Taking off for an overnight trek with ultralight gear for many means sleeping under a tarp. It is rewarding, pitching a camp with something as simple as a piece of fabric and a few cords and pegs. But a tarp may need to be the only shelter when the weather turns.
To avoid holding on to your tarp for dear life in deafening flapping through a stormy night, you need to pick the right tarp and practice how to pitch a shelter that will stay in place even under strong winds. How much wind your tarp can withstand will depend on the tarp’s quality, the pitching method, and the wind’s strength.
To learn more about using tarps when camping, keep reading this guide.
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Tarps Are the Swiss Army Knife of Camping
A tarp is a great asset for campers. It can cover a large area to shield you from the elements. It will provide a shade on a hot day for you and your company. When it rains, it will stop and divert most of the water. It will do the job of a windbreaker and rain deflector in a storm or strong wind. B
ut how much wind can it take before it gives up? And how to suspend it to get the most out of its protection?
But first, what exactly is a tarp? A tarp, shortened from tarpaulin, is a sheet of material tasked with protecting something from the weather. Usually, it is made of canvas or nylon and is ideally waterproof. Tarps aren’t like plastic sheeting. They are used to do various jobs, from covering a parked airplane to protecting precious monuments in the wintertime.
The versatility of use for tarps has not escaped campers, who use them for a ton of different things. Since they’re relatively light, you can carry several for multiple tasks.
- A tarp provides an extra layer of insulation underneath your tent.
- Pitched over the tent, it is the first barrier against the rain. You can pitch it to shield the entrance of your tent or your fire. And you can pitch it to protect you from a strong wind.
- Laid out in front of a tent, a tarp becomes a clean area.
- Thrown over your gear, or even firewood, it will keep stuff dry.
- It can be a sleeping shelter even without a tent.
- Stretched above a camping table on a rainy day, it will create a dry area for multiple campers who’d otherwise be forced into their tents. Toss in another couple of nylon sheets over the sides and, voila, the living room
And, along with much more, it will block the wind from you and your tent. More importantly, you can make your tarp waterproof and use it even when camping in poor conditions.
Pick Your Tarps for the Right Purpose
Experienced campers carry several tarps. Of course, a larger sheet takes more space even when carefully folded and, though a tarp is light, several of them will add weight, as well. So, combine – there are many materials and sizes to pick from.
Think ahead, what you need to cover and shield, and add the elements into the equation. You will not need the same protection in good, warm weather and on a night when you may have to endure a storm.
When you venture into nature, it’s better to bet from the safe side. If you pick a tarp to protect you from the rain, remember that the rain doesn’t fall straight down, so the dry area will be significantly smaller than the area of the tarp. So, pick oversized rather than too-small, whatever purpose you intend it for.
When you want to use a tarp for shelter, you may be in the situation to toss it over a branch, or a cord stretched between poles. But it won’t be the same if you’re pitching a cover for your hammock as when you need to set up a shelter for a night in a powerful and cold wind.
And Also the Size and the Shape
When selecting a tarp alongside your tent as a windbreak, it needs to be large enough to cover it and reach the ground for pegging. But you’ll need to allow the length to alter the angle of the slope for streamlining: the smaller the angle, the longer the tarp needs to be. Tarps for shelter are usually square or rectangular.
If you plan to sleep under the tarp, it can be smaller but no less than 8X10 feet (2.5X3 meters). The diagonal, which will be your ridgeline, will, in that case, be close to 13 feet (4 meters). If you need to calculate the length of the sides based on the diagonal, you can use a simple online calculator for that.
Some tarps tailored for campers will not have square but curved sides that allow better streamlining and less flapping in the wind. Additionally, they may have tie-ins or grommets for easier securing.
While comfort is important, bear in mind that more size means more weight and volume in packing.
The most popular material for camping tarps are:
- Silnylon tarps are probably the most popular among backpackers. The material is ultralight, waterproof and packs well. On the minus side, it stretches when soaked and isn’t breathable. In other words, it will require adjusting in the wet, and the air inside may become heavy with moisture.
- Poly doesn’t stretch when wet and is affordable. But it is heavier and requires more space, so it isn’t favored among backpackers.
- Tyvek is cheap, light, and waterproof. You can make many things out of a tyvek which why many campers like to use it.
- Cuben Fiber has the best characteristics for backpacking. It’s light, packs well, it’s waterproof and doesn’t stretch. But it is both expensive and less durable than Silnylon.
The thickness of the fabric is an important factor in the weight and packing volume. Obviously, a thinner tarp weighs less but offers less protection against the cold and the wind. The color of your tarp is another consideration. You may want its tone to match your gear aesthetically. Then, you may want a hard-to-spot, camouflaged shelter for wildlife photography. In a dangerous area, you’ll probably opt for something bright that is easy to spot from a distance.
Pitching Your Tarp in Wind
There are many ways to pitch a tarp, depending on the use, the conditions and the terrain. The four most basic are the bodybag, the diamond, the Holden tent and the Jordy. The diamond is probably the best option for camping in windy weather.
The pitch got its name after the shape of its base. Viewed from above, the outlines connect across with a shorter perpendicular axis that is closer to one of the long-axis corners. You need to point the back of the shelter – the end of the long axis further from the perpendicular axis – into the wind. If you don’t, the wind will blow into it, and it may take off.
Tie a cord around a tree waist-high and peg it at least 14 feet (four meters) into the wind. Drape the tarp over the cord diagonally. Tie one end to the tree and peg the other one to the ground. Then peg the perpendicular corners to form the shorter axis.
No tree? Stake your trekking pole instead. If necessary, prop it with a rock or your backpack. You can place rocks along the edges for additional firmness and to reduce flapping. The high pitch upfront provides more headspace and comfort. But also exposes the shelter to the wind more than when the front is lower. In a strong wind, you need to lower the front and with it the ridge angle. It will make the tarp flatter and more streamlined.
How Much Wind Can a Tarp Shelter Take?
Finally, how much wind can a tarp shelter take before it blows over? There is no simple answer because it depends on various factors. You certainly can make it very secure by using the right tarp, practicing different pitch methods and utilizing whatever’s available to make your shelter more wind-resistant.
While the wind hitting at a certain strength will blow a sloppily-pitched shelter away, one well-secured will withstand it.
Lowering the angle of that same shelter will allow it to survive easily. The terrain also plays a major role. Presuming you need to pitch your tent in the open, even a small protrusion, such as a rock or a knoll, will break some of the wind’s force. Pitching your shelter in even a slight depression will also reduce the pressure of the gale.
You can set your tap up flat on the ground and crawl inside in the worst of conditions.
So, if you envisage an overnight trek with ultralight gear, a tarp will probably be your shelter. Particularly if you see yourself doing it in remote areas, make sure to have the right gear. Also, ensure that you have practiced enough to pitch your camp in poor conditions because your safety may depend on it.