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What are the Differences between Flat Tarps and Shaped Tarps?

Stealth Camping with a Flat Tarp in the White Mountains
Stealth Camping with a Flat Tarp in the White Mountains

What is a flat tarp?

A flat tarp is square or rectangular in shape, has flat edges, and 90 degree angles in the corners. They are wonderfully versatile and can be set up in all sorts of different shapes depending on weather conditions and terrain. Here are some great example pitches from tarp maker, Tera Rosa Gear, but there are many more variations possible. The tarp shown in this video is their Prospector model.


What is a shaped tarp?

Shaped tarps are not square or rectangular and usually have a curved ridge line or curved side edges. There are many different models and shapes that fit into this category. Some good examples include the Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid, the Zpacks Hexamid,  and the Gossamer Gear CubicTwinn, shown below. While the shape in the Duomid and the Hexamid is obvious, the curved edges of the CubicTwinn run between the two ends of the top ridgeline, and all four edges have a gentle curved shape. Hexagon shaped hammock tarps also fall into the shaped tarp category.

Gossamer Gear CubicTwinn Tarp
Gossamer Gear CubicTwinn Tarp

What is a catenary curve?

Catenary curves have gentle U-shape, like the cable on a suspension bridge. Shaped tarps are cut with these curved edges because they provides a tighter pitch and saves some weight because the resulting tarp has less fabric. A lot of tent flies are also cut using catenary curves.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a flat tarp?

Advantages

Flat tarps can be set up in a wide variety of shapes depending on the weather and surrounding vegetation or terrain. They can also be pitched very low to the ground in high winds. Due to their simplicity, they are generally much less expensive than shaped tarps and can be used for other purposes beyond camping. They may also provide more usable shelter space than a comparably sized tarp with curved edges, depending on their pitch.

Disadvantages

Flat tarps tend to be a little heavier than shaped tarps because they use more fabric, and it is a little harder to get a drum tight pitch with them. There’s also a bit more difficult to pitch because they’re so many different ways to set them up, and choosing the best pitch for a particular situation takes a little practice.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a shaped tarp?

Advantages

Shaped tarps can be optimized for specific weather conditions or terrain. For example, studies in the Antarctic have shown that a pyramid shape tarp is the most stable structural shape in high wind. They’re also very good for use in winter when you want high angled walls to shed snowfall. Shaped tarps are easier for beginners to set up and obtain a tight pitch with. Further, the use of catenary curves can reduce the weight of a tarp.

Disadvantages

Shaped tarps are not as flexible as flat tarps because they can only be pitched in a relatively small set of configurations. The use of catenary curves also the edges reduces the amount of usable space they provide and they can be challenging to set up in tight quarters, such as dense forest, when there is not enough room for a full setup.

High standing tarp shapes can also suffer from reduced interior volume in high winds because it’s not possible to pitch them as low as a flat tarp. Finally, shaped tarps tend to be a good deal more expensive than flat ones because more labor is required to manufacture them.

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29 comments

  1. That about covers the major differences! Well said.

    Note that flat tarps can also be used year round and in dense forested conditions, such as the ADK's, wind is a minor consideration. Shelterd sites are easy…wrapped/tied around a tree thay make adequate shelter for one night even in the worst of storms. (I have been out in 60mph gusty winds with one.) I don't think this is of consideration except above 5000'.

  2. Thanks!

    That photo at the top of this post is a good example of how handy a flat tarp can be for a camping in a very tight spot. There's no way I could get a shaped tarp in there, it was close to sundown and I needed to camp where I was.

    I wanted to ask you if there are any merit badges or instruction for scouts on pitching a tarp. They seem like the ideal solo or group shelter, inexpensive, hard to destroy, easy to patch and it would be a great skill to be able to pitch one in a half dozen different shapes. I'm thinking about springing for a flat campmor tarp, just for this purpose, and bringing it to Cedarlands, instead of a fancy cuben shaped tarp.

  3. Here's the ultimate reference on pitching flat tarps that I've found: http://www.equipped.org/tarp-shelters.htm
    It's overwhelming with how many options there are for configuring flat tarps. Some look more like origami.

