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Do You Need a Tent Footprint for Backpacking?

Do You Need a Tent Footprint for Backpacking

You’ve bought a tent with a waterproof floor. Do you need to buy a tent footprint or a groundsheet for it too? It depends on how durable your tent floor is, how waterproof it is, and what the surface conditions are like where you intend to use it. In order to decide, you’ll want to understand how the thickness of your tent floor and its waterproof rating impact its durability. Campsite selection is also an important factor. While there are times when a footprint is desirable, there are a number of lower-cost and lighter-weight footprint options that you can also use instead.

What is a Tent Footprint?

A tent footprint is a piece of protective fabric or material that you lay under your tent that provides a moisture barrier and protects your tent floor from abrasion and punctures. Every time you pitch a tent, the floor experiences some abrasion from the grit, tiny rocks, sand, and twigs that accumulate on preexisting tent sites. This weakens the fabric and can lead to a hole or puncture that can soak through the waterproof barrier of your tent floor. A tent footprint acts as a protective barrier under your tent, so it absorbs the damage and preserves your tent floor.

Most tent footprints are matched to a specific tent’s floor dimensions. For example, when you use a footprint, you don’t want it to be larger than your tent floor and reach out past the tent rainfly, because rain will accumulate and puddle along the edges. The puddle can soak through the tent floor fabric or leak in if your tent floor has a hole or deteriorating seam tape. If you’re using a tent footprint that is too large, it’s best to tuck the footprint edges under the edges of your tent, so rainwater draining off your tent’s rainfly can soak into the surrounding soil.

Tent Floor Durability and Waterproofing

Backpacking tent specs often include a denier count and a waterproofing metric. The denier count refers to the thickness of the threads that make up the tent’s floor fabric and is a good rough estimate of its durability. For example, a tent with a “40D” or “40 denier floor” like the REI Half Dome 2 Plus will be tougher and more durable than the floor of the ultralight Gossamer Gear “The Two” which has a 10 denier floor.

Tent floors also differ in how waterproof they are. For example, a tent floor with a waterproof rating of 5000 mm, such as the Hilleberg Niak, is much more waterproof than a tent like the Gossamer Gear “The Two,” whose floor is only rated at 1800 mm. The “mm” measurement, also referred to as “hydrostatic head”, measures the amount of pressure that’s required to make a fabric leak and provides you with a way to compare how waterproof tent floors are against one another.

In general, you’ll find that tents with lower deniers and waterproof ratings are more likely to need a footprint than those with higher deniers and waterproof ratings. But you’re also going to want to consider the character of the campsites you plan to set up your tent on and whether they warrant the use of a footprint.

The soil at pre-existing tentsites is often sandy and quite abrasive
The soil at pre-existing tent sites and established campgrounds is often sandy and quite abrasive.

Campsite Selection

Whether you need a tent footprint or not depends on where you camp. For example, many pre-existing campsites are “dished-out” and form an indentation in the soil where many people have slept previously. Gravel, grit, sand, and water collect in these dished-out areas and will wear down your tent floor if you camp on them frequently. If you only camp occasionally, the impact on your tent floor will be less severe. But if you have to camp in campgrounds or established campsites and you have a thinner, less waterproof floor, a footprint may be advisable.

If you camp frequently on wilder campsites that are not pre-established, whether you need a footprint will depend on the surface that you sleep on. If you camp on an earthen mossy forest floor that is well-drained and non-abrasive, and you clear away any sticks and pine cones beforehand, you probably don’t need a footprint. But if you camp on sandy soil or bare rock that’s more abrasive, a footprint may be advisable. I know that my caution level would increase if I had a tent that had a 20 denier floor or less and a waterproof rating below 1500 mm.

Cost and Weight of Tent Footprints

Tent footprints can be quite expensive and heavy and it’s disheartening when you realize you have to carry one even though you’ve spent a lot of time and money to buy a lightweight tent. Dropping another $50 for a simple piece of cheap fabric seems like a rip-off to me, in addition to the extra weight required to carry it, and the extra effort to clean and dry it between uses.

