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Why Tarps are Better Than Tents

Updated on April 3, 2014
Looking skyward from the corner of my tarp on a fall backpacking trip to the Seward Range.
Looking skyward from the corner of my tarp on a fall backpacking trip to the Seward Range. | Source

On Tarp Camping

Awoken by the sun and protected from the night rain, a tarp is the ultimate shelter for truly experiencing the wilderness while backpacking. Oddly - to sleep under a tarp, is to camp in rebellion, to protest the nature of what camping has become. As an open-air camper, you are boycotting this world of walls.

Perhaps the worse invention man ever dreamed up was the wall. Yes, yes - they are great at protecting cities from the barbarian horde, but maybe civilization is too highly rated anyway. Though walls are great at keeping the undesirable out, they also serve to keep you in. Walls are the foundation for a prison of our own desire.

The biggest obstacle to tarp camping is fear. Man fears a world that is unobstructed by walls, even if those barriers are of the wispy nylon variety. Man fears what goes bump in the night and forgets, that as a beast themselves, they bump too.

Of course, if you really desire a closeness with nature, you can skip the tarp all together and lie on the bare earth with a pile of leaves under your head and the stars in all their glory in front of you. Though sleeping out like this, truly at one with the environment, is something everyone should try - it gets awfully wet when it starts to rain.

Though at times, tarps have their limitations: Drifting snow and biting insects come to mind. A little experimentation with pitching styles and optional equipment can overcome these minor annoyances.

Tarp camping is a great opportunity to take off your shoes and let the breezes circulate around your body.
Tarp camping is a great opportunity to take off your shoes and let the breezes circulate around your body. | Source
Lightweight tarps are handy when your find yourself car camping too.
Lightweight tarps are handy when your find yourself car camping too. | Source

Tips for Pitching a Tarp

  1. Calculate how water will run off the tarp and angle it accordingly.
  2. Save the weight of stakes by attaching longer guy out points on the corners.
  3. Always practice setting up your tarp before trying to do it in a storm at night.

The Camp Cooking Tarp - The Dining Fly

Cooking and eating in your tent is dangerous. From erupting in fiery ball of flame to attracting curious animals like bears, it is something you don't want to do.

Many campers that started in Scouting, remember packing the heavy canvas dining fly along with them. Though the Scout lugging that heavy tarp on their back drew the short straw, they could smile knowing that at least it wasn't the cast iron Dutch oven in their rucksack. At night, no food was allowed in the vicinity of a tent and the cooking fly was an area devoid of horseplay.

Today with lightweight silnylon materials, the era of the canvas fly has reached its end; however, the rule of "no horseplay in the cooking area" still stands.

Most camping experts agree that the cooking and eating area should be located at least 100-feet away and downwind from where you plan to slumber. Then again, when the reality of the woods takes hold, that distance generally condenses to about 20-feet. Even the most seasoned camper finds laziness in laying out their primitive camp.

Within the realm of lightweight backpacking, when there is only one tarp, you must make a decision. Will you take the chance to cook, eat, and sleep in the same place? Though most ultralight backpackers are careful, it is a better idea to devour your trail vittles someplace other than where you plan on throwing your sleeping bag.

Here is one of my hammock camping rigs.
Here is one of my hammock camping rigs. | Source

My Favorite Hammock Tarp

Eagles Nest Outfitters - Pro Fly Rain Tarp, Grey
Eagles Nest Outfitters - Pro Fly Rain Tarp, Grey

The ENO pro fly is a full coverage tarp especially designed for hammock camping.


Tarps for Hammock Camping

Camping under a tarp doesn't always mean sleeping on the ground, for there is nothing like swinging in the night breeze in a hammock. With the rising popularity of hammock camping amongst lightweight backpackers, an interest in specially designed tarps has risen too.

