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. The more technical the material (more of which below), the higher the price you’ll pay.
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. Check out my hand-selected list of the best camping tarps here or just head over to this list of highly-rated tarps on Amazon. 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 Canopy DIY
When you are DIY-ing your tarp canopy, remember that you’ll need to work out the shape you want (square, diamond, hex or something else) as well as where to place the guy lines and how many eyelets you might want. You also need to plan for it being a single shelter or a double, as well as how much additional storage space you’d like.
To easily build your own tarp canopy, you’ll need roughly four yards of your preferred tarp material (which we’ll discuss in a moment). You will also need adhesive seam tape, reinforcement, and stick on loops, as well as some small grommets. Cut the fabric into your desired size, cut the tape in half (creating two thin strips of ½ inch tape) and line your cut edges with tape to prevent fraying.
Then, cut circular reinforcements into four separate pieces. Apply one to each corner. For a stronger tarp, you could also reinforce along the seams. Though it won’t be as aesthetically appealing, you won’t have to worry about your tent being damaged. Add your grommets as close to the edges of the tarp, without rolling over or coming too close to the center of the tarp (both of which can cause the grommets to rip out). You can put stick on loops on the short sides to allow you to run guy lines.
Tarp Material: What Are Your Options?
Tarps come in dozens of materials, shapes, and sizes. The most important characteristic of your tarp is undoubtedly going to be its material. Consider these popular options when selecting your tarp for camping.
Silnylon, sounding like a fabric straight out of a Star Trek movie, is one of the most popular materials for tarps. It is lightweight and waterproof, giving it top marks for portability and function. However, it is not terribly breathable, giving it a musty odor when it isn’t able to fully dry out. It also stretches when it’s wet, which can lead to sagging unless you are diligent about keeping your cords tightened.
Cuben fiber is another popular choice. While it’s lighter than silnylon, it is also significantly more expensive. However, what you pay for in dollars you make up for in convenience, as it does not stretch when it is wet. It is also lightweight and takes up minimal space. While it is waterproof, it is more easily damaged than other comparable materials.
Yet another lightweight option, Spinnaker is a high thread-count, silicone-coated material. Completely waterproof, it does not stretch like silnylon. While it is not quite as strong, and it is somewhat crinkly and loud in the wind, this fabric is a good compromise if you are looking for a weatherproof tarp material.
Tyvek is another lightweight, water-resistant choice. A cheaper alternative to traditional tarp materials, it less visually appealing and also takes up quite a bit more space (it does not pack down as easily). If you’re on a budget or just starting to get into tarp camping, Tyvek might be worth your time, as it requires minimal investment and know-how to use.
Where to Buy Tarp Material
Tarp material is available at various online retailers that specialize in home care or in outdoor recreation. You can also find good tarp material at sporting goods stores and other brick-and-mortar shops. Blue poly and plastic tarp materials are common, with other options available depending on where you shop.
Tarp Setup - How to Prepare Before Going Camping
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.
Where to Pitch Your Tarp
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. 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). Keep in mind the windbreak as well as 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.
If you plan on sleeping in a hammock, this configuration is for you. It provides excellent protection from the elements, and does not require you to use a bivy sack or an additional tarp for your floor, since you will be suspended in the hammock. Start by finding trees an equal distance apart, depending on the size of your tarp and hammock. Tie your hammock and guy rope around the trees, folding the tarp in a diamond shape so that two corners point directly at the ground. Secure each corner using your lines and stakes, and add additional supports via tie out loops, if you have them. This pitch is moderately challenging, but arguably the most comfortable to sleep beneath.
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 precipitation, and allows any rain or snow to run off the tarp. 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, another common solution. Produced by multiple manufactures, like Sea to Summit and REI, these items are essentially tarp tents of their own accord. However, they offer nylon netting on all sides so that bugs can’t slip in to keep you awake.
Tarp Repair: What To Do When You Get A Rip Or A Tear
Accidents happen. You burn a hole in your tarp with your cozy campfire, or rip your tarp when folding it up for storage. It’s not the end of the world. Luckily, the low cost of a tarp means it’s much easier to replace your tarp should something catastrophic happen. However, tarps are also easy to repair. All you need is a handy tarp repair kit and a little bit of know-how to get started.
Tarp Repair Kit
On every camping trip, bring along a trusted tarp repair kit. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy, and can be comprised of materials you are likely to be toting along anyway. Among them, make sure you have Tarp Tape, the best tarp repair tape that money can buy. Tarp Tape, similar in texture and purpose to duct tape, is designed specifically for tarp repair. It can fix rips, join tarps together in a pinch, or even reinforce stress points (such as flexed areas where your cords or poles are passing through).
While you can also use Gorilla Tape or duct tape in a pinch, Tarp Tape is designed specifically for tarps and has more bend and flex than other types of tape. Besides the tape, you will also need something to cut it with. Consider bringing along a multitool, which is a good idea for camping in general, as you can use it for other repairs and tasks along the way.
If you notice a hole, tear, or other sign of damage, mend it right away. There’s no point in sleeping under a damaged tarp if you don’t need to. Simply stretch a few layers of Tarp Tape over your hole, and make sure to press it down on all sides. That’s all you need to do!
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.