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How do you sleep comfortably under a tarp?

Golite Shangri-La 2 Tarptent
Golite Shangri-La 2 Tarptent
I am entering my next phase of backpacking to learn to like to sleep in a floorless shelter so someday I might be ready to tarp.  I recently purchased the Shangri La 2 for this transition – I’m not using the inner part, just the fly.  It weighs more than a tarp, but for my first hiking pole and floorless shelter, it is a safe bet…Now that I have spent two nights ‘closer to nature’ I have so many newbie questions about how you guys sleep in tarps in the open.  Have you ever had creepies join you in the night?  I was so warm Saturday night, I kept thinking why wouldn’t a mouse or snake want to come in and join me!   How do you keep your stuff clean?  If you are only using a small ground cover under your pad – doesn’t your bag touch the ground when you toss and turn? How do you use the hiking poles if the ground is frozen

These are all great questions.

First off, shelters that have a removable inner tent are a great way to ease into tarp camping. A lot of tarp campers use an inner tent like this during bug season or in wet climates too. You also inner tents used by people who have shaped tarps like pyramids.

Tarp Sleep System: Bivy Sack, Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad and a Moose
Tarp Sleep System: Bivy Sack, Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad and a Moose

A Tarp Sleep System

Next, I’ve never had “a creepy”, like a mouse, spider, snake, or slug join me under a tarp at night. I don’t think they’re as interested in me as they are their normal food sources or my food bag.

I also decided fairly early on in my tarp career that I needed a sleeping bag cover/bivy sack  and a head net in addition to my sleeping bag or quilt as key elements of my sleep system.

Originally, this was to keep water from splashing back under a flat tarp and onto my sleeping bag when it rained. I added a head net to keep the bugs  off my face in spring and summer, and then I purchased a bivy sack that combined the two. I’ve been using that “system” – a Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight bivy sack, an inflatable sleeping pad and sleeping bag/quilt for over five years and it works great under all kinds of tarps.

In addition to protecting me from rain splash back, bugs and “creepies”, the bivy also keeps my sleeping bag or quilt on top of my sleeping pad at night because I put both of them inside the bivy sack.  The bivy also protects the inflatable pad from puncture, eliminates drafts and keeps me warmer at night.

What about that moose? I admit it. I often sleep with a stuffed animal when I camp. They make me feel safe and loved – it’s a comfort thing.

Lean-to Style Pitch where Tarp is used as its own Groundsheet
Lean-to Style Pitch where Tarp is used as its own Groundsheet

Keeping Clean under a Tarp

I usually carry some kind of ground cloth to lie on top of at night to help stay clean or dry if the ground is wet. This is often a piece of thin plastic like the kind used to shrink wrap house windows in winter. It can even be part of the tarp itself, as shown above, depending on the type of tarp you have and how you pitch it.

I also carry a small sit pad which does double duty as the removable back panel padding on my pack. I use the sit pad to sit or knee on under the tarp or in camp when I cook  for comfort, warmth, and to keep clean.

Campsite Selection: Sleeping on Forest Duff and Pine Needles
Campsite Selection: Sleeping on Forest Duff and Pine Needles

Another important factor in staying clean is campsite selection. For example, I like to camp on top of forest duff that’s composed of leaf litter and pine needles. Not only is it softer to lie on, but it doesn’t stick to you like dirt if you get it on your clothes or gear. Picking a good camp site like this is one of the skills you pick up when you camp under a tarp.

Frozen Ground

Pitching a tarp on frozen ground can be pretty frustrating if not downright comic. The problem isn’t with your hiking poles which don’t really have to penetrate the ground, but with the tent stakes you use to keep your guylines secure. I remember one trip where I had to secure five guylines in frozen ground and ended up anchoring them to exposed tree roots and even drilling holes in the ground with an ice axe pick.

Snow is a different story and much easier to use a tarp on. Instead of inserting stakes in the ground you anchor your tent using something called dead-men which you freeze into the snow. These can be special fabric or metal snow stakes, plastic shopping bags  filled with snow and buried, or even pieces of gear that you freeze in place.

