Shaped tarps get boring after a time. Most are pre-cut with a specific shape in mind and they can only be pitched that way.
If you are bored of the A-frame and pyramid pitches, then gather round and let me tell you about flat tarps. They can be pitched in many different shapes to protect you from the wind, compensate for missing gear, enhance your view, and give you something to amuse yourself with in camp. Imagine being able to sleep under a different pitch every night for 3 weeks! You can even save yourself some money by buying a less expensive, old-school tarp.
There’s a catch. You’re going to carry some extra guy lines and stakes because you never know how many you’ll need beforehand. That’s the tradeoff between specialization and generalization. You won’t be bored though.
How to Pitch Macpherson’s Tarp Shapes
To get started, download a copy of David Macpherson’s free PDF that describes different tarp pitches. Be forewarned. While Macpherson lists many tarp shapes, some of them are mathematical curiosities, not practical tarp pitches. You need to try them at home before you count on them in the field.
Macpherson’s descriptions can also be very hard to implement on an actual tarp, because tarps are floppy and don’t have well-behaved fold lines like construction paper. To figure out the best way to pitch a given shape, make a model of it using paper first, and then simplify the steps required to pitch it. (I’ll make some instructional videos of all of these pitches later in the summer.)
I’d also recommend that you get a square tarp with straight edges to start practicing with. An 8 x 8 foot sized tarp is good. Make sure that it has symmetrical tie-outs on all 4 corners and half way between the corners on the sides. That makes 8 ties outs total.
Finally, get 12 tent stakes, preferably with shepards’ hooks and easy to untie guy line, like 550 paracord. Unlike a shaped tarp, you will guy out each shape from scratch, and not keep any guy lines on the tarp permanently. I use 2 knots for all of my pitches: a double figure eight on the side of the tarp, and an adjustable taut line hitch at the stake.
Let’s look at some cool tarp shapes now. There are many more.
The Adirondack Wind Shed
The Adirondack Wind Shelter provides fairly good protection from wind and rain with it’s side walls and awning. It also has plenty of room inside to stretch out under and for gear storage. Blowing wind can depress the back of the tarp towards the occupant, but it is easy to prop some gear against the rear wall to prevent condensation transfer to a sleeper.
The interior space in the kennel is tight with an 8 x 8 foot tarp, particularly at the ends of the shelter. Despite this, the interior ventilation is fairly good. This pitch can be used on wet ground because the tarp is used as a ground cloth. Although the Kennel provides rear and side wall protection, it provides limited protection from blowing rain unless positioned perfectly.
Half Tetra Wedge Cover
The Half Tetra is similar to the Adirondack Wind Shed in shape but has a much large gear storage area because the rear area is pulled out to form a large triangle, instead of being folded flat to form an triangular interior ground sheet. This also improves wind performance because the rear of the pitch is shaped like an triangle and not a box. For additional protection, the side wings of the Half Tetra and can be angled closer to the poles, preventing driving rain from entering the large sleeping area.
The Bivy Bag Pitch is a little tricky to set up because the tarp serves as a ground cloth as well as a overhead cover. Interior ventilation at the rear is very poor and there is likely to be some condensation transfer where the top of the tarp touches an occupant. Still the bivy bag shape presents a very narrow profile to the wind and may be suitable for blowing rain.
There is a variant of this pitch which has an awning that pulls the apex of the tarp forward above the pole but getting a stable pitch like this may be difficult with a slippery material like silnylon.
The Low Tetra is a three-sided triangle without a door. It uses one internal pole as a support, but keeping it standing can be difficult without a cup-like beak in the tarp apex. One possible solution would be to use the plastic coffee filter holder to help secure the top of the pole inside the apex.
When pitching the Low Tetra, one side of the four sided tarp in collapsed upon itself in the interior of the pyramid. It is possible to reopen this side partially and create a vestibule for getting in and out of the pyramid and for gear storage. Despite this, the interior space of the Low Tetra remains cramped for one person using a 8 x 8 foot tarp.
As you can see from these sample shapes, there are a lot of exciting ways you can pitch with an 8 x 8 square tarp. There about another half-dozen good shapes in Macpherson for square tarps, and then another dozen or so for rectangular tarps. After mastering these, I plan to spend some time digging through history books to find additional pitches and maybe even invent some of my own.