Tarps, Tarp Tents, or Tents?

Tarp Camping in the White Mountains

Over the past 4 years, I've progressively migrated from tents, to tarp tents, and finally to tarps as my preferred camping shelter. Over time and many backpacking trips, I came to appreciate the flexibility of of tarps over tents or tarp tents in a variety of different weather conditions and terrain.

Take the square 8 x 8 ft JRB silnylon tarp above. It's one of my older pieces of gear. I can deploy it in dozens of different shapes and attitudes depending on the properties of my campsite (trees, logs, roots) or the gear I'm carrying (hiking poles, tents stakes, or snow anchors.) Unlike tents or tarp-tents, I'm not limited to using the same shape shelter or pitch every time.

There's a delightful element of freedom is having the choice and skill to mix it up like this that you really can't experience with a tent. Granted, it's not for everyone, and it's not even appropriate all the time, but it's an element of trail-craft that I've really come to appreciate when I'm out and about.

Here's an excellent video I've found that explains the differences between tarps and tents, if this is a transition that you are considering. It features one of my hiking heroes, Chris Townsend, who's a widely published author, photographer, and long distance backpacker.

Chris is off on a thru-hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail right now and he's taken a GoLite Shangri-La 1 to camp with. This is a shaped tarp with an optional bug net & bathtub floor which can only be pitched in one configuration. It is a logical choice however, given the terrain that Chris will be hiking in which includes forest as well as mountains, where he's likely to need a little bit more protection. The Shangri-La 1 is also very light, weighing just 16 oz for the main body.

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32 Responses to Tarps, Tarp Tents, or Tents?

  1. Maz September 22, 2010 at 9:19 pm #

    I wrote an article on this a while ago and there was quite a bit of discussion – it's a vexed topic which seems to depend almost exclusively on personal preference and also where you're likely to be (and what the weather is going to be). There are some, often Brits, who prefer the protection of a tent rather than a tarp or even a tarp tent. By protection, I mean both from the wind and the rain and high level hill-walking on exposed hill-sides often means a tent is more attractive. That said, in the summer, tarps offer a degree of freedom and closeness to the wilderness that tents deny. I certainly want to do some tarp camping next year and I think it is becoming more popular in the UK. Personally, I am willing to try anything once!

  2. Desert Dog September 23, 2010 at 12:52 am #

    Good post. I've been going through the same process myself. Tents are so darn heavy and hard to justify during most of the year in the desert. I just picked up a Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape which doubles as a poncho and shelter. It is under a pound with the stakes and provides ample floor space. Planning to take it out for the first time this weekend.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  3. Earlylite September 23, 2010 at 2:42 am #

    I think the biggest accelerator for me was getting a sub 7 oz. bivy bag with a head net over the face. That eliminated the need for a bathtub floor and bug netting, and gave me the option to camp exclusively with a flat tarp or pyramid tarp.

  4. nartoff September 23, 2010 at 6:02 am #

    A strong nod of affirmation to Earlylite's post. The bivy provides protection from wind, rain, and bugs and is ridiculously simple to use, enabling an even greater amount of versatility to a sleep kit (tarp or no tarp?). The MLD SuperLight is now one of my most cherished pieces of gear.

  5. George Phoenix September 23, 2010 at 6:59 am #

    I'm going to make the move to hammocks myself. Then I'll be tarping!
    http://www.hammockforums.net/forum/?

  6. Earlylite September 23, 2010 at 7:11 am #

    I used a hammock for a while. Excellent for camping on mountain sides where there are few flat spots, but too hot in summer and too cold in spring and fall. I'm back on the ground.

  7. Bryan September 23, 2010 at 7:33 am #

    I prefer a tarp over a tent or tarptent, but since I trip in areas with black flies and mosquitoes (northern MN and western ON), I often use a tent or a tarptent just for the bug protection. Tarptents, at least the two I've used, seem like a compromise that combines almost all the bad parts of both the tarp and tent without any of the good. By the time I add a bug net to a tarp, it gets close in weight and definitely surpasses the complexity of setting up a tent, so I take a tent.

