Beginner’s Guide to Tarp Camping

When I started backpacking, like most people, I stuck with the tried and true tent. I was afraid of getting my gear wet, getting hypothermia, and dealing with the trials of the trail.

Of course, I’ve moved on now and over the years, I’ve experimented (and enjoyed) shelters from tents, hammocks, tarps; and even sleeping under piles of leaves to survive a night.

So, whenever I’m asked what kind of shelter I use today, my answer is usually “tarp”. They’re lightweight, versatile, affordable shelters that make great companions in any weather.

I’m excited to have an opportunity to help you learn the best ways to enjoy camping with a tarp!

My goal is to make this guide as comprehensive as possible. Given the breadth and scope of everything that is tarp camping, I can’t cover every minute detail. However, when you’re done with this guide you’ll be ready to get started tarp camping and doing it right!

tarp camping setups

Why Use a Tarp Shelter?

This should be the very first question on your mind. Chances are good that you’ve come from a background using other shelters.

You’ve probably got a reason to start looking for a new shelter system..some considerations are that a tarp shelter is:

  • Lightweight
  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to modify / DIY
  • Able to be set up in many locations / configurations
  • Very small when packed
  • Adaptable

The reason that you choose to sleep under a tarp could be totally different. Most people want to save weight and space in their pack.

tarp camping setup
© Joseph via Flickr

Who Benefits From Tarp Camping?

Lightweight hikers are the most likely to give it a go sleeping under a tarp. For us, the benefits are very practical and very real.

Tarps don’t need poles, they don’t have bug nets, and there’s no double-wall system to add weight and bulk. It’s just you, the tarp, and nature.

If you’re not a gram weenie, don’t worry! There’s more to it than just saving weight. Tarp camping brings a simplicity and connectedness back to hiking that tents can sometimes push away.

You have no walls between you and the world around you, so you have more space, more room to breathe, and a better opportunity to immerse yourself in your surroundings.

Using a tarp as a shelter comes with its share of struggles as well. You’re exposed to bugs, driving rain splatter, and there’s nothing between you and what goes bump in the night.

Done right, however, you’ll be just as warm, dry, happy and bug-free as any tent camper.

Tarp camping also makes a great launchpad for those who might be thinking about attempting to make their own gear.

If this sounds like you, experimenting with tarpaulins can be a perfect place to begin thanks to the simplicity.

tarps are easy to setup and lightweight
© Joseph via Flickr

Additions to a Tarp

Many backpackers try to remedy poor skills with more gear. In some cases this is the right approach, in others, it adds weight and complexity to your shelter that you may not need.

Bivys

bivy sack can be used with a tarp shelter
You can combine a bivy and a tarp – use the bivy on it’s own in good weather and have the tarp as a backup.

Bivy systems are essentially waterproof cocoons for your sleeping bag.

They’re a lot like sleeping inside a trash bag. That is to say, claustrophobic and unpleasant most of the time.

Where bivys excel is in fast, light alpine situations. Bivys have a low wind profile, don’t need trees or dirt to set up ropes and stakes, and they can be deployed almost anywhere. This makes them a top pick for special forces operatives and extreme mountain athletes.

Most recreational backpackers will find few situations where a bivy makes more sense than a tarp, hammock, or tent. Some backpackers still choose to use them.

For tarp camping, bivys are often used as an extra layer of wind and rain protection. In some cases, this is a necessary and smart move to protect from the elements.

However, most of the time this adds more weight and bulk to your gear. Often if you’re using both, it ends up being as heavy and bulky as a tent anyways.

The most common reason to use a bivy with a tarp is to protect from rain overspray.

You can solve this with better pitching (pitch the end lower, with the prevailing wind direction perpendicular to the tarp) or with the use of a garbage bag.

You know I said earlier that bivvies are a lot like garbage bags? That’s why I usually carry a full-size trash bag with me when using a tarp shelter. If the weather gets really bad, I put my feet and the lower half of my sleeping bag and legs into the trash bag.

A trash bag costs almost nothing, is super lightweight, and has tons of uses on the trail. Keep one with you and you’ll be protected from 99% of harsh or wet weather conditions without having to haul around a bivy.

Bug Netting

When you’re entering an area that’s heavily bug infested you might want to opt for the old tent or hammock. Of course, you could try to add bug netting to your setup.

