Family Shelter Musings

damien's picture
Submitted by damien on

I have had tents on the brain quite a a bit lately, especially in light of our last backpacking trip. I thought it coincidental then that Ryan Jordan posted his thoughts on what he thinks is a good group shelter, the GoLite Shangri-La 6/8. It so happens that we have one of those too, however while I like it a lot, I am finding my satisfaction waning. Am I just not seasoned enough in the backcountry to fully appreciate its greatness, or is there something else to it?

We appreciated our tent's wind-worthiness during our last
car-camping trip on the coast of the Gaspe Peninsula.

I was thinking back to when we lived in Alberta, and the terrain and climate of the Rockies. The air was generally pretty dry, and the nights could get fairly chilly. Although there were trees, there were also many exposed places, including those above-treeline where the storms could get intense/nasty/windy. The main bug we had to contend with was the mosquito.

Thinking about that context, I see how a floorless shelter like the Shangri-La would be quite ideal. You stake it to the ground, kill the mosquitoes, and away you go. The heavier-weight silnylon fabric, the sturdy poles, and guy-line tie out points make it a very mountain worthy shelter for a larger group.

Then I thought about our current playground, the east coast. Here in Maine the air is generally humid, and the summer nights can be quite warm. The land is mostly dense forest everywhere, with the (infrequent) open areas being on the rocky peaks of mountains (there is a reason the AT is sometimes referred to as the Green Tunnel). There can be a lot of rain, but wind is less of an issue due to all of the trees. The bugs we have to contend with are mosquitoes, blackflies, and ticks. While living in Alberta I had heard of blackflies and never knew what a tick or Lyme disease was until we moved East.

You would never know it, but in this photo our tent is setup over a nicely leveled tent
pad in the White Mountains. Our shelter was so large that it covered the entire
pad, including the logs that were placed around it's perimeter.

Our current shelter configuration consists of a Shangri-La 6 with a Shangri-La 4 Nest underneath. It's actually a pretty cool combination that allows us to have full protection from the ticks and flying bugs, a decent sized vestibule, and the ability to open up the doors at either end for good ventilation (even in the rain to keep the humidity down). The downsides to this setup are the weight (10 lbs = 2 lbs per person), and the fact that there is NEVER (OK, rarely) a good backcountry location to set up a tent of this size.

Considering the density of trees where we are, sizable clearings are hard to come-by. When we do find one, it is guaranteed to have huge roots, rocks, or fixed objects sticking up into the bathtub floor - there is just no way to avoid it considering the Nest covers over 90 square feet. Proper site preparation for keeping the floor protected from puncture would require bringing some form of excavator. It is only a matter of time before the floor will be riddled with holes; no matter how gently I tell the kids to tread.

At a glance, this may look like a nice clearing for setting up a tent. What
you can't see here are all the huge roots and rocks throughout.

I have been thinking through some possible solutions:

  • Use multiple tents: This would certainly open up our available options for selecting a tent, as most manufacturers top-out their light-weight tent capacities at 4 people (we need 5). This would also make it easier to find suitable tent sites because we wouldn't need such a big area to setup on. On the flipside, this is not ideal from a togetherness standpoint. I like it when we are together under one roof, and I like being able to reach over and help out a child if they wake-up in the night with some sort of issue.
  • Have a custom-made, lighter-weight bug shelter made: This option could certainly save some weight (but probably not more than 1.5 lbs). The downside would be that we would still have the issue of site selection, and the lighter-weight materials would probably make the floor even more prone to holes.
  • Go floorless: This would certainly allow us to save a lot of weight; using our Shangri-La 6 without the nest would shave off over 3 lbs.  This would also give us more options for selecting a lighter-weight shelter by going with a single-poled pyramid/tipi styled design from a company like Oware, Titanium Goat, or Kifaru. Site selection would be much less of an issue because we woudn't have to worry about puncturing a floor. It wouldn't really matter what the ground was like and we could even setup over small shrubs if we needed to. The downside of course we be that this would afford us little protection from bugs because we keep the door open for ventilation, and even if we did close the door we still wouldn't be protected from ticks.
  • Go floorless with light-weight bivy sacks: From a weight standpoint, using the Shangri-La 6 with bivy sacks would save us about 1.25 lbs. Using a single pole tipi-style shelter as described above could save more. Since bivy sacks would be carried by everyone, the shelter weight would be more evenly distributed in our packs. One downside of this configuration is the cost: 5 bivy sacks cost a lot more than a single bug nest. Another is the added complexity for the kids. The upside is that the bivys could also be used without the tent when sleeping in shelters along the AT during bug season.
  • Lighter poles: The poles for the Shangri-La 6 weigh about 14 oz each, that is almost 2 pounds in poles alone. For strength, you really don't want to go with anything lighter as it would most certainly be too weak for a shelter of that size. The best bet to save pole weight would be to try to find a single-pole shelter instead. Perhaps some sort of hooped/tunnel design may work as well (i.e. Hilleberg, Warmlite, Integral Designs, etc.), but that would require more investigation.
  • Use a tarp: This certainly would solve the ventilation problem, but I have no experience with using group-sized ones. Anyone have any insight on that?
  • Other options? I am open for ideas! If you have any, please share!

