Techniques: How to get started with backpacking tarps

Trailstar view isle of Arran

If you have read some of my other posts, you will notice that I enjoy camping with tarps as well as tents. As with everything in life, there are benefits and drawbacks to both. If you have never camped using a tarp before, and are curious to know how to get started, hopefully this article will help to answer some of your questions. If you have any questions that this article doesn’t answer, then please leave a comment below.

Why camp using a tarp?

To people who are new to backpacking or camping in general, the idea of camping in anything other than a tent may seem like madness. It may seem inevitable that you are going to get wet, cold or both if the weather turns. So why do it? Well, let’s dispell one myth straight away. Choosing a tarp used to be all about weight savings. In backpacking you frequently have to make compromises between day and night comfort. You can be comfortable during the day by carrying less weight, but you’ll then be less comfortable at night. Or you can carry more weight during the day, but have literally all you could wish for at night. A tarp used to be a way of saving weight so that your pack was that bit more pleasant to carry. But these days modern tents are lightweight anyway, so there isn’t necessarily a big saving, particularly if you are carrying not just your tarp, but a groundsheet, pegs, bivi bag, etc. The main incentive for me at least, is that using a tarp you are protected from the elements but you are still outside. You can see the views from your sleeping bag, you can still look up at the stars at night. It is a completely different experience to camping in a tent and one that is quite addictive once you’ve tried it. Why would you want to zip away a view like this?

Don’t you get wet?

In short, no! If this were an issue then people wouldn’t do it. There are, however, some caveats to this answer. Obviously if you have open sides to a shelter or it’s pitched off the ground, then rain could get in. The key is to check the wind direction before you pitch (don’t just check it at the time you pitch, have a look at a forecast to see what the wind will be doing overnight as well). Obviously you need the open side to be facing away from the direction the wind is coming from. Correctly pitched, a tarp will keep you completely dry from the rain even in a torrential downpour.

Of course this isn’t the entire answer, since rain is only one way you can get wet outdoors. Another is from groundwater and tarps do nothing to protect you from this. Again part of the answer is to think about where you pitch. Don’t pitch in dips or hollows, however tempting, because water will obviously pool there. Also don’t pitch on smooth earth. It was once mud, and it will be mud again if it rains. You can and probably should purchase a groundsheet that you can use with a tarp. Either a simple flat groundsheet, or you can purchase some that have struts in the corners so that it becomes a ‘bathtub’ when you pitch it. These are heavier, but worth it to keep your sleeping system clean and dry.

There is of course a third way you can get wet – condensation. Don’t be fooled into thinking the increased airflow will guarantee you won’t get any under a tarp. You can and will at some point get condensation and if you brush against the tarp you will get wet. It can also be shaken onto you if it gets windy. This is really no different from a tent, although in a tent you have a inner to protect you. There isn’t a lot you can do about it, but if you do use a bivi bag this will keep splashes from you and in general condensation is unlikely to be so bad that you will end up soaked.

What about insects?

Of course, a tarp does nothing to protect you from insects. If you are in areas where insects are a problem, you can purchase mesh inners that you can erect under the tarp. I do this on occasion, particularly if I head to Scotland in the summer where the midges can be unbearable. Also be mindful of ticks. Ticks can carry Lyme Disease, so if you are in an area where they might be present try to camp in the shortest grass possible and away from livestock/areas frequented by deer. And check yourself regularly for any ticks that may have attached themselves to you. Tick removal tools are available and you should have one whether you camp under a tarp or in a tent. I will be honest here and say that if insects are a real problem, I prefer to use a tent. It takes much longer to pitch a tarp and mesh inner than a tent, and that’s time you are probably getting bitten. However if it’s just the odd insect/mosquito then a mesh inner can work very well. Here is an example of an Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar with an Oookworks mesh inner. The inner has partial silnylon sides to help keep the draughts out.

Here is an example of an Mountain Laurel Designs Cricket using a Six Moon Designs Serenity net tent as an inner to keep the insects at bay. This inner is not designed for the Cricket, but fits very well and offered me some good insect protection on this still, calm night in mid-Wales.