How you choose to do this is up to you. Most of the time it adds so much weight, bulk, and hassle that it makes your tarp not much better than if you had used a tent in the first place! But, if you insist…

You can add bug netting as a DIY option by sewing on to any sides that are exposed. There is a practical and reasonable way to gain bug net protection when sleeping under a tarp.

These are bug bivvies and head nets.

Bug bivvies and head nets go over you, sometimes just your face, and clip to the inner ridgeline above. This holds the netting up off your face and keeps the pesky critters at bay.

They’re lightweight enough to be carried for “just in case” and they keep the weight and bulk of your shelter system low enough to be a viable option!

For hikers who live or spend most of their time in bug infested areas, you may want to consider opting for an ultralight tent instead. It all depends on why you’re considering a tarp in the first place.

Using a Groundsheet

Do you have to use a groundsheet when you’re tarp camping? The answer is simple: yes. You should always use a groundsheet!

Groundsheets protect us and our gear from the latent moisture of the earth. They also provide a rugged and durable barrier between your sleeping pad and the pine needles, rocks, and debris on the ground.

But their most important function is to help minimize rainwater runoff colliding with your sleeping pad and bag.

Groundsheet materials can be any waterproof material, but the following are common:

  • Tyvek
  • Cuben fiber (mylar laminate)
  • Silnylon
  • PVC tarp
  • Tarpaulin
  • Thick plastic tarp

I find that if there is any one area of tarp camping where I’m willing to carry a little extra weight, it’s in the groundsheet. My sleeping pad is somewhat delicate and prone to puncture, so I want my groundsheet to be nice and trustworthy.

I prefer Tyvek because it’s inexpensive and you can cut it to the shape you want. You can get it at the hardware store, it’s used to sheet houses. It’s absurdly durable and waterproof, too!

Something like this from Amazon.

Of course, the absolute lightest material you’re likely to get is cuben fiber. However, cuben is known for its susceptibility to puncturing and it’s insanely expensive. It’s also not particularly abrasion resistant so… it’s a poor choice.

To get the most out of your groundsheet:

  • make it several inches larger than you want on all sides
  • Then tuck or fold the edges underneath
  • Leave at least 6 inches of space between the edge of the groundsheet and the edge of the tarp so that rain splatter doesn’t run onto the groundsheet

Folding the edges under and keeping the groundsheet away from the sides of the tarp shelter prevents water from running over the groundsheet.

If you do it wrong (which you probably will like I did the first few times) you’ll wake up with a river running under you. Surprise!

groundsheet for tarp camping should be larger than the tarp
© Joseph via Flickr
Note the small groundsheet under the massive tarp! Note that it’s pitched on a slight incline – sleep head up the hill.

Where to Set Up Your Tarp

Finding the right spot to pitch your tarp is one of the hardest parts of learning to enjoy tarp camping. It’s not easy and you will make mistakes at first. Luckily you can avoid some of these mistakes I made when getting started.

Avoid the best looking spots

These areas are flat, free from debris, and look like the perfect spot to pitch. Unfortunately, they’re all too often misleading.

Flat open areas tend to be exactly where water pools and sits during heavy rain. Often that’s why it looks open and cleared out – because the water carried off all the leaf debris the last time it puddled there!

Instead look for a slight slope to pitch your tarp over. You don’t want so much of an angle that you slide off. A gentle slope so that you know water will run somewhere other than under you if it rains.

Make sure you sleep with your head up the hill

That way blood won’t rush to your head as you sleep which results in nasty headaches. Yuck!

No trees, no problem!

You can use your hiking poles to hold up the ends. Creatively using trees, trekking poles, and branches will help you achieve great tarp pitches! Don’t think two-dimensionally, either.

a tarp camper pitching with an oar
© Joseph via Flickr
Note the use of an oar in place of a pole. You can use hiking poles, oars – be creative if there aren’t any convenient trees!

Often you can tie out an end of your tarp to a tree branch. This can help actively tension it if you “springload” the tree branch a little first.

Make sure you carry hiking poles because they come in super handy for pitching!

Look for sheltered areas

You don’t want to set up in an exposed location. Tarps are not great at protecting from driving wind and rain. That’s why you want to pitch in an area that’s at least somewhat protected.

