Tarp Camping, Tents

Tent Footprint vs Tarp: Which is Best?


When it comes to deciding exactly how you’re going to protect the bottom of your tent from wear and tear, it pays to do your research.

In this article, we’re going to outline the key differences between a tent footprint vs tarp.

After reading this article, you’ll hopefully be able to decide which option is best for your particular situation. Let’s get into it.

tent footprint vs tarp: Which is best?

Tent Footprint vs Tarps: What’s the Difference?

To make a choice between tarps and tent footprints, it’s important to know the exact differences between the two.

Though they perform similar functions in a camping environment, there are a myriad of differences between the two which we will now explore.

What is a Tent Footprint?

So, what exactly is a tent footprint?

A tent footprint is a piece of fabric designed to be placed on the ground underneath your tent. 

Tent footprints will shield your tent from the rough ground and prevent damage to the base. 

Most tent footprints are specifically designed on a tent-by-tent basis. 

They are secured to the tent itself, adding stability, protection- and even extra warmth, if the tent footprint is insulated.

They are sturdy and durable, especially when compared to tarpaulins; using a tent footprint regularly is a must if you find yourself camping on rough ground.  

Then again, there’s certainly no harm in using one on soft ground either. 

Overall, a tent footprint is a worthy addition to any camper’s arsenal.

What is a Tarp/Tarpaulin?

You may now be wondering: What on earth is a tarp, and what is a tarpaulin? 

Is there a difference between the two?

The answer is no. 

They both refer to the same thing; namely, a sheet of material, usually plastic, useful for waterproofing in a diverse variety of situations.

One situation where tarps come in especially handy is when you want to protect the floor of your tent from ground wear and tear. 

They are also excellent for preventing moisture damage, as well as increasing your tent’s interior warmth by providing waterproof functionality.

One benefit of taking a tarp camping is that you might already have one lying around, and so you won’t have to go shopping in vain to search for the far less common tent footprint.

Another significant advantage is that tarps are far cheaper than tent footprints- because there’s really just nothing fancy about them.

Most frequently, they’re a blue, green or black sheet of plastic material, and are not designed with the express purpose of camping in mind. They’re more of a general-use tool than any sort of specialized camping equipment.

tent in a field with a tent footprint in place

Is a Tent Footprint Better Than a Tarp?

Like anything, tent footprints and tarps both have their pros and cons. Let’s now explore in detail what makes each unique!

Tent Footprint Pros

  • Increases durability and longevity of your tent by protecting against abrasion from the ground
  • Helps to keep the base of your tent clean by providing a layer between the tent base and dirty ground
  • Certain designs allow you to pitch your rainfly before setting up the tent’s interior, allowing you to keep everything dry if you have to set up camp in the rain. However, these designs are usually tent-specific, and not available for all
  • Can often be used as a tarp, or poncho

Tent Footprint Cons

  • Tent footprints are typically far heavier than a tarp, and therefore more difficult to carry to your campsite due to the added weight and bulk
  • They’re also far more expensive than tarps- usually between the $30 to $80 range, which can be hard to justify after just spending a couple hundred on a new tent!

Tarp Pros

  • Tarps are dirt cheap. A standard tarp can be picked up for no more than $5, with heavier-duty models being more expensive. Still, it’s much more economical than a tent footprint
  • They’re a very common item. You may already have a couple of tarps lying around your garage, or in your trailer
  • Versatile. Along with using it as a tent floor, you can use a tarp to carry loads, cover trailers, set up rain-proof shelters and bivouacs, and more
  • Lightweight. Tarps are easier to transport to difficult locations and less bulky than a tent footprint

Tarp Cons

  • Tarps are not specifically designed for use under tents. A tarp will lay under your tent, whereas a tent footprint will be fixed to your tent base in some way. 
  • Uninsulated. Tarps are generally comprised of not much more than a sheet of plastic. As such, quite a lot of heat will escape through the bottom of your tent, especially if you have not insulated it in any other manner
  • Can be weaker than tent footprints, due to their general-purpose design. A random stone or stick has a higher chance of tearing through a tarp than it does of going through a tent footprint

Is it Worth Getting a Footprint for a Tent?

Whether a tent footprint is worth buying depends on the level of comfort or discomfort you’re prepared to endure- if that’s something that bothers you at all. 

If your expectation of camping is that the cold hard ground of Mother Nature should be equal in softness to your bed at home, it’s probably an excellent idea that you buy a tent footprint. 

This way, your tent will be as comfortable and warm as possible. 

At the same time, your tent will also stay in better condition afterward due to the added protection a tent footprint provides. Your tent will definitely survive for longer if you use a tent footprint every time.

However, if you’re accustomed to the idea of camping and are comfortable with the difference between sleeping indoors and out, then a tarp should suit you and your tent just fine. 

Additionally, it is a far cheaper and easier option. Isn’t camping, at its core, about going back to the basics- rather than imposing the comforts of your home upon the untamed wilderness?

So, is it worth getting a footprint for your tent? 

For the added warmth, durability, and comfort factor: I’d say it’s worth it if you can afford one.

However, if the experience of camping means more to you than staying comfortable (and you haven’t got hundreds of spare dollars to blow) it might not be worth the price. You’d be better off with a good ol’ tarp in this case.

Tarps can also be used as a makeshift shelter should anything go awry on your camping adventure.

In Summary

There are definitely a few clear benefits and disadvantages to both tent footprints and tarps. 

For the seasoned camper who takes the condition of their tent seriously (and who isn’t afraid to shell out the extra dollars) a tent footprint is wholly worth its price. 

You’ll be more comfortable, and the base of your tent will be able to endure for far longer than if you didn’t use a tent footprint.

However, if you’re a casual camper or someone who mainly camps on soft terrain free of sticks and stones, you most likely do not need a tent footprint. 

This also applies if your tent’s fiber strength is over 30 denier. In these cases, using a tarp is just fine.

Neither are strictly necessary- so weigh up the options, and make the best decision to fit your needs.

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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