Tarp Vs. Tent for Camping: Pros and Cons

by wheretheroadforks

Last season, I began experimenting with different camping shelter options. In the past, I had always been a tent camper. Now, I’m giving tarps a try. In this article, I list the pros and cons of using a tarp vs tent for camping. I’ll also outline the different types of tarps available including materials, shape, and size. Finally, I’ll describe a few of the most popular tarp pitches. Hopefully, this article helps you decide which shelter option is best for your next camping trip.

What is a Camping Tarp?

In its simplest form, a camping tarp is simply a rectangular piece of waterproof fabric. You hang the tarp above your body with a series of ropes, poles, and stakes. Tarps don’t include a floor, bug netting, or walls. The purpose of the tarp is for protection from wind and rain while you sleep. There are dozens of ways to pitch a camping tarp in order to achieve this. Camping tarps range in size from 5” X 7” for an individual all the way up to 12” X 16” for multiple people.

A camping tarp set up over a hammock

A camping tarp and hammock setup

Camping Tarp Pros

  • Tarps weigh less- The lightest tarps weigh under 5 ounces (around 140 grams). They are made of a durable, lightweight material called Cuben fiber or Dyneema. Another popular tarp material is silnylon which weighs a few ounces more. Even bulky, low-cost tarp only weighs around a pound. This is around half the weight of an ultralight tent. The weight savings comes from the lack of walls, floor, and netting that tents include. You will need need to carry some rope, stakes and possibly a pole in order to pitch your tarp. This adds weight. You may also want to carry a bivy sack or bug net to pair with your tarp to protect you from insects as you sleep. Even with this additional gear, tarps are significantly lighter than tents.
  • Tarps offer a more modular sleep system- In my opinion, this is the biggest benefit to tarp camping. You can easily adjust your setup to fit the conditions of the region where you plan to camp. For example, if there are no bugs, you don’t need to bother with setting up your bivy or bug net. If there is no rain, you don’t need to bother with the tarp. If the night is wet and buggy, you can set up your tarp and bug net. Your options are open.
  • Tarps pack down very small- Because they don’t have a floor, bug netting, or zippers, tarps take up very little volume in your backpack. An ultralight tarp packs down smaller than an apple. Even a large tarp takes up less than a liter of space. My ultralight tent takes up twice as much volume as my tarp.
  • Tarps are cheaper than tents- If you’re on a tight budget, you can go down to the local hardware store and buy a cheap utility tarp, some string, and a few stakes and have yourself a lightweight, waterproof camping setup for less than $20. While cheap department store tents are available, they are incredibly bulky and heavy. For campers on a tight budget, tarps offer a cheap, lightweight option.
  • Tarps are more durable than tents- You don’t have to worry about zippers catching or poles breaking. There is no floor that you can wear a hole through. The worst thing that can happen to your tarp is a tear which you can repair with patches and a sewing kit. You can stuff your tarp in a stuff sack and compress it without worrying about damaging it like you would a tent.
  • Tarps have multiple uses- You can use it as a groundsheet to sit on if the ground is wet. You can set it up to block wind or make a shady spot for you to rest during the day. The poles that you use to pitch your tarp are also your trekking poles. Some tarps can even double as a rain poncho. I’ll talk more about that later.
  • Tarps are better for wild camping- Because tarps don’t have a set shape, you can set up camp pretty much anywhere you can lay down. Tarps have a lower profile than tents as well. This makes staying hidden easier. With a tarp, you can set up camp pretty much anywhere as long as you have trees nearby or are able to place stakes in the ground.
  • Tarps are legal in more places- Many jurisdictions have laws on the books which prohibit setting up tents in city limits. These laws target the homeless. Cities don’t want tent cities forming. Most places don’t have any laws about tarps. Admittedly, this is kind of a loophole. It could come in handy while wild camping or camping in an urban area though. It may save you from a ticket.
