Should You Bring a Tarp on Your Backpacking Trip? Or just a Tent? Both?

Whether you’re venturing into the lightweight game, or simply looking to outfit your first trip into the backcountry, it’s a gear decision you’ve likely discussed: do I need a tarp? We hope to help answer that question for you by shedding some light on the many great uses for tarps, as well as the times when it’s probably not necessary.

When To Bring It:

When Light Is Right!

If getting pack weight down is the most important feature of an upcoming trip, then you should strongly consider taking a tarp for shelter rather than a tent. Simply put, tarps are the lightest, and smallest shelter options available. In most cases, they can be set up using just trees, ground stakes, or trekking poles, which you should already be carrying. With less material and no dedicated poles, tarps can be significantly lighter and pack down smaller than most of their double-walled tent counterparts. They are, however, more difficult to set-up and while a tarp only shelter will keep you agile on your feet with a light pack, it will definitely expose you more to the elements, insects, or other critters. Who cares about bugs though, you’re an ultra lighter now! You can brag to fellow hikers about your sub 20lb. pack, and how you no longer need to be separated from nature in the confines of a tent at the end of the day. You are happy to remain a part of nature while you sleep soundly underneath your small, and light tarp.

When Rain Is In The Forecast

The Hilleberg Tarp XP 20 providing ample space to relax on a rainy day
The Hilleberg Tarp XP 20 providing ample space to relax on a rainy afternoon

If getting outside is a regular goal of your adventure plans (why it should be), then the inevitable will happen sooner or later…rainy days on your trip. For those who are not prepared to deal with it, prolonged precipitation is one of the quickest ways to zap the fun out of any outdoor adventure. On those rainy trips where work schedules and life won’t allow you to reschedule, a tarp can go a loooong way towards restoring mental sanity and enjoyment. The tarp provides a ‘living room’ feel to rainy days, and doesn’t leave you cramped inside a tent for hours on end. It will also be much easier to dry out gear, relax, and cook food under a tarp than inside a tent. Plus, the added benefit of a view allows you to take in more of your natural surroundings, and help you stay sane on those wet weather days.


When To Leave It At Home…And Bring A Tent Instead:

Buggy Locales

tent set-up on the shores of an island off the eastern coast of Virginia
standard ultralight backpacking tent, before outer fly is set-up

When I think back to some of my overly buggy experiences in the backcountry (mainly the Long Range Traverse in Newfoundland, and camping on an island off the eastern shore of Virginia), it’s hard to imagine being only under a tarp. Living in the Southeastern United States means that biting bugs will always be a consideration during summertime trips. On most occasions, it is not much of an issue away from dusk and dawn, but these are still times when I would much rather be in a tent than a tarp. As we mentioned above, tarps leave you exposed to biting insects and critters, which makes them ill suited fur buggy campsites. One popular solution for this problem is to purchase an integrated bug netting system to use with your tarp. While this does give you the necessary protection to escape those pesky mosquitos, it basically turns your tarp into a double walled tent, ending any tarp vs. tent discussions (A tarp with bug netting is practically the same set-up as our tent, which has an inner mesh tent with bathtub floor, and an outer fly). I would rather just have my tent, which is significantly easier to set-up. So on those trips where bugs are a concern, just grab your tent, and leave the tarp at home. You will be incredibly thankful for the enclosed retreat, in which you can escape those blood sucking nasties!

First Timers, or Those Otherwise Uneasy About Sleeping Outdoors

Spending the night outside, under a tarp with no other form of protection, is usually an intimidating experience for most people not accustomed to the humbling exposure it provides. The thought of easy access to curious animals, bugs, and heat-seeking critters is enough to halt the grandest of sleeping plans. While it is largely a psychological difference (you weren’t really expecting that thin piece of nylon fabric to protect you from a bear attack right?), a tent will provide a much greater sense of protection and comfort for those peaceful nights of sleep. If you are bringing a friend into the backcountry for the first time, or simply prefer the enclosed comfort it provides, a tent will be your best chance for an enjoyable ‘home away from home’ experience while sleeping on the trail.


The tent vs. tarp battle doesn’t always have to end with an either/or decision. After all, getting your cake and eating it too has always been best, right? On most of our trips, we prefer a double walled enclosed tent, mainly for the added weather, critter, and bug protection it provides. Plus, with stronger and lighter tent fabrics being developed, many manufacturers now offer backpacking tents almost as light as some tarps. Some of our recent trips into rainy locales however, have left us with a new realization…there are some serious benefits to carrying both a tent, and a small, lightweight tarp, particularly with wet forecasts.

Probably our favorite aspect of having both, is the added area for cooking or hanging out in adverse weather. When it’s time for dinner on a rainy evening, having only a tarp or a tent means you will likely be cooking exactly where you are sleeping, a big ‘no-no’ for proper backcountry food/animal etiquette. By carrying both, the tarp can now be your spot to cook dinner and hang-out, away from your tent location, where you can then retreat to sleep at the end of the day. Backpacking tents are small, and so having to spend less time in their cramped confines, outside of sleeping, will leave everyone with a more enjoyable experience. The tarp can also be great for mid-day showers, or sun-protection at breaks, where it would be a hassle to pull out and set-up your entire tent for only a short period.


The bottom line is to understand the different performance characteristics of each shelter option and match your selection to the conditions and goals of an upcoming trip. We certainly feel that both have their place in offering great shelter while out exploring the untamed beauty of the backcountry. With either a tent, a tarp, or both, you will be spending a night under the stars, and that’s all that really matters.





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