Camping Tarps: How to Choose the Best Tarp
CAMPING TARPS VS TENTS
So what’s so special about camping with a tarp? Why wouldn’t you just take your old tent like you always do? Well, a tarp really can provide a different experience. Many seasoned campers and bushcrafters prefer camping with tarps as it helps them feel more connected with nature. Here are some of the benefits of camping with a tarp versus camping with a tent.
Benefits of Tarp Camping
Tarps can be less expensive than tents. What more can be said? Only that you still want to choose a good quality tarp over a cheap one. You don’t want to ditch the tent in place for a cheap tarp that becomes compromised and turns your adventure into a soggy nightmare!
Lighter load to carry
In general, tarps are lighter & more compact than tents. You can find an ultra-light camping tarp that will make that long hike feel much easier. The lighter weight can be significant if you are venturing far. A tarp is also very easy to pack and a lightweight tarp will fit in any backpack. Best of all, no tent poles! The most common pairing that fits in a backpack is a hammock with a good tarp over the top. This combo provides a solid shelter and keeps you off the ground. We recommend going for a larger tarp as no one has ever complained about having too much dry space and having more tarp to protect you if the weather really gets bad!
When it’s chilly in the evenings, you can make a nice warm fire closer to your tarp (but not too close or you’ll melt it!), and enjoy cooking and eating your dinner in the warmth, under a protected shelter. The shelter of the tarp will easily concentrate the heat of the fire, making you even warmer. Not so much with tents: you really don’t want those fire sparks to fly anywhere near your tent or fill it with smoke!
Closeness to nature
A camping tarp won’t obstruct your view of the woods and the mountains around as much as a closed tent would. You can watch the starry sky as you fall asleep! What could be better than that?
Use it as a groundsheet
Camping on wet ground? Need resistant and dry flooring? A robust waterproof camping tarp can be used as a groundsheet when you need it! Always be sure your shelter sticks out farther than your groundsheet, or you’ll wake up to a puddle under your bed. Group shelter If you are adventuring with a group of friends, a durable tarp can be an excellent shelter for multiple people. A large tarp can easily shelter up to five people and provide a solid cover without making your camping buddies feel cramped. Also, it provides an unending supply of fresh breathing air, which can be important with large groups of people.
Extra Dry Area
Having more dry space available when the weather turns can make or break a camping trip. Having a tarp paired with a tent or hammock extends your usable space. This extension is also great for when the sun is beaming down hard by providing you more shade. Having a common area protected by a tarp is a great thing especially when camping with the family or in groups.
Variety of setups
Granted, this one will require some skills! But if you are an experienced camping tarp user, you know that you can set up a tarp a million different ways to best protect you from the elements. Keep in mind that it’s always best to practice a tarp set up in your backyard first before venturing out in the wilderness.
Camping Tarp Downsides
While a tent will provide a layer of flooring and hopefully a perfectly sealed bathtub-bottom between you and the earth, thus protecting you from cold and wetness, a tarp will do no such thing unless you get creative. You will need some other way of creating flooring other than just your sleeping mat.
Insects and animals
The good side of using a camping tarp is that it offers an authentic connection with nature by removing all barriers between you and the wild. The downside… is the same. A tarp will not protect you from wildlife. This means mosquitos, noseeums, and other critters will have easy access to your camping patch - and to your body! If that doesn’t scare you, you may also get an occasional four-legged visitor such as a raccoon, a wild cat, or even a bear (that grizzly scene from the Revenant!) depending on where you camp. Now we are not trying to intimidate you out of camping with a tarp, but you do need to be cautious and have means to protect yourself from the wild elements. Be sure to keep the necessary protection near you while you sleep. Depending on your location, you may need a knife, bear spray, and if you’re in Alaska… even a rifle! Tarp camping in certain areas is definitely for the brave and well prepared.
While a tent can be set up pretty much anywhere, this is not so with camping tarps. You will need some trees or long sticks (even trekking poles or paddles work well), rocks, and parachute cord to set up a tarp unless you want to carry poles around with you. Which brings us to…
Although it’s definitely not rocket science, setting up a camping tarp does require skills. If you are camping in a group of experienced bushcrafters, or are one yourself, this will be no problem for you. However, if you are just getting your feet wet, don’t get your feet (and your gear!) wet by venturing out with a tarp you don’t know how to set up! Practice in your backyard first.
