Here’s a quick rule of thumb for gear: there’s light-weight, there’s effective, and there’s cheap–and you can normally pick two.
Normally is the operative word for this review. I like to find gear that falls somewhere between all these points, and while it’s hard to do, on occasion a certain piece will shine. For me, one of those pieces is Mountainsmith’s Mountain Shelter LT.
Now, normally Mountainsmith is not a brand that comes to mind when I think “light,” the brand normally instead conjuring up bombproof, and relatively affordable gear–just not the lightest stuff. However, the specs speak for themselves:
The Stats (Copied from their site, ‘cuz I’m lazy)
- 2 Person
- Three season tarp
- Zippered single door, two person layout
- Sets up with 2 standard trekking poles – 53″H at Front / 40″H at Back
- Rear ventilation window
- Reflective guylines with tensionlock cord adjustment
- Guyout attachment points (top two guyouts enable overhead tree set-up instead of dual trekking pole set-up)
- Reinforced V-stakes
- Stuffsack included
- YKK® Zippers
- 3M™ Reflective Cord
- Set-up instructions printed on stuffsack
- 40dx244T Nylon Storage Sack
- 7075 Aluminum V-Stakes -13pcs
- Tarp: 40d Sil-Nylon Rip Stop PU2000MM F/R
- 142″ x 54″ x 84″ (360 x 137 x 213 cm)
- 54 ft² / 5 m²
- Spacious front door area behaves as vestibule
- 4′ 6″
- 1 lb 15.5 ozs / 0.89 kg
- 2 lbs 1 oz / 0.9 kg
Now, while 2lbs (slightly less if you bring your own tent stakes or just use sticks) isn’t the most ultralight, for a shelter it’s pretty good, especially at it’s $129.95 price tag. So, we’ve got affordability and weight dialed in, but what about the effectiveness?
I’ve been using the Mountain Shelter LT for a little over a year now, using it first in winter conditions and later in the spring and summer months. Honestly, the majority of the testing I’ve done has been overnights and test-runs in local woods, as I normally bring the Shelter along as a back-up when I’m hitting lean-tos in the Adirondacks. In a way, though, that’s a great remedy for a common scenario many of us face on more traveled trails: you’re 90% sure you’ll be in a lean-to, but you know you can’t risk the 10%. When traveling with a partner makes a bivie sack ineffective, the Shelter is a great option.
Now, setting it up: Mountainsmith gives you easy instructions printed on the stuffsack, but you can swap it out for a compression sack once you practice a few times: stake the back 3 tabs down, place the rear trekking pole, stake the front 3, place the front pole, stake the side tabs, and adjust. Mountainsmith wisely prints the pole measures right onto the side of the shelter, but weirdly–and I hope I’ve got a misprinted tent (someone from Mountainsmith feel free to tell me if I do)–it’s printed inside out and backwards on the inside of the tent. Same with their logo–it’s inside the tent, but backwards. This isn’t actually a performance issue–tent works fine–but it’s raised existential issues in me regularly.
In both snow and solid ground, I’ve found the pole-measurements need some tweaking, as the poles will sink a little. Normally, I place the poles at the recommended size, and sink them in, and then raise them slightly as I see fit–still haven’t had any issues!
The inside of the shelter is spacious, but definitely low to the ground, which has given me some back-aches after hunching over Gollum-style too long–but that’s just part of using a tarp. When tensioned properly, the bottom of the tarp is raised slightly off the ground, giving you good airflow and preventing excessive condensation. Yes, you’ll get some, but that also is just part of going outside. In the wintertime I woke up with a decent frosting of ice inside, but none really fell on my gear. If you unzip the front part of the door at the top and open up the mesh-paneled vent at the rear, you’ll definitely get some nice airflow.
Speaking of which, the door-zipper doesn’t catch, which is perhaps the gold-standard of any shelter.
The tarp does a great job at cutting the wind and rain, and while I haven’t gone through any deluges, I don’t foresee problems. I actually did take a decent snowfall with it (2-3 inches) and also didn’t have any problems. I’ve been pretty untrusting of the Shelter’s saddle-shaped design, which I’ve been worried will fill with water in the center, but if you tension it out properly the water and snow slides off well, so it seems you’ve got nothing to worry about.
The only real issues I’ve had with the Shelter is setting it up in snow, as in deep, soft snow the stakes don’t work, requiring some dead-man stake placement, and even then I found the tarp lost some tension as the night wore on. However, complaining about this is like saying my knife makes a terrible hammer–I don’t believe the Shelter was intended for deep snow use, but it’s always fun to see if you can make it work. I hope to rig up a better system next winter for it.
The Shelter is an easy-to-set-up, light weight, and relatively affordable piece of reliable gear, making it a great option for campers and backpackers looking for lighter alternatives without making their wallet ultralight. While you can go lighter with speciality gear from companies like Mountain Laurel Designs, Gossamer Gear, and many other excellent specialty companies, but these weight savings come from material more than inherent design, explaining the huge cost difference. The genius of the Shelter is its design, which has all the features you need to set up the tarp easily, lacking any weight-adding excesses.
Pros: Easy set-up, light-weight, affordable, durable
Cons: Low pitch makes you hunch a little (again: just part of going light thought).
Things I Weirdly Value: The bright yellow color makes it feel warm and light even on cold winter nights.
Musings: While I like the idea of bug netting for the top vent, it seems kind of silly when you
consider the entire bottom of the tent is open. While the mesh doesn’t add much weight, I feel like with it’s absence you might get some better airflow, or potentially run tree straps for a small hammock through, using the Shelter over a hammock when guyed between two trees. Again: not the intended use, but something I’ve been thinking about modifying.
Tips and Tricks: No need to sleep on the ground directly: add a thin painters drop tarp cut to your pad size underneath to keep your bag and pad clean for almost no weight and cost. If you decide you want a thicker tarp, go with a 1p tent footprint, which are relatively cheap. Lay this out first, then set up the shelter around it to keep you and it clean; connect the shelter and the footprint through the same guypoint to keep it together in one nice, neat package.
Looking to avoid bugs? Add a mesh bivy! I use OR’s Bug Bivy, leaving behind the internal poles, instead attaching it with a small piece of shockcord to a trekking pole.
Written by Chris, who spends enough time hiking to want light gear, but not enough that it’s worth buying a tarp that costs more than his car.