Every year tent manufacturers battle to trim a few more ounces from ultra-lite tent designs, and every year I plow through spec sheets trying to figure out which company came up with the lightest and best idea. In 2012 you need to select ultra-light tents the same way you select shoes, because some companies cut inches along with the ounces. You might need to go with a heavier version to find one that fits you and your gear. If you want to go truly ultra-lite, skip the tent and go with tarps instead.
The lightest option is still a poncho you can rig as a simple tarp tent. Golite’s newest poncho tarp shaves away one-quarter of the weight of its previous model by using thinner but still durable and waterproof fabric. Built-in tabs allow conversion of this personal rain gear to a minimalistic rain shelter. All you need to add are stakes, guy lines and a support pole. A trekking pole or suitable length of debris works fine for that, and if you carry a good knife you can make your own stakes onsite. At just under a half pound, there’s hardly anything lighter than this except open sky. Whether it’s a sensible piece of gear depends on where you camp. In the desert or the dry mountains you’ll be fine, although you might want to take a ground sheet with you to keep your gear clean. If you expect lots of rain or swarms of ticks, deerflies and mosquitoes, this still makes an excellent piece of rain gear, but you will need more tent than it provides.
If a tarp suits your camping plan but you need more room for people and gear, the Appy Trails Backpacking Tent accommodates two rustic travelers and their packs. This simple tent design resembles the shelter halves I slept under in Army basic training but weighs much less. With stakes, ropes, three-section support pole and stuff bag the Appy Trails weighs 1 pound 11 ounces, but you might not need all of that if you camp where you can find downed limbs. Take just the tent and the ropes and the weight drops to about 1 pound 3 ounces. Roll it up and tie it with a packer’s knot like we did in the Army and you won’t need the stuff sack.
Again, this type of shelter lacks most of the comforts a real tent provides, but if you camp in the right environments it’s enough. Even in less favorable situations you can make it work, but it won’t be no-trace camping. You need to pitch the tent on higher ground in case it rains, and dig a runoff trench around the perimeter of the tent to carry away rain like the gutter on a house. To do that you’ll need a shovel, and that cancels out any weight you might have saved by choosing a tarp. In most places it’s not acceptable to dig trenches, but on a beach or a gravel bar it might help a bit. I’ve always enjoyed gravel bar camping because I can dig as much as I like, getting down to the cool gravel for sleeping comfortably on a hot night, and digging pits for cooking and for cooling drinks and food. I fill the holes before I leave.
Although you can buy tarp tent systems with optional bug tent liners, like the Integral Designs Sil Dome 2-Person Tarp Shelter, doing that just puts you in real tent territory. Complete tents do all of that more efficiently than tarp tents combined with bug tents. If you want more weather and bug protection without the extra weight, a bivy might suit you better. There’s only a borderline difference between a bivy and an ultra-light one-person tent. Bivies are tubes you sleep inside and many ultra-lite tents aren’t much more than that.
Depending on the weather, a bivy can be dry and comfortable or cold and damp. With vents at both ends and an orientation into the wind, air moves through and carries away water vapor you exhale. This system doesn’t always work. Humid air in the cold morning hours makes dew inside the tent as well as outside, and you can’t always expect a drying flow through the shelter. With every toss and turn you’ll get rained on a little, but in really wet weather there should be less water inside than outside. At least you’ll be out of the clouds of bugs.
The Nemo Gogo Elite, Nemo’s smallest and lightest bivy tent, weighs only 1.9 pounds. Air beam technology Nemo invented supports the entrance, reducing the tent’s storage size. The arch requires a small pump, provided with the tent, for inflation to 5 to 7 psi. You can’t inflate the bar sufficiently by simple lung pressure, so the extra pump, patches for the bar liner and storage bag bring the total weight to 1 pound 13 ounces. That’s not bad, considering it’s rainproof, bug proof, and has an actual floor. Without a ground sheet under the bivy you risk damaging the tent floor. Nemo sells matching “footprints” but an ordinary ground sheet won’t add much weight and you can trim one to fit.
The tricky part about the Nemo Gogo Elite bivy tent is that to reduce the weight the company also reduced size. If you’re six feet tall you won’t fit comfortably into the Gogo Elite, which measures only 108 inches in length including the vestibule. The Nemo Gogo LE adds six more inches of floor length. Both the the Elite and LE offer 5 square feet of space under the vestibule for storing your gear out of the weather. The Nemo Gogo EX matches the 114 inches of the LE but expands the storage vestibule to 15 square feet. These expansions raise the packed weight of the Gogo LE to 2 pounds 9 ounces and the packed weight of the EX to 2 pounds 12 ounces. All three measure 41 inches at the widest point and 27 inches high at the arch, with a shape that narrows towards the foot, so it’s not a roomy place to sleep. It’s lightweight, well-designed minimal shelter.
All the Nemo Gogo versions require a little DIY at the foot of the tent, where you need to insert a support stick of your own creation.