Practically any areas in dense forest will be plenty protected. Areas to avoid are tops of hills, edges of tree lines, or open meadows.

pitching a tarp to prevent rain spatter
© Joseph via Flickr
Note how this tarp is pitched with one side lower than the other to protect from rain coming from that direction

If you’re expecting particularly bad weather:

Pitch against the wind

Get your tarp shelter configured so that the prevailing wind and driving rain are coming from the sides. By pitching this way and running the sides of the tarp (sometimes) all the way to the ground, you can keep out any nasty gusts!

Try to find an area where the windward side is blocked, at least somewhat, by debris, brush, trees, or rocks if conditions get particularly nasty.

Keep the foot-side low

I like to pitch with the foot side of my tarp a little lower. This keeps rain and splatter off my feet and leaves more headroom on the other end. It also helps shed rain downhill since I always pitch on a slight slope with my head up the hill.

winter tarp camping has particular challenges
© Joseph via Flickr
Whilst I don’t recommend tarp camping in winter – it can be done using a pyramid pitch. This is a bit more complicated and makes the tarp almost into a tent!

Tarp Design and Shape

Backpacking tarps come in a couple of flavors and they all have advantages and disadvantages.

Asymmetrical Tarps

These are generally only for use with asymmetrical hammocks. In this type of hammock, the sleeper actually lays sideways at an angle.

They rarely see use on the ground because of their poor coverage for general sleeping positions.

Square Tarps

These tarps are identical in size and shape on all sides as you would assume. They’re the most versatile shape and the most classic. With a generously sized square tarp, you will have tons of room to spread out you and your gear.

Square tarps can be a bit inefficient as there’s generally too much material side to side for the average solo sleeper. Yet they can be very effective for two person use!

Rectangular Tarps

These usually see the most use by solo hikers. They’re longer than they are wide and fit more closely to the shape of a sleeping backpacker. Be careful not to go too narrow in the pursuit of saving weight.

The narrower it gets, the more likely you’ll get hit by blowing rain or rain splatter in nasty storms. Trust me, you’ll be happy that you went with a 2 ounce heavier tarp when your buddy with a tiny one is getting soaked.

Tapered Tarps

These are rectangular tarps that are narrower on the foot end than the head end. They’re made to take the most advantage of space efficiency while minimizing weight for ultralight hikers.

I find that, again, they tend to restrict movement and space as well as rarely providing enough protection from the elements.

Can you make a tapered tarp work? Yep! Is it as easy as a larger one? Definitely not. Are they technically more efficient? Yeah, they are.

Tapered tarps also tend to be more expensive because they take more time to design and make. All this adds up to more hassle for a weight saving of a couple ounces. I bet there’s somewhere else in your pack you could shave off a couple ounces for a lot less bother…

Cat-Cut Tarps

Catenary cut tarps use math, science, and magic to create delicate curves along the ridge and sides which causes the material, when pitched, to maintain “perfect” tautness.

These tarps are engineered to spread out the tension applied by the ridgeline and guylines in such a way that there are no floppy edges.

Cat-cut come with two big drawbacks:

1. If you can’t fully pitch it (trees are too close together, etc.) it’s pretty useless.

2. When pitched fully taut, stresses caused by wind and the shrinking or expanding of fabric during weather changes can apply extreme force to joints.

Cat-cut tarps are awesome for achieving fully-taut pitches. However, I’ve never had any real problems pitching a normal one nice and taut and cat-cut tarps will cost you a lot more than a simple rectangle tarp.

It’s up to you if the potential benefits are worth the money.

© Joseph via Flickr

Tarp Materials

There are lots of materials in use today. Almost all are some variation of thread, waterproofing treatment, and thickness of these following materials:

Sil Nylon

Silnylon is a synthetic manmade fiber that uses nylon covered in silicone to provide a waterproof surface. This stuff is affordable, very waterproof, and durable.

Silnylon is usually a touch heavier than silpoly and much heavier than cuben fiber. However, it’s available in many colors and variations and it won’t break the bank.

Silnylon must be seam sealed after being sewn as needle holes leave room for water to leak through ridgelines.

Sil Poly

Silpoly, like silnylon, is a polyester fabric impregnated with silicone. This makes it waterproof and lightweight.

Silpoly, in certain weaves and weights, can be some of the absolute lightest weight fabric for the money.

In my opinion, silpoly strikes the best balance of affordability, durability, and reliability.

Silpoly must be seam sealed after being sewn as needle holes leave room for water to leak through ridgelines.

