Camping & Backpacking Reviews

Best Camping Tarps – 6 Lightweight Backpacking Shelters Reviewed (2021)

best camping tarps
Bertie
Written by Bertie

You'd be surprised at the huge range of camping tarps there are out there...!

  • You may be looking for the best tarp for backpacking: a super-sturdy but extremely lightweight shelter to camp under. 
  • Or you could be looking for something a bit simpler to act as a sunshade or rain shelter or awning for when you're not in your tent.
  • Or you could be looking for a groundsheet-type-tarp to sub in for a picnic blanket or use as a tent footprint.

 We spent 20 hours looking through all the different options for this article. So regardless of your budget or what you want to use it for, we're confident you'll find the best camping tarp for your needs in the recommendations below.

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of camping tarps!

Top 3 Camping Tarps

The Santuary SilTarp is a seriously good all-round camping tarp. Use it for backpacking or as a sunshade... You get a complete kit at a great price!

Free Soldier camping tarps are large and excellent value. Cheaper than the Santuary SilTarp but also heavier.

Sea to Summit "Escapist" is hands down the best backpacking tarp out there: ultralight, compact & strong.

RedCamp's camping tarps are super basic & super cheap. Not ideal for backpacking but OK for most other things.

Editor's Deal of the Week

Kelty Noah's Tarp - This is a very popular camping tarp (see my review below). It's a really versatile shelter that works well for hiking and backpacking as well as camping. It's robust and lightweight (about 2lbs). People really, really like it!

Anyhoos. You can currently pick up a great deal from Austin Kayak right now. Usually these bad boys start at $99 depending on the size. In their webshop Austin Kayak are currently selling the Kelty Noah's Tarp 9 for less than 50 bucks!

I think this is to clear last year's stock because it looks like Kelty have just released a new design.

Sanctiary SilTarp - best lightweight camping tarp

Specs

The Santuary SilTarp is made with 30 denier ripstop nylon and comes in a range of sizes starting at 10' x 8' and going all the way up to 12' x 10'. You can also choose from a range of cuts, including tapered, flat and hex. Attachment points vary with the size, ranging from 12 to 16. And the weight also varies, starting at just 14oz for the smallest camping tarp. ($$$)

The Verdict

One of the great things about the Sanctuary SilTarp is, whatever size and shape you buy, they all come as complete kits so you don’t have to worry about buying any extras. As well as your camping tarp you get guy lines, adjusters, stakes and a compression sack.

They also have a generous number of attachment points allowing for loads of set up configurations. So you aren't going to feel limited when you take this into the wilds.

The silicon/PU treatment and taped seams make them exceptionally waterproof and durable. Added to which they come with a lifetime guarantee, which I always see as a huge mark of confidence from the manufacturer.

One thing I did notice is that the stakes can leave a bit to be desired. It's a personal bugbear of mine that whenever stakes are included as part of a bundle they tend to be somewhat sub-par. If you don't like them, though, you can always replace them with your own (or you could check out my reviews of the best tent stakes for recommendations).

In Summary...

This is a great choice if you are looking for a a really versatile camping tarp. It's lightweight enough to use for backpacking or for a temporary hiking shelter. It's also a great shelter against sun and rain at a base camp. Can’t recommend it enough!

Free Soldier Tarp Review - best cheap backpacking tarp for camping

Specs

The Free Soldier camping tarp is 10' x 11' (flat-cut). You have 6 different colors to choose from. All variations have 10 attachment points and weigh 2lbs 3oz. They also all come as a complete kit with guy lines. ($)

The Verdict

If you're looking for an awesome 2-person camping tarp and you don't want to spring for the largest Sanctuary SilTarp, then this is a really great option at a cheaper price point.

The 10 tie outs offer lots of set up configurations, meaning you should be able to set it up even the most awkward locations. It also comes with decent cord for suspension and a stuff-sack.

Unlike a lot of backpacking tarps you can also close the ends for added wind & rain protection, which is great if you're planning a camping trip in poor weather conditions because it means your head, feet and gear are less likely to get wet.

It's heavily stitched which gives you a lot of confidence about it holding up in the wind and rain. I also thought the orange trim along the edges is a really nice touch, helping keep the tarp visible in low light and thick coverage. 