  • Tarps are highly adjustable- There are a dozen different ways to pitch a tarp. Which you choose depends on your gear, the site you selected, and the weather conditions. Maybe you’re camping in high wind. In this case, you want a low profile pitch. Maybe you’re camping in the rain. In this case, you want a watertight pitch. A tarp allows you to adjust to the conditions. Tents always pitch exactly the same. To give you an idea of what pitches are possible with a tarp, check out this great article from Sectionhiker.com.
  • Better visibility- This depends on your pitch. Generally, tarps allow 360 degrees of view through the 4-5 inch gap between the bottom of the tarp and the ground. This allows you to see if someone or something is approaching you. While sleeping in my tent, I’ve been woken up by strange noises in the night on a few occasions. In order to see who or what was there, I’d need to get up and out of the tent. A tarp allows you to see out at all times.
  • Tarps offer more floor space- The average camping tarp is around 10 foot by 8 foot. That gives you plenty of space to spread out your gear, cook, and sleep multiple people. My one-man tent has around 7 feet by 3 feet of floor space. It’s pretty cramped.
  • Tarps are easy to climb in and out of- Because there are no walls, I can easily move around with my shoulders or legs hitting anything. This makes entering and exiting much easier. Being a taller guy, I sometimes have trouble climbing into and out of my one-man tent. The door is just too small. I have to sit down and twist around to get myself into position. Climbing out is a hassle as well.
  • Tarps sleep cooler- This is nice for camping in a hot climate or during the summer. You can take advantage of the cool breeze and shade to keep you comfortable. Tents, being enclosed, heat up like an oven when the sun comes up in the morning. Sometimes I want to sleep in but I can’t because my tent just gets too hot. Tarps stay much cooler.
  • You can cook under your tarp- Tarps offer enough airflow that you can safely cook while under the cover of your tarp. You don’t have to worry about giving yourself carbon monoxide poisoning. This allows you to prepare a nice hot meal during a rainstorm. Of course, you still have to be careful not to set your tarp on fire. You can’t really do this in a tent safely. The risk of fire or asphyxiation is just too high.
  • Tarps allow you to use a fire for warmth- You can set your tarp up in such a way that it traps heat from your campfire. Because the tarp is open, it allows enough airflow that you don’t have to worry about the smoke. Of course, you still have to consider the direction of the wind so you don’t have smoke blowing in your face all night or even set your tarp on fire.
  • More comfortable sleeping on a grade- Tent floors are slippery and allow your sleeping pad to move around. While tarp camping, you won’t wake up smashed up against a wet tent wall when sleeping on a slight hill. 
  • Less condensation- Because tarps are open, they allow more airflow. This helps prevent condensation from forming. Condensation can be a dangerous problem while camping. In humid conditions, you can wake up in a soggy sleeping bag if your shelter doesn’t offer enough airflow. Wet sleeping bags lose their warmth. This is particularly true with down bags. Tents often suffer from condensation issues. Of course, bivy sacks suffer from condensation issues as well.
  • Tarps don’t require poles to pitch- Tent poles are long, fragile, and awkward to pack. You don’t need poles to set up a tarp as long as you are camping in an area with a lot of trees. Of course, trekking poles do make pitching your tarp easier and give you more campsite options. If you don’t like to use trekking poles, you can always just use a stick.
  • You can take a tarp on an airplane carry-on bag- Many airlines don’t allow tents in the cabin because of the poles or stakes. With a tarp, you only need some rope to mount it if you are camping in an environment with a lot of trees. Of course, having some stakes opens you up to more campsite and pitch options for your tarp.
  • You can pack a tarp in addition to your tent- If you’re not concerned about weight, you can pack a small tarp to use for shade, extra dry space, or as a floor saver for your tent. A small tarp comes in handy often.
  • Tarps allow you to feel closer to nature- You are basically sleeping outside when you camp with a tarp. In a tent, you are stuck in a small room where you can’t see out.
  • Tarp camping feels more adventurous- Because you are more exposed to nature, camping under a tarp feels like an adventure.
Lean-to style tarp camping setup

