a tent under a tarp in forest at sunset

How To Camp With Tarps

Select the right tarp and use it effectively as an endlessly versatile piece of shelter for your next camp outing.

A tarp is, essentially, just a squarish piece of fabric. Simple, yet you’d be hard pressed to find a more useful swath of material. Camping tarps can do everything, from adding extra weather protection to your tent to creating a shady, dry camp kitchen or hangout space—not to mention the ability to serve as your entire shelter. No matter what your preferred style of camping is, a tarp will improve the experience. 

Intrigued? This article will outline the following need-to-knows on this ultra-functional item:

  • Some of the many ways to use a tarp when camping
  • Top considerations for choosing a tarp
  • The pros and cons of tarp shelters
  • Tips for effective tarp pitching and use

What can I do with a tarp?

Perhaps the better question is what can’t you do with it. A few favorite uses:

  • Protecting the underside of your tent from rough terrain
  • Creating shade on a sunny day
  • Adding extra rain, snow, and wind protection to your tent
  • Creating a protected, dry space for a camp kitchen or group hangout space
  • Extending the vestibule area on your tent
  • Sheltering your hammock
  • Serving as your sleep shelter
A tent and camp tarp is seen over an eating area

How do I choose a tarp?

Simple as they are, camping tarps come in a variety of styles. Here’s what to consider as you shop.


How much do you need? Obviously, the bigger the tarp, the more area it will cover—and the heavier, bulkier, and more expensive it’ll be. Solo ultralight campers will likely be fine with a smaller model, while those looking to create a campsite shelter for their family reunion will need a larger one. 


The most affordable tarps are made from materials like vinyl or polyethylene, which are durable, but tend to be the heaviest, least packable options. Those made from fabrics like nylon or a non-breathable silnylon are in the middle of weight, durability, and cost, which makes them good all-purpose choices. The most expensive tarps tend to be made from Dyneema, a very light yet strong material, and are prized by ultralight backpackers. Note that not all tarps are fully waterproof. A water-resistant tarp might be fine for more casual use, but a waterproof, seam-sealed tarp is essential for a camper who’ll be relying on it for shelter.


Tarps come in squares, rectangles, and slightly rounder shapes with more than four “corners.” The more corner attachment points you have, the more versatility the tarp offers as far as different ways to pitch it. Some square or rectangular tarps also offer lots of attachment points, which add versatility as well as stability.

Is tarp camping for me?

Thinking about trading in your tent for a tarp? Tarp campers tend to be a devoted bunch, and no wonder. Tarps can be set up in a wide variety of configurations to match the terrain and weather conditions. They don’t pose any condensation problems, as tents do. They’re often (but not always) more affordable than a tent. Tarps are ultralight, and some can even be pitched with trekking poles so you don’t need to carry extra shelter poles. And they can help you feel more connected to the great outdoors. 

Still, tarps aren’t for every camper. You won’t get the same level of protection from inclement weather and biting bugs that you would in a tent (though smart site selection and the use of a bug net can help). And tarps take some practice to consistently pitch well in their many different shapes, which doesn’t appeal to everyone.

Extra tips for tarps

  • Remember that many tarps don’t come with all the accessories you might want. Those include stakes, rope or paracord for guying it out, and poles for extending its height. Tarp campers should add a ground sheet to protect themselves and their gear from moisture in the dirt.
  • Take the time to get a taut pitch. A saggy tarp just won’t get the job done correctly.
  • If you’re sleeping under a tarp, take extra time to find the perfect campsite. Look for breezy areas to keep the bugs away, and target well-drained spots that won’t collect water if it rains. The more natural protection you can find from wind and precipitation (think tree cover and boulders), the better.
  • When sleeping with a ground sheet, make sure that it’s contained entirely under your tarp. Otherwise, it’ll collect rain and funnel it onto you.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.