Camping Tarps: A Guide to Tarp Camping for Bushcraft and Backpacking

Camping tarps are an essential piece of gear for any outdoor enthusiast. Offering versatile shelter from the elements, they can be configured in numerous ways to meet the needs of any camping scenario. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore everything you need to know about choosing, using, and caring for camping tarps. Gear up and get ready to master the art of tarp camping!

Camping Tarps: A Guide to Tarp Camping

What is a Camping Tarp?

A camping tarp is a large sheet made from waterproof and durable fabric that is designed to provide overhead shelter. Tarps come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials. They are extremely versatile and can be set up in many configurations using trekking poles, trees, rocks, or other anchors. Tarps are a popular choice among ultralight backpackers because they offer protection from the elements at a fraction of the weight and bulk of a tent. They can also provide shade and extra living space around a campsite.

Key Features of Camping Tarps

  • Waterproof and durable fabric
  • Lightweight and compact
  • Highly versatile – can be set up in various ways
  • Provide overhead shelter and protection from rain, wind, sun
  • More spacious than tents
  • Excellent ventilation

Benefits of Camping Tarps

Camping tarps offer many advantages over tents for backpackers and bushcrafters:

Weight Savings

One of the biggest benefits of tarps is that they are much lighter than tents. Even large, 10×10 ft camping tarps weigh around 2 lbs, while simple ultralight tarps can be less than 1 lb. For backpackers counting every ounce, tarps offer substantial weight savings.

Adaptability

The adaptability of tarps far exceeds tents. Tarps can be configured in various ways using trekking poles, trees, boulders, and other anchors. Different pitching styles allow tarps to be adapted to the conditions and needs of each camping trip.

Weather Protection

While tents enclose campers on all sides, tarps only provide overhead shelter. However, a properly pitched tarp can handle substantial wind and rainfall. Treated fabric and secure guy lines prevent the tarp from flapping in strong gusts. A low pitch or additional side panels prevent driving rain from blowing underneath.

Ventilation & Views

Unlike the closed-off environment of tents, tarps allow much better airflow through the shelter. This ventilation keeps condensation to a minimum and allows campers to better enjoy the outdoor ambiance. Tarps also provide better views from underneath since only the top is covered.

Spaciousness

Larger tarps give campers plenty of elbow room and livable space underneath. Multiple people can comfortably hangout together beneath a 10×10 ft tarp. You can also store gear underneath tarps to keep it dry.

Affordability

Basic camping tarps are quite affordable, often costing between $50-$80 USD. Even larger, heavy duty options are usually less expensive than tents at similar sizes. Tarps are a budget-friendly gateway to lightweight backpacking.

Quick & Easy Set Up

Simple tarps require only a few tie-down points to pitch securely. This enables fast and easy set up compared to traditional tents. Adding guy lines and extra tie downs only takes a few extra minutes.

Different Types of Camping Tarps

Not all tarps are created equal. There are a variety of tarp designs, sizes, and materials to consider for your needs.

Material

The fabric of your tarp matters when it comes to waterproofness, durability and weight. Most quality tarps use some type of coated nylon or polyester, such as:

  • Silnylon: Treated with silicone for water resistance. Lightweight but prone to stretching when wet.
  • Ripstop nylon: Tough, tear-resistant nylon fabric. Durable and lightweight.
  • Coated taffeta: Densely woven fabric with polyurethane coating for waterproofness. Heavier than other materials.
  • Polyester: Robust, affordable option. Requires waterproof treatment application.
  • Cuben fiber: A laminate of mylar film and fiber to create an exceptionally lightweight, waterproof fabric. More expensive.
  • Canvas: Tough and breathable but needs waterproof treatment. One of the heaviest tarp fabrics.

Shape

Different Camping Tarp Shapes

The shape of your tarp impacts how it can be pitched:

  • Rectangle/Square: Most common shape. Easy to pitch in various ways. Available in many sizes.
  • Hexagon: Unique shape offers excellent wind shedding and more head room.
  • Catenary Cut: Custom side cuts create a curved pitching surface for more interior space. Excellent water runoff.
  • Door tarps: Specialized shapes with zippered doors for extra weather protection when pitched with other tarps.

Size

Tarps range from tiny 3′ x3′ squares to massive 12′ x 12′ sheets. Consider factors like number of people, other shelter components, and packing size when choosing tarp size. Common sizes include:

  • 5 x 7 ft – Good for 1 person using trekking pole shelter
  • 8 x 10 ft – Spacious coverage for 2 people
  • 10 x 10 ft – Group shelter with lots of coverage
  • 3 x 3 ft – Minimalist tarp for ultralight hikers

Guy Lines & Reinforcements

Additional features like guy lines, line locks, and reinforcements improve weather resistance and pitching options:

  • Line locks – Allow tarps to be staked out at various angles by adjusting tension on guy lines. Useful for complex pitches.
  • Reinforcements – Many tarps add reinforced tie-out points and gain extra durability at high-stress areas.
  • Guy lines – Provided guy lines are essential for securing the tarp in windy conditions. Upgrading to stronger cord helps too.

