Ultralight Backpacking Shelter
SlingFin SplitWing Shelter Bundle
$345, 1 lb. 5 oz./595g (entire bundle, including six DAC stakes weighing 2.4 oz.)
Over nearly three decades of testing and reviewing backpacking gear, I’d say the category that has seen the most technological advances is backpacking tents. Still, a radically different tent comes along only rarely—and the latest is Slingfin’s SplitWing Shelter Bundle, a package of three modular ultralight shelter components that constitutes one of the lightest and most versatile, three-season backpacking shelters available today.
The SplitWing Shelter Bundle is comprised of three components that can all be purchased separately (purchasing the bundle saves $25): the floorless SplitWing UL Tarp ($180 purchased alone, 7.9 oz. not including the six included DAC stakes, which add 2.4 oz.), the SplitWing Mesh Body ($135 purchased alone, 11.2 oz.), and the SplitWing Vestibule ($55 purchased alone, 2 oz., 6.8 square feet).
I slept alone in the SplitWing UL Tarp and Mesh Body on a four-day, roughly 50-mile, late-September backpacking trip in Yosemite, when nights dipped into the 40s but we got no rain or bad weather. I also slept solo under the tarp only, sometimes with the vestibule installed, on a five-day, 46-mile, early March hike in The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park, where we had some wind—including one night with gusts of 25 to 30 mph and rain showers. Although I worried about that weather while in this shelter—especially about the loose dirt holding the stakes in the ground (they never popped out)—the tarp and vestibule held up in that wind and kept me dry.
For starters, the defining fact about the SplitWing Bundle is this: You’d be hard pressed to find a lighter shelter for one to two people that includes a rainfly, mesh interior body for bug protection with a floor, and a vestibule. And when using only the SplitWing Tarp, you have a shelter with adequate space for two people and their gear at an almost absurd weight of four ounces per person. With all three components, the shelter ranks among the lightest solo backcountry shelters.
In addition, few backcountry shelters pack down smaller than the SplitWing, with all three components fitting inside one stuff sack measuring 10x5x5 inches, or slightly larger than a bread loaf. They each also come with individual sacks.
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Pitching with two adjustable, collapsible trekking poles for significant weight savings over a traditional tent with dedicated poles, the SplitWing Tarp accommodates one or two people, with a copious 37.8 square feet of sheltered area when combining the tarp and the removable SplitWing Vestibule (without the Mesh Body).
Using the tarp sans vestibule, sheltered area ranges from a snug (for two people) 27 square feet to a fairly roomy 32 square feet, depending on the height at which you set the tarp’s front trekking pole, which ranges from 100cm/39 inches to 130cm/51 inches, a peak height greater than many backcountry tents.
That spotlights another aspect of the SplitWing: Like some tarp shelters—but unlike many ultralight tents that pitch with trekking poles set at a specific length—the SplitWing Tarp can be pitched in various configurations, a versatility enhanced by two “wings” at the front end, allowing you to increase floor area with a low pitch or maximize headroom with a taller pitch.
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The wings can be guyed out at varying positions to customize the weather protection, headroom, and wind profile. Plus, the adjustable guylines permit elevating the bottom edge of the tarp off the ground for more ventilation and headroom without, up to a point, compromising protection from precipitation. The tarp has a panel at the foot end to close it off, increasing protection from wind and rain.
With any floorless tarp, of course, one drawback is the lack of a floor—an inconvenience I find most undesirable in desert environments, where you’re often camping on very fine sand, which can infiltrate your sleeping bag (especially in wind) and cling annoyingly to the exterior fabric of an air mattress. A light but durable ground cloth comes in handy in those situations.
The vestibule lacks a zipper, closing with a buckle and hook-and-loop tab. That’s arguably less convenient than a zipper but simple, quiet, and easy to grow accustomed to using—and helps create a lighter structure. The vestibule can be rolled back to leave one side open for ventilating and easier coming and going. A pole pocket eases setup integrated with the tarp.
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With no interior pole structure, the SplitWing Mesh Body attaches to the tarp via five toggle rings: three along its peak and one on each side wall. Those can be left attached when packing up the shelter for quick setup later, which also keeps the interior tent dry when pitching in rain. Its floor area of 24.8 square feet (the vestibule adds 6.8 square feet of storage space) makes for a quite cramped shelter for two people. While it’s possible to share the Mesh Body, I’d recommend that only for two (or at least one) relatively small people and trips where you can count on mostly dry weather, using the SplitWing primarily just for sleeping. Otherwise, the Mesh Body creates a spacious solo shelter.
