Before Kyle and I started “hiking” together full time, we went on two trips as distant members of a group. In November of 2016, one of my long-lost friends from high school/college invited me to go backpacking. Hesitantly, I agreed, and seven of us drove 4 hours to Sproul State Forest to hike the Chuck Keiper loop (east).
We arrived at the trail-head around 10:30 pm and hiked a mile or two into camp. A couple of firsts happened that night. I had hiked a few times at night, but never with a heavy backpack. That was one. I had never set up camp in the dark (I was borrowing a tent so it was an unfamiliar tent). That was two. I thought that I was cold when I slept in my hammock on the Appalachian trail (~45 degrees), but I was wrong, we camped at 20 degrees that night. That was three.
Everyone was set up and standing around chatting by midnight. ALL I wanted to do was get into my tent. I just knew it would be warm in there inside my sleeping bag. My brother had given me one of his military issued sleeping bags (it was at least 7 years old) and since I trust my brother more than any other human in the world, OBVIOUSLY I thought it would be warm enough.
Turns out…it’s a 45 degree synthetic sleeping bag made for an extra large man (which, for my non-hiking friends means that it is heavy, much larger than the radius of my body heat, and NOT even close to warm enough for 20 degrees). Shockingly enough, tents don’t have portable heating units like they did when we used to car camp as a family. Who knew that the walls of a tent actually provide little to no warmth? I know I should have known that, but I really didn’t. In an attempt to combat the shivering, I put on every piece of clothing that I had (also not recommended) and I barely slept.
The next trip was in December. Before the trip I was doing some tent research–I knew I would need to buy one eventually. During my search, I found myself watching a YouTube video entitled “how to set up a shelter in the snow.” I remember shaking my head, turning the video off and chuckling, “we’ll never sleep in the snow, why am I watching this?”
I really thought I was ready this time. My brother (the one who I had been trusting blindly) lent me a one person tent and some down pants (they were actually synthetic). I also purchased a new down jacket to replace the summer-weight jacket I had been using. “If you wear your down,” he said, “it turns your 40 degree bag into a 10 degree bag.” Blind trust, trust, trust, trust.
I knew that it would be a cold weekend. I saw that the mountain peak temperatures were in the single digits. It’s hard to understand what my thought process was, but it was somewhere along the lines of, “no way would we go out there and sleep in those temperatures, it must be warmer in the cols.” I had no idea we would be sleeping on top of one of those mountains.
As we drove to the trail-head, the sides of the road presented a light dusting of snow, and as we traveled closer, the inches continued to accumulate. Kyle, who was a stranger to me at the time, jokingly said, “no way, there’s too much snow, we better turn around.” So, he’s over there like: “some nerds would just turn around rather than sleep in this snow,” while I’m six inches away thinking, “please, for the love of God, could we find a hotel room?”
So it’s 9 pm on Friday night and we hike to the top of a mountain in 6 inches of snow. I cleared an area of the snow so that I could set up my tent. I couldn’t get any of the stake lines tight because the clearing was riddled with rocks. Everything was flapping around all over the place. Once I had semi-sufficiently set everything up, I looked over at the other shelters in our group and realized, I’m the only one with a tent.
“A TARP?!?” I thought. “Whaaaaat??!”
All the questions when running around in my head, but I kept them all to myself. “Don’t they get snow in their sleeping bags? Doesn’t everything get wet? Aren’t you cold?! It’s windy! Guys. Guys? GUYS!”
The truth of it is, any time I wasn’t moving that weekend, I was frozen solid–My hiking com-padres were toasty warm. I had a million questions, but for fear of looking silly or challenging their “expert” opinion, I stayed quiet.
Check out this timeline of events:
- My first backpacking trip ever was as a member of the a special Freshman orientation program at Penn State (in 2006). Before this “wilderness experience” all I had ever done was car camp with my family. Penn State University took me under their wing and showed me how to carry all of my belongings through the woods.
- Nine years later, I wanted to carry all of my belongings through the woods for an entire month. I did a TON of research and even though we didn’t have the perfect sleep systems or the lightest packs, we did it and it was incredible.
- Two years later, I found myself on top of a mountain, in the dark, in six inches of snow. I had NO IDEA what I was doing.
