The Beauty of a Pyramid Shelter

The Oware silnylon Pyramid in the Uinta Mountains

Shelter in the mountains can be critical, but no one likes lugging a big, heavy tent around. I remember the first dome tent I bought back in the 70’s. It was a pretty basic nylon dome  tent with fiberglass poles. It was heavy, probably 9 or 10 lbs. but did okay. But I wouldn’t want to be in a severe storm in it. The interesting thing about this tent is where I bought it. In San Jose, where I grew up, there was a Korean owned liquor store that sold these new geodesic dome tents. Really. This guy had tents set up all over the store, mostly in the aisles. They were pretty cheap too, and had no brand name on them. In fact, no labels at all. I used that tent for quite a few years, but hated packing it around because it was heavy and bulky.

I later bought a Sierra Designs Stretch Dome tent. This tent was solid as a rock, much lighter (I think around 7 lbs.) and was less bulky. The “stretch” feature used clips that were pretty revolutionary for their time. They pulled the tent fabric out creating more interior room. I used this tent backpacking, as a basecamp tent for climbing trips, car camping, you name it. After many years the waterproof coating on the floor and rainfly was peeling off and it was no longer storm worthy.

In college my climbing partner and roommate bought a Chouinard Pyramid. This was not your typical tent in that it lacked a floor. Because of the simple design, four sides with a single pole in the center, it was very lightweight and very compact (about 3 lbs.). This became our main residence nearly every weekend for a couple years during college. We used in the the Fall, Winter, and Spring. This tent was very stable in the wind, rain, snow, anything you could throw at it. Before I graduated from college I bought a Chouinard Megamid. This was slightly bigger than the original Pyramid for not much more weight. At that time they came with a collapsable single aluminum pole. Tent and pole together weighed 3.5 lbs. The really good part is that it was 9′ x 9′ and slept four, or was palatial for two.

Original Chouinard Pyramid on a trip in the early 80’s
Photo courtesy of Kai Larson
An original Chouinard Megamid in the Wasatch Mtns., Utah

I loved this tent and used it in all seasons, from climbing and skiing trips to car camping and mountain biking trips. One time in the early 90’s I went on a ski touring trip near Carson Pass in California with my brother-in-law. We skied a few miles in and set up camp. We used our skis to stake out the tent. That night the winds came up and blew ferociously. The gust were so hard that the center pole, which is pretty fat aluminum, was bowing a good 2-3 inches. I got up two or three times during the night to check that it was staked down well. My brother-in-law was terrified that the tent would blow away and we would be left exposed to the elements. It didn’t help that he had a pretty crummy sleeping bag and shivered all night, while I had an four season Moonstone Polarguard bag that was nice and toasty. I was very pleased that we had no issues whatsoever with the tent in high winds and snow.

Inside the old Chouinard Megamid

There are several things I really like about the pyramid design. One, as I mentioned, they are super stable in foul weather. This is pretty important in winter conditions where your life may depend on your shelter. This is partly due to the steep walls. The tent is about 5′ high which means the walls are very steep, and you have lots of head room. In fact they are tall enough that you can roll a bike into the tent and lean it against the pole opposite to where you sleep. Two, they are very lightweight and roomy. I have used pyramids many times with me and my three boys, with room left over for some gear. With four large adults it would be tight. With two it is very comfortable. Three, they are really simple. Just stake out the four corners, put up the center pole, then stake out the sides. I use ultra lightweight polycyro ground cloths on the ground inside to keep us off the dirt. (They can be found at gossamergear.com). Not only are they ultralight but they are surprisingly durable for how thin they are. Fourth, they are much less bulky than traditional double-walled tents. This is especially important if you are using an ultralight frameless backpack like I use. Finally, they can be staked up off the ground in milder conditions to allow for airflow. They can be pitched so the perimeter is as much as 8-9 inches above the ground.

