How to Choose an Ultralight Tent or Shelter for a Thru Hike

When beginning your journey to preparing for a thru hike you have so much you have to research and learn about to become well versed in the needed gear, knowledge, and more. Many times a new hiker is lured by the ultralight mentality by trying to follow YouTube and others to lower their base weight […]
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When beginning your journey to preparing for a thru hike you have so much you have to research and learn about to become well versed in the needed gear, knowledge, and more.

Many times a new hiker is lured by the ultralight mentality by trying to follow YouTube and others to lower their base weight massively. While lowering your weight can be helpful and effective in hiking longer distances it comes with some better preparation needs.

Today we will focus on understanding the top items you want to focus on should you want to get an ultralight tent along with explain some features and benefits of our favorite options at a good price.

Below are my favorite 3 options from Amazon, the Copper Spur is both light and freestanding, not requiring trekking poles. The Lanshan has become an overall favorite due to solid quality and they released a pro which is a single wall and looks almost like the Zpacks Duplex but at 1/3 the cost!

Prices and images pulled from the Amazon Product Advertising API on:

Now that you see the best choices we can now take a look at the things you should focus on when choosing to purchase an ultralight tent. These things should all be considered before any purchase and before each trip to ensure the tent matches the needs and will ensure you are properly prepared.

Top Items To Focus On When Choosing an Ultralight Tent

When deciding on a tent you really have some core needs to look at in greater detail to ensure you make the right choice. Many who come into this looking at weight alone can impact their hikes success and enjoyment based on fighting to drop a few ounces in place of comfort, weather, and the environment you will be in.

Pack Size

One thing which requires you to think about more than just your tent is the size the tent takes within your backpack. If you have a smaller backpack a larger tent is not something you can manage to balance out the other gear you need to contain.

You need to look at how the tent, when packed, will fit in your backpack as many people want or need their tent to lay horizontally in their backpack where others prefer vertical alignment.

This is a very personal choice and will be heavily influenced by the gear you already have and the space that will be needed within. This may require you buy a tent because of the size when packed as maybe one is longer than the other.

Pack Weight

Your tent pack weight is always going to be a deciding factor as it is part of the big three gear, backpack, sleep system, and tent which means to drop significant overall base weight you want to look to lower the tent weight as a priority.

While it is hard to drop pounds from the rest of your gear, you can drop pounds from a tent without it costing too much up to a point. Once you start to get to the 2 pound mark the decrease in weight comes with a large price increase.

Freestanding vs Non-Freestanding

While most campers are familiar with freestanding tents they may not know the difference between a free or non-freestanding tent.

A freestanding tent is one which can stand on its own without needing additional support, this is typically due to the poles being a part of the package which builds the structure of the tent.

A non-freestanding tent is one which requires guyouts and guylines along with typically one or two trekking poles to build the shape of the tent. This builds the structure of the tent and helps to lighten your carrying load by removing the poles as an additional hardware.

Overall Comfort

When you look at overall comfort you want to think about how your time in the tent will be spent, people try to lessen the weight and cost of their tent by choosing a 1 person tent instead but there is a lot of loss in personal space.

When you thru hike the tent you choose is your home, you will be spending a long time living from the tent. This can sometimes be upwards of 5-6 months where the limited space may irritate you more as you go, this is why most people will choose a 2 person tent for the additional living room.

Travel Environment

Are you heading into a desert or a forest, are there trees or is it mostly loose soil? When you are travelling you will want to have prior knowledge of the area and environment to ensure the right shelter for the right location.

For example, even if you want to hammock camp the PCT you may want to look at bringing a tent until you reach the forested areas to ensure you have space and ability to hang right.

Additionally in a desert style area with a tent, the freestanding tents benefit is they don't need the stakes to hold the tent upright which helps you to hold the tent upright without the stakes pulling out of the sand and dropping the tent on you.

Trail Weather Expectations

Are you looking at super low temperatures more in alignment with 4 seasons? Are you looking at a high wind area or face other crazy weather patterns?

These you need to investigate and evaluate the needs of the weather on the gear you are choosing, in addition to understanding how to be use the shelter in that given weather which helps you fully be prepared for any weather which should pop in on you over 5-6 months.

Our Top Ultralight Tents Choices

When looking at tents there is definitely an overall favorite in the YouTube community and from regular hikers alike. What most people don't hear about as much are some of the other favorites and some of the other options which may fit your needs or budget without the cost.

Best Overall: Zpacks Duplex

The Zpacks Duplex probably needs very little introduction from me as it is the all-star of online videos and content. Zpacks is an amazing US company which builds their tents from dyneema which is a very waterproof material that is also incredibly light in weight.

The Duplex was specifically designed by Zpacks for the demands of long distance backpacking. The Duplex hits a homerun overall when it comes to size, weight, and features.

The Duplex is lightweight, roomy, well-ventilated, packs down small, pitches easily, and can be set up in the tightest of spaces. You won’t find a lighter functional two person tent anywhere on the market.

Zpacks Duplex Benefits & Features

  • Trekking Pole Tent - Since it needs your trekking poles you have a much lighter weight on the tent itself instead of requiring poles in addition, though poles are available should you want to use them instead.
  • Wide Tarp Overhang Moisture Catch - There is a 4.5 inch wide strip of bug netting which allows moisture and condensation to fall outside of your tent helping you stay dry in all environments.
  • Tall Bathtub Floor - Unlike most tents this has an 8" bathtub floor which ensures nothing can accidentally get into the tent floor.

Zpacks Duplex Drawbacks

  • Cost - A big negative for most people is the price tag which it comes with. The $600 price point is a big hit when you are looking to budget out gear.

Runner Up: Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL

The new Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL as been redesigned with some brand new features inside and out. They are using proprietary materials that are lighter, stronger, and equipped with hardware that makes set-up even easier.