As with most camping tarps, it doesn't come with tarp poles, so you may want to factor that into your budget. The stuff sack is a little on the small side meaning it can be a bit fiddly to pack up. And it's definitely a heavier than some of the best camping tarps I've used, so if you're a lightweight-gear-junkie this may not be for you.

In Summary…

This camping tarp is big, fairly heavy, tough and inexpensive. It's probably best suited to folks who don't mind a bit of bulk and weight: car campers on a budget or backpackers who enjoy tarp camping (but don't do it a weight-saving exercise). A solid thumbs up!

Alternatives

If you don't mind paying a bit more, then you might also be interested in Aqua Quest. The Aqua Quest Defender is a similar size but better spec. And the Aqua Quest Safari is a lovely large but light design.

Specs

The "Escapist" from Sea to Summit is a flat-cut backpacking tarp made from 15D Ultra-Sil Nano. It comes in 2 sizes: Medium (8' x 6') and Large (10' x 10'). The Medium tarp weighs 10.5oz and the Large weighs 15.5oz. Both have 8 tie outs which are 'bartacked' to hold the tip of trekking poles. ($$$$)

The Verdict

In all our research this was hands down the best backpacking tarp we could find. 

It is expensive, so if cost is a major consideration you may want to look elsewhere. But if you're looking for the strongest, most compact, ultralight tarp on the market, you need look no further.

Unlike some of the camping tarps discussed here, this does not come as a complete kit. You will get no guy lines or stakes included (although it does comes with a stuff sack). But that's fine because you'll probably want to use your own cord and stakes anyway.

While Sea to Summit claim you can sleep comfortably under the medium sized version, I'd probably take issue with that. It's certainly possible but if it rains there's a good chance either your head or your feet will get wet. It's probably best used as a day-hiking shelter or an emergency shelter.

For backpacking, you probably want to spring for the 10' x 10' tarp. Two reasons, really: 1) you're less likely to let the elements in than with the smaller version and 2) it integrates perfectly with the Escapist Inner Bug Net. So for a few extra ounces, there's a good chance you'll stay dry and bug free. That is certainly a trade off I'm willing to make!!

In Summary…

If you’re looking for a tarp that’s light, compact and durable this won’t disappoint! This is the best backpacking tarp I know of and perfect for thru-hiking.

Aqua Quest Defender Tarp Review - best bushcraft tarp for camping and backpacking

Specs

When it comes to the Aqua Quest Defender you've got 4 sizes to choose from (10x7, 10x10, 13x10 or 15x15) and 2 colors (cammo or olive drab). It's flat-cut with 21 re-enforced webbing loops. It's exceedingly durable, weighs less than 2lbs and is relatively inexpensive. ($$)

The Verdict

Aqua Quest are pretty bombproof as camping tarps go. That means it is quite heavy, yes, but you can really feel the quality as soon as you lay hands on it. The 70D nylon has a hefty waterproof coating on it and the stitching is heavily re-enforced. It's backed with a 2-year, no-quibbles warranty which always goes a good way towards understanding how much faith the manufacturer has in their products. 

The plethora of web loops is well-thought-out. It makes the tarp extremely versatile. It's really easy to pitch for a sleeping setup. Equally, if you are in a tent then it makes an excellent additional cover either for your tent or as a canopy for a camp kitchen.

Because it's as heavy as a small tent, the ultralight crew are unlikely to be interested in the Defender for backpacking (although it's worth noting Aqua Quest have a lighter version (the Aqua Quest Safari) which you can check out here). But because of it's durability I can really see it appealing to anyone into bushcraft or survival.

In Summary

If you're looking to save weight, you might want to look at the Aqua Quest Safari or the Sea to Summit Escapist tarp or the MSR Thru Hiker. If you enjoy tarp camping and want something than can withstand a beating (and then some), it is an awesome piece of kit!