    @earlylite – What bivy did you get?

  8. Simon September 23, 2010 at 8:04 am #

    As always it courses for horses … or horses for courses, one of the two. I have a bivvy bag, a tarp, a hammock and a tent. The hammock gets virtually no use as most of my nights out are on treeless hillsides (anybody looking to buy a hammock?!?!) The choice then for me is between the tent and the bag/tarp combo. The bag/tarp gets packed more often in the summer when the bag is used on it's own unless rain is either impending or already falling, but in the winter it's the tent that gets the more use.

    If I was travelling through terrain that had more cover then I'd be happier to use a tarp even more, but on open hillside, in the winter and in the wind and rain, the tent just provides that little bit more respite from the elements.

  9. Earlylite September 23, 2010 at 9:37 am #

    @bryan MLD superlight at 6.8 oz/$155.

  10. Martin Rye September 23, 2010 at 9:55 am #

    The need for a bivy niggles me. Take a MLD Trailstar. Why would you need a bivy? Would it be the big opening allows the cold mist to seep in and wet your down bag out. Then all tarps have big openings. Allows you to see the views I am told. I find opening the door of my tent or DuoMid allows me to see the views. Then a DuoMid is lightish and has all the other things I like. A door to shut the weather out. If the wind changes direction I expect most tarps are prone to having the rain blown in to them. Who needs to get up and re-pitch a tarp to stop the rain blowing in. Then there is the wind. Most tarps I see don't seem to have many guy lines to keep it battened down and stable. Trailstar seem to be Ok in that department. In the UK Ibbo had a custom tarp with lots guy lines as the wind is a massive issue along with wet ground.

    For me a simple rule applies. Walk four days in the rain over hard terrain. Each night your damp and wet. Is there room under the tarp to dry out and dry your kit with room to spare as its raining hard and the wind is blowing? If you need to slither under your tarp to make sure the wind wont blow it away I doubt the tarp meets my rule. I want a shelter with room to dry kit out on say a TGO Challenge and be warm and dry in. No tarp offers that for me. Only one might. The Trailstar which is more in weight than my DuoMid. So no tarp will be found in my pack.

  11. Earlylite September 23, 2010 at 10:09 am #

    Just to clarify Martin – you seem to be drawing a distinction between a flat tarp and a pyramid tarp. If that's the case, yes a flat tarp does not protect as well as a Trailstar or Duomid. I wasn't making that distinction in my post, and clumped the Duomid under the tarp category.

    To further clarify, I would define a tarp as a single walled shelter without a floor.

    Flat tarps are a challenge to use in bad weather without forest cover, which provides so many more pitching options that just using trekking poles on a hillside or in a field. If you ask nicely, maybe the queen will cut back on her deer so we can reforest Scotland.

  12. Martin Rye September 23, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    I think anything with a door is a shelter. So a DuoMid is not a tarp in my eyes nor MLD as they list them under shelters. Flat tarps as you say are are a challenge to use in bad weather without forest cover. Forest trees in Scotland are more a hazard than help in a storm as they tend to fall down a lot. Some forest in the Cairngorms are good to camp in as they have the old native trees that are solid unlike Corsican/Norwegian pine that seem to uproot in a storm. Tarps have a lot to offer but my rule is based on long walks across the highlands and I don't intend to not follow it. So no flat tarp will ever find a place in my pack. I do like the Trailstar so never say never. Then it is not flat.

  13. Gerry Brucia September 23, 2010 at 12:20 pm #

    I wish there were an easy pat answer to this one but for me, it depends on the location and the season. In wooded areas I will often tarp IF

    1. I am traveling alone,

    2. There are natural flat areas, and

    3. It is not bug season.

    If the only flat ground likely to be available are over-used campsites, I would rather use a hammock or a tarptent with a floor because a dusty or muddy campsite with no organic duff can be a mess with a tarp.

