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 - Ultralight Tarp Shelter (w/ Guy Line & Stake Kit)
Free Soldier Tarp - Large Rain Shelter
Eagles Nest Outfitters - ENO ProFly Rain Tarp
Aqua Quest Defender - Best Bushcraft Tarp
Kelty Noah's Tarp 9 / Kelty Noah's Tarp 12
Tent Tools - Best Survival Tarp
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 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 backpacking 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 Sanctuary SilTarp, then this is a really great option at a cheaper price point.
It's got 10 attachment points, offering lots 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 heavier than other tarps I've used, so if you're a lightweight-gear-junkie this may not be for you.
However, if you’re looking for a large, strong backpacking tarp that’s inexpensive and you aren’t worried about carrying a few extra ounces then look no further than the Free Soldier. A solid thumbs up!
The ENO ProFly is a 10’6” x 6’4”, hex cut tarp made from 210D ripstop nylon with 6 attachment points. It weighs just 22oz (1lb 6oz) and is extremely durable. ($$$)
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.
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.
If you’re looking for a tarp that’s small, compressible and durable this won’t disappoint. This is one of the best backpacking tarps I know of and perfect for thru-hiking.
While I haven't tried it myself, the Sea to Summit Escapist seems to be well liked among the ultra-light community. Certainly it's one of the lightest backpacking tarps I've ever seen, weighing in at an astonishing 10z! You can check it out on Amazon to see what you think...
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. ($$)
This is pretty bombproof as camping tarps go. That means it is quite heavy, yes, but you can really feel the quality as soon as you lay hands on it. The 70D nylon has a hefty waterproof coating on it and the stitching is heavily re-enforced. It's backed with a 2-year, no-quibbles warranty which always goes a good way towards understanding how much faith the manufacturer has in their products.
The plethora of web loops is well-thought-out. It makes the tarp extremely versatile. It's really easy to pitch for a sleeping setup. Equally, if you are in a tent then it makes an excellent additional cover either for your tent or as a canopy for a camp kitchen.
Because it's as heavy as a small tent, the ultralight crew are unlikely to be interested in the Defender as a backpacking tarp (although it's worth noting Aqua Quest have a lighter version which you can check out here). But because of it's durability I can really see it appealing to anyone into bushcraft or survival.
If you're looking to save weight, you might want to look elsewhere. If you enjoy tarp camping and want something than can withstand a beating (and then some), it is an awesome piece of kit!
The Kelty Noah's Tarp 9 is 9' x 9' while the Kelty Noah Tarp 12 is... wait for it... 12' x 12'! They are both cat-cut tarps (mostly square but with curved edges for extra tautness) with 12 attachment points. Both weigh in around 2lbs (Kelty 9 is less than 2lbs, the 12 is a touch over). Rated for 3 seasons. Includes stakes and a carry bag. ($$$)
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, 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.
Both sizes provide great coverage at a good weight and a decent price. The versatility means it's an excellent choice for a wide range of uses. It gets a big thumbs up from us!
This is a square-cut, 10'x10' tarp with 12 attachment points. It comes with seriously strong guylines and 10 stakes (although the tarp is also available as an individual purchase). And it weighs around 2lbs. ($$)
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 trekking 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.
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.
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), 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.
Camping and backpacking 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. But despite the weight, square backpacking tarps tend to offer the most versatility when it comes to pitching options.
Durability is a major consideration, and poly tarps are usually the least durable choice while vinyl is the longest-lasting. For backpacking 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. 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 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.
Where You Intend To Pitch
Your camping environment can also help to determine which backpacking tarps to consider. 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.
Can I Use A Tarp as a Tent Footprint?
Yes! You can't really turn a tent footprint into a camping or backpacking 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 tarps. Are they something you use as a shelter or are they something you put under a tent? As you've probably gathered, this article is primarily concerned with tarps 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 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.