How to Choose the Best Camping Tarps

Choosing the ideal camping tarp for your needs depends on several factors:

Weight

If you’re backpacking, seek out the lightest tarp that still provides enough coverage and weather protection. Look at fabric weight and tarp size.

Size & Shape

Consider how much space you need for people and gear underneath. Rectangular tarps are the most versatile, while hexagon and cat-cut tarps excel in stormy conditions.

Weather Conditions

Think about the worst possible conditions you could face and choose a tarp that can handle it. Waterproofness, wind resistance, and fabric strength are key in stormy weather.

Canopy Closures

If you plan to use a tarp with an additional canopy or inner tent, look for compatible shapes and sizes that will close off the ends.

Anchoring Options

Factor in how you will pitch your tarp. Treeless areas may require trekking poles and substantial guy lines instead of trees for tying off tarps.

Budget

Inexpensive polyethylene tarps can cost under $20 while premium cubes fiber tarps run over $200. Set a budget but don’t sacrifice too much quality and features for the lowest price.

Best Camping Tarps

There are many excellent tarps to choose from. Here are some of the top reviewed camping tarps on the market today:

Tarp ModelKey FeaturesFloor AreaWeightPrice
ENO HouseFly Rain TarpUnique door shape creates a waterproof shelter from rain and wind. 30D Silicone Impregnated Nylon with 1000mm PU Coating. Comes with ground stakes and reflective cord10’8″ x 8’10”1 lb 13 oz.$169.95
Big Agnes Deep Creek TarpCatenary-cut shape sheds wind and rain. Made of Polyester taffeta with 1500mm waterproof polyurethane (PU) coating. 76″ peak head height. Includes two adjustable poles and guylines.13’9″ x 12’9″6 lbs$249.95
Sea to Summit Escapist TarpA versatile tarp that is made from waterproof 15 denier Ultra-Sil™ Nano™ nylon. Lots of pitching options using trees or poles.8’6″ x 6’6″10.5 oz $229.95
Kelty Noah’s TarpBudget-friendly, large and durable tarp made from 68D polyester 800mm. Generous size makes this tarp a good option for car camping or group backpacking. Includes storage bag stuff sack.12′ x 12′2 lbs 9oz$59.95
Snow Peak Penta TarpDesigned for use near the water, allows you to use a paddle as a pole. Peak height of 58″. Made with 75D Polyester Taffeta and Light-Shielding Pigment PU 1800mm coating. Comes with stakes, rope, and storage case13.1′ x 10.5′1.7 lbs$139.95
MSR Thru-Hiker TarpDurable, water-repelling tarp made from treated 20D ripstop nylton. It is a good option for minimalist backpacking or camping. Fully taped seams for weather protection. Reinforced guyout points and tie outs. Includes guylines, tensioners, and stuff sack.10’6″ x 9’6″1 lb 1 oz$209.95
Slumberjack Satellite Tarp75D coated polyester tarp that’s lighweight and durable. Comes with guy-lines, stakes, and attached carry bag.10’4″ x 8’7″1 lb 14.7oz$89.95

How to Set Up a Camping Tarp

One of the beauties of tarps is the multitude of potential set-up configurations. Here are some of the most useful pitching styles:

A-Frame Pitch

The A-frame is one of the easiest and most common tarp pitches. Use two trees, boulders, poles or other anchors set at either end of the tarp. Stake out the sides at 45-60 degree angles to allow water runoff. Excellent coverage for 1-2 people.

Half Pyramid/Plow Point Pitch

Stake one side of the tarp directly to the ground. Tie the other side high off the ground at a 45 degree angle. This pitch offers weather protection on 3 sides and is great for stormy conditions.

Lean-To Pitch

Use a trekking pole, tree or other anchor on one side. Stake out the other side directly to create an open fronted single-sided shelter.

Flying Diamond Pitch

Stake down two opposing corners and pull the other ends taught at about shoulder height for a covered cocoon with all sides open for views.

Caterpillar Pitch

Connect two or more tarps together end-to-end using a ridgeline. This allows multiple tarps to provide expanded covered space for large groups.

Storm Mode Pitch

Pull all sides of the tarp as close to the ground as possible. Use low tie-off points and tight guy lines to batten down the hatches in high winds and driving rain. Prioritize weather resistance over livable space underneath.