The high volume design provides ample living space in this freestanding structure. Traditional, media, and 3D bin pockets help to organize your gear without cramping your sleep space or capacity to sit up inside

Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL Benefits & Features

  • Gear Loft - An amazing holder which is up and placed more at a useful level then a typical foot storage mesh.
  • New Vestibule Featuring an Awning - Awning-style vestibules can be customized to expand living space, great for both drizzle and sun protection.

Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL Drawbacks

  • Awning Fly Can Seep Water - There are some complaints that the awnings can leak water in a heavy, continuous rain.
  • Limited Color Options - The Big Agnes tent line as a whole tends to have limited choices as to color as this tent only has olive green and orange.

Best Budget: 3F UL 2P Lanshan

The 3F UL 2P Lanshan Tent is an ultralight option for weight-conscious backpackers, thru-hikers, and section hikers from fall to spring. It has walls built out of no-see-um mesh for maximum ventilation and airflow.

It also has silicone treatments and PU coatings to ensure reliable protection when wet weather tries to dampen your trips. The tent has some assorted mesh storage pockets inside the tent for smaller items like your phone and headlamp.

The 3F UL 2P Lanshan tent portion can be easily removed allowing you to enjoy the functionality of a tarp cover only. This doesn't come with poles in the packaging, but you can use the trekking poles. As always it is good to look at choosing a footprint to keep the bottom from being punctured.

3F UL 2P Lanshan Benefits & Features

  • Ultralight & Portable Tent - Minimum trail weight is only 1.7lb and packed small with 15.7in*4.7in, so you can carry it easily on backpacking or camping trips
  • Waterproof Tent - Water-repellent, seam-taped rainfly featuring 15D nylon, silicone/PU 5000mm and bathtub floor with 20D nylon, silicone/PU 6000mm.
  • Easy to Set Up - NOTE you must have a trekking pole to use with the tent. The teepee can resist strong wind if you correctly pitch it.
  • Well Ventilated - 1 ventilation window and full mesh inner tent, which help provide good breathability and prevent condensation from building up.
  • Versatile Teepee Style Tent - Can be set up as a tarp-tent without bathtub and mesh walls, and also be set up as a bug mesh star gazer without the rain fly.

3F UL 2P Lanshan Drawbacks

  • Floor Material Wears Easily - I see a fairly consistent gripe that the floor of the tent gets holes in it pretty easily. The material doesn't seem very durable and they all suggest getting a liner to sit between the tent and the ground.
    • SUGGEST: Add a piece of 9x5 Tyvek as a ground cloth.
  • Difficult To Assemble On The Fly - Can be difficult to set up the first time. Many people reported needing to watch YouTube before they could properly configure it the first time.

Best Space to Cost: Dan Durston X-Mid 2P Tent

3F UL 2P Lanshan Pro Benefits & Features

  • Ultralight & Portable Tent - Minimum trail weight is only 2.3lb and packs down very small.
  • Waterproof Tent - The use of poly exterior rated to 2000mm allows this tent to hold up for long rainfall without failing you. Pre-Seam Sealed prior to delivery this is ready to go from receipt.
  • Easy to Set Up - This tent is done in no time by pegging out 4 corners then inserting and lengthening trekking poles until taught allows you to be up and running nearly instantly.

3F UL 2P Lanshan Pro Drawbacks

  • Trekking Poles Required - This tent requires trekking poles for proper setup, if you don't use poles you will need to look at finding the right length poles.

For those hikers looking for a ultralight shelter with greater volume, the Hornet™ offers the ultimate in livability and comfort. Top quality fabrics and a minimal pole structure shave every ounce possible. While the latest updates and new patent-pending Flybar™ volumizing clip add even more room without adding weight.

The single pole construction allows for quicker setup and minimal additional pole weight. Triangulated reflective guy outs and corner struts increase volume at the foot, protecting sleeping bags from tent wall condensation.

Nemo Hornet Benefits & Features

  • ULTRALIGHT DESIGN - With brilliant design and engineering, the NEMO Hornet manages to be one the lightest tents on the market with all of the bells and whistles seasoned backpackers dream of
  • WEATHER TIGHT & RUGGED - True tub floor construction reduces seam construction and seam tape, making for a more durable waterproof floor; Two large vestibules provide more coverage for gear storage
  • DUAL DOORS / VESTIBULES - It’s the only free-standing tent in the sub-2 lb category with two doors and two vestibules, a simple expansion that makes a world of difference for easy entry / exit and access to gear
  • MAX VOLUME - Triangulated volumizing guy-outs increase interior space by up to 15% using included volumizing clips; Single Hubbed pole design makes setting up quick and intuitive
  • CREATURE COMFORTS - Light Pockets on the ceiling use your headlamp for pleasant interior lighting; Built-in privacy panel for extended coverage and security; DAC Featherlite poles minimize weight; Divvy sack allows you to divide the pack load between two hikers

Nemo Hornet Drawbacks

  • Leaks and Puddling - A few people reported issues with the waterproofing and that they experienced seeping into the interior of the tent.

Final Thoughts on How to Choose an Ultralight Tent or Shelter

There are numerous needs to make sure you evaluate to get the proper shelter for your hike, while it may seem like the $700 Duplex is the best choice it may not always align up that way in real life application.

I hope these give you a good chance to get started in long distance ultralight backpacking. There are many options out there that can be more expensive to lose a few ounces in overall weight but those are not required.

I purchased the Lanshan 2 and the Lanshan 2 Pro and am beyond happy with both of them along with the ease of setup and breakdown. Don't get me wrong I would love to be gifted a Duplex but I am not shelling out $600 for a tent when I can find one at a third of the cost instead that is almost the same except in pack weight.

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