Sheltering on Isle Royale

Marmot Limelight 2 Person Tent

Shelter is Not an Option–it’s a necessity!

Shelter of some sort is a necessity on Isle Royale. You need shelter from cold, wind, and rain. 

Rain storms can come quickly and last for a few days. Temperatures can get really cold, with temperatures dipping into the 20s or even the teens. In many of the backcountry campgrounds, the only shelter or structure at all is an outhouse, and you can’t stay in there for long without someone else needing to use it. 

Planning to sleep under the stars is not only foolhardy–it’s downright dangerous. Without shelter, no sleeping bag can keep you warm on a 30-degree night, and certainly not a sodden sleeping bag.

Three-Sided Shelter in Chippewa Harbor

Considering Options

You cannot plan to get a three-sided park shelter every night, or even on any given night. Not all campgrounds have shelters, and there are always more campers than shelters available. Shelters are on a first-come, first-served basis, and no one is required to share. With that in mind, everyone needs to provide their own shelter.

Options for shelter include covered hammocks, tarps, and tents–staked tents, free-standing tents, and ultra-light tents that use trekking poles.

For further information about the force created in anchoring a hammock, just click here. Using the Hammock Hang Calculator, you can compute the magnitude of force on the anchors due to the angle of at which you hang the hammock. So, again choose wisely.

Questions to Ascertain Your Shelter Needs

Here are some questions to consider when choosing your shelter.

  • How big do we need, one-, two-, or three-person?
  • Am I going to have to carry it alone, or can my group carry parts?
  • How heavy can I carry? How much of my weight do I want to allocate to my shelter and sleep system? 
  • What’s my budget, as the lighter the weight, the higher the cost?

Make Your Choice Based on Preferences and Needs

  •  Will your trip be primarily along the shores where you may set your tent up inside a shelter? If so, you may choose to take a free-standing tent.
  • Is your tent rated for three seasons? If it is not, you may need warmer sleeping gear.
  • Is it labeled free standing? If it is not free standing, it will have to be staked down to achieve it’s full shape. Therefore, you will not be able to set up in a shelter.
  • Does it have poles or do you supply trekking poles to make it work? If it needs trekking poles, make sure to take them. Also realize that you will not be able to use it in a shelter.
  • How many people does it fit? Can it accommodate all in your party with ample space? Your options are to have multiple small tents or one larger one. And the most important question of all, in my opinion, how much does it weigh?
  • If you have a larger tent, you may wish to share the parts among your group to distribute the weight across multiple people’s packs.
  • Do you want to have vestibules where you can stash your pack in case of rain? If so, you will need to check carefully when you are reviewing your options so that you select one that has one or two vestibules, depending on the number of people sharing the tent. 

Hammock Regulations and the Force Calculator 

Also, keep in mind there are strict rules about hammock use. The hammocks are forbidden from use inside and outside of shelters (except under special circumstances under 2022 rules they may be used outside a shelter). They can only be used inside the limits of established tent sites. So keep this in mind if you are considering a hammock. These rules are in place to protect both you and the National Park Service. The pounds of ‘Shear Force’ exerted on the ends of hammocks can be hundreds and possibly thousands of pounds. So, hanging a hammock could potentially pull the shelter wall down. Remember, this caution also applies to trees. In the hammock section we share a story of some young women who had trouble with a tree coming down under force. 

Hammock I
Another Hammock Type

Be aware, if you choose this method of shelter, that Isle Royale has specific dos and don’ts associated with hammock use. For example, you may not secure a hammock in a shelter, and you should suspend your hammock on live trees and not on standing dead trees that may give way and fall onto you while you sleep or let loose your hammock onto the ground. 

For further information about the force created in anchoring a hammock, just click here. Using the Hammock Hang Calculator, you can compute the magnitude of force on the anchors due to the angle of at which you hang the hammock. So, again choose wisely.


On the continuum from least to most protection provided by shelters, tarps provide the least protection, but they allow for the closest connection with the natural environment. Below is a minimalist camping tarp setup.

Tarp Campsite

This photo was taken by our friend, Jon Prain, of his own campsite. He prefers the minimalist tarp setup when camping on Isle Royale because it allows him a direct experience of the natural environment with which he comes to the island to commune.

Jon is an Isle Royale veteran who’s been to the island over a dozen times. Although he loves the lightweight nature of this setup, he hates having to pack everything up into his pack even when he just needs to use the outhouse. Because the tarp does not provide a sealed off space, it does not provide security from the critters that would run off with his snacks and nuts were he to leave them unattended even for a short time. 

Other obvious draw backs include, unlike a tent, the fact that there is no real protection from wind or blowing rain, and unless you have some other type of bug netting, there is little protection from bugs. 

Free Standing or Stake Down Tents
Obviously our tent (pictured above) is free standing. We first started out with an arrowhead shaped tent that had to be staked down and out to achieve it’s full size. Below is a picture of that tent.

This particular tent was nice, and it actually weighed in at 4.25 lbs. The free standing one weighs 5.5 lbs. There were several factors that made us decide that the heavier one was better suited for our needs. First, with the arrowhead tent, you had to basically crawl backwards into it, inevitably elbowing each other in the head. The free standing tent had separate doors on each side, making entry and exiting much nicer. There is a vestibule at each entryway with this tent under which we can place our backpacks to shelter them during wet weather as well. 

Trekking Pole Tent

There are also tents that use trekking poles to hold them up (pictured below). By using the trekking poles in lieu of tent poles, overall pack weight is reduced. These tents, however, cannot be set up in a shelter because they require staking to set up. 

Eventually, we found an ultralight that combines the benefits of being freestanding and having two vestibules with being very, very light–2 pounds and 10 ounces. We have shelter for all campgrounds, when we get a wooden shelter and when we don’t.

Free-standing Big Agnes Copper Spur Platinum 2P – set up in a shelter
Outside view of the shelter

Remember, the wooden shelters are not always warm because of the wind going under and through them. Sometimes, a tent on the ground is warmer than a tent set up in a shelter. However, they are much preferred in the event of rain.

As you plan, consider your needs for space, warmth, weight, protection, convenience, safety, and cost. These are the determiners, and only you have the answer to the question of what is right for you. Remember that your success in backpacking rests on the balance of pack weight and meeting your needs. Be mindful of weight.

At Wise Old Man of Isle Royale Guide Services, we can help you to make a good decision for yourself. Do reach out.

For further help with backpacking on Isle Royale, check out our free courses at

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