If there’s snow on the ground, I usually just bring a freestanding tent instead. I’ve tried using a tarp in snow, but I’d rather use my Black Diamond Firstlight because it’s a lot more comfortable in cold weather. It also pitches in minutes, which means I can change into dry clothes faster, and doesn’t have to be staked down unless it’s quite windy. Just because you like tarps doesn’t mean you have to sleep in them all the time.

Tarp Pitches and Comfort

I get the sense that when you write about getting comfortable with tarping, you intend to use a square or rectangular flat tarp with 90 degree corners instead of a shaped one, like a pyramid or A-frame with catenary curves (here’s an article about the differences). Flat tarps can be set up in many more ways than shaped tarps, some of which are more comforting and feel safer than others. Here’s a video from that article that shows some common pitches, and here are still more flat tarp pitches.

For me, an important element of comfort is feeling safe under a tarp. The main way I get that is by pitching the edges of my tarp flush with the ground so that nothing can come at me un-announced. I can enhance this further by pitching my tarp so it encloses me on three sides, including my back, or even on all four sides, in a pyramid shape. I can also use campsite features, like a boulder or a tree to block off an entrance or make the tarp less drafty..


Thanks for asking these questions about tarp camping. If you have any more or feel like making a comment about how to get comfortable with tarp camping, chime in.

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  1. Tarp camping has a couple benefits you don’t mention.
    * Weight: tarps weigh less than enclosed shelters. Typically, these are around 12-14oz. Even a 100 (10’x10′) tarp weighs about 16oz after loops/line. You do not need this size, though. Out west you can usually get away with a 8′ length. In the Northeast, plan on 9′.
    * Flexible: You can rig these in many ways besides those you give. Tied to trees, and staked to the ground, there are literally hundreds of ways to set these up. With a hiking staff, and/or found stick or two, there are too many to think of diagraming.
    * Tarps are generally BIG. Often, the real estate available for sleeping is far smaller. At the same time they are small to pack, often rolling into a 2″x20″ roll (good for helping support a packs load, too.) .

    A couple other things, bugs can get nasty during bug season. Fortunatly, most are not out at night. Blackflies, deerflies, are two that do not come out unless the night time lows are near 80F. It does not happen during spring in the Northeast. There is only mosquitoes & punkies to deal with, generally. At night, use at least two layers of clothing…a shirt over you base layer for instance. Two layers fends off bugs. You need DEET. Not picardin, or other repellants, on your hair and on your face and neck. This is not recommended by the manufacturor, but is necessary for bug repelling. Often I head out for a couple weeks in spring… You need DEET for blackflies and mosquitoes. Fortunatly, mosquitoes are sluggish at 40-50F, so they obey it pretty well. I get one or two bites in two weeks as the norm, rarely geting more than 5 bites in 14 days out. DEET stays for 8-12 hours after the second coat…about 3 hours into a trip. By the fourth day, it is once per day…’corse, my smell is enough to drive off the critters, too;-)

    Choose your ground. A slight rise is better than a dip. Small dips can often be completely covered with the tarp allowing a bit more comfortanle sleep. But, there should always be a place for water to run off and AWAY from you and your tarp.

    I push forest duff into a bed. Over that I put my pad and sleeping bag. I never bring a bivy and it is rare to bring a ground cloth. Lifting the bed a couple inches (about 6″-8″ of forest duff is needed depending on the density) lets the bedding stay dry through nightly rain showers and thunder storms. Unless it is activle raining when you set it up, the pad will provide protection against ground water vapour and damp duff.

    The bivy does little unless your tarp is too short (ignoring warmth…) Covering against rain is always good, covering against splashes is more difficult. Generally, I would say you need a 12-16″ perimiter where not tight to the ground. With a bivy you can allow about 6-8″. This is sort-of a trade off in weight: a smaller tarp with bivy, or, a larger tarp. Summer is often worse than spring and fall, because lifting the tarp off the ground lets air pass by you while you sleep, but also lets more splash reach you. Rainstorms in summer are usually heavier but shorter in duration than in spring. I never had real condensation issues with the tarp off the ground. Close to the ground I have some condensation, always better than a tent.