A minimalist lean-to style tarp camping setup

Camping Tarp Cons

  • Tarps take longer to set up than tents- Every time you set up your tarp, you must adapt to the surroundings. The ideal tarp pitch depends on the terrain of your campsite and the weather. For example, maybe on night one, it rains and you set up under a series of trees. The next night you set up in a windy field. Each time you set up your tarp, you have to adjust your guy lines and figure out the best pitch. This takes time. Particularly while you’re just learning. Most tents set up in under two minutes and the setup is exactly the same each time.
  • Tarps aren’t free standing- This is one of the biggest drawbacks to me. You need something to tie your tarp to. It could be a trekking pole or trees. You also need to camp on the ground where you can put stakes into the ground. This means you can’t set up your tarp in the middle of a concrete parking lot or wooden patio. You can pitch a freestanding tent on any piece of flat ground.
  • Tarps offer no protection from bugs and critters- Because a tarp is open on the sides and bottom, insects and animals can easily disturb you as you sleep. Ticks, slugs, mosquitoes, mice, snakes, and all types of animals can come to bother you in the night. The solution to this is to pair your tarp with a bug net or bivy sack to keep the critters out.
  • There is a learning curve to setting up a tarp- There are dozens of pitch options to choose from. Each one takes a bit of time to learn. You also need to learn a few knots and how to choose the best campsite. You may want to practice setting up your tarp in your backyard or a park before going camping. If you’re not interested in taking the time to learn a new skill, consider sticking with a tent.
  • A tarp camping setup can weigh as much as a tent- When you factor in the added weight of a bivy sack or bug net as well as stakes, rope, and a trekking pole, your total shelter weight can be comparable to an ultralight tent. You may need to carry a slightly warmer sleeping bag with a tarp as well which adds more weight. My Big Agnes HVUL 1 tent only weights 33 ounces. You can get below that weight with a tarp and bivy but not by that much unless you purchase ultralight gear.
  • Tarps don’t keep you as dry as tents- In a heavy storm, you may get wet. Rain can blow in the sides under the tarp. Eventually, the ground gets wet and you get wet. To stay dry, consider pairing your tarp with a water-resistant bivy sack. It will keep any water that does get in off of your sleeping bag. Tents, being completely sealed, keep you dry in all conditions.
  • Tarps are more difficult to set up in the dark- Because you have to find trees to tie to and adjust your guy lines, setting up a tarp at night can be a challenge. Tents always pitch exactly the same which makes setting up camp in the dark much easier.
  • Tarps don’t keep you as warm- Because they are open, tarps don’t trap any heat and offer no insulation. This can be a problem if you camp in cold weather.
  • Less privacy- Because a tarp isn’t fully enclosed, people can always see in. You’re always out in the open. This makes staying in a campground a bit awkward. It’s nice to have some privacy for changing clothes, sleeping, organizing gear, etc. Some styles of tarps offer a bit of privacy but not as much as a fully enclosed tent.
  • Tarps are less secure than tents- Because a tarp is open, people can always see you and your gear inside. You can’t just leave your belongings under your tarp while staying in an area where people are present. The risk of theft is too high. In a tent, people can’t tell if it’s occupied or not. They may be less likely to approach or try to rob you. You can leave your gear inside and not have to worry as much about someone entering to steal your gear. You can even lock a tent closed.
  • Tarps may be more dangerous in bear country- I haven’t been able to verify for sure whether or not this point is true, but I thought I’d add it anyway. I have read claims from other campers that bears and other wild animals may be more likely to attack you while tarp camping than when you’re in a tent. While tarp camping, you’re basically just out in the open. If an animal approaches, it can clearly see you just laying there. If it’s hungry enough, it may attack. Tent’s are large and confuse animals. They don’t know that they could easily tear into it. Having said this, I have not found any verified stories of animal attacks on tarp campers. This point makes sense to me logically though. Of course, the likelihood of a bear or other animal attacking you while sleeping is incredibly low. It is something to worth considering, I think. 
  • Tarps aren’t great for winter camping- They can’t handle the snow load that a 4 season tent is designed for. Tarps also provide no insulation to help you stay warmer.