    Last year I saw the most unusual group tarping. It was a group of city kids on a week long adventure trip with their school. They had the huge blue tarps (maybe 20'x30') set as two long tubes, one for the boys and one for the girls. It seemed to work for them and greatly simplified the camp setup for their leaders.

  4. Phyl,

    No, nothing specifically for tarps.
    They need one for just setting up a tarp in the many configurations!!!

  5. Rev – that is a fantastic resource. I'm going to have a busy summer trying them all out.

    JDM – we should define a merit badge for flat tarp setup. There's clearly a need and it's a great self-reliance and lightweight backpacking skill. I will try to master a dozen or so good pitches to demonstrate at Cedarlands.

  6. Tarps are covered in Camping MB, but it doesn't do justice to the details. Some of the high adventure camps (Philmont) don't even allow tarps for sleeping, but provide a dining fly tarp for each crew.

    The single biggest problem we seem to have with Scouts (and leaders) backpacking is weight (and volume to a lesser degree). Tarps (and a better sleeping bag solution) would significantly help with both.

  7. That article by Doug Prosser is great. He has another on BPL with suggest gear lists for scouts too. I'll have to check on the regulations at Cedarlands before I show up there.

    That link that Revlee provided has some interesting setups for 10 x 20' tarps which is bigger than I'd ever consider carrying for myself, but is making me rethink my approach for group camping. Good stuff! I will no doubt be calling you both before I descend on the scouts to get more ideas from you.

    If anyone else reading this thread is a scout master/leader or scout, I'd love to talk to you too!

  8. Yeah, the Camping, Hiking and Climbing merit badges all would have some use for a tarp section. More of a cascading skill by itself than of value by itself, soo, it would be quite difficult to get a program together and presented, and accepted by the regional divisions. I would suggest you talk more with Bill. He is more into the administrative end.

  9. Although I am technically now a Scout, I'm still feeling like an outsider. Perhaps I'll just use tarp setup for demo purposes to illustrate the benefits and talk to Bill when I'm there. The different pitches would make a great visual for gear demos.

  10. I think the only thing missing on the tarpigami list RevLee posted was the nylon swan.

  11. Yeah, they have soo many rules and regulations… You are better off NOT knowing them. Anyway, even Doug violates some of them in his writings… home made alcohol stoves???

    It would certainly make a good demo. Just a few would be all that would be needed to get the point across.

  12. Teaching is theater. If it's any comfort, I'm a lazy iso-butane guy.

  13. I have been a Scoutmaster in with 2 different troops over a span of 13 years; the first was in New Jersey, currently in upstate New York. In my first troop we transition the scouts from car camping to backpacking, in the processes of teaching backpacking the boys were challenge to evaluate weight and usefulness of their gear. In less than a year tarps became the shelter of choice. My current troop in the processes of introducing more high adventure activities to the scouts, my advice to scout leaders would be to take your time, introduce and educate the boys (and their parents) to the concept of light weight backpacking. On our troops first backpacking trip of the year, my 15 year son used a tarp, the first night both the scouts and a couple adults were skeptical about his choice, one even asked me if I thought is was a good idea to let him do this, by Sunday morning the majority of the boys said they wanted to use a tarp on the next trip. They were impressed with not only how fast he was able to pack up, but amazed at the weight, he had a number of scouts hold their half of a tent in one hand while holding his tarp in the other. The weight and volume issue needs to be addressed by the BSA, until then members of the light/ultra-light weight community who are involved in scouting need to promote and teach these concepts to the scouts.

  14. Great story Chris. How big are the tarps used by your scouts and leaders using? Do they use individual tarps or group tarps. If the latter, how many boys to a tarp? Do they pitch an A frame mostly, or some other shape? Thx!

  15. In my first troop we used 8×10 tarps, we encouraged at least 2 to 3 scouts per tarp and set up was A frame. On our most recent trip my son and his friend were the only scouts willing to use a tarp shelter; they used a 9×8 piece of tyvek. Following the trip my son and his friend experimented in the back yard with different configurations and 2 other boys informed me of a shelter they are working on made from a space blanket.

