By cheap, I mean less than 5 bucks. By easy, I mean it should take you around 30 minutes to make and about 15 minutes to set up at your campsite. By effective, I mean it is completely waterproof (and easy to repair should there be any holes or damage), keeps wind off you, and provides excellent heat insulation. And by ultralight, I mean the whole shelter, including string to pitch it, two doors, and the ziplock bag it can be stuffed into... weighs a mere 434g. Here is a picture of it in use several months ago, and how it looks all packed up (note the box of matches for scale):
I have made and slept in quite a lot of improvised shelters in my day. I have made them out of entirely natural materials (e.g. debris hut), have also experimented with lots of different kinds of tarps and even garbage bags and plastic sheeting, and have combined both natural and synthetic together. For the better part of a solid decade, when I went camping, it nearly always meant that I would be sleeping in an improvised shelter. It was not until last year that I finally got a high quality ultralight tent, a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1, and I am very happy with it. As much as I like my fancy tent, however, there are still times when I will opt to take a tarp instead.
Tarps are nearly always lighter weight than tents, and often cheaper, especially if you go for your standard hardware store plastic tarp, which was my primary base material for shelters. While these tarps are cheap and pretty tough, they are bulky and can weigh between 400-800 grams depending on how large they are and if you trim them down or not. My UL tent is 1035 grams, is not very bulky, and has the added bonus of excellent bug netting that keeps even annoying and tiny midges/no-see-ems out. So after I got my tent, I had little incentive to go back to tarps, until I began to revisit an idea I had when I was younger.
In my youth I messed around with big, black garbage bags a lot. Used them as ground covers, used them to improve improvised shelters built out of natural materials (makes a great waterproof roof!), and even used them as improvised rain ponchos. I made a good prototype shelter out of garbage bags and a space blanket several months ago, tested it out in the woods, and it worked pretty well. But then I did some more research on the subject, and found out about an amazing phenomenon that takes place when you combine clear plastic with space blanket. To my surprise, they made a similar shelter on the TV show Dual Survivor (no, I don't watch the show, just found the clip on youtube), and this clip does a good job summarizing what happens with this shelter combined with a nearby fire:
So it took a while, but I finally found a hardware store that sells rolls of clear plastic sheeting. And for only about 150 SEK I got a 20m roll of it to play around with. With it I made two shelters, one for summer and one for use year-round. The one for year-round use is the one I detailed above. The summer one (Hobo Tarp) is the same thing but minus the space blanket and doors, and at 250g you will be hard pressed to get much lighter than that as far as DIY shelters go. But the utility of the summer shelter is somewhat more limited, so I will focus on the super shelter.
To make it is absurdly easy. The roll I bought is 2m across, so all I had to do was cut a 2.5 meter long strip of it, then tape piece of space blanket on one side of it. The side without space blanket faces the campfire when you set it up in the field. Next to make the doors, all you need to do is get a garbage bag and cut it two equal halves, and then tape pieces of space blanket to the inside of them. Throw in some string or rope, and you have yourself a good place to sleep for a night out in the woods.
There are a few key details that make setting it up easier. One is with the doors. To make it easier to attach the doors (you can also just tie the garbage bag to itself, but this can damage it and does not hold as well), tape a loop of string in two corners of each door. This will allow you to tie it to the top of the shelter with ease. Either use another piece of string to tie the loops together, or hook the loops onto knobs in the shelter (more on this later).
Next is where you set the shelter up. The best case is usually when you find two trees that are growing about 3-4m away from each other. Then you can just tie a string/rope between the two trees. If you find a really nice spot, but say the trees are too far apart, then you can find a sturdy stick about 1.5m long and make a big stake. To make a stake, simply take a knife or ax and carve one side into a sharp point, then drive it into the ground until it is securely in place. Then you can tie your ridge line between the stake and the tree.
Ah, but what if there is no trees around or the ground is too firm to drive a stake into it? No worries! Just take 6 sturdy sticks that are all a little over a meter long, and make two tripods with the help of some string or some long pieces of root or vine. Then find a longer stick (this can be the tricky part) that is a little longer than 2.5m to use as your ridge pole to put the shelter over. This is actually what I opted to do in the picture above so that I could be close to the fire pit.
After you get the shelter up, all you have to do is find some rocks or logs to anchor the shelter down. If it is windy, you may have to use more, but I find that four or five good sized rocks or logs on each side works fine. Also note that you don't want to pitch the shelter too high or you won't be able to set any anchors down on it.
While I was out camping and tested the Deluxe Hobo Tent, I was having such a good time with friends and such, I neglected to take very many pictures of the shelter. So recently my good friend Johan came over and we got to talking about it, and for fun took it out to my backyard to set up, as he had not seen it before. I was glad I did, because it gave me the chance to take some better pictures of it, plus I had since improved on the doors, which were just pieces of space blanket before. It's also much easier to have someone around that is good with a camera to take pics for you. Thanks Johan!
Here I am inside the shelter. I am about 183cm and 83kg, and the 2m x 2.5m size gives me lots of space plus room for my gear too. The door was put on kind of lazy, in the field of course I would tie it on tighter on top and anchor it down.
Side views. I am able to sit up inside of the shelter, which is nice, especially when you have to wake up in the morning and get ready. I also tie my flashlight to the ridge line on the inside so I can see at night.
Here is what the door looks like, plus me keeping it real with the old hardcore punk t-shirt, and a close up view of one way to tie the door on to the shelter.
I spoke earlier about attaching the doors to a knob in the shelter, here is an example from another shelter I made (using standard hardware tarp, trimmed down, and spent the night in it during a snowy night in early March):
All you have to do is put a small rock, or in this case, a small pine cone inside the shelter and then tie a string around it. Works great to attach doors, or to keep the shelter fully anchored to the line, like say it is quite windy.
Well, that about does it on how to make one of the best shelters for camping, in my humble opinion. There are of course many modifications and variations on this design. One could for example tie a big bug net on the ridge line then put the shelter on top, if there are lots of bugs out. For the cost and for how good the Deluxe Hobo Tent is at keeping you warm and dry, it's hard to beat.
Update 24/08/2013 - I wrote a lengthy update on this subject based on the popularity of this post. You can read it here, and thanks to everyone that reads my blog. I hope you enjoy it and that it helps people out :)