Guthook pitches his tarp low in advance of a heavy rain storm
Guthook pitches his tarp low in advance of a heavy rain storm.

Tarps are a great ultralight backpacking shelter option, provided they’re used in a climate where there’s no rain or occasional rain. To clarify, I’m talking about square or rectangular tarps with or without catenary cut ridge lines and sides, and not single walled shelters like pyramids and their numerous variants.

Tarps are super lightweight and depending on the their dimensions, fabric, and cost, it’s pretty easy to get ones that weight between 8 ounces up to a 16 ounces without breaking much of a sweat. Here are a few good examples, but many manufacturers make them.

The advantage of using a tarp, besides light weight, is the ease of finding good campsites. A simple A-frame style pitch is easy to squeeze in between two trees, even in densely packed forest. Flat tarps (those with 90 degree corners) can also be pitched in a wide variety of “shapes” to provide more weather-protection, although it takes some practice to get good at it.

Rectangular and square tarps with 90 degree corners can be pitched in weather resistant "shapes."
Rectangular and square tarps with 90 degree corners can be pitched in weather resistant “shapes.” This is a 16oz, 10’x10′ square tarp. Having the extra fabric makes it much easier to pitch in different ways.

How to Avoid Getting Wet under a Tarp

Splash-back

There are three common ways in which you and your gear will get wet when camping under a tarp. The first is something called splash-back and it occurs when raindrops hit the ground next to your tarp and bounces back at you, spraying you and your gear with water. Splash-back is usually more of a nuisance than a threat to your survival, as long as you take the time to dry out your gear in the sun after a storm.

There are two common ways to avoid splash-back.

  1. Pitch your tarp down low to reduce the open space between the edges of your tarp and the ground, while moving to the middle of your tarp and away from the edges. Having a wide, two person tarp is often better than a narrow one-person tarp for just this reason. While you can go as far as to stake your tarp sides all the way to the ground, most people leave an air gap for better ventilation and increased width.
  2. Augment your tarp with a lightweight bivy sack, like the Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight bivy (2010 SectionHiker Gear of the Year Award). If you have an ultralight load, a bivy sack is usually large enough to hold you, your sleep insulation, and all of your gear. Even if it’s not waterproof, it will usually keep splash-back from wetting your gear, in addition to providing a bit more warmth, wind, and insect protection.

Flooding

A second, higher consequence way to get wet, is to pitch your tarp in a bad campsite where water is going to pool under you, or on a very hard surface with poor drainage, like a wooden tent platform or a hardened campground tent site. Avoiding sites like this is a bit of an art form, and usually referred to as “campsite selection.”

When tarping, the best campsites are ones that are slightly elevated mounds that are higher than the surrounding ground, with porous absorbent soil, rich in organic matter, that will soak up rain rather than splash it back at you. The elevated portion of ground need not be as wide or long as the sides of your tarp, provided it’s big enough for you to lay on top of, even if the ground on either side slopes away.

Already Wet Ground

If you decide to set up your tarp in the rain or after a storm on wet ground, your best defense against getting wet is to carry a piece of plastic window wrap (also sold under the name polycryo) to use as a ground sheet. While it’s very thin lightweight plastic, the stuff is tough enough to last an entire season if you’re careful with it. A lot of people carry a bivy sack and a plastic ground sheet, even though there some redundancy between the two.

The chief benefit of a tarp if the flexibility it gives you in campsite location
The chief benefit of a tarp is the flexibility it gives you in campsite location. Note: wide tarp, use of bivy sack, and plastic window wrap ground sheet.

Damp Management

If you’re gear does get wet or damp, it pays dividends to dry it out the next day. If your quilt or sleeping bag are soaked, hike to town and dry it in a commercial laundromat drier. If it’s just damp, hang it up during breakfast or stop during the day and lay in out in the sun while you have a rest and a snack.

People are so focused on hiking speed or miles per day, that they forget about basic skills like stopping to dry your gear, that are required for self-powered travel. Gear gets damp or wet, so deal with it. Build damp management into your daily schedule if it’s a persistent issue, and relish in the fact that you can sit there and watch your sleeping bag dry while listening to the birds and little creatures scurry about, instead of sitting on a conference call in a cubicle.

Ray Way Tarp Beak
Ray Way Tarp Beak

Tarp Beaks

Don’t underestimate the benefit of using an oversized tarp when it comes to providing additional weather protection. But if you want a bit more protection, consider using a tarp with a beak. A beak is an angled overhang added to the front or rear ends of a tarp that provides additional weather protection.

While beaks were popularized by Ray Jardine, they are surprisingly hard to find on cottage made tarps. Get The Ray Way Tarp Book, which goes into enormous detail about how to use tarps for backpacking and bikepacking. Jardine also sells kits if you want to make your own beaked tarp. Adding a beak to a cuben fiber tarp is also a pretty easy mod. If you’d rather buy a beaked tarp, your best bet is contacting Bearpaw Wilderness Designs (Bear Paw calls them canopies) or the Mountain Laurel Designs Patrol Shelter, although a few other manufacturers make them also.

However, there’s also a downside to adding a beak or its bigger brother, a full vestibule, because you’ll forever be limited to an A-frame pitch. This really limits your flexibility in terms of adapting a tarp’s shape to your surroundings, so I thought I’d point it out.

Written 2018.

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