Tents these days are expensive and fragile. This is the result of complex ultralight designs and modern high tech fabrics. After spending hundreds of dollars on a new tent, you want it to last as long as possible. One way to increase the lifespan of your tent is to use a footprint. This guide outlines the purpose of a tent footprint and what to consider when buying one. I’ll also explain how to make your own tent footprint on the cheap.
What is a Tent Footprint?
A tent footprint is simply a piece of material that you place between the ground and the floor of your tent. Footprints are usually made of a durable waterproof material like silicon coated polyester or nylon fabric, Tyvek, or polycryo (polycro). They are cut a couple of inches smaller than the floor of your tent on all sides.
What Does a Tent Footprint Do?
There is some confusion as to the actual purpose of tent footprints. Some people believe that they help to keep water out. Others believe they help with insulation. This isn’t the case. Tent footprints serve four main purposes:
- Footprints protect your tent floor from abrasion- These days, tent manufacturers use extremely thin floor materials to save weight. Rocks, twigs, thorns, roots, sand, etc. can eventually wear a hole in the floor of your tent over time. A footprint adds a layer of protection between your tent floor and the ground. This extends the lifetime of your tent by slowing the wear of the floor. It’s much cheaper and easier to replace a worn-out footprint than repairing a hole in your tent floor or buying a whole new tent.
- Footprints keep your tent floor clean- The ground is dirty. While camping, you might get tree sap, mud, berry juice, insects, etc. on your tent floor. A tent footprint protects your tent floor from getting dirty. This way, your tent stays clean longer. A clean tent is always more pleasant to use than a dirty one. It can also help to keep your other gear clean if it rubs against your tent.
- Tent footprints allow you to pitch your tent’s rainfly before the inner- This comes in handy while setting up camp in the rain. The inside of your tent stays dry because the rainfly protects the inner while you pitch. In order to do this, you usually have to buy the footprint that is designed for your specific tent. Some tents can pitch this way and some cannot. It depends on the design.
- Tent footprints can help you select the ideal campsite- Have you ever pitched your tent, climbed in, and noticed a root under your back or that you were laying on an angle? With a footprint, you can test your site before pitching your tent. Just lay it out on your chosen site, then lay down to test your site selection. This also comes in handy when you’re trying to fit multiple tents into a single campsite. You can lay the footprints out before pitching the tents to make sure that they all fit.
- Tent footprints can double as a small tarp or poncho- A tent footprint can be a great multi-use piece of gear. For example, you can cowboy camp on it if you don’t expect rain or bugs. You can also sit on it or lay your gear out to dry on it if the ground is wet. Some hikers like to use a poncho tarp as both their rain gear and tent footprint. This is a great way to save some space in your pack.
Reasons Not To Use a Tent Footprint
A tent footprint isn’t necessary for every trip. There are a few good reasons to leave your footprint at home and do without. For example:
- Extra weight- No matter what type of footprint you choose, it adds a bit of weight to your pack. Minimalist polycyro footprint weighs around 1-2 ounces (28-56 grams). Tyvek footprints weigh around 2-5 ounces (55-140 grams). Custom footprints made by tent manufacturers often weigh 6-8 ounces (170-225 grams). If you’re an ultralight hiker, you may prefer to do without a footprint to cut a few ounces.
- Cost- Most tents have a footprint that they are designed to pair with. Tent manufacturers almost never include footprints with tents. You have to buy them separately. These tent specific footprints usually cost $30-$50. Sometimes more. It can be hard to justify spending more money after buying a $300-$600 tent. Luckily, there are some cheap ways to make your own footprint. I’ll outline those later on.
- Extra bulk- A footprint takes up valuable space in your pack. Some manufacturer’s tent footprints might take as much as a couple of liters. If you’re through hiking with a 40 liter pack, you may find a better use for that space.
- Your tent has a high denier durable floor- The thickness of fibers used in a piece of fabric is measured in denier. Most tent floors are 20-30 denier these days. If your tent floor is made of a 30 denier or higher material, you can probably do without a footprint and not have to worry too much about damaging your tent floor. For tents with 20 denier or lower floors, a footprint is recommended. Some modern ultralight tents have floors as thin as 7 denier.
- You’re camping on soft terrain- Some terrain is harder on tent floors than others. For example, a soft grassy field or sandy beach probably won’t do any damage. You could do without a footprint if you choose. You need to be much more careful while camping in forests or in the mountains. Rocky ground, twigs, or thorns could easily puncture your tent floor. In these conditions, you’re better off using a footprint.
Tent Footprint Materials
Tent footprints are made with a variety of materials. The main differences are the weight, cost, durability, and protection each material offers. Below, I’ll outline each of the most commonly used tent footprint materials.
PU Coated Nylon or Polyester fabric
These are the materials that most manufacturers use to make tent footprints. They are made by coating a nylon or polyester fabric with polyurethane. These fabrics are lightweight, durable, and water-resistant. They offer a good level of protection for your tent floor.
PU coated nylon footprints typically weight around 1.9 ounces/ square yard. The whole footprint usually weighs somewhere between 6 and 8 ounces (about 170-225 grams) for a one-person tent.
The material is light but most manufactured footprints include straps, grommets, and a stuff sack which adds some weight. Manufactured footprints usually cost $30-$50. You can also buy the material by the yard and make your own PU coated nylon footprint for $15-$20.