Whereas most backpacking tarps are rectangular in shape, specific hammock camping tarps often have scalloped edges with a long ridge line. Of course this long ridge line is to keep the hammock camper dry and the scalloped edges provide coverage while minimizing weight. If you aren't investing in a hammock-specific tarp just yet, turn your tarp diagonally and span the ridge line corner to corner.

Hammock Tarp Pitching Tips

  1. Usually hammock suspension straps are positioned higher on the tree than the tarp ridge line.
  2. When wind-blown rain starts assaulting your nest, move in the sides of your tarp. It'll be harder to get in and out of, but you will stay drier.
  3. Use a large-looped taut-line hitch to attach the ridge of the tarp and pass the hammock suspension through this loop. This will allow the hammock suspension to swing free of interfering with the rain fly.

Learn to Tie a Taut-line Hitch

Tarp Knots

Though there is an repertoire of knots that each backpacker should learn, for tarp camping, the most important is the taut-line hitch. The video above demonstrates how to properly tie one.

An ultralight tarp camping site with a bivy sack along the Eastside Overland Trail.
An ultralight tarp camping site with a bivy sack along the Eastside Overland Trail. | Source

Have you ever camped out under a tarp?

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Using a Tarp with a Bivy Sack

Bivy sacks are great solutions for lightweight backpacking. Just slide them over your sleeping bag, zip them up and nod off to sleep. They are fantastic until it starts to rain.

Yes, a good bivy sack will keep you and your sleeping bag dry, but feeling the raindrops hitting the outside of the sack all night is rather uncomfortable. Most backpackers find this a rather torturous activity. Also, it is impossible to cook underneath or change your clothes inside the tight confines of a bivy sack.

Enter the tarp, it doesn't have to be large just big enough to avoid those uncomfortable nights. Some ultralight backpacker suspend a 3' by 3' piece of silnylon over their heads to make the compromise between light packs and comfort.

Backpackers are a rather restless bunch, always dreaming about the next adventure, many find themselves rolling through the night in their bivy sack. For this reason, rolling sleepers should never camp near cliffs or on the banks of a raging river.

The Outbound Dan Bivy System:

  • Full coverage bivy sack with mosquito netting during insect season.
  • Partial coverage 3' by 6' silnylon tarp with long guy out ropes.
  • On really moist ground, a mylar emergency blanket is handy to have underneath your bag.
  • On uneven ground, a series of six long stakes placed strategically around a restless camper, avoids rolling out into the rain.

A wet weather camp on the way to Allen Mountain in the Adirondacks.
A wet weather camp on the way to Allen Mountain in the Adirondacks. | Source

Tarp Camping Advantages

  1. Tarps are drier while backpacking multiple days in wet weather.
  2. Tarps are lighter than tents.
  3. Good tarps are less expensive than good tents.
  4. Tarps are very durable and easily fixed if damaged.


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    • bettyshares profile image

      bettyshares 3 years ago from Lighthearted Musings

      We go fishing every year and my husband will love this tarp for camping.

    • gardener den profile image

      gardener den 3 years ago from Southwestern, Pennsylvania

      Thank You Outbound Dan for commenting about my hub. If you need help with growing tomatoes in containers just send me a message and I will try to help? Thanks again Gardener Den

    • Outbound Dan profile image

      Dan Human 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Thanks again for comment, votes and multiple shares Gardener Den! I appreciate it greatly. I actually just stumbled onto one of your Hubs in preparation for some spring planting. Cheers!

    • gardener den profile image

      gardener den 3 years ago from Southwestern, Pennsylvania

      Hi Outbound Dan

      Another great hub to read! In which I did so much information. Thank You! Dan. I liked your hub for facebook and I also tweeted this hub. Great writing and enjoyed reading! I think you are a better writer than me? Also hope you have looked at my gardening hubs? Keep up the great work! I will keep on reading and commenting! Gardener Den

    • myday2012 profile image

      Sheryl Day 4 years ago from Australia

      Nice Hub - I indulge in both tarp and tent. There is truly something special about tarp camping, you feel more 'at one with nature'... Sucks when the weather packs in though!