Alternative and Lower Cost Tent Footprints

When I carry a footprint, I bring a piece of very lightweight plastic sheeting that weighs between 1 and 2 oz, depending on the size of the tent I use. Gossamer Gear sells something called Polycryo Groundcloths for this purpose that I’ve used for years. The stuff is tough and doesn’t tear or wear though when used on sandy soil or gravel. You can reuse it over and over and it doesn’t require any extra care.

Gossamer Gear Polycryo Plastic Sheet cut to size
Gossamer Gear Polycryo Plastic Sheet cut to size – the tent rainfly covers the plastic that is showing so water doesn’t pool on it.  

Window Wrap, the plastic covering that you blow-dry over your windows to insulate them in winter, is another cost-effective option. A single piece will last one season or longer depending on the frequency of use. The most popular brands are Duck Brand Window/Door Shrink Film and Frost King Stretch Window Kit. Both are inexpensive and can be cut up into multiple groundsheets

Finally, many people use Tyvek HomeWrap, which is a building material that is used to create a vapor barrier between your house’s interior walls and external siding to prevent drafts from blowing through. It’s lightweight, waterproof, and puncture-resistant, but it’s heavier than Polycryo or Window Wrap. sells 5 x 9′ Tyvek sheets that you can also cut down to size. Its chief advantage is that it lasts forever.

Updated Dec 2022.

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  1. The footprint for my MSR tent can be used as a rain fly only setup. You can also set this up first when it rains so the tent itself stays a little dryer. I don’t know how you could get by without a footprint since it has the grommets for the tent poles.

    • That’s a brand-specific thing, although MSR has completely reworked their footprint architecture and now only sells a Universal rain fly, so who knows if it still works that way. But I’ve always wondered if anyone actually uses their MSR (or Big Agnes) without their inner tents. I’ve never seen one used that way, that’s for sure.

      But I see you’re point about rain setup. I’ll add a section about that.

      • Fly First and Fly Only setups enabled by the factory footprint are also a feature of BA backpacking tents.

        I never tried Fly First with my original Copper Spur UL2 but I did set up the TW UL2 fly first experimentally. It is a fairly athletic activity. I might do it if I was alone but if with others I think it is faster and easier to help each other erect the tents one at a time. Most likely you will be in rain gear and already wet so you are not going to save much dampness struggling with that in a confined space.

        I have not tried the fly only setup since so far it was either too cold or too buggy or I just didn’t think to try it. It seems a bit of a bougie way to try “tarp” camping. You can “Marie Antoinette” your way to seeing how the peasants camp. I do intend to try it at some point but it would probably be a circumstantial choice rather than a decision to not carry the body.

        While the factory footprint does make fly-first/fly-only easy, in theory you only need a loop of guy-line of the appropriate length to connect the feet of the tent poles in their pitched position. Tying an alpine butterfly knot at each of the poles will position them correctly and consistently. Once you have the fly on you can use its loops to stake the pole feet for extra security then guy out as appropriate. Seems like a fun lawn experiment at least.

      • Remember also you can take the inner tent down first when packing up. I’ve found this more useful than fast pitching, on those rainy mornings vs. evening setup.

      • That is a very good observation. Thanks for mentioning it. A wet morning is probably the most practical time to use this fly first feature in a two walled tent. Makes perfect sense. You are dry and you can pack the dry part of your tent…at least as far as any condensation of flooding allows but you are probably ahead of the game regardless.

      • I’ve tried taking down a Hubba Hubba from the inside in heavy rain, but the amount of time it takes wasn’t really worth the trouble. I tried a Hubba Hubba hiking on the long trail in September, and left the body behind, was a pretty decent setup, but have since followed the ultralight weenies into the tarpology/bivy zone.

        The way tents are getting lighter and lighter, sometimes at the expense of durability, I’d say a tent floor is a pretty good investment.