  16. If you want a flat tarp, get it from Cooke Custom Sewing. They have the best tie-outs and you can choose the colors you want.

    We used pyramid tents at Philmont. I really recommend the Black Diamond Betamid as a starter single-wall tarp/tent for Scouts. Trivial to set up, light enough, and $99 ($79 on sale). It isn't silnylon, but that makes it cheaper and a bit easier to pitch — no stretch.

    The BSA prohibition against homemade stoves is recent. They were legal when Doug used them.

    Merit badges: I keep telling my son that he should get Collections merit badge for his shelters: dome, Betamid, hammock, tube tent, …

  17. I think I'm going to buy a flat tarp from BearPaw instead. I like their tie-outs better and they'll make me something custom for a great price.

  18. The BearPaw tarp looks nice, with extra tie-outs on the 8×10. Cooke has a really cook "quad loop" in the center for grabbing a pole, and they run reinforcement around the entire edge.

    A 10×10 is probably the most flexible flat tarp, because it allows symmetrical diagonal pitches.

    Check out this pitch — quick and solid. Unlike this video, I use a guy line on the front, and sometimes pull the ridgeline up with the other trekking pole (see the blog post above for photos), but this is really easy to set up and makes a cozy corner. I've nick-named this pitch "the cave".
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkBeZqXU4zk

    On the other hand, I use my MLD Supermid all the time now. For the last couple of years, the 8×10 tarp has been relegated to being the cooking/eating area in rainy weather. I sleep in the Supermid, and I've been out in a surprising number of nasty nights.

  19. Another good option. I have a CAT tarp (and a hammock tarp) by OES and am really impressed by the quality. They have a lot of of options on flat tarps (http://www.outdoorequipmentsupplier.com/rectangular_tarps.php).

  20. One item I notice nobody really comments on are weak Grommets and the ripping of the tarp at the Gromment…for years I used the Space Blanket type Tarp or of late a Silnylon Tarp and before that Canvas, but I found with the Blanket and Silnylon I experienced a lot of ripping and tearing at the Gromment point…I solved the problem with Wooden Pegs…And I have not seen anyone else use this method in 10 years nor have I read about it in any book or magazine or on any website…so I claim it….

    I was laying under my manmade fiber Tarp one evening as a huge Thunderstorm moved towards me across a large lake with the accompaning high winds in the front vanguard.just ahead of the wall of rain. I watched it come at me across nearly a mile of Lake and then the sudden impact of all that wind hit…What a feeling, anyway, I noticed my Tarp was really straining at the corners where I had tied them directly to the gromment and then to a stake in the ground with Paracord…The Tarp Material was stretching before my eyes and appeared to be a few seconds away from shredding itself into pieces. I had to find some way to relieve the Gromment and Tarp material of all that strain…I happend to look down at the ground and saw a dead piece of pine branch laying there about an inch thick and about 3 inches long and idea suddenly flashed into my brain…..I untied the paracord and ran it through the eyelet and tied to the piece of wood..It immediately took all the strain off the Tarp..I then quickly did the same with the other three corners and two middle ties… That was 8 or so years ago…

    Using that method I have never had another Tarp rip or tear on me at the Gromments…and as I said, I never seen anyone else use this method and so I claim it as mine but please feel free to use it….

  21. I've heard of this actually, but can't remember where. Can you send me a picture or post a link to one where you're using a wooden stake.

  22. I have posted it on many other websites in the last couple of years so you may have read it there perusing the contents…I am also known as the most hated by marketing sneaks and sometimes respected, especially by people I have helped on the trail; Nobocan 1 & 2, Sherlock, Meanolddog, Adirondacks Dad, PCTHiker52, Anzatwo, Borrego1, and a few unprintable names the marketing people have made up for me..I don't keep track and I don't have a picture at this time. But hey I could probably spend a day trying to find one. but what for I gave it up for everyone to use.

  23. No worries – so where does the wooden peg go/ Do you tie the grommet to the peg and then tie the peg to a tree? How's it look any different from a staked out tarp.

