Backpacking or Camping with a tarp allows you to get into remote areas that are not easily accessible or inaccessible via other forms of transportation. How much you have to carry depends on the terrain, weather, and how comfortable you like to be while traveling in the wild. You can go a long distance on two feet and you can go a lot farther by carrying less weight.
Tents have developed over the years to become lighter and therefore more efficient to carry. Traditional backpackers and campers are interested in traveling farther in shorter amounts of time and often rely on their gear to give them an edge in order to accomplish this.
In recent years, backpacking tarp tents have gained popularity because they are lighter than traditional backpacking shelters. Thus, allowing hikers to have lighter packs and be able to walk further distances. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to using them.
Before you decide on what tarp tent you need for a camping trip it is important to understand the terrain and potential weather that you may encounter. Although tarp shelters are light and repel water well, they are not as strong in the wind. 3 season and 4 season tents are going to withstand winds far better than a tarp tent. Traditional tents are better in stronger elements because they generally have a pole structure to support the tent and guy lines to secure it to the ground.
Things to Consider before Tarp Camping
It can be difficult to forecast wind conditions but researching an area on a map, talking to other people that have traveled in the same area, and looking at the weather report can be a great resource. If you are looking at a map of the area that you will be traveling through, ask yourself the following questions:
Will I be hiking in high elevations?
Higher elevations tend to have less shrubs and smaller trees, therefore offering fewer places to find refuge if you encounter bad weather. If you are hiking in lower elevations, along rivers or streams, or in valleys then you most likely will be hiking through thicker brush. As a general rule, it is good to stay low when bad weather hits.
Are natural features present?
Will you be hiking or camping in mountainous or rocky terrain? Although hiking on rocky terrain can be difficult, large rock features can offer protection from the elements. Plus, smaller rocks can be great anchors for setting up your tent or building small rock wind walls.
Tarp vs Tent
Here we will look at all the pros and cons of Camping Tarps, allowing us to make an informed comparison with traditional pole tents.
Camping Tarp Pros
Obviously, they are going to be light weight because they are made with less material. Most tarps do not have tent poles and this significantly reduces their overall weight as well. The total weight is the largest benefit of camping with a tarp. The beauty of this is when you start hiking or backpacking, it’s nearly weightless so you won’t feel the burden. For this reason you can feel free to buy the largest tarp tent on the market and it’s likely to only weigh a few grams more than a standard one, neither will take up much space or weight.
They tend to be compact since they are made with a small amount of material. Since there is not a lot of material that is used they are easily packed. This allows more space to be utilized in your pack for other things such as food. Simply roll them up and stuff them in similar to the size of a pair of pants, you would never see this level of compactness in any kind of tent, traditional or otherwise.
Tarp tents often benefit from a much higher water rating than pole tents. Most have Hydrostatic Ratings of up to 20,000mm. This is unheard of in traditional tents and rain will not be able to penetrate that level of protection, period.
They can be very spacious depending on how big you get. Some can be confining if they have a center pole that supports the tent. While models that do not need any poles, cover more open space. Meaning more shelter for you and your gear.
I don’t know if you have seen the price of the top tier backpacking tents these days, but they are astronomical. You could get an insanely good quality tarp for a cheaper price that would last you much longer and have a whole host of cool features to boot.
The most traditional activity to be done while camping is to make a fire. Embrace your inner caveman (or woman) and create mans red flower. However, if you are sitting close to your backpacking tent, you will be aware of the risk of a small ember sailing loose and burning a hole through your nice $400 ultra-light tent. This is not a problem with tarps, they can be attached at a height that avoids any embers and sparks. Imagine chilling next to the fire without a care in the world, you’re starting to get the idea of why these are so popular.
A well-positioned tarp can make excellent shelter for gear and friends alike, with wide coverage you can sit your camping group all inside comfortably. Play a game of cards while you’re waiting for the rain to subside or store all your backpacks and gear while you take a wander, confidently knowing they are safe. You could also use it as additional privacy when using your camping toilet or camping shower.
Most double as ground sheets due to their waterproof properties, this is also an option you can utilize when needed. We also suggest maybe taking a groundsheet as well to lay underneath. Additionally its easy to create a canopy or awning off your vehicle.
They are just fun to use. The beauty of tarps they are very versatile in their set up. They can be configured in various ways, forming different shapes and angles. Contouring to the environment and bending into position, this can be really interesting and challenging when deciding the best possible angle to pitch. You can also combine it with your trusty hammock.
Camping Tarp Cons
Vulnerable In Windy Conditions
Although there are many advantages to tarps when camping, they are weakest when set-up in windy conditions. It can be difficult to secure in windy conditions because of their light material and non-existent pole structure.
Difficult To Set-Up
With the seemingly infinite configurations, they are not for the faint heated. Only die hard campers need apply. The level of difficulty lowers if you have more people to help you. Tents that have poles make it a lot easier to set-up the body but tarp tents are more difficult because they have to be attached to appropriate natural features. When compared to some modern tents like pop ups, inflatables and instant tents, you can see why some casual campers veer away from tarps.
No Bug Net
If you are not comfortable with bugs and other creepy crawlers than you may not want to sleep under a tarp. Generally they will not have a bug net or enclosure included. You will need to buy an additional or create a makeshift one using a mesh material. Most pole tents will have a body that acts as an enclosure and keep the bugs out, additionally meshed windows. If things that crawl and slitter do not bother you then this will not be an issue.
Easy To Damage
Now this mainly applies to cheaper, temporary use models. As they are used with lesser quality materials, to support an economical and affordable price. However, when you put some money into it and get a quality camping tarp, then its a different ball game as they utilize durable RipStop.
As you can see the pros far outweigh the cons.
Camping tarps allow you to get back to basics and enjoy a simplistic camping style that doesn’t need a lot of fuss or hassle. It is not for everyone and some of the cons may be a deal breaker, however for others once you’ve gone tarp, you will never go back. The freedom involved resonates with a lot of people for good reason and often symbolizes the meaning of getting outdoors and being one with nature.
So why not give it a go?
Use our buyers guide to decide which one is most appropriate for your next journey, give it a try and let us know what you think.
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