No one told us how hot Taiwan would be.
Even though the Tropic of Cancer bisects the island and it’s sat out in the Pacific Ocean, the idea just never really occurred to us that it would get to the face-melting degrees that it does.
If you’ve ever been to the beach in Durban, South Africa in the middle of a hot summer’s day, you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about. Only, now consider going to that same Durban beach in the middle of a summer’s day, and then sitting in a bathtub filled with water straight out of the hot tap – now you’re in in the ball park of how hot it gets here.
During our first summer in Taiwan, we tried our best to explore as much of the outdoors as we possibly could – and there is a lot of incredible outdoors to be explored too! Huge mountain ranges towering over 4,000m above sea level, thick montane jungles and forests, and hundreds of crystal clear rivers cascading toward the rugged coastline.
There was just one problem…that insatiable heat and exposure to the sun.
Bright, sunny days became a bittersweet affair. The desire to be outside was strong, but the desire for self-preservation was strong too. It was our daily impasse.
We did try some interesting hacks to deal with this though. Once, Jill even wore our emergency rescue blanket as a shawl to reflect the heat of the sun – and it worked, surprisingly. However, even for us, this didn’t seem like the best way to deal with the problem and eventually, our need for self-preservation started winning out over our need for adventure, and we began noticing our time outdoors starting to dwindle
Finally, we decided to take the problem of shade and shelter more seriously and so we plunged ourselves into a period of research and testing in order to find the perfect portable outdoor shelter for dealing with the elements. We finally settled on one that suited us, a large tarp and it has been a revelation for us.
We sure could have used something like this on our SA road trip. We’ve learned quite a lot about portable outdoor shelters in the last while, so in this article we’re going to dissect the 5 different types of portable shelter systems you can use to trade sun for shade on your next adventure.
- How to choose a portable outdoor shelter that suits you best.
- The pros and cons of each system.
- Reviews on products.
- Some great DIY options.
- How to erect and take down each shelter.
These are the portable outdoor shelter systems we’ll be looking at:
Here’s a summary video where I go into more detail on each of these systems and demo the system that we use:
Things to consider when deciding on the perfect portable outdoor shelter
Before choosing a portable outdoor shelter, you’ll need to decide what elements you want to protect yourself from. And by elements, I’m talking about the sun, the wind and the rain.
If shade from the sun is your main concern, then you’ll want to pay attention to things like UV protective materials as well as materials that have cooling reflection. This is usually some kind of sheen to the material that reflects the sun like a mirror and bounces a great deal of the heat away from your shade area. Modern reflective materials are really quite effective at this and it makes a huge difference!
If you know you’ll be spending most of your time in open spaces that are exposed to strong winds, then durability, ease of setup and stability are what you’re after. A shade cloth is basically a sail in the wind, and, like a sail, when that wind kicks up, it’s going to go with it. Another one of my pet peeves is trying to set up these kinds of structures outdoors in the wind. The quicker it takes from packed up to popped up, the better.
Finally, if you want to ensure you and your adventure party can keep dry in the rain, then you’ll want to make sure that the option you go for is adequately waterproof. Another thing you’ll want to take into account is the anti-pooling design of the shelter you choose. In a strong downpour, water can collect in areas of your shelter that are not angled in such a way as to let the water run off, and this will put a lot of strain on your shelter, and when that bubble pops, you’re going to get drenched.
The chances are, you’ll want your portable outdoor shelter to protect you from all of the elements, but splitting each element out like this makes it easier to focus in on features that are the most important for you.
*Side note – although not strictly an element, one other thing to consider protecting yourself against would be insects. Nothing spoils a great day out like a swarm of things that sting, or a few rogue mosquitoes.
One thing that is often overlooked when choosing a portable outdoor shelter is the surface you intend erecting your shelter on. It’s easy to set up a shade cloth on a soft grassy patch where the pegs just slide on in without needing to hammer them in with a mallet, however, that is seldom the case in the outdoors.
Surfaces can also be hard, uneven and unforgiving so you’ll want to make sure that the shelter you choose gives you some flexibility.
Some of the more challenging surfaces you may encounter include; gravel, which is difficult to peg; pebbles, which are also difficult to peg and often very uneven; as well as beach sand, which is easy for pegs to get dislodged in strong winds and also make access difficult if you’re not in a 4×4.
There are many different types of portable outdoor shelter, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, so when you’re looking for an option that best suits you, here are a few other things to think about.
Durability – How strong and long-lasting is the shelter?
- UV resistance.
- Build quality.
- Stability once erected.
Mobility – How easy is it to move the shelter around in the car and from the car to the intended site?
- Size when packed up.
- Portability from the car to the intended site.
