Camping With A Tarp Instead Of A Tent

A lightweight tarp can be a great alternative to a tent for go-light camping, or it can be a nice additon to your tent as a front porch or shelter for cooking in bad weather.

Most hikers and paddlers venturing into the backcountry assume that they must carry a tent for camping. Modern tents are marvels of engineering and many are lightweight and compact, but the better ones are expensive. There is a simpler type of portable shelter that can serve quite adequately for many camping situations. A tarp is simply a flat sheet of waterproof material with grommets in the edges to allow you to secure it with rope or cord. Tarps are commonly used to protect cargo in the beds of open trucks or trailers or to cover boats and other items stored outside the home, but their original purpose and one that they excel at is creating shelter for those spending the night outdoors.

Tarps come in a variety of sizes. Most are rectangular, rather than square, and for most camping purposes a tarp of about 8 by 10 feet is just about right. The price of tarps varies widely, and is determined by the material from which it is constructed. The cheapest tarps are made of nylon-reinforced plastic (called poly tarps), such as the ubiquitous blue tarps you see in discount stores everywhere. These cheap tarps are quite waterproof, and hold up surprisingly well in strong winds, but they don't last a long time since the material rapidly breaks down in U.V. light from the sun. Heavy duty versions are available in this material, many of these having reinforced edges, stronger grommets and thicker plastic construction. These heavy duty poly tarps are usually silver on one side and green or brown on the reverse side. Some are available in other colors, such as camouflage, which is a better choice than the horrendously ugly blue tarps that can be an eyesore for other wilderness travelers who might see your camp.

Poly tarps are lightweight enough to carry backpacking, but they are rather bulky, and in the long run will only last a few trips. If you want to get serious about using a tarp for camping, consider spending more money and getting a tarp made of the same coated nylon cloth that tents are made from. These tarps are extremely lightweight, pack to almost nothing, and will last for years. The other option in tarp material is the old fashioned canvas tarp. While these are very durable, they are too heavy for anything but canoe-camping and can leak if not regularly treated with waterproofing sprays.

Unlike a tent, a tarp is not self-supporting, so to erect it as a shelter, you will need one or more handy trees or some poles you either find in the camping area or carry with you. Lightweight telescoping aluminum poles made for this purpose can be purchased from camping equipment suppliers, or you can use a hardware store telescoping painter's pole. A good hiking staff can also be used as a tarp support. In addition to the poles or trees you will use, you need to carry a good length of lightweight cord to attach to the four corners of the tarp. You can precut this into four 20-25 foot lengths and attach it before leaving home. Different situations require differing lengths of line, so it's always a good idea to carry more than you think you will need. Tarps can be secured to the ground by tying these lines to existing trees, shrubs, roots or heavy rocks, or by driving in stakes you either cut on site or carry for the purpose.

There are many ways to pitch a tarp as a shelter, limited only by your own creativity. The simplest set-up is to rig the tarp as a lean-to, using a pole or line between two trees and attaching the high end to this pole and the other end to the ground. This configuration will shed rain, but only offers wind protection from one side. Another way to use a single horizontal pole or line is to adjust it lower to the ground and place the middle of the tarp over it, securing two sides to the ground to create an A-frame shelter. Other methods include a semi-pyramid shape, achieved with a single vertical pole in the middle to lift the tarp and corners tied to the ground. Some camping books, particularly older ones, provide illustrations of various tarp configurations.

Even if you still prefer a tent for your primary shelter, for reasons such as keeping snakes and other crawling things out of your bed, a tarp is handy to have along as a supplemental shelter. Pitch it over the front of a tent and you now have a front porch. Or, set it up in a separate kitchen area and you can cook and eat even in the rain. You can safely use a stove or even an open fire beneath a tarp, something that cannot be done in a modern tent.

© High Speed Ventures 2011