Should You Carry A Tarp When Backpacking?

There are lots of pieces of equipment to consider when preparing for a backpacking trip. Some are absolutely essential while others are just nice to have. One part of your setup to think about is whether or not you should carry a tarp when backpacking.

You should carry a tarp when backpacking for several reasons. Carrying a tarp protects your tent from the rain or hot sun, and it acts as a windbreak while cooking or eating outside of your tent. It also provides a weatherproof barrier on or under your tent during extreme weather.

Below, we’ll go into more detail about why you should carry tarp when backpacking, and discuss all of the benefits of doing so. However, we’ll also mention some of the downsides of carrying a tarp when backpacking, before showing you why these are far outweighed by the benefits.

Advantages Of Carrying A Tarp When Backpacking

Weather Protection

Carrying a tarp is useful in a number of situations. A tarp is useful to provide a break from the weather while setting up camp for the night if you’re out in particularly wet conditions. Cooking and eating under the tarp is a good idea when the weather is foul too, allowing you to remain dry even when sitting outside your tent.

UV Protection

Secondly, a tarp provides UV protection for your tent. In hot and sunny weather, a tarp will protect your tent from unwanted UV rays. Therefore, your tent will last much longer before it deteriorates, but it can also help to keep you cool inside it.

Wind Cover

Setting up a tarp against the prevailing wind keeps your cookstove lit and allows you to eat without too much difficulty. It is much easier to set up a tent and your camping area when out of the wind. Besides, the tarp protects against the cold too!

Reduces Condensation

Setting up a tarp above your tent will reduce the temperature differential of the outside and inside of the tent by shielding the tent wall from the colder air outside. What this means is that there is less of a chance for condensation to build up inside of your tent.

Protects Your Cooking Area

I don’t know how many times I wanted a tarp overhead when standing in the rain eating my dinner. A strategically placed tarp helps save the day in this case.

Tarps Are Versatile

As we mentioned above, you can use a tarp to shield your cooking area. Or you can use it as an extension of the rainfly during a passing thunderstorm, or to park your gear under or to sit and eat (outside of your tent, of course) when the weather doesn’t cooperate. If it is really wet and muddy, placing the tarp under the tent protects the bottom of it from damage and leaks.

Should You Put A Tarp Under Your Tent?

You should put a tarp under your tent if you are traveling to a particularly rocky and rooty area. Using a tarp in this case to protect the bottom of the tent is a good idea. It also provides extra protection from the rainwater leaking into the tent.

Disadvantages Of Carrying A Tarp While Backpacking

Extra Weight

Tarps do add extra weight to your pack. Sometimes the tarp is additional weight without providing much added value, especially if you’re camping in fine weather. If you don’t expect any rain or much wind, and are camping somewhere particularly flat, it’s best to leave the tarp at home. See below for some lightweight tarp options.

Take A Long Time To Dry

Tarps can take extra time to dry in the morning after steady rain the night before. If you’re camping for several days at a time, it can be tough to dry it off if the rain doesn’t stop, but it’s usually worth it for the weather protection anyway.

Tents Often Have A Waterproof Rainfly

The technology behind tents nowadays is good enough to prevent rain from entering the tent in all but the foulest weather. Nearly all tents come with a rainfly, and newer tents withstand condensation better than tents from only 10 to 15 years ago.

Hydrostatic head levels are higher and tents provide better ventilation than they used to. Using a rainfly allows you to open your ‘windows’ and allow air to enter the tent, but not the rain. Entry-level backpackers generally take shorter trips and in these cases a good tent should be all they need. However, if you still expect really bad weather, bringing a lightweight tarp can be a lifesaver!

In the past, tarps were generally made of thick plastic, and not breathable. Because of the plastic, they took a long time to dry. The water pooled in the ‘cracks’ making it necessary to regularly shake out the tarp. But today, things are very different. The technology is better, and tarps are water repellent and breathable, and much lighter than in the past.

A standard 10′ x 8′ blue tarp weighs about 1 pound 5 ounces. However, there are several lightweight and ultralight tarps on the market too. A lightweight backpacking tarp weighs between 10 and 14 ounces. And an ultralight tarp weighs between 6 and 9 ounces.

3 Lightweight Backpacking Tarps

  1. Redcamp Waterproof Camping Tarp – This tarp weighs 12.8 ounces, and measures 82 x 82 inches
  2. Kalinko Lightweight Camping Tarp – This tarp weighs 1 pound 12 ounces and measures 118 x 118 inches (a bit heavy and big for a backpacking trip)
  3. RedSwing Heavy Duty Survival Blanket – This tarp weighs 1 pound and measures 83 x 59 inches, and is heat reflective and can serve as an emergency blanket

3 Ultralight Backpacking Tarps

  1. Kammock Kuhli Ultralight Tarp – This tarp weighs 10 ounces and measures 132 x 88 inches
  2. Geertop Ultralight Camping Tarp – This tarp weighs 7.36 ounces and measures 4 feet 9 inches x 6 feet 11 inches
  3. Hyperlite Echo 2 Catenary Cut Tarp – This tarp weighs 9.3 ounces and measures 70 square feet

Final Thoughts

You should carry a tarp when backpacking if you expect wet or windy weather. Tarps can offer much needed protection from the elements, and even help reduce tent condensation too. However, they can add some extra weight, so you might not need one if you’re sure the weather will be fair on your trip.