Under a tarp I feel free.
No doors, no walls. Sheltered from the rain in just the right ways. No less, and no more. Free to observe my surroundings even in a down pour. Free to reach out and touch the very thing I came out here to experience.
A tarp allows me to pursue the style of backpacking I prefer most. Light, fast, and efficient. Unburdened by weight, by things, free to do as I wish, and I wish to hike. Carrying only what I need, teetering on the edge of highly prepared, and crazy.
For my 4,700 mile ECT thru hike I’ll be using a tarp as my shelter. A rather small one at that, a 5×9 poncho tarp. Not only is this my house for the night, it is also my rain gear. For this hike I’ll be coupling it with a water resistant bivy, which acts as a shell for myself and my quilt while I sleep. Giving me a little added protection from the elements. In total this setup weighs just slightly over 1lb, and also allows me to forgo a rain jacket.
While a poncho tarp still being the reigning champion of ultralight shelters, some of the larger tarps are an absolute palace. A true wonder to hang out under. With twice or three times the space underneath them that any tent could offer for a fraction of the weight and cost, a tarp is hard to push aside as something you’ll never try. For me, it only took once. I haven’t looked back since!
Here I thought I’d showcase my tarp and bivy a little bit, as this will be my home for 6 months. The cuben fiber Pro Poncho Tarp, and the silnylon Superlight Bivy by Mountain Laurel Designs. My tarp is my space ship, and I am the captain on this journey through the galaxy.
The Eastern Continental Trail starts in Canada and travels the entire length of the east coast along the Appalachian mountain range, far down into Florida. I’ll be going through just about everything this side of the continent can throw at me, and I’m very confident in this shelter system to not only be extremely light on my back, but also in it’s ability to keep me dry and happy.
Often used as a really fast and efficient pitch. Although not the greatest protection in a storm as rain can blow under on three sides, and you only have protection from the wind on one side. For those nights where you’re camping in a spot with a beautiful view and only need a little bit of insurance this is what I would use. Or similarly for those nights when a big storm isn’t imminent, and I just want to get in and out.
Great in a storm but you have absolutely no head room. If you pitch it higher for more space you are almost asking for rain to splash and blow underneath defeating the purpose. As much as I’ve used my tarp in this configuration for the value of protection, it’s not always ideal for that home-like atmosphere. Still, I love it, and it has always been my go to in the past. Possibly because it was the first pitch I learned. This is also probably the most standard of all tarp configurations. By pegging the corners to the ground this becomes extremely useful in nasty storms.
Some say this doesn’t give you much space, but I have usually been pretty happy, although I don’t deny that its not as roomy as some other pitches. The half pyramid is great for shedding wind coming from a certain direction, while also providing a bit more coverage than a lean-to on the sides. I’ve used this in some nasty conditions and it worked well for me. I always tried pitching the open side up against a tree or in some bushes to keep rain from splashing inside. This was the second pitch I learned, and boy did I over use this one. Extremely easy to setup.
I don’t use this very often but it excels at covering you from high wind on one side. I’ve read of a guy who used this pitch exclusively on a thru hike of the PCT. Possibly because it’s easy to do. It does provide good coverage against rain, and plenty of space to store gear being it’s very flat, but very little head room.
Much like a lean-to but far more head space, and room to sit up underneath. Potentially a more preferable pitch under the same circumstances. Although this looks very open it truly provides a lot of coverage. A quick change in guyline length in the front or adding some small ones on the back corners makes this great for light rain. Easy and quick to set up, and allows easy access/egress. A small tarp provides the most coverage when it’s pitched as flat as possible, making this(and variations on this) a good option.
I am obviously no master, but have found that these basic pitches, with many variations on them, do me right when I need them most.
Why a Tarp?
I think a better question is… why must I be so difficult!!
I used tents for most of my backpacking life, and no, not yet have I tried hammock camping! A tent was safe, it was easy, it was obvious. I had 4 walls to protect me from the boogieman, and keep any prying eyes away from my candy and chips. I had a floor to separate me from any unwanted ground condition. I had space to live in. I had peace of mind. But you know what they say about comfort zones. They need to be broken. Nothing good ever came from someone who never steps outside.
