If you crave a deep connection with the wilderness, there’s nothing more intimate than sleeping under a square or rectangular tarp.
Pitching a tarp takes more thought than setting up a tent because you need to consider what the best setup or “shape” will be for the night and whether it needs to be wind or weather resistant, the slope and composition of the ground and whether you’ll be swamped if it rains, or whether it’s safe (widow-makers) or desirable to tie your shelter to a nearby tree for support.
But, once you’re settled, you can tune into your surroundings, the noises that the wind makes in the trees, and the coming and goings of small creatures, because you don’t have any walls to shut them out.
Contrast this to a tent or even a shaped tarp, which delineates the inside from the outside, giving you a little bubble to hide in so you can block out the night sounds, weather, and the wind. Its bathtub floor will keep you dry if it rains and its poles won’t be bowed by the wind. It’s designed to keep the wilderness outside, not let it in.
Tarp Shapes and Sizes
Flat tarps that have 90 degree corners and are square or rectangular, are the best if your intent is to adapt your shelter to the environment around you because they can be folded into many different shapes, called pitches. They differ from shaped tarps, like pyramids and their variants, that can only be pitched one way and in one shape.
Some people like rectangular flat tarps better and some like square ones.
I fall into the square tarp camp, because its easier for me to visualize different pitches in my mind with a square tarp rather than a rectangular one, which has two sides with different lengths. Check out Macpherson’s Tarp Pitches, for a theoretical enumeration of tarp shapes that can be made with rectangular and square tarps. The number of tarp shapes possible grows infinitely if you incorporate organic elements from the landscape into your pitches.
Plans for a 1 Person Square Tarp
Sizing and Square Footage
What are the perfect dimensions and features for a square backpacking and camping tarp? I’ve pondered that question for several years and decided that a 9 x 9 foot tarp is the perfect size for 1 person. I can tell you from experience that an 8.5 x 8.5 foot tarp is a bit too small and a 10 x 10 is enormously oversized.
Think about it like this. If you’re 6 feet tall and you pitch an A-frame with an 8 x 8 foot tarp, it only leaves 1 foot at each end to protect yourself from rain. Increasing this to 9 x 9 feet, adds another 6″, which is a 50% increase in endpoint coverage that will keep you significantly drier. At 10 feet per side, the area of the tarp is 100 square feet, which is too much fabric to wrestle with.
But size isn’t everything, when it comes to flat tarps. It’s also very important to place guyout points in the right places so that you can fold the tarp or tie it up in a wide variety of ways. The guyout points must be symmetric to be a true square tarp, otherwise you can only create the same pitches as a rectangular tarp.
You’d think that it would easy to create a tarp from a single piece of fabric that has these dimensions, but reality tends to be more complicated because fabrics are only available in certain sizes. This usually requires the placement of a seam to join two pieces of fabric, which should be equidistant from the two opposite edges, as shown above. While this will still give the tarp an element of “handedness” because it will want to drape a certain way, having symmetric guyouts provides a way to counter this tendency.
Interior Attachment Points
It’s important to place glove hooks or small webbing loops in the inside of a flat (or shaped) tarp so you can hang things like a bug bivy or an inner tent inside. Companies that don’t provide any interior attachment points on the underside of a tarp, impose a high inconvenience factor on their customers.
For example, if you had to tie your bug bivy to a trekking pole on the end of your tarp (to keep the netting off your face), you’d have to tie a drip line to the bug bivy line, to divert rain from dripping down it onto your face. That’s unnecessary.
On a 9 x 9 tarp, the best location for such internal attachments is on the center point and 3 feet out in either direction along the center seam. This provides adequate space for a tall person to hang bug netting or an inner tent, as well as a shorter person, with elastic cordage or adjustable knots.
Line-Locs vs Webbing
The final detail on a flat tarp are the guyout points themselves, and the choice between using line-loc connectors, plastic loops, or webbing loops, along with a way to reinforce their attachment points so they don’t rip out under tension.
When pitching a flat tarp, you don’t need to attach cords to each guyout point every time you pitch it, and it would be silly to weigh down the tarp with extra line-locs and cord that you may never use. A more flexible approach is to add webbing loops or plastic loops to the webbing so you can add cordage to the points of the tarp that need to be tied out for a given pitch. Some basic knowledge of friction knots is required, so that you can tension your tie-outs without requiring a line-loc.
Reinforcement for the guyout points is also required, so the guyout webbing won’t rip out under tension. This usually requires adding a second layer of fabric or reinforcing material around the attachment point to prevent the fabric from tearing.
Who Makes This Tarp?
I don’t know if anyone makes this tarp. I drew up these plans about two years ago when a company expressed interest in making this shelter into a product, but never moved forward with it. Let’s face it, pitching a flat tarp and adapting it to its surroundings is an old-school skill that few backpackers want to bother with. It is a technically challenging and fun skill however, if you are so inclined, and perfect for stealth camping in dense forest, where the spots required by larger shelters are often unavailable.
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