There are some downsides to floor-less pyramid tents, or tarps as they are sometimes called. One, they are not freestanding, so they take a bit more planning when setting them up. Two, because they are a single wall, they don’t breathe as well as a traditional double-walled tent. Frankly I have not found this to be much of an issue. Three, they don’t have a floor, which some people do not like. Again, I have not found this to be an issue. As long as you pitch it in a place where water will not run (like in a depression), there are no problems. Of course, I say this living in the arid Rocky Mountains. This may be more of an issue in the Eastern U.S. or the Northwest which are much wetter. This kind of tent would not be good in humid conditions, but no tent is very good when it is humid and muggy. And finally, they do not offer ideal bug protection.

After using the Megamid for several years I decided to sew no-see-um netting around the perimeter to offer better bug protection. I bought some netting and nylon tape and had my wife sew a 12′ section of netting all the way around the perimeter of the tent. This did wonders for extra bug protection. Once the tent was pitched, you simple get some small rocks and weight the netting all around and you are ready to go. In the winter, fold the netting inside and pack snow on it for a nice tight shelter. I had read online that when bugs do enter a pyramid-type shelter they tend to head up to the top. I found this to be true. And at the apex of the pyramid they are easy to squish. Bottom line is that I have found these shelters to be perfectly fine in buggy conditions. But I have not used it in Canada or Alaska, but for the lower 48, they do great.

Several years ago I decided to upgrade my Megamid with a new silnylon pyramid. (I used the Megamid for more the twenty years). Silnylon is silicon impregnated nylon. It is remarkably waterproof and very lightweight compared to typical nylon such as ripstop nylon often used in tents. After looking around the web, reading reviews, and talking to people, I decided on the Oware 10′ x 10′ silnylon pyramid. (owareusa.com) They also have the option of sewing a netting perimeter. Sewing with silnylon is pretty challenging, so I paid the extra to have them do it for me. This new pyramid, with the netting, but not including a pole weighs only 26 oz. It is slightly larger than my original Chouinard Megamid, but a fraction of the weight and bulk.

Oware silnylon pyramid at Panguitch Lake, UT during a bike tour

The Oware pyramid came with three simple webbing straps that allow you to securely connect two trekking poles together to form the center pole. This is about all I use these days when I am backpacking. I do take the old pole from my Megamid when I am touring by bike. It’s a bit hard to see how the straps work from the photo below, but trust me, it really is easy and secure.

The webbing pole connection
Four people can sleep comfortably inside

In the photo below you can see the netting around the perimeter.

The Oware opened up

Last year I decided I needed a smaller silnylon shelter that would be lighter and less bulky for when I am out with just one other person. My climbing partner has a Black Diamond Beta Mid made of silnylon and I was pretty impressed with how light and small it packs. It was perfect for two people. I was pretty sold on the pyamid design, and went with the Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid, which is basically a half pyramid.  I had the netting sewn in around the perimeter. It is a bit fancier than my Oware pyramid. It has a netting vent at the top of the tent and it also has cord-lock tie outs around the perimeter. It is designed to be pitched with one trekking pole and the included pole jack, which is a simple four inch piece of aluminum tube. A single trekking pole is not quite long enough so this simple tube allows it to be pitched tautly with one pole. With the stuff sack, pole jack, and guy-line it weighs 18 oz. Like a regular pyramid it is super easy to pitch—stake out the four corners, put up the pole, then adjust for tautness and stake out the sides. It sleeps two comfortably, one on each side of the pole. The door opens on one of the long sides. It is long enough that you can store packs above your head. Again, I had no problems keeping bugs out on my last trip in the Uinta Mountains.

Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid
With the door open

I do have other traditional double-walled tents. In fact, I have several and they have their place. For car camping with my wife, I go with a four man double-walled tent. They are super cozy, sturdy, have netting lofts to store things, etc. I do like them, but if I am going out and have to carry my shelter on my back or in my panniers, especially if it is for several days, I’ll take a light weight pyramid every time. For me they are the perfect balance of light weight, weather protection, and interior space.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Chouinard, Black Diamond, Oware, Gossamer Gear, or Mountain Laurel Designs. I’m just a happy customer.

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