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The Tarp Bivy Combo: Your Sub 1lb Shelter

My Ultralight home for a few days

Making the switch to a tarp didn’t happen quickly for me, the thought of creepy crawlies walking all over me while I slept wasn’t exactly alluring. Over the years I’ve slowly reduced the weight of my shelters, mostly tents and hammocks, but eventually I reached the point where tents and hammocks were holding me back from going lighter. I had been wanting to try a tarp for a long time, but needed a way to feel a little more protected from the multi-legged elements.

Transitioning from a tent or a hammock to a tarp can be very liberating. When you take that final step of eliminating the tent and embrace the tarp you are going to end up much closer to your natural surroundings. You’ll find that the sights, sounds, and smells of the night are no longer on the “outside”, they are all around you and right there with you. This can be one of the most exciting things about sleeping under a tarp, it can also be quite frightening for some people.

MLD Bug Bivy Under SpinnTwinn Tarp

To make the transition to a tarp a little easier for me, at least mentally, I chose to combine my tarp with a full bug bivy. Being ultralight and bug free was a lot more appealing than just being ultralight. After a lot of research and debate I chose the Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) bug bivy for its minimal weight 168g (5.93oz) and so that I could have a fully enclosed space underneath my tarp that would keep out the bugs yet still provide me with a sense of open tarpi’ness.

The Tarp
If there was one thing I’ve learned about setting up a tarp it’s that it takes practice. You definitely do not want to be figuring out how to set up your tarp for the first time in bad weather or as the sun is going down. Having a well rehearsed and familiar routine will make setting up and taking down your tarp quick and easy. I often find it hard to describe the sense of satisfaction and enjoyment a well practiced routine gives me. Try pitching your tarp in your backyard several times before taking it out on the trail.

I chose the Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn, which is a two person tarp weighing 253g (8.92oz). The SpinnTwinn is comfortably big enough for two people to lay side by side beneath it with room to spare. For me it is the perfect size to set up my bivy and have my trail buddy, Coco the chocolate lab, curl up and sleep by my side.

Corner Tensioners on SpinnTwinn

As part of my tarp practice I played with the length of the guylines so that I could determine how much cord was needed for the corners, sides, and ridgeline. Then I cut off the excess cord, leaving a few inches spare for adjustment. The four corners and sides of the SpinnTwinn have built in mini line tensioners, but the two end (ridgelines) do not. For these I use a simple taut-line hitch that adds no extra weight but can be used to tighten the guylines very quickly. I personally prefer to use knots rather than tensioners or other gadgets, not just because of the weight saving, but because a knot is much more reliable and far less likely to fail.

Tautline Hitch - Plain and Simple

Another way I save time with my tarp pitching routine is with a little trick I have with my trekking poles. I use my trekking poles as the front and rear supports for my tarp, they’re super lightweight and I have them with me on most trips. But the height I have them set at for walking and the height I need to have then set to for my tarp (45in for the front and 32in for the rear) are quite different.

To take the guess work out of making sure my poles are the right height, I have scored very feint lines around the shaft of the lower section of my poles that correspond exactly to the two lengths I need for my tarp – 45/32. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to see the lines in the photograph below, but trust me when I say they are very easy to see by the naked eye. I have a third marker on my poles to allow me to set them back to the perfect height for walking. It takes no effort at all and guarantees I’ll have the right height set for whatever I need to use my poles for.

Mysterious red rubber O-ring

On a related note. In the photo above you will see the mysterious red rubber o-ring that each of the Gossamer Gear LT4s now come with. I’ll admit that I had no idea what this was for and had to ask Grant to clarify. It’s actually quite brilliant. Before the o-ring was added to the poles, customers had remarked how their poles would occasionally fill up with water over night because it would drip down the pole and into the tiny opening between the two shafts. The smart guys at GG added a small o-ring that could be rolled down the pole to cover the tiny opening and act as a water barrier – brilliant. Mystery solved!

