CAMPING & HIKING

Tarp Camping: a New Way to Sleep in the Woods

No problem with ventilation
Dennis Owens
Written by Dennis Owens

The shelter is an essential part of any camping getaway. The traditional way to seek refuge in the outdoors is to use a tent. They provide ample cover, can keep you warm and can usually fit multiple people. However, a tent isn’t for everyone and using one does have some disadvantages.

To try and resolve this, some campers have started tarp camping, which is basically using a tarp to provide shelter instead of a tent. This can be a great adjustment to your camping routine and can really enhance the experience. However, there are some things to know before you set out to make this switch. For example, there are different tarp shelter configurations and each one has different advantages and disadvantages.

Tarp or tent

Also, it is important to learn each tarp tent setup so that you can know if you have the materials and the know-how to effectively construct your tarp tent. We are going to go through all of this and more in this article so that if you are thinking of ditching your tent you can learn all that you need to know.

Why use a tarp? Advantages

You might be wondering why someone would want to get rid of a tent, or not use one, in favor of a tarp when going camping. Well, those who have already done this will know that it has some distinct advantages, but for those who do not let’s take a look at some of the advantages of tarp camping so you can see if it is the right move for you.

Less weight

Using a tarp instead of a tent means you will likely have to carry around less weight in your bag. If it is just you all you will need is a small tarp and some rope.

When using a tent you need to worry about carrying poles and stakes, which can be quite heavy and can cause some serious discomfort when you are going to be out on the trail for long periods of time. With a tarp tent, you don’t have to bother with this extra equipment and this can make the hike to your camping location much less strenuous and much more enjoyable.

Cooler

Tents are great for keeping out the wind and for trapping body heat, but if you are camping in the summer or in an area with a warm climate this can actually be a huge downside to tent camping. Depending on the tarp shelter configuration you use, you will be able to get a lot more air flow in your tent during the day and night, which can make your shelter a much more desirable place to be.

Cool under tarp

This particular aspect of using a tarp does not apply to winter or cold-weather camping, but for anyone who has spent a sleepless night inside a hot tent, access to fresh air might be a major advantage.

Easy set up

There are some tents out there that are designed for quick and easy setup, think pop-up tents, but the majority of them require you to put together poles, drill stakes into the ground and wrestle with the tent to get it up.

See also: DIY Tarp Tent: Build a Cheap Tent With a Lightweight Tarp

Experienced campers will have this down pretty good, but there is no denying that it can be a hassle sometimes. When using a tarp you don’t need to worry about all these extra setup steps and you can have your shelter assembled in no time. Of course there is a bit of a learning curve, but in general, it is much simpler and faster than any tent setup.

Better ventilation

We mentioned earlier that one of the key advantages to tarp camping is the increased airflow, which can help make your shelter cooler. Well, another one of its key advantages is along the same lines. With no sides, there is much more air moving through and this allows you to make a fire or to run a gas stove. You can even check out our review of the best camp stoves you can use that are super safe.

Tarp tent set up

This is something you could never do with a tent not only because of the fire hazard but also because of the smoke that would accumulate inside. This is a great perk because if it starts to rain and you want to have dinner under some shelter you can do so without taking any unnecessary risks.

Why not use a tarp? Disadvantages

Now that we have taken a look at some of the advantages of tarp camping, let’s take a look at some disadvantages. It is important to know how great this type of camping can be, but there are some things to keep in mind that might be helpful as you think about doing this type of camping. Whether or not these are true disadvantages depends a little on you and what type of camper you are, but either way they are important things to consider.

Less protection

This goes a little without saying, but no matter which tarp tent setup you use, you will be less protected than any tent. There is no way to completely seal yourself off like you would be able to when using a tent, and in certain conditions, this could be a major problem. For example, if you think you will be camping in an area where there are a lot of mosquitoes, this could be a serious drawback. There will be no way to keep them out unless you use powerful repellents.

open for bug festival

You will also have less protection against things like mice and snakes and other small animals that might  make their way to your tent in search of food. If this doesn’t bother you or you take the necessary steps to prevent this from happening it might not be a big deal, but it is something to consider.

Exposure to elements

Similar to the idea that tarp tents provide less protection is that by using a tarp you will be much more exposed to the elements. No matter which tarp shelter configuration you are using, you will be unable to seal off your tent from the wind. This is great in warm climates but can be deceptive in many others.

For example, if you are camping in the summer in high elevations or in arid climates, it might be tempting to have this extra air, but in these areas nighttime temperatures can drop sharply and being exposed can be uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst. Before switching to tarp camping, make sure the environment you will be camping in will be forgiving enough to make it safe and enjoyable.

Less sturdy

This depends a little on how handy you are, but in general, tarp tents are going to be a little less resistant to high winds and rain. It is likely that if you are camping in an area like this you will not want to use a tarp because of the reasons mentioned above, but know that if there is a chance of a quick increase in wind or a sudden storm, your tarp shelter might not be able to withstand that abuse.

