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Backpacking Tent Selection | High Sierra Backpacker

Backpacking Tent Selection

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 02 May 2018

Backpacking Tent Selection
Nowadays there are two basic schools, or philosophies, of backpacker tent use: Lightweight or None. These are not mutually exclusive catagories.

I typically fit into both categories, depending on the circumstances. Oh, and my five pound tent also likely puts me in what most would consider as using a, "heavyweight" tent, too.

No Tent Selection
My standard practice is to use/deploy no tent when conditions do not demand a tent during all seasons. I always choose and prep the site for tent deployment, but only put it up if the situation requires it.
The clarily of cold night skies during clear Mid-Winter nights, the wheeling Milky Way of Summer, and always, our direct observations of our nearby terrestrial environment always makes tenting-up second choice. Unless...

On one hand we must be perfectly ready for, and instantly protected against the onslaught of mosquitoes (skeeter news & info) as rising Spring temperatures push a rising tide of mosquites up-mountain with the melt. The Mosquitoes, and my deploying tent protection against them, will last as long as they do, as long as the water and warmth sustains them.

The other hand of High Sierra hazards is the always unpredictabile Right Hand of Nature exemplified by unpredictable Sierra Weather. Radical weather can happen at any time. Protection, being able to shelter ourselves by having the capacity to deploy a tent is always prudent. Even when planning for backpacking trips under optimal conditions and forecasts. Even if I don't expect to use or need it, I bring one of my tent(s).

Walrus Microswift

REI Half Dome

Balancing our exposed philosophy against the demands of reality, successfully, requires (in my opinion) that we always carry the most lightweight tent (that we can afford!) capable of neutralizing the widest range of (expected-unexpected?) weather and mosquito conditions we could possibly encounter. Call it our High Sierra, "insurance policy." Plus, we could always encounter a wounded backpacker requiring, "tenting."
 I prefer something capable of sustaining us in the greatest degree of comfort for the lightest weight that we can afford, when situations demanding the use of a tent inevitably arise. 

Preferred Use of Tent
This means I use my rolled-up tent in its bivy sack as a pillow when I am not actually setting it up. My tent is always ready and at-hand to be deployed if weather conditions change quickly during the evening. Sometimes weather conditions change very quickly in the High Sierra!
 These types of changes are more likely during Winter backpacking than Summer, but it is my practice to know exactly where my tent is (under my head) when I don't set it up. It's use as a pillow assures that my tent is always close to my mind and hand at night. What works for you may be different than I. Let's look at what a range of experienced, expert backpackers use:

Member's Favorite Backpacking Tents

Selection Bias
 I am currently using two tents, depending on which best suites the season and circumstance. My standard tent for both Summer and Winter use is a very low profile (unable to sit-up inside) "coffin" style tent that is no longer in production, the Walrus Microswift.

No worries. There are a whole lot of different types and styles these types of "coffin" tents offered by lots of manufacturers, with a range of self-supporting or stake-down tents, and a range of sizes, including those you can prop the body up within...

More Microswift

Again, check out the Member's Favorite backpacking tent selections, and the gear section of the trail guide for more information.

My coffin tent weigh-in ranges from 2.5 to 3.5 lbs, depending on the specific stake/tie-down set-up I use with it. For Winter use I bring snow stakes and extra line. Call it 2.5 for Summer and 3.5 for Winter.

My preferred tent for Spring & Fall use is a very old REI Half Dome (scroll down). This tent is the best tent for extended rain backpacking conditions we may well encounter during Spring & Fall. I really prefer a larger tent during wet conditions.
The Half Dome's big atrium and large interior floor and lofting spaces, the fantastic headroom, gives one person (me) lots of room to move around, sit-up, and stretch out, all while protected from the blasting rain that pounded us when we were outside all day long. Now, we've got a warm, dry space we can move around and sleep without being constrained by rain, or anything else. Having the "space" to dry off, let alone move around, are both great luxuries during wet Spring & Fall trips, or any trip where lots of rain's expected.
 We can string up a loft in the top of the tent to air out our wet gear, socks, hat, & gloves while keeping it all out of the way.

We can also safetly cook while staying fairly dry under the atrium. Ah, the luxury of a big tent during moist times cannot be overstated.

The Microswift does not allow for this movement, or storage of wet gear, though it offers excellent protected cooking in its atrium.

The difference between no tent, an ultralight, or the heavyweight Half Dome always comes down to weight.
Zero, Two-Point-Five, and Five pounds are the relative costs. Five pounds is a day and a half of food. Being warm and comfortable enough to sleep well and properly recover from one day's work for the next, is beyond priceless. If you are ready to pay the weight penalty.

OK, that's my program. It's one of many. Let's look at what we're going to see on the high trails between Tahoe & Whitney.

Summer Conditions

The most extreme form of lightweight tenters are the tarpers. I am not a big fan of tarps. Though we only see them during Summertime, they do not protect against Summertime conditions that call for putting up the tent. There are two and a half Summertime circumstances that call for tenting in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Mosquitoes, Rain, and Snow
Mosquito protection is the Number One Situation requiring setting up the tent while backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Massive clouds of mosquitoes rise as the rising Sun powers the snow melt and drives the snow line up the Sierra Nevada flanks to expose verdant high elevation meadows every Spring.

 This delight has a bite... billions and billions of bites...

Setting up a tarp does not seal out the mosquitoes. At all. Tarpers are nothing more than a feast wrapped up inside a drafty banquet room for mosquitoes throughout the night. Mosquitoes will ride the drafts into the "interior" to suck you dry.

