Gear Jargon for your Noggin

I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that backpackers have their own kind of language when it comes to talking about gear, people, life, even food. Some of it is sort of neo-hippy hesh surfer slash 80’s breakdance, and some is… less straightforward. Most of the time it doesn’t really matter what we’re saying as long as we understand each other, but I wanted to throw together this post as a form of support for a new feature coming to Hike It. Like It., which is our interactive Gear Database.

Right now the database only contains shelters, with backpacks in the works. In order to make something like this, there comes a point where one must sit down and say to themselves: “This is going to be a lot of typing, I should grab a beer instead”. Then, a few beers and a nap later: “Ok, fine, I’ll do it but I’ll have to come up with a way to classify all this gear so it can be organized, searched for, and sorted in a useful way”. That last bit is the challenge. I love data though (not in a weird way); back when I was working as an engineer I created a parts database of over 200,000 individual items, linked it to 3D models of each part, then then tied them into our CAD system… would I be able to handle such an arduous task this time around??

Backpacks – coming soon!


This is by no means an industry standard, one doesn’t really exist, so I’m just going rogue. The idea here was to separate the features just enough to create some individual “types” of shelters, without going too nuts and having a ton of different types. Good enough. I built these sketches for you. I hope you like them, I’m no da Vinci.

Flat Tarps

Flat Tarp

The most basic of shelters. Their simple rectangular shape allows them to be pitched in a variety of ways, usually requiring a couple of trekking poles (or sticks) along with several guylines and stakes. Inexpensive to make, and no seams to seal. Flat Tarps are a fine choice for keeping night time dew and condensation off the sleeping area, but they provide less storm protection than other shelters and are less forgiving when it comes to bad pitch, site selection, or orientation with respect to incoming wind and rain.

Shaped Tarps

Shaped Tarp

Shaped Tarps are any variation of a tarp that doesn’t push it into the territory of a pyramid or other tent. One example would be catenary cut tarps, which employ a concave ridgeline and often have concaved edges to create maximum tension for a taut pitch. Tarps with beaks or other enclosed head/foot ends are also examples of shaped tarps. Typically, shaped tarps can only be pitched in their defined shape, unlike flat tarps which can be pitched various ways. Shaped tarps trade off some versatility in pitch options for improved wind and flapping resistance, and/or better rain protection. Shaped tarps may have one or more seams.

Hammock Tarps

Hammock Tarp

Hammock Tarps come in various shapes and designs; some are flat, others are catenary cut, and some are even asymmetrical to accommodate sleeping on the diagonal. All of them serve the common purpose of providing shelter for hammock hangers. These tarps often make use of a ridgeline which runs from tree to tree above the hammock and are then tied out to the ground with guylines. Sometimes trekking poles are used to create a porch area, but are not usually necessary for the pitch.

Poncho Tarps

Poncho Tarp

Poncho Tarps serve dual purpose a rain ponchos that can be worn while hiking. They feature a head opening (and sometimes arm openings) with hood, which can be tied shut or otherwise closed off when the tarp is being used as a shelter. Different variations of Poncho Tarps are abound, some resemble nothing more than a flat tarp with a head opening (the easy to draw kind!), others are more complex with catenary curves or even pyramid-like shelter configurations. One or two trekking poles (or sticks) will be needed to pitch them along with a few guylines and stakes.

Pyramids and other Mids


Pyramids might be viewed by some as tarps, and as tents by others. I think it’s best just to put them in their own class. 5-sided pyramids, half pyramids, and other variations on the general pyramid shape are also lumped into this group, which as a whole often gets called “Mids”. Their shape provides a good compromise between interior space, and wind and snow shedding capabilities. Pyramid construction requires multiple panels of fabric and thus they have multiple seams. One or two trekking poles (or sticks) will be needed to pitch them along with a few guylines and stakes.



Tents are essentially the “everything else” of shelters. There are too many shapes to begin to classify individually. All tents share a common thread; they provide a shelter which is fully enclosed from the elements and/or from insects. This means walls on all sides plus a floor. Tents that are sold as an inner + outer (or “fly”) still count as tents since they’re sold as a complete package, which is the standard for mainstream tents anyway. 3 Season tents are those which are not intended to be subjected to sustained winds of high velocity and/or heavy snow loading. 4 Season tents are those which are intended for use in winter where high winds and heavy snow are likely. They could have just called them 1 season tents, since they’ll be much more bomber than you’d need most of the year, but technically they’re sufficient for year round use.



A Bivy (or Bivy Sack) is a simple shelter which one climbs into just like climbing into a sleeping bag, in fact, a sleeping pad and bag will fit comfortably inside just about all the bivies on the market. Some bivies offer full rain/storm protection, others are made mostly of mesh screen and offer only bug protection, with the remainder of them falling somewhere in between. Most bivies utilize a water resistant bottom some sort of mesh face panel (because suffocation will ruin a trip). Many bivies are sized by their length and girth measurements due to their close fitting nature, (like sleeping bags are sized), however some are more like miniature tents and may be sized differently. Managing breathability (perspiration, condensation, etc…) and protection from the elements is the trick with bivies, and so careful consideration must be given to the intended use before selecting a bivy.

That does it for shelter types. Pretty simple stuff, right? Ok, let’s get into the various wall types…

Single Wall

A single panel of material between the occupant and the elements. Materials used are typically water resistant and try to be somewhat breathable, but condensation is a reality where there is moisture in the air. Many lightweight shelters rely on venting and air movement to reduce condensation within the shelter. The breezier, the less condensation; and a little condensation is ultimately not a big deal.

Double Wall

Two separate layers of material between the occupant and the elements. Materials used are typically water resistant and try to be somewhat breathable, but condensation is a reality where there is moisture in the air. Materials used on the inner can vary between full mesh to full solid panels; it depends very much on the tent and what it’s designed for. Suffice to say that many double wall tents rely on an inner with mesh sides, mesh top, and a solid floor. The main benefits of double walled shelters are (a) full bug protection and (b) protection from condensation that is knocked loose from the outer or drips off while the occupant is resting inside. 4 Season shelters which employ a solid inner offer additional warmth and protection from wind and elements, and can minimize condensation if vented properly.

Hybrid Wall

In the world of lightweight backpacking (which the mainstream is beginning to take notes from) many tents are of the hybrid type, meaning the bug netting and floor are sewn to the canopy. Typically these tents also have vestibules, which results in a double wall at the sides of the tent, and a single wall with respect to the canopy. The upshot is full bug protection and slightly improved protection from the elements, for a small gain in weight. Condensation on the canopy should still be expected when moisture is in the air.

Net Wall

It’s not common to think of a net tent as a single wall tent, so we have this category which indicates that the tent is intended for use as an inner (under a tarp, pyramid, or other tent of single wall design), or simply as a bug shelter if used alone.

Other References

Dave Chenault wrote a nice essay on his blog regarding shelters (mostly mids) and shared his thoughts about tents and isolation from the outside.

Sleeping Bags – coming soon!

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava

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