by Andy Dappen

Late August through mid October – it’s an unrivaled time of year to backpack, climb, and mountain bike. The crowds are down, the heat has dropped, the weather is stable, the angled light is

People seem to divide two camps when it comes to overnight domiciles: those who love the airy shelter of tarps; and those who prefer the cloistered cocoons of tents. There’s a PhD thesis awaiting a would-be psychologists interested in studying the extroverted vs. introverted, public vs. private, open vs. closed character of people preferring one option over the other.

Of course, it could also be argued that many who favor tents assume that, because they are techie and pricey, they must provide better shelter. That’s a debatable supposition, so let a Luddite enumerate the beauties of the humble tarp.

  1. Low cost. Heavy-duty plastic and Tyvek make very functional tarps at a laughably low cost. Many years ago a group of five college friends and I canoed the length of the Inland Passage along the coastline of British Columbia. This is liquid country and we frequently endured rain for days at a time. Because we were cash-strapped students, we couldn’t afford tents — instead we strung plastic tarps each night for shelter. And those tarps kept us comfortably dry throughout our six-week trip. These days I much prefer tarps made of coated nylon or silicone-impregnated nylon (silnylon) because they are lighter, stronger, and pack smaller. Nylon tarps are expensive relative to plastic, but they’re still cheap compared to a good backpacking tent.
  2. Lightweight. A silnylon 8-foot by 10-foot tarp that can sleep two weighs about a pound. Three or four people can sleep under a 9’ x 11’ or a 10’ x 12’ tarp, which weigh about 1.3 pounds and 1.7 pounds respectively. By comparison, lightweight 2-person backpacking tents weigh 4 to 5 pounds while 4 person-tents tip the scales at 10-plus pounds. Note: each tarp user will also want a ground cloth that’s roughly 3’ x 7.5’ in size to sleep on — this adds 5 to 6 ounces of weight to each person’s load.
  3. Ventilation. In hot weather, the ventilated shade of a tarp is heaven next to the stifling steam inside a tent. Even when it’s cool, the fresh air of the outdoors has great appeal over the trapped flatulence of a tent mate.
  4. Close to nature. A tarp protects you from heat and moisture yet lets you enjoy the sun, moon, and stars. It’s a roof with picture windows.
  5. No floor. Tent lovers don’t always ‘get’ the pleasure of a floorless shelter until they’ve tried it awhile. Without a floor you can walk in and out of your shelter with boots on. You can fire-up a stove in the middle of your temporary home without worrying about spilling water, melting nylon, or transforming your domicile into the Hindenburg. In foul weather, men will also enjoy standing under a designated corner of the tarp and relieving themselves by aiming outward. While this sounds horrid in civilized company, it’s Nirvana on rainy nights.
  6. Head room. When calm weather favors a high pitch, the ability to dress, undress, stretch, and walk beneath a tarp is like a luxury hotel next to the hovel of a tent.
  7. Creativity and campcraft. Pitching a tarp to provide what’s most needed – whether that’s shade, wind shelter, or rain protection—takes some skill and smarts. The exercise is fun and fulfilling when you get it right.

If you’re willing to give tarps a fair shake, here are some recommendations:

    • Before committing to an expensive nylon or silnylon tarp, try an inexpensive Tyvek or blue-plastic tarp. To get Tyvek, which is used on houses as a vapor barrier between the plywood walls and the final siding, drop by a construction site and ask the contractor if you can purchase a chunk. Use this link for information about attaching cords to the corners of such a tarp. Google ‘tyvek tarp’ to research the topic. Note: Tyvek also makes a good ground cloth to sleep on.
    • What size tarp do you need? Use a 6-foot x 8-foot tarp or one person, 8’ x 10’ for 1 to 2 people, 9’ x 11’ for 3 to 4 people, and 10’ x 12’ for 4 to 5 people.
    • If you’re already sold on tarps, consider adding a silnylon tarp to your quiver of outdoor shelters. Silnylon gives you a remarkably strong but ridiculously light tarp. We’ve tested the silnylon (aka SilLite) tarps made by Granite Gear, Hilleberg, Cooke Custom Sewing, and GoLite and all of them are field worthy. The GoLite tarps we’ve used have come and gone from the product line (tarps are not a high-demand item) but check to see what’s currently available because GoLite products are usually an excellent bang for the buck. The White Lightnin tarps from Granite Gear, the Tarp 10 UL from Hilleberg and the Tundra Tarps from Cooke Custom Sewing have their perimeters and/or corners reinforced. This adds cost and a little weight. It also adds a lot of life to the products because the edges can be stretched and abused.


 Coming soon: Love of Tarps 2. We feature several quick-and-dirty methods to easily pitch a tarp most anywhere.


This post was originally published on 8/25/2008.

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