There comes a point in every camping career when you start to think about ditching your tent and trying out a tarp. And no, I don’t mean a footprint (although you could use one as a shelter at a push). I mean a dedicated shelter, because the best camping tarps are specifically designed with protection against the elements, durability and stability in mind.
The tipping point 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. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of camping tarps!
Sanctuary SilTarp (with guy lines & stakes)
Free Soldier (large, 2-person tarp)
Eagles Nest Outfitters (ENO) ProFly Rain Tarp
Kelty Noah's Tarp
Mountainsmith Mountain Shelter LT
The Santuary SilTarp 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 tarp. ($$$)
One of the great things about the Sanctuary SilTarp is, whatever size and shape you buy, they all come as complete kits so you don’t have to worry about buying any extras. You get guys lines, adjusters, stakes and a compression sack.
They also have a generous number of attachment points allowing for loads of set up configurations. So you aren't going to feel limited when you take this into the wilds.
The silicon/PU treatment and taped seams make them exceptionally waterproof and durable. Added to which they come with a lifetime guarantee, which I always see as a huge mark of confidence from the manufacturer.
One thing I did notice is that the stakes can leave a bit to be desired. It's a personal bugbear of mine that whenever stakes are included as part of a bundle they tend to be somewhat sub-par. If you don't like them, though, you can always replace them with your own (or you could check out my reviews of the best tent stakes for recommendations).
This is a great choice if you are looking for a tarp that is super lightweight, will last forever and has infinite configurations. Can’t recommend it enough!
The Free Soldier is a 10' x 11', flat-cut tarp. It has 10 attachment points and weighs 2lbs 3oz. ($$)
If you're looking for an awesome 2-person tarp and you don't want to spring for the largest SilTarp, then this is a really great option at a cheaper price point.
It's got 10 attachment points, offering a multitude of set up configurations. It also comes with decent cord for suspension and a stuff-sack. Unlike a lot of tarps you can also close the ends for added wind protection.
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.
It doesn't come with poles or stakes, so you'll 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 bit on the heavy side, so if you're a lightweight-gear-junkie this may not be for you.
If you’re looking for a large, strong tarp that’s inexpensive and you aren’t worried about carrying a few extra ounces then I wouldn't look any further than the Free Soldier. A solid thumbs up!
Size: 10’6” x 6’4”
Attachment Points: 6
Weight: 1lb 6oz
The tarp is treated with a polyurethane that offers good protection in heavier rains. The streamlined A-Shape allows water to pour off of it quickly. The tarp comes with six guy line attachments. Nylon rope is included. The size, when set up, may prove to be an ideal shelter for clothes and equipment or even a pet.
The Less Good
Replacing the nylon rope with a more durable Paracord would improve the durability. Stakes are not included but can be purchased easily. The coverage may prove a bit short for taller campers, but we found the length adequate.
A Great Choice If…
If you’re looking for a tarp that’s small, compressible and durable this won’t disappoint. This is an excellent backpacking tarp and perfect for thru-hiking.
Size: 11’ x 9’
Attachment Points: 16
The tarp comes with a PV waterproof coating. The diamond shaped is reasonably sized by our estimates. The covering comes with four guy lines and stakes. The design may prove ideal for hammock camping, or as a wind block when car or motorcycle camping. A major plus is that the manufacturer offers a lifetime, 100 percent money back guarantee for this tarp.
The Less Good
The diamond shape may not offer you as much protection as a more traditional tarp and may limit its uses somewhat. Wind-driven rain may still challenge this tarp’s width, but can be overcome with added protection. The light colored material may be more vulnerable to fading over time, but this will not affect the tarp’s functionality.
A Great Choice If…
This may be a great choice if you are on a budget or are looking for a tarp for occasional use.
Size: 9’ - 16’’
Attachment Points: 12
Weight: from 1lb 12oz
This tarp is made from a lightweight polyester. The product is equipped with two grommets for pole fastening as well as adjustable guylines for each. A multitude of guy out attachment points are offered on all four sides.
The unique shape should offer you light protection against the elements. The tarp can add protection when used as a second covering over your tent. Besides backpacking and camping, this tarp would work at festivals and sporting events. This product also comes with a carry bag.
The Less Good
The tarp works with poles that aren't included. You can buy these separately or you can use your own. The shape is not standard, making it a bit difficult to assemble the first time. The seams may benefit from additional water protection. You will want to pack the tarp carefully to avoid tangled lines.
A Great Choice If…
This tarp may be a great choice for hiking, biking and kayaking.
Size: 2 person
Attachment Points: 13
This is more of a tent-tarp hybrid than a true tarp. The layout comes with poles and stakes. Optional loops allow a tree support should you wish to avoid using the poles. The material is bright and the guylines are reflective, giving your equipment high visibility. The three season rating offers added protection against the elements with a single door and rear ventilation window.
The Less Good
This tarp could be a little tricky to set up, but practicing before your trip will make it easier. While this tarp is enclosed, you will still need to carry a footprint in order to remain out of the dirt. The poles used for set up may get in your way a bit. While condensation can be an issue (especially in colder weather), we did not find this to be a problem.
A Great Choice If…
If you aren’t quite ready to go whole hog on the tarp thing but want a super-lightweight tent, then this is a really interesting option for you.
What's The Best Size Tarp To Buy For Camping?
Obviously a 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 or any attachment points have been sewn in). 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 a tarp shelter will allow you to do that more effectively than a tent. Traditionally, 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) or vinyl tarps. 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.
Tarps often come in a rectangular or square shape and vary in size considerably. When selecting a tarp you will want to consider what you plan to use it for. Square tarps 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.
Durability is a major consideration, and poly tarps are usually the least durable choice while vinyl is the longest-lasting. Other design features that affect durability are the attachment points and 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.
Tarps have limited durability and use without attachment points. Any product that you contemplate buying should have a minimum of four of these. Ideally, six or more points will make the 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.
Where You Intend To Pitch
Your camping environment can also help to determine what tarp to select. 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 more durable vinyl tarps will 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.
How to Configure a Tarp - 25 Ways
Check out this awesome infographic from RollingFox showing loads of different ways to set a tarp shelter up.
If, after all this, you've decided that a 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.