  24. What I did initally, or the first time was to take a peice of downed pine tree about half an inch thick, actually any thickness would work as long as it has strength…I then threaded the Paracord through the Gromment hole. On the other side of the Gromment Hole I tied the Paracord around the piece of Pine branch and secured it with a square knot. Then I tightened up the Paracord through the gromment hole to the ground stake…

    All the pressure is then spread along the length of the entire stick and not just on the wire piece that surrounds the gromment hole..So as a result no tearing of the material at the gromment hole..In fact, I have never lost another Tarp to a tear at that point…..

    Today if I plan on carrying a Tarp and I know the weather has a chance of turning windy and rainy I prepared four 4 inch length peices of quarter inch Doweling and wrap a rubber band around them and stick them in the top pocket of my pack for easy access in case of rain..Since my Tarp is only 5 ft x 8ft I haven't needed to use six of them for the extra two grommet holes in the tarp. But when I have needed the extra two have just scrouged a piece of downed wood from the ground and use that..

    I have also used the same method to "Stake down" a Backpacking tent. Most have a tie off loop, so I threaded the Paracord through the loop on the tent to a larger piece of downed wood which I then attached to a stake instead of driving the Stake through the loop on the tent…It worked just as well as the stake, though in some winds the tent did "float" a bit, especially my Shires Squall Tarp Tent with a floor which is pretty light weight..

    When I got home I drilled a hole through the center of a half inch piece of Dowel and then ran a piece of Paracord through that and tied a couple of Granny knots to keep it from slipping back through, but it did not seem to hold as well as I had hoped on a test Tarp I left sitting out in the yard.. I thought of actually Melting the Knot since Paracord is made of man made material. So I tied a big huge knot in it and melted it with a Lighter which worked rather well.. But then you have a problem of disassembly and or not every "pitch", especially if your "stealth" camping, requires the exact same length of Paracord. I also carved a groove into the center section of a quarter inch piece of dowel and the high winds around where I live broke it in half at that point… I also tested the idea using an old piece of alumium tent frame tubing and a piece of plastic tubing both of which worked just as well as wood but was heaiver in weight than the wood doweling pieces and you know we have to cut every ounce we can….

    I'm not an Engineer so I cannot adequately explain what is going on and I did look into having some blueprints drawn up in order to apply for a Patent but the cost was too prohibitive and how many people would actually buy a pack of them since they can make them right on the spot. And of course the Patent Lawyer wanted some up front money or a 2nd Mortagage on my house and major piece of the pie so I said the heck with it and am giving the idea up to everyone as a payback to all the Backpackers who I shared a fire, a meal, a blister, a rainstorm and a woemen with who have been nice to me and friendly, along the various trails and cross country trips I have taken here in the good ole USA..

  25. Using a toggle behind a grommet to spread the load is an old trick, at least as old as sailing vessels.

    A better approach is to avoid tarps that have grommets. Those cut the fibers and make a very weak place in the tarp fabric. A tar with grommets will only fail at the grommets.

    You want a tarp with sewn-on loops for attaching lines. Those are far, far stronger than a grommet.

    A toggle is still useful for attaching a line without threading the end through the loop.

  26. Thanks Mr. Underwood. I did a web search on Toggles and I had forgotten about Buttons! Yes the Old warm but heavy Woolen coats of my youth were buttoned closed with the use of sewn on wood Toggles which looped through a sewn on coat loop..But, that is not where I got the idea from since I haven't wore one of those coats in over 45 years..

    Though I have never seen them used on Sailboats and I have been on quite a few from a punt in my childhood off Nantucket to WindJammers in Carriabbean.. Yes so there it is. Use a Toggle for your Tarp..like the Buttons on old time Woolen Jackets..LLBean might still sell the coats maybe.. We used to get ours from Eddie Bauer when it was a high quality company back in the 60's and early 70's.

    thanks again Mr. Underwood.

  27. Even with toggles, grommets are a bad idea. Get a tarp with sewn on loops.

  28. I believe Campmor used to sell a tarp with sewn on loops about a a dozen of them I believe. I'll have to look into that..

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