Again, if you use common sense and avoid using tarp tents in areas like this you will probably not have a problem, but it is something to consider. To compare tarps and tents, see our great comparative article on tent footprints vs. tents for more details.

Tarp looks good enough

Image credit: kenilgunas.com

The disadvantages discussed here are not meant to discourage your from switching over to tarp camping, but rather to give you a heads up about some of the things you might have to deal with if you decide to give up using a tent or decide to leave it at home when you head out on your next trip. It is a very rewarding and enjoyable experience using a tarp and if you’ve thought it out nicely you will have no regrets about the decision.

Tarp shelter configurations

Now that we have gone over some of the reasons why you should and maybe shouldn’t use a tarp instead of a tent, let’s go over some different configurations so you can learn how to use a tarp tent and decide which is best for you.

Suspended Tarp Tent

This type of tarp is nice because it requires very little in terms of materials and setup. It is great for locations where it is warm and there are very few mosquitoes. We are going to go over everything you will need to make this type of tarp tent and outline the steps needed to build it.

Materials

One of the great things about this type of tarp tent is that the materials list is quite short. To setup a suspended tarp tent you will need:

  • A tarp. The size depends on how many people you want to be able to fit under it as well as how much weight you are willing to carry. For two people a good size would be 8’ x 6’. This will give you enough space to set up a table or a fire and then will also give you a wide area to sleep under. You will want to give yourself some room on each side when you lay down in case it rains as water will likely drip inside the covered area.
  • 4 shorter ropes. These are the ropes you are going to use to tie the corners of the tarp to whatever trees you use to support your shelter. In a perfect world the trees will be spaced evenly and the ropes will be equal length, but it is a good idea to carry more than you need, especially if you are unaware of the area where you will be making camp. This way you can cut the ropes to whatever length you need and not have to worry about running out. In general each rope will probably be about 3-5’ long
  • 1 long rope. You will need one long rope to help make the tarp look more like a roof. This will help in the event of any light rain as the water will run off the sides. Again, unless you know the area where you will be camping it is a good idea to carry more and need less, but to give you an idea this rope will probably end up being about 12-15’ long.

How to setup a suspended tarp tent

Now that you have all your materials it is time to set up your tent. The process is pretty straightforward and won’t take too long to get the hang of, but if you are new to this type of camping there is a bit of a learning curve. Let’s walk through the steps one by one and point out some key things to remember.

Step 1: Pick your spot

In many ways this is the most important step. Since you are using trees to suspend your tarp, you want to find a small clearing that is in between 4 trees. You want the clearing to be large enough for you to be able to fully extend the tarp, but not so large that you don’t have enough rope. You’ll also want to look down and make sure there aren’t any big rocks or other protuberances that could make sleeping a big problem.

black tarp tent on grass

Another thing to keep in mind is the slope of the ground. You want it to be as flat as possible, but in the event this is impossible you want to try and set the tent up so that your feet are below you when you lie down. This will be exponentially more comfortable when you go to sleep and you will be grateful that you thought of this later on in the evening.

Step 2: Attach the long rope

Once you have found your tiny clearing you will want to attach the long rope, ideally to something outside of this clearing. This is going to be the length of your shelter so make sure you do it in the same direction as you would be lying down. Make the line as taut as possible and try to put it about 6 feet off the ground. If you are much shorter than this you can go lower, but the big advantage of this type of tent is being able to stand up in it so don’t go too low.

Step 3: Place and secure the tarp

Now that you have the spine of the shelter secured, throw the tarp over it so that half of the tarp is on each side of the line already in place. Again, position the tarp over the rope lengthwise. From there, tie some rope to each corner of the tarp and then tie the other end of the rope to the four trees in the clearing. Make sure to tie these ropes lower than the main rope so that the tarp is slanted downwards. This will help with runoff and will prevent the tarp from falling down in the event it rains.

Tarp is ready and secured

That’s it! Now that your tarp is securely constructed you are free to head to sleep, set up a fire or even a table and chairs so that you can relax free from worry about rain. Again, this type of tent is great for warm climates and if you want to be free to move around or make a fire under shelter. If you’re more worried about warmth and protection take a look at the grounded tarp tent.

Variation of suspended tarp tent without trees

In the event you cannot use trees or if you want to set up this type of tent in your backyard, you can use poles or sticks instead of trees. This would require you to secure them in the ground so that they are sturdy and this isn’t really an option for those who are going to be hiking and camping, but it is something you can do if you want to make a tarp tent but the area around you doesn’t offer the right spot to do it. You can also get really inventive and use things like canoe oars, hockey sticks and walking poles.

Grounded tarp tent

This tarp tent setup is good if you are less concerned about being able to move around or have a fire underneath the shelter. When you build it you will be much closer to the ground and the space will be much more enclosed. This will provide a little more protection and will do a much better job at keeping you warm.

Ground tarp ready for setup

It still won’t be as effective as a traditional tent, but for cooler climates and more comfortable sleeping this type of tarp tent is perfect. We will go through the materials needed and the steps for putting it up so that you can learn how to do it and start using it yourself.