The Bug Bivy
On the underside of the SpinnTwinn’s ridgeline, at either end, are two small loops that my MLD Bug Bivy can be attached to via lengths of shock cord. This holds the bivy’s no-see-um netting up off of the sleeping bag and me. The base of the bivy is made of water proof silnylon that can be staked out at each corner for maximum space or left loose to lift up slightly and create a bathtub style floor in wet weather.

Kupilka Ready For Use

The Bivy Scoot
Getting in and out of the bivy took some practice too, especially when it’s slung tight up underneath my tarp. It isn’t necessary to always use the tarp, in some instances when I know the weather is going to dry and relatively warm all night, I’ll string a ridgeline between two trees and attach the shock cord of my bivy to that in order to lift up the netting. That’s as close as I am currently willing to get to sleeping outside under the stars.

But when the bug bivy is under my tarp there is very little room left to maneuver in and out of the lengthways zipper. This is where you realize why shock cord was used instead of a lighter weight cord that doesn’t stretch. So here is the method that I came up with and which works quickly and reasonably effortlessly for me, as they say – your mileage may vary.

I start by scooting under my tarp on all fours with my butt facing down and my front facing up until I am along side and parallel to the bivy. Then I unzip the full length bivy zipper, that is on the upper edge, and lift up my closest foot and put it inside the bivy while holding my butt up off the floor with my hands. I do the same thing with my other foot so that they are both inside the bivy and at the foot of my pad where they need to go. Then I do a quick butt lift and side scoot to land myself inside the bivy sitting down. I pull my arms in, lay down and zipper up the bug net!

It sounds weird and somewhat awkward, but it works great. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried. Getting out of the bivy is pretty much the same things, just in reverse starting again with my feet. I think of it as a similar method of how medical patients are lifted sideways from a hospital bed and onto a gurney – if that makes any sense?

A Sub 1lb Shelter
When you combine the weight of my tarp 253g (including the attached guylines) and my bug bivy 168g you get a total of 421g (14.85oz). I should add that the weights I list here differ from those stated on the manufacturer’s sites. These are after I have significantly trimmed the guylines that the SpinnTwinn comes with and after removing some of the excess shock cord from the MLD bug bivy.

I’m glad that I have finally made the transition to a tarp. As I said, it wasn’t easy and it took a couple of years to convince myself that it would be okay. Now, after quite a few nights out underneath it, I don’t think I could go back to tent camping, at least if it’s just me and Coco. When I take my kids, well that’s a different story – for now!

Coco Guarding Our Temporary Home

I’ll be going out to California in late August to climb Mt. Whitney with my friend Jason Klass. I’m planning on taking this shelter combo with me so I’ll report back on how it works out for me there, that is if you don’t see me in one of Jason’s survivor stud videos first!

I know I’m not the only one who has gone through the tarp transition and wonder if any of you have had a similar experience? If you use the MLD bug bivy or other bivy, I’d be very interested to hear how you get into and out of your bivy and if it’s the same scoot method that I use. If you have any questions of comments, please leave a response below.

Disclosure: The author owns the SpinnTwinn tarp and MLD bug bivy products and paid for them using their own funds. Gossamer Gear provided Brian’s Backpacking Blog with a complementary set of LT4 trekking poles as part of their Trail Ambassador product testing program.

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    “In the photo above you will see the mysterious red rubber o-ring that each of the Gossamer Gear LT4s now come with”

    Brian- the “o-ring” when positioned where to two sections of pole connect prevents rain from going inside of the pole…most of it anyway

  • Right, wasn’t that more or less what I said?

    “The smart guys at GG added a small o-ring that could be rolled down the
    pole to cover the tiny opening and act as a water barrier – brilliant.
    Mystery solved!”


    my apoligies, I read right over it…twice

  • I’m really looking forward to trying this bivy out myself.  I don’t know if it will work but my idea is to hook the foot end up and not hook the head end up until I’m inside.

  • Eugene Smith

    My guess is you haven’t slept out under the stars in just your bag, maybe a small bivy?  I

  • Bryce

    I agree.  I read basically the same thing.  unhook the sucker at one or both ends, then shimmy it up around you and refasten.

