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3 Big Reasons To Carry A Tarp When Backpacking

I have been backpacking and camping for many years. Every year we put a large tarp over our tents. We do it to protect us from possible rain, but it is up all week and keeps the heat in. In August!

A tarp is a nifty way to keep the tent dry, protect you from the wind, and keep the camping area warm. But I was wondering if you should carry a tarp when backpacking.

The short answer: When backpacking you should carry a tarp for 3 big reasons. 1. To protect your tent from the rain or hot sun. 2. To act as a windbreak while cooking or eating outside of your tent. 3. To provide a weatherproof barrier on or under your tent during extreme weather.

Before you go, let’s learn more about the Pros and Cons of bringing a tarp on that backpacking trip.

The Pros of Carrying A Tarp:

Protects you from the weather: rain and snow

Carrying a tarp is useful in a number of situations. First, when you are traveling in a very wet area, or during a rainy season in the Northwest. A tarp is useful to provide a break from the weather while setting up camp for the night. And, we stated earlier, cooking and eating under the tarp is a good idea when the weather is foul.

Protects the tent from harmful UV rays

Second, 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.

Provides wind protection

Third, setting up a tent 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 the chances of condensation in your tent

Finally, setting up a tarp above the tent will increase the temperature of the tent wall and thereby reduce the temperature differential of the outside and inside of the tent. What this means is that there is less of a chance for condensation inside of your tent.

Protects your cooking and eating area

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

car camping with tarp over tent
Car camping with tarp over tent

The Cons Or Downside To Carrying A Tarp When Backpacking?

Tarps add weight to your pack

The last thing you want is to add weight to your pack for something with little added value. Sometimes the tarp is additional weight without much-added value. Meaning, if you are traveling to an area where you don’t expect heavy rains or super gusty winds. Then leave the tarp at home.

Tarps are cumbersome

Many contend that folding and refolding tarps to fit into your pack is cumbersome and takes too much time. I am unsure if this is a good ‘con’.

Take long time to dry in the morning

Tarps can take extra time to dry in the morning after a steady rain the night before. Some won’t want to mess with it and just get going.

After all, the morning after a rainstorm or dewy night, a tent and rainfly opened up and moved into the sun dries much quicker than a tarp…let’s challenge that in a little bit!

Tents come with waterproof rainflys so, why carry a tarp?

tent in the rain with waterproof fly
Tent in the rain with waterproof fly

When every ounce matters on a backpacking trip, carrying a tarp is an unnecessary item. Also, the technology behind tents is good enough to prevent rain from entering the tent in all but the foulest weather.

As mentioned above, 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 ventilation. Using a rainfly allows you to open your ‘windows’ and allow air to enter the tent, but not the rain.

So, the bottom line for the cons is that entry-level backpackers generally take shorter trips and a good tent should be all they need.

Time To Challenge The Cons

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 shake out the tarp. But today, things are much different. The technology is better, tarps are water repellent and breathable, and much lighter than in the past.

If tarps are lighter than in the past let’s take a look at lightweight and ultralight tarps.

So, How Heavy Are Backpacking Tarps These Days?

We need to create a point of reference. For this, we choose the standard 10-foot x 8-foot blue tarp for sale at any hardware store or Big Lots. This tarp is 1 pound 8 ounces.

Our Point of Reference

A standard 10′ x 8′ blue tarp that you purchase through the REI Coop or any hardware store weighs about 1 pound 5 ounces. However, there are several lightweight and ultralight tarps on the market.

A lightweight backpacking tarp weighs between 10 and 14 ounces. And an ultralight tarp weighs between 6 and 9 ounces.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Tarp
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Tarp

Here are examples of 3 lightweight backpacking tarps:

  1. Redcamp Waterproof Camping Tarp: This tarp weighs 12.8 ounces. It is listed at 82 x 82 or 6 feet 10 inches squared.
  2. Kalinko Lightweight Camping Tarp: This tarp weighs 1 pound 12 ounces and is listed at 118 x 118 inches or 9 feet 10 inches squared. A bit heavy and big for a backpacking trip.
  3. RedSwing Waterproof Camping Tarp: This tarp weighs 13.12 ounces. It is listed at 83 x 83 inches or 6 feet 11 inches squared.

Here Are 3 Examples of Ultralight Backpacking Tarps:

A number of reputable companies produce super-light or ultralight backpacking tarps. They include Kammock, Geertop, and Brooks Range.

  1. Kammock Kuhli Ultralight Tarp: This tarp weighs 10 ounces. It is listed at 132 x 88 inches or 11 x 7 feet 4 inches.
  2. Geertop Ultralight Camping Tarp: This tarp weighs 7.36 ounces. It is listed at 4 feet 9 inches x 6 feet 11 inches.
  3. Hyperlite Echo 2 Catenary Cut Tarp: This tarp weighs 9.3 ounces. It is listed at 70 square feet.

Tarps Are Versatile

Whenever I buy new backpacking gear, I hardly ever think of what other uses can I use this for. However, the famous chef, Alton Brown, insists on using multi-purpose kitchen gadgets. With that in mind, think of the tarp as a multi-purpose gadget of the backpacking world.

A tarps original use is to cover the tent during a storm. But keep in mind that it doesn’t always rain. So, how else do you use your tarp? How about utilizing it as a windbreak to cook dinner on that fancy new MSR Pocket Rocket. Or 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.

But let’s not forget, if it is really wet and muddy, placing the tarp under the tent protects the bottom of the tent and doubles the waterproofing ability.

Should You Put A Tarp Under Your Tent?

If you are traveling to a rocky and rooty area then using a tarp to protect the bottom of the tent is a good idea. It also provides extra protection from the rainwater leaking into the tent.

How Do You Set Up a Tarp?

Once you know what the tarp is for or how it can be used, it is a good idea to learn how to put up a tarp. This video from Hilleberg The Tentmaker demonstrates many uses for tarps and how to set them up. Have a look.

How Often Does It Rain Near Where You Live?

I live in the Northeast and it rains at least once per week and more often in the spring and fall. Each year I seem to get better at fending off the weather. Our hiking apparel is lightweight and waterproof/ water resistant and takes the edge off of the heavy rains.

Because this just seems to fit, I thought of all the places where I have hiked and wondered, how often does it rain there? So, I added a simple table from the Current Results Weather page to show the average rainfall per year in each state.

See the map below, notice how pretty much every state east of the Mississippi River has higher annual precipitation averages than those states west of the river. The map also shows just how arid the mountain states are out west. No wonder the wildfires are so bad out West!

US state precipitation by year from the Current Results website.
USA State Precipitation by Year

That should help you decide how to prepare for your next trip. It is a good start on reviewing weather in each state and what to expect.

Where do you live?

Related Questions

Should You Carry A Water Filter, Water Purifier or Water Tablets?

This is a great question. Basically, a water filter siphons out protozoan cysts and bacteria while water purifiers use chemicals to kill viruses that are too small for the filters to catch. And water tablets use iodine to deactivate protozoa. So, in the best world, it is important to use a water filter that also purifies the water.

For a more in-depth look at water safety, check out our article on Water Filters: http://outdoorhorizon.com/are-backpacking-water-filters-safe/