Advice Gear

How To Choose a Camping Tarp

how to choose a camping tarp
Bertie
Written by Bertie

The camping world is divided into two groups; pre tarp and post tarp. This simple bit of fabric is such a game-changer that once you’ve bought into it, there’s no going back.

They are relatively inexpensive yet hugely versatile. At a minimum a tarp will make your camping experience more comfortable but they can also save your life in extreme circumstances.

There’s quite a lot of variety in the marketplace. And today we’re going to try and break everything down to make it easier for you to navigate the choices. So whether you want to use a camping tarp as a shelter to sleep under or as a canopy to shelter from the elements, we’ve got you “covered” (#MegaLolz).

Your key considerations:

  • Size Matters: Packed size can’t be too bulky if you need it to be portable and the coverage needs to be sufficient for your intended use.
  • Weight: If you plan to hike with a tarp, your back will thank you for going light.
  • Shape & Design: Square tarp vs Rectangular tarp vs Cat Cut tarp (whut?)... Understand the pros and cons of different shapes.
  • Material: Do you need a top-tier fabric? Or will a basic tarp be adequate?
  • Colors: Hi-vis? Or a sneaky Forest Green?
  • Functionality: Do you need something multi-functional? Or do you have a single purpose in mind?

Check Out Aqua Quest Tarps...

Aqua Quest Tarps come in a variety of sizes and colors. A great option if you just need a high-quality, no nonsense camping tarp.

Because tarps have such a wide variety of uses (groundsheet, makeshift tent, impromptu rain cover to name a few) you just need to ask yourself if you want to tarp to do anything above and beyond its standard tarp duties. 

Will you want to rig it as a makeshift shelter on a hike? Might you want to stake it down as a windbreak? Should it be big enough to roll all your children up in if they get on your nerves during school holidays?

When you know the answers to those questions, consider these factors:

What Size Tarp for Camping?

Choosing the right size of tarp is important and to do that, it’s best to know in advance how you’re planning on using it. 

A standard square tarp is 10' x 10'. This will offer a reasonable canopy for a camp kitchen. A small family of 3-4 can eat meals under it. It will provide decent cover for a small group in a rainstorm. One person can sleep under it with their gear. (DD Tarps have a rock solid 10x10 option. Good price. Not very heavy. Great all-rounder).

Kick it up a gear and you've got tarps with some extra square footage. If you're looking for a rain shelter, 10x10 can get a bit cramped as you pull down the sides and batten down the hatches. You might find a 12'/13' tarp better, then, for wet weather camping and for slightly larger families/groups. (Aquaquest have a solid 10'x13' option and Kelty have a nice catenary-cut product called Kelty Noah's Tarp in various sizes, available on Amazon or direct from their website).

Getting into the 15' and 20' range is probably only something you'd want as part of a very large group; perhaps a scout leader or 2+ families camping together. They start to get quite bulky and heavy in this range. But obviously if you need the space then you need the space!

Shape and Design

You’d be forgiven for thinking a tarp is a tarp, but believe it or not, there are actually a few different shapes and designs on offer, each suited to different needs. Let’s take a look now.

Square Tarps

Square tarps are the most classic and versatile option for campers. The generous sizing provides a ton of room to spread out and means the tarp can do double duty as a vehicle cover.

However, large square tarps might be inefficient for a solo adventurer because of the bulk and weight.

Rectangular Tarps

Popular among solo hikers. Because the length is greater than width, they make nifty bivouacs that are ideal for one person. Don’t go too narrow to save weight because the narrower the tarp, the higher is the risk of rain splatter or weather that’s too adventurous!.

Tapered tarps are a variant, these are narrower at the foot compared to the head. They provide enough space but restrict overall weight. Technically, tapered tarps are more efficient but this comes at a price — prepare to pay more than your standard rectangle tarp.

Cat-Cut Tarps

With delicate curves along the sides and ridges, cat-cuts tarps provide perfect tautness with minimal effort. If you’re over floppy edges, consider a cat-cut, named for catenary cuts that prevent flapping. An added bonus is the reduced noise.

Despite these benefits, you do have to fully pitch a cat-cut tarp. For this reason, they’re not really suitable in dense woodlands or any place where the trees are close together. As with tapered tarps, expect to pay a premium price for these models.

Asymmetrical Tarps

These are pretty niche and are primarily designed to work with asymmetrical hammocks. If you’ve ever slept in a hammock you’ll know that you’re quite open to the elements, even with a tarp up top. For that reason, asymmetrical tarps aren’t very popular. 

What Is The Best Tarp Material?

A camping tarp’s material should be waterproof so water won’t seep through. You want to prevent dampness and shelter your supplies. 

Durability, in addition to water resistance, is the key quality you want in a tarp’s material. Better durability prevents rips and means you won’t have to shop for a replacement. And, of course, durable materials withstand extreme weather conditions well.

Tarps are available in a range of materials but these are the most popular:

Silpoly

Silpoly is polyester with infused silicone, the material is lightweight and waterproof. It’s the lightest fabric at a reasonable cost. For many happy campers, it’s the perfect blend of affordability and durability.

Cuben Fiber

The lightest tarp material available and beloved of ultralight backpackers. Cuben fiber (aka Dyneema Composite Fabric or DCF) is heat-welded and has stronger seams than other materials. If you go down this route, you won’t have to seam seal your tarp.

The only downside is the cost — cuben fiber is expensive. Plus it’s more vulnerable to punctures when taut.

Silnylon

Silnylon is crafted from silicone and polyester. Like silpoly, it’s durable and waterproof. Silnylon is significantly heavier than cuben fiber and a little heavier than silypoly. Both silpoly and silnylon tarps need seam sealing to prevent leaks.

Alternatively, concrete canvas is growing in popularity. It’s easy to use, flexible, and waterproof.

Weight

Although almost all tarp materials are durable, heavier tarps are less prone to rips and tears. If you’re carrying your tarp in a backpack, choose one that’s light enough that it won’t cause any slipped vertebrae over the course of a hike.

Lightweight tarps are handy when you’re camping with loads of equipment already. 

Colors

While color isn’t of key importance, note that brighter shades reduce UV degradation by reflecting sunlight and darker colors let less light through the tarp’s material.

Functionality

It’s safe to say that how to choose a tarp is largely a matter of how you’ll use a tarp! 

Hi-tech, super-strong materials help you make the most of your tarp. Multifunctional tarps, such as classic square, can be used to cover equipment, as a tent base, to block wind, and create a tent. 

If you’re a single camper and you want a tarp as a groundsheet or to shelter under., consider a small, light rectangle. Overall, the lighter the better. However, if you’re driving instead of hiking, you can afford extra weight and might prefer a specialized, heavy tarp. 

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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