When tent camping, should you use a footprint tent or a tarp to protect the bottom of your tent from rough terrain? The footprint tent vs. tarp debate is one that each tent camp enthusiast will have at one point or another as they endeavor to enjoy the great outdoors.

Most outdoor lovers immerse themselves in this passion by going on camping trips. Tent camping is one of the most wholesome ways to revel in nature while taking a break from the daily hustle and bustle of city life.

However, as experience will teach most campers, your tent needs care. This is particularly true if you use it frequently and go camping in different locations. A good way to keep your tents functional for longer is to give them extra protection or care. One way to do that is by using a footprint tent or a tarp.


Why Use a Footprint Tent or a Tarp?

Almost everyone assumes that they bought the best tent for their camping adventures. However, no matter how sturdy the material from which you make your tent, it will experience some wear and tear along the way. In many cases, the tent bottom or the tent floor bears the brunt of this abuse.

This happens because that part of the tent is often in constant contact with the cold, hard ground. Depending on where you pitch your tent, this ground could have sharp pebbles, roots, plants, and even sticks that dig into the tent bottom. In the process, they could tear it or, at the very least, cause some structural damage, which renders that part of the tent weaker as time goes on.

Couple that with the fact that there’s often moisture from the ground that can seep into the tent through the tent floor. This means that the tent fabric in this area could develop mold from the wet ground.

You could use a tent footprint or tarp to offer extra protection from the elements and the rough ground. Layering these materials beneath the tent base as ground cover keeps your tent somewhat protected from the wet ground, as well as other hazards such as sticks, roots, and rocks that could tear it.


What Is a Tent Footprint?

tent siding

A tent footprint is a large piece of tough material that you can place on the ground or under your tent. This footprint helps protect the bottom of your tent from damage or moisture by keeping it from coming into direct contact with any abrasive material found on the ground surface.

A tent footprint, therefore, is the material that takes the brunt of the abuse. It’s ideal for camping trips that require pitching a tent on abrasive surfaces, such as rocky areas in rugged national parks, deserts, and beaches.


What Is a Tarp?

A tarp, an extremely durable material, can provide protection for your entire tent. The key distinction between a tent footprint and a tarp is that you can position a tarp both underneath and above the tent.

Tarps protect your tent from much more than just ground abrasion and moisture. They protect it from the elements too.


What Are the Pros and Cons of a Tent Footprint?


The purpose of a tent footprint is to protect the bottom of your tent. That’s its primary function, which makes it slightly more limited than a tarp. With that in mind, a tent footprint has some pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Waterproof: Most, if not all, tent footprints consist of waterproof material. This allows them to keep ground moisture from entering your tent. It’s the same reason why most wilderness survivalists place a layer of branches or leaves underneath their tent; to keep the moisture as well as the cold from the ground from slipping into the tent.
  • Tough: Tarp footprints are usually tougher than most. The material used needs to withstand the kind of abuse it will take from rough and uneven ground.
  • Slightly thick: Although most tent footprints are thin and lightweight, they offer a small margin between the wet ground and the tent floor, which is often enough to protect the tent from moisture and provide extra comfort.
  • Precise: Tent footprints often have a specific design for fitting precisely with particular tents. This, in turn, makes them easy to set up and use.

Cons:

  • Precise: This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Most outdoor enthusiasts will tell you that multipurpose camping gear is often preferable to single-purpose gear. It increases your weight, but if you don’t need it for its specific purpose, it’s absolutely useless on that camping trip. Tent footprints function in a manner that requires adherence to the instructions provided by the tent manufacturer. Most manufacturers design tent footprints to be compatible with a specific tent, and if you encounter any reason that prevents you from using that particular tent, the footprint will likely become unusable.
  • Price: A tent footprint carries a higher cost compared to a simple yet highly functional tarp. The fact that a tent footprint lacks the same versatility as a tarp further enhances the price difference. For example, this REDCAMP Ultralight Tent Footprint sells for considerably more than this Amazon Basics Waterproof Camping Tarp, yet the tarp is more versatile than the camping footprint.
  • Ease of use: A camping tarp is far easier to use as a ground cloth than a tent footprint. All you have to do is lay it out. For example, this Tyvek Footprint even has grommets which call for skilled installation, while a tarp can just be laid out flat on the ground, and you are good to go.

What Are the Pros and Cons of a Tarp?

The tent footprint vs tarp comparison would be incomplete without looking at some pros and cons of using a tent tarp.

Pros:

  • Versatile: A tent tarp is an extremely versatile piece of camping gear. Not only can you use it as a groundsheet to protect your camping tent from the wet ground, but you can also use it as a rainfly to keep the elements away. You can also use your tarp as an impromptu shelter whenever necessary. It’s faster to set up and can save you from a lot of bad weather out there. Another reason why tarps are so versatile is because they can serve as a dining area, an open-air vestibule, and a play area for your kids when you go camping with the entire family.
  • Easy to use: All you have to do with a ground tarp is lay it on the ground and pitch your tent on top of it. It will be more practical to fold the tarp according to the tent size.
  • Affordable: As highlighted, tarps are considerably cheaper than tent footprints. Couple that with the fact that they are easier to use and more versatile, and you have a piece of camping gear that is almost a “must-have” on any camping trip.

Cons:

  • Weight: While most tarps are designed to be lightweight, some of the best tend to be slightly heavier than most tent footprints. As a general rule of thumb, you want to limit the weight of your camping gear, even when going car camping. This allows you to travel light and enjoy the entire experience more.

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tarp and tent

Footprint Tent vs Tarp: Which One Should You Choose?

Even though this kind of choice often comes down to personal preference, some factors need to be considered. Specifically, the main differences between the two options.

  • A tent footprint is designed to protect the bottom of your tent, specifically the ends that meet the ground. On the other hand, a tarp is designed to protect the entire tent, depending on how you use it.
  • A tarp is often more affordable than a tent footprint.
  • A tarp is often easier to set up than a tent footprint. Whereas you can lay a tarp down to protect your tent base, the tent footprint must be planted precisely as the manufacturer directs.

Based on these factors, you can see that using a tarp is more convenient than a tent footprint. If you aren’t convinced, read our article on the Ultimate Guide on How to Use a Tent Footprint. . However, tent footprints often offer more advantages than a tarp. Again, it comes down to personal preference.

A tarp is the best way to go if you want something hardy and multipurpose. If, however, you don’t mind the specificity of a tent footprint and would like a little more comfort, then for you, the footprint tent vs. tarp debate will lean a bit more on the side of the footprint.