Kelty Noah's Backpacking Tarps

Specs

The Kelty Noah's Tarp 9 is 9' x 9' while the Kelty Noah Tarp 12 is... wait for it... 12' x 12'! They are both cat-cut camping tarps (mostly square but with curved edges for extra tautness) with 12 attachments. Both weigh in around 2lbs (Kelty 9 is less than 2lbs, the 12 is a touch over).  Rated for 3 seasons. Includes stakes and a carry bag. ($$$)

The Verdict

Kelty Noah's tarps are lightweight and very well-designed, as anyone familiar with Kelty would expect. Both tarps come with two grommets to make it super-easy to use with extendable tarp poles if that's your bag (Kelty sell poles separately - they are well-priced and good quality).

The abundance of attachment points makes it extremely versatile and therefore a great all-rounder! So whether you are looking for a tarp to go thru-hiking or just looking for a stable sun shade at a festival or car camping (or indeed any camping trip), this is probably going to deliver for you.

The catenary cut should mean most people can get it extremely taut.  But at the same time, it might also mean some people find it a bit difficult to set up for the first time. The seams may benefit from additional water protection. 

In Summary…

Both sizes provide great coverage at a good weight and a decent price for all camping trips. The versatility means it's an excellent choice for a wide range of uses. It gets a big thumbs up from us!

Specs

RedCamp offer a variety of options and bundles. Some are square, others rectangular, all are under 10' on the longest side. They are made of 210D ripstop poly. You can pick up a standalone camping tarp or you can get a bundle which comes with guy lines and stakes. They comes with 4 grommets; one in each corner. ($)

The Verdict

This is far and away the cheapest camping tarp covered in this article. It's clearly very popular and has lots of rave reviews on Amazon. 

However, before you get too excited, although this is a multi purpose tarp, they definitely have their limitations.

First off, I favor a 10x10 camping tarp. Some folks might be willing to go smaller. But every single option from RedCamp is significantly smaller. For this reason I'm just not convinced they give sufficient coverage when used as a rain fly. As a small sunshade? Sure. But as a backpacking shelter? No.

Secondly, with only 4 grommets, you're really lacking the ability to configure it as a rain fly unless you have 4 conveniently-spaced anchor points.

What they are pretty good at is as groundsheets. So if you need a floor in a backpacking shelter or if you're looking for a tent footprint, then this is a fairly solid purchase. I also reckon that it will do you just fine as a shelter for camping trips in pleasant weather conditions. So fine as a sunshade. Less good in heavy rain.

In Summary…

If you are looking for a very basic camping tarp, then you can buy one of these without worrying too much about wasting your hard-earned dollars, they're that cheap. You may well have to replace it after a season but they're great for occasional use, especially as a groundsheet or footprint.

Alternatives

If I was looking for a cheap rain fly, I'd probably spend a few more dollars and roll with the Free Soldier. It's bigger and more durable.


What's The Best Size Tarp To Buy For Camping?

Obviously a camping tarp is a flat piece of fabric and so is measured in two dimensions. But you will be using it in three dimensions which can make it s bit tricky to know exactly what size tarp to buy.

Things are further complicated by the fact that dimensions tend to be given based on the size of the tarp when cut (ie/. before it has been hemmed ). This means that the finished article can be several inches smaller than the advertised size.

So the first rule is, if you are on the fence about the size, err on the side of caution and buy a larger size.

What To Consider When Looking for the Best Camping Tarps

Getting closer to nature is important and the best camping tarps will allow you to do that more effectively than a tent. Traditionally, camping tarps were made from a cotton or polyester canvas. These have been challenged by less-bulky and lighter materials like poly tarps (made from Polyethylene), ripstop nylon, silnylon and cuben fiber. Bulk and weight are not the only reasons backpackers select these materials. Canvas is not waterproof and can be susceptible to mildew or shrinkage over time.

Shape

Camping and backpacking tarps often come in a rectangular or square shape and vary in size considerably. When selecting a camping tarp you will want to consider what you plan to use it for. I think the best camping tarps are square tarps but they use more material which takes up space and adds weight. Rectangular shapes work well as protection for your sleeping bag or tent, while square designs will offer your equipment and campsite additional protection from the elements. But despite the weight, square backpacking tarps tend to offer the most versatility when it comes to pitching options.