    If it is bug season, I will also use either a hammock or a tarptent. I do have and use my MLD Superbivy but if bugs were an issue, I think I'd get claustrophobic in it until I was ready to go to sleep.

    For some reason, ever since I was a scout, winter-time is my favorite season for tarp camping. There's just something special to me about being warm in a sleeping bag or quilt but still be able to feel the breeze and look outside the tarp. It also enables me to have my first cup of hot coffee in the morning without leaving my warm nest!

  14. Carver September 23, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    I love my Gossamer Gear Spinnshelter.

  15. Tom Murphy September 23, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

    I too enjoy the freedom that a tarp provides. But I use one with my hammock rather than a bivy.

    I agree that hammocks require a bit more insulation in the sleep system than being on the ground but I don't find them too warm in the summer, maybe because I have a bridge hammock which is a very open design.

    IMO the weight penalty of the hammock and extra insulation is trumped by the comfort and the ability to easily find two trees to hang from.

  16. Fu September 23, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

    > I used a hammock for a while. Excellent for

    > camping on mountain sides where there are few

    > flat spots, but too hot in summer

    Hammocks are too hot in the summer? I don't think there's any sleep system cooler than a hammock. You can get excellent ventilation under your back.

  17. Earlylite September 24, 2010 at 3:28 am #

    Looks like I struck a nerve with the hammock hangers. However, I have been too hot and too cold in hammocks, repeatedly. I can still remember one particularly awful trip in July, camping along the banks of the Dead River in Maine, when I though I was going to die. It was either the mosquitoes or sweating all night and I sweated.

    But, I have to admit that my hammock experience was limited to a year of using a HH Backpacker Asym. The comfort level and design of hammocks has evolved considerably since then.

    If any of you want to contribute a reader review on section hiker, send me an email.

  18. Mroberts October 14, 2010 at 12:19 pm #

    There are so many companies making the tarp tent so sophisticated these days. Back in the day I always carried a tarp in my pack and just used the surrounding natural elements as a shelter frame. When I was done, I just packed it back up and went on my way. Some things are so simple but made complicated by ourselves.

  19. John Davis October 22, 2010 at 8:31 am #

    "Walk four days in the rain over hard terrain."

    Cannich to Strathfarrar over one rough Corbett.

    Day 2: The Farrar Four.

    Day 3: Three Munros to Bearnais Bothy.

    Day 4: Walk out to Strathconnon.

    Three hard days and one less so. Wearing eVent meant I was never damp enough to fully meet Martin's conditions but all of the walking was in poor weather during the midge season. The Golite Cave 1/MLD Bug Bivy combination worked so well that I am now wondering whether I still need my Akto.

  20. Earlylite October 22, 2010 at 8:53 am #

    Shaped tarps have really turned well for me too. I'm about to sell off some old tents as a result, since I don't see using them anymore, even in winter.

  21. Terry Thompson November 18, 2010 at 5:43 pm #

    I have been following this post and I still don't get the whole tarp thing. I can see the advantages if you are a lighweight minimalist type.I haved hiked the Long Trail and AT and if I didn't get in a hut it was tent time. I am currently in the U'K and the Bushcraft and Survival people love their tarps. Problem is there are not many forrested areas in in Great Britain. Try finding any land with forrest that you can camp on and make a fire, good luck.A great lightweight tent is still best all around option for changing weather,terrain conditions etc.The tarp thing just seens to be more of the macho "I'm so minimalist Man".

  22. Earlylite November 18, 2010 at 6:36 pm #

    I use a shaped tarp which combines the best features of a tarp and of a lightweight tent, but you should use whatever you feel is right for you. For me, carrying a sub 1 lb shelter is best since it just requires 1 hiking pole to set up. I agree that flat tarps are probably less useful in the UKs particularly up north in scotland, where there are no trees, but lots of hungry deer (and estate owners.)

  23. Bryan November 18, 2010 at 6:52 pm #

    @Terry – It's all about the pitch you use. Using a modified prymid, like shown in my tarp set-up doesn't need a forest or a fire. It provides plenty of protection.

