So, I have a bit of a confession to make. I love bushcraft videos, and the last time I went camping I thought it would be a great idea to use a tarp over my tent. The good news is that it worked, kind of. The bad news is that it looked terrible and wasn’t very good. So where did I go wrong?
You need a tarp over your tent if your tent is smaller and has no porch. A tarp provides a sheltered area away from the rain for you to sit under or cook under, extending your camping area further than would be possible with a standard tent with little to no porch or awning area.
A tarp sounds simple, right? Not so simple! It LOOKS easy, but there are definitely a few tips I can share with you now, after doing a lot of research, on how to make your tarp set up better and work for you.
What Is A Tarp Shelter?
The very first question to answer is what is a tarp shelter, and it’s actually a complicated one! In very simple terms, a tarp shelter is a sheet of waterproof fabric that keeps the rain off of you while you’re under it.
Bushcrafters have used tarps for centuries, and in recent years they have become very popular with campers with specific tarps being sold for use with standard small camping tents. They are incredibly versatile and can provide an extra really nice shelter to your camping area.
A huge bonus for campers taking a tarp onto a site is the ability to avoid paying extra! Many sites will charge extra for a pup tent or a gazebo, but most won’t charge any extra for a tarp shelter. It’s always worth checking with the site owners first, but most will be happy for you to create a tarp shelter area over your tent or on your pitch.
Using a tarp when you’re camping is also a great way to be sociable. So many times we’ve been camping in a group, the rain has kicked in and we’ve all retreated to our own small porches, cutting conversation and breaking the group up. With a tarp, you can put it up in the middle of your group camp and stay together whilst hiding from the rain.
How To Set Up A Tarp
Loving the idea of a tarp so far? Great! Now I’m going to share with you how you should ACTUALLY set it up, so it stays up and gives you some shelter from the rain.
Preparing to set up your tarp
Before we get into the setup, there are a few things you should do to make sure your tarp is set up perfectly.
- Decide if you’ll be using trees or poles to support your tarp
- If you’ll be using trees, make sure they are strong and not likely to blow down in the rain (these types of unstable branches are called widow makers because they have a habit of falling on people)
- If you’re using trees, make sure your camping area is nice and clear. You don’t want stones and branches poking through your tent’s groundsheet
- Make sure you have enough guy line or cordage
Which Tarp Setup To Go With?
There is an incredible amount of options when it comes to setting up your tarp, let’s look at a few easy ones:
The A-frame is probably the most popular and easiest method, consisting of a ridgeline (a line of cord tied between the two poles or trees) with the tarp thrown over the top and pegged out at each corner.
The A-frame is fairly easy and can be staked on the floor for extra tent space or as a “flying A-frame” shelter as high as you like (or as high as your poles/cord allow!) for gathering underneath and cooking.
It’s important to note here that cooking under your tarp will depend on the height, if your tarp is too low you could burn it or melt it, especially if you’re using a plastic groundsheet type tarp rather than a canvas style.
The Lean-To or Wedge
A lean-to tarp shelter is a great shelter for sitting under, keeping the sun off or hiding from the rain, the bonus being that you can put a fire (or at least a gas stove) opposite so you can stay dry without melting or burning the tarp.
The difference between a lean-to and a wedge is in the roof or back size. A longer back will keep the rain off better but a wedge-shaped tarp shelter will provide some protection from the front too. Both setups are quite similar and both can be made shallow or tall depending on your needs.
The Arrow Head
The arrowhead tarp shelter is named because of its shape, with a triangle-shaped opening that goes towards a point at the end. The arrowhead can be made with a ridgeline or with two poles holding the front up.
The arrowhead shape shelter is great for storing extra gear and can even be used as an emergency tent shelter. A big bonus with this style of shelter is the extra material that is tucked underneath the shelter to create a groundsheet.
The teepee shelter is another great one to use as a spare tent or somewhere to store your gear.
Essentially this is a teepee shape, using one middle pole and pegging out the bottom, this type of shelter has a half-floor thanks to the folding of the sheet underneath and a door-like opening.
Teepee shelters can be made wider for more of a social gathering shape.
Will Rain Pool On My Tarp?
Tarps are a great way to shelter from the rain, but you really need to consider HOW you put your tarp up and whether it will protect you from the rain.
As with any tent fabric, water will pool if it doesn’t have the chance to run off anywhere. There are a few ways you can combat this; avoid having any flat surfaces, and rig up a string to help drain the water off.
If you set your tarp up in a standard A-frame shape, the water should run off quite easily, but you might want to check the middle occasionally. If you’ve set your tarp shelter up in a lean-to or wedge shape with any kind of roof, you’re at risk of water pooling.
Pooling water might not be avoidable, and you might just have to keep poking it from the inside to push the water off, but you can try to encourage the water to run off by using a string drain. Simply tie a piece of cord or guy rope to the corner of your tarp at the lowest point and let it dangle towards the ground (if you can get it long enough to touch the ground, this is even better). The theory here is that the string will guide the water down into the ground instead of pooling, it should work for lighter showers.
What is the purpose of a tarp under a tent?
You can put a tarp under your tent, this can provide an extra layer for insulation and to stop water coming up from the ground, however, you must make sure it fits properly or is tucked under your tent properly.
The very nature of water means that it will run and pool, just the other weekend I decided to put a tarp under my tent to provide an extra layer of water protection and actually ended up making it worse because I didn’t fold it under properly, the water pooled in my porch and it was just a miracle that I didn’t have my phone plugged in as my plug sockets were in 2 inches of water.
So, moral of the story: Tarps on top are great, tarps on the bottom are only ok if they fit!