Durability

Durability is a major consideration. The best camping tarps are not poly tarps whereas vinyl camping tarps will be longer-lasting. For rain tarps you will also be looking for lightweight materials that can take a beating. The best backpacking tarps are usually made from silnylon or cuben fiber. Another design feature that affect durability is the quality of seam work on the tarp. Another component to consider is what the material has been treated with. Waterproof or water-resistant coatings add to the longevity and flame-resistant or UV protections should not be overlooked during selection.

Attachment Points

The best camping tarps have plenty of attachment points. Any product that you contemplate buying should have a minimum of four of these. Ideally, six or more points will make the backpacking tarp more securable and offer greater versatility. Manufacturers that pay attention to how these are constructed and what they are made of will often be offering a superior product.

Using a Camping Tarp as Your Main Shelter

The tipping point for buying a camping tarp usually comes when you’ve pared down your gear over and over again and you realise that the single heaviest thing you always pack is...your tent. And you start thinking “what if, instead of shaving off a few ounces, I could lighten my pack by a whole pound or more?”

There are other reasons, too, of course. You might love waking up in the outdoors and feel that a tent is just too enclosed for you to enjoy the raw beauty of nature. Or you might want to test yourself against the elements a bit more. But whatever the reason, you’re looking down the rabbit hole and wondering if you should go down. 

Where You Intend To Pitch

Your camping environment can also help to determine which are the best camping tarps for you. While poly and vinyl tarps are both made of strong material, vinyl will offer you superior wind and tear resistance. Poly tarps can become brittle in cold weather while vinyl can perform adequately in temperatures as low as -40. Color is another consideration, as brighter colors can mark your location while natural colors can hide it.

These factors help to determine the price range of any product you will consider for purchase. Poly tarps tend to be the most economical choice, while the best camping tarps made from SilNylon will definitely cost you more. Tarp shape and the number of tie-down points add to the cost as well. Finally, the more a tarp is protected from the elements, the less protected your wallet will be.

Can I Use A Tarp as a Tent Footprint?

Yes! You can't really turn a tent footprint into a camping tarp, but you can turn a tarp into a tent footprint. It's simply a case of laying the tarp on the ground under your tent. The only thing to be wary of is not to let the tarp extend more than a few inches from the edge of the tent, because if it rains it will start to gather water.

Tent Footprint vs Tarp

Some people get a touch confused when it comes to the best camping tarps. Are you talking about a tarp shelter or something you put under a tent? As you've probably gathered, this article is primarily concerned with using them as a rain tarp or as rain shelters. However, to bring a bit of clarity to the situation, I thought it worth writing a few quick sentences about it.

The purpose of a tent footprint is two-fold. Firstly, it is meant to protect the bottom of your tent from sharp sticks and stones. Secondly, it's meant to act as an additional waterproof barrier when the ground is wet.

Now I'm not a massive tent footprint fan, I must confess. If you clear your site of sharp stones and sticks prior to pitching your tent, you don't have to worry about puncturing the bottom of your tent. And I feel that most tents offer adequate waterproof protection from wet ground. (I suspect that far more moisture is produced from condensation rather than ingress from the ground).

Finally, consider this. You can't turn a tent footprint into a sunshade, whereas if you carry a tarp, you can place it under your tent on damp ground (if you so wish) but you can also rig it up when the sun shines as an awesome shade. So if you're really torn between a tarp and a tent footprint, would you not prefer the more versatile tool?

Tarps & Survival

There's a very good reason that all good bug out backpacks will have a tarp in them. It's not just that they are a lightweight, portable shelter. It's the fact that they are so darned versatile! Use them as temporary cover on the move, as a groundsheet or to keep important stuff like firewood dry. In fact, if you're a prepper, you won't just want one survival tarp, you'll probably want several!

If, after all this, you've decided that a rain tarp isn't actually for you, don't forget to check out my reviews of the best 1 person tents, the best 2 person tents and the best 3 person tents as viable alternatives to a camping tarp.

Alternatively, if you've gone the other way and decided to use a hammock,  read my reviews of the best hammock tarps.

About the author

Bertie

Bertie

I’m Bertie and I’ve been enjoying the wilderness for as long as I can remember. I get out camping, hiking and backpacking whenever I can. And when I can’t, I enjoy writing about outdoor-related stuff!

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