Depending on how savvy you are, putting a tent together can be quite a chore. There are poles, stakes, and all sorts of different components that need to be put together before you can have a comfortable place to sleep. While experienced campers will probably have a routine down to make the processes easier, there is no denying that at times it can be a real pain.
Luckily, there are other ways to put up a shelter that don’t involve nearly as much work and can be just as effective as a regular tent. One of the most effective tent alternatives is a tarp. It might seem dramatically simple compared to a tent, but a tarp can be just as effective, and, in many cases, it can also be more practical.
Before you make the switch away from tent camping, though, you will need to learn the essentials of tarp tent setup. It’s not too complicated, and by the time you finish reading this article you will be ready to go try it yourself.
The important thing to remember is that this type of camping, despite all its ease and practicality, is different, which means you shouldn’t expect the same experience as tent camping. However, for many, this will not be a problem and before you know it you will be heading out to the outdoors leaving your tent at home.
Why go tarp camping?
Before we go too far into the processes of setting up a tarp tent, let’s first take a look at why camping with a tarp instead of a tent is, at times, a better option. The main advantages of using a tarp are:
Tarps are more lightweight
The only things you need to camp with a tarp are the tarp itself and the rope you are going to use to suspend it in the air. There is no need to carry around heavy stakes or poles, which can both weight you down and take up valuable space in your bag. What is nice is that a tarp can easily be attached to the outside of your bag, which makes it even easier and more practical to carry around.
Tarps offer better ventilation
Since most tarp tents do not have sides, they offer much better ventilation. The main advantage of this is that you can make a fire underneath them or use gas heaters. For more tarp camping tips and guidelines, check our earlier article to find out more.
This is something you could never dream of doing in a regular tent since this would be beyond dangerous. Allowing more air to flow inside the tent opens the door for doing more activities, which prevents the rain from ruining your fun.
Extra ventilation also means tarps are great for areas with warm temperatures. During hot nights, tents can get stuffy quickly and even with windows, it can be very difficult to get air inside. With a tarp, air flows freely and keeps you nice and cool during those warm summer nights.
Tarps are easier to setup
As you will see later on when we go through how to put together a tarp tent, there is really almost nothing to the process. You simply need to find a good spot, tie some rope and throw the tarp over the roof. There is no need to put together finicky poles or to try and hammer stakes into hard ground. Those are nuisances specific to tent camping that you don’t need to worry about when using a tarp.
Tarps often allow for a bigger covered area
One nice thing about tarp camping is that you can cover a larger area. Tents tend to be quite restricting, but with a tarp, you can cover your whole camp area. This is great in rainy conditions. If you are using a tent, your only refuge from rain is inside the tent, which can cause some “cabin fever.”
If you use a tarp, especially a large one, you can cover off a much wider area which will allow you more flexibility and space to do things during the rain, such as cooking, playing cards or simply sitting around and reading.
Why to not go tarp camping?
Although there are a lot of advantages to using a tarp, there are a few downsides you should be aware of. The main negatives of tarp camping are:
Tarps protect you less from the elements and animals
If you are in an area that is windy or that is subject to sudden rains, a tarp might not be the best for you. Since tarps either don’t cover you entirely or do so very crudely, tarps can be rather impractical for more extreme climates. Additionally, if you are camping in an area where creatures such as mice, snakes or even bears might wander into camp, a tarp tent is not ideal.
Whereas a regular tent will at least give you some protection and make it a bit harder for these animals to get to you, a tarp tent will leave you completely exposed. If you are in areas surrounded by other campers, this probably won’t be a big issue, but it is something to keep in mind.
Tarps are not as sturdy as tents
Although it is much easier to set up tarps, this does come with a price. All that annoying pounding of stakes and placing of poles associated with a tent are helpful in that they secure the tent to the ground and prevent it from blowing away.
If you are in an area with unpredictable weather or near a body of water where winds can get strong, know that your tarp might not stand up to these elements.
However, this might end up being a bit of a non-issue, since being in an area like this does not lend itself to tarp camping in the first place. However, it is something to keep in mind. In the end, the better you can tie your rope to the tree, the sturdier your tarp will be.
Setting up your Tarp
In general, there are two different types of tarp tents that you can use. They are:
The main difference is that a suspended tarp tent makes no attempt to shelter you from wind or to cover the sides. This is much better for when you would like to cover a large area for a lot of people or to do different activities. It is not ideal if you are looking for a genuine way to protect yourself from the elements.
The grounded tent, on the other hand, does try to protect you, although crudely. It uses just one tree or some other support and then attaches to things closer to the ground to try and protect you from the elements. Although it does not provide anywhere near the level of protection that a sealed, professional tent would, it can be an effective way to make shelter and to stay warm and out of the wind.
We will go over exactly what you will need for each type of tent and how to go about setting them up.
The Suspended Tarp
Again, this is the type of tarp coverage you would want to use if you are looking to cover a wide area, or if you are in a place where wind and animals will be an issue. Setting it up is fairly straightforward.
The first thing you will need is to gather materials. You will need:
Rope – Look for 3/8” thick nylon rope. You want it to be sturdy and you do not want it to be slipping and sliding. Fifty feet should be enough, but you could bring as much as 100 and then just cut the rope accordingly. With rope, it is always better to have more rather than less.
