The Big Question: Tent, Tarp, Bivy, or Hammock?

By Rob Lyon

If I had to guess, I’d say that most sea kayakers in the northwest carry a three or four season tent. The three, or 3S, will cost less, weigh less and have the best ventilation from mesh panels typical of their class. But a 3S would not be a good choice for very high winds and very big storms, and the peace of mind a more expensive 4S will give you is priceless. Consider carefully where you will be kayaking before you buy. Are you traveling well away from civilization? Are you gone for a week or longer? What are the historical weather patterns there at that time of year? As we all know, those are changing. That said, a reliable tent of one kind or another is ‘must gear’ for kayakers.

Not everyone prefers a tent. On a two month tour around the northwestern end of Vancouver Island a while back we had a team of four paddlers, each with a different shelter bent: hammock, tarp and tent, both large and small. While the bomber 4S tent provided the best insulation from weather, not everyone was looking for that.

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.

In your average size kayak, for your average length overnight trip, you should have room for whichever shelter you choose. Gear limitations for kayakers fall about in the middle of the spectrum between backpacking and river rafting. You can travel in comfort or for speed, the differential between a roomy tarp and a 4P/4S tent weighing in at about 10 pounds. You can certainly go a whole lot smaller and still be comfortable. If you’re the type of person who likes to get outside come daylight no matter what, a smaller tent should serve you well; just for sleeping, you don’t need all that extra room. On the other end of the spectrum, a roomy dome tent will having you feeling smug in the worst of weather. I would recommend swapping out the stock pegs supplied for snow or sand stakes. MSR has a decent one in their Blizzard Stake at about $4 a pop.

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  • http://www.the-boating-store-blog.com Doreen Murgatroyd

    This post gives a lot of good information to anyone wanting to buy a tent or similar. The length of the journey and the number of times the tent would need to be packed and unpacked would be quite a consideration, especially if the attitude is that ‘setting up the sleeping and cooking arrangements is women’s work’!

  • Clint

    Here in the Pacific Northwest, nothing beats having both a tent AND a tarp on a rainy trip. The tarp gives you a sheltered place to cook in a downpour, and is a more comfortable place to eat, wash up, and try to dry sopping wet clothing; while the tent lets you sleep bug-free and cozy. Go for both belt and suspenders.

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