OUTDOOR BASICS

Tarp Camping: Simple Camping with Simple Tools

Tarp camp setup
Daniel Carraway
Written by Daniel Carraway

When talking about the time-honored outdoor recreational activity that is camping, there are equipment and gear that are widely considered to be “conventional.” With that said, there’s nothing more conventional than camping using a trusty tent. While it’s truly ideal to camp with a tent, it does have its fair share of drawbacks.

One such drawback is the fact that a tent can add significant weight to your backpacking load. For minimalist hikers and campers who like keeping things lightweight, a tent is out of the question. It’s a good thing that a tent is not the only form of shelter that you can use when camping. For minimalist outdoor enthusiasts, tarp camping is the way to go.

What is tarp shelter camping?

In essence, tarp tent camping is basically camping that uses the simplest shelter of all: the tarp. Camping with a tarp might be a strange idea for many people but it’s actually one of the oldest shelter designs out there. One of the most simple tarp shelter configurations utilizes just the pole and the tarp.

Simple tarp tent

If you manage to find a spot that has a tree or large rock, you could even do away with the pole. For the simplest setup, you just put all four corners of a tarp off the camping ground. You then take the each corner of the tarp and tie it off to a tree, rock, pole or any other tall structure.

The center of the tarp needs to be raised in order to shed rain. Alternatively, you can raise one corner and lower the opposite to allow the tarp to drain. This is actually quite useful if you’re trying to collect water.

Why switch to a tarp shelter for camping?

Just the thought of a tarp tent setup, as opposed to a full-size tent, might make many people feel uncomfortable. However, it’s not really as uncomfortable as many people would think. A tarp is actually a reliable and legitimate shelter, provided that you actually have the proper tent-erecting skills. Why switch to a tarp shelter? Here are the reasons that we can think of:

You are claustrophobic

For a claustrophobic person, the cozy interior of a nylon wrapper tent can result in a disorienting and uncomfortable experience. It’s a good thing that tarps can be pitched with ceilings that are high enough for you to stand under and open on all the sides.

Claustrophobia friendly tent

For a shelter with drastically less weight, tarps can be big enough to house a dozen campers while they’re protected from the torrential rain outside. With a simple tart tent setup, you will also be able to observe your surroundings quite easily.

You love gazing at the stars

We go camping because we want to be one with nature. With a tent, you are zipping yourself up in a shelter that denies you the ability to observe the awe-inspiring night sky. There’s nothing more breathtaking than marveling at the starlit sky on a clear night. If you love stargazing, camping with a tarp might be more appropriate.

You’re not a fan of late-night bathroom runs

With a traditional tent, you need to unzip it so you can go outside to tend to the call of nature and zip the tent back again as you go back to bed. This can be quite cumbersome especially when you just want to relieve yourself. If you’re using a tarp, you can just roll to the side to access nature’s urinal. No need for zipping or unzipping anything.

You want to pack light

If you want to go the traditional tent camping, you could be adding significant weight to your backpacking load. However, if you’re not too thrilled of lugging around a tent and want something a lot less lighter, a tarp is a solid lightweight option. The heaviest of tarps are only half as heavy as the lightest tents.

Tarp tent by the river

There is one particular type of tarp called cuben fiber tarps which only weighs about two ounces – that’s about as light as a chocolate bar. By going with a tarp, you’ll be getting those weight savings which is best for bringing something extra like food.

It can be used as a rain gear

With a little ingenuity, you can use your tarp to protect yourself from the rain as you move. Many manufacturers have made a silnylon poncho-tarp which can be used to take the place of a rain jacket or pants, and even your pack cover. This type of tarp is also breathable which simply can’t be said with normal form-fitting rain gear.

You’re a budget camper

Camping can be quite an expensive affair especially if you’re planning to go all in, and that includes investing in a heavy-duty tent. High quality tents can fetch for really high prices which is out of the question for hikers and campers on a budget.