    I never fold a tarp into a ground cloth, either. Generally, any floor you make will collect water from blown in rain & spray, and, splashing. My bag will get wet from laying in the puddle. I much prefer simply sleeping on the duff bed. I have used sticks to create a perimiter, around 16″ in from an edge, but between the bed and perimiter, this is a lot of work.

    I have been caught out in quite cold weather. Making a duff planket helps a lot with heat retention. SImply pile about 6-8″ of duff on your tarp. Get in your bag. Reach down as far as you can, grab the tarp and roll. You can easily add 20F to a bag this way. Extra length gets wrapped over your head, allowing you to retain more heat. And your bag will be mostly protected from condensation. As emergency gear, the tarp really excells.

    • Ah Jim, great insights. You are much more old school than me, but you’ve also been at it longer. I will have to try piling up the duff as you describe (making sure to disperse it afterwards, the next morning.)

      As a nighttime thrasher, I really find the bivy sack, which only weighs a few ounces, indispensable for keeping me on my sleeping pad at night. Forget straps and all that bother that quilt makers try to put you through. In addition, I hate putting deet or other bug dope on my skin, and the built in head net obviates that need. But there are many ways to be comfortable under a tarp – this is just where I’m at in my evolution of comfort.

      • Using duff(pine needles and/or leaves) can be a bit of a pain sometimes. After two days of rain, everything is quite wet. Damp doesn’t hurt down that much. It looses loft, but still retains pretty good insulation. Spreading it out is a matter of just kicking it around so the bed cannot be seen. Of corse, in less forested areas, other things can be used. A pile of sand, for instance,works against moisture, but this often robs you of heat.

        Old School??? I thought UL techniques were “New Age???” ;-)

        Anyway, bivy & tarp, vs, larger tarp is sort of an old argument, neither is really better than the other. I prefer a larger roof. It works better if you have a camp fire. If you are a restless sleeper, a smaller tarp and bivy works as well. It doesn’t really matter, weight is about the same in both cases.

        While I did try a shaped tarp, I really do not care for them. They tend to a single set up. With and without guy lines to raise them, thay can be difficult.

        Most of the Northeast is very similar. Most has been lumbered off at least once, some never, some three or four times. The Whites are similar to what I am familiar with, the Adirondacks. Mostly, small towns, lots of water, lots of nearly impassible stretches of tangled blowdowns. Generally, throughout the NE area you can really find tarp camping beneficial, if only because of shedding a 3 pound tent for a 1 pound tarp.

        The only place I have had trouble are in parks. Difficult to find enough duff within kicking distance, for a good bed. And privacy can be an issue. My wife does not care for ‘coons licking her face, in wilderness areas…another story… I prefer to see what is eating me, though.

        Tarps work pretty well in deep snow. Stomping out a trench, the laying some sticks over it, tarp, over that held down with more snow, makes a good shelter, though often smaller that I would prefer. I have used the triangle for a door and got the air up to about 25-30F using a candle. Good for one night, easy to build.

  2. I’ve been using a tarp a lot more the last couple of years and haven’t had to make too many adjustments to my camping style. The piece of Tyvek(R) that is the footprint for my tarp tent (Squall 2) is also my ground cloth for the tarp. It’s wide enough to provide plenty of space to lay things out in the evening or morning. I usually take a bivy, but rarely use it unless it is storming. If I don’t have the bivy, I’ll zip up my rain jacket and put the foot of my bag in it to protect it from splashes. Being a Spring and Fall hiker means I don’t have to worry about bugs and have only used bug netting once.

