Depending on where you are backpacking, a shelter may or may not be necessary. Since the weight and bulk of a shelter system can easily double or back weight and take up the majority of the space in it,
you need to first conceder what you really need vs. what you'd like to have.
A shelter provides a couple things:
protection from the rain (snow, dew, etc.)
protection form the wind
and that "at home" feeling
In areas where rain is a concern and temperatures are cool to cold at night, you might consider a tent, tarp, waterproof bivy or some combination of these.
In areas where wind is a major concern, you might consider a tent, a tarp set up as a wind block, or a good bivy.
I areas with snow, you might need a real tent, a shovel for cave construction, or a specialty made tarp.
Tents are great for those that spend a lot of time in their camps, need privacy or excellent protection from the elements. The disadvantage of packing a tent is that they tend to weight several pounds, are quit bulky, can be very expensive and may limit your camp selection to sites with a flat spot large enough for your specific tent's footprint (which are often overused camp areas that may turn into giant mud puddles at the onset of the first rain).
Minimal tents that offer protection from light rain or just bugs. These are generally very light weight compared to 3 and 4 season tents and are much easier to pack.
Three-season tents are designed for - spring, summer, and fall camping and are the most commonly type of tents used by backpackers. They provide decent protection from moderate rain and wind and are a lighter option than the heavier four season tents.
Many three-season tents have a mesh walled inner body that protect its inhabitants from bugs while providing excellent ventilation with decreased condensation. These can be used as a stand alone bug tent without the rain fly.
A four-season tent may be made with heavier or more waterproof fabric than tree-season tents. They may also have rain flies that go all the way to the ground, have a vestibule large enough to cover your backpacks and for cooking, and offer better rain/snow protection at the cost of decreased ventilation and increased condensation.
Mountaineering Tents/Five-Season Tents
These tents are made with durability in mind. They are designed to survive where failure of a lesser made tent could result in death from exposure. They may have a greater number of guy points, larger diameter aluminum poles and lower profiles. They can often hold up to extremely high winds 100 mph winds, but even the best made tents can fail in prolonged hurricane-velocity winds on exposed mountain sides.
These tents are soften built small and tight are may not be much fun to "hang out" in.
Single Wall Tents
Often made of vapor barrier or waterproof-breathable materials, these tents don't need a rain fly. These single wall tents can pack down pretty small but can get very wet on the insides, especially in warmer and more humid environments at lower elevations. Single wall tents work best in the cool and dry condition above the snowline.
Tarps can provide decent rain and wind protection if designed and setup properly for your particular camp site. Since a tarp can be held up with hiking poles or tied to trees, they don't need tent poles and tend to be very light (less than a pound). They do require a bit of skill to set up and sometimes some imagination on where you are setting up camp.
Tarps also afford you the added benefit of being able to enjoy the beautiful landscape while under your shelter at the cost of little of no privacy (depending on tarp setup).
Tarps can be cheep and easy to find in any hardware store, or built from super lightweight materiel that can be packed down to the size of a softball.
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