      • Philip, I do :)
        I am not much into tarps or trekking pole tents, since my requirements are usually more alpine or winter (and I don’t use trekking poles unless on snowshoes or skis), and all my tents are freestanding designs by necessity. Buying a dedicated tarptent just for the occasional lower elevation hike did not make much sense to me $-wise, so for these I usually just take my MSR fly and footprint and poles and set up just that way. A little heavier, but since I don’t carry trekking poles anyway, the slight weight disadvantage cancels out nicely.

      • El Diablo Amarillo

        I have run my BA Fly Creek UL2 several seasons now as the fly/ footprint only combo and like it a lot. Bear in mind this is on western wildfire trips and typically when Im in a basecamp ( farmers field, baseball field, town park ie where ever they decide to have us call “home” for a few days or weeks. Out west its normally a shower rarely a steady rain. Not using the rest of the tent really improves airflow since it always hot at night and bugs are usually not too bad too warrant setting the interior tent up. The RHs are usually in the low 30s at night so things will often dry overnight that back east would normally end up soggier in the am than when you went to bed. Its not back packing BUT we do have weight restrictions on all our gear due to aircraft travel so I pack as much ultralight gear as possible like I was backpacking

  2. Couple of points: (1) I always buy the manufacturers footprint as long as it allows for setup in fast fly mode. What you can do in the rain is setup the fly and footprint first then crawl around inside and set up the tent underneath, thereby keeping the inner tent somewhat dry. It’s not easy, but doable, (2) the Polycro footprints sold by Gossamer Gear is the exact same material as window wrap, buy what is cheapest and (3) can anybody explain “hydrostatic head”? To me, it sounds like a scientific porn term!

    • Are the window wrap and GG Polycro the same material? They appear to be given they’re the same thickness (.75 mil) but I’ve never used the GG Polycro so don’t know for sure.

      I find the thicker window wrap (1.5 mil) works well and is a little sturdier than the .75 mil. I cut a 95″ x 62″ section for my X-Mid 1P and it works great for 4.5 oz. I realize that’s a bit heavier than some may want, but it’s huge and I’ve not had any tearing or puncture issues.

      I do find the window wrap (and assuming Polycro) to be tricky in windy conditions. You need to weigh it down and it take a little finagling to get it just right once the tent is pitched.

      For $15 and 4.5 oz, I’ll take the hassle for the extra protection and waterproofing.

      • I am a former footprint advocate who came to the conclusion that they are not necessary, or even desirable for lightweight backpacking. I can than Henry Shires for suggesting that they aren’t even needed. 2,000 miles on the AT with a Copper Spur and no footprint proved it to me. I never punctured the floor and always stayed dry inside the tent.

        • I think that’s a function of the fact that the east coast has more dirt than the west. It’s pretty easy to find a nice soft campsite covered with decaying organic matter.

    • “hydrostatic head” is a the height of the column of water that the fabric can resist. 1200mm means that the fabric will hold back the water in a 1200mm column. Higher numbers mean more water resistance aka “waterproofness”. Standards vary but 1000mm is usually considered the minimum to be “waterproof”. 1200 is used for ultra light tents. 3000mm is used for expedition tents.

  3. Sol emergency blanket works really well for this and has other uses. But it it has to be Sol, a lot of other emergency space blanket brands are too crinkly.

  4. I’m a big fan of polycro groundcloths. I used one on my AT thruhike and had zero complaints. It kept my tent bottom relatively clean. I replaced it once because it was starting to get a few tears in it but my replacement was like $7 from a Walmart and I split that with another hiker because the window cling was big enough for both of our tents.

    I forgot it this past October when my wife and I spent 4 nights on the Superior Hiking Trail and every site was a muddy mess so the bottom of my tent was about as dirty as could be and it became a pain trying to pack it away while keeping the mud on the bottom from touching the mesh or anything else in my pack and had to resort to carrying the interior of my tent in my outside pocket. It was a paint to clean when I got home as well since it was raining and then below freezing for a couple weeks so I couldn’t set it up outside and had to try to hang it up over the shower curtain rod to wash and it was a a royal pain.

    Won’t forget again.

  5. Since many of the single wall tents don’t even offer a footprint, plus I do a lot of tarp camping, I’ve gone with Tyvek. Also handy if sleeping in a AT shelter to protect your inflatable pad from protruding nail heads, or debris.

