Tent Footprint vs. Tarp: What’s The Difference?

Tent camping is a pursuit enjoyed by millions of people around the globe. Each and every year carloads of these hearty individuals make their way to some outdoor nirvana to spend a few nights out under the stars, and each relies on their tent to protect them from the elements as they slumber away.

However, in order to ensure that your tent is going to provide the ample amount of protection, you will definitely need to have the ideal setup in place—a setup that should always include either a tent footprint or tarp laid between the ground and the floor of the tent. But which option should you choose?

That is the topic we will cover in some detail in the sections below.

Do I Need a Tent Flooring Protector?

In a moment we are going to speak more about two types of potential tent flooring protectors—the tent footprint and the tarp—both of which can be used when camping. However, before we get into that discussion, let us first talk about the importance of tent floor protection as a whole.

When tents are designed and constructed at the manufacturer, they are intentionally built fairly strong to help them survive the often harmful outdoor environment. To reduce their overall weight, most tents of today are built using very lightweight yet durable materials.

However, they are not built to be totally indestructible. Over time, rips and tears in the fabric of the tent are a real possibility, especially if you camp on a frequent basis and especially if you camp in rough terrain where the rocky and uneven ground is unavoidable.

The floor of the tent is perhaps the most vulnerable section in terms of potential rips and tears. Even though manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure that the floor is built in a durable fashion, the rough earth and the weight being placed on the floor of the tent can usually lead to some serious wear and tear.

So why are rips and tears in your tent floor such a negative thing? It’s because those worn out spots can allow moisture to seep into the tent from below, leading to a soggy mess and a very uncomfortable camping outing.

Using a tarp or a tent footprint to protect your tent’s floor has a number of advantages that must be taken into consideration. They include:

  • Tent floor protection. A tent footprint or tarp can protect the bottom of your tent from rips and tears caused by rocky ground.
  • Moisture barrier. Both the tarp and the tent footprint are made from waterproof materials. This is significant, as these devices will keep moisture from entering into the inside of the tent.
  • Level sleeping. Nobody likes sleeping on rocky and uneven turf. But with a tent footprint or tarp you have a better chance of leveling your sleeping area.
  • Added comfort. Although a tarp will usually not add any extra comfort when used as a flooring protector for your tent, many of the tent footprints today are made from soft rubber materials that do indeed make sleeping on the ground that much more comfortable.

What Is a Tent Footprint?

If you have ever purchased a tent, you already know the investment can be pretty significant. Because of this, you should definitely take steps to protect that investment and increase its lifespan.

While tents can be a fairly fragile item as a whole when used or cared for incorrectly, the floor of the tent in particular can really take a beating. When the floor of the tent lies directly on the ground it is subject to tears from the rocky earth; and when the ground is wet the floor of the tent can get muddy and is subject to mold and mildew.

These are the reasons why a tent footprint is so crucial to the overall tent setup.

Tent footprints are essentially nothing more than a piece of fabric cut to match the dimensions of your tent floor. Tent footprints help protect the floor of your tent from the elements by serving as a shield between the tent’s bottom and the ground.

One of the primary reasons why a tent’s bottom deteriorates so quickly is because it is laid out on rough and rocky ground. Add to that the tossing and turning people do at night as they sleep, and you have a perfect recipe for friction and abrasion to the floor of the tent—friction and abrasion that can eventually lead to rips and tears in the tent fabric.

In addition to protecting the floor of the tent from these rips and tears, a tent footprint can also lift the tent off the ground ever so slightly. This ensures that moisture will not penetrate into the tent, an eventuality that can lead to a cold and uncomfortable night.

A tent footprint is usually made from a light waterproof material. There are many different types of tent footprints, but the most important feature is its ability to keep water from entering the tent. That being said, a tent footprint can be made out of any material as long as it is waterproof.

Whether you purchase a pre-fabricated tent footprint or decide to make your own, the materials used to make it include plastic, rubber, vinyl or a sheet of tyvek (lightweight material).

What Is a Tarp?

The tarp is a fundamental and very versatile piece of camping equipment that has many uses, including serving as a flooring protector and moisture barrier for your tent. Tarps are made from a variety of materials, including plastic and vinyl.

However, most of the tarps manufactured today are made from an affordable woven blend of polyethylene, a material that is extremely waterproof (and fairly lightweight).

Like tent footprints, tarps can be cut to mirror the dimensions of your tent’s floor and placed under the tent to protect it from tears and to prevent moisture from penetrating inside the tent. Tarps tend to be much thinner than most tent footprints, so they will not offer the same level of comfort as the latter.

Still, they are very effective at blocking out moisture and they offer many other uses around the campsite.

For example, when you are out on a hike, you can use a tarp to help setup a shade shelter, under which you can take in your midday meal. This can come in handy on very hot days or when taking hikes in the rain.

For camping trips in the deep wilderness, a high quality tarp can be used as a type of roof structure, effectively replacing a tent. This will leave you partially exposed to the elements, but at least it will keep you dry and/or protect you from direct sunlight.

Tarps are also great when you need to erect things like A-Frame shelters, teepees, or lean-tos in order to provide some degree of shelter against the rain, snow, heat and wind.

Unlike tent footprints, most tarps do not come pre-fabricated to use as a floor barrier for your tent. Because of this, you will need to take a full-size tarp and cut it to size. If the tarp is large enough, you may even be able to craft two tent footprints out of a single piece of material.

Tent Footprint vs. Tarp: Which Should You Use?

As you can see from the previous three sections above, some type of protector for your tent’s floor is always a good idea. But which one of these options should you choose?

Naturally, if comfort is your only concern, you should probably think about picking up a rubber tent footprint, one that will also protect against rips and tears and serve as a moisture barrier between you and the wet turf below. Another way to choose between the two options is to consider the environment in which you will be camping.

When camping on rough terrain, a high quality tent footprint is probably your best bet. These pre-fabricated footprints are made specifically for the reason of protecting your tent flooring from scratches and tears. If you use a tarp in this situation, you may run the risk of ruining that tarp, as this is not its primary function.

If you are camping on a night when the forecast calls for rain, both a tent footprint and tarp can offer excellent protection, provided they are cut to exacting dimensions. While both the tent footprint and the tarp are made from waterproof materials, the flooring protector must be cut to exact size to offer the best protection.

Tarps that extend past the dimensions of the tent’s floor may act as “rain catchers,” and that moisture can then roll between the tarp and the tent floor, leading to a soggy mess. A perfectly measured tent footprint, however, will not extend beyond the floor’s dimensions and will thus act as an excellent water barrier.

Simply put, if you can afford a dedicated tent footprint, one cut to size for your specific tent, it will probably offer you more protection than a tarp. However, if your recreation funds are a little short, a tarp will always do in a pinch, and can even be used for other functions around the campsite.

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