Floorless or freestanding shelters?
In more recent years, floorless shelters have become very popular among western big game hunters. Some people swear by them, and others hold tight to a more traditional double-walled tent. Both styles of tents have their pros and cons, and some scenarios are better suited to one type over the other. In this article, I will explore the pros and cons of each style and offer some ideas on when you may want to opt for one or the other. If you are hunting multiple seasons and locations across the West, you are likely going to need both types at some point; however, I can offer some ideas that can help you narrow the search based on your needs.
The most substantial considerations are season, temperature/climate, wind/exposure, and location.
Floorless shelters are typically single-walled, tent/tarp-style shelters that do not have a floor. Although you can get and use pole systems with a floorless shelter, the most common means of pitching a floorless shelter is to use guy-out lines, stakes and trekking poles or a single lightweight pole designed to pitch the center of the shelter.
Weight and pack size
One of the primary reasons to consider a floorless shelter is to save weight. Since these types of shelters do not have the floor and inner mesh portion of a traditional tent, they are often several ounces lighter than a comparable traditional tent of the same size. Floorless shelters also have a more simple pole system. You can pitch them with trekking poles or even cut a tree or limb in the field to use as the center pole support. In addition, you can also save space in your pack. A single-wall, floorless shelter packs down much smaller, offering you more room in your pack for additional gear. Floorless shelters also offer better floor space/weight ratios. You will get more room internally for less weight.
Hot tent combo
In my opinion, the other significant benefit of a floorless shelter is that most can be used in conjunction with a lightweight, packable, wood burning stove. As a younger man, the opportunity to backpack hunt in late season cold weather was somewhat limited due to the fact that it was extremely tough to stay warm. That all changed with floorless shelters and stove combos. Hunters can now hunt far from roads and trails during the cold weather late seasons with the comfort of a hot tent. Rather than cooking and going to bed cold, you can now stoke a fire, cook, eat and climb into your sleeping bag at a warm comfortable temperature. Once again, in the morning, a fire burning in a titanium stove makes it much easier to get out of bed and prepare for the hunt. One major benefit of a hot tent combo is that it allows you to hang and dry wet clothing and gear. I did a DIY moose hunt in Alaska a few years ago and the chance to dry out our clothing was very helpful. Lastly, a wood burning stove is great for boosting morale. In cold weather, it’s easy to talk yourself off the mountain, but a warm woodfire stove can help boost your mood and hopes for the rest of the hunt.
Clean camp and convenience
It’s much harder to keep a clean tent when using a traditional shelter. Many times I have returned to my tent late at night, cold, hungry, wet and muddy and had to manage unlacing my boots, kicking them off and squirming inside my tent. It’s hard to keep all the mud and dirt out of a traditional style tent and off your gear. In comparison, a floorless shelter allows you to unzip the door, step in and sort out your gear inside the security of a shelter. I often pair my floorless shelter with a bivy or I put my sleeping setup on a ground cloth. With this method, I can sit down inside, take my boots off, cook and head to bed without worrying about getting mud all over the floor of my tent and gear.
The last couple ideas I would add to the pro column for floorless shelters is that many of them can be pitched in a variety of ways. A simple rectangular tarp can be pitched as a lean-to, A-frame, closed A-frame, or a diamond fly. The smaller floorless shelters can be pitched to offer protection in less than ideal locations, such as over a deer or elk bed on a steep slope, for example.
Single-wall floorless shelters generally have more condensation buildup on the inner wall than a double-wall traditional tent. Condensation forms when the air temperature inside the tent warms up from body heat, heaters, and a lack of ventilation, and when warm air inside the tent hits the cooler fabric of the tent the moisture condenses into liquid form. Condensation can be mild, or it can be bad enough that it’s dripping off the inside of the shelter and can wet the rest of your gear out. Condensation is worse when there are wide swings in the day and night time temperature and more moisture in the air. The worst I have ever experienced was on an August archery antelope hunt in New Mexico. The daytime highs were in the 90s and the nights were in the 40s and 50s with afternoon thunderstorms almost every afternoon. The condensation was so severe inside my floorless tipi tent that I had to put away all my gear almost every day before I left to hunt.
There are some things you can do to alleviate condensation. The first is to find a drier location on the ground with the least amount of grass. This seems to help because there is less moisture in the ground. Ventilation is the second key to reducing condensation. Most floorless shelters can be pitched in a manner where you can leave a gap between the ground and the edge of your tent, which provides some airflow under the shelter. On nights where there is no rain or snow, I typically leave the doors or one door tied back to offer more airflow. Finally, if you can, you may need to sleep more towards the middle away from tent walls. Condensation is often more of an issue on early humid season hunts. On late-season hunts when paired with a stove, you will get frost forming on the inside, but you don’t get water droplets falling, so it’s much less of an issue.
