If you are backpacking, bicycle touring or on a kayaking expedition you will require a compact and ultralight shelter. Which one is best, a bivy tent, shelter, sack or hammock tent?
There are bivy (bivouvac) tents that weight just over two pounds that provide weatherproof shelter and in some styles you can barely sit up in.
A savvy tarp is an interesting shelter option. You can slant the tarp right down to the ground at windward, then rise up in the lee, creating a large livable space. Pitching a skookum tarp is a creative act; we call it tarpestry and it gets competitive in our milieu. Once it’s up, you’ve got a big box of dry sand to spread out in, have friends over, unlike any other form of shelter. It provides great ventilation and a view and travels easily. Each campsite presents new challenges for the sweetest pitch and can be a lot of fun when you get into it. On the downside, you may end up feeling like you’ve been out in the weather longer than you might have liked.
Bivy shelters are designed for uber-light weight travel and fundamental protection from elements. A bivy sack is the smallest of its class, while bivy shelters are roomier, more along the lines of a 1P tent. I took mine kayaking last fall in some torrential rains and will never do that again. Imagine undressing in the dark in a downpour before crawling into it. And there is no way you’ll want to hang in it once you’re awake. The secret to bivys for coastal kayaking is a tarp. Bring along a small to medium size tarp to use with it, like a fly, when it rains.
Hammocks are the final consideration. A good quality expedition hammock is essentially a hanging bivy. If tent sites are at a premium and you have trees, it might be a good choice. Hennessey makes an exceptional hammock with big protective rain fly that we’ve taken on several multi-month expeditions. Not that everyone slept in it, but the one who did enjoyed it very much. He had nearly as much fun deciding where to pitch it as the guy with the tarp….More at The Big Question: Tent, Tarp, Bivy, or Hammock?
It really comes down to your comfort level with a tent provides the most space and coverage from the elements for you and your gear. However you still need to carry a sleeping bag so it overall it is the heaviest option. If you are sharing a tent with another hiker the weight is split with the other person carrying the cooking stove or whatever.
With a bivy shelter or tarp you also require a sleeping bag. Some bivy sacks are really a sleeping bag with enlarged covering over your head, although some styles are almost tiny tents and they are weather proof. You will not have space to change or clothes although some styles do provide enough space for you to read a book.
Hammock tents do protect you from the rain and bugs but it can take some getting used to sleeping this way although many hikers love them.
Another consideration is the time of year you are outdoors as in the summer months are three options work well.
Overall your decision will be based on the how much space you want or feel you need and the total weight of your lightweight outdoor shelter.