Tarps make a great backpacking shelter choice if they are used in an area that doesn’t get much rain. For clarity, I mean rectangular or square tarps with or sans catenary cut sides and ridgelines. Not single-wall shelters such as pyramids or their many variants.
Tarps are extremely lightweight. Depending on the dimensions of the fabric and their cost, you can easily find ones that weigh anywhere from 8 to 16 ounces. These are just a few examples. Many manufacturers also make them.
A tarp is lightweight and easy to find campsites. Even in dense forest, a simple A-frame pitch can be squeezed between two trees. Flat tarps with 90-degree corners can be pitched in many different “shapes” for more weather protection. However, it takes practice to master this skill.
How to Avoid getting wet under a Tarp
When camping under a tent, there are three main ways your gear and clothes can get wet. The first is splash-back. This happens when raindrops strike your tarp, bounce back at you and spray water on you and your gear. As long as you dry your gear in the sun, splash-back is not a danger to your survival.
There are two ways to avoid splashback.
- To reduce the space between your tarp’s edges and the ground, pitch your tarp low. Then move to the middle of the tarp and away the edges. A two-person, wide tarp is better than a one-person tarp. You can stake your tarp all the way to ground, but most people prefer to leave enough air for ventilation and greater width.
- A lightweight bivy sack like the Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Bivy (2010 SectionHiker gear of the year award) can enhance your tarp. A bivy bag is ideal for ultra-light loads. It can hold your sleeping insulation and all your gear. It will keep water splash-back away from your gear and provide warmth, wind, or insect protection.
The second way to get wet is to pitch your tent in poor campsites where water will pool under it, or on hard surfaces with poor drainage such as a wood tent platform or hardened campground tent site. It is known as “campsite selection” and it can be a difficult task to avoid sites like these.
The best campsites for tarping are those that have slightly elevated mounds higher than the ground. These mounds will absorb rain and not reflect it back to you. You don’t need to make the elevated area of ground as long or wide as your tarp. However, it should be large enough for you and big enough to place on top.
Already wet ground
You can protect your tarp from getting wet if you set it up in the rain, or after a storm on the ground. It’s a thin, lightweight plastic that can last for a whole season. However, it is strong enough to withstand the elements if you are careful. Many people have a bivy bag and a groundsheet. However, there is some overlap between them.
It pays to dry your gear the next day if it gets wet. You can dry your sleeping bag or quilt by hiking to the nearest town. Hang it up if it is still damp. You can also hang it up in the morning, or you can leave it out in the sun for a break and snack.
People get so focused on how fast they can hike or how many miles per day that they neglect basic skills such as stopping to dry their gear. This is essential for self-powered travel. Deal with gear getting damp or wet. If you have a persistent problem with damp, plan to manage it in your day. You’ll be able to sit back and watch your bag dry, while listening to the wildlife and birds, rather than sitting in a cubicle on a conference call.
You shouldn’t underestimate how important an oversized tarp is for providing extra weather protection. If you need more protection, a tarp with beaks is a good option. The beak is an overhang that extends from the rear or front ends of a tarp to provide additional weather protection.
Ray Jardine popularized beaks, but they are difficult to find on cottage-made tarps. Ray Way Tarp Book provides detailed information about how to use tarps when backpacking or bikepacking. It’s also easy to add a beak on a Dyneema DCF Tarp. Mountain Laurel Designs Patrol Shelter is the best place to buy a beaked tarp. However, there are other manufacturers that make them.
There is a downside to adding a tarp or its larger brother, a full vestibule. You’ll be restricted to an A-frame pitch forever. This limits your ability to adapt a tarp’s form to your environment, so I thought I’d mention it.