If you’re truly interesting in shaving ounces from your kit, tents get the first look. Good backpacking tents often run around three pounds. Cutting that back to two pounds or below is possible, though you won’t have a rugged shelter suitable for mountaineering or the arctic. For truly minimal camping and ultralight backpacking you’ll need plenty of woodscraft skill to back up your minimal gear.
Links updated on March 20th, 2012. The free plans are still available, just not at the same URL I had up.
Starting with the lightest option, forget about the tent. Merge two essential pieces of gear, the tent and the poncho, into one. With very little extra rigging a lightweight rain poncho for hiking becomes a shelter tarp for camping. Few are made with that in mind, however. One of Six Moon Designs‘ versions — the Six Moon Gatewood Cape — is built for this. Combined with a ground sheet and tent stake kit the total weight of this minimal shelter is 17.5 ounces. Considering that you don’t have to add a rain poncho to your gear it certainly seems like the lightest way to travel.
Two similar products available on Amazon also combine rain gear with rain shelter. The Equinox Terrapin Ultralite Poncho/Shelter and the GoLite Poncho Tarp both include built-in fittings for rigging as camping tarps. The Golite weighs less (only 7.5 oz) and even the Equinox comes in at only 9.6. Unlike the Gatewood Cape, these two aren’t built specifically for shelter conversion, so the end product isn’t as weatherproof as the Gatewood.
The tarp/poncho alone won’t keep out the bugs, but there’s another option which will help — the Six Moon Meteor Bivy. (Visit the link for free download of patterns for DIY). Half tarp and half mosquito net, the bivy provides minimal protection from dew and shrouds face and upper body with no-see-um bug netting. On a good night you could sleep with nothing more than this. On a hot night you’ll sweat to death because there’s no option besides sleeping in the bag.
Having spent some time with bugs I see a few problems with this setup if you’re camping in seriously infested country, which is nearly everyplace you might go. In all the camping I’ve done I think I’ve only had one summer night clear of both rain and bugs. It was a wonderful experience to sleep on a mountain peak above all those troublesome critters, but I don’t expect it to happen much.
In real life if you sleep in the bivy in most parts of the U.S. expect little visitors. Ticks will find a way in. If you put your face against the mosquito netting you might as well just throw it back and let the skeeters feast. Real mosquitoes will drill through ripstop nylon to get at you if you happen to sleep up against it — netting that brushes your skin is no protection at all.
I can see this concept working well for about the first five minutes, and then I’d be compelled to roll over. I don’t sleep quietly — I thrash. I have enough aches and injuries to keep me in motion most of the night, and if you’re anything like me, the bivy and poncho solution won’t last the night.
Six Moons also offers free plans for the Nightwing Tarptent and sells finished versions of ultra light tarps, tents and bivies if you don’t do your own sewing. As of this update on March 20, 2012, you still won’t Six Moon Products on Amazon.