  • Bryce

    What’s funny is, not only 2.5 months ago a bought a new shelter (  with my exhaustive research. I thought I was “done.” haha.  And of course I find I’m wanting less weight and I’m close to buying an MLD poncho/tarp and bivy, haha:  Of well, it’s an addiction but there is always a trade off to less weight! Argh! :P

  • W.

    I am impressed by how light is your shelter. However, this system seems expensive and I’m very curious how it would behave in a storm.

    Also, the bug bivvy, although very useful, I find that it restricts a lot of the available space.

    I also try to reduce the amount carried while hiking and I recently bought a cheap tarp ( Not as light as yours, but a great step for me from a four seasons tent(3.5 kg or 7.7 pounds)

    Any idea what could be a replacement for the trekking poles in this kind of setup? I do not use them.

    Nice blog.

  • No apology needed, in fact you worded it much more elegantly than I did :-)

  • Eugene, you’re right, I haven’t slept out in just my bag. Much as I love the outdoors, the thought of bugs getting on my face puts me off. I’m considering getting a small bivy (not a bug bivy) so that I can try this out but still have a little protection.

    I agree that this setup is not that far removed from the tent concept, but for a lot of people having both ends open and exposing yourself to the elements is a frightening concept. Like you, in my youth I did exactly that and wasn’t at all bothered by being completely out in the open – it really didn’t even cross my mind. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to demand a few small creature comforts (pun intended).

    Knowing what I know now about how liberating a tarp can be, I’d have to agree with you that if anyone is considering trying a tarp they should go ahead and jump right in with both feet! Thanks for your feedback.

  • Joslyn, as far as I’m concerned there’s no right or wrong way of doing it. If that works out better for you then stick with it. In my mind I’d have to ask if it will be easy to reach up in the dark and clip on the shock cord even if you’re wearing a head lamp?

    I had tried something similar by having the cord very loose on the head end and adjusting it to be taught after climbing in, but it was a little fiddly. In the end I just set it up and used the elasticated stretch of the shock cord to afford me the space to get in and out. I really need to ask Ron Bell, the owner of MLD, what his thoughts are on this.

    Let us know how it goes if you can.

  • helenjfisher

    A great little report; looks to be a nice set up. I’ve only used rectangular tarps so far rather than cat cut so this would be another learning experience. I found just sleeping under the stars (no tent, tarp or even bivy) to give such a sense of freedom but that was before the bug season. I think whatever you’re comfortable with, then just do that!
    Will look forward to your trip report :)

  • Bryce, that’s tough to make a choice between the Zpacks Hexamid and the Bear Paw Cub Den and I’m surprised at the difference in price. It made me laugh to read that you geeked out and had to set up the Bear Paw as soon as you got home even though it was raining.

    Going light weight ‘can’ be addictive and for some it’s a ongoing battle. With the continual advancement in lighter, stronger materials it seems that there is always another slightly lighter option. I’m fortunate in that I didn’t go through a lot of equipment to arrive at the point where I am now, I simply didn’t have the money to do that. But the excitement of constantly going lighter and lighter can, to some people, become more alluring than simply being outside and enjoying your surroundings – which after all is what our gear is supposed to allow us to do right?

    Despite all of my blog posts showing how I’ve shaved a few grams off a piece of gear here and there, I’m more or less at where I want to be. I’m borderline UL right now but probably closer to just lightweight, I’m certainly nowhere near SUL. There are definitely trade-offs with everything and you have to find the point at which you’re comfortable.

    Great threads on BPL, thanks for sharing :-)

  • Helen, your blog posts and photos of you outside in just your sleeping bag inspire me to try it myself. I’m actually a fan of simple rectangular tarps for their flexibility of configuration. On day hikes I carry a silnylon 8×10 tarp to use as a quick sun shelter or for wind protection when my kids and I stop to have lunch or take a break. They think it’s fun to help set up too.