How to patch a camping tarp while in the wild
Burned a hole in your tarp while cooking that delicious dinner on the fire? Ripped your tarp while getting through the bush? Accidents happen and now you have a hole in your trusty camping tarp. Here is how to fix it. Camping tape like Tenacious tape, Gorilla Tape or even duct tape will work in a pinch (you should always have some handy when camping, for many reasons). Put a patch on either side of the hole and it should be good to go until you get home and have time to fix it properly (if possible, depending on fabric and coatings compatibility with your adhesive or patch material).
When adventuring with a camping tarp...
Always bring a groundsheet!
You will need insulation from the cold ground, perhaps a bivy sack if you’re worried about the temperature rating of your sleeping bag.
Bring extra rope
You never know what sort of configurations will work best with the environment. Choose solid rope such as paracord.
With any sort of camping near big trees, especially if you’re lacking a pole frame, look out for falling tree branches.
Learn your knots!
The saying “if you don’t know knots, just tie lots” can be the worst idea if you need to leave in a rush. Did you know the best cinching/tightening knot to tie is the truckers hitch with a slip knot? You can pull your tarp perfectly taught and when it comes time to leave in a pinch, pull one string, and you’re done! No need to stand there trying to figure out how to untie the complicated knot you did.
AQ WATERPROOF TARP EXPERT PANEL
Who knows more about tarps than professional hikers, campers, and bushcrafters? We asked a panel of our experts two questions about camping tarps and are excited to share their answers! Here is what we asked them: Do you use tarps or tents when camping and why? And What is the best camping tarp setup? Here are some of their answers:
Do you use a tarp or tent when camping and why?
"When camping, teaching or exploring, I always use either a tarp shelter or natural shelter. My reasoning for this is, I generally don’t have the ability or want to be lugging around a tent on my backcountry endeavours, as most are too heavy/cumbersome and in my mind, not a necessary or crucial piece of gear, as it only serves one purpose. Instead I like to bring a 10x10ft tarp for an easy & effective weather resistant shelter or if time and resources are ample I will construct a natural shelter. I enjoy being as close to the land as possible. Having the ability to wake up and see the sunrise from your bed or have a small fire within my shelter, as an added companion, are luxuries that I won’t forego. Sleeping inside a fully encapsulated plastic dome has always felt somewhat foreign to me. My tarp also provides a few other uses than just shelter. I can fashion it into a temporary backpack, haul/drag debris, wood or food resources and it can be made into a rain catch for safe drinking water etc. Multiple uses."
What do you think is the best camping tarp setup?
"My favourite tarp setup is the Plow Point Tarp Shelter. With the use of a Square Tarp, trees or tri-pods this shelter system can be constructed extremely fast & efficiently, even in an open field, without the use of trees or foliage tie-offs. This is one of my favourite tarp shelter setups because it not only allows you to have a great view of your surrounding environment, but if placed and constructed properly and you are using the correct tarp, you can place a small cooking/heating fire at the lip of your shelter. Maximizing the shelters efficiency." Zach Gault of Primitive Living
Do you use a tarp or tent when camping and why?
"When it comes to the choice of using a tarp or tent, I will almost always choose tarp. I like the feeling of being immersed and connected to nature, and I think a tarp helps with that. When I’m camping in bug season I still use a tarp, but I like using a Bivy as well. Tents are sometimes the only option when camping in some barren regions."
What’s your favourite tarp setup(s)?
"My tarp set ups change a lot as I like variety in my outings, but my top two would have to be an A frame set up with a closed back and when I want to be closer to and feel the heat of the fire I like using a simple lean-to configuration that is low to the ground." Alex Outdoors
Do you use a tarp or tent when camping and why?
"I like to use tarps when I camp because I feel closer to nature and not restricted to a closed shelter and it feels more efficient."
What’s your favourite tarp setup(s)?
"My favorite tarp set ups are a good plow point, A-frame and a good envelope when the ground's wet or cold." Shawnee Woodsman
Featured camping tarps
Here are some of our best camping tarps that you can use for a wide range of purposes, from casual weekend camping to hard-core bushcrafting.
ULTRALIGHT ALL-WEATHER PROTECTION
Rest easy knowing you have the best all-weather protection for any situation… camping, hiking, travel, emergency survival, home, and garden, or for countless other uses. You could use a regular tarp, but this tarp will be lighter, stronger, quieter, more compact, more versatile, longer-lasting, and more waterproof.
Guide Lightweight Tarp
The Guide tarp will keep you completely dry, even in extreme weather. With a hydrostatic resistance of 5,000 mm, you can be absolutely certain that not a single drop of water will get through your tarp.
