use a tarp for camping

Tarp Shelters for camping

In this post, we address the most versatile item of kit on the campsite: The tarp.

The tarp is waterproof, opaque, and handy for absolutely everything. Need a sun-shade over the lunch table? Use a tarp. Pitched a tent? Tarp above, tarp below, you’re staying dry no matter how hard it rains. Forgot your tent? No biggie, the tarp is here to save you.

Tarp materials for camping

There are a bunch of different options when tarp shopping. Treated Canvas is the great-granddaddy of tarps. Moisture resistant, until it gets packed away, canvas is tough material that will last a long time. Make sure it’s absolutely dry before storing it. That might mean hanging it in the basement for a few days after getting home.

Poly tarps like this one are probably the most common. Woven polyethylene layers make for a durable, waterproof layer. Not readily susceptible to moisture like canvas, poly tarps are available in a multitude of patterns, colours and sizes. Good value and excellent protection, poly tarps are notoriously difficult to refold after using. They’re also quite noisy in the wind.

Silicone tarps like this one are newer and more flexible than their predecessors. Silicone impregnated nylon makes for a quiet, waterproof, easily packable tarp that has excellent durability and versatility.

camping tarp uses


But how big should this tarp be?

A great question! sized to your needs of course. A tarp that’s 20’x30’ doesn’t fit well on a small campsite where the trees are 10’ apart. Similarly, a 5’x7’ tarp won’t fully cover a 14-person tent. (more on tents here). Each campsite will have different objectives and needs. Have a variety of tarps on hand during the packing phase of a trip. When deciding on what to pack, consider these three basics:

1- dining shelter tarp

Eating in a dry, shaded area is more pleasant than in direct sun. Added bonus: stuff from the trees won’t fall into your food. Keep the cooking appliances well away from the tarp so it doesn’t melt.

2- over each tent

Even the best rain flies have their limits. Add a tarp for better rain and dew protection. Bonus: your tent won’t get as dirty or hot.

Pro Tip: In the rain, put the tarp up a few feet above the highest point of your tent. Then set up your tent under it. Tent stays dry through the whole process, and ends up exactly where it needs to be under the tarp.


3- inside each tent

The best way to keep a tent dry in the rain is to assume it will get wet. By putting the tarp inside on the floor, and folding the corners up (keep some clothespegs handy to keep it in place) water can run in and out as needed without getting the gear inside wet.

Depending on the weather, keeping firewood dry might be another priority for your tarps. Their use is limited only by your imagination.

The Trusty Tarp – It’s in the bag

Each tarp comes in a factory package. Ditch it as soon as possible. Put each tarp in a stuff sack with its own accessories:


Guylines are adjustable, and need to adapt to their surroundings. Braided poly rope (any kind will do, this is one example) will secure the tarp to a tree or pole, or to stakes in the ground. Bring lots. Don’t cut it if it can be avoided. Fewer pieces are better. Guyline tensioners like these keep the tension on to keep the tarp taught and avoid flapping.


Pegs keep the free-ends in the ground when not tying off to a tree. These are one example. Keep lots of pegs on hand. 6-8 per tarp is a good number.


By keeping a ‘kit’ for each tarp ready to go (mark the outside of the bag with the tarp material and size instead of unpacking it every time) it’s one item that doesn’t need a lot of thought in the haste of packing for a camping trip.


So now what?


Now that the size, material, accessories and locations are chosen, it’s time to set up a tarp. First rule: always set up a tarp with an angle. Moisture will build up on the top from dew or precipitation and it’s important to give that moisture somewhere to go. Put the ‘down’ edges of the tarp away from where people will gather, and downhill if needed. Face the ‘up’ edges into the prevailing wind if possible. Ideally, a ridge-line will keep the tarp taught. A ridgeline runs between two trees or poles. The tarp is folded over it (not always in half) to add tension. Tensioning the fabric in all directions will keep the wind noise and movement to a minimum.


For a tarp dining shelter, add a few inches above the tallest person in the group for hanging height.


When putting a tarp over a tent, consider the weather. In cool weather, the extra layer above will help trap warm air from the campers inside. Keep it close to the top of the tent (even sitting right on it) and stake the ends down low to the ground. In warm weather, allowing air to circulate between the tarp and tent will help keep it cooler. Get the tarp up as high as possible to shade the tent but not trap heat.


In the right climate, a tarp can take the place of a tent. A triangular tube with one end going to the ground makes a quick one-person tent (use your trekking pole or hiking staff at the high end to keep it upright). This will keep the inside mostly dry, but not free of bugs nor especially warm. A wind/sun shelter at the beach is another great use for a tarp. A 6 foot ish pole driven into the sand with guylines coming off in all directions and a tarp stretched against them will quickly provide shade and a little privacy, while blocking the wind.


The use of tarps is limited only by your imagination. By having the right size on hand with the right accessories, campers will be comfortable, dry and ready to play all day.

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