Tarps vs Plastic Sheeting – Differences and Similarities

Plastic sheeting is very different from a tarp

Making a reliable shelter is one of the main pillars of survival. You’ll need to bring a tent with you or know a few shelter configurations if you don’t want to have a problem with it when it is time to set up camp.

In the last few years, the popularity of tent camping has died down and ever more people are putting their faith in tarps and hammocks. This mostly makes sense as tarps are easier to use and customizable into a variety of shelters, each with a different purpose. However, not all tarps are portable to the same degree. While some are lightweight and easily portable, others are bulky and weigh a ton.

In addition to this, a good, lightweight, and waterproof tarp can cost a fortune. Even though most outdoors enthusiasts consider this money well invested, it can still be a lot to cough up for a single piece of gear. This has led to a lot of people trying to find a cheaper alternative to the tarp, and many of them have considered using plastic sheeting.

Are tarps and plastic sheeting similar enough that you can use one instead of the other?

They’re both made of water-resistant materials and easily foldable to fit in your pack. Plastic sheeting rips much more easily, though, it can’t take on strong winds and you’ll need to get creative when tying it off.

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Differences Between Tarps and Plastic Sheeting

Tarps are large sheets of flexible, usually waterproof material that are used for numerous purposes, including making a shelter in the wild. Tarps usually have multiple tie-off points you can use to make a shelter configuration.

Plastic sheeting is made from commercial plastic, it comes in a variety of colors and is primarily used to protect your items from dust or debris. Additionally, sheets of plastic can be used to compartmentalize a single room and divide it into smaller areas.

Materials Used

The foremost difference between plastic sheeting and tarps is that they’re made from different materials. Tarps are usually made from silnylon or other heavy-duty materials such as polyethylene, in order to make them more waterproof and durable.

Since tarps are designed to withstand a bit of wear and tear they cannot be made from regular plastic. Additionally, tarps can be made from cotton or other types of non-water-resistant fabrics that can be impregnated with oils to improve their water resistance.

Plastic sheeting does not boast such high-quality materials. It is made entirely out of commercial use plastic and is water-resistant, but not entirely waterproof.


Being made from different materials has significant effects on both the tarps and the sheeting. The most important one is the difference in durability.

Tarps are made for outdoor use, while plastic sheeting is designed to be used mostly indoors. The differences in durability will be evident if you take them both in the wild.

Plastic sheeting will not fare well in the wild, and while you can use it as a cover from the rain, it is not the ideal shelter material. The wind can rip it, small branches and stones can fall through it and tear it up, and it is generally difficult to tie off plastic sheeting because it tears so easily.

On the other side, we have tarps. They are durable enough to take the rough treatment that they’re bound to encounter in the woods. Additionally, they’re strong enough to survive being used a groundsheet with you laying on top.

If you’re camping in rough weather or on rough terrain, you’ll definitely want to use a tarp.


Tarps are usually blue or made in colors that denote what thickness and weave they have. They come in silver, black, green, brown and various others, but they do not come in see-through.

Plastic sheeting, on the other hand, is almost always see-through. Sure, there are sheets that are pigmented in black, gray, or white, but the image we all see in our minds when talking about plastic sheeting is almost always see-through.

Additionally, a translucent shelter will allow sunlight to get in, which is a great way to regulate heat and maintain great visibility while in the comfort of your shelter.

Having a shelter you can see through is a great advantage in the wild, but unfortunately, color isn’t everything and your visibility will definitely be reduced since you’ll need to fold the plastic sheeting a few times to increase its strength and durability.

Tarp vs plastic sheeting


The most common reason why people even consider opting for plastic sheeting instead of tarps is that the weight difference is substantial. Sheeting is much lighter than most tarps.

So, if you’re planning an ultralight camping trip in the vicinity of your home, and you’re not expecting bad weather, you should bring some plastic sheeting instead of a heavy tarp. The lighter weight of the sheeting will allow you to cover more ground each day.


While lighting a fire under your tarp is perfectly possible with the right knowledge and tools, doing the same under a shelter built from plastic sheeting will end in a disaster.

Plastic is not meant to be exposed to such high temperatures and it will melt even from the heat of the smoke rising from the fire. This will distort your shelter and cause many other problems along the way.

For example, you won’t be able to fold and pack the sheeting that has melted. Heat causes the plastic to harden and lose its natural flexibility. This will result in carrying crumpled and poorly packed gear, which is never a good idea. Not only will it be harder to deploy, but it will also take up more room in your pack.

Additional Equipment You’ll Need

Another important difference between tarps and plastic sheeting lies in the equipment you’ll need to have in order to properly use them. Having a single sheet of protective material is not very useful unless you have all the gear necessary to transform it into a shelter.

When you’re building a shelter with a tarp, you’ll want to have some cordage, preferably paracord. If you’re not spreading the tarp up in the air, using trees, you’ll need to get some stakes to firmly secure it to the ground. In addition to this, you’ll want a hammock or a sleeping pad to get the most out of your shelter. Unfortunately, since you can’t hammock camp anywhere you want, you might need to get additional gear that will allow you to sleep soundly.

When it comes to plastic sheeting, you’ll want to avoid paracord and stakes. Due to the nature of the material, sheeting will not be able to withstand being tied or pierced with stakes. So, you’ll need to get more creative when deploying your shelter. Using packing tape instead of conventional cordage will help a lot.

Since the clear tape is sticky, you can attach it to the plastic sheeting without piercing or damaging it. Just twist the other end until you make a rope out of it and tie that end off to a tree or stake it out.

Alternative Means of Procuring Shelter

Finally, if neither tarps nor sheeting works for your particular needs of shelter creation, there are alternative materials you can use when making a shelter. None of them will work as well as a tarp that’s you’ve set up properly, but they can make up for it with other benefits.

Tyvek Home Wrap

Making your shelter from home wrap is a great idea if you don’t mind improvising a bit. Since it has no grommets, securing it to the ground might be a bit tricky. However, you can make grommets on a heavy-duty material such as Tyvek. Just make sure you duck tape the places you’ll be putting the grommets in before you make the holes.

Tyvek provides amazing insulation because that’s what it was designed to do. Additionally, it is far tougher a material than plastic sheeting. This means it will be able to withstand the rough treatment it’s bound to encounter in the wild.

Painter’s Plastic Sheets

If you’re not looking for durability but light weight and the ability to carry lots of material, another thing you can use for building your shelter would be painter’s plastic covers. They are made from much thinner material than your average plastic sheeting and they are much lighter, as well.

Unfortunately, this means that you will need to bring a lot more sheets than you usually would. However, considering how lightweight the painter’s sheets are, you won’t have any problems carrying the weight. What may bother you is the bulkiness of the material once it’s packed. This is easily solvable by folding the sheets carefully and rolling them even more carefully when you’re done folding.

Wrapping yourself in painters’ protective covers can completely eliminate the need for a tarp when you have a bivvy. You can literally make an improvised tunnel tent this way. Just make sure you can get out of the tent and the bivvy once you wake up in the morning.

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