Materials

The materials list for this tarp shelter configuration is about the same as the suspended tarp tent, but with some minor variations. Let’s take a look at what those are, but the general idea is that with this type of tent you will need less of everything.

  • Obviously this is an essential component of this type of shelter. However, what is different about this version of the tarp tent is that you can get away with a smaller tarp. In fact, to help reduce the area and make it warmer, a smaller tarp is probably better. You want it to be just big enough to fit whoever is going to be sleeping under it.
  • You don’t need to worry about suspending the tarp so you will need much less rope. You will just need a little to secure each corner and then a little more to tie to the support stick.
  • Support stick. To help give the tarp tent its structure you will need to tie some rope to a support stick outside the tent area. You could use one of your walking sticks, a branch you find in the foods or a tree. It just needs to be a few feet off the ground.

How to set up a grounded tarp tent

Now that you have all the necessary materials for your tarp tent, let’s go over how you would set it up. It’s a very similar process to the suspended tarp tent, but with a few variations.

Step 1: Find your spot

This is very similar to the other tarp tent setup we discussed, but this time you don’t need to be as worried about the trees. You will need one bigger one and a few smaller ones nearby to secure the corners of the tarp, but small bushes or even logs on the ground will suffice. The most important thing is to have a nice flat spot so that you will be able to sleep comfortably when the time comes.

Step 2: Set up your support stick

Once you have your spot chosen, you will need to go about setting up your support stick. If you have been able to find a location near a tree this won’t be a problem and you can skip right to the next step, but if not, find a stick, branch, pole, etc. that is about 4-5’ tall and stick it into the ground.

Grounded tent sticks tightly secured

It is important that it is sturdy and secure so if necessary dig a small hole in the ground or use some rope to steady it in its place.

Step 3: Attach long rope

Much like the suspended tarp tent, this tent will feature a long rope down the middle that will serve as the spine or the center of the structure. To set this up, tie one end of the rope to the top of the support stick. Take the other end of the rope and extend it about 7-8’ away but angle it to the ground and secure it to something close to the ground such as a branch or log or another tree. When you are finished your structure should look like a right triangle.

Step 4: Place and secure the tarp

From here the process is almost identical to the other tarp shelter configuration we have discussed. Throw the tarp lengthwise over the long rope you just attached so that half of it is on one side of the rope and half on the other. Once you’ve done this, attach some rope to the corners of the tarp and secure them to something close to the ground like you did for the longer rope in the middle.

You want the edges of the tent to come as close to the ground as possible if not touching it. To do this you may need to adjust the height of the long rope you have tied to the support stick. It might take some time to play with the heights to get it right, but the main advantage of this tent is the protection it provides so make sure to take some time to get it right so that you are sufficiently covered and safe from any wind or rain.

tarp tent

That’s all it takes to set up a grounded tarp tent. Both tents are fairly easy to put together and require very little in terms of materials. The grounded tent is designed specifically for sleeping as it closes you off more and helps trap warmth and keep out the wind.

You won’t be able to stand up in it and walk around so if you are looking for a shelter where you can do this as well as make a fire or set up a table, the suspended tarp tent is probably the better option. However, if you are simply looking for a warm place to spend the night, the grounded tarp tent is most likely the version for you.

Let’s go camping

Whether you are headed out for a big hiking and camping adventure or you are just setting something up in the backyard for the kids to enjoy on a warm summer night, tarp tent camping can be a great way to enjoy the outdoors without having to worry about carrying and setting up a tent. Check out our guide and how-tos on tarp tent setups for more information.

They require much less materials and offer much better ventilation so that you can stay cool and even have a fire under your shelter so that you can cook or stay warm even under some rain. If you’ve never done this type of camping before, you now have all the information you would need to get started.

Go tarp camping

Are you an experienced tarp camper? What did we miss or what tips do you have for fellow campers looking to leave their tents behind in favor of tarps? Let us know what suggestions you have or what advice you can offer so we can all learn the best ways of doing things.

But now that we know the basics about this type of camping there is really only one thing left to do: get out there and go camping. So, grab your tarp, your rope and whatever else you might need and let’s get out there.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Owens
Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.

  • Logan Moore

    I went tarp camping just once because of the bad first experience. During the day everything went fine, but during the night insects were just too annoying and wouldn’t let me sleep. I’d like to go camping again, but without insects if that’s possible. I know about the nets but I’d like to hear other options that worked for you.

    • Dennis Owens

      You can have a more pleasant experience when the weather and general season is calm. You can use insect repellants and portable insect killers to help you get a peaceful and good night sleep.

  • James Phillips

    I cook using a stove in my shelter. I always use it in early spring and late fall because of the temperatures and the humidity. I avoid it only when there are bears. The stove can really make difference. And I never forget to bring my bivy in case that weather really gets out of control.

    • Dennis Owens

      This is a great gameplan, James. It appears to be very convenient and very easy to setup. I would have to agree that you should be careful with bears, especially during the bear season, for safety reasons.

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