    My only issue with insects has been with a bumble bee who thought my bag was cozier than his hole in the ground. It was a Spring trip with the scouts (http://sectionhiker.com/hiking-virginas-triple-crown-with-scouts-by-ken-holder/) and I woke up during the night because of a buzzing sound. Couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, so I rolled over to go back to sleep. The bee must not have liked my new position and the buzzing got louder. I finally woke up enough to realize it was in the chest area of my bag and released him.

  3. If you don’t have a bivy sack with a built in head net, Gossamer Gear makes a cool bug canopy that I use to use and still own. http://gossamergear.com/shelters/bug-canopy.html
    It’s a big net that hangs from the ridgeline of your tarp and covers the top of your sleeping bag. It has two pockets on the back corners that you put rocks into to keep it in place at night, while the front drapes over your chest. I also used it quite successfully in shelters when I hiked the Long Trail by screwing a small eye bolt into the bunk bed planking above my head and hanging it from it. I do the same thing today with my bivy sack when I sleep in a shelter to keep bugs off me and any roaming mice.

  4. I’ve never tried a tarp in the snow, but might get a chance this December. What I love is the relatively huge space for little weight and the ease of setup/takedown. I’m not overly keen on the idea of using half the tarp as a groundsheet as that is more likely to puddle in a blowing rain condition and good tarp fabric is much more expensive that thin plastic sheeting. I am a bit more careful with foods and other animal attractants under a tarp, but that’s really more psychological than reality based as a thin layer of nylon isn’t exactly chipmunk proof.

    The one thing I really like with tarps is that during the day, if it is seriously and continuously rainy, I can quickly set up a tarp to eat lunch and get out of the messy weather without compromising my dry shelter integrity for the night that follows.

  5. I hang my hammock under the tarp and sleep great. :)

  6. How do I sleep comfortably under a tarp? Really well.

    Perhaps it’s the clean air – no antifungals impregnated into the inner tent and no dust mites – but my sleep is more refreshing under a tarp than it is in a tent or in a bedroom. I say that even though sleeping is one of the few things I do well in almost any situation. It’s just higher quality under a tarp.

    By the way, nearly all of my camping is above the tree line on turf which is often damp. I feed my down bag out of a stuff sack straight into a Bozeman Mountain Works / Oware splash resistant bivy bag and fluff it up inside the bivy bag so that it never touches the ground or the tarp (which occasionally gathers condensation). The bag gets aired properly when I arrive at a bothy, which is a simple mountain hut, or on a rare sunny day.

  7. Isnt a tarp, a ground cloth, and a bivy about the same weight as a tent? What is the advantage?

    • My setup runs between 11-22 ounces depending on the tarp I use (including a bivy and plastic ground sheet). The tarps also lets me pitch in a lot more places than a tent could be pitched in and at that weight is much less than even the lightest Tarptent available.

  8. I use a pyramid tarp + inner bug net in summer = 30 oz (Mountain Laurel Designs)

    In winter I use the same tarp + light bivy = 24oz (both Mountain Laurel Designs)

    My comfort system (pad/air mattress) runs anywhere from 10z in summer, to 24oz in winter.

    1lb WesternMountaineering 35 deg bag or
    2 lb Marmot 15 degree bag
    3lb Golite 0 deg bag

    Winters usually range from 15 deg F down to -10 deg F for night time low.

  9. Bearpawwd.com has excellent cuban fiber tarps with beaks, coupled with ZPack’s bivy is an excellent 14oz set-up. This system is also very durable. When the weather’s nice, I just use the light weight bivy, without the tarp, to keep my bag clean and dry of dew. This was my second season with this system and I’m sold on tarps.

  10. I am a huge fan of tarp camping. It just lets you feel more out of your trip. It also save a lot of weight in your backpack. :)

  11. Great post! I appreciate that you talked about a lot of tarp camping options. I personally like the lean-to style set up. It certainly looks like one of the easiest, and this way I wouldn’t have to sleep directly on the ground. The downside is that if it rained I would get wet. It is probably better to have a nice covering and then just bring a mat to lay on like you do. I just have to find a place to get a good lightweight tarp.

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