I'm a dedicated tarp camper and will be using an ultralight poncho-tarp on the PCT. Those who carry tents on the PCT generally do so for the larger enclosed, most convenient bug-free space. There may be individual psychological reasons as well, such as feeling subjectively safer being completely out of view. Obviously, bugs (especially mosquitos) are a major force to be dealt with on the PCT, and tarp campers must have some kind of net enclosure to protect themselves at night - at the very least, a headnet to wear to bed.
On the Colorado CDT, we lacked such an enclosure and suffered as a result. For our trip to Peru, I sewed an effective two-man net enclosure weighing only 200 grams (7 oz). Now that I'm going alone, I'll need something different.
Since it doesn't rain much on the PCT in the summertime, most thru-hikers end up sleeping under the stars most of the time. This is what I plan to do as well. My MLD cuben poncho-tarp weighs only 200 grams (7 oz) along with the tie-outs and stakes, and I don't expect to have to use it much. It's even big enough for two people, if rain is infrequent or brief. My model of the poncho-tarp is 5'4'' wide as opposed to the standard 4' wide ponchos that Ron at MLD sews. This gives the poncho more versatility, but cost me a lot more for the custom design.
Here are some budget options for a shelter on the PCT:
- Buy 3 yards of 60'' wide silnylon 2nds (they're just as good as 1sts) at thru-hiker.com and make yourself a one-piece, one-man tarp for roughly $30-35. The best size is 5' x 9'. All you'll need to do is sew around the edges and put 8 grosgrain loops on the corners and halfway between each corner. To make it even more usable, put linelocks on the loops to make tensioning the tarp a cinch.
- Get the Golite poncho tarp. It can be found used or on sale for as little as $30-35. The size is ideal for a one-man shelter, housing two if necessary (if you have little gear, and the rain is not lengthy). You'll have to seam-seal the hood seams and tie the hood to a branch or stake when setting up the tarp to avoid leakage.
- Use a tent fly and leave the rest of the tent home. Tent flies can be harder to pitch as a tarp because of their tent-fitting shape, but this has worked for me before. Cost: $0 (assuming you already have a tent).
- (Not for the faint of heart). Attach four tie-outs using a sheet bend knot to a two-man Adventure Medical Kits emergency blanket (3.5 oz) and pitch over a string drawn between two trees or posts. Sleeping under this can be scary at first, but it has worked for me in moderate rains. I would be concerned about hail. The emergency blanket also provides unsurpassed shade in the desert sun if you have a place to tie it to. It costs $6-7.
Generally, the cheapest ultralight waterproof material is silnylon, and the cheapest shelters are made of this material. You won't gain much by paying a lot more for spinnaker or cuben fiber.
Assuming you're using a tarp like me, you'll need a bug-free enclosure to avoid going insane. It can be a minimalist one that just drapes over you, like the Gossamer Gear (GG) bug net, or one that attaches to your groundcloth, creating a fully enclosed space. A mid-way solution would be the A16 bug bivy. Each of these can weigh very little (under 200 grams, or 7 oz). For me, a headnet didn't cut it on the CDT, because I couldn't eat in one (duh) or completely protect my hands and ankles while resting. I strongly recommend having a bug-free enclosure that allows you to eat, rest, and write in your journal without having to worry about mosquitos biting you. This means something at least as protecting as the GG throw-over bug net or the A16 bug bivy, which pops open easily using a lightweight fiberglass frame. These will cost under $50.
Fully enclosed "net tents" cost a bit more, unless you sew one yourself. Here are some options:
- Ray-way net tent (two-man only, if I'm not mistaken). You'll need to sew it yourself, and it's designed to be used in conjunction with their tarp. It seems to be a little clumsy to use on its own, as it would require quite a few stakes and two sticks to hold it upright.
- MLD bug bivy. Lightweight and does the trick, but needs something overhead to hang on.
- Six Moon Designs (SMD) Serenity net tent. Lightweight and allows you to sit up to eat (very convenient). The downside is that it needs to be staked out before using. This reduces the likelihood that you'll actually set it up for lunch breaks.
- Any bivy sack with a fully netted head section, such as the Titanium Goat Ptarmigan bivy in the full netting option. This is certainly usable, but I wonder if I will not want more breeze passing across my body during breaks in the hot sections of the PCT.
I expect to be sleeping in a hammock most nights, so my choice of net enclosure has to be built around that. I'm going to sew a net tube with drawstrings at both ends (similar to this or perhaps one of the tapered ones shown here), and slip that over my hammock. A string will be tied over the top of the hammock to hold up the netting. It seems to be a very functional concept, and the net would weigh under 6 oz. Furthermore, I could slide into this netting if I ever sleep on the ground, and even suspend it from a branch for rest stops where I want to sit on the ground. I'll take pictures of this set-up as soon as I complete it.
My poncho-tarp is large enough to provide decent, though not ideal, coverage for my hammock. Most of the time I won't be using it, though.