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Shelter Options - Operating from a Three Day Pack

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Our previous article on operating from a three day pack covered two topics: selecting a backpack, and choosing food and water. For part two of this series, we'll be examining shelter.

Once again, it's important to remind you of the purpose for these articles. Geared towards military simulation enthusiasts, these guides focus on living from a small rucksack for up to 72 hours in austere conditions. Unlike packing lists, these articles provide the factors to consider when selecting items in the hopes you'll assess your own needs and circumstances before making purchases. We provide some options and recommendations from regular players at our events for a wide range of perspectives.

Man setting up multicam tarp
Setup of a multicam tarp


Cooking, changing layers, drying out, and warming up are all made easier with some form of shelter. Even simple protection from wind, rain, or snow can help sustain operations. Unfortunately, some compromises must be made in this area. Tents can be a true sanctuary from weather and insects, but you'll pay for that comfort in weight, volume, and high profile setups. Tarps can be smaller and lighter than a bottle of water, but won’t offer 100% protection from the elements and pests.

Your choice of shelter equipment will be heavily influenced by your personal preferences and by the weather forecast. It might be difficult to find a single solution for every event. For that reason, it cannot be understated that personally testing options will yield such valuable data for your decision making process. Find like minded people and test various setups on low-stress overnight trips, especially if you've never used a bivy or tarp before. Keep in mind that you may be surprised by what passes for 'comfort' after a long hike. Regardless of what option you select, you'll be carrying it with you for the duration of your trip, so make an informed choice.

Shelter Considerations

Weight / Volume

When considering your shelter options, equipment weight and volume should be top of mind. What percentage of your full load is occupied by items that will only be used for a small portion of the event? Tents will always provide the best protection from precipitation, wind, and bugs. However if that tent takes up a third of your pack and adds three kilograms, is it worth it? It could be if you're splitting the load across three team mates, but packing and contingency planning will be critical. Becoming separated from the individual carrying the poles would be a serious issue.

Protection from Wind/Precipitation

Some shelter choices will isolate you from the weather better than others. Consider what you need based on the forecast and historical data. In our region, summers are usually hot and dry which means rain protection isn't a priority. However bug protection becomes more important in certain months. Also take into account your mission and what you'll be doing. Do you need an enclosed space to perform your tasks, or will you be just looking to keep the dew off you? Try not to let 'preference' drive 'need'. Use trips with friends to challenge your personal comfort level and see if you can you get by with less protection.

Usable Area

When you set up your shelter, can you cook under in it? Add clothing layers? Can you reorganize your gear? Keep your pack with you? Do you care about these things at all? Small bivy bags or one person tents may not allow you the flexibility to don/doff layers, or you may have to leave them to use a stove. Conversely, if your mission profile means light and sound discipline, you may be restricted from those activities anyways. There is value in having a precipitation free space to conduct admin tasks, but it may be something the group could share rather than co-locating it with your sleep kit.

Setup / Takedown Time

One of the most noteworthy considerations is setup and takedown time. It's hard to understate the power of speed in a dynamic simulation environment. Tarps and bivy bags can be broken down in seconds, stuffed into a rucksack, and be on their way with you to the fight. However, a fortified location offers the benefits of more permanent shelter types. Ask yourself where your mission will have you sleeping, and whether it would be wise to make mobility a priority.

Visible / Infrared / Audio Signature

It should be obvious that a red four person tent from MEC or REI may be conspicuous in the woods, but even a poorly set up tarp can wave and flap in the trees like a flag. When selecting items to use as shelter, consider how well they can be hidden in the woods or in a field. Do they rise high above the ground? Are they easy to spot from a distance, even with some camouflage? Do you need a light-proof space to conduct tasks that can't be accomplished by simply covering the work with a jacket? Also note that common polypropylene tarps from big box stores can be extremely noisy, both during setup and in moving air. Stick with nylon materials to avoid the audio signature.

During a recent cold weather training operation, we also had a chance to evaluate the thermal signature of tarp shelters. When considering your shelter option, note that anything that lays very close to your body will pick up heat energy and begin to appear on IR devices. A shelter choice that offers some airflow will significantly reduce the thermal signature. This must be balanced with the desire to keep a low visual profile.

Thermal image showing heat signatures of tarp shelters while occupied.
Thermal signatures of shelters. Front - close to occupant. Mid - more airspace above occupant.

Sleeping Equipment Choices

Your shelter and sleeping system work together, so you may find yourself restricted by one or the other. A regular down-filled bag can not be exposed to the rain, and going without any shelter may not be an option if you plan on only using insulating layers as a sleep system.

Shelter Options


Poles, mesh, and waterproof fabric define the tent. Usually these take some time and effort to assemble. Civilian tents are always an option. However a number of brands make low profile military tents for one or more individuals. Brands like Litefighter, Kelty, and Snugpack are worth investigating.