- Now, less than a year after sleeping in that snow, I have survived almost ALL the things: The snow, the ice, the wind, the elevation, the thunderstorms, the hail and the rain. So quickly things can change.
A few months after my 32 day stint on the Appalachian trail, I found myself driving home from my second ever Spartan race with a renewed sense of excitement. As I drove, I spoke with my aunt about how much I just NEEDED adventure. I wasn’t going out to get it and I blamed a lot of that on my relationship. She said, “Okay, yes, you want to go on adventures, but there is the reality of needing to be an adult and pay bills.” She stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought she was right. In that moment, I thought I was lusting after an unattainable affair with nature–“you can’t just be some deadbeat hippie bussing around all over the country. There’s no trust fund in this mix” I thought to myself. The conversation inside me went like that for a long time, but she was wrong, I found a way.
I didn’t have the know how, so I went and found it. I didn’t have the confidence, so I built myself up. I didn’t think I had the time, now I spend almost every weekend in the mountains and I still make it back for Mommom’s party on Sunday afternoon. I have what I want. It’s dreamy. It’s as wonderful as it sounds.
So many people’s response is, “whaaaaaaat?!” 10 months ago, I was there, but now I’m here, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not for a single thing.
The real review: Really.
It seems to be a pretty common reaction to some of the things Kyle and I have done in the last nine months, and it’s probably the most common reaction people have when we tell them “no, we do not sleep in a tent, we use a tarp.”
After a few more than a handful of overnights underneath the Brooks-Range Mountaineering Ultralite Guide Tarp, I’ll admit, I’m converted. Here are the quick specs from the Brooks-Range site:
Brooks-Range Mountaineering Ultralite Guide Tarp
Weight: 12.6 Ounces
2-3 Person Shelter
Tarp vs. tent: The ultra lite minimalist truth
Tarps are lighter than tents.
The heaviest part of a tent is usually its poles. Not only do tarps have less material (skip the tent floor, skip the netting), but since you carry trekking poles anyways, they double as the lift needed to shape the tarp. The Guide Tarp weighs in at less than a pound–significantly less than our lightest tent which comes in about about 3.2 pounds (the Brooks-Range Foray 2P-review coming soon).
Tarps pack smaller than tents.
The guide tarp packs SMALL. Sometimes, especially in the winter, it can take a bit of finessing to get it into that tiny little pouch, but it is 100% worth it when your shelter breaks down to the size of your hand.
In the past, I have typically packed my 1P tent material in and around anything in the bottom of my pack. It doesn’t take up very much room this way, but it doesn’t work in all conditions, and making room for poles or a wet tent isn’t my favorite thing. Ultralite for the win!
Tarps set up quicker and dryer than tents.
This tarp goes up quick. Record time. We use poles and 6-8 stakes. It goes up dry in the rain and although many tents can be set up dry, it’s not always easy to do.
Tarps allow for varying set up configurations.
There are reinforced tie out points at 2ft intervals along the border of the tarp allowing for a wide range of configurations. You can see in the examples below some of the options we have tried. Typically, we go low in an A-frame for storm mode, and high with open sides when we’re ready for relaxation.
Tents pretty much have two options: would you like the rain fly on or would you like the rain fly off?
It’s not all rainbows and butterflies. There are a few things to consider if you’re going to the tarp:
- Extreme weather in the 4th season. This is really only a 4 season tarp if you hike below the New York-Pennsylvania line. When we go to the Catskills or the Adirondacks in the middle of the winter, we bring the 4 season tarp or tent.
- Bugs. In mid-april or early May, especially where we live (Pennsylvania), the bugs start coming out. This might be a problem for some people. It’s sometimes difficult to sleep with that creepy crawly feeling. I’m still getting use to it.
Size. The specs from Brooks-Range say that this is a 2-3 person tarp. I would kindly disagree. Kyle and I are not big people, and I can’t see us sharing the Guide tarp with a 3rd unless we were sure of perfect weather.
If you want the option of fitting 3, we recommend the Guide+ option. In this version, you get an extra 2 feet of width and at 15.5 ounces, you’re still weighing in at under 1 lb. The options for configurations in a square tarp (the Guide+ 10×10) are multiplied. When you purchase the Guide+ you spend an extra 30$ and you carry an extra 2.9 ounces–totally worth it. Not surprisingly…we have the Guide+ on our wish list.