Yellow tent

Tent Pros

  • Tents are quick to set up- Most tents pitch in less than 2 minutes. This comes in particularly handy during a rainstorm. You can set up camp and be out of the rain in a matter of minutes. Tarps, on the other hand, take a bit more time. You have to find something to tie to and adjust your guy lines. This takes time. An experienced tarp camper can set up pretty quickly.
  • You don’t need anything to mount your tent to- Many tents are completely free standing. Trees or trekking poles to tie guy lines to are not required. You don’t even need soft ground to pound stakes into. You could set up camp in the middle of a concrete parking lot if you wanted. Of course, this depends on the style of tent that you have. Some aren’t free standing and require stakes to pitch. I prefer freestanding tents because you can pitch them anywhere. This opens up your campsite options.
  • Tents keep you warmer- Even though the walls are thin, tents offer some insulation. The enclosed space traps some heat to keep you warmer on cold nights. Tarps, being open air, don’t hold any heat. This means that you can get away with a slightly lighter sleeping bag when camping with a tent and stay just as warm.
  • Tents offer more privacy- You have your own little room away from people. Inside your tent, you can change your clothes, organize your gear, clean yourself, and just get away from people for a while. This is one of the reasons that I always pack a tent when I travel internationally.
  • Tents offer better protection from the rain- Being completely sealed, tents are better at keeping you dry than tarps. Because tarps are always partially open, rain can blow in and soak the floor which eventually gets you wet. With that being said, with the proper pitch or a large tarp, you can always stay mostly dry.
  • Tents offer better protection from critters- Tents generally include built-in bug netting that keeps out mosquitoes, ticks, slugs, spiders, ants, mice, snakes and any other critter that might want to get in. Tarps, being open, allow any of these creatures to walk, slither, or fly right in. The solution is to use a bug net or bivy sack in addition to your tarp to prevent critters from biting you or bothering you in the night.
  • Tents offer better security- While camping in a campground you can zip your items up in your tent and not have to worry as much about theft. You can even put a lock on your tent door so anyone who wanted to get in would have to cut your tent open. While it is possible for someone to steal gear from inside of your tent, it is less likely. With a tarp, your gear is just sitting out int the open visible to anyone. You can’t really leave your gear unattended out because of the risk of theft.
  • Tents offer better protection from the wind- Being completely closed, tents block the wind in all directions. This helps you stay warmer. Because tarps are partially open, they can’t completely block the wind. A consistent breeze can lower the temperature considerably with the wind chill factor.
  • You don’t need to learn a new skill to tent camp- Most people learned how to camp in a tent as a kid. Even if you’ve never tent camped before, all you need to do is find a flat spot and read the instructions on the bag to pitch your tent. Tarps, on the other hand, take some skill to set up properly. You need to learn a few possible pitches. You have to learn how to properly tie and tension the lines. This requires learning a couple of knots. The process is just a bit more involved.
  • Tents are safer in bear country- Again, I’m not sure if this point is statistically true or not but it sounds reasonable to me. Tents are large and confuse bears. They can’t see inside and don’t know that they could easily break in. Tarps, on the other hand, are open. If a bear approaches your camp in the night, it can see you just laying there. It may be more likely to attack. Having said this, bear attacks, in general, are surprisingly rare. They are even rarer on sleeping people.
  • Tents can be similar in weight to tarps- If you aren’t limited by a budget, ultralight tents are available that are comparable in weight to a tarp and bivy combo. Finding a 1.5 pound (around 680 gram) tent is possible. A Cuben fiber tarp and bivy will be lighter but not by much.
  • Tents are classic- A campsite just looks like a campsite if it has a tent. For many people, like myself, tent camping brings back fond childhood memories.