    • Outbound Dan profile image

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY


      With a little one here too - I am dreading the giant monster tent. My parents and I got away with an a-frame 4-person Euraka Timberline so there is some hope.

      What you could always do is set up the tarp with a tent nearby for a quick escape. It is fun though!

      Thanks for reading and for following - OBD.

    • Coconut Soap profile image

      John Rose 4 years ago from Southern Georgia, USA

      I camped under the stars when I was single and didn't have kids. Now I only do tent. Not small tents either. Big monster family tents.

      Your article got me remembering the good days when there weren't any tent walls. I wounded if I would be able to make our next family outing a tarp outing. I think that it would be fun...

      Thanks for the awesome hub. You have a new follower.


    • Outbound Dan profile image

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Though you are suspended like a tree-burrito in a hammock, add a bug net and you'll be quite comfy and creep crawly free. Just so you know, you don't have to wait until your tent wears out to purchase a new one. I usually use a tent for a couple of years, then sell it as used. I buy a new one of course, that way I always have the latest technology. The Scouts are also appreciative of donated tents.

      Oh, I have about 15 Hubs in various states of editing -which I'll have out in a while. It has been a very busy month for me.

      Thanks for the read CC!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Bivy sacks MIGHT help my fear of the creepy crawlies, but I think I like the hammock idea the best. The tarp that you can get for them also looks pretty cool. Hmm...perhaps one day I'll try that. For now, I do have a two-person lightweight backpacking tent, but when it wears out - if it wears out....

      PS - Where are some new hiking hubs? Have you been on some Appalachian Trail expedition? LOL

    • Outbound Dan profile image

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      I think that is one of the great things about tarps, there is a myriad of ways to set one up. Generally, there is only one way to set up a tent.

      I've been collecting pictures of my various tarp set ups. Someday, I'll put something together on the multiple ways to pitch a tarp.

      Growing up with Scouting, knot tying is a skill that I take for granted.

      Thanks for stopping by Steve!

    • steveoutdoorrec profile image

      steveoutdoorrec 5 years ago from Chardon, OH

      Nice article as always OBD

      My first tarp backpacking trip was at Philmont Scout Ranch in 1969. We had a 10'x10' canvas tarp for each two campers. Over those ten days we discovered many ways to pitch it alone or in combination with other pairs of scouts. That thing was heavy. Now I love my 10 oz tarp.

      About knots: the taut-line and clove hitch will get you set up nicely. Once you learn them practice tying them with one hand so you can set up on a windy day with the other hand hanging onto the tarp.

    • Outbound Dan profile image

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      The Order of the Marriott - ha! Yes, there is nothing like having someone telling you to "sleep here!" Nevermind the roots, they'll be comfy in a few hours...

      I guess that is one reason I post - because so many of us have forgotten the basic needs of survival. Yes, we are well acquainted with the latest iGadget - just don't ask us to start a fire.

      Thanks for reading bankscottage!

    • bankscottage profile image

      bankscottage 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Outbound Dan, you continue to remind me of my days in the Boy Scouts with my sons. I don't know if I ever tarp camped, but I did that thing with the leaves once for the Order of the Arrow (now I'm more the order of the Marriott).

      Many of your camping and hiking tips, particularly the ultralight camping are good survival techniques that would come in handy in an emergency such as a hurricane or tornado. They would work great until help arrived. People should learn to be self-sufficient.

    • Outbound Dan profile image

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Well I love my tent(s) too - at last count I own seven. There is something special about backpacking under a tarp though, something that incites the primitive and is welcoming to the heart. Give tarp camping a try to let me know how you make out.

      Thanks for commenting Shesabutterfly!

    • Shesabutterfly profile image

      Cholee Clay 5 years ago from Wisconsin

      I haven't heard much about tarp camping, but you have laid out some very great and useful tips if I ever decide to try it. I love my tent, but if the tarp can keep me just as dry it's definitely worth a try sometime.