This is why a tarp shelter is a perfect alternative for the budget-conscious campers. For as little as $10, it’s possible to fashion a single person tarp from materials that you can get from a local hardware store. If you fancy a more expensive option, single-person silnylon tarp will only cost you about $70.

It’s the minimalist camper’s choice

Nothing says you’re “one with nature” than sleeping using a tarp shelter, aside from not having a shelter at all which could lead to unnecessary dangers.

You seek versatility

Tents need to be pitched in a fixed area where there’s enough space and clearance. Finding the ideal camping grounds can be quite a challenge in itself. On the other hand, camping with a tarp allows for some real versatility and not as restrictive as a tent.

You can easily pitch your tarp with a setup that fits the site. For example, if the area is too small for a full size tarp setup, you can opt to use the smaller A-frame setup instead. There are many tarp setups out there that you could use for many different situations.

Hanging tarp tent

It’s not as uncomfortable as most people would believe: Open air camping? What about the bugs? This line of questioning is quite common when it comes to camping using a tarp. This is quite understandable considering that you’re quite exposed when using a tarp shelter.

However, it’s not as uncomfortable as you might think. At night, all you need is a bug netting to offset the drawbacks of camping with a tarp. Or perhaps, you can just wear a headnet and cover the rest of your body with a quilt. If it’s a particularly cold night, pitch the tarp in a tight A-frame setup to keep you protected from the wind.

As you can see, there are quite plenty of advantages with using a tarp for your camping shelter. The very idea of learning about tarp shelter camping can be an exciting prospect by itself. This will not only please the minimalist in you, it might even get your creative juices flowing by learning many different tarp setups.

Tips on how to pitch a tarp

To get the most out of your tarp tent camping experience, you should know the basics of a proper setup. You can’t just throw them up and expect that you’ll be properly sheltered from anything other than a perfect weather. Don’t head out without keeping these tips in mind.

  1. Location, location, location – it’s about as cliché as it gets but location is everything when it comes to camping in general – even more so if you’ll be using a tarp. Having a plain floor is great for cooking but you’ll get wet eventually. There are ridgetops but they can be too windy and flat meadows provide no ability to drain water. Search for a high ground area but not too high. You can use the center pole to accommodate a sloping ground but it’s best to go for a flat area.
  2. Anchors – unlike traditional tents, tarp shelters rely on building good anchors especially on the corners. For the best stability and durability, you can opt for aluminum tent stakes to anchor your tarp. Anchors are simply key to tarp shelter success.
  3. Center poles – if you are going to utilize the center pole tarp configuration, you will need center poles. If you can, opt for aluminum or carbon fiber poles since they have enough strength to withstand bending and compression forces. If you are looking to save more weight, a stick, paddles or skis can serve as your center pole. For more usable space, hang the tarp in a tree or in between large rocks.
  4. Doors – the door of the tarp or rather the mouth should not be placed in the lee of a prevailing wind. Otherwise, it’s a good way to have your tarp blown out or inflate like an air balloon when opened.
  5. Digging a trench – refrain from digging a trench around the shelter. Not only are trenches destructive but it can lead to massive overuse because it encourages other campers to settle there. Always opt for a designated camping ground.
  6. Packing up – packing up your tarp shelter is about as easy as it gets. Simply pull up the stakes or untie the cords in the corners, remove the center pole and you’ll be packed up in no time. Conventional tents just don’t offer this kind of convenience.

Common tarp setups

As you ease yourself into tarp shelter camping, it’s best if you learn about the most common setups. It’s a good thing you’ve found this article because below are some of the most common tarp setups out there:

A-Frame

The most basic tarp shelter configuration is the A-frame which is considered a classic because it’s really easy and quick to set up. This setup provides decent protection against the weather as well as good ventilation.

A frame tarp

For this setup, you will need 4 stakes and a ridge-line. Just tie or hook the ridge-line first, then proceed to stake the four corners to the ground. You can adjust the angle of the “A” by raising or lowering the ridge-line and staking the corners closer in or further out.