3 tents set up in the mountains

Tent Cons

  • Tents are heavier than tarps- An average tent weighs 3-5 pounds. An ultralight tent weighs around 2 pounds. This is still about twice as heavy as the heaviest of tarps. Tents require poles and use a lot more material which adds to the weight. If you’re looking for the lightest possible camping setup, stick with a tarp.
  • Tents take up more space in your pack- Because tents have so much more material as well as zippers and long poles, they can’t pack down nearly as small. Even an ultralight tent takes up over 5 liters of space in your pack. A lightweight tarp can pack down to less than a liter. An ultralight minimalist tarp is smaller than a tennis ball when compressed.
  • Tents cost more- Decent tents start around $200. Lower cost options are available but they are either heavy and bulky or low quality. You can buy a nice tarp for less than $50.
  • Tents are fragile- Tents have zippers and poles which can break. They have floors which can get holes if you don’t use a groundsheet. Tarps are much more durable.
  • Tents offer poor visibility- Wile sitting inside your tent, you can’t really see anything other than what is directly outside of your door. This is annoying when you want to look at the stars or enjoy a scenic campsite. It can also be dangerous. If you hear a person or animal approaches your campsite, you must exit your tent in order to take a look. With a tarp, you can always see out of the gap between the ground and the bottom of your tarp. Visibility depends on your pitch, of course.
  • Condensation is an issue in tents- Some tents offer poor breathability and allow condensation to build up inside. This condensation can come from both your breath and the environment. If condensation gets bad enough, you may wake up in a wet sleeping bag. Wet bags don’t keep you as warm as when they are dry. Particularly down bags. Tarps allow air to flow through at all times so you stay dry. Of course, if you are sleeping in a bivy under your tarp, condensation is an issue again. For more info, check out my guide to reducing condensation.
  • Tents get hot- When the sun starts baking down on your tent in the morning, it’s time to get up. Tents act like an oven. They trap heat. Tarps keep you cool by providing shade and allowing a breeze to pass through.
  • You can’t fly with a tent in your carry-on bag- This depends on the airline and security. Some don’t allow tent stakes or poles in the cabin of the plane for security reasons. It sounds ridiculous, but I had to go back and check my bag once while trying to pass through security with my tent. I try to never check a bag when I travel so this always becomes an issue for me. Maybe plastic stakes are a solution but I’m not sure.
  • Tents are legal in fewer places- Many jurisdictions pass laws banning camping. This prevents homeless people from camping on the sidewalks or forming a tent city. If you set up a tent, you could be told to leave or, worse yet, fined for camping where it is forbidden. If you set up a tarp, you can just say that you wanted some shade to rest in. This could at least save you from getting a ticket. I recognize that this is just a loophole but it may come in handy someday.
  • Tent floors are slippery- When sleeping on a grade, your sleeping pad tends to slide downhill. You often wake up slammed against the wet wall of the tent. 
  • In some places, finding a place to pitch a tent is more difficult- In order to pitch a tent, you need a flat piece of ground the size of your tent’s footprint. With a tarp, you only need a space large enough for you to lay down on.
  • You are less connected to nature in a tent- While inside of your tent, you’re stuck in a small room where you can’t see out. The tent walls block your view. You can’t look up at the stars. You’re missing out on one of the best parts of camping.

More Camping and Hiking Pros and Cons Analyses from Where The Road Forks

A Note About Keeping the Critters Away While Tarp Camping

A tarp, on its own, isn’t a complete shelter. You need some kind of barrier to keep out spiders, snakes, slugs, mice, mosquitoes, etc. There are just too many critters out there that can bother you in your sleep. Beyond being annoying, they pose a health risk as well. You don’t want to contract malaria or Lyme disease because you didn’t sleep in a proper shelter and left yourself exposed during the night.

When tarp camping this means that you need either a bug net or a bivy sack to pair with your tarp. This does add a bit of weight and bulk to your setup, but it is a necessity in my opinion. Each have their own benefits and drawbacks.

  • Bivy Sacks- These include a built-in floor which makes setup quicker and easier. I recommend you choose a bivy that fully encloses with a zipper. That way, nothing can crawl in and bother you in the night. You are completely closed in. A good bivy helps you stay dry during a heavy storm as well. This is my preference. For more info on bivys as well as a few recommendations, check out my bivy sack vs tent pros and cons list.
  • Bug net- This cheaper option offers a bit more modularity. If you carry a bug net, you’ll also need to carry a groundsheet. This adds a bit more complexity. Because bug nets don’t fully enclose, they allow critters to crawl in between the netting and groundsheet. It’s not fully sealed. They also take a bit longer to set up. For bug nets, I recommend the  Sea to Summit NANO Mosquito Pyramid Shelter. It weighs just 2.9 ounces (about 28 grams).

Of course, the type of shelter that you need is heavily dependent on the climate and terrain where you plan to camp. In places where there are few bugs, you can easily get away with just a tarp. If no rain is in the forecast, you can do without the tarp and just use your bivy or bug net. This molecularity is what makes tarp camping so appealing to many.

