A pyramid shelter is the most versatile shelter for outdoor adventure. There are many reasons to not have a quiver of tarps and tents, and the best one is that having one shelter suitable for all conditions allows you to grab and go. A ‘mid fits this role well. Terminology should be here noted: shelter is used instead of tent for reasons beyond the mere lack of a floor. That a tent is fully enclosed inherently brings with it the expectation that you’ll be consistently insulated from the outside world. This expectation is only realistic in mild conditions, and the separation it promotes from the environment at hand defeats the purpose of multi-day backcountry adventure. As will be discussed below, there are select circumstances where some manner of protection from the ground and/or environment is desirable, however those circumstances are quite limited for most users. 98% of user objections to non-fully enclosed shelters are mental problems only, and those folks owe it themselves to get over them.
The first consideration in mid selection is size. Capacity is a good starting point here, but just as important is a pragmatic assessment of space per person desired and the 3D floorplan of the mid in question. The Black Diamond Megalight shown above is a good example. The company claims a width of 86 inches and a height of 57. When pitched to the ground, the actual width is 104 inches and the actual height is 68 inches. Due to the slope of the walls, much of that 104 inches is not useable for human habitation, but it is useable for gear. In practice, there is sleeping room only for four in the Megalight. Three is a sustainable capacity for extended trips in varied weather, while two is very comfortable and allows for plentiful gear organization, cooking, and even a small wood stove. It’s overkill for one, but light enough to constitute reasonable luxury. Mid capacity requires critical thinking, as floor dimensions do not tell the whole story.
Mids can be usefully separated into three categories: unipolar rectangular mids (which include square mids), bipolar rectangular mids, and tipis. Each has virtues and downsides, and these are the second criterion after capacity which should drive mid selection.
Unipolar rectangular mids are the classic version, and remain the most common and popular for good reason. There’s quite a bit of variation in size and height, which not only determines capacity but also performance. For example, imagine the Megalight with a lower center height. Lower angled walls would provide for better wind shedding, but reduce functional space as well as the ability of the mid to shed snow. A higher peak height would steepen the walls, causing the opposite, as well as a slight increase in weight (and most likely, cost as well). Smaller mids, the MLD Duomid being the most well known example, attempt to win more functional space with minimal material and center height by being very rectangular. This does the job, but at the expense of creating unequal surface area on the sides. All things being equal, such mids do less well in wind when broad side.
Bipolar mids attempt to take this expansion of functional floor space further by using two poles rather than one. What this achieves, in shelters like the Golite Shangrila 2 above, is a useable mid-height approaching that of a unipolar mid while having a much smaller footprint. The extended, steep ridgeline of such shelters also tends to shed snow well, at the expense of considerably weakened wind resistance when broad side. Most of these mids are not simple rectangles. The Shangrila 2 is an extended hexagon, with the middle of the long side being wider than the ends, which provides more interior space and improves the slickness against the wind.
Wind resistance is achieved by having small facets for wind to grab, and this being the case, the slickest shelter is the one which is most curved (a fact which helps explain the popularity of tunnel tents for arctic and montane expeditions). Tipis are mids which try to take this to an extreme by being conical.
This is an effective solution, but comes with the expense of weight and complexity. A round or oval floor plan is a bit less efficient than a square or rectangular one, but a more serious objection is the large number of stake points this design requires, and the consequent increase in time when pitching it.
There is a class of hybrid mid-pis, who use five or six sides to gain increased wind resistance over standard square mids. The chief cost, as with tipis, is in the ease of pitching.
I’ve assembled a representative range of mids, and the accompanying specs, here.
The one thing not represented in that chart, and the last and in many ways most important factor in selecting a mid, is construction quality. Not all silnylons are created equal, and simple dimensions do not capture things like the amount of caternary cut, things which have enormous influence on wind stability, snow shedding, and general longevity. This is why this treatise is incomplete. I’ve only owned a few of the mids in the chart, and therefore there are just too many important things I cannot speak on. Do your research.
That said, here are a few things to consider.
Rectangular and square mids are the easiest and quickest shelters to pitch, period. They’re probably best for folks who move camp every day, do big miles, and want things quick and easy as darkness falls.
The single v. duo pole debate will largely come down to personal preference. yes the former does better in the wind and the later better in the snow, but all the shelters listed will do fine in each under 95% of circumstances encountered by those who don’t camp in dumb places at foolish times.
Mid stability is dependent on stakes holding. Bring the proper stakes for the terrain, and lots of them. Having the wind rip your shelter off you in the middle of the night is quite exciting.
It can be difficult to find enough space for the big mids, even though they can be pitched over some rocks and bushes. Two pole shelters can be useful in these situations.
Numbers do not tell the whole story. The Megalight, as discussed above, has very conservative factory dimensions. The MLD Supermid, on the other hand, is known for having pretty aggressive cat cut edges, and pitching it to the ground significantly reduces the factory dimensions. Seeking out user testimonials is a very good idea.
In my mind the cost/benefit for cuben doesn’t make much sense, perhaps why we’ve yet to see a large cuben mid stay on the market for any length of time.
A wood stove doesn’t make sense for most backpackers most of the time, even in winter. In really crap weather, and for hunters who move through the landscape differently and have different needs, a wood stove can facilitate huge gains in moral and mental efficiency.
There are times when a mid isn’t ideal, or when a bugproof inner and/or groundsheet is a good idea. During moderate mosquito pressure bugs tend to fly up to the peak, hang out, and not be too much of a nuisance. During bad skeeter conditions you’ll want an inner. Camping in nasty tick or chigger country would be another situation. It’s conceivable that in some places you might have a hard time finding flat ground that isn’t saturated, and thus need a groundsheet. I never use one, and have never needed one. Lastly, cold wind can make mids quite drafty if there isn’t snow around to seal the edges. Sod/snow flaps are a partial solution, as is site selection, but an inner could be handy here.
Condensation can also be an issue in mids, as in any single wall shelter. There are some circumstances when mids, because they envelope a large area of wet ground and have limited air circulation, can be quite bad in this regard. Site selection is key. If it’s a damp night close to freezing, you might actually choose a more exposed sight to promote wind exposure and thus reduce condensation. If the wind is too bad, it will shake condensation loose down on you, and thus a calm site should be sought. On this trip I tucked the mid back in the trees to avoid the wind, but should have brought it out a bit more because snow clods bombed us all night, knocked loose every drop of condensation, and we got quite wet. In the end, no shelter will be condensation free in all circumstances, and to a certain extent dealing with it is back of backcountry life.
Get yourself a mid. Go use it. Have fun.