Can You Have a Fire Under a Tarp?

A campfire under a tarp

There’s been a lot of debate about whether or not it is a good idea to light your campfire under a tarp. Sheltering your fire in this manner could help you retain heat, keep your fire dry, and light it faster. However, there are camp stories about melting tarps and destroyed camping trips. 

Even though some campers don’t even entertain the idea of positioning your fire in this way, I’ve never had that many issues with it. Sure, there are a few hiccups now and then, but they’re easily fixable.

This being said, in some situations even the possibility of damaging your gear isn’t worth it. You shouldn’t try to light a fire under a tarp every single time.

How Will the Most Common Types of Tarps React to Heat?

Not all tarps are created equal and each fair better in the conditions they were designed for. Also, tarps are made from various types of materials, all of which react to high temperatures in different ways – they have a different melting point.

  • Rainflies – a garden variety rainfly is probably the worst one to light a fire under. Even if you took one from a tent, the heat it could take would be far below your average campfire.
  • Polyurethane tarps – unless you set them up perfectly you can get pinpricks from the flying sparks. This shouldn’t bother you much unless they’re in critical places or you’re a perfectionist. PU tarps are the most common ones out there because they’re light.
  • Silnylon – tarps from this material are usually a little fireproof and are by far the best tarps which you can light a fire. The same goes for silnylon tents.
  • Ponchos – if you have a military poncho that can double as a tarp, you probably shouldn’t light a fire under it. Since this piece of your gear is meant to fit on your body, any holes in it might cause rain to seep in, ruining its water resistance.
  • Waxed cloth – these tarps shouldn’t be a problem unless you light a fire two feet below them. Unfortunately, they are the heaviest of the lot and are usually avoided because of that.

Ways to Light a Fire Under a Tarp

Many people opt for a tarp over a tent when planning shelter for their camping trips. And no wonder! Tarps are lighter, take up less space and, along with a hammock, they provide even better sleeping arrangements than a tent.

Additionally, when it comes to keeping warm, tarps are even more versatile. You can use them to trap the heat from your fire or even light a fire under them to stay toasty warm while sleeping outdoors.

Here is what you need to avoid if you want to light a fire under a tarp:

  • Holes in the tarp
  • Not enough air-circulation
  • Overfeeding the fire

Manage the Fire and Raise the Tarp

As long as you set up your tarp high enough and keep an eye on the fire, nothing should go wrong.

Make sure you’re maintaining enough fire to stay warm and cook, but don’t overfeed it. You’re not trying to make a bonfire. 

This should be pretty easy to do, especially in high humidity conditions where you won’t have much fuel anyway.

In addition to this, do not place your tarp lower than your shoulder. There should be at least four feet between the top of the fire and the bottom of the tarp.

Your shelter will get a bit drafty, but the air circulation will keep the smoke from accumulating under the tarp.

Two Tarps Chimney Set Up

If you have two tarps packed when you’re on a camping trip, you can set them un in an inverted V (like a rooftop), but set the ridgeline for one tarp slightly lower than the other one.

Once you light a fire in your makeshift tent, you can separate the tops of the tarps with a twig to make an improvised chimney.

This method provides good coverage from both sides but it requires you to carry an extra tarp. You still should go overboard with the fire, but keep it subdued.

Dig a Hole for the Fire

The best method for lighting and maintaining a fire under your tarp is the good old Dakota fire hole.

Dig two holes and connect them with a small tunnel at the bottom of each hole. The larger hole should be able to accommodate your cookware, and the second one should be two-thirds the diameter of the first one. Light the fire in the larger hole.

This setup is great because there will be much less smoke. This will allow you to build a much less open shelter. You’ll still need to keep one side open to ventilate, but most of the heat will stay inside.

The cons of this method are that it can take some time unless you’re proficient in making the Dakota fire hole and that in some types of terrain you just can’t dig a hole.

Use a Stove to Keep a Fire Under a Tarp

Another way to avoid melting down your primary shelter while camping is to use a stove under a tarp. 

A stove will help you keep the fire contained and still hot enough to cook or keep warm. It doesn’t matter whether you have a camp fuel stove, a mini wood stove, or an alcohol one, just don’t overload it and it should keep the fire under control for you.

Apart from protecting your tarp from being melted down, stoves are an ultralight and reliable way to get fire when in the wild. 

Fire in Front of Your Tarp Shelter

Finally, most people avoid lighting a fire under their tarps because it’s not worth the risk.

Placing a fire in front of your tarp set up provides almost exactly the same heat and you wouldn’t have to worry whether you’re setting your equipment on fire or not. Your shelter will be dry, warm, and puncture-free!

Additionally, if you’re using tinder like charcloth to light your fire you can get the embers going under the protection of the tarp and then transfer them to the fire. Just make sure you have some fireproof material on which to light the embers, as the whole point was to avoid burning your tarp.

When lighting a fire in front of your tarp, the golden rule is to do it one and a half paces out (make one and a half step) from the end of your groundsheet. This will allow you to get all the heat you’ll need and not melt anything.

Experiment With Your Gear

After getting the right information, the most important thing about camping is to try out your gear. Before you try to light a fire under your tarp in the wild, make sure you try it a few times in your backyard or some other controlled environment.

Make sure you know what to do and where to go if the unexpected happens and you don’t have a usable tarp anymore.Campers lighting a fire under a tarp

With these things, the general rule of try once, cry once applies. If you give lighting a fire under a tarp a shot and it doesn’t end well, you can get over it and realize this is not the shelter for you.

Or you can try it with one half-burned tarp until you get a hang of it. Then you’ve got a new favorite shelter and a new skillset to show off to your camping buddies.

Other Things to Keep in Mind Before Lighting a Fire Under a Tarp

Here are some final tips you should pay attention to when practicing to light a fire under your tarp.

  • Mind the position of the fire – Don’t place the fire in the center of the tarp, but more to the side, preferably downwind from yourself.
  • Have enough air circulation – The smoke from the fire should have an escape route away from you. 
  • Don’t let the flames get too high – It is crucial to attend and control your fire and not allow it to burn your tarp.
  • Pitch the tarp high enough – Keep the tarp far from the reach of the flames.
  • Keep the fire downhill – If any logs roll away from your fire while you’re not looking, they could roll onto you or your equipment and cause some serious damage. Always try to have the fire downhill from you or at least on even ground.
  • Set up the tarp at a sharp angle – Have one side set up higher than the other or just have one of the sides as the highest point of the shelter, this way smoke won’t accumulate inside your shelter but flow outside.
  • Never leave a fire unattended – Don’t go away from your camp or go to sleep while a fire is burning under your tarp. This could not only lead to serious damage to your gear, but also to the wildlife around you.
  • Bring a patching kit – No matter how well you prepare, unforeseen things happen and some random spark can damage your tarp even though you placed the shelter perfectly and lit only a small fire. That’s why a good camper always comes prepared – with some patching equipment such as gorilla tape and/or super glue.

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