A tarp can be a useful tool when out hiking or wild camping. I own a number of tarps, and in general terms I feel that shaped tarps are better on the hill when used for camping as they shed weather better and normally require a bit less skill to put up than a flat tarp. I take the opposite view when camping in forests (for example when hammock camping) as a very taught pitch can be obtained with a flat tarp when pitched between trees. That said, flat tarps are capable of offering a surprising amount of protection on the hill, and I particularly like using mine as an emergency/lunch shelter, although I have used it for bivvying under as well. If you have never camped using a tarp and would like to know more, please have a look here for more information.
I first owned a Rig 7, made by Alpkit about five years ago. It was a grey version, which is no longer made. I believe the fabric used back then was different between the kelp (green) version and the other colours as there was an advertised weight difference. The tarp was fine, but at the time I didn’t have much in the way of tarp skills and I found it quite hard to get a good pitch. This is an example of one of my ham-fisted attempts on Dartmoor several years ago.
Although this was a pretty poor pitch in general, the tarp still offered good protection overnight, so you certainly do not need to be a tarp expert to build a shelter that will keep you dry and out of the wind. However I found I wasn’t really using the tarp much and I sold it on.
Fast forward to today and I have a number of tarps, and as you will see from browsing this site I camp using tarps fairly regularly. Alpkit don’t always have stock of these tarps, but a few months ago they had some stock and also on sale, and despite really not needing another tarp I found myself buying another one, this time in the kelp colour.
Let’s start with some statistics. The tarp measures 2.4 metres by 2.8 metres and is made of siliconised rip stop nylon. It weighs 550 grams. It has 24 tie-out points, 8 on the field/face of the tarp and 16 around the edges. These have been reinforced with rubber patches, which are robust and look like they would stand up well to abuse. For some reason on mine the edge rubber is grey and the corners are black, but they feel like they are exactly the same material. The lifter points are also reinforced, and would be particularly useful if pitching in a forest with a ridge line.
The material is, as you would expect, very waterproof and sheds water well with it beading up nicely on the surface. It feels robust and the tarp is well stitched. Like all silnylon though, it’s performance will degrade over time, particularly if exposed to strong sunlight, so it’s worth trying to keep it out of the sun if want to get the maximum life from it. The kelp colour is probably best described as an olive drab colour, almost looking brown in some lights. It’s an ideal colour for wild camping. The tarp also comes in a red colour, I believe the blue version has been discontinued, as has my previously owned grey.
This tarp is basically a Rig 3.5 x 2, which means it has a seam along the centre. This has been neatly taped on the underside and mine has shown no signs of leaking anywhere. The edges of the tarp are reinforced as well with a kind of webbing strap material, which again is well stitched and feels like it will stand the test of time. If you’re wondering if the Rig 3.5 would be better, my advice is go larger if this is your first tarp. The smaller tarp really will offer quite a limited area of coverage, especially in blowing wind and rain and it will require more skill to get good weather protection in those circumstances.
The tarp comes with a stuff sack, but without any guy lines. For this I have cut four lengths of paracord, but you can use whatever you prefer. I have seen reviews stating that it’s hard to get the tarp back into the stuff sack with the guys attached. I personally don’t leave my guys attached to the tarp, but I have found I can stuff the tarp and fit the four lengths of paracord (which are all about 3 metres long) into the top of the sack.
You’ll also need pegs, for which I would suggest at least a couple of ‘candy cane’ style pegs as these are perfect for inserting directly into the tie out points to hold the tarp directly to the ground, and also something that can stand some strain (tarps put a lot of strain on pegs in windy conditions), for which I recommend MSR ground hogs. Finally, you’ll need something to hold the tarp up. If you hike with poles, you’re already there. However you can also use paddles, a bicycle, large sticks or branches, etc.
In general, I am more a fan of square tarps than rectangular. Their symmetrical nature gives more pitching options. Alpkit do now offer a couple of square tarps but they are completely different, being made of polyester and not having any lift points on the face of the tarp. Having said that, the Rig 7 can be pitched in a lot of different ways. I more usually use it as a shelter for cooking under. Here it is pitched in a simple lean-to in the Lake District. This protected us from the breeze and was big enough for two of us to cook under (oh ok then, and also enjoy a nip of whisky before turning in!).
Pitched like this it was bowing a bit in the breeze, which you’d expect as it’s a pretty large surface area. I could have used some of the lifter points on the rear of the tarp to reduce this, but I didn’t find it necessary. The protected area was more than enough.
If the weather is going to be wet, or you would like a bit more protection whilst you cook, you can position the poles one tie out point back from the corner to create a beak, as seen here during a trip to Snowdonia. This is basically an asymmetric A-frame. On this trip, as is quite normal for Wales, I experienced sun, rain and hail in the hour it took to have lunch. The beak helped to keep the rain and hail off of me and I was completely protected. It was definitely a lot more pleasant than trying to cook without a tarp!
If you are bivvying under the tarp you can pitch this in a number of configurations that are more weather resistant. Here’s an example from a bivi in the Cambrian mountains, at around 700 metres. It was quite windy and wet at the beginning of the night (winds around 25 mph) so I used one of the lifters to raise the rear. This is probably best described as a variation of the ‘asymmetric holden’. By using the lifter I had plenty of space for a hooped bivi, my pack and boots and I was able to cook out of the rain quite easily. I was very well protected from the wind, which was obviously coming from the side of the tarp I had pegged down to the ground.
When bivvying with the tarp I’d say there are two things it lacks, at least one of which is easily solved. Firstly, that rear lifter point was certainly taking some stress in the wind. It could do with some elastic looped through it to take some of the strain and prevent damage. I will probably do this with mine, it’s an easy addition. Secondly it lacks any mitten hooks underneath the tarp for guying up a bivi or hanging a light from.
In my opinion, this tarp is not big enough for hammocking under. For that I use a Hilleberg Tarp 10 XP, which is quite a bit bigger and provides a good amount of protection when out with a hammock. Conversely though, the Hilleberg Tarp has relatively few guy out points, none on the face of the tarp itself, and has been designed in my opinion primarily for pitching as an A-frame (which is perfect when I’m in my hammock). It’s double the weight of the Rig 7, so if I were selecting a flat tarp to go hiking with I’d choose the Alpkit.
You can use line loks with the tarp to tension it, but learning just a couple of simple knots will make you much more versatile, reduce weight and bulk and there will be one less thing to break when you’re out camping. There are three knots I’d recommend you to learn that will deal with pretty much all of your tarp needs. You can find an article on tying them here.
All in all, this is a good quality tarp. It’s great value even at full price, but if bought during a sale really is a bargain. if you are looking for a flexible, lightweight shelter and are prepared to learn some knots and develop the pitching skills, this is a great option. Highly recommended.
Note: I paid for my tarp with my own money, and have no association with Alpkit.