    If it doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you. Like they say, hike your own hike.

  24. Tom Murphy November 19, 2010 at 8:32 am #

    @ Terry – to understand this, you need to start with the premise that the less weight you carry with you the more you will enjoy your hike.

    From there, it can get kind of crazy…

    I enjoy camping as much as hiking so I will never be UL.

  25. Earlylite November 19, 2010 at 9:14 am #

    Tom – that isn't a logical statement. It's like saying that "I enjoy driving, so I'll always drive a mack truck and never drive a car." The argument for lightweight is that you can go farther on "less gas" and enjoy the experience more because you are experiencing more and suffering less.

  26. Tom Murphy November 19, 2010 at 10:07 am #

    I will try to explain better.

    IMO UL is based on the idea that you can hike farther and enjoy it more if you lower your pack weight.

    This assumes that you want to go farther. I enjoy hiking 4-6 miles in a day as much as hiking 10-15 miles a day. I enjoy each hour in camp as much as each hour on the trail. They are both part of the expereince for me.

    So I was trying to explain that may UL choices don't make sense if you don't have a desire to maximize distance hiked. I just want to maximize time in the woods…

    That said many UL concepts have great appeal to me. For example, I am constantly trying to improve my skill set so that I am less dependant on gear.

    Hope that better explains my ideas. HYOH

  27. Bryan November 19, 2010 at 10:08 am #

    There's also a relatively new argument for lightweight travel involving simplicity. I've been arguing it for years and it's more compelling for me than the lighter, faster, further with less work argument. Especially when combined with Aldo Leopold cultural values argument. The simplicity argument goes something like this:

    Simplicity is easy to build upon, and complexity is harder to manage. When things are simple, they stay out-of-the-way and using them allows you to concentrate on your journey instead of the piece of gear. Complexity requires a higher level of concentration that subtracts attention from the journey. A more rewarding journey comes from keeping things simple.

    You can't get much simpler than a flat tarp, but that might not hold true for all environments. I.e. buggy places. A flat tarp also fits all the points of Leopold's cultural values argument.

  28. Jack November 20, 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    Hi I'm jack and I'm 13 and I went with my dad on a trip to Algonquin park backcountry with my dad in the summer and we took your advice and took a tarp instead of a tent it was just a Canadian tire tarp but it worked to stop the rain. I have never had that many mosquito bites though haha but just wanna say thanks for the advice the tarp was soo much better to carry and made the experience a whole lot better :)

  29. lostalot November 21, 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    I think simplicity should be in the use, not the gear. A hammock is a lot more complicated than a tarp but finding two trees a suitable distance apart is usually a lot simpler than finding a smooth, level, dry spot for a tarp, and setup is usually a lot simpler to. For my typical needs anyway.

  30. Bryan November 22, 2010 at 8:10 am #

    @lostalot – Exactly.

  31. porkrind April 8, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    I used to tarp it a lot, but three things drove me back to the double wall tent forever:
    1. Bugs – seasonal, yes. But when it’s bad, it’s BAD.
    2. Rodents – Many a sleepless night has been spent throwing my shoes at random critters in the futile hope of driving them away from me. I have also awoken to find dozens of holes chewed in the foot of my expensive but otherwise long-lived down sleeping bag. They also like to chew on the salty/oily area of the bag- around my face. And unlike bugs, rodents are year-round.
    3. Wind. Not only do you have to get a perfect pitch just to keep the tarp in place, but with nothing to seal out the wind at ground level, you freeze.

    I also don’t use trekking poles, so any of the shelters designed to shave weight by using poles are of no advantage to me. And I rarely go alone, so I’ve always got someone to split the weight with.

    Basically, I feel that backpacking should relieve stress. But when I tarp, I feel like I’m always fighting something(s) and can’t quite relax. So I suck up the weight penalty and forget about it.

  32. Alan October 6, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    Hammocks are better then tent, shelters, or a tarp..:-)

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