backpacking tarp

Camping and Backpacking Tarps: An Essential Guide

Tarp camping can offer the outdoor adventurer an altogether different take on a night in the wild and rewards the camper with a host of lovely benefits, including less of a load to carry, a more intimate and less ‘separate’ feel for the natural environment in which you’re camping, less faffing about with poles, straps, guy lines etc. (also possible, admittedly…), and, of course, a little bit of extra ventilation if it happens to be a few days since you and your camping partner last had a wash…the bonus of all bonuses.

In this guide to tarp camping you will find information on the following:

But if you’re keen to get straight into what tarps are available, then this summary of the best tarps for backpacking and camping is a good place to start, with more detailed info in the reviews section.

ProductSizeShapeWeightCost
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Tarp8 x 10 ftFlat (rectangle)10.3oz (292g)$$$$$
MSR Rendezvous 120 Wing12 x 12.4 ftShaped56oz (1.59kg)$$$
ENO HouseFly Rain Tarp10 x 10.5 ftShaped25oz (709g)$$
YUEDGE Waterproof Rain Tarp10 x 13 ftShaped (hexagon)34oz (964g)$
Rab Guides Siltarp 27.9 x 9.8 ftFlat (rectangle)15.5oz (438g)$$

Tarp vs tent

The benefits of tent camping

Every outdoorsperson knows exactly what a tent has to offer. Their benefits include:

  1. Protection from the elements
  2. Protection from insects and critters
  3. Warmth
  4. Ease of setup
  5. That cosy, cocoon-like snugness that can be oh-so welcome at the end of a rough day on the trail.
  6. A lack of reliance on anchors (trees, hiking poles etc)

We also know the drawbacks – the weight, the occasional hassles entailed in the lack of space, and that very same cocoon-like snugness, which all too often can feel like a bit of a barrier between ourselves and the goodness of the great outdoors.

The benefits of tarp camping

If where a tent excels is in weatherproofing, where a tarp excels is in versatility:

  1. Tarps can easily be used as a groundsheet for a night beneath the stars
  2. Tarps can be used as a simple wrap-around bivvy if the winds get up
  3. Tarps are great as a group shelter should you happen to be out on the trail when the weather takes a turn for the ugly
  4. Tarps can be set up in a variety of ways to suit the weather and the size of your party
  5. Tarps are usually lighter to carry than tents
  6. Tarps are inexpensive and great for budget campers

Unless you feel like taking a knife to one of the walls of your tent, a tarp will always offer more flexibility and a more ‘intimate’ experience with the natural environment.

Whether the benefits of tarp camping outweigh the benefits of camping in a good old-fashioned tent really comes down to the conditions, personal preference and how much comfort you need to be get a good night’s rest! And there are most certainly some conditions in which tarp camping can turn into a test of endurance rather than an enjoyable experience – even for the most experienced of tarp campers.

But, used in the right way and in the right conditions, tarp camping really can be better than tent camping and can open up a whole new approach to lightweight camping.

Tarp over canoes

Choosing a tarp for backpacking and camping

Convinced? Good, now let’s get down to what to look for when shopping for camping and backpacking tarps.

‘But it’s just a sheet of glorified plastic, isn’t it!’ Woe the lad or lass who spoke such foolish words! The backpacking tarp, plain and simple as it may seem, has a lot more to it than plain plasticity (and usually not even that!) and a lot more to take into consideration, therefore, before you buy. Here are some of the key factors to mull over before clicking the ‘buy’ button.

Weight

One of the loveliest features of tarping is the fact that you can do away with a lot of the weight and bulk required for standard tent camping…if you choose wisely and if you so wish. While going ultralight isn’t compulsory, it is an option. Bear in mind, however, that many who choose to go down the tarping line will also head on their adventures with either a bivvy bag or a hammock. In addition to the tarp and their sleeping bag, this adds a pound or so to the weight of the tarp alone.

Check out our review for the skinny on backpacking hammocks here.

Size

Ever seen how rain can have a habit of falling somewhat sideways and evade whatever shelter you may have put up to block it (cue unanimous nods of agreement from readers in the British Isles)? Well, that very rain (or at least a distant cousin thereof) is going to be joining you in your sleeping spot unless you opt for a tarp that’s suitable to your group size. For two sleepers/tarpers, it’s best to opt for coverage of around 60 square feet and up, which will allow you a bit of a porch area for gear and cooking and maybe even a little extra material to form a rear wall against the prevailing wind, should it be particularly bothersome or be carrying some of that diagonal rain.

Features and functionality

Tarps really aren’t just a large scrap of plastic, and several features can add greatly to your tarp’s functionality and performance in inclement weather.

Attachment points

Four is the bare minimum, but six or eight will give you more rigging flexibility and stability in high winds

Prop points

While not essential, these are very handy and can help expand the square footage of your sleeping area and make your tarp more stable. Simply pop in a trekking pole or even a long branch and the tarp becomes more taut and your headroom increases dramatically

Add-ons

Attachable insect-proof inners and groundsheets can help make your tarp do pretty much everything a tent can, but will cost you an extra few hundred grams. Some tarps are compatible with attachable inners, other not. Be sure to check before buying if you happen to be taking your tarp somewhere rich in mosquitoes, midges or other undesirable lifeforms!