Flat Tarps vs. Shaped Tarps

Perhaps the first decision you will need to make, is whether you want a flat tarp or a shaped one. Flat tarps are essentially just a flat piece of fabric, with straight seams and they may be either square or rectangular in shape. Square tarps could be considered to be slightly more versatile in the number of pitches you can create with them. Flat tarps come with a variety of different attachment points for guy lines both around the edges of the tarp and sometimes on the face (or ‘field’) of the tarp itself.

Shaped tarps on the other hand, generally go up in just a single pitch and for the most part are some variation of a pyramid. As previously mentioned, I use the Mountain Laurel Designs Cricket tarp and the well-known Trailstar. Both really only pitch in one or two ways, but they are easier to pitch than a flat tarp and offer superior weather protection, particularly if you are pitching above the tree line. The Trailstar in particular is a very weather-resistant shelter that can accommodate two people and their gear.

You can also purchase flat tarps that are caternary cut. This means they have curved seams that are designed to make it easier to get a taught pitch. Generally these excel at A-frame pitches, but not much else. So I’d put them more in the shaped tarp category than flat for that reason. If A-frames are what you intend to pitch 90% of the time then they can be a good choice. They are especially useful for pitching over a hammock.

In my opinion, flat tarps are generally a preferred choice if you are pitching amongst trees. Shaped tarps are more user-friendly and easier to pitch in a weather-resistant manner above the treeline. However, I have and do use flat tarps when out hiking. They can be pitched to provide a shelter whilst you are having lunch, but can be pitched in a more weather-resistant way when you are ready to settle down for the night.

On the left below is an Alpkit Rig 7, an inexpensive flat tarp available in the UK. On the right is a Mountain Laurel Designs Cricket tarp, a shaped tarp based on a pyramid. You can see in the Cricket image that I have used a bathtub-style groundsheet, which in this case was made by UK manufacturer Oookworks.

As well as the type of tarp, consider also the size. If you are just starting out, I would strongly recommend a larger tarp. For one person, a 10 x 10 feet (or 3 x 3 meter) is a good size. This will be more forgiving in bad weather, reducing the risk of any splashes hitting you. In shaped tarps, the cricket is fine for one plus gear, but I still use a bivi bag with it in poor weather as you can get some splashes of rain coming in. A Trailstar is huge for one and big enough for two plus gear as well. I would generally not recommend very small tarps, like the Alpkit Rig 3.5 or the MLD Monk. They are good products, but in bad weather it will be difficult to really get good coverage with them.

Material choice

The next decision is what material will your tarp be made of? There are three main material types you will see for backpacking tarps. Siliconised nylon, often called silnylon. Siliconised Polyester, often called silpoly, and Dyneema Composite Fibre (DCF).

Silnylon is a common choice for a tarp. It is reasonably lightweight, quite strong and highly waterproof. They are also generally not too expensive. However they do tend to absorb a small amount of water and start to stretch/sag as they do so.

Silpoly is similar in weight, cost and performance, but it does not absorb water and will not stretch as much as silnylon.

DCF is a very expensive fabric. It is much lighter in weight than either silpoly or silnylon, and has good weather resistance. It is very tear-resistant but has generally quite poor abrasion-resistance. It doesn’t stretch at all, and can be more difficult to pitch for that reason, particularly if you have purchased a shaped tarp. Generally it only available in white or green and it is slightly translucent. DCF also isn’t really ‘stuffable’ like silnylon. You really need to fold it to pack it. It’s definitely easier to pack a silnylon shelter although DCF does soften with use. DCF also apparently is more UV resistant than other fabrics, although for most people who pitch only a few times a year this won’t really be a consideration. The main reason you would purchase DCF is if weight is really important to you, and you have deep pockets! The images below show ripstop silnylon on the left and DCF on the right.