Mosquito

The mosquito. Every camper’s worst enemy

Camping Tarp Materials

Which tarp material you choose really comes down to your budget and your weight requirements. Below, I list the most popular tarp materials in order of lightest to heaviest.

  • Dyneema- This material used to be called Cuben fiber. Dyneema is the lightest and strongest available tarp material. It weighs just .51 ounces per square yard. A minimalist Dyneema tarp weighs less than 4 grams. Unfortunately, this material is quite expensive. Dyneema tarps start around $200.
  • Silnylon (silicon nylon)- This lightweight material is made by coating a thin layer of nylon with liquid silicon. The result is a lightweight, waterproof fabric that is non-breathable. Silnylon weighs around 1.35 ounces per square yard. This durable, lightweight material is fairly affordable. Silnylon tarps start around $50.
  • Ripstop nylon- These are basically a thicker version of silnylon. They are made with a thicker nylon fabric. They are waterproof, durable, and affordable. The drawback to Ripstop nylon tarps is the fact that they are a bit heavy. This material weighs around 1.9 ounces per square yard. A small one weighs around a pound.
  • Poly tarp- These tarps are made of woven and laminated polyethylene. They weigh around 2.7 ounces per square yard. Poly tarps are cheap, relatively lightweight, and fairly durable. If you’re on a tight budget, this is your best option. You can buy one of these for just a few dollars.

Camping Tarp Styles

Which tarp style you choose comes down to personal preference. Here are a few options:

  • Flat tarp- This is the simplest design. It’s simply a rectangular piece of material with grommets around the edges to tie guy lines and poles onto. This style offers the most pitch options. Flat tarps are the most popular and cheapest style.
  • Pyramid tarp- This design offers a bit more privacy because it has walls. Pyramid tarps require one or two trekking poles to pitch. They only offer one pitch. Pyramid tarps are the most expensive style.
  • Wing style tarp- These offer a bit more protection from wind and rain than flat tarps. This is achieved with extra fabric on the sides of the tarp. Wing tarps allow fewer pitch options.
  • Tarp Poncho- These combine rain gear and shelter into one. A Tarp poncho is basically a flat tarp with a hole in the middle where a hood is attached.

Camping Tarp Recommendations

The best thing about camping tarps is that they are just so simple. You can go down to your nearest hardware store, buy a standard blue tarp and some rope, and go out camping. If you want something a bit lighter and more durable, consider buying a purpose-built camping tarp. Here are a few nice options:

Aqua Quest Guide Tarp

This SilNylon tarp comes in 4 sizes and includes 6 straps, 6 stakes, and a carrying case. This tarp is lightweight, durable, and 100% waterproof. This tarp has plenty of mounting loops around edges which gives you plenty of options when it comes to mounting your tarp.


Sea to Summit Ultra-SIL Nano Tarp Poncho

This ultralight silnylon tarp poncho weighs only 8.1 ounces. The nice thing about this tarp is that it doubles as a poncho. This means you can use it as a shelter and rain gear. It is rather small at just 57” X 104”.


Terra Hiker Camping Tarp

This budget-friendly tarp is made from waterproof 210d Oxford cloth. It is available in 3 sizes and colors. This is a great choice for people who are just getting started with tarp camping. 


Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape

This interesting tarp poncho weighs just 10 ounces. It requires one trekking pole to pitch. It offers a vestibule for storing gear and 360 degrees of protection from the elements. This is my next shelter purchase. 


High-End Tarp Option

If money isn’t a concern for you, consider shelling out for a camping tarp made from Dyneema or Cuben fiber. These tarps weigh as little as 4 ounces and the material is incredibly strong and durable. Zpacks and Hyperlight Mountain Gear offer some nice options. Unfortunately, these are out of my price range at this time.

How to Set up a Camping Tarp

When it comes to pitching your camping tarp, you have dozens of options. Some pitches take a bit more skill to properly set up than others. The ideal pitch depends on the terrain, weather conditions, and your skill level. Below, I’ll describe a few of the most popular ways to set up a camping tarp.