So where does this leave us? I am not sure.

At the moment I am leaning towards a light-weight pyramid shelter with bivy sacks as it seems (in theory) to solve most of the problems for the least amount of weight. I am open to change however, and will be spending some time exploring the possibilities over the coming year to see what I can find.



Family shelter

Not an easy one this. A few ideas:

Multiple tents - Four man option with a tarp pitched at the entrance to use as large rain porch and for the fith person to sleep in using a bivy.
- Two tarps pitched side to side with the adjacent side pitched high.
- 2 person and three person shelter joined entrance to entrance with a tarp.

Mid with a custom made inner tent and a tarp to give a decent vestibule.

Giant custom made Zpacks Hexamid shelter with netting floor:)

Maybe it will only be a few years until the two shelter option might be preferred by both kids and parents:).

I think our Shangri-La 6 will mostly be a car camping tent, because of just the issues you mention. Also I think our trips will more often be 3 person only.

My wife and I use hammocks

My wife and I use hammocks when backpacking. They can be hung over any sort of groundcover (from roots and rocks to shrubs and creeks) and are quite comfortable. Between hammock, tarp, bugnet, and insulation we're carrying about 2 lbs each, but are much more comfortable. Add more insulation and we have slept in freezing weather comfortably.

You can hang nearby each other, even though you won't be within arm's reach. More info can be found at

hammocks for a family of 5

hammocks for a family of 5 sounds like a lot of effort and that would leave our children too far from us. We like to be close.

Damien, I think we need to send some of these kids back where they came from. It would all be so much easier (smile)!!

looking to save more weight

we use the same golite tent and nest and you do. totally agree about the difficulty in finding a suitable place to pitch it as it requires so much area! we use a tyvek ground sheet which helps a bit with protecting the floor, but adds more ounces to the weight.

we started with one of the oware pyramids, but found the vestibule on the golite indispensable. with both tents, its nice to be able to go floorless if we want to save weight too (but some in the family have an aversion to the 'openness' without the floor).

looking at the hilleberg nallo 4 gt to save a few pounds on our big cycle tour next year. expensive though!

The Hogback Rocks!

I was going to suggest the Hogback, but you beat me to it :)

We own a hogback tarptent; it is INCREDIBLE. For the weight, size, and construction you can't go wrong. As long distance backpackers it is quite impressive. Not only is the bathtub bottom suitable for decent amounts of rain, but it also comes with ventilation making it a step above the average group tarping. We have always just used a tarp before, but find with our son (now 6) it doesn't provide quite enough protection to keep camping ideal and fun.

The tarptent weighs nothing (even with the stakes, though we leave out them out) and after seam sealing it keeps the rain out even without the fly. We attached two extended guy lines for it to handle the snowload of the Cascades and Rockies, but other than that we love it straight out of the package. By having the liners zip apart you can chose to go double walled or single depending on the expedition. It is simple enough our son can set it up himself and sleeps our entire family including the dog. Jules' is 6'4" and has no claustrophbia about a low ceiling. Even Ray Jardine would be impressed.

An added plus are the owners of the company. Before purchase they allowed us to come to their home and set up their personal tent. They gave us a 100% guarantee of satisfaction or a complete return, and were awesome people.

