Minimalist backpacking is just the activity for ultralight tarps. They are easy to set up and designed accordingly. You can easily stuff them into your pack which makes them the lightest shelter available.
While high-quality tarps are designed to last, you may need to think about strengthening them or using an alternative solution to make them last. Their simple design notwithstanding, they can be challenging to pitch correctly. Especially in unfavorable weather conditions (high winds) when even the right pitching may not be enough. So, how do you strengthen them?
We recommend buying a decent tarp. They may be a bit too expensive, but they’re designed to last and you are not likely to ever lose a grommet. If you can’t afford a quality tarp, you can buy a less expensive one and reinforce and de-stress the grommets. Also, use stronger ropes and knots just to be sure.
In this article, you can read about different types and features of tarps, and find useful tips about different ways to reinforce the tarp.
Table of Contents
There are basically four situations in which most people use tarp shelters:
- Ultralight. There is a considerable number of ultralight hikers/backpackers who replace their tent with a tarp. This makes their pack weight substantially lighter.
- Plan B. In case they cannot reach the shelter or weather conditions are unfavorable for tent camping, some backpackers use a tarp as an emergency shelter. This is a really cool solution because you can waterproof your tarp and protect yourself from the bad weather.
- Hammocks: if you prefer sleeping in a hammock, you may need an extra layer of protection from the wind and rain. This is not quite common but is a part of survivalists’ and preppers’ doomsday scenarios.
There are three shapes of tarps – rectangular, diamond-shaped, and hexagonal. To know what works for you, you’ll need to get one and learn how to pitch it. The tarp shape should depend solely on your individual needs.
- Rectangle: standard tarp coming with three (more or less) tie-outs per side. This type is a bit bulkier than other shapes. However, it is highly versatile and you can pitch it differently depending on the configuration.
- Diamond: a square tarp with one tie-out per side, designed to be hung diagonally on a ridgeline. Somewhat limited in terms of pitching and with less overall coverage than a rectangle tarp. It provides maximum ventilation which makes it perfect for summer backpacking. Suited to hammock camping.
- Hexagonal: This shape is lighter than a rectangular tarp and offers less protection (yet, more protection than a diamond. It comes with two tie-outs per side.
Most people think there are no differences between a tarp and plastic sheeting, but there are many of them. The biggest one is the material tarp is made of. Tarps can be made from:
- Dyneema: a lightweight, waterproof material with a great weight-to-strength ratio. Given that it doesn’t stretch or sag, pitching it perfectly may be quite a challenge. Since a ridgeline is rather slack, you can’t compensate by stretching the fabric. Dyneema tarps tend to be a bit too pricey.
- Silnylon: these tarps are typically made from a rugged fabric often used on the floor and rainfly of a tent. If you’re camping on a budget, Silnylon is a good choice. Silnylon is more flexible than Dyneema and can be easily stuffed into the small nooks and crannies in a pack. However, Silnylon may not be a good choice for the rain, as the material absorbs water and can sag.
While there are no specific requirements regarding the tarp dimensions, you’d be comfortable with a 6-by-8 for one person and an 8-by-10 tarp for two. You need to make sure you have an adequate surface area to cover you in the wilderness. Even more so if you’re camping/backpacking in harsh weather conditions.
Tarps are designed for light backpacking and if this is your thing, you should look for tarps that are under 1 lb.
Finally, you need to think about the number of tie-outs you may need. While this depends on the terrain and conditions, you need to make sure the tarp includes tie-out points on the edges for guylines and trekking pole tips.
You need at least four tie-out points, one for each corner (the more the merrier). Good tarps come with tie-points on the corners, along the edge, and even in the middle. This gives you more pitching options.
Know Your Knots
To be sure your tarp is properly secured, you’ll some knot tying know-how. We recommend opting for the knots that are easy to tie and untie, and strong enough to endure the tension. Especially in high winds. Here’s the list of the most common knots:
- Adjustable Prusik knot – used to attach a tent to the ridgeline (for trees).
- Bowline – undoubtedly the most useful knot (for anchors). Provides a fixed loop at the end of the rope.
- Trucker’s hitch – makes it possible to add or release tension whilst securing a ridgeline or a guyline (for tension).
- Taut-line hitch – perfect for guylines. This is a sturdy, adjustable knot that won’t slip when it is under tension (for any tieout).
You can try out some simple bushcraft projects to learn about knots and using wood when camping.
To pitch your tarp, you’ll need (at least):
- Trees + hiking poles or paddles.
- Paracord (for the ridgeline(s)).
- Anchors (can be a rock or stakes for securing the guylines).
Common Tarp Configurations
There’s a variety of methods you can use to pitch a tarp. Here’s the list of the most common/popular tarp shelter configurations and their characteristics.
