Craig Wisner

When Ultralight May Not Be Ultrasimple.

Aside from the ease of carrying an ultralight gear kit, simplicity is often the most cited reason for converting to a lighter load.  After years of experimenting with just about every type of gear system in the backcountry, I find myself possibly coming full circle in some regards.  My current source of philosophical confusion: the quest for shelter.

Note I did not say the “perfect shelter”.  There is none so far as I am concerned.  But I find my attitudes in this category shifting in a different direction.  I’ll follow some new hunches, see where they lead me, test them in the field.

I’ve begun to question what have become the Holy Grail of ultralight shelter systems: the standard tarp/bivy combo or the venerated mid or hex-style floorless shelter.  What would provoke this blasphemy?  In a sense, it’s the quest for a certain simplicity that I’ve yet to really find.  Though it is often repeated or assumed  that the more minimal the shelter, the more simple the experience (I have personally long held this belief), I have to question this assertion.

I should note that I still believe that the best shelter is none at all; simply laying outside under the night sky has become one of my favorite ways to sleeping; ultralight simplicity at its finest: clear weather and a shelter left at home.  Living in Southern California, I can do this a lot.  But for obvious reasons, this can’t be the only option.  So the choices begin; and in the seemingly endless options I think we have begun to confuse light weight with simplicity.  The two are not necessarily equivalent.

A simple case in point: Using a tarp/bivy combo in the High Sierra during a week of severe rain and ice storms.  This was the same week in which the trout hatchery was wiped out and half of Independence and Lone Pine were flooded.   But there I was, unsuspecting of what lay ahead, proud of my 14 ounce shelter combo, striding boldly forth into the wilderness on the other side of a 12,500 foot pass.  And then the rain started.  And then the sleet started.  And 25 miles later, I was soaked, cold, tired, and it was time to camp and eat.  I followed all the basics tenets of tarp camping, as it was not my first time; I sought out a wind protected site in the trees (thus minimizing horizontally driven rain and spray), found high ground to minimize runoff exposure, and pitched the tarp as low as possible.  I guyed out everything securely, re-tensioned the tarp a few times, and crawled under…to be faced with the grim question of how, exactly, I was going to cook and eat dinner while pinned under a tarp pitched two feet off the ground.  Even though the rain was being directed straight downward by the trees above, it was falling so hard I was catching a ton of spray regardless.  It simply couldn’t have been pitched higher.  So I skipped hot dinner and ate cold food…Laying on my back in a bivy.  In the pouring rain.  At 7Pm.  I lay there in my coffin for at least three hours before being able to sleep; slowly I watched my bivy getting wetter and wetter.  I woke to more rain, a soaked bivy, a sleeping bag that was wetting out due to either condensation, rain, or both, and packed as quickly as possible.  At this point, walking in the cold rain all day was far more preferable to laying in that wet coffin any longer.

In retrospect I can wax philosophical about being part of my environment, about being more connected because of the experience, about what the rain taught me about comfort and being a Stoic.  But on another level, it was just stupid and uncomfortable, and had I not been able to bail out after two more days of solid rain, it could’ve gotten dangerous.  With a traditional tent I likely could’ve been sitting around, keeping my bag dry, comfortably reading, cooking a hot dinner in the vestibule, and enjoying the sound of rain as I fell asleep.

What, exactly, did I gain by saving the additional ~2 pounds a full-coverage, double-walled shelter would’ve cost me?  I certainly did not gain simplicity.  Simplicity in this case would’ve been setting up a shelter in a few minutes, climbing in, and relaxing.  Simplicity was nowhere to be found in the ~2 pounds I saved.

While not as bad, I’ve had some similar negative experiences in floorless mids/hexes that have caused me to question these systems as well; namely, issues with staking in soft soil or having to pitch in rain-soaked, muddy areas and try to stay confined to my small square of plastic groundsheet to stay clean and dry.  The other issue is bugs.  So while these shelters are fully storm-worthy (when staked well), they tend to leave me with a lot of questions and other required gear.  To carry or not carry an inner bug net?  Which one?  Do I want to carry trekking poles or a dedicated pole?  These are hardly insurmountable issues; I’ve dealt with them successfully for a long time.  However, I crave being back to the point of simplicity that I have one solo shelter and it’s the only thing I have to grab.

Coming full circle, the double-walled, freestanding tent seems to fit this bill rather well.  If a comfortable one can be had for 3lbs. or less, I think the additional 1-2.5 pounds is well worth the ease of use and versatility.  Not to mention the simplicity of only having one shelter, always used in the same configuration, that is comfortable and functional for all but epic conditions.

I think I’ve found it and it’s currently in the mail; time and field experience will tell if going back to a more traditional (and slightly heavier)  shelter brings back a different sort of simplicity.

And what the hell?  I’ve yet to detect any discernible difference between an 8 pound pack vs. a 10 pound pack.

Could ultralight be making us soft?  An entirely different conversation….


4 responses

  1. Rob V.

    Ha, seems eerily like the conversation we were having on the way back from Sespe Hot Springs. At what point does getting rid of things actually begin to complicate things? At what point does the law of diminishing returns rear it’s ugly head? This is probably different for each individual, and it may not even be a constant for each person. That is, I think, what makes IT (being an ultralight pack or an ultralight life) so blasted interesting. By all means, get that roomy, cozy tent. Just be prepared for the raised eyebrows at the next bpl meetup, and be prepared to share it when it hits the fan.

    May 17, 2011 at 7:57 pm

  2. Adan

    For me, my 8×10 comes close to ideal in all but the windiest conditions. still very light, ample room for spreading out and cooking even with sides nailed to the ground, no bivy needed, pitched with branches. One thought just occurred to me…would bomber rain-proof clothing allow you to stay out under the trees for cooking/chilling longer until you felt like sleeping? umbrella-time? food for thought.

    May 19, 2011 at 5:46 pm

  3. Roland W.

    I know this is a few years later but, what was the replacement tent?!

    February 15, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    • I purchased an MSR Hubba. It’s been my standard tent whenever I’m solo and expecting weather.
      I’ve also picked up an MLD Solomid since then. Light, but full coverage.

      February 16, 2014 at 7:27 am

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