Tips for Mastering Tarp Camping

Successfully camping under a tarp does require some specialized techniques. Follow these tips to master the art of tarp camping:

Pick Campsites with Natural Anchors

Look for campsites with trees spaced adequately to tie off your tarp corners and sides. Rock outcroppings also work. In treeless areas, specialized stakes work with guy lines.

Use Trekking Poles

Trekking poles provide perfect uprights to suspend tarps from. Extend them to the correct height and lean them inward to maximize interior space.

Pitch Tight

Aim for taught pitches that allow minimal sagging in the tarp fabric. Keep guy lines tight. A loose pitch whips around in strong winds and allows water pooling.

Mind the Elements

Keep the wind and sun direction in mind when choosing the orientation of your pitch. Face openings away from prevailing winds.

Add Walls for More Protection

For additional wind and rain protection, accessory tent walls can be combined with tarps to block wind and moisture.

Seal the Deal

Look for potential openings where rain could drip in along seams or tie outs. Use seam sealing tape on potential problem areas for waterproofing.

Keep Gear Underneath

Have a waterproof groundsheet? Pitch your tarp low enough to allow covered storage space for packs and gear underneath.

How to Care for Your Camping Tarp

Follow these tips to keep your tarp performing well trip after trip:

Inspect for Damage

Before packing up, inspect fabric for holes or tears that could compromise waterproofing. Seal any pinholes or tears with repair tape immediately.

Clean Off Dirt

Use a sponge and non-toxic soap to gently clean off accumulated dirt, sap, and other grime. Avoid harsh detergents. Let dry fully in the shade before storing.

Air Dry Completely

Never store a tarp wet or damp. Mold can destroy a tarp. Allow to dry out completely in shade before packing away in storage sack.

Keep Away from Fire

Tarps and fire don’t mix. Don’t pitch too close to the campfire. Embers can burn holes right through the thin fabric.

Use a Groundsheet

Placing a groundsheet under the tarp prevents abrasion from the ground and protects from ground moisture wicking through.

Apply Waterproofing

Refresh waterproofing treatments occasionally as they wear off over time. Follow specific brand instructions for recoating.

Store Properly

Keep tarps away from direct sunlight when storing. Don’t compress too tightly. Loose storage prevents creasing and damage.

FAQs about Camping Tarps

What are some advantages of a tarp over a tent?

Tarps excel in adaptability, ventilation, space, and affordability compared to tents. They can be pitched in various ways, allow excellent airflow, provide more living space, and cost much less than tents.

What size tarp is best for backpacking?

5×7, 5×9 and 8×10 ft tarps offer good space for 1-2 people without adding unnecessary weight. For car camping or larger groups, 10×10 or 10×12 ft tarps provide spacious group coverage.

Do you need a footprint or groundsheet for a tarp?

A groundsheet helps protect tarps from getting damaged by the rough ground. Footprints also prevent moisture from soaking up through the bottom. An affordable plastic sheet works well.

How do you make sure the tarp stays staked down in wind?

Use sturdy stakes or tent stakes at least 8 inches long and aim to tie off stake-out points at 45 degree angles. Keep guy lines very tight. You can also add heavy rocks or logs on top of stakes for more hold in loose soil.

What are some good anchors for tarps besides trees?

Boulders, stumps, trekking poles, and specialty tarp anchors work well. In sandy or loose soil, you may need to bury deadman anchors made from logs or branches to secure guy lines.

Is it necessary to seal the seams on a new tarp?

On less expensive tarps, sealing the stitching with a seam sealer product can improve water resistance. But on premium brands, taped or bonded seams don’t require any additional sealing.

Will condensation be an issue while sleeping under a tarp?

Tarps allow much more ventilation than tents, greatly reducing condensation provided you pitch off the ground. You can also create openings at the ends or sides to increase airflow through your shelter.

Final Thoughts About Using Tarps for Camping

For minimalist outdoor enthusiasts, camping tarps are an excellent substitute for bulky and confining tents. They provide superb versatility and weather protection at a fraction of the weight. With so many pitching configurations and options for adding bug and rainfly accessories, tarps can be adapted for any backcountry environment or weather condition. We hope this guide has shown you the immense possibilities of tarp camping. Now it’s time to pick the perfect camping tarp and start adventuring!

Bushcraft Charlie

As an avid outdoor enthusiast, Bushcraft Charlie first developed his wilderness and survival skills in the suburbs of Maryland. After relocating to Montana, he's continued to spend time outdoors - hiking the Rocky Mountains and practicing bushcraft skills like shelter building and fire making.

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