A bivy is what it would look like if a sleeping bag and a tent had a baby. They're often very small (only room for one person to be inside), and offer weatherproof outer material to keep the contents dry. Some bivy bags are all mesh and are paired with tarps. Snugpak and Catoma are some of the commercial options. However you should be able to find military surplus options such as the US MSS Gore-Tex bivy, the USMC 3-season bivy, or those from your local military.

Tarp / Basha

Simply a waterproof sheet, tarps come in numerous sizes, weights, and colours. They're going to be one of the least expensive options, but they require knowledge and practice to use properly. They're not as protective as other options, but can be assembled and torn down in seconds while keeping down the weight. If you're new to tarps, there are endless resources on YouTube. Some include interesting setup options that approximate a floorless tent. The video below is an excellent overview of some of the most popular setups.


Ponchos have been used for decades by almost every military. Many can be attached together to make larger shelters. They also serve multiple functions such as bivy bag, sleeping bag, a litter for the injured, and as a rain coat. Although many of the tarp setups shown in the video above can be applied to the poncho, you'll find that ponchos are slightly smaller than most bashas and tarps. This mean some odd angles or short sides depending on which setup you choose. The poncho suffers from the same limitations as the tarp, but gains points for some of the extra functionality.


Another option for shelter is the simple hammock. These come in a large variety of colours and styles, including some with integrated bug nets and tarps for rain protection. There are some valuable aspects of hammocks, and they include being up off the ground away from bugs and animals, a low pack size, and if set up very close to the ground a very low profile. One of the main challenges is where it can be set up, needing two sturdy anchor points on either end. The other thing to remember is that in cooler conditions, you'll need to insulate the underside of the hammock to stay warm, since you'll be compressing any sleeping gear you're using. Ensure you take both these things into consideration when determining if this option is a good fit for your mission.


No shelter is actually a viable option. Your combination of clothing can protect you if you've chosen the right equipment. You can also work to locate a sheltered position under rocks or trees, if your mission provides that flexibility. While it may not be the most comfortable night you spend outside, it will allow you the ability to move quickly and reduce the weight you carry.


SA - Bivy and Basha

I was guided to the Basha used by the British Armed Forces by a friend. The camouflaged Basha is the equivalent of a tarp but with a few additional features. These include grommets on the corners and sides, tie off loops in the same locations, as well as some along the centre line for help in suspending it from trees. The Basha can also serve as a litter in the event a team member is immobile and needs extraction. The benefits of a tarp or basha are low weight and volume requirements, a usable space that can be upwards of 9 square meters, and a small setup and takedown time. The setup times are reduced drastically with the use of bungee cords that can quickly wrap around trees. Tarps also offer a low signature as they can be set up very close to the ground. Tarps do not offer the bomb-proof protection from wind and precipitation that a tent or bivy will, but when combined with clothing layers, I feel these are suitable trade offs for the benefits. I also carry a Gore-Tex bivy bag; either the woodland camouflage version from the Military Sleep System (MSS) or the USMC 3-season. While they do operate in the space between sleeping gear and shelter, their ability to block out all wind, rain, and most/all bugs allows them to be used in colder and wetter conditions. I have found I end up stripping off numerous insulation layers when in a bivy due to its ability to trap body heat. They are also used where a larger defensive position reduces the risk of being trapped in one during an attack. The combination of Bivy and Basha allows me a secure sleeping environment, and a protected space for cooking and equipment work.
mcp multicam basha tarp set up as plow point tent
MCP Basha set up in Plow Point Configuration

RS - USGI Poncho in M81 and CADPAT Bivy

My shelter solution is a USGI Poncho in Woodland with a CADPAT Bivy. The poncho has grommets in the corners to allow it to be strung up much like a tarp, but as a poncho it can also be utilized with nearly zero setup or teardown time which I find to be very useful. When setting it up as a tarp I use Nite Ize Camjams and S-Biners with some light Aluminum stakes preset with paracord to keep my setup and takedown time to an absolute minimum. This setup means no knot tying or untying and the same paracord gets used every time so there is no waste. My bivy acts as a second protective layer under the poncho in inclement weather along with additional camouflage. In colder weather the gore-tex also does a great job trapping heat. The one drawback is that much like a sleeping bag, a bivy can trap your arms and keep you out the fight. I intend on having mine modified with a water resistant zipper to help deal with that issue. All of my shelter items including stakes and paracord get packed on the exterior of my pack. This allows them to be accessed easily without having to dig through my pack for items.

Do you have recommendations for shelters? What are some of the important lessons you learned from personal experience? Drop into the comments below.

Our next article will focus on sleep systems and considerations in selecting one that works for you.

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