ULTRA-LIGHT & COMPACT
At only 1.9 lbs (870 g), you’ll hardly notice you’re carrying it. The Guide packs up so small that you can fit it in almost any small space. Complete with its own convenient stuff-sack. Packed Size: 12 x 6 x 3 inch (30 x 15 x 8 cm) Compressed: 6 x 6 x 3.5 inch (15 x 15 x 9 cm)
With 16 reinforced webbing loops around the perimeter and 1 top center loop for overhead hanging, you’ve got all angles covered. Make a teepee, attach the side loops to a tree or fence, or peg into the ground and go directly over the top of your tent… you don’t even need trees!
Despite being so lightweight and compact, this tarp is incredibly durable and resilient to the forces of nature. 40D RipStop fabric + Non-toxic dual Silicone & PU coating + Reinforced stitching + Heat taped seams = The best ultralight tarp on the planet!
Living Survival has a great review of the Guide tarp series.
"Great tarp! Covered my hammock with extra room to put it up in porch mode on one side and down in the other. Lots of tie outs. First time out we had wind and rain. Stayed dry. Could even tie it semi closed."- Sarah M. Defuria May 8, 2017
"It will protect you from the rain and sun!!Amazing. Doesn't leak. Large. Sat in a rainstorm at Native Rhythms Festival in Melbourne in a good rain and stayed bone dry. Used three Kelty lightweight staff poles for the front, and tied it along a fence row on the back. Worked super. Unbelievably rainproof!!! I like the size too. We sat 6 people under it, with no problem." - Charlotte Key
"Quality to keep you dry. I love this tarp. It has been with me on multiple backpack trips. It packs down into a bag about the size of two large fists which is amazing considering the actual size of the tarp. I use it as the primary shelter to my double parachute hammock and it works fantastically. The loops of the tarp are all in the right places when it needs to be staked or tied down. Anytime I am under it I have never gotten wet. Not once. It has handled being tied to large dying trees, in strong winds, with thick sharp branches and has not been punctured at all. Since I purchased this tarp I have not, nor will I, go on any camping or backpacking without it." - Jason
LIGHTWEIGHT HYBRID TARP YOU CAN DEPEND ON
Safari Medium-Duty Tarp
The Aqua Quest Safari tarp will keep you completely dry, even in extreme weather. With a hydrostatic resistance of 5,000 mm, you can be absolutely certain that not a single drop of water will get through your tarp.
ULTRALIGHT & COMPACT
At only 1.9 lbs (0.85 kg), you’ll hardly notice you’re carrying it. The Safari packs up so small that you can fit it in almost any space. Complete with its own convenient stuff-sack. Packed Size: 12 x 5.5 x 2.25 inch (30 x 14 x 6 cm) Compressed: 5.25 x 4.75 x 3.5 inch (13 x 11 x 9 cm)
With a total of 19 reinforced webbing loops including 3 on the centre ridgeline, you’ve got all angles covered. You can even use the top center loop to make a teepee, attach the side loops to a tree, fence, or peg into the ground and go directly over the top of your tent… you don’t even need trees!
Despite being so lightweight and compact, this tarp is incredibly durable and resilient to the forces of nature. 70D RipStop nylon fabric + Non-toxic dual Silicone & PU coating + Reinforced stitching + Heat taped seams = The best lightweight tarp on the planet!
Read more about how the AquaQuest Safari Tarp Took Honours for Best Tarp.
"Love it. It's become my main hammock tarp.I love this tarp. It's a bit pricier than other tarps I own... AND IT SHOWS in its performance. I have little-to-no worries about this thing when wind picks or when rains pours down. It's large enough to provide plenty of warmth-keeping coverage over my hammock, and it's light enough that I don't feel like i'm hauling around an extra person... like with heavy canvas tarps. Worth every cent." - PH
"Best tarp ever made This thing is ridiculously waterproof. I've taken it all over the PNW in torrential downpours and it just won't leak. It's almost airtight (try folding it and rolling it up, it holds air). I can't recommend this enough for anyone that goes camping more than once a year" - Customer
"Works as well as hoped. Got this as I needed a larger tarp than the one I have for my hammock. Took it to Big South Fork for a backpacking weekend and worked out great. Rained ~ 1" overnight and kept myself and gear dry. Looking forward for various other configurations and some tarp/tent camping in the future." - ky-dad
Shop the AquaQuest waterproof tarps today. Tarps are available in the following sizes: Medium 10 x 7, Square 10 x 10, Extra Large 20 x 13.
Continue reading the AquaQuest blog for more outdoor adventure tips.