    I’m originally from Southampton (that’s on the south coast of England for those that aren’t familiar – and has a way better footy team than Portsmouth) and used to love spending time in the New Forest just a few miles west. I never really had any issues with crawling bugs at least as far as I can remember. Maybe it was the cooler weather or the time of year I would typically go outside, I don’t know. Flies were a problem though.

    However, here in mountains of North Carolina the bugs are crazy big and always so aggressive. Some of them are so big and weird looking that it freaks me out. We also have some nasty little spiders here including the black widow, so I like the protection the bivy offers me from all of them.

    I’m hoping this combo will work as well for me on Whitney as it does in the woods of NC. I’ll definitely be sharing the results when I get back.

  • Welcome to the wonderful world of tarps, Brian! The Bug bivy looks good too. I still need to get a decent one of those. At the moment I’m using a standard bivy which is a bit overkill for summer.

    My fave tip of your report, which went unmentioned but is clearly visible in the photos, is hanging a kuksa/kupilka from the LT4. A very nice finishing touch :)

    How does your dog cope with the bugs? I have a springer spaniel I always want to take with me, but he’s easily distracted by things such as rabbits, reindeer, raccoons etc. 

  • As a kid I’ve slept outside a few times.  As an adult, I’ve slept, shall I say, “exposed” a few times.  Being from the South, the biggest thing is mosquitoes.  I hate waking up itching.

    OTOH, the raw exposure to the night air has caused some minor health issues with sinus problems kicking in.  Little different than sleeping next to an open window though.  But I hate having a stopped up, yet runny, nose.

    As far as the bug issue is concerned look into some effective bug repellants.  I use permethrin for clothing to keep ticks out and keep biting bugs from biting through clothing.  It lasts through several washing and seems to be effective.

    I use picaridine on my skin to keep mosquitoes away.  I use this instead of DEET because of the way it feels on my skin and doesn’t melt plastic.  It doesn’t seem to last as long, but the trade off of being more comfortable, no oily feeling, and not melting my gear is worth it.

    While I was in the military I met a guy from Arizona.  He was raised on a horse ranch.  He would stay in the wild for days.  He described his sleeping arrangements as a bed roll which consisted of a sleeping bag wrapped in the heavy canvas tarp.  He would just unroll the whole thing and not stake out anything.  If it rained, he’d just pull the tarp over his head to stay dry.  Of course, he had a horse to carry everything and it didn’t rain much out there.

    Just a couple of thoughts.

  • Bryce

    The MLD Bivy is def light, but I don’t understand why they made it top entry.  They didn’t have to.  Both the minimalist from Bear Paw and the Zpacks bug shelter use side entry:  Do you know why they saw the top entry an advantage? 

  • Bryce

    I LOVE the GG LT4s poles, and mine have the o-rings too, but I don’t want to trust them to do their job if I don’t have to.  Here was a BPL discussion on it:

  • Bryce

    I am absolutely addicted to getting out to hike just as much as I am addicted to pouring over my gear lists, I admit it. haha.  But hey I could have worse addictions, crack kills! :p

  • Couldn’t agree more! The only wrong way of doing something is the way that doesn’t work for the person doing it.  Sadly, due to some other gear purchases that need to be made first, I won’t get a chance to try it out until closer to Christmas, maybe the beginning of next year, but as soon as I get my hands on it I’ll be doing a post on my blog as well.  Now if only I could decide which tarp I want to pair it with…

  • Thanks Mark. I hang my Kupilka there in good weather because I can easily get to it and see it. Besides, it does look kinda cool hanging there too and is always a great conversation piece!

    I used to only take my dog with me when I went tent camping because it was easier to keep her inside and protected. As a rule most Labs have a great temperament and we got lucky with ours, she is obedient to a fault but still enjoys acting goofy.

    The first few times I used my tarp with the bivy she was adamant that she needed to be inside with me. You can imagine what fun that was with all of the delicate no-see-um netting! But I persisted with her and let he sleep along side where she feels safe and warm. Now she knows her place and is just happy to be under the shelter, the bugs and small critters don’t seem to bother her much, and she keeps some of the small mammals away form me :-)

    I will add that she is a terrible snorer and has one twitchy hind leg that kicks out in her sleep when she is chasing bunnies.

