Tent, hammock or tarp? This is one of the biggest debates in the hiking world. Hammocks and tents are the more popular options, but for thru-hikers tarps are definitely on the table. So how do you choose which is the best shelter to take? Well the best answer is, it depends. As a hiker myself, I have played around with all three options and of course I have my preference but the purpose of this blog isn't to convince you to see the light but rather to inform you of the pros and cons of all three. With that being said lets get started!
The main thing a tent provides is security and privacy. With a tent, you are completely enclosed. This keeps you dry and the bugs out. They are relatively sturdy and easy to assemble. If hiking with multiple people, you can all camp in the same shelter and split the load by each person carrying part of the tent. Tents are also warmer because they block wind flow and trap your body heat.
On the other hand, tents are generally more expensive. So if you're on a budget, you might have to opt for a hammock or tarp. Tents are also heavier and take up more pack space. You can purchase 1-person tents but they're still usually heavier than a hammock or tarp and take up more space. Tents are limited to a flat surface so if you are in rocky, steep terrain, a tent may not work out.
Hammocks are extremely easy to set up. In no time, you can have it stretched between a couple of trees and be watching the sunset. They are compressible and lightweight making it great to carry in a pack. Hammocks are much more comfortable to sleep on than the ground and provide a great solution to rocky, steep areas. And if price is a factor, hammocks are usually cheaper than a tent.
But, as with all great things, there are downsides. Yes hammocks are cheap, light and comfortable, but only in ideal settings. If it's raining, you will need a tarp. If there are a lot of bugs, you will need a mosquito net. And if it's cold, you will need an under quilt or sleeping pad to keep your backside warm. When you start adding all these accessories, the price, weight and pack size increases pretty fast. It takes the light, quick, comfortable aspects out of the picture. They also limit you on set-up locations because you have to find two sturdy trees in the Goldilocks Zone.
Tarps are meant for the minimalist. They are light, pack up small and put you closer to nature. If you are looking for a cheap and light alternative to tents and need the pack space, then the tarp is the way to go.
As minimal as tarps are, they also have their downside. They don't offer much protection. Ground water and bugs can move freely in your tarp. You will need two trekking poles to set it up (which shouldn't be a problem because everybody should be using trekking poles!) but that wouldn't increase pack size. You can get bug netting, but that adds to pack size and weight. You give up a lot of comfort but you do save some money, space and weight.
As you can see, when it comes to the best shelter, it really depends. To help you out, below is a flowchart created by Mariposa on AppalachianTrails.com. This may make it easier to find which option is best for you.