Much as I love high-end kit ("it doesn't matter if I use it, honey, it's the fact I own it that counts") I also get a huge amount of satisfaction out of making kit from scratch. So if you've decided not to buy a backpacking tarp or hammock tarp and instead want to make your own, you're in the right place!
Planning Your Homemade Tarp
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. Some of this will depend on whether you are planning to use it for tarp camping or hammock camping. 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.
For the purposes of this article we're going to keep things simple and recommend a flat-cut tarp in a square or rectangle with no doors.
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.
Most people will opt for silnylon, especially the first time they make their own tarp. It's fairly light, it's cheap and will do the job well. If you are adept with a sewing machine and need to go ultralight, you might use cuben fiber. If you are on a super tight budget, you might use Tyvek.
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.
Everything You'll Need to Make Your Own Tarp
- Tarp material
- A sewing machine
- Sharp scissors
- Silk pins
- Measuring tape
- Adhesive seam tape
- Sharpie pen
Cutting, Seaming & Assembling Your Tarp
To 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.
Use a sharpie to mark a sewing line. This will help you achieve a straight edge when using the sewing machine. Set up your machine with continuous filament polyester thread and a size 70 sharpes needle. Use some fine silk pins and place them within the seam allowance. Apply low pressure to the pedal working slowly.