Ultralight Backpacking Tarps Go Mainstream

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Targeted at people who prioritize backpack weight over sleeping comfort and weather protection, ultralight tarps and the tiny companies that hand make them were, until now, pretty rare. But this one is made by Mountain Safety Research, one of the most-respected names in tents. Get ready for a new era of minimalist camping.

Ultralight backpacking has grown in popularity in recent years, both as gear innovations have enabled drastically lower weights and people like Andrew Skurka have promoted its benefits. The basic idea is to pare the weight you carry and wear to a minimum, maximizing the potential miles you can achieve in a day. Backpacking has always been a case of weight reduction, but these guys take that to the extreme, analyzing their food by calories-to-weight, ditching the boots for trail runners and prioritizing performance during the hike over simply enjoying the outdoors.

To serve that community, tiny companies have started up in members’ living rooms; Z Packs, Tarp Tent and others have specialized in minimalist tarp shelters that set up using trekking poles and guy lines and just about keep the weather off you long enough to recharge for the next day’s hike. They’re great products, if you’re into that stuff, but aren’t widely available at retailers like REI and those companies don’t enjoy major marketing budgets. Enter MSR.


That company says it’s targeting these new shelters at through-hikers. People hiking long distances over multi-day periods; hikes like the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails.

Because the tarps and the bug-proof inners are sold separately, there’s some mixing and matching possible, but the gist of the products are that a solo hiker or couple would use a tarp like the $180 Thru-Hiker 70, paired with the $200 Thru-Hiker Mesh House 2. That tarp is made from ultra-thin, PU-coated 20D nylon and requires trekking poles, guy lines and a fair bit of expertise to erect, creating a sheltered area measuring 9’6” x 8” . It weighs just 12oz. Inside it, you suspend the 10D/15D Mesh House, which provides just enough room for two large (25” x 78”) sleeping pads and keeps the bugs off for just 14oz.


The end result is a two-person shelter that weighs just 1.6lbs and folds up incredibly small.

Wondering if such a shelter could be for you? First, you’ll need to use trekking poles — it requires two to setup — and you’ll need to be hiking in fairly mild weather. Wind-blown rain, high winds and other inclement weather are no fun without side and doors and tent poles. But, tarps like this are a much nicer place to sleep in hot or humid weather, where they simply vent far, far better than any tent can ever hope to.


I wouldn’t want to rely on one for all my backpacking use, but using one for long-distance summer hikes would be ideal.

Of course, most of us can’t afford to have multiple backpacking shelter options to pick and chose from as needs change. And for most of you, a good backpacking tent remains a better, more versatile option. And MSR has a great new product there, too.


At 1lbs 13oz, this new $500 MSR Carbon Reflex 2 weighs just 3oz more than the $380 Thru-Hiker Tarp/Mesh House pairing described above. It does that complete with a traditional double-wall tent design (separate body and rain fly), room for two standard size sleeping pads, two doors and two vestibules. The radically light weight is made possible in this traditional design by new Easton carbon fiber poles that at 60 percent lighter than equivalent aluminum items and the use of ultralight 7D (fly) and 15D (floor) nylon.


You may be thinking to yourself that less livable area, more weight and less ventilation sound like a bad idea since they also come at a higher price than the tarp. And you’d be right, in ideal conditions. But, the first time it storms, you’ll wish you were in the Carbon Reflex. It’s also available in 1lbs 7oz, $400 1P and 2lbs 4oz, $600 3P flavors.


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