If you buy a silnylon tarp, check if it has any seams, and if it does check if they are taped. If they are taped, then they are waterproof and you can immediately use the tarp. If not, you will need to seam seal the tarp. You do this using Silnet (do not try to use any other product, it won’t adhere to the fabric). If you want this to look neat, then I advise to dilute the silnet using white spirit, so it is the consistency of milk (do this in a glass container like a jam jar, in a well ventilated area). Apply it using a cotton bud (q-tip) to ensure a neat finish. All you need to do is ensure the threads are soaked in the liquid, so don’t feel you need to splatter it everywhere. Wipe off any spills or runs using a clean cotton bud soaked in white spirit. It’s not difficult to do a neat job. Take your time and enjoy the process if you can! Hilleberg claim their tarps don’t need sealing as they cool the needles using water as they sew. This does seem to be the case, so if you have splashed out on a Hilleberg try it out in bad weather first before you start with the Silnet.

My tarps are all silnylon, except for one, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear flat tarp. Silnylon tarps are user-friendly, not too expensive and reliable. I would recommend this fabric choice for your first tarp.

Pitching your tarp

Unlike a tent, tarps do not come with everything that you require to pitch them. They may or may not include guy lines. Some will include tensioners/line loks, some will require you to learn some knots to tension the tarp. If you are out hillwalking, it’s likely that you will use walking poles to support the tarp. Some tarps include specific grommets that you insert the pole tip into. If you are out in a canoe you can use oars, or paddles if you are in a kayak. You can also use trees, sticks, etc. to support the tarp. Some people out bikepacking incorporate their bike into the pitch. The vast majority of the time, I am using poles to support my tarps. If I am out hammock camping, then I’ll use the trees as with the example below. This is a Hilleberg Tarp 10 XP tarp pitched as an A-frame.

Hammock wild camp in Galloway Forest Park

Incidentally – one point to note if you pitch using trees over a hammock as above is that during a rain storm water can run down the tree, onto the hammock’s tree straps and straight in under the tarp onto your hammock. To prevent this you need a drip stop somewhere in the chain. I use carabiners for this. When the water reaches the carabiner it simply drips to the floor instead of continuing to the hammock. It’s not the tarp’s fault if you don’t do this and get wet!

There are lots of youtube videos and articles of various pitches that can be achieved, and you can find some examples on this website. Rather than provide specific pitches here, I rather wanted to offer some advice from my own experience that might help in general.

Firstly, practise pitching your tarp at home. Tarps take more time to set up and in general terms require more skill than a tent. Don’t wait until you are out on the hill with weather closing in and then realise you have no idea how to set it up. I would learn two solid pitches so you can pitch quickly. A weather-resistant pitch such as a plough point, and a good weather pitch like an A frame. You will then be a lot more confident when you are setting up for real.

Secondly, you may find it easier to pitch the tarp if you attach guy lines in advance before you leave home. If you are using a shaped tarp, which pretty much pitches the same way every time, I would definitely recommend attaching the guys. If you’re usng a flat tarp, you do need to know exactly what pitch you will be selecting before you leave to have correct placement of the guys. However I would probably recommend this if it’s your first time out with a tarp. Line loks might also help you to get a taught pitch if you are not confident tying tautline hitches.

Thirdly, a tarp can become a bit of a sail in the wind. Good pegs are required. I recommend MSR Groundhog pegs or similar and use those most of the time with my pitches.

Finally, consider taking a bivi bag with you until you are confident in your skills with the tarp. This will be your insurance policy in case your pitch is suboptimal. Of course you could also just pick a day when it’s not raining! Here are a few images of some of my pitches in various tarps, which I hope may inspire you to try it if you haven’t already! You can read about some of these trips on this blog if you’d like further information.

Summary

Using a tarp can really elevate your outdoor experiences. You remain protected from bad weather, but you are still ‘outside’ and can enjoy the views that you worked hard for. They are not as user-friendly as most tents, but with a little perseverance can provide memorable wild camping experiences. If you have any further questions, or you have hints and tips you’d like to share about your own experiences please do leave a comment!

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