Bugs, mice, and snakes
Mice will chew through anything if there is something inside your shelter that they want, but with a floorless shelter they are free to come as they please, which can make for an uncomfortable night. Personally, I have never had a snake crawl into my floorless tent, but in a lot of the country I hunt in, it’s a possibility. I regularly do a quick check when I get back to camp if I am hunting early season low country. If snakes are an issue for you and the possibility of an encounter outweighs the benefit of a floorless shelter, I would urge you toward a fully enclosed zippered tent. Lastly, bugs can be an issue, especially on early season hunts. I have had a few very uncomfortable nights during August and September when mosquitoes made a feast out of me. I have also had spiders crawl on me at night, but I’ve never had an issue with getting bitten. Overall, I do not worry too much about mice or snakes and I try not to camp near standing water or areas where mosquitoes are a problem. Undoubtedly, at some point, bugs will be a problem, but the benefit outweighs the risk for me in most cases.
Water/snow running or blowing inside the shelter
On two occasions, I have experienced early-season snow storms and wind has blown snow under my floorless shelter. Generally, snow is not a significant problem unless it’s heavy, wet, deep snow or if it’s blowing in sideways and you don’t have your shelter staked to the ground. I have heard of instances where heavy rain has been a problem. In these cases, the problem has been due to the camping location. You do not want to pitch your shelter in a low spot where runoff is going to run and pool. When you pitch your shelter, be aware of the location and the likely route that water will take during a storm. You may also need to dig a small ditch around your shelter to push water away. Water running into my shelter has never been a problem, but it’s something to be cognizant of.
High winds can be a problem, in my opinion, for floorless tipi-style tents and tarps. If the area you are camping in and hunting is more exposed and winds are common, I prefer a tent over a floorless tipi tent. Many of the tipi tents utilize a single center pole and there is a lot of exposed surface area to catch wind and cause problems. You can pitch them relatively taunt, and although I have occasionally had to go out and re-stake a tent, I have not had one come down entirely. I have lost a lot of sleep due to wind blowing and whipping the fabric of the tent around. This is not to say that wind does not also cause some sleepless nights in a traditional tent, but the pole systems of most tents do provide a more sturdy setup.
Setup time and difficulty
Whether you choose a floorless tipi tent, tarp, or a traditional tent, you should set it up several times so that you can do it quickly if need be. Most traditional tents with a pole system are easy to set up since the pole is held together with an internal bungee cord and you simply put the pieces together. Personally, I think it’s easier to put together a traditional tent; it’s foolproof, but it’s not necessarily any faster. With some practice, I can put my tipi-style tent or tarp up quite quickly, but it’s a little more tricky putting it up by yourself and getting the spacing perfect the first time. I would not consider setup difficulty as a con, but I do think it takes more practice and is not as intuitive as a traditional tent.
Floored shelters/freestanding double-wall tents
Freestanding tents hold their shape on their own without having to be staked or guyed out. A freestanding tent holds its shape and structure as provided by the pole system. You should stake them down, but once they are set up, you can pick them up and move them around freely without collapsing. Freestanding tents typically come with an internal breathable mesh tent, bathtub-style floor, pole system, and a rainfly that goes over the poles and creates a “double-wall.” The double-wall provides dead air space between the inner mesh and rainfly portion of the tent.
Double-wall traditional tent designs vent much better than single-wall floorless tents. Air can pass under the rainfly and through the inner tent, which reduces condensation. Moisture can pass through the tent's interior breathable mesh and condense on the rainfly. Condensation still happens within this style tent, but much less so when compared to a single-walled floorless option. A freestanding double-wall tent is an excellent option in humid environments or on early to mid-season hunts when there are wide temperature fluctuations.
A double-walled freestanding tent has the advantage in terms of weather and wind protection. The bathtub-style floor, rainfly, and pole system offer better protection from rain, snow and high winds. You don’t need to be as concerned with running water or blowing snow. Particularly in windy weather, I much prefer a free-standing tent. The pole structure is not dependent on a single center pole or trekking poles and stakes for a consistent tight pitch. The pole system offers more structure and a secure pitch in high winds. It’s also quieter in windy weather and I typically sleep much better in this style of tent on windy nights. One final note: I also find a double-wall free-standing tent warmer than a floorless shelter (without a stove). The double-wall does create a dead air space and a slight bit of insulation.
