The great outdoors - is there anything more relaxing than spending a night beneath the stars? While many people rely on a trusted tent or even an RV to make themselves comfortable in the wilderness, a growing number of people are returning to the most basic (and often overlooked) form of camping: tarp camping.
This article should cover anything you need to know about tarp camping, but I fully intend to add to it as I learn more. So please feel free to drop comments at the bottom or contact me if you have a top tip to share!
Tarp vs Tent - Why The Debate Will Go On Forever
Tarps are a hugely versatile shelter and are particularly attractive if you are looking to travel light. While they don’t come without their challenges, once you get hooked, you really get hooked! But the debate between tarps and tents is something you’ll see over and over again in the forums. And it will continue to rage without resolution because…well...people have opinions!
Without wanting to get sucked into that debate, here’s a brief summary of the pros and cons of tents vs tarps.
Tarp vs Tent: Pros & Cons of Tarps
Easier for bugs to get at you
Takes some skill to assemble
Can be constructed closer to the campfire
Challenging to use in inclement weather
Easy to adjust or move
Difficult to use in treeless areas
Not quite as warm
Allows you to be closer to nature
Minimalist set-up (if that’s your thing)
Easier to set up in areas where you might struggle to pitch a tent (eg/. forest)
Tarp vs Tent: Pros and Cons of Tents
Four-sided so there is no exposure to the elements
Takes away some of your closeness to nature (a minor pro for some people!)
More protection against bugs
Heavier and bulkier
Expensive (although these days you can find some very high quality cheap tents)
Arguably more fun in terrible weather
Easier to pitch in treeless areas
Some people feel safer in an enclosed space
How Much Does a Tarp Cost?
Most first-timer tarp campers will probably buy a tarp off the shelf. But a lot of people are increasingly turning to making their own; either because they want to save a few bucks or because they just enjoy making stuff!
For a DIY tarp, you can probably get away with an investment of less than $30 depending on the material you want to use. For more information, check out my article on how to make your own DIY tarp canopy.
If you are looking to buy a camping tarp, it’s going to cost you in the region of $50-$100. Again, this depends on what you want. The thicker, bulkier and less technical the material, the cheaper it will be. And visa versa.
Make Your Own Tarp vs Buy A Tarp
A lightweight tarp system is often cheaper than a double-walled tent, but it can still cost a good amount of money compared to a DIY setup. There are several tarps on the market to be aware of. (You can read reviews of my hand-selected camping tarps here and hammock tarps here). While fully assembled tarp tents offer more protection against the elements, as well as stylistic features, they come at a higher overall cost (think a minimum of fifty dollars) compared to a DIY tarp canopy.
Tarp Camping Preparation
So you're convinced and raring to go! Great! But it's really worthwhile taking a step back to do some thinking and planning. This section looks at doing a couple of dry runs; practising your tarp knots and discussing what makes a great pitch, as well as how to pitch a tarp.
Before heading out on your first tarp camping excursion, consider conducting at least one or two dry runs in your backyard. Setting up a tarp shelter requires you to be skilled in at least a couple different kinds of knots, which you will need to practice in advance.
3 Tarp Knots You Must Be Able to Tie
If you can't secure your tarp, your camping experience is going to be miserable. Trust me! I've been there! You can learn to do these knots on your early trips, but that really just means spending endless hours in the darkness working things through by trial and error.
Far better, in my opinion, to spend a few hours in the comfort of your own surrounds, learning these three tarp knots before heading out to the backcountry.
Tarp Knot 1 - The Evenk Hitch
The Evenk Hitch was taught to Ray Mears in the 1990s by the 'Evenks', one of the indigenous peoples of Siberia. It's used to anchor one end of your ridgeline (the main 'beam' of your tarp). It's a useful knot for two reasons. Firstly, it's not at all fiddly, meaning that you can tie it wearing gloves, making it a perfect cold weather knot. Also, you can tie it at a comfortable height and slip it up the tree to the correct height for your shelter. Check out how to tie the Evenk Hitch here.
Tarp Knot 2 - The Taut Tarp Hitch
The Taut Tarp Hitch looks at the other end of your ridgeline and is absolutely critical for ensuring it is as tight as tight can be; like tightrope tight. The primary principal is that it allows you to get the right tension, then use the paracord to lock the tension into place while you work on your knot. Step-by-step instructions can be found here at Howl Bushcraft.
Tarp Knot 3 - The Adjustable Guyline Hitch
Having creating a tight rideline, the success or failure of your tarp shelter now rests on the tension you can create in your guylines. If you can't strum your guys like a guitar, you could be in for very flappy tarp time. The beauty of this knot is that you get the tension into the rope after you've tied it. That means once you've got all your guys out, you can make simple tweaks all around your pitch without having to untie and re-tie all your knots or re-positioning your stakes. Here's how to tie it.
Tarp Shelter Setup: Where & How to Pitch a Tarp
One of the biggest differences between tarp camping and tent camping (aside from the obvious) is site selection. Because you are naturally going to be more exposed, you need to become really smart about choosing where to pitch your tarp. A few tips:
1. Try to avoid well-used pitches where the ground in hard as rock. Instead, seek out lesser-used sites or virgin ground.
2. You must look for sheltered spots. Become an expert in how wind moves over ground and look for places that aren't buffeted too much. At the same time, beware no air circulation at all! You don't want to invite the mosquitoes over for a fireside dinner.
3. When you set up your tarp, remember that drainage is key. You want to make sure you are not at the bottom of a hill, where runoff will become your enemy.
4. Keep in mind that cold air sinks, so if you are low on a hillside, this might be nice in the summertime but will also present other challenges (like high humidity).
