Bivy, Tent, Hammock, or Tarp?

Marmot tents and ENO hammockAfter food and water, shelter may be the most important thing you need for camping. A shelter keeps you safe from howling winds, pouring rain, extreme temperatures, and unwelcome critters. There’s no debating the importance of a shelter, however people have been known to argue over which type of shelter is the best for camping.

Different types of shelters have different advantages. The type of shelter you should use depends on your needs as well preferences. There are four main shelter types to choose from: bivy, tent, hammock, and tarp.


A bivy, also know as a bivouac sack, is a lightweight and packable single-person shelter. Most bivys are waterproof and can fit you, your sleeping bag, maybe a pad, and that’s pretty much it. Bivy sacks are commonly used by mountaineers, military personnel, and anyone looking to travel fast and light in rough terrain. Bivys are strictly utilitarian. They provide shelter and nothing more.

Bivy pros

  • Compact
  • Lightweight
  • Quick set up
  • Can be set up in most types of terrain
  • Great protection from weather and insects

Bivy cons

  • Only fits one person
  • Confined space
  • No room to store gear


Tents are the most popular shelter used for camping. Tents are the heaviest of the four options, but they provide maximum protection from the elements. Tents come in lots of different sizes ranging from 1-person tents to 12-person tents, and up. Like bivys, tents can be set up in any type of terrain. Most tents don’t require much skill to set up. Just find relatively flat ground and you’re good to go.

Tent pros

  • Easy to set up
  • Great protection from weather and insects
  • Can accommodate multiple people
  • Spacious, plenty of wiggle room and gear storage
  • Can be set up in any most types of terrain

Tent cons

  • Takes up pack space
  • Heavy
  • Longer set up, depending on the tent


Hammocks are becoming an increasingly popular option for campers as well as hikers. They are lightweight and quick and easy to set up, making them extremely pack-friendly. Although companies make 2-person hammocks, hammocks are really only suited to sleep one person at a time. Some camping specific hammocks come with mosquito netting and a waterproof rain fly. While this provides a similar level of protection as a tent, hammocks have a major drawback.

Hammocks are limited to areas with sturdy, well spaced trees. The trees not only have to support the shelter the weight of a person as well. Hammock camping in the desert or above tree line is not going to happen.

Hammock pros

  • Compact
  • Lightweight
  • Quick set up
  • Good in uneven terrain, and keeps you off the ground

Hammock cons

  • Only fits one person
  • Requires suitable trees for set up
  • No insulation beneath you without a pad or underquilt.


A tarp is going to be your lightest and cheapest shelter option, but it also provides the least amount of protection. Insects have free reign and temperature protection is minimal. Tarps are versatile, however. There are many different configurations for setting up a tarp shelter, ranging from an A-frame to a simple ground cover. Tarps are typically used as a single person shelter, but a good sized tarp can provide shelter for 2 or 3 in a pinch.

Tarp pros

  • Compact
  • Lightweight
  • Cheap
  • Versatile

Tarp cons

  • Requires more skill for set up
  • Offer the least amount of protection


  • Get a bivy if you want a packable, lightweight one-man shelter that provides great protection in any environment.
  • Get a tent if you want maximum protection for multiple people in any type of terrain.
  • Get a hammock if you want a packable, lightweight one-man shelter that provides good protection in wooded areas.
  • Get a tarp if you want to rough it.

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