Ease of setup
This may be a moot point since I do find the floorless tents and tarps very easy to set up but it does require more practice beforehand. Whereas, a free-standing tent is relatively self explanatory and, if you have put one up one time, you can repeat it very easily. Most models even have color-coded corners and poles. You don’t need to be aware of stake spacing or adjust the height of a trekking or center pole support. All you do is put together the pole, put each end into the associated grommet and attach the clips for the mesh interior tent. The rainfly is also very easy to install. Another benefit to a free-standing tent is that you can set up and then move and position it wherever you like. A floorless tent has to be staked initially and, if you end up needing to move it, you are removing and re-staking it again and again. It’s a minor advantage, but I do think a free-standing tent is easier to put up and position.
This requires some explanation since a floorless tipi-style tent does offer more floor space for the weight. On the other hand, in terms of interior space, a freestanding tent does offer more headroom. The pole configuration of most freestanding tents allow the side walls to be nearly vertical, which provides good headroom. A tipi-style center pole floorless shelter has good floor space; however, the overall usable space is limited by the steeper slanted walls. The overall center height of this type of tent is often lower, but the room above your sleeping area allows you to sit up easily.
Bug, snake and mice protection
This is relatively self-explanatory, but a zippered interior mesh tent and rainfly offers much better protection from mosquitoes, spiders, and the possibility of a snake crawling into bed with you. Mice can still chew through this type of tent, but at least they will have to work for it a bit more.
Free-standing traditional tents are almost all heavier. The space/weight ratio is not nearly as good as it is with a floorless shelter. There are some great lightweight options, but when compared to a floorless tent, they are almost all heavier because they have zippers, a floor, internal mesh, stakes, poles and a rainfly. The pros may outweigh the cons, but it’s a subjective decision. I would argue that there is a time and place for both types.
Currently, I am unaware of very few options for a free-standing double-wall tent that can also be used with a packable stove. The Stone Glacier Skydome is a 6-man tent with poles and double walls that also has a stove jack, but it is not a suitable backpack-style tent. It’s very roomy, heavy and not an option for backpack hunting. Beyond it, I am not aware of any single, two- or three-person double-wall tents that can be used with a stove. If you decide to use a freestanding tent on a late-season hunt, you’ll need to also pack a sleeping pad and bag with ample insulation to accommodate those cold late-season temperatures.
In conclusion, I would like to give my opinion on when you might consider one type of shelter over another. Of course, if you have read through the pros and cons above and have a propensity towards one over the other due to a benefit that it offers, then I would suggest you go that route with your gear selection. For those who are still on the fence, here are some ideas.
For early season high country deer, bighorn sheep or mountain goat hunts, I would recommend a durable free-standing tent. The primary reasoning is that those shelters provide better wind and rain protection. Any open country hunt that is highly exposed to wind and weather, I have grown to prefer a structured free-standing shelter.
For early-season elk hunts, I think you have some options. I prefer a more mobile, lightweight camp for backpack elk hunting. In these cases, I would rather save weight and have a quick, easy camp. For me, I prefer a bivy and a lightweight tarp or floorless shelter. Elk most often inhabit forested terrain so I am less exposed to the elements and I like the benefits of a very lightweight mobile camp.
For late-season hunts, there are a couple trains of thought. As previously stated, one primary benefit of a floorless tipi-style shelter is that you can use it in conjunction with a stove. If I am hunting mule deer or elk and I can find a little cover for wind protection, I prefer a floorless shelter and a stove combo. The stove provides warmth and the ability to dry out wet gear. If the late-season hunt is for a species like mountain goat, bighorn sheep or even antelope, I would recommend a free-standing tent that is sized appropriately for your group. Anything larger than what your needs are and you are just wasting and dispersing critical body heat.
For Alaskan adventures, it depends on the species and terrain. As stated, for mountain goat and bighorn sheep, I would recommend a high-quality tent. For caribou, once again, I would suggest a free-standing tent that will handle the open tundra conditions better. For moose and bear, I think you can evaluate the area and then decide. If you have some cover for weather protection and fuel to burn in a stove, I believe a floorless shelter with a stove is a nice combo. The stove is very nice to have for drying out boots and gear.
Some of my favorite shelter options from the GOHUNT Gear Shop:
- Rab Siltarp Plus
- Seek Outside DST Tarp
- Stone Glacier SkyAir ULT Tarp
- Stone Glacier Skyscraper Tent
- Stone Glacier Skydome
- Seek Outside Eolus
- Seek Outside Silex
- Outdoor Research Ascent Shell Bivy
- Seek Outside Cimarron
- Seek Outside Redcliff
- Hilleberg Enan Tent
- Hilleberg Soulo Tent
- Hilleberg Rogen Tent
- Hilleberg Helags Tent
- Hilleberg Nallo Tent
- Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 Tent