Our only worry is how expensive it looks; this is definitely not a tent you would leave at a campsite without worry. For this reason we used our Dana Design Nuktuk at the National Parks when we were going to be day hiking. The hogback is sleek, modern, and will be noticed. It is the type of tent people look for when they want to steal expensive backpacking gear, unlike the Nuktuk (which though more expensive) doesn't have the flash factor. Multiple campsites we stayed at warned of theft and we have been person victims in the past.

I realize your kids are

I realize your kids are little, but they will get bigger quite quickly. It won't be much longer before they won't need help in the night, etc. Hammocks or a separate "kids" tent will be more realistic (and even desirable) as the kids grow up. There will come a time you want your adult privacy back. Hammocks are the way we're going next with our kids (16, 15, 11). Perhaps you can put up with the current setup for a while and in a couple years go for a solution more aimed at independent sleeping.

Family shelters

We will be a four for our car camping trips and hopefully some short backpacking trips and the extra room (for reasons too complicated to go into here) will be very useful for us. For longer two adult and one kid backpacking trips we will maybe need to get another shelter:).

If you want to have all five of you in a single shelter, then outside of shrinking yourselves, foot print size is likely to remain an issue. I do understand why you would all want to stay together though,as this would also be my preferred set up.

The bivy sack option may work, but wouldn't be something I would want to do. It seems to me that if you need a sealed bug free space then you are all effectively in five one person shelters pitched near to each other.

Personally I would go for the two shelter option of a four person shelter, plus a one person shelter. Prior to actually going to bed you can probably hang out and play cards etc. in the four person shelter and then at sleep time use the one person shelter pitched right up at the open main door of the main shelter. Hopefully limiting the feeling of separation as much as possible.

This is an issue we've been

This is an issue we've been struggling with for a while too. We have our summer two week long car based tent sorted. It's a big heavy canvas cabin which works great for long periods of time in the Aussie heat. But for hiking or travelling trips we're a bit stuck. Last time we used a Bibler (Black Diamond) Bombshelter because our kids are young and small (the conditions were also every wet and windy in Tasmania). But the kids have grown too much for it again. I have thought more than once about making one.

Hilleberg Tents

I'd check out some of the hooped tents from Hilleberg. That are modular so you and join them together and they have very large porches. They are also suitable for 4 season use, which would be good for New England, and are very wind resistant. I did a post about the Hilleberg line recently that you might want to check out. -Philip

Shangri-La 4 Nest soak through

I have been using the same Shangri-La 6/Shangri-La 4 Nest combination for some time now. It was you blog that inspired the purchase. I have actually been living with my family in that set-up for over a month now in Mt Hood National Forrest. It has been raining more frequently lately. when it rains enough for water to get under the floor it has been soaking through the fabric. I wondered if you have had this problem. For now I have dug a trench around the tent which I hope solves the problem. Otherwise it has been a great setup. I even installed a stove boot from Titanium Goat and built a wood burning stove I use in it during winter. Keeps it nice and warm even in very low temps. as long as it is pitched low to the ground.

Living in a tent

It's not all that different than living in a house. We have our good moments and our bad ones. My daughter has a lot more to do than when we were in an apartment, but it can be cold at night. Some times the food is excellent, other times it just gets the job done.

I am kind of anti-ground sheet, just because I don't like having the extra hassle. I would rather just have a good floor on the tent, be careful about removing rocks and sticks before setup, and then just replace it when it's worn out. I think I will end up treating the floor with McNETT Tent Sure Tent Floor Sealant. I have some photos of the setup, but am not sure how to post them.

It's probably been two months now, but the end is in sight. We will probably be in an apartment some time this week. I've had a great time, but even I am looking forward to living indoors. The real question is how long will it be until we go on another camping trip just for fun.

I've enjoyed perusing your

I've enjoyed perusing your blog. We have eight, so when we are all out together we have to use two tents. We have a four man (an old REI Half Dome) that the five oldest kids (3-7 years old) share and a three man (an old Eureka) that my wife and I stay in with out youngest. My favorite solution to the shelter question is to bivy under the stars. We usually wake up covered in dew or frost, but as most of our trips are just overnighters we don't worry as much about the bags getting wet. Our solution on our last trip was to build an igloo. It was a little cramped for five of us, but seemed to do the trick.


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