Shape

Beleive it or not, there are a variety of different shapes of backpacking tarps available, each with different selling points suited to different senarios. The main shapes are:

  • Rectangle tarp

    Flat tarps

    Usually square or rectangular shaped, flat tarps are more versatile than shaped tarps and can be pitched in a huge variety of ways. Their larger footprint means that (depending on how they are set up), they tend to be better at dealing with the elements, but this also means that they are usually a little heaveier than shaped tarps. Their simplicity makes them (generally speaking) less expensive and easier to put up.

  • Hex tarp

    Shaped tarps

    These include hexagonal tarps, diagonal tarps and tarps with curved edges. They are usually more lightweight than flat tarps due to their shaped edges cutting down on material, making them popular with lightweight backpackers, bikepackers and paddlers. They can be easy to put up well without much experience, but are more limited when it comes to verstility compared with flat tarps.

Use

First things first: if you’re planning on a trek in Patagonia, the demographic epicentre of the Scottish midge population during hungry season, or the wetter regions affected by the Himalayan monsoon, you might want to opt for a standard backpacking tent, which we will gladly help you choose in our lightweight backpacking tent guide. If not, read on:

Camping: Tarps can be rigged up pretty much in the same way a standard tent, but are more versatile when it comes to the various ways to set them up and can elevate your camping experience by creating a little less

Backpacking: This is where a tarp can really come into its own. If you’re a thru-hiker or even just heading out for a couple of overnighters in the backcountry, every gram and cubic millimetre in your pack is priceless. A backpacking tarp will take up less room than a tent and can save you pounds of weight that might not be necessary. It can also elevate your experience from one where you lock yourself away from the sounds, sights and smells of nature every night to one where you are directly in their midst – pro or con? You decide!!!

Group shelter: The versatility of backpacking tarps can see them moonlight as either an emergency group shelter out in the hills or simply a communal area between separate sleeping areas, thus saving you a few hundred grams if you ordinarily carry separate gear to fulfil either of these purposes.


Best camping and backpacking tarps in 2017

Now we know what they’re all about, let’s move onto Cool of the Wild’s review of 2017’s best tarps for camping and backpacking.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Tarp

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Tarp

Light, tough, and super compact, the Hyperlite is a very pricey but very friendly and versatile tarp best suited to the needs of long-distance, ultralight backpackers heading into a variety of terrains, even treeless ones. Yep, pop up the Hyperlite using your trekking poles and the multiple perimeter tie-outs creat the classic A-Frame configuration in a jiffy. With sixteen attachment points, Dyneema construction and weighing in at just over 10oz, this is a wonderfully light, flap-free, well-made tarp that provides a good amount of shelter for two people.

Pros

  • Tiny pack size (6.5 x 5.5 x 3.5 in)
  • Fully taped seams
  • 16 attachment points/perimeter tie-outs
  • Light (only 10.3oz)
  • Incredibly well-made
  • Pretty much bombproof

Cons

  • So expensive it might require a small mortgage…

Find the latest price on:
Backcountry


MSR Rendezvous 120 Wing

MSR Rendezvous 120 Wing

For a little extra square footage and serious stability, the shaped edges of the Rendezvous has you covered. Although this Silnylon tarp is very heavy (56oz), it performs very well in high winds and covers a whopping 120 square feet…enough to invite the neighbours round (or under) for a cuppa. This is the ideal camping tarp if you don’t have to carry it too far, in which case you might opt for one of the ultra-lightweight options such as the Hyperlite (above) or revert to the tent option – once you’ve added the grams/pounds of a groundsheet and bivvy or hammock, you’ll pretty much be carrying the same weight of your average 2/3 person tent in any case.

Pros

  • Great stability in high winds
  • Huge
  • Versatility – can be set up in various ways

Cons

  • Heavy (56oz)
  • Pricey!

Find the latest price on:
Amazon | REI


ENO HouseFly Rain Tarp

ENO HouseFly Rain Tarp

As far as lightweight waterproof tarps for backpacking go, they don’t come much better than the HouseFly. Whether you’re using it as an emergency group shelter, an extended porch between tents or as a tent substitute used in tandem with a bivvy bag or hammock, this spacious (105sq. ft), waterproof and very nearly weatherproof rain tarp ticks every box that needs ticking. While a fraction pricey, it is nonetheless around half the price of the Hyperlite, cheaper than the MSR and can shelter up to three people, thus making it a nice half-way house between the two.

Pros

  • Spacious (105 sq. feet)
  • Doors overlap for extra weather protection
  • Only 25oz

Cons

  • Short on attachment points

Find the latest price on:
Amazon | REI


YUEDGE Waterproof Rain Tarp

YUEDGE Waterproof Rain Tarp

Cheap, spacious, lightweight and durable, the YUEDGE may just be the best budget rain tarp out there. While the polyester fabric isn’t quite as waterproof as Silnylon models and at 34oz it is a touch heavier than some similarly sized (97sq feet) competitors, in terms of value for money the YUEDGE is a cracking little hexagonal tarp that performs admirably without first requiring you rob any banks to finance the purchase. The USP of the YUEDGE, beyond its affordability, is the reflective inner, which helps to store heat in cooler conditions and offers UV protection when the sun’s out. A great budget option for two or three people.

