Tarp vs Rainfly – Differences and Similarities

A tarp set up that is different than a rainfly

More campers are vying away from tents and towards tarps and rainflies every year. They are usually too heavy, take too long to set up, and are almost impossible to dry unless the following day is very sunny and dry. In addition to all this, more and more outdoor enthusiasts prefer to travel light, especially if they’re hiking and carrying their own bags. Tarps and hammocks are slowly, but surely, becoming the shelter of choice.

The quality of your gear, as well as the experience you have with it, will determine how easy it will be to use it in the wild. And knowing the differences between tarps and rainflies will help you decide which one you need for your upcoming camping trip. Additionally, having an idea of what to expect on your trip will help you determine which solution will fit your camping needs better.

While both rainflies and tarps have basically the same purpose, they are different in many ways. Tarps come in a larger variety of shapes, sizes, and materials, while rainflies are usually designed to fit your tent. This doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, but that you need to use them in specific conditions.

In order to make an educated choice, and not regret buying gear you won’t use later on, you’ll need to get informed what they both are, what they are for, and in what ways they are similar and different.

Table of Contents

What Is a Tarp?

Tarps are pieces of material in different sizes that are used to protect the camper and their gear from the elements or to create a shelter that will serve the same purpose.

Apart from various sizes, tarps also come in various materials suited for different tastes and different occasions:

  • nylon
  • silnylon
  • polyethylene
  • vinyl
  • mesh
  • canvas

Tarps are usually the shelter of choice for experienced hikers and campers. Apart from being lightweight, a tarp can be made into various types of shelter. When tents aren’t an option, for whatever reason, tarps are the perfect shelter that will keep you warm and dry. Assembling a tarp is much easier than setting up a tent, even when there are no trees around.

Also, drying a tent after camping in high humidity conditions is neither an easy nor an enjoyable task. Compared to this maintaining your tarp is a piece of cake! Just set it out to dry for an hour and you will be ready to go!

In addition to all this, tarps are quite versatile and you don’t have to use them strictly for shelter building, even though this is their main purpose. A good tarp can be used to carry items, gather water, and even as a makeshift rain cloak.

What Is a Rainfly?

The rainfly is a cover for your tent. It is designed to provide your shelter with an additional layer of insulation and improved water resistance. While they can be sold separately, in most cases the rainfly will come as a part of the tent setup.

Additionally, rainflies will be made from the same material as your tent. So, if you have a silnylon tent, your rainfly will also be from silnylon. This is mostly because if they were made from different materials, there would be a lot of weight and water resistance discrepancy.  This would have a detrimental effect on your shelter and by extension, on your entire outdoor experience.

Tarp vs Rainfly – Similarities

Tarps and tent flies are generally very similar pieces of shelter building equipment as they are both:

  • lightweight gear
  • meant to protect the camper from the elements
  • usually made from waterproof materials
  • designed to provide extra insulation
  • pretty durable for their weight

Tarp vs Rainfly – Differences

Tarps and rainflies have many similarities. There are, in fact, so many of them that most people confuse tarps and rainflies completely. However, these two types of camping gear are not the same, and some outdoor enthusiasts claim that they are not even close to it. Here are the main differences between tarps and rainflies.

Tarps Are Usually Bulkier

While rainflies are designed to complement the tent when offering protection from the elements, tarps are made to be a stand-alone type of shelter. This results in most tarps being much larger and more heavy-duty than rainflies. Apart from this, some tarps are made from cloth, which makes them even heavier and more difficult to deploy.

In addition to greater size and thickness, tarps also come in a greater variety of sizes. Rainflies are designed to complement a tent and manufacturers make them in sizes designed to accommodate this.

Tarps, on the other hand, are designed to have more material, you can configure in any way you want to. Thus, they are usually much larger than tent flies. This being said, not all tent flies are smaller than every tarp. Some one-man tarps are smaller than a fly for two (or more) men tents.

They Are Made From Different Materials

While a rain fly is made from the same stuff as its tent, tarps come in a variety of materials. This is a double-edged sword, though, as some tarps are not water-resistant and can weigh a ton.

Rainflies are always water-resistant as there wouldn’t be much point in covering your tent with additional sheeting if it wasn’t going to improve the water-resistance.

The Durability of Tarps and Tent Flies Is Different

Because they are made to function as a self-sufficient shelter material, the tarps are much more durable than rainflies. Even when they are made from the same materials, tarps usually beat tent flies when it comes to durability.

This is especially noticeable when you want to light a fire under a tarp. Most tarps, that are not ultralight polyethylene ones, will be able to withstand a few sparks and embers without losing their structural integrity and becoming useless at protecting you from the elements. You’ll only have a few pinpricks in the tarp.

Rainflies, on the other hand, will burn or melt when touched by even the smallest sparks. This is because rainflies, like ponchos, are made from lighter and thinner materials, and are generally bad for this type of camp setting.

Camping Adaptiveness

For the best possible outdoor experience, you’ll need to pair a hammock with a tarp. Unfortunately, not all destinations are designed for both manners of camping. Since you cannot hammock camp anywhere you want, a tarp might be too heavy for your pack, but it can still be used to make a shelter. You can use the rain fly as a tarp when tents are prohibited and not have to worry whether or not you’ll be sleeping in less than ideal conditions.

We Set Up Tarps and Rainflies Differently

A tarp can be set up in any shelter configuration you can think of. You just need some paracord and some stakes and you’ll be able to create a shelter that’s perfectly suited to your surroundings and your needs.

Rainflies are deployed over a tent and are usually made in shapes to accommodate the tent. This means you’ll need to get creative when setting up a shelter using only your tent fly.

Woman setting up a rainfly over her tent

Substituting a Tarp With a Rainfly?

Using your rainfly as a tarp has some advantages and some disadvantages, as well. Depending on how experienced you are with setting up different shelter configurations, you’ll have more or fewer issues substituting the two.

While the rainfly is usually lighter than a tarp, you can use it for camping in warm conditions. You just need a hammock and you’re good to go! You’ll enjoy protection from wind and rain while carrying much less weight than if you had brought a tarp.

Unfortunately, rainflies aren’t as tough as tarps, and deploying one in a way you would use a tarp can result in irreparable damages that will leave you without a shelter and most certainly ruin your camping experience unless you’re into extreme survival camping (but if you are, why are you bringing shelter in the first place?).

Which Is Better – The Tarp or the Rainfly?

Deciding which one is better is not easy, since it will depend on your camping style, as well as your personal preference. Thus, an experienced tarp and hammock camper might get more out of their tarp in any situation, while a person who is used to setting up a rainfly might think that having a tarp in your gear is a waste of space.

Remember that all the gear in your pack is only as good as the experience you have using it. Make sure you practice with your equipment before setting out on an adventure. It would be ideal to set up a few shelter variations in your backyard or local park before you attempt to do it in the wild. The same goes for the rainfly – whether you’re planning to use it with a tent or without one, you should practice setting it up in different configurations to ensure you will be prepared for any eventualities that could come your way when you’re in the wild.

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