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.
Diamond Pitch: Perfect for Bad Weather
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 so it's perfect for keeping out wind or horizontal rain!
Start by tying one corner to a tree with the 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.
Tarp Lean-To: Great Beginner Pitch
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.
It's a good one because it's so easy to setup. It also overs great wind protection from one side. The downsides are that you are still left exposed on three sides. And you also won't have a floor (which means you'll either want to carry a second tarp to act as a floor or use a bivvy).
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.
Tarp Shelter Setup: Where & How to Pitch a Tarp
One of the biggest differences between using a backpacking tarp and a tent (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 locate your camping tarp setup. 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.