For an airy, bugproof shelter on dry nights, the Mesh Body can be pitched alone with two trekking poles rigged in basically the same fashion as the tarp. When using the Mesh Body and/or SplitWing Vestibule, the front pole length must be set at 110 centimeters.
Shelters that pitch using trekking poles typically require a bit more setup time compared to a freestanding, double-wall tent and involve specific steps—and the SplitWing is no different. After first staking out the tarp’s two foot-end corners, you use one trekking pole fully collapsed to guy out the foot end, followed by the other pole extended with its grip secured in the tarp’s pole pocket. Stake the two front wing guylines and corners and you have a sturdy shelter. After practicing the setup in my back yard before my maiden voyage with the SplitWing, I found it simpler and faster to erect than some ultralight shelters that pitch with trekking poles.
Slingfin recommends staking the two front guy lines to the same stake in the middle at most pitch heights (including at 110cm height for the accessories). This provides a little more tension in the wings and slightly better rain coverage. Similarly, when using the vestibule, it and the guylines should go to the same stake.
For backpackers not using trekking poles, Slingfin sells Carbon Poles for the SplitWing ($71, 3.9 oz., fixed length, or $86, 4.6 oz., adjustable).
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I must point out two complaints about the SplitWing, both of which will affect users differently. First, a key design features that enable much of its versatility—the wings—tend to partly obstruct the shelter’s entrance. At five feet eight inches and about 150 pounds, I found myself having to duck low when entering and exiting and occasionally catching a shoulder or foot on the wings’ guylines. A bigger person may find that more annoying than I did. Even when offsetting the front pole slightly, as Slingfin recommends, that pole only further hinders easy access and egress.
Slingfin does suggest a way to alleviate some of the contortions of coming and going: With the guylines attached to wire gate clips on the wings, rather than tied in directly, you can unclip the guylines from the wings can when coming and going, allowing the guyline to remain staked. It’s easiest to do this by “back-clipping” the guyline (like you’re not supposed to do when lead climbing, for the climbers reading this) by grabbing and using the guyline itself to press against the wire gate to open it. I suppose that’s no less convenient than opening a vestibule zipper (if there was one) but it doesn’t entirely eliminate that critique.
Also, while the peak height is adjustable and can be set to provide good headroom around the front trekking pole (as well as a taller doorway), as with virtually any shelter that pitches using trekking poles fore and aft, the walls slope off that center peak, greatly limiting the area where headroom is good. You simply won’t sit up in this shelter as comfortably as in some freestanding, two-person tents that feature a “bridge” or “eyebrow” pole to elevate more of the ceiling above opposing doors—especially when sharing the SplitWing with another person.
While it goes without saying that any tarp provides excellent ventilation, it’s also quite good with the Mesh Body in place and obviously gets limited with the vestibule fully closed up, although air flow under the perimeter helps a lot. The SplitWing Mesh Body has a good drip line, though blowing rain can get inside without the vestibule in place.
Lastly, with any ultralight fabric, durability can be a concern. The 10-denier nylon ripstop sil/sil used in the SplitWing tarp, vestibule, and Mesh Body is very thin and light but has 20-denier, PE-coated nylon ripstop reinforcements at high-stress points—the same fabric used in the Mesh Body floor.
In addition, with tents, the usual first points of failure are the tent body floor and zippers. The entire SplitWing Bundle sports just one zipper—on the Mesh Body (none on the tarp or vestibule). That zipper is straight to ensure longer life and has pre-installed spare zipper sliders, so when the first set wears out, you don’t have to ship the mesh body to Slingfin for a zipper repaired. (Slingfin tells me it’s usually the slider that wears out, rather than the zipper chain itself, so this will dramatically increase the lifespan of the zipper.) Plus, I’ve found that reasonable care in using an ultralight shelter usually prolongs its useful life.
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SlingFin SplitWing Shelter Bundle
While it has some shortcomings—as do many tents, especially ultralight models—the modular SlingFin SplitWing Shelter Bundle has virtually no rivals for minimalist weight, packability, versatility, and affordability among ultralight backcountry shelters.
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You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase the SlingFin SplitWing Shelter Bundle at slingfin.com or any individual components of it: the SlingFin SplitWing UL Tarp at slingfin.com, the SlingFin SplitWing Mesh Body at slingfin.com, the SlingFin SplitWing Vestibule at slingfin.com, or the SlingFin SplitWing Carbon Poles at slingfin.com.
See all reviews of SlingFin shelters, “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents” and all reviews of backpacking tents, ultralight backpacking tents, backpacking gear, and ultralight backpacking gear at The Big Outside.
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NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See The Big Outside’s Gear Reviews page for categorized menus of gear reviews and expert buying tips.