5. As with any sort of camping, keep in mind how close you are to resources like drinking water and firewood.
The Only 4 Tarp Shelter Configurations You Need To Know
There are probably hundreds of tarp pitches you can do, but to simplify things, I’m going to preach that there are only a 4 different configurations you need to know. These configurations will get you through all kinds of conditions and can be applied to any locations.
This is a great pitch if you want to have three sides closed to the elements and one side wide open. It's kinda like a mini cave.
Start by tying one corner to a tree with your wind to your back. For larger tarps you can go about 6' up. Go lower if you have a smaller tarp or want a lower profile. Then go to the opposite corner and stake it out tight. And lastly, stake out the sides. With the weather approaching from behind, you'll have a nice, sheltered spot with a large opening.
A common variation of this is the "flying diamond pitch" which can involve elevating the the back as well as the front (using trees or poles), and staking out the sides with guy lines rather than stake them directly into the ground. This will create more airflow if you want a breeze because of the heat or bugs.
The A-frame is a common design that is simple to erect. To do this, you need two trees roughly ten feet apart (the distance depends on the size of your tarp). Tie a guy line around each tree about five feet off the ground. Tie it tightly to prevent sagging. Throw the tarp over the line so that the middle rests on the cord. Hammer stakes onto each corner, and reinforce if you have any sagging.
This pitch offers good protection from light rain. It's quite an open pitch, which means you get great ventilation and can easily check out your surroundings. It's not the best for a storm, although you can shorten your guylines (by about a half) to get a tighter pitch and get much more protection from the elements. Although it does not have a floor and can be prone to sagging, it is one of the quickest and easiest pitches to assemble.
The lean-to shelter is also quick to make, and probably the best to try as a first-timer. You will need two trees, and you want to make sure there is no slack at all in the line. Throw the tarp over the line, pulling it at a thirty-degree angle. Hammer stakes in on each end, ensuring that they are on the outside of the shelter. This pitch, too, is quick to erect, and offers superior wind protection. While you are still exposed to the elements on one side, if you pay attention to the direction of the wind, you shouldn’t have any problems.
How to Make a Tarp Shelter Without Trees? Use the One-Stick Pitch!
No trees? No worries. You can also make a tarp shelter with one stick. It can be erected in less than five minutes. Simply place a pole in the center of where you would like to camp, then drape your tarp over the top. Stake the corners in on three sides, making a triangle shape. This will offer resistance to heavy winds, as there won’t be any sides for the wind to catch. While it can be a bit claustrophobic, it’s a quick and easy pitch that will work well if you have no trees to depend on.
An Essential Gear List for Tarp Camping
Tarp Poles: Do You Need Them? Which Ones To Buy?
You don’t necessarily have to have tarp poles for a successful tarp camping trip. However, they make your trip a lot easier and add a great deal of versatility. Invest in telescopic tarp poles, ideally those that are light as possible so that you they are easier to carry. Make sure you pay attention to how many eyelets your tarp has - you don’t want to lug around more poles than you need based on your number of eyelets.
Stakes are a crucial element of your tarp-camping endeavor. You will need plenty of stakes, which can prove to be a challenge if you are camping in an area without access to natural stakes (ie, trees). You can find stakes for all kinds of ground, whether it be snow- or ice- covered, sandy, rocky, or clay. You can make your own, or invest in small aluminum or metal stakes.
When it comes to assembling a tarp shelter, you can never have too much paracord. Opt for cord with reflective tape so that you will be able to see it in the dark. Try to bring with you at least 100 foot of cord per tarp, so that you have plenty to use in a pinch.
Sleeping Bag and Bivy Sack
A good sleeping bag is imperative for any kind of camping, but particularly if you plan on sleeping under a tarp. A tarp will offer a little less protection than a regular tent, allowing you to explore the wilderness more intimately, but you’ll want a toastier sleeping bag to compensate for the heat loss. Consider the climatic and weather conditions where you will be camping, and plan accordingly.
It’s also not a bad idea to bring an additional tarp or a ground sheet to protect you from the elements, too. If you are worried about the temperature rating of your sleeping bag, you can also tote a bivy sack. Bivy sacks, short for bivouac sacks, are designed for serious backpackers, particularly those who are going to be adventuring in a colder climate. They are made out of two tiers of fabric and offer great waterproofing and protection from the elements. Don’t get your bivy sacks confused with bivy shelters, which are actually low-rise tents with built-in sleeping areas.
Bugs are the scourge of tarp camping, turning even the most adventurous camper away from this exciting new prospect. Luckily, there are some easy solutions to your annoying bug problem.
If you are tarp camping, you can use a bivy to keep the bugs way. You can simply drape netting over your head, or invest in a bug net tent. There are quite a few manufacturers, like Sea to Summit and REI, and they are essentially mesh tents. Check out this bug net from Paria Outdoors which pairs extremely well with a tarp...
Where To Go Tarp Camping (And Where Not To Go)
While you need to put a bit more thought into where you go tarp camping (and where you don’t go tarp camping), you can generally do this in any setting where you would traditionally go tent camping. Under no circumstances should you go tarp camping in an area that tends to collect water. While it’s not uncommon for tent floors to leak, too, camping under a tarp requires you to put more thought into your site selection.
Tarp camping is ideal in settings that are dry, calm, and relatively bug-free. If you are a first-time tarp camper, consider trying it out in a Mountain State or the Desert Southwest, where you will have to worry less about rain and black flies. That being said, you could use a tarp in the east as well, where temperatures are relatively consistent between day and night.
Sick of being cooped up in a claustrophobic tent, unable to enjoy the night stars? Tarp camping is a great way to enjoy the wilderness without having to lug around a ton of equipment. Whether you’re on a budget or just a minimalist by choice, sleeping in the woods is made a million times better by tossing the tent and choosing the tarp.