  6. I often camp on designated sites along trails in national parks, which can be abrssive with rocks and sand. I formerly used Tyvek that came from a roll of sign banner material. To save weight, I switched to Polycryo but the really thin stuff was hard to handle and sometimes tore along a certain plane. I switched to the heavier grade window film.

    The box of window film comes with tape, which I first used to splice the two pieces of film together to make up the size of my tent. I laid out the film on a flat surface and marked the perimeter of my rain fly with a Sharpie and cut it to size (I got the dimensions from the manufacturer’s website). I then marked a line 2″ (5 cm) in from the outer perimeter of film, taped that and folded the edges to the line I’d marked and taped the edges down. That have me a footprint 2″ shorter all the way around than my rain fly. The edges are also stiffer and easy to handle to place the ground sheet in position when I pitch the tent.

  7. I have always used a footprint. I started when car camping. The main reason for me has been to keep the tent clean. Campsites can have unavoidable damp and occasionally muddy ground and it’s just a lot easier to deal with that on a smaller flat cloth that you pack separately than on a large balloon.

    My current backpacking tent is a BA Tiger Wall UL2 and it has a 15D 1200mm floor and the factory footprint is 30D (or so I have read. I couldn’t find it on the BA site). On a recent trip after a late evening camp setup I accidentally slept on a small pine cone. It made a dent in the footprint but did not puncture it. I suspect the 15D floor would not have fared so well.

    I read that Duck window film is polycryo but I haven’t found confirmation. I got the 1.5mil 7×10 Duck door kit to make one but the factory footprint was on sale and I was too lazy. I may still make one for deserty trips since I think it is better protection from abrasive and pointy things (grit, thorns and cactus needles).

    • I always just use a tarp it worked out the same size as my tent. Plus rapping the tent ine the tarp and ditching the bags leaves it roughly the same weight

  8. I use 2 mil clear plastic found at Home Depot. I tried the Polycro but found it was harder to handle in the wind. I have one small tear that I patched with duct tape. I fold the plastic to the length of my tent stakes and roll them up together. I’ve got about 70 nights so far on mine.

  9. Wouldn’t a custom-cut piece of space blanket work as well as polycro while giving you a little bit of R value?

    • You get zero R-value with one side of the space blanket on the ground and the reflective side under your tent.

      • A space blanket reflects radiated body heat. As Phillip says, it cannot insulate body heat from conducting to the ground. I personally also find them crinkly and noisy to sleep on. On the other hand, the bright orange and silver would make an effective emergency signal marker, if you ever need a rescue.

  10. Just seems easier if the tent manufacturers made the floor strong enough in the first place….

    I’ve tried a few types, I ended up accepting the weight penalty and use Tyvek, mainly because it’s strong enough to be multipurpose, quick rain shelter, sling, tablecloth, whatever.

  11. Tyvek is not designed to be waterproof and only water resistant although some are better than others. It is not designed for weather exposure. I like the idea of ditching the tent bag and rolling the tent in the ground cloth and have used it for awhile now. About the same weight.
    Tyvek reference:

    • The most important thing for a “footprint”, commercial or improvised, is that it protects the waterproof tent floor from the pointy bits and keeps the dirt off. It is doing extra duty if it is also waterproof. Tyvek should do the main job.

      Obviously if you want to also use the footprint as a tarp to sleep on directly then waterproofness is more important and Tyvek is probably not the best choice.

      I’m not so keen on the “rolling the tent in the tarp” idea since any dirrt on the tarp will then be in your backpack and if its sticky stuff, will be hard to keep away from the tent.

      So far I have just used the tent bag and I just stuff the body in followed by the fly. I don’t fold backpacking tents any more since regular crease lines cause failures…or at least that is the theory. If the fly is very wet I have a separate mesh bag I stuff it in which I can strap on the outside of my pack for easy access to spread the fly out to dry at an opportune stopping point or I can just put in my pack if that makes more sense. Compactor bags etc. keep everything else dry. My factory foot print packs up very small in its own tiny non mesh bag …part or why it may be worth paying the exorbitant price…so I can do the same with it.

