Figuring out what type of shelter to use on your outdoor adventures can impact more than just one aspect of your trip.
If you’re not sure who reigns supreme in the smackdown between tents vs hammocks vs bivvys vs tarps, you’re not alone, but we’re here to help!
So, which is the best?
While all four of these options have their strengths, they all have some drawbacks too.
Ultimately, you need to understand where and how each shelter works best to figure out if it’s the right option for you.
Let’s look at what each option brings to the table and what the pros and cons look like for each and determine which one is the best shelter for hiking in your given circumstances!
Freestanding tents can offer comfort and liveability (not to mention an easy setup).
Although they’re super popular among hikers, tents take up more space in your pack and might add a lot of weight, which is a downer if you’re into ultralight backpacking.
Tents are also tricky to make comfortable on rough or uneven ground and if the ground is hard, it can be darn tricky to set them up
- Great at offering protection against the elements
- Freestanding tents can be pitched just about anywhere
- Quick and easy to set up
- Tent poles add extra weight to your pack
- If you’re not using a sleeping pad, tents aren’t the most comfortable option
Camping hammocks are fabric beds that are suspended between two points (generally trees).
They can be used for resting and sleeping alike and can offer a lighter and more comfortable alternative to tent camping.
They are great for rough, uneven ground where it is difficult to pitch a tent.
Things can be challenging if you don’t have anything to hang them from, but I have used them as a bivvy before.
- Super comfortable and lightweight
- They work really well on rough, uneven or solid terrain that makes it hard to pitch a tent comfortably
- A great option for hot summer months
- Hammocks don’t offer extra space for storing gear
- You need two anchors to set it up
- Not ideal for cold weather
The most basic bivvys are nothing more than a bag to keep the rain off.
However, when we talk about a bivvy for hiking and camping, people usually mean small shelters that were designed as a lightweight and compact alternative to tents.
Bivvy sacks fit only one person and are a more minimalist option that most other shelters.
They also suffer the same issues as tents when it comes to pitching them
- Lightweight and compact
- Comes with built-in protection against rain, wind, and snow
- Very versatile and can be set up in a matter of minutes
- Bivvys are set up on the ground, so they might not be the most comfortable option
- Condensation can be an issue, especially in humid conditions
- If you’re claustrophobic, this isn’t the option for you
A tarp does not have floors, bug nets, or walls. In its simplest form, is a rectangular piece of waterproof fabric that can be set up as a shelter with ropes, poles and stakes.
Basically, a tarp is just there to build your shelther around. It will offer you protection against the wind and rain while you sleep.
For those that really like building shelters, and pitting themselves against nature, or ultra-light hiking, these are the way to go.
They are often used in conjunction with hammocks as a flysheet to keep the wind and rain off.
- Exceptionally small and light packed weight
- Very versatile and adjustable
- Perfect for minimalist camping
- Doesn’t offer any protection against bugs and critters
- Tarps can’t keep you as warm as tents or bivvys
- Not ideal for camping during the cold months
How to determine what your ideal hiking shelter is
Your preferences, intentions, and budget all have a massive impact on what kind of shelter you’ll end up choosing.
While we can’t decide for you, ask yourself the following questions to help you identify a shelter best suited to your needs:
What kind of protection do you need?
At times, you might need robust mosquito protection, but during the rest of the year, you might need more protection against the cold. If your needs are constantly changing, a modular shelter with independent components and more than one pitching configuration is a good idea.
Where will you be camping?
Ultralight shelters (bivvys, tarps, and hammocks) are ultralight because there simply is not much too them. This means you don’t get much more than a place the sleep (if that!)
When conditions are less-than-amazing, you might start second-guessing your decision to sacrifice liveable space to save some weight and space in your pack.
Larger shelters (yes, tents) offer more coverage for you and your gear, but if you are hiking you are probably just looking for a place to sleep, then pack it up and move on..
Tents, hammocks, bivvys, and tarps all offer great advantages, depending on what environment you’ll be using them in.
Tents bring the element of liveability to the proverbial table while hammocks might offer more comfort.
Bivvys are ideal for use just about anywhere and tarps are a great option if you’re a minimalist hiker.
A classic two-pole dome tent is something most of us can set up by the time we go to grade school. An A-frame tarp (sometimes even a flat tarp) is something that most adults can even pitch without a massive struggle.
It really depends on how much convenience is worth to you and whether you’re willing to deal with some fuss along the way.
Matt Green, is an avid hiker and lover of the great outdoors. He is always planning his next big trip or hitting the trails for a solo hike.
He’s traveled extensively to many remote regions and has plenty of experience exploring various terrains, and stories to tell.