Dyneema Composite (Cuben Fiber)

Known as Cuben Fiber until recently bought out and renamed Dyneema Composite, this is the lightest fabric you can use by a large margin.

The catch is that it’s absurdly expensive and more vulnerable to puncture when taut than other materials.

As well as being the lightest material, it can also be “sewn” by being heat welded at the seams. This is a stronger joint than sewing and leaves zero room for water to leak through. No need to seam seal.

Overall the lifespan of a cuben fiber tarp is similar to or a bit shorter than a similar quality silnylon or silpoly one.

Stakes, Ropes, and Guylines

When it comes to tarp camping, you will learn to love your guylines and stakes. In fact, you’ll probably become obsessive about the type and quality of rope you use.

For me, the most important factors are lightweight and strong.

Ropes and guylines take a ton of pressure when nasty winds whip up. The last thing you want is a broken guyline – though it’s far more likely your stake pulls out or the tarp rips!

One oft-overlooked quality in a guyline is nighttime reflectivity. I love ropes with a bit of woven reflective material and they’re not too hard to find. This prevents a lot of tripping over guylines after dark!

The best possible qualities would be as follows:

  • 2mm or less
  • Reflective
  • Dyneema core

Anything bigger than 2mm is too large and heavy. Dyneema core rope is amazing for its fantastic strength, so stick with Dyneema when you can. Something like this would make a good choice!

Of course, if you want to go with the lightest cord with the best strength capabilities, I recommend DynaGlide. It’s made from pre-stretched woven Dyneema which is both strong and slippery.

That makes it great for the knots we need to tighten tarp lines! Plus, at 1.8mm it’s one of the least bulky guylines you’ll find anywhere.

Note: If you’re using a line tensioner, you may have trouble with Dyneema. It’s too small and slippery for most mechanical line tensioners.

When it comes to stakes I have a very specific preference: MSR Mini-Groundhogs in almost all conditions.

These stakes are lightweight, have insane soil hold, and they’re nice and small!

Many hikers try to use cheap plastic stakes which break quickly. Ultralight hikers tend to opt for flimsy, thin titanium stakes which have poor soil hold.

For me, the MSR Mini-Groundhogs are a perfect balance of size, weight, and design.

Note: For those of you in the “stake pounding” camp – cut it out! No matter what type, size, or material you use, you will break them! The sole exception to this rule is solid steel stakes which are rarely used for backpacking.

If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t get stakes into the ground you’ll have to opt for the following standard alternatives.

  • Look for roots sticking up, or dig down under a root to tie off a guyline to the root
  • Use a branch or tree limb
  • Use a large rock
  • Use a large fallen limb or log

In fact, I used to only carry half as many stakes as the number of guylines I use. Most of the time I didn’t even use a single stake, instead opting for logs, roots, or limbs to set up.

Once you become confident using the resources around you, you’ll find that stakes lose their importance.

Knots for Tarp Campers

Yeah, you need to learn a couple of knots. Many hikers opt for the metal mechanical tensioners which is fine. They’re quick and handy! However, once you master just two knots, you’ll never need them again and it’s just as quick.

Trucker’s Hitch

By far the most important knot in tarp camping is a style called a hitch.

The Trucker’s Hitch is a simple knot that creates a 2:1 pulley out of your rope. This increases your leverage 2x and allows for great pitches.

Be careful, though, as many new hikers tend to over-tension these knots which can cause your tarp to tear.

To master this knot use this simple tutorial. There are other tutorials out there, but many people make the knot more complicated than it needs to be. Once mastered it should take you about 2 seconds per line to tie and adjust it.

When tied properly the Trucker’s Hitch is secure and can be fully un-tied with a single pull of the string! If you’re fiddling with untying the knot, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Andrew Skurka – renowned distance hiker – has a great tutorial on his system for tensioning tarps which uses a simple Trucker’s Hitch right here:

This is almost the exact same system I use.

Bowline

The bowline is a knot most people master in school or Scouts at some point. If you never learned it, don’t worry. It’s simple and helpful in many areas of life when you need some knot-tying know-how.

The bowline knot is used to secure one end of each guyline to the tarp tie-outs. Learn how to tie it here.

There isn’t much more to it… sorry guys.

Other Useful Knots

If you want to increase your versatility and look cool to all your friends, learn these knots for tarp camping as backups!