Set up time – How quickly can I set up and take down the shelter?
- Pop up time.
- Pack away time.
- Number of people required to do both.
Space and area – How much space is under the shelter and how big an area will is cover?
- Head room throughout the space.
- Size of the shaded area.
- Number of people that can fit under the shelter.
- Additional side shelters for wind and rain.
Portable outdoor shelter types
Let’s dive into a few of the different kinds of portable outdoor shelters that are out there and look at some pros and cons with each option.
These are systems that are connected to something else and either roll out or slide out to create a shaded area. Awnings are usually attached to the roof of a vehicle or to the vehicle’s roof racks for ease of use. There are many excellent prefabricated options that offer everything from a simple pull out shade cloth, to intricate 270 degree shade systems as well as a few DIY options too.
1.1 Pull out awning
As the name suggests, this kind of portable outdoor shelter is a rack or vehicle mounted roll of shade cloth that can be unraveled from its casing to create an area of protection. These systems are very simple in design and are a favourite among campers and overlanders who like to make use of the space around their vehicles when traveling.
- Extension of your vehicle so you can take advantage of vehicle space / facilities e.g. workspace, kitchen etc.
- Minimum assembly time.
- Pretty wind-resistant even in strong winds.
- Some models also have tent enclosures so you can create a continuous protected space and side walls for protection from wind, rain and insects.
- No need to worry about the surface as everything pulls out from the car.
- Great sun and rain protection.
- Must be attached to a vehicle or trailer, which limits mobility and location.
- Most models need roof racks to attach to so factor that into the total cost.
- When you’re not using them, they’re extra weight and drag on your vehicle reducing fuel efficiency.
- Standing head room could be an issue if your car isn’t very tall.
- Expensive to buy.
- Expensive to repair if anything gets damaged.
A slightly different take on the car awning idea:
Here’s a really good review of the ARB system, but most of these points will apply to other brands and models too.
Check out the video below for a super cheap DIY option.
Overall, pull out awnings are a great option if you know you’re going to be spending a lot of time next to your car and you want quick and easy shelter. You’ll need to consider that pooling of water can be an issue with this system (water collecting in the material and applying a lot of weight on the system) so just make sure you know how to deal with that. While this system doesn’t provide the largest shelter and can’t be used away from your vehicle, it’s pretty unbeatable for convenience.
1.2 Hinged awning (270 degree awning)
These awnings are very similar to pull out awnings in that they are mounted to a vehicle in a similar way, however, they differ when it comes to setting them up. Rather that unravelling a roll of shade material, the support arms of a hinged awning pivot on a single point allowing them to swing out and around. This allows for a much greater area of protection which wraps around the vehicle providing shelter, not only on the side of the vehicle, but also at the rear. These systems are favourites among hardcore overlanders and those who use the back of their vehicles as a kitchen or other living space.
- All the same pros as the pull out awnings, only a bigger and more versatile space to work with.
- The support arms allow for the material to be raised higher than the car, increasing head room.
- Pretty much the same cons as the pull out awnings, only, even more expensive.
Here’s a great look at the Bush Company’s design to give you an idea of how these systems work.
Make your own DIY rack-mounted shade awning:
If you love getting your hands dirty and making things for yourself, then check out this great tutorial on how to make your own rack-mounted 270 degree awning that is both effective and cheap to build.
Awnings are excellent portable outdoor shelter options if time is a factor in your shelter set up. Most systems can be assembled in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, and the ease and convenience is definitely hard to beat.
2. Gazebos and canopies
While these terms might mean slightly different things depending on where you are in the world, for the purposes of this post, a gazebo is a free-standing, collapsible frame (usually aluminum) that provides the shell for a shade cloth to be stretched over.
Gazebos are straight-forward, convenient ways to keep out of the sun and the rain, and with the added benefit of side walls, it’s easy to block the breeze too.
- Lots of standing head room.
- Very quick and easy setup time. Most are a short, one- to two-person job.
- Semi-mobile. When the shade shifts, simply pick it up and move it over a bit.
- Some models allow for adjustable height.
- Great sun and rain protection and a lot of models come with side walls for extended coverage.
- Bulky and heavy because of the frame.
- Cost varies. Cheaper models aren’t very durable.
- If something gets damaged you’ll need to replace the whole thing – or at least the frame.
- Not durable in strong winds (I’ve seen many buckle and break on the beach).
Gazebos are great for almost any surface and they are very quick and easy to set up. They provide great shelter for a number of people and offer some of the best head room of all the systems we looked at. Overall, gazebos are a really convenient portable outdoor shelter option if packing space isn’t an issue and if you don’t have to contend with very strong winds.