This material is designed for use as a house wrap but is incredibly popular in the backpacking community. Tyvek is a synthetic material made from polyethylene fibers. It is lightweight, durable, water-resistant, and inexpensive.
Tyvek weighs around 1.85 ounces per square yard. The whole footprint will weigh 2-5 ounces (about 55-140 grams) for a one-person tent.
You can buy a pre-made Tyvek footprint from Tarptent.com for $14-$17. To save some money, you can buy Tyvek by the yard on eBay off of a 9-foot roll and easily make your own. You could make your own for $5-$10.
Window Wrap (Polycryo)
Window wrap is a material that is designed to add insulation to your windows during the winter. The material is also popular in the backpacking community because it is incredibly lightweight and waterproof. The main drawback of this material is that it isn’t very durable. Your window wrap footprint will probably only last one season.
Window wrap weighs around .55 ounces per square yard. Your whole footprint will weigh just 1-2 ounces (about 28-56 grams) for a one-person tent. You can buy pre-made window wrap footprints from several cottage manufacturers. They usually market the material under the name Polycryo. The cheaper option is to buy a package of window wrap and make your own. This is my favorite footprint option.
I use this Duck Extra Large Patio Door Shrink Film from Amazon. One package is enough to make 4 footprints for my Big Agnes Fly Creek HVUL 1 person tent if I cut it carefully. This is by far the cheapest and lightest footprint option available.
Dyneema (Cuben Fiber)
Dyneema is an ultra-strong, ultralight material made from polyethylene. This synthetic material is one of the strongest known to man. The manufacturer claims that it is 15x stronger than steel. The fabric is also incredibly durable and is tear and water resistant. Dyneema has applications in a number of industries including medical, military, policing, maritime, aviation, mining, and of course, outdoor gear.
Dyneema weighs around 1 ounce per square yard. A Dyneema footprint will weigh 2-4 ounces (about 55-115 grams) for a one-person tent. The one drawback of Dyneema is that it is incredibly expensive. A manufactured footprint will cost $100-$200. If you decide to buy the fabric and make your own footprint, you’re looking at spending about $32 per yard.
Polyethylene Tarps (Poly Tarp)
These are classic utility tarps that you would use to cover a vehicle being stored outdoors. They are made from tightly woven together polyethylene fibers. The resulting tarp is inexpensive, durable, and water-resistant. These tarps are also widely available.
You can pick up a poly tarp at any hardware store, cut it to size, and have a functional footprint. This is a great footprint choice for car campers who don’t care about the weight or bulk of their gear. A 6 x 8 foot poly tarp weighs around 10 ounces (283 grams). They cost around $5-$10. Most include grommets so you can stake them down.
How to Make Your Own Tent Footprint
The idea of spending $30-$80 on a tent footprint right after spending $300-$600 on a new tent is a hard pill to swallow. Luckily, you can make your own tent footprint for just a few dollars if you’re on a budget.
To make your own footprint:
- Pitch your tent. Try to pitch it on soft ground where it won’t get damaged or dirty. Indoors is ideal, if you have space.
- Measure the dimensions of the base. It’s best to measure before you buy the material so you don’t buy too much. If your tent tapers or is an odd shape, it might help to draw a miniature template on a piece of paper.
- Subtract 1 inch from each dimension. You want your footprint to be slightly smaller than your tent floor. If your footprint is larger than your tent floor, it can catch water during a rainstorm and allow it to pool between your tent and footprint. Over the course of the night, this water penetrates your tent floor and you end up wet. Tent materials are very water resistant but still let water through given enough time and pressure.
- Buy your tent footprint material of choice. Ideally, you want your footprint to be made of one piece of material without any seems. I like window wrap or polycyro because it is so light and cheap. Tyvek is probably the most popular DIY footprint material because it is so durable and easy to work with.
- Lay your material out flat, mark your dimensions with a pen, then cut the material to size. If you’re having trouble marking the size, you can simply pitch your tent on top of your footprint to help you mark out the dimensions.
If you’re making a footprint for a larger tent, you may have to do some sewing. This adds a bit of work. If you have to sew two pieces together, make sure you seam seal afterward to make the seam waterproof. You can use a sewing machine or sew by hand.
You can sew all of the above-listed materials except for polycyro. If you want to make a polycyro footprint for a large tent, you can simply tape two pieces together with something like duct tape or gorilla tape.
How to Repair a Hole in a Tent Floor
If you didn’t use a footprint and ended up with a hole in your tent floor, there is still hope that it can be saved. I recommend you attempt to patch the hole with Gear Aid Tenacious Tape. This stuff is strong, easy to use, inexpensive, and water-resistant. It is designed for use on outdoor gear like tents, jackets, and sleeping bags.
To make the repair, all you need to do is clean and dry the area around the tear, cut a piece of tape off the roll, then apply it with pressure.
In my mind, there is really no reason not to use a footprint. If you don’t have the budget or don’t want to carry the extra weight of a manufactured footprint, you can always make one from polycro or Tyvek for just a few dollars. Carrying an extra 1-4 ounces to extend the life of your tent is worth it for most trips.
The only exception may be for a long-distance through-hike. The weight and time savings of not using a footprint add up over thousands of miles.
Do you use a tent footprint? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!
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