The Classic A-Frame Camping Tarp Pitch

This is one of the simplest options. The A-frame works great in the rain. All you need is your tarp, a length of rope, 4 guy lines, 4 stakes, and two mounts. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Tie your rope between two trees to use as a ridgeline. You want the rope to be the level that you want the roof of your shelter. It should be pretty tight.
  2. Drape your tarp over the rope. You want equal amounts of fabric on each side.
  3. Tie your guy lines to each of the 4 corners of the tarp.
  4. Stake the guy lines into the ground in a way that your tarp is held taut.

The ideal angle of your tarp in relation to the ground depends on the weather and your preference. For maximum floor space, you want the angle of your tarp in relation to the ground to be as small as possible. For better rain protection, the tarp should be at around 45 degrees relative to the ground.

A frame camping tarp pitch

A frame camping tarp pitch

The Lean-to Tarp Shelter

Another simple pitch option. The lean-to works well to block the wind or create shade. All you need is your tarp, a length of rope, two stakes, and two mounts. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pull your rope through the grommets or loops along one edge of your tarp.
  2. Tie your rope between two trees to use as a ridgeline. You want the rope to be at a height where the tarp will sit at a 45-degree angle relative to the ground when one edge is attached to the ridgeline. The rope should be pretty tight.
  3. Pull the tarp taught and stake the corners that are opposite the ridgeline into the ground.

Tip: Position your lean-to in such a way that the tarp blocks then wind.

lean to camping tarp pitch

A minimalist lean-to tarp poncho pitch

How to Set up a Tarp Camping Shelter with Trekking Poles

If you are camping in a place without any trees for you to set up a ridgeline, you can still set up your camping tarp. The only drawback is that you need some poles.

Trekking poles work well for this. Particularly if you need to carry them anyway. Alternately, can also buy a couple of lightweight tent-style poles to use to pitch your tarp. If you’re in a pinch, you can even make a couple of sticks work as poles. With poles, pitch options are nearly endless. One of the most popular is the half pyramid.

The Half Pyramid Tarp Shelter

This is a roomy pitch that works well for mild weather. It’s also easy to set up. You’ll need 5 stakes, 3-5 guy lines, and 1-2 poles.

  1. Set your tarp down flat on the ground.
  2. Stake out two adjacent corners on the long side of your tarp.
  3. Use a trekking pole to raise the center of the opposite side of the tarp.
  4. Stake out the remaining corners with guy lines.
  5. Adjust the guy lines to make the tarp taught.

For a great visual of this pitch, check out this YouTube video from Canadian Ultralight. It shows step-by-step how to set up your tarp into an A-frame and half pyramid with trekking poles. 

For more tips on pitching your tarp, check out this excellent guide from The Hiking Life.

Tarp Vs. Tent: My Choice

I still prefer a tent in most situations. I will continue to pack it while bicycle touring. They are faster and easier to set up in most situations. Tents also offer a bit better protection from the elements. I just find them more comfortable. This is all at the expense of a bit more weight. My ultralight tent weighs about a pound more than a lightweight bivy/tarp combo.

I will continue to use my tarp for shorter trips where I care more about simplicity and weight. I plan to use my tarp for travel. The system works well. I will admit that I am still a beginner when it comes to pitching my tarp.

With some more practice, I may grow to prefer the tarp over my tent. I’ve been moving more and more toward ultralight over the past couple of years. For now, I’ll continue to use both and keep experimenting.

two tents near the railroad tracks

Tent camping near the railroad tracks with my buddy last year

Final Thoughts: Tarp Vs. Tent

At the end of the day, the choice really comes down to personal preference. If your number one priority is having the lightest possible sleep system, a tarp is your best option.

You can cut your total camping shelter down to less than a pound if you purchase a Dyneema tarp and bivy. That’s half the weight of an ultralight tent. If you’re on a budget, you can pick up a hardware store tarp and basic bivy and enjoy your lightweight shelter for less than a quarter of the cost of an ultralight tent.

If however, you value comfort and privacy and don’t mind carrying an extra pound, a tent is still the best camping shelter option. There is a reason that tents are so popular. There is something to be said about the ease of pitching a tent as well. For the casual camper, a tent is probably the best choice.

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