Diamond

If you plan to do hammock camping, you’ll find that the Diamond setup is more appropriate. This is because the diagonal distance is longer than the length of the sides, providing more space above the hammock. The Diamond gives you a nice view of the surroundings and the ventilation is on point.

However since the angle is not that steep on the open side, heavy precipitation will start to accumulate. There will also be a snag in the middle of the tarp which will catch precipitation as opposed to shedding it.

Plough-point

This setup is named as such because the shape resembles a farmer’s plough and it requires 3 stakes. It looks similar to the Diamond with only two sides that are touching the ground. This is another setup with great ventilation but its concave design and high point can trap air flow which makes it not ideal for windy conditions. To mitigate this problem, you could opt to pitch the tarp against a boulder.

Pup tent A-Frame

This setup is based on the old pup tents that are popular during the World War II, Korea, and Vietnam wars. The configuration is very cramped but is an ideal setup for low profile or stealth camping. Using a tarp, you need to tie a ridge-line very low to the ground.

Modded pup tent

You then peg the next two tie-outs on each corners to the ground. The excess flaps of tarp can be tucked inside and be used as a groundsheet.

These are just some of the many tarp configurations that you can find out there. There are more advanced configurations but these setups are just the basic ones and highly recommended for newbie tarp campers.

Final thoughts

It’s hard to imagine camping without the traditional tent. However, if you are ready to explore your options and want a minimalist solution to camp shelter, you should consider getting a tarp. As we have outlined her, it has a lot of benefits and many of them are not found in conventional tents. Tarp shelter camping might just be the idea that will add a new dimension to your outdoor activities.

Easy tarp tent setup

So, have we convinced you to try camping with a tarp? Let us know in the comments. If you have tried tarp camping before, feel free to share you experiences and tips below. Happy camping!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Carraway
Daniel Carraway

Daniel Carraway joined our team last year. He is a gear freak when it comes to hiking, climbing and camping. He went to REI Outdoor School to meet new people and learn best practices. Don’t even try to argue with him about the latest backpack or ice axe, he tried most of them. Daniel’s dream is to climb Mount Everest.

  • Jay Cooley

    I love tarp camping. I think it makes you feel much more connected to the nature that surrounds you. I sent up the tent in a number of different styles, depending on where I am, including creating the occasional tepee as my grandmother taught me to do as a child, when the right kinds of resources are around.

  • Daniel Carraway

    Depending on the season and the number of mosquitoes around (LOL), tarp camping is a great idea. My buddies and I usually camp out with some opting to use tarps instead of tents. I think it works great since if the weather gets really bad, they can just transfer to some of our tents which usually has a 2-person capacity.

  • Tonya Murphy

    You had me at minimalist and budget. I am all about minimizing. It just feels so free to not have so much stuff to carry around. And of course who can’t benefit from a good budget saving tip. When I picture camping in my head, this is what I picture. I am definitely trying this out and soon. It’s almost perfect weather for something like this.

  • Phyllis Perez

    If I could do this and have a nice mat under my sleeping bag I would totally do this. There’s a place in the national park here where it is so dark you can clearly see the Milky Way. And to be able to see it and sleep under it is just an amazing experience. Definitely keeping this article when I want to head out that way this summer. Thanks!

  • Daniel Carraway

    That seemed such a special place Phyllis! You can easily do that and I know how camping under the stars feel like. Nothing is quite like it! I really encourage everyone to try camping even once in their lifetime. I know that the experience will change how they will appreciate nature.

    I hope you go this summer Phyllis. And tell us about your experience, will you?

  • Daniel Carraway

    Summer and spring are great for camping. You can even pack a hammock for a more laid back and simpler way to experience sleeping under the stars. Have a budget ready for your needs and work around that. It doesn’t have to be expensive, you know.
    You can go to campsites near you to cut on costs. There are even DIY stoves that you can do to make the experience more affordable. Besides, it will be so fun.
    Don’t forget to ask your friends and family to tag along. 🙂

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