Triple Threat
Summer conditions may be both hot and full of mosquitoes and throwing down thunderstorms! A tent with a lightweight removable rainproof fly-cover over an ultra-thin mosquito proof interior tent is idea for these hot nights full of mosquitoes. Pull off the fly cover to enjoy the protection of the tent without building up unnecessary heat. Coffin tents are perfect for this.

Summer Rain
The Sierra Nevada is famous for its afternoon thunderstorms. Yet these T-Storms enivitably falter, then fail at sunset, often bringing clear, star-filled skies in their wake. A classic error is to put up the tent during the thunderstorm, only to have it clear out during the evening, leaving us with a wet tent, no rain, and starry skies demanding to be enjoyed.

 This makes observing and understanding the nature and timing of local weather important. Knowing the difference between a local thunderstorm and a more enduring storm off the Pacific Ocean is important. During the former we withold putting up the tent, while the latter requires a good tent.

Sierra Nevada Summer Storms
It is not uncommon for real, but fairly small storms to roll off the Pacific Ocean during Summertime. Especially now, as recent weather trends have brought much stronger flows out of the tropical South and West Pacific during Summertime. But local thunderstorms, driven by hot masses of moist air rising up the Sierra Flank out of the San Joaquin Valley, are much more common.

 Though generally "weak" compared to Wintertime Sierra Storms, local thunder storms can have a tropical component bringing heavy rains, if not torrential downpours to lower elevations, and sometimes even bouts of heavy snow and hail to higher elevations. These storms pack deadly afternoon lightening storms presenting serious threats to High Sierra backpackers.

The "weirdness meter" gaging the potential for "fluxes," being moments of radical change in Sierra Nevada weather patterns is high and pointing up.
I am thinking that High Sierra backpackers are entering a New Era of enhanced threats from drought driven fires and smoke, as well as increased lightening from increased tropical activity during Summertime.
These conditions demand we understand that our most important pieces of safety gear is not our tent or our excellent shell and insulation layers, but our real safety is our observation, our awareness of changing conditions and emerging potential threats. That's human's secret weapon.

I am looking for zones where I need no tent, and the awareness to deploy it when I do.

 For us Summertime backpackers in the High Sierra this means having a tent that works, that  "buttons-down" tight to keep out wind driven mist, rain, and mosquitoes riding the draft is very smart practice.
Attaching our rain-proof fly-cover to our ultra-light interior tent does the job. Again, the ultralight "coffin" tents do this, and we can find reasonably priced light, tight, tents.

The Storms of Summer

The storms of Summer are generally short and enjoyable, if we have the gear necessary to protect ourselves and remain comfortable. If not, we will have less joy and less comfort, which weakens the hiker and diminishes the endurance of the backpacker, as well as their pleasure.

During Summertime the periods of rain and snow are transitory. They may highlight the beauty of the range of High Sierra Weather, but they do not characterize it. Thus the clastrophobia induced by using the ultralight "coffin" tent is short term, and its physical inconveniences far outweighed by its very light weight.

This may not be true during Spring and Fall. Periods of rain and snow requiring use of the tent may span the entire duration of our backpacking trip. Spending so much time inside the tent, and in wet conditions, requires we change out to a more suitable tent for these conditions.

Spring and Fall
The transition into and out of Summer can bring heavy rains and moderate blizzards. Our Summertime tent set-up must either be modified to deal with the rigours Spring and Fall conditions can throw at us, or be replaced with a bit heavier tent. I do both, depending on just what the range of conditions nature is looking like it will throw at us.

Spring and Fall Rains
If I am expecting rain to be a factor I bring a much larger tent than I use for Summer backpacking. The reason I prefer a bigger tent for rain is it is much easier to take off and store wet gear while entering the tent, and much easier to gear up when exiting. I can remove my wet shells, jacket and pants entering the atrium, shake them out, then store them on my cord-rack strung across the ceiling of the tent, like a spider web.
This larger-tent set up allows me to keep the wet stuff out of my way, and out of the working/relaxing floor space of the tent. If we are spending a series of nights in our tent during heavy rain, will will be very happy that we traded in our low-profile "coffin" style tent for a roomier model.

For snow and the possibility of blizzards blowing in feet of snow rapidly, the Walrus Microswift is my number one choice. I can easily and quickly bury it by using my MSR snowshoes as a shovel to cut out a nice six-foot long by three foot wide by two feet deep trench within which I set up and then bury the Microswift.
I have held 45 degrees in this configuration with a 10 degree outside temp being chilled down to ungodly low tempertures by winds gusting to 80 miles per hour, while I am as snug as a bug in a shag rug.

I really enjoy the reality of fierce death blowing on the teeth of the gusts of a blizzard, when I am safely and snugly buried under two feet of quickly falling snow. It's a beautiful thing to hear the ferosity of a Winter blizzard slowly diminish as its snows finally and fully bury our tent.


I believe everyone should bring a tent to the High Sierra. Tarps are insufficient for the degree of comfort and safety I maintain.

I don't see any lightweight controversy. I see a size, price, and weight calculation. What size of tent offers the comfort and protection at the weight YOU require? Only your wallet/purse can answer that question.

The less money you can spend, the more weight you will carry for any given style of tent, be it the "coffin" or modified-"coffin" style tents, or a more roomy style, such as the Half Dome or Big Agnes.

I advocate very small and light tents for Summer use, bigger tents for Spring and Fall as necessary for rainy conditions, and "coffin" tents for Winter use. The use of coffin tents is best when combined with the proclivity to quickly bury it, or defend it behind a snow block wall, when blizzard conditions threaten.

Happy Trails are built upon sufficient gear.

Happy Trails to you!

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Trail Skills




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