I decided since using a tarp as my shelter would mean my backpack would weigh pounds less, I should give it a try. Who doesn’t want their pack to be lighter? I knew it would require me to learn how to tie a few knots, at least once! So I did. Got myself a tarp, briefly learned, tied, and forgot said knots. Set myself up for my first trip with an a-frame configuration, and would you believe it? I really enjoyed myself.
Everything a tent had, a tarp could do as well. In a few cases a tarp does it even better. I still had my peace of mind, and with every trip I take my confidence in my tarp grows.
In other words, I was now much happier with my $90 tarp than I was with my $400 tent. A fraction of the weight, for a fraction of the cost, with twice the space.
Tips & Tricks
- Bugs: In Florida, we have a lot of mosquitoes during certain times of the year so I’m often asked about what to do. Here’s a few options. Find a spot to camp that allows for good airflow, and pitch accordingly so a breeze can run under your tarp. The moving air often times helps to literally blow them away. Also, look for campsites away from water, as that is the spawning ground of these vile creatures. In times where that’s not enough, and mosquito are so thick I can’t think, I’ve used a bivy bag. It goes under your tarp and shields you from the hoards, as well as providing other benefits like a guard from splashing rain. Sometimes call a “net tent,” you have the choice of taking it with you, or saving the weight in other seasons by leaving it at home. Some earplugs will help to forget about them, as well as Permethrin and deet to keep them away all together. Should go without saying but in the winter, bugs aren’t an issue. In a lot of states, bugs aren’t an issue at all. In most cases I at least carry a small headnet with a hat to prop it off my face, and my quilt keeps the bugs off the rest of my body.
- Site selection: Look for bushes and trees that will compliment the way you’d like to pitch your tarp. Tree cover or a nearby shrub can really add to the room you can make yourself underneath, covering areas from blowing rain that otherwise would be wide open. Having a canopy above you also greatly helps reduce condensation issues. For more info on that check this out.
- Setting up in the rain: Don’t wait until it’s already raining! Do the safe thing and find shelter before the storm hits. If that’s not applicable to you, it’s quick and easy to pitch a tarp and stow your pack beneath it in a storm. With tents I found that I’d always get water inside them, some tents you even have to erect it and then put on the rain fly, leaving your bed open to the elements while you fiddle with the second half of your shelter. When it comes to tarps, once you have it pitched, that area underneath is safe to unroll your dry ground sheet, unload your gear, and relax.
- Bigger is better: The bigger the tarp, the happier you will be. With a small tarp there isn’t much room for error, where as with a large tarp(say an 8×10 or bigger) you have more than enough space for you and someone else to seek refuge away from the weather.
- Avoid drainage ditches: Rather, don’t set up in a rut, or depression. A tent offers a “bathtub floor” but in a tarp what’s seperating you from the ground is just a sheet of fabric, not raised walls. This is of no issue, and is not to be worried about, if you aren’t going to set up in a dished site. This often means, avoiding campsites that are used over and over, and looking for a spot less worn.
- Polycro or Tyvek: I think the rule is, use Tyvek for ground that may have lots of pointy things, like rocks or desert flora, because the material is much more durable. Polycro is far lighter but won’t last as long. So for you inflatable mattress users, Tyvek may be the better option to avoid puncture. I use Polycro and haven’t had an issue on my trips to the AT or FT.
- Mini carabiners: I got the idea from Pepper of using ‘biners as a way to easily change which tie outs my guylines are on. It does add some weight having 8 really small ones(for you gram geeks) but the ability to quickly change how I want to set up my tarp makes it worth it to me.
There’s no doubt that a tarp takes a bit more thought than a tent. Which often has meant it’s more for a hardcore user, but I don’t think a hardcore backpacker has to be the only one to enjoy the benefits. I certainly wasn’t when I first started using one. With just a little bit of research you can get going. Although, for your tarps maiden voyage I would avoid high bug season. Not needing a bug net while sleeping under a tarp is truly magical. The openness to nature is one of my favorite things about tarp camping. Amplified when bugs aren’t around.
Not all tarps are created equal. The different ways you can set up a tarp are seemingly endless, and they even come in many different shapes and sizes. What you have seen here is a flat tarp with a few panel pull outs. It’s been good to me, but then again a shaped tarp(a mid, or something similar) may even be a better option in a lot of situations. If you’re looking for help on deciding what to get, drop me a line. There is no perfect shelter, but this is what I like.
Remember… practice makes perfect.