Tautline Hitch is a great alternative to the Trucker’s Hitch though it doesn’t create the same 2:1 leverage. It does allow you to quickly set and adjust the tension on a line, without ever untying anything!

One of my all time favorites and the best knot ever invented by mankind (okay that’s an exaggeration) is the Clove Hitch.

Master it to give yourself more ways to… tie stuff together? No, seriously.

Tarps for Hammock Camping

This question comes up a lot: can you use a regular tarp for hammock camping and vice versa?

Hammock tarps come in two flavors which are asymmetrical and symmetrical. Symmetrical tarps are interchangeable between hammocks and ground camping. However, asymmetrical ones are not.

Essentially my advice to hammock campers is to use a slightly larger symmetrical tarp. If you haven’t already got your hammock – see my favorites here.

Enjoy the extra space to stay safe from the rain, more flexibility in setup, and don’t worry too much about the extra couple ounces in this case.

Best Tarps for Camping: Quick Review

XL Silpoly Tarp UGQ

I’ve done tons of research in the field of ultralight backpacking tarps. What have I found with all that research?

There’s one tarp that beats all others for value, weight, and all around function. This is it!

  • Best weight:cost ratio
  • High quality silpoly material
  • Highly customizable
Underground Quilts makes some of my favorite gear because they’re just doing it right. That starts with allowing users to choose the material, color, and stakes, seam sealing options, and ridge tape. You can literally customize every part of this tarp straight from the manufacturer!

While it’s a bit heavier than some of their older models, the coverage area, size, and utility is about as good as you’ll find anywhere. For a 12’ x 12’ tarp you’ll only be carrying 24 ounces. That’s enough room for two people, without a problem which makes it a tiny 12 ounces of shelter per person.

This is the best option for those who understand materials, know what to look for, and want to control every aspect of their setup.

Terra Hiker Camping Tarp

When it’s time to go shopping for a backpacking tarp, we all have different priorities. Some are searching for ultralight, some are searching for ultra-affordable.

If you’re looking for a lightweight tarp that’s insanely affordable, here you go!Best for budget campers who don’t mind a little DIY modification.

  • Inexpensive
  • 7.2’ x 7.8’ square shape
  • 3x grommets
Now let me preface by saying that you’ll probably want to make a few modifications. You’ll need to add guylines, which we talked about above. You may even want to add some reinforcements.

For experienced tarp campers, being able to choose your own guylines is more of a benefit than a burden. You can set them up with the length you prefer and the knots / attachments that work for you.

When you factor in the price tag and compare that with high-end backpacking tarps, there’s a clear winner for budget.

The only drawback is that the waterproofing material is unclear but reliable according to some people I’ve spoken to. Are you willing to take a gamble?

Chill Gorilla 10′ Hammock Tarp

This one (being sold as a hammock tarp but just as useful for ground use) has a handful of advantages that really pull together some of the features I love and have recommended.

That means you can get a great tarp to get you started at a fraction of the price that I’ve paid for similar gear in the past!

Best for: a great balance of weight, price, and performance.

  • All stakes included
  • Guylines included
  • MSR Groundhog-like stakes included
As you can see, there’s a lot of gear attached to this. This is a top choice for beginners who are not sure where to start.

This tarp is actually built to be configured both as a diamond (asymmetrical style) or a square shape. That means it has enough tie-outs to be able to conform to almost any tarp pitch you can dream up. That’s one of the benefits of having ample tie-outs!

Among other things, I like the finished touches of this model. The rolled edges are great and reinforcements on the tie-outs are a welcome addition.

At 30 ounces total (including stakes and lines) it’s not too bad for weight. For the price, it’s definitely a contender.

Wrapping Up

There are tons of way to enjoy backpacking tarps. They’re a new adventure and journey you’ll have to master as you learn to conquer their challenges. Once you’re confident, you’ll have a versatile and lightweight shelter!

Don’t be afraid to start with inexpensive and affordable gear as you learn. With time you’ll become aware of the little things that you can improve.

You may find that you need a larger tarp or that you prefer an asymmetrical shape. By starting small, you can upgrade later without a huge hit on the wallet.

Enjoy the process and rest assured, you’ll sleep soundly and enjoy the versatility of a tarp shelter once you’ve mastered it. Other hikers will look at you as if you’re on a whole other level!

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