- The A-frame – probably the easiest and quickest ways to pitch a tarp. The A-frame uses a ridgeline to support the center of the tarp, and stakes on the side to form the shape of a letter A. It extends the tarp to its maximum width making it a solid shelter for more people and their gear. Due to its configuration, the A-frame provides enough protection against the wind and rain. Setting up a simple A-frame tarp shelter is considered a basic survival skill.
- The Lean-to – With the basic design of the A-frame (cut in half), the lean-to only secures one side of the tarp to the ground. You need to fold the other side over the ridgeline and hold it tight using guylines. It is easy to pitch, but quite an open making you rather exposed to the elements. Suited to favorable conditions.
- The Stealth – a low-profile setup suited to stealth camping. Not as easy to pitch as the previous two because it requires a ridgeline, three paracord prusik loops, and a rectangle tarp with multiple tie-out points. Still, once you’ve held it up, it provides solid protection against the elements due to the groundsheet. May get a bit cramped.
- The Tarp Tent – is ideal when you can’t set up a ridgeline but still need a secure shelter.
- The Tipi – a combination of the A-frame setup and the stealth configuration. With more headroom and less legroom, this setup provides maximum ventilation. On the other hand, this openness means less protection from the elements. The tipi is easy to set up and requires just a ridgeline that attaches to one tie-out point on the tarp and a few stakes.
Pros and Cons of Tarps
It may seem like an easy, light-weight, ready-to-go solution, but ultralight tarps are not for everyone. Before you give up on your tent and join the tarp club, you need to know more about the pros and cons of this shelter system.
Pros of Tarps
- The open design allows you to get closer to nature.
- Provide maximum ventilation and reduces condensation.
- You can cook/make a fire and be protected under some configurations.
- Can be found in a variety of sizes, shapes, and ways to pitch.
Cons of Tarps
- There is no protection from insects (you may need an inner mesh tent).
- Need to be pitched perfectly to protect you from rain and wind.
- Not as stable as a similar freestanding tent.
- Requires time and effort to pitch properly.
Tips for Pitching a Tarp
There is a variety of tarps available ranging from cheap square tarps to super-ultralight backpacking tarps. When shopping for tarps, you need to think about the shape, material, dimension, and weight to ensure you get the most out of your trip. However, terrain and weather conditions may make you take additional steps to make sure you’re camping safely and as comfortable as possible.
Pitch the tarp into the wind. Once you have found the perfect campsite, you should pitch the tarp so the edge into the wind can be lowered next to the ground. In this way, you will minimize the wet zone on the windward side. It will also keep the wind from blowing under your tarp or causing it to “kite”.
You’d want to minimize the movement as the tarp blows around because it can damage the tarp. To ensure maximum comfort, you need a stable tarp. This set-up will prevent the rain from running underneath the tarp and through your living area.
Pitch it high vs. Pitch it low. If you pitch a tarp high, it will provide solid headroom and lots of space to move around. However, it will also allow the wind to cause the tarp to “kite.” This may be a good option for a sunny day when you need a shade, but you wouldn’t want to test in high wind.
If you pitch the tarp low, the wind will drive it down. This will work in harsh weather when you need to keep yourself and your gear dry. But you need to be careful with the fire.
Besides, if you pitch the tarp high, the larger the splash/blow-in around the edges will be. To deal with this situation – if your tarp is not right down on the ground – you need to arrange a wet zone of two feet.
In a nasty storm, you may opt for staking the leading edge right down to the ground. You can even lay something (i.e., a log) on it.
How Can You Strengthen a Tarp?
Finally, we’re coming to the point where many hikers/campers/backpackers start thinking about strengthening the gromets. The grommets are the Achilles tendon of any poly tarp. If you are using a grommeted tarp, you know that tearing out a grommet can ruin your tarp in a snap.
While there are many methods (especially with those keen on improvisation), there are several ideas you may try to avoid this scenario:
- Reinforce the grommets – you can use duct tape, a grommet repair kit for the tarps, or multipurpose tarp clips you can pinch onto the tarp when you need extra support.
- Bypass the grommets – use an alternative like a webbing loop or sewing on webbing tie-outs.
- Think about the redistribution of stress on the grommet – you may opt for toggles instead of tying directly to the grommet or adding grommets between the existing ones.
- De-stress the grommet – recommendations include using a shock cord instead of 550
- Try special knots that will help you reduce the stress on the grommets.
- Consider using purpose-built tools to diminish this problem.
- Try bungee cords (or plain elastic cordage without the metal hooks). The elastic cordage will absorb shock and prevent the flapping of the tarp/tent fabric due to high winds