many (most) of us money is a factor. Treat advertising keywords with a grain of salt. Read gear reviews, but be aware that some of the reviewers may get revenue from advertising. This is not to say they aren't giving honest reviews, but they may favor one brand over another when another brand may be perfectly comparable. To my mind, a tent just has to be light and serviceable.

Sleeping bags

The primary consideration in selecting a sleeping bag is simple. Will it keep you warm enough in the conditions you intend to use it? Modern bags come with two filling types – down, usually duck; and synthetic such as holofil. Within each filling type there is variable quality. The higher the ratio of down to feather, the more loft, and hence insulation it provides. Similarly some types of synthetic fill are more robust and less likely to fray apart than others. These properties are affected by the construction of the bag.

Mountain Equipment 750 Down
-5°, 1.45kg, £270

Mountain Equipment down sleeping bag
Mountain Starlight II Synthetic
3°, 1.43kg, £100
Mountain Starlight synthetic sleeping bag

The relative pros and cons of each are well known. Down is generally lighter, more compact, with better insulation. The weight of a sleeping bag also includes the outer material though. The down and synthetic sleeping bags pictured above (an example, not an endorsement - I've only seen them on the shelf), made by the same manufacturer, have similar weights for comparable (nearly) insulation. There is a notable cost difference, and the down bag is more compressible. Be aware that down is of variable quality - look for a ratio of about 90:10 down to feather. However, when down gets wet it is next to useless and it will take a long time to dry. Additionally, down provides very little insulation underneath your body because the down is crushed by your weight. Synthetic fills are bulky, usually a bit heavier, but will still provide insulation when wet and dry relatively quickly, even if just stuffed in the bottom of your pack.

As an aside the ratings provided by sleeping bag manufacturers seem to be a bit arbitrary and based on a 'comfort factor'. Personally, I view a sleeping bag as another clothing layer. I accept I will be fully clothed probably with a fleece on, and maybe wearing a hat at night. Man, I'm such a pessimist. As another aside... In cold weather resist the urge to snuggle right under and breathe into your sleeping bag. Your breath will increase the moisture content in the bag which will make it damp.
For what it's worth, I personally favor a synthetic bag rated at around the -5° mark inside a Gore-Tex bivi bag.

Bivi bag

A bivi bag is kind of like a waterproof sock made of Gore Tex or similar around your sleeping bag.Platatac camping Bivi Bag They add (or subtract, depending on your viewpoint) about 5° to the comfort rating of the bag. You stay warmer. Of special importance for down bags is that they help keep the bag dry. Most models have a built-in mosquito mesh around the head and attachment points to guy the bag away from your head, basically making a miniature tent. When using a bivi bag you simply keep the sleeping bag in it and stuff it into your pack when you pack up in the morning. This provides enough protection for the most part.
There are two downsides. They are expensive. The model pictured is about $AUD350. They are also heavy. The model pictured is 710g (the first one I was going to picture was 1050g).
I generally bite the bullet and use a sleeping bag/bivi bag combination and maybe put up a tarp if I think it's going to rain. If you are using a tent, you may not want to carry the extra weight.

Sleeping mats

Having a shelter protecting you from above is one thing. You will also need some insulation from the ground. As with shelters, if I can get away without some sort of mat I will. If you do need a wimp mat there are a few options. A basic closed cell foam ie. one that is not open like a sponge, is the cheapest and easiest option. I use a 3/4 length one, which is perfectly sufficient. Plastic self inflating mattresses are more expensive, but fine. I used to have a Thermarest self-inflating mat, and didn't really notice any appreciable difference. But then again I would always slide off the thing. Closed cell foam was easier to deal with and carry. They fit into awkward spots. And mine also fits neatly behind the frame of my ALICE pack when on the move.

Multimat, £5
Multimat sleeping mat
Vango self-inflating, £26Vango self-inflating sleeping mat





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