Pros

  • Cheap!
  • Reflective inner
  • Very easy to set up
  • Handy storage pouch

Cons

  • Polyester not as waterproof as Silnylon
  • A little bit on the heavy side

Find the latest price on:
Amazon


Rab Guides Siltarp 2

Rab Guides Siltarp 2

A piece of gear that happens to contain both the term ‘Rab’ and ‘Guide’ in its title is usually one distinguished by particularly impressive quality and performance. The rectangularGuides Siltarp is no exception. Boasting an exceptional build, plenty of attachment points, incredible versatility and flexibility in terms of setup options, great stability in inclement conditions and very tough, silicone-impregnated 30D ripstop Cordura for abrasion-resistance and weatherproofing. While a touch heavier than other models of its size (80sq feet), this tarp oozes quality and is still light enough (15.5oz) to be tossed in your bag without a second thought for use as a simple multi-person emergency shelter. Comparable in price to the ENO Housefly, the Guides Siltarp wins hands down in terms of quality of construction and set up flexibility, but lacks around 25sq feet in coverage.

Pros

  • Light (14oz)
  • Very well-made
  • Versatility – can be set up in numerous ways and functions just as well as an ultralight overnight shelter as it does an emergency bivvy

Cons

  • Fairly small square footage (80sq feet)
  • Quite pricey

Find the latest price on:
Backcountry


How to set up a tarp

Having decided upon one of these superb tarps to get your camping adventures underway, it’s time to learn how to put one up! And although it may be tempting to just wing it and go for the simple A-Frame configuration each time, there will be times when other setups will be way more suited to the conditions and the surroundings. Plus, it’s too much fun to just limit your tarp setup to one way of doing it!

So, let’s take a look at a few of the most popular and straightforward ways to rig a tarp…

A frame tarp sketch

Standard A-frame

This is the simplest way to set up a camping or backpacking tarp and can be done using trees to set up a ridge line, or using sticks or trekking poles that support the tarp from below.

Pros

  • Can be set up at any height
  • Ideal for hammock camping
  • Easy to set up with or without trees as anchores

Cons

  • Can turn into a little wind-tunnel if the wind direction changes
  • Hard for one person to set up
  • Not much head room

Modified pyramid tarp setup sketch

Modified pyramid

This set up provides the most amount of shelter and protection from bad weather, and also makes you feel a bit more cosy and protected than other, more open configurations. The use of trekking poles or sticks is essential.

Pros

  • Really strong in storms
  • Similar feel and coverage to a tent

Cons

  • Tricky to set up

Lean to tarp setup sketch

Lean to

This set up can be done easily using trees to anchor to, but it also works well using poles or sticks as the main support with guy lines to secure the tarp in place. A tarp set up in this configuration can provide a good amount of protection in fair weather for small groups, and if you have a small tarp then this is also a good way to maximise the coverage.

Pros

  • Most open setup option
  • Easy to set up

Cons

  • Offers little coverage or protection if the wind and/or rain kick up during the night

There are a load more ways to rig up a tarp. Master the basics first and then you can start trying out some of the more complex ways to set one up.


10 top tips for tarp camping

01 Try out some different tarp configurations at home. That way, if you end up having to pitch your tarp in bad weather and need to get shelter fast, you know exactly what you’re doing instead of figuring it out as you go.

02 Where possible, pitch your tarp on flat, even ground – just like you would a tent.

03 Avoid pitching your tarp in dips or depressions in the ground. Although such areas may seem appealing due to the natural shelter provided, they can also be susceptible to accumulating groundwater, or worse still, flooding.

04 Before you pitch your tarp make sure you figure out the wind direction to ensure the open side of the tarp is facing away from the wind.

05 Consider using hiking poles on your trip. They double as tarp supports in areas where there are no trees to anchor to or no ground sticks to use as pole supports.

06 If you’re new to tarp camping then make sure you get some good experience using one in good weather conditions before you start opting for it above your tent in all weathers.

06 Use some kind of groundsheet to keep your sleeping setup dry and clean.

07 Consider using a bivvy sack. This adds invaluable protection and warmth against the wind, and protects against bugs – to a degree! It is also good to protect your sleeping bag from morning dew or splash back if there is rain.

08 If feeling secure is important when tarp camping, peg two or three sides of your tarp right down to the floor. This will be good for keeping out the breeze and also for feeling more contained and protected in your shelter.

09 Learn and practice a few essential camping knots before you head out tarp camping.

10 Always have a length of cord with you that is longer than you need. This keeps things flexible if you are setting up around trees, or if one of your attachment points break.


If you’re into tarp camping and the freedom it offers, then you may also want to consider taking your camping experiences to a higher level altogether and try out hammock camping (if you haven’t already!):

Hammock Camping Guide

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