Tarp – This one should have been obvious. The size depends totally on how you plan to use the tarp. If you are just looking for something to cover a small area so that you can cook or sleep, 10’ x 10’ should be plenty. However, if you are looking for something to cover the entire area that you are camping in, you might need to go as big as 25’ x 25’. Just keep in mind how you are planning to carry it.
A 100 square foot tent folds up nicely and can be carried attached to a backpack, but the bigger the tent gets the more cumbersome it will be to carry around. The one thing you want to make sure your tent has is some reinforced holes in the corners. If the tarp you have doesn’t have these, consider trying to install them as it will make setting the tarp up much easier and more effective.
Knife or scissors – Almost no matter what, you will need to cut the rope, so having something like this along with you will make your life much easier.
And that is it. We told you there was much less to worry about. With just a tarp and some rope you have everything you need for a tent. To set it up, follow these steps:
Find your spot – In many ways, this is likely the most difficult part. You need to find a spot that will first accommodate all the things you are planning to cover. If you want your picnic table, grill, and sleeping area to be covered, you will need to find an open area big enough to fit all these things that is also surrounded by enough trees to be able to secure the tent. The trees are the next most important thing to look for.
The area you are going to cover needs to be surrounded by about 4-5 trees. This is how you are going to suspend the tent so pay close attention to this.
Attach support rope – Once you have your spot picked out, you need to pick two trees to help attach the support rope. Think of the area you are going to cover as a square or circle, and then imagine the support rope going all the way through the middle. If it’s a square, you want to cut it in two parts but not through the diagonal.
Once you’ve found these trees, simply tie one end of the rope about 7-8 feet high and then run the line across the area you plan to cover and attach it the tree on the other side. After doing this, cut the line.
Put the tarp in place – This step is fairly straightforward. Simply grab your tarp and throw it over the support rope you just put up. Do it in the same way you imagined the square in the previous step, splitting the tarp in half, but not through the corners.
Secure the corners – Now, go to each corner and lift it up to your desired height. Then, figure out the length between the corner and the nearest tree you plan to attach it to. Cut the appropriate amount of rope, and then attach it to the corner of the tarp. Then, run the rope to the tree and tie it tight. Repeat this for the other corners.
And there you have it, your tarp tent is set up and ready to go. Not so bad, right?
The Grounded Tarp
This tarp setup is not all that different from the suspended tarp, but it covers a much smaller area and requires a few different steps. Here are the materials you will need:
Rope – You will need much less rope, maybe only 10-20’. Again, more is always better as you can cut it, but you will not need as much as for other tarp tents.
Tarp – Of course. You can’t make a tarp tent without this. For this type of tent, you will probably want something much smaller. Anything bigger than 15’ by 15’ will probably become quite a challenge to handle.
Pole or Stick – This will help to make the shape of your tent. It should be between 4-8’ tall, depending on how big you would like the area under the tarp to be.
Small shovel or spade – You will need something to dig a small hole for the support pole or stick. If you are camping in an area where you can’t dig a hole, you will have to get creative with your rope to find a way to secure the pole, or use a tree instead.
In terms of materials, this is all that you will need. To set up this type of tent, follow these steps:
Choose your spot – Unlike the suspended tent, the area you choose for this grounded tent does not need to be as large. The most important thing is that is flat. You will likely only use this tent for sleeping, so make sure you pick an area you will be comfortable lying on. The other thing to look out for is where you will attach the tarp. You need things that are close to the ground, such as tree trunks, roots or big rocks. You may need to clear an area to make the best spot.
Prop up support pole – Once you have chosen the area for your tent, you need to place the support pole. Imagine your tent fully set up and then place the pole where the entrance would be. If you can find a small tree, even better. If not, you will need to dig a small hole to secure the pole or even use some rope to tie it up.
Place tarp – Unfold your tarp and place the middle of one of the sides over the support pole. Then, spread the rest of the tarp out so that it forms a sort of pyramid. You want the sides and corners to be as close to the ground as possible, if not directly touching.
Secure tarp – Now, take the rope and cut four small pieces. You want each piece to be long enough to extend from the corner of the tarp to the object you are going to secure it to. Once you have four small pieces. Simply tie each one to the corner of the tarp and then stretch it to the trunk, root or boulder you are going to attach it to. Tie it tight so that the tarp fits snugly against the ground, but not so tight that the whole structure will come falling down with the slightest bit of wind or pressure.
And that’s all there is to it. The only additional thing you might need to do is to use some rope to secure the pole. This might be needed in areas where you can’t dig holes or in situations where there might be heavy winds or rain and you need some extra strength.
So, as you can see, setting up a tarp tent is really not a big challenge. There are loads of benefits to this type of camping, and once you get the hang of putting up the tent, there are very few reasons not to use a tarp. Of course, there are some situations where a tarp doesn’t make a lot of sense, but you’ll figure these out pretty quickly.
However, tarps can still be used in situations when they aren’t being used as a tent. For example, you could use a tarp to cover off your camp area to protect from rain, but then still use a tent to keep warm at night and fend off any unwanted critters.
What did we miss? Do you have any questions that we didn’t discuss? Have you used a tarp when camping? If so, what was your experience? Share your experiences, and let us know how we can help.
For some tips on how to make your own tarp tent, read our article on this topic.