  • Thanks Ken, I have been meaning to get some permethrin for the past few weeks bt keep forgetting. Great to hear that you have had good results with it and another great weapon to have in my bug arsenal.

    I do use DEET, albeit reluctantly, because I haven’t found any effective alternatives. I hate the way it feels sticky and oily on my skin, especially on a multi-day trip. I’ll take a look at picaridine for sure thanks.

    I’m definitely no cowboy, I like to have at least a little bit of bug protection.

  • I don’t know why Ron made i the way it is. I don’t particularly mind it now that I have my scoot down, but I’m sure there are alternatives ways of doing it. Is the side entry any better though?

  • Bryce, another great thread and link. I’m intrigued by the pole cap/cup idea and how it would let me use the point of my poles to dig into the ground more firmly. Keeping the foam away from gnawing critters is a plus too. Thanks!

  • Well I’m a fine one to talk, but I am trying to see past my gear fetish and get out as much as possible. I’m with you 100%

  • Joslyn, there are a lot of great lightweight and inexpensive tarp options available, so definitely shop around and check out some of the online reviews. Philip over at is very happy with his rectangular tarp and has posted some great information about the different types of tarp and their pros and cons.

  • W.

    I am impressed by how light is your shelter. However, this system seems expensive and I’m very curious how it would behave in a storm.

    Also, the bug bivvy, although very useful, I find that it restricts a lot of the available space.

    I also try to reduce the amount carried while hiking and I recently bought a cheap tarp ( Not as light as yours, but a great step for me from a four seasons tent(3.5 kg or 7.7 pounds)

    Any idea what could be a replacement for the trekking poles in this kind of setup? I do not use them.

    Nice blog.

  • W., The SpinnTwinn hold up really well in a storm if you adjust for it. I can stake down one of the sides, both sides, and even the back directly to the grown to stop bad wind and rain getting underneath. I’ve never had any issues with that. However, the spinnaker material it is made from is very noisy to start with and can be very loud in bad weather. Over time it does soften up considerably and the scratchy noise gets better.

    These two pieces of gear are expensive, but I’ve saved for them over time. I’m also fortunate that I didn’t feel the urge to continually buy and upgrade/replace my gear, I waited to get what I wanted and was patient. There are lots of light weight alternatives to the tarp and the bivy, it’s just a matter of what you are looking for. A really good quality tarp that I was considering some time ago is the Etowah Outfitter 10 x 10 tarp ($50). There are also lots of videos and patterns for making your own.

    With regards to an alternative to trekking poles, yes sticks! Lots of people I know don’t carry trekking poles with them and when they need to pitch their tarp they usually look for two trees close enough so that they can string a taut ridge-line or find two strong sticks to do the job. A simple clove hitch around the upper end of a stick will hold you guyline in place around the stick, so it’s not critical to get one the exact length, just as long as it’s tall enough. Obviously this would only work if you’re in an area that has sticks available.

  • Bryce

    In my head…yes.  But haven’t purchased one myself yet, so who knows.  Still messing with my spreadsheet with all the weights, options, combos. :o

  • Bryce

    A time ago I thought I was all
    set to take my little bottle of DEET w/ me on hikes during bug season….didn’t
    work for squat! :p (
    I ended up with my arms chewed up really bad from little black things that bit
    me 24/7.  On hot summer days, I just ended up sweating the DEET off and
    having to apply more.  It sucked.

    So as an alternative to short
    sleeves and DEET, I now exclusively hike in long pants (
    and long sleeved shirts (
     The combo is actually lighter than what I was wearing before.  I use a bandana tucked under a hat to keep
    bugs off my face and neck (keeps sun off too) and that has served me really
    well.  I detest the way bug spray feels on my skin as well, especially
    over a few days.