3. Tarps (Tarpaulins)
Tarps are a very simple way of getting large areas of protection. Generally, a tarp is erected either along a ridge line (a length of cord running from one tree to a another) or by using poles. The tarp is then held in place by using the tension from guy ropes and other anchors.
Tarps are very low-tech and can be set up just about anywhere and as such they are great for adventurers who want shade on the go in any environment. Tarps also allow for multiple configurations which make them very versatile too.
- Versatile with multiple set up configurations to protect against various elements.
- Very portable with even large ones packing down very small and light.
- The big size gives wider protection for people and gear.
- Can create a living area and keep your tent cool and shaded at the same time. No running between spaces – its all continuous.
- Cut down on gear even more and set it up with trees that you find at the site.
- Modular – if one part is damaged, just replace that single part.
- Good for any kind of surface – even uneven ones.
- Long set-up time and could require multiple people.
- A nightmare trying to set up in the wind (especially a big tarp).
- No opportunity to create an enclosed space against insects, but depending on the setup style it can shelter you from rain and wind.
- Once it’s up it can’t be moved so easily.
- Makes use of guy ropes which can tangle easily.
- The guy ropes extend beyond the tarp so you need way more space than just the area of the tarp to set up.
Don’t forget poles!
Check out our guide on how to set up a big tarp by yourself without any trees.
Tarps can provide the largest shade or rain protection of all the portable outdoor shelter systems we looked at. Due to their setup times, they are only really practical if you intend on spending a long time at your site. They can also be tricky to set up, however, once they’re up, they are excellent shelters (we love ours).
4. Hiking tarps (Ultralight tarps)
Hiking tarps, or ultralight tarps, differ from regular tarps in that they are specifically designed to be carried on-foot, so they are extremely light and compact. While they are usually only suitable for one or two people, they are amazing shelters and can be set up in multiple configurations almost anywhere.
- Easy and manageable to set up on your own.
- Use trekking poles instead of tent poles to save on space and weight.
- Multiple configurations for different situations.
- Small and inconspicuous.
- Only suitable for one or two people.
- Needs to be pegged in or anchored down.
- Very little head room (unless you’re using a ridge line) so you can only really sit or lie down under it.
- No insect protection
Ultralight tarps are a fantastic portable outdoor shelter option if you are on your own and need light portable shelter. They are excellent for overnighting in the outdoors and can be used to both keep the elements out as well as heat from your fire in. We always carry one as part of our day hike essentials.
5. Pop up shade tents
A pop up shade tent is a simple and super fast way to gets some shelter from the sun while out and about. While some models are specifically designed as shade tents, I’d also include regular dome tents in this category as they can essentially provide the same protection. The idea with a pop up shade tent is that you want something easy to carry onto the beach, pop up in no time and pack away just as quickly.
- No need to peg them in if there is no wind.
- Quick and easy setup and take down times (one-person job).
- Easy to move around if the shade shifts.
- Most come with a ground sheet which is great on the beach.
- Limited standing room (if any)
- Limited or no through-breeze.
- Small area of protection.
- Moisture sticks to the bottom so they need to be cleaned on the spot, or unpacked and dried at home.
Pop up shade tents are great for a day at the beach or at the river when you just want to arrive, quickly set up, have some fun outside and then quickly pack away and go. They are cheap, convenient and perfect if you want something you can keep in the car and use whenever you want a quick adventure.
Frequently asked questions about portable outdoor shelters
Do you need a roof rack for an awning?
It all depends on the model. Some models mount onto roof racks, while others are mounted directly onto your car's body (although, I'd steer clear of that option).
Which side do you mount an awning?
That will come down to your own personal preference. However, it is important to note that you will need to specify which side you want to mount your hinged awning, as the system can not be switched from side to side like the pull out awning can.
Can a gazebo withstand wind?
In our experience, gazebos aren't great in strong winds. I've seen too many buckle and break under the force of a strong breeze. They can withstand some wind, but as soon as it gets strong, they start to fail.
Can I put a tarp over my tent?
You sure can. Tarps provide great shade, so putting a tarp over your tent will keep it out of direct sunlight and keep it cooler.
What is a good tarp for camping?
The best tarps are the ones that are durable and weatherproof. So that means making sure the material is UV resistant, waterproof and won't rip or tear easily. It also means checking things like the grommets, or guy rope tabs that are sewn onto the tarp to be sure that they are also designed to last.
The world of portable outdoor shelters has been a fascinating journey of discovery for us. We found ourselves gravitating towards the large tarp system which we take with us everywhere we go. It’s made our adventures in the sun and rain a lot more enjoyable.
Let us know which of these portable shelter systems you choose and how you use them. And don’t forget to join our mailing list to get our latest Adventure Guides, How Tos and Features right to your inbox.