Tarpaulin: what it is and what it can do
Staying Dry While Tent Camping
Tarps are a type of ultra-coverage large rainfly. But they do so much more than that. And are prone to many more issues than that.
My banner image is of a tarp that’s in its third decade of life. Yes, it is 30+ years old, although we don’t always use it now and it’s thinning quite rapidly. Fair warning: tarps aren’t made to last like this anymore. They just aren’t. Much like our cars, computers, and clothes, tarps are made more cheaply than they used to be. Grommets get machine-punched wrong, you may have to return a tarp that has a tear in it when you open the package, and the thickness is never as much as you want it to be.
However, much like the tie-outs, tarps play a very important role in keeping you safe, dry, warm, and ventilated. A tarp can cover you, be under you, act as an emergency blanket in a cold snap, block or funnel wind, and provide protection from falling branches/hail/etc.
Below I’m going to discuss different placements of tarps, and how each can help various weather conditions. Please note, the different placements can all be done with the same type of tarp. Unless you are spending a higher amount of money, a 10mil tarp is the best bet and can go anywhere you need. Unless you’re stuck, or it’s an emergency, don’t both with the 5mil: they aren’t worth the price and they tear easily.
If you are hiking to your camping site, I recommend spending the extra money for the Eureka thin single tarps – they are a great fit for motorcycle camping too! (Depending on the type, they may not have grommets, but with minimal equipment that means fewer stakes to worry about.)
Also, some tarps are being marketed as “double sided” which I find somewhere between silly and confusing. any tarp can be double-sided. However, one side of a tarp is always going to have stitching, which can puddle water so I recommend keeping that side faced down. Then again, there are more and more tarps now where one side is a different color, so depending on the heat/cooling you are looking for or your personal color preferences, you may want one side facing up more than the other. The amount of rain collection on the tarp is not worth losing the heat/cooling affect you’re after, so go with your gut.
Having a tarp over you is like having a pop-up gazebo above your living space. Depending on how you place it, and how big it is, you can have your tarp cover your entire footprint or just a section. I recommend a bare minimum of your tent plus 2 feet on every side.
Preferably your tarp will never touch the top of your tent. Using rope and bungees, well connected to the grommets at steady intervals, you can have your tarp shaped like an A-frame, or sloped like a slide over the entire tent. As I discussed with the rainfly, anywhere that gets saturated is a place that can drip, but if there is space between your tarp and rainfly the water should stream to the lowest point, possibly holding off the dripping stage forever.
Speaking of lowest point, you want that spot to be away and downhill of your tent. When a corner of a tarp is the lowest point, it’s going to get all of the water from two sides of the tarp, and when it’s sloped at a single angle it will get the water from the entire surface area. Due to this, you don’t want all that water immediately heading directly to your tent. Hopefully it will all just travel under your tent, but it’s an unnecessary risk when you can just have the puddle/stream form downhill of your tent and away from your belongings.
Even if you put a central line down the center of your tent and build an A-frame, you can make sure the water flows away from your tent through the placement of your low points. I’m going to talk about tent placement more tomorrow, but for the tarp itself, note if the sides or ends or corners can be made lower and take advantage of your topography.
A tarp over your tent can also help with the temperature inside your tent. When you are camping in the summer in full/partial sun, a lighter color tarp will help keep everything cool. When camping in colder conditions, the brown/dark blue shades will help absorb heat and keep everything a little warmer. If you’re like me and hate being cold in 90-degree weather then use a dark blue year round, although your family might complain.
This is the tarp placed under your tent to keep the bottom from becoming a lake.
There are two schools of thought about the tarps that go under a tent:
- Fold all of the hanging edges under fully to keep the most amount of water away, and
- Have a section hanging out, particularly in the front to act as an entryway or for supplies
Personally, I go for the first method, but I do see the perks of the second. I, however, don’t camp with a ton of extra stuff, and don’t eat meat while camping (yet another discussion for later) so I don’t need to worry about keeping items “cold” merely “cold enough”.
In the first method, you place your tarp down, and generally they aren’t the same exact size as the tent, so you set up your tent on top of it, then fold the parts that are sticking out under, and make the surface area under the tent as flat as possible.
In the second method it’s much the same, you just leave the sections that you want to utilize sticking out, but still flatten everything as much as possible.
Also: by folding under, I literally mean fold the extra tarp sections under the tarp, not over as that will leave space for water to become trapped under your tent and you want to avoid puddling.
In a windy environment (I’ve camped in tents where the wind is able to push the tent flat without a windbreak), you may want to use an extra tarp or two as a wind screen.
In this, you will want the entire surface area of your tarp to be facing the wind directly, or at an angle where it doesn’t funnel the wind into your tent (or anyone else’s). Make sure that the bottom of the tarp is not closer to your tent than the top – it will make for a very cold night. Think of it like the car commercials that show the aerodynamics. You don’t want the wind to be encouraged to come at the bottom of your tent. The faster wind is moving, the colder it is.
When you use a tarp as a wind break, you need to anchor the tarp very well. If you don’t want to spend your entire visit hearing the tarp flap, those anchors need to keep the tarp tight.
Pro tip: if there are two trees perfectly situated to act as your anchor points, and the tarp is large enough, wrap the edges of the tarp partway around the trees and anchor well. The bark will catch to keep the tarp in place and it doesn’t hurt the tree (if you’re camping for more than 3 months, you will need to let the trees alone for a week or so and then can start using it again).
The Eureka discussed above works well for this, but any tarp can do nicely. Or even something as simple as a Neat Sheet. As it is inside your tent, there is no anchoring beside any belongings/bedding you place on it.
Having a tarp cover the inside floor of your tent provides some extra protection from puddling, seepage, and just generally protecting your tent from having your belongings or stones/twigs/etc from putting a hole in the fabric. Also, if you have little kids who… are not always comfortable letting you know they need to get to a bathroom, it’s a handy protection layer. Even if they’re camping in their own pup tent.
It might seem noisy that first night or two, but you can also lay blankets down on top of the tarp and muffle any sound fairly well.
How to Connect Anchor Points
Where you connect your tarp to can become as important as where you place your tarp in general. If the anchor point is inappropriate, or not strong enough, you can find yourself in trouble. Regarding what to use to anchor your tarp with: ropes and bungees… ropes and bungees.
NEVER NAIL ANYTHING TO A TREE
All that does is upset any Rangers/CAP/maintenance/conservationists/etc
and you might (should) get a fine.
When connecting your tarp to nearby anchors points, proper strong doubled slipknots can work very well. If you know how to tie a noose, it’s actually a more effective technique than just a regular knot done multiple times. As a tarp is blown around, or pushed down by water, it shifts and stretches. This constant repositioning means that you could eventually have your tarp physically on your tent long before your camping trip is finished. Tying out your tarp correctly first can save quite a bit of effort, and always do your best from having the weight of the whole tarp hit your tent.
Another method I regularly use is to wrap a small bungee around the intended tree/picnic table/vehicle/etc and connect the rope to that. Bungees are wonderful as they allow for the constant readjusting and grip a tree well without damaging it.
In case it needs to be said: NEVER CONNECT ANYTHING TO A POWER LINE POLE/GENERATOR/TRANSFORMER/ETC
I’ve seen people try, and luckily they all lived – this does not guarantee you will. They also got ticketed and learned some new vocabulary from the Ranger.
What about you? Any tips, tricks, or talents you have regarding tarps? Please comment below!
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