Tarp Camping

Camping With a Tarp: What You Need to Know


Camping with a tarp is becoming increasingly popular, so it’s handy to understand difference between a regular tarp and a specialized camping tarp.

Specialized gear is going to make your camping experience warmer, drier, and more enjoyable when learning how to camp with gear other than your standard tent.

Collecting additional equipment to use while you’re tarp camping is also essential.

Sleeping bags and mats, as well as structural tools such as stakes and rope, should be on your list of essential supplies to purchase before you embark on your camping adventures.

Camping with a tarp: What you need to know

Can You Use a Regular Tarp for Camping?

There are definitely scenarios in life where you simply have to make do. 

In these situations, camping with a regular tarp in your possession is certainly possible.

It may not be the warmest or driest night you’ve ever had, but it should be enough to get you through.

When thinking about tarpaulins, those heavy-duty sheets of polyethylene sitting in your back shed are probably what spring to mind. 

However, if you have time to prepare, there are many different tarpaulin options available to suit your personal camping requirements.

Camping tarps come in all sorts of different shapes, from hexagonal or diamond to simple squares and rectangles. 

Most are also kitted out with multiple metal eyelets for assembling between a couple of trees, staking into the ground, or for batting down the hatch in unexpected bad weather.

Specialized tarps are also recommended over regular tarps because they are lighter to carry and can often pack down much smaller. 

As you might imagine, having a large sheet of weatherproof material that can be folded in many different ways is convenient for a large range of camping scenarios.

Sometimes, you may need to make a simple A-frame tarp shelter, while in other scenarios it may be ideal to create a basic lean-to tarp shelter.

tarp camping in the lake district

How Do You Camp With Just a Tarp?

Deciding to camp with a tarp instead of a tent can be beneficial for a few reasons. 

Firstly, a tarp can be a lot more durable than a tent that has many seams and weak points.

Tarps are also a lot cheaper and pack down easier, with huge range of options for shelters and configurations that you can create with them.

There are so many different ways to camp with a tarp, such as turning it into a bivy shelter or a flat roof lean-to.

For this kind of function, a tarp with a diamond (or another shape with multiple corners) is recommended for attaching to trees or anchoring as many points into the ground as possible.

Aside from being your primary night shelter, tarps can be put up as an awning or windbreak during the day as well. 

This can work for both sun and light/moderate wind, and can even just be placed on the ground as a picnic mat.

One thing to note for using a tarp on the ground is to choose a fabric that is waterproof, so that moisture from the damp earth doesn’t soak up into it.

It’s really up to you to first decide what kind of camping you are looking to do. Once that’s determined, you can then look for the precise shape and size tarp to suit the terrain and climate of the location you’ll be camping in.

Is a Tarp As Good As a Tent?

There are many situations where the versatility of a tarp is much better than a tent. 

That being said, in the more extreme conditions you may encounter, you’ll definitely be better protected inside an enclosed tent.

If you’re looking for convenience, a tent may be a better option for you as there’s only one possible way to get a tent up correctly.

There is potential for a lot of user error when it comes to pitching a tarp, depending on the terrain around you and the difficulty of the technique you are using.

If you’re up for the challenge, there is plenty of material online and from outdoor equipment stores that you can use to help make the process easier.

In contrast, packing up a tent is a lot harder than folding a tarp away. 

Often, it’s the difficulty of packing up that takes up the most time when carrying all of your supplies and equipment away from the camp site in the morning. As such, packing away a tarp may save you a lot of time, frustration, and room in your backpack.

Tarps have so much flexibility when used correctly, in addition to being cheaper and lighter than a tent. 

If you’re looking for more of a challenge with some fun setups, tarp camping is direction I would be going in.

However, if you enjoy the ease of knowing exactly how to put your tent up with the guarantee of being fully enclosed and in your own little bubble, perhaps a tent is more suited for you.

In the end, it really can be hard to compare them without knowing each specific situation.

tarp camping setup in a forest

What Equipment You Will Need For Tarp Camping

While most items you need for tent camping come ready for use in the bag, there is a bit more preparation required for tarp camping. 

There are a few essential items you should make sure to pack when you are preparing for your trip:

A Tarp

The size of your chosen tarp and the number of attachment points it has will directly affect what tarp configurations you’re able to choose.

As a general rule, the more attachment points or metal eyelets the tarp has, the better.

Your tarp material is another thing to consider. To get the best durability and protection from wind and bad weather, consider materials such as canvas, vinyl and polyethylene.

A Groundsheet

Because a tarp isn’t fully enclosed, it is recommended that you use a water-resistant groundsheet with them in order to avoid moisture coming up from the ground beneath you. 

A plastic sheet or a second tarp could be used for this, but you may not need it at all depending on where you choose to set it up.

Rope or Guylines

You will need a way to tie your tarp up into whichever position you are requiring, and you will need either rope or guylines to do this properly.

Most tarp configurations will need 3 or less guylines.

Stakes will also be needed to anchor the ropes or guylines to the ground to help keep your tarp shelter secure.

Sleeping Equipment

Gear Assistant notes that a nylon or polyester sleeping bag is recommended for keeping you warm enough at night beneath an open-air tarp. 

A rubber or foam sleeping mat will also stop you from losing a lot of body heat through the ground as you sleep. Bug netting will be a lifesaver when it comes to keeping away mosquitoes and other pesky insects, as you won’t have the zipped doors you would have if you were in a tent.

Can a Tarp Shelter Keep You Warm?

Depending on the tarp you choose, it will be able to shelter you from a few different angles of wind and light rain simultaneously.

However, since you won’t be fully enclosed, you should expect a significant loss of body heat out from under the edges when you use it as a shelter.

It is important that you bring additional equipment such as a sleeping mat and a sleeping bag to keep you warm enough at night.

Any additional insulation helps, and even choosing a tarp that is a bit thicker than average will give you that much-needed extra bit of warmth.

Outward Bound note that any synthetic material is going to keep you warmer for longer, even when it gets wet. Tarps made from nylon, polyethylene, or even synthetic canvas are going to be more beneficial than natural fibers.

It’s vital that the tarp you choose provides you with the most dryness and warmth that it can.

In Summary: 

Tarp camping is an exciting and flexible way to camp – if you are willing to sleep outside of an enclosed space, that is!

It’s considered a more advanced form of camping but it does come with benefits such as making your backpack lighter and easier to pack away.

However, if you value the simplicity of a standard camping tent, there is nothing wrong with sticking to your tried and true.

With the right preparation, a tarp can keep you dry and sheltered in moderate to medium conditions, and will bring a stimulating sense of challenge to your camping trip. 

Have a look into which specialized tarps you may need for the terrain you’ll be visiting, and give it a go!

Mitch Taylor
With over 20 years experience with camping and hiking, I've taken it upon myself to share my insights. From common camping and hiking questions to gear recommendations, your adventure starts here.

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