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Tarps: Why, How, and When to Use Them

A tarp can make a good shelter if needed

We rarely go backpacking without at least one tarp. It is a light, versatile piece of equipment that has many uses. In this post, we will discuss why we believe a tarp should be a part of your gear and how you can use your tarp.

Katie and I have several tarps to choose from when planning a backpacking or camping trip. Some are large enough to shelter a group of 10 people in a rainstorm and others are just big enough to fit a couple of packs and some gear underneath. Which tarp we bring depends on a variety of factors including the weather conditions we are expecting during the trip.

Two small tarps being used as shelter from light rain

Tarp Uses

The most obvious use for a tarp is to shelter you from precipitation. But this is not the only use. Others potential uses are as follows:

Windbreak - Rain and snow are not the only weather from which backpackers need protection. Wind can be as frustrating as anything. Have you ever tried cooking or getting a fire started in a windy area? A well-positioned tarp can be an easy solution to this problem.

Sleeping shelter - Some outdoors people use a tarp as their only shelter. Whether they are ultralight hikers or just enjoy the woodcraft and potential comfort of sleeping under a tarp next to a fire, it is a viable option for shelter. It also acts as a backup shelter if your tent should fail.

Makeshift rain fly for your tent - Nothing is worse than a wet sleeping bag. That’s why it is imperative that your sleeping shelter is protected from precipitation. If your rainfly is damaged or otherwise unavailable, a tarp is a good alternative.

Hammock shelter - Some hikers enjoy sleeping in hammocks as opposed to ground shelters. This is a viable option but you will still need a barrier from the elements outside of your hammock.

Makeshift tent footprint - Some tents have an excellent built-in footprint to keep groundwater from seeping in. Other tents need some help. A well-positioned tarp can do the trick if you are expecting rain, snow, or if the ground in camp is already wet.

Tarps pack up easily and can be stored on the outside of your pack

Clean and dry work surface - When you get to your campsite you will have to perform a variety of activities. Whether it is cooking, sorting gear, changing clothes, or planning the next day’s route, you will benefit from having a clean and dry surface.

Rain catcher - This one may sound like a stretch, but in a survival situation, you can use a tarp as a large surface area to collect rainwater for drinking. We would strongly recommend avoiding such a situation!

Gear shelter - So you have a good, waterproof tent to cover you while you sleep. That’s great! But what about your gear? You don’t want to wake up in the morning with a soaked backpack, boots, or cooking materials. Pitching a tarp over your gear can provide an easy solution to this problem.

Sunshade - Backpackers always seem to be struggling to stay dry, so the sun is almost always a welcome sight. However, too much sun can be as uncomfortable and dangerous as too much rain. A tarp can create a shaded area for you to cool off and prevent sunburn.

Mark packs up his gear that has stayed relatively dry under a tarp

Sitting surface - A fire at the end of a long day on the trail is a welcome site. But if your only option is to sit in the mud next to the fire, it can also be a pain in the butt. A tarp can act as a clean, dry sitting area for you and your hiking partners to relax.

Protecting firewood - Collecting firewood is a chore. Protect your work by making sure that firewood stays dry and out of the elements to that it is there when you need it. This is another good use for a tarp.

Privacy screen - Some campsites have natural privacy for when nature calls. In other places, you have to create your own privacy. Having a tarp can do just that.

Quick rain shelter on the trail - Having good rain gear is an essential part of any backpacker’s toolkit. But in some situations, the best option is to take a break from hiking and get under a tarp. This also comes in handy if you are taking a lunch break in a rainstorm.

So, as you can see, a tarp is an extremely versatile piece of equipment. I’m sure there are many other uses that we haven’t covered here, but this should give you a good idea of why we recommend bringing one along.

Jenny smiles under a tarp that is keeping her dry and out of the rain

Supplementary Materials

A tarp alone is a great piece of gear on its own. However, it is much more useful when combined with a few other items including:

Rope - to tie off the tarp

Bungee cords - to provide for easy pitching and flexibility in wind

Tent stakes - to affix the tarp or ropes to the ground

Hiking poles or tree limbs - to create headroom underneath the tarp

A tarp makes a great shelter from the rain

Learning How to Use Your Tarp

There is already a lot of good information online regarding how to pitch a tarp, so we won’t get into that here. What we will say is that your first tarp pitch shouldn’t be on the trail. It may seem like a simple task, but in the rain, high wind, or when racing the sunset, you will be happy you already know what you are doing ahead of time. Take your tarp and supplementary materials into your backyard or the local park and practice a few pitches. It won't take long, but a little practice goes a long way!

For those backpackers who want to bring a tarp as their primary sleeping shelter, we recommend spending a couple of nights camping in your own backyard to make sure you know what you are doing. You can even go as far as planning a yard camping trip when you expect rain so that you are sure your pitch and gear work when you are out on the trail.

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