My son loves his waterproof shell, my rickety knees love my hiking poles, my feet love my boots, and we eat well using our stove, all of which you've helped educate us about... Now what about tarps for two? We mostly do cool-weather camping along the AT, so bugs aren't too big a problem. Are there any moderately priced models that you recommend? One other question: Back in the Middle Ages, when tarps were called pup tents, we trenched them to stay dry in the rain. Is this still standard practice in these enlightened times? J.P. Raleigh, North Carolina
Alas, the word "tarp" has several meanings. From the sounds of it, you're describing some kind of simple, single-layer sheet that has a bit more shape and even support than just a waterproof sheet strung between some trees. Right? If so, look to MSR's Trekker Wing, which is sort of a "shaped" tarp that uses two poles for support and then ties out to stakes or trees. It weighs less than two pounds and costs $190 (www.msrcorp.com). GoLite's Den 2 ($199; www.golite.com) weighs a touch more but offers a lot more weather protection.
For a more robust shelter, just go with a full tent, albeit a light one. Mountain Hardwear's Waypoint 2 ($250; www.mountainhardwear.com) is the ticket here, at just over three pounds and boasting good ventilation and exceedingly good weather protection. This may also work better if what you mean by cool-weather camping is outings in fall and early spring, when nights may be just a little too brisk for only a tarp and sleeping bag.
As to your bonus question, you're right: digging a rain ditch around a tent isn't very ecologically correct these days. That presents a challenge when using a top-only shelter such as a Trekker Wing. And I don't have any really good advice, aside from inspecting your proposed campsite very judiciously to ensure it's on relatively high ground. I suppose that creates a good argument for a full tent, with a floor, such as the Waypoint. I've been poured on in that thing, and stayed dry even as little rivers flowed around the tent.
Anyway, hope that helps. Happy hiking this summer!