  • Most national chains will carry picaridine based repellant.  I’ve only seen it in spray or pump, not squeeze bottle or wipes.  It might be out there, but I’ve not seen it.  You might have to look hard.  Most of the time a store will have only one selection with picaridine amongst ten or more selections of DEET-based.

  • Good luck with Mount Whitney. It can get pretty cold with hail and snow in late August. Been there, done that!

  • I should be prepared for the worst, but lets *not* jix it nby saying that! =D

    Any other advice about Mt. Whitney to offer?

  • Trimbleman

    Hi Brian,
    I see the pole in the front of the tarp, what are you using at the rear of the tarp to keep it up?

  • My other trekking pole :-) It’s just hard to see it. My tarp uses both poles but they are set to different heights. Here is a photo of the tarp/bivy from behind, you can also see the wonderful view that I had in the morning!

  • 20 steps then breathe, 20 steps then breathe. Ignore the other zombies on the trail. Find a rhythm and keep up it. Good luck!

  • Sound advice! Tnx.

  • Question: Do people keep their sleeping bags inside their bivvies and roll or stuff the whole package together when they their backpacks. Seems like it would be a real time-saver when setting camp. Is there any reason not to?

    I’ve just started experimenting with tarp camping. I have an Equinox 8×10 siltarp that I bought from Campmor, and I’m planning to use it with an Outdoor Research Alpine Bivvy sack and to sleep outside the tarp unless the weather is bad.

    Thanks for the fascinating account of your own tarp experience.

  • Craig, I do now keep my sleeping bag inside my bivy when I pack up. It needs to be in there anyway and speeds up the setting up process of which putting my bag inside the bivy is one of the slower tasks.

    I do make sure I have taken everything else out of bivy, like my sleeping pad and pillow. I actually like to sleep out in just my bivy if the weather is dry and save the tarp for wet or windy weather. The bivy makes a great stuff sack for the sleeping bag :-)

  • Bryce

    I LOVE the GG LT4s poles, and mine have the o-rings too, but I don’t want to trust them to do their job if I don’t have to.  Here was a BPL discussion on it:

  • Kevin Wallis

    Do you bring your dog and does he sleep in the bug net area or “outside”?

  • Kevin, yes I take my dog on as many trips as she is allowed, some parks do not allow dogs unfortunately. She doesn’t sleep inside the bug bivy, that’s just for me.

    She sleeps close to me, sheltered under the tarp but not in the bivy. I’ll sometimes just throw some of my clothes or my jacket on the ground and let her snuggle up in that for the night.If she had her way, she’d be inside the bug bivy with me :)

  • The MLD bivy has a top zipper as you point out and it can be tricky to get into and out of if it is pulled taught up underneath the tarp, which mine usually is. There are two schools of thought on how to do this:

    1) Unclip one end of the bivy’s shock cord, unzip the bivy climb in, clips up the shock cord and zipper up. That was Ron Bell’s of MLD response to me when I asked him. I personally find it close to impossible to reach up (in the dark) far behind and over my head and clip a tiny plastic clip to a small loop on my Tarp – I can barley do it when practicing in daylight.
    2) My method: leave the bivy clipped on both ends, unzip the bivy at the top, pull one side of the zipper down to the ground letting the two shock cords take the strain and flexibility, sit my butt down, scoot in my feet, get in my bag and lay down, zip back up! Getting out is surprisingly much easier.
    It’s easer to do in practice than it is to write about it. As with all my gear I practice constantly to make sure that I am 100% familiar with how it works and how I will use it before I need to depend on it on the trail.

  • Daniel

    Thank you for the tutorial!
    To me camping is not a regular thing so I could definitely use your pieces of advice. Most understandable!

    Ringtone maker

  • Daniel

    Oh I forgot about the link to the useful program:) My bad…

    Ringtone maker

  • mathieu dreo
  • Dan

    Hey Brian, My only concern with the bug bivy is my bag getting wet. Have you used it in the rain? Have you set up your tarp bivy combo in moderately wet conditions? The bivy doesn’t appear to much in the way of silnylon/CF sides. Can you comment on how it performs in the wet?