Tarp camping 101

This single pole  setup is just one of a variety of ways to rig a tarp for sleeping.
Brad Viles
This single pole setup is just one of a variety of ways to rig a tarp for sleeping.
Posted June 24, 2011, at 8:21 p.m.

Maybe this is you. You’ve got all the latest and lightest in backpacking equipment. Your empty pack weighs in at a little over a pound and a half. Your stove weighs ounces. Everything you carry is the lightest stuff you can find on the market. But you still carry a tent that weighs three or more pounds. If that describes what’s in your pack, I’ve got one word for you — tarp.

That’s right, tarp. A light tarp weighing less than two pounds can reduce the weight of carrying a tent by half or more. Tarp camping is not for everyone, however. The biggest drawback for some is the fact that you are exposed to flying and crawling bugs. But, there are ways to protect against those, too, without adding much weight above a bug bivy or headnet. Once you solve the bug problem, the advantages of tarping for the night are numerous.

With a tarp, condensation is less of a concern than in a tent. Because the tarp can be pitched in a variety of configurations, you can adjust your set-up to the landscape and weather conditions.

Not having tent walls puts you closer to your surroundings. You don’t have to unzip the door of the tent to see outside. It’s easy to set up. By using your trekking poles, trees at the site, cord and a few stakes, a tarp can really open up your overnight experience and still provide protection from the elements. What follows are a few considerations to tarp camping to think about before switching from the tent to a tarp.

Choosing a tarp

Most tarps, with the exception of a few high end models, are inexpensive. They come in a variety of sizes from solo to group. A good solo size is one that measures anywhere from 6 feet by 8 feet to 9-by-12. A sound quality, nylon, urethane coated tarp, with reinforced grommets set at the corners and spaced at intervals down the length provides for a lot of setup options.

You can expect to pay anywhere from $40 and up for a tarp, depending on the size and manufacturer. If the one you choose doesn’t have grommets, which add weight, you can attach your own tie downs by sewing on twill tape into the hem of the tarp. My favorite tarp isn’t a tarp. It’s a tarp-poncho combination that snaps together for use as a poncho, and has grommets along the seams for use as a tarp. It’s about 5-by-8, weighs a little over a pound, and once I close the poncho head opening, works great as a tarp. I remember paying about $60 for it a few years ago.

Packing a tarp

There are few things to pack with a tarp that only add a little more weight, but make a big difference in how you set up when you’re on the trail. Pack a few light tent stakes to stake it out. Pack pre-cut lengths of cord for tie-downs, or pack a few bungee cords. You might also want to pack a ground cloth cut out of Tyvek, or several-millimeters-thick plastic, to lay down under your sleeping pad and bag. Other than those few items, just remember the tarp and you’re set.

Pitching tips

The difficulty of pitching a tarp is vastly overstated. It’s as easy to pitch a tarp as any tent; maybe easier, once you know a few basics. Find a level, high spot in the landscape to pitch. Whether you packed tent stakes or bungees, the next step is simple. Working with the site, look for trees to tie the bungees around. A tree root works well as an anchor, too. If you brought stakes, anchor the corners at the grommets. Then, erect a hiking pole handle down so you can tie it off with enough tension to hold the whole thing up.

The beauty of tarps is the unlimited number of ways you can rig them. Depending on the availability of trees to work with, they can be set up A-frame, pyramid or lean-to style, by using either one pole or two, or none at all, among others. It’s up to you to recognize just what pitching options are available at your given site. Whatever method you use, set up the tarp with the lowest profile that allows entrance to better shield you from the elements.

Never dig a trench around your tarp. They’re destructive and lead to overuse, by inducing others to camp there. Always camp in either a designated site or choose one that has a durable surface, like gravel, sand or ledge. Never mar trees when rigging your tarp. Use care in selecting trees that are strong enough to hold the tension of the structure.

Packing up

This is also pretty simple. Just pull up the stakes or untie the cord, take out the trekking pole and in the time it takes for your buddy to take his fly off his tent, you’re done and packed.

There it is, tarping made easy. With a tarp and a little practice, you’ll find the advantages of having an open air shelter far outweigh the disadvantages. The breeze always blows under a tarp, they’re shady without being confining and pounds lighter than the four walls of a tent. In a good breeze, you may not even notice the bugs.

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