  12. The factory footprint for my tent costs $60. The manufacturer claims it weighs 3 oz, but it actually weighs 5.4 oz. A 1 mil plastic painter’s drop cloth cut to size weighs 1.8 oz and costs $2, but is effectively free, since I have several left over from painting projects.

  13. Great discussion! I don’t use footprints anymore. I think I took one on my first AT hike, and sent it home at the end of the first week. Also did not use one on the PCT and had no issues. I did have a puncture of my air mattress in New Mexico on the CDT, replaced the pad with a twin, and was much more careful about site selection after that – no more issues.

    The floor of my older Plexamid, and the cuben fiber (Dyneema now?), is pretty tough, and I’ve never felt I needed a separate footprint as long as I was careful. I’m taking my Neoair out to do the AZT next week, and I’ll see how it goes. There are a lot of stickies in the desert, and the Neoair is about 6 years old, but still in good shape.

  14. Great insight and info! I grew up backpacking in the Northwest. Many nighttime, dry camp spots turned in to stream beds by mid morning. I’ve found that with a ground cover I at least stand half a chance at staying dry. A wet down bag really never dries on the trail….arg.

  15. What if you camp out in the wild in Southern Africa with plants and bushes full of pricky needles everywhere .
    I think one needle would go through your base layer at once .

  16. I’d be curious to know if people like to cut a footprint to accommodate most of the vestibules (of course still a couple inches shy of reaching out past the outer), or cut it in line with the inner. I’ve always cut it with the inner leaving the ground (dirt, grass…) as the floor to my vestibules. But at times I’ve seen some advantages to perhaps have a portion of the vestibules with some footprint.

    • I made a ground sheet out of window film for my Notch that includes the vestibules so that my gear can be stored off wet ground. I made it a couple inches smaller all the way around. On my recent section hike, I did learn some disadvantages.

      When the tent inner is attached, there is something to tie onto the bottom of the hiking poles to keep them in place and also something for my pack and gear to lean up against. When I took the tent inner out of the equation and just used the rain fly as a tarp, the poles would often slip on the slick groundsheet and my gear would slide out from underneath and into the rain. I’d have been better off if my ground sheet had just been under my sleeping pad. If I carefully folded the groundsheet under the sleeping pad, it would have done better, however, the reality of pitching in the rain was that I just bunched it up, which wasn’t optimal.

    • I have a wedge of Tyvek that I use for the vestibule in my 1 person tent. It gives me a surface to remove or put on foot wear as well as keeping any gear cleaner and drier in a heavy rain. It helps keep dirt out of the tent. Takes up no room and I really don’t obsess about an extra ounce or 2. I mostly bike pack so while keeping the weight down is important, it isn’t as big an issue as it is with back packing.

  17. Thanks Grandpa. Very useful input. I have a Notch as well :). I think I’ll stick with an inner footprint & if I want any additional ground protection I’ll just use a small piece of polycryo or Tyvek. Cheers.

    • I didn’t have the problems when I had the tent inner attached. The poles stay put because there is a strap that goes around the handle of the poles. Also, my backpack and other gear could lean up against the inner portion of the tent and stay in place. They weren’t laying flat on a slick groundsheet just ready to slide out. I only had the ‘slide out from under’ problems when I didn’t have the inner tent attached.

  18. Use a “semi-footprint” of polycro that is 3/4 of the tent floor length but full width. this protects the floor in the areas that takes the most use and most of my body weight.

  19. I own a Duplex-Tarptent Moment SW-Lunar Solo in silpoly-Tarptent Protrail-a Lanshan 2-Plus 2 tarps and 2 bivys’s and use a footprint under all of them to protect my investment. I have the Lanshan silnylon footprint which I also use on my Zpacks Duplex. I stake out the Footprint then toss on the Duplex and it fits perfect and PROTECTS THAT EXPENSIVE tent.

  20. The option I use to get Tyvek is to get it out of the waste bins at construction sites.

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