5 Reasons To Try Using A Tarp Instead Of A Tent

tarp camping

On my first backpacking trip, I carried a $50 tent my parents bought me from Sam’s Club. Granted, I never weighed it, but it must have been five pounds or more and a bear to pack!

Eventually, I started working in the outdoor industry. Since then I’ve slept in pretty much every shelter known to hikers: tents, tarps, hammocks, leaf debris huts, bivouacs, you name it.

I have to admit, switching from tents to backpacking tarps was extremely intimidating. But I soon learned that tarp camping opens up a whole new world of opportunities and advantages that conventional shelter options just can’t provide.

Now, I understand that sleeping under a tarp may not seem that appealing at first. So here are my top 5 reasons to try using a tarp instead of a tent.

1. Tarps are Lighter and Smaller

Tarps just blast tents right out of the water when it comes to packability (bulk) and weight. While there are several reasons for this, the biggest one involves the lack of structural elements.

Free-standing tents (common), by nature, require rigid poles to provide their shape. These are commonly fiberglass or aluminum both of which are relatively heavy.

This is especially true when you compare them to the complete lack of poles needed for tarps.

Additionally, poles can only be packed down to a certain size. Even when disassembled, tent poles still take up a predefined amount of non-flexible space in the pack.

Even if you need poles with a tarp you can use sticks or your hiking poles to get the perfect pitch, without having to carry anything in your bag!

Just look at the numbers: A reasonably lightweight one-person tent might weigh 1.5 pounds while a lightweight one-person tarp can come in at under 10 ounces. Big difference.

2. Flexibility

Tarps can’t be beaten for versatility. With some practice, you’ll find that it’s possible to pitch a basic square tarp in dozens of orientations and styles.

A-frame, open side, sloping, low and flat, one corner up… your imagination (and knot-tying skills) is the limit.

No wind? Pitch the tarp high and enjoy room to sit (or stand) without a problem. Extra-person? Pitch with one side up for a little more space. Nasty weather? Pitch low and angled for the best defense.

On top of all that, tarps can be packed in limitless ways. I like to pack all my gear and then stuff the tarp in the void spaces at the very end.

Tarps can fit in the cracks between other gear in your pack and virtually disappear.

3. Ventilation

Tarps are awesome at providing great ventilation. If you’ve ever woken up to find the inside of your tent walls wet with condensation then you’re familiar with the results of poor venting.

Tarps, on the other hand, rarely if ever experience this issue. It’s great for hot, humid weather when even a single layer of nylon feels like sleeping in a plastic bag.

Even in the winter, having the right sleeping bag, pad, and a tarp can be a very pleasant experience free of wet or icy tent walls dripping on your face.

Did I mention that all that ventilation leads to a more immersive wilderness experience?

4. Immersion

You’re at 8,000 feet and there’s not an artificial light source for 95 miles. Up there the thinner atmosphere and lack of light pollution make the Milky Way look like a scene from a Neil deGrasse Tyson show.

Who wants to climb into a tent and be cut off from the real reason we all go out there; the immersion.

Don’t get me wrong, there are nights when even the seasoned vets wake up thinking, “Did I just hear something?” Spooky noises aside, having nothing between you and the natural world is a great way to connect to the areas you’re visiting and the reasons you’re out there.

While it’s not convenient, you’ll also learn lots of fun lessons the hard way. Such as waking up at 2 a.m. as the rain pelts in sideways because you didn’t pitch the tarp correctly.

You won’t make that mistake again.

Whether it’s on a pleasant night with stars in the sky or a chorus of Spring Peepers singing their songs directly into your ears, sleeping in a tarp certainly decreases the barrier between you and the world around you.

5. Cost

Let’s be real – price is a defining factor for most of us when choosing camping gear. A nice lightweight single-person tent can run up around $400 or more without breaking a sweat.

On the other hand, a custom-made tarp of your size and color choice can be as reasonable as $100 – $150.

Tarps may have a little higher learning curve, but you’ll save money and weight in the process of committing to using one.

Don’t get me wrong, the bleeding-edge Dyneema composite (cuben fiber) tarps can easily break $200 – $300. However, they’ll all but disappear in your pack and your friends will think you’re some kind of mountain wizard with your lightweight space-age tarp and your fearless commitment to sleeping without walls around you.

Conclusion

Tarps come with tons of advantages if you can get past the barriers to getting started. I will tell you first-hand that they seem infinitely more intimidating than they are.

I think you’ll find that experimenting with tarp camping will free you from many restrictions and limitations you didn’t even know you were operating inside.

To get started a little easier I suggest buying an affordable tarp and starting to use it during the warmer months of the year. That way if you make a mistake it won’t be nearly as dangerous to your health!

image: “Bob and Tarp” by Andy Howell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

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