Whether you’re a new adherent to ultralight backpacking philosophy or you’re out on a day hike without a sleeping bag and need a quick emergency rain shelter, a lightweight tarp is an essential piece of gear that you should have in backpackers should have in their rucksack on every outdoor adventure. Tarp shelter configurations such as the nonpareil A-frame are fast and easy to strike up and provide simple protection from the elements if you find yourself out on the trail in need of a campsite you can set up in five minutes or less.
There are a few qualities you should look out for in a tarp to make sure it can stand the tension and any beating a rainstorm and high winds might give it. A waterproof tarp shelter will keep backpackers warm and dry through rain or snow as long as they’ve taken the time to select a suitable campsite that is elevated and not already wet from previous precipitation.
There are many tips and tricks when it comes to erecting a tarp shelter but there are only a few tools you’ll need to get the job done. A carabiner and some paracord to use as cordage for a guyline or ridgeline are the only things you’ll need, but it can be difficult to know a quality paracord and carabiner from knock-off imitations. Different styles of tarp shelter configurations affect different protection from rain and wind depending on the severity of the weather conditions in the locale of your campsite.
Many backpackers have different methods of staking the corners of the tarp for wind buffering and directing rain runoff away from the living space underneath the tarp. One of the most popular methods is the Prusik Knot, which will never undo itself and only becomes more secure the more weight it takes on.
Rain runoff and wind protection are both good reasons to erect your tarp tent with a strong ridgeline, although for the heaviest bad weather conditions there are better methods. In addition, these various styles of tarp shelter configurations can be used in tandem with a standard camping tent to provide extra sun, wind, and rain protection for the living space at a campsite.
Backpacking can be a much smaller mental stress if you know how to select the right tarp for erecting a tarp shelter. A tarp should be ultralight and come with included or pre-attached guylines for staking and anchoring the tarp shelter. Grommets along the edges provide a space to tie a paracord and secure your tarp shelter in a sturdy position.
There are many applications that a tarp can fulfill on a camping trip. Backpackers who prefer a hammock to a sleeping bag or just want to leave the sleeping bag at home should really know how to erect a tarp shelter in many different styles to suit the conditions at their campsite. Read on to learn all the ins and outs of the essential bushcraft of making a rain shelter with a tarp so you can shield yourself from the wind, rain, and sun on your next excursion.
Choosing the right tarp for a shelter configuration
Everyone has seen the blue tarps used in construction and protecting inanimate objects from the elements. The tarps used by ultralight backpackers have some design features for the many particulars of backcountry campsites. Just about every shelter design requires a tarp that has grommets, which should be in the middle of all four sides of the tarp.
Tarps should be square-shaped and the guylines should be included at a minimum or pre-attached in the best case. To create enough living space for backpackers and hikers and their sleeping bags or bivy sacks, a tarp should be around 9’ x 9’ and be thick enough to secure with cordage to prevent sagging.
A ridgeline, which is a rope, paracord, or any other type of cordage tied up between two trees that a tarp can be tossed over to make an A-frame tarp shelter, can be useful for backpackers who don’t want to carry trekking poles with them. Many other tarp shelter configurations rely on a sturdy ridgeline, as do many other DIY bushcrafts.
If you are concerned about the rigidity of your ridgeline or the staying power of your tarp in high winds, try to find a tarp that has grommets or loops at key anchor points along its midline so that you can properly affix the tarp to the paracord ridgeline. The best lean-to shelter starts with the right construction material and a tarp shelter is only as good as its tarp.
Useful knots for securing a tarp shelter
There’s a wide variety of knots that can secure a tarp to the ground and a ridgeline at key anchor points to prevent it sagging or blowing away in a high wind. If you’re the kind of backpacker who already has their badge in knot-tying, you may have a better knot that can handle this anchoring job in a better or surer way. But for the rest of us, these three knots will do just fine. The last one, the Prusik Knot, is one of the best and most versatile knots there are.
The bowline knot
The bowline knot is a really simple knot that won’t jam and ties and unties easily. If you’re using it to secure a carabiner to support your weight or a heavy object, it may come undone. It remains easy to untie even when it’s supporting lots of weight. Here’s how you tie one:
1. Take a paracord or similar cordage in your left hand and leave the excess hanging down. Make a loop in the part of the cordage in your hand.
2. Bring the free end of the cordage up and pass it through the loop in your hand.
3. Wrap the free end around the standing line and back through the loop. You can tighten the knot by pulling on the free end.
This knot is good to secure a load to the ground or in a truck bed. That may not seem especially useful when you’re trying to make a ridgeline for a tarp shelter, but consider that this super-tight knot allows the cordage to be pulled as taut as it possibly can be.
This will help with tarp setup and it will prevent the tarp from sagging. If it’s too taut, the ridgeline can snap loose or become overly sensitive to wind and move around so much it won’t be able to protect you from the rain. If you are going to pull the ridgeline taut with the trucker’s hitch, make sure you also tie down the tarp’s anchor points really well to prevent the tarp from moving. Here’s how you tie this knot:
1. Tie the cordage to one of the trees you’re using to make a ridgeline.
2. Make a loop around the midpoint of the cordage and cinch the crossed section with your finger and thumb. Feed some rope after the loop toward the free end through the loop.
3. Feed the rope through the loop a few inches, but not too much. It should form a second loop. Tug on the side of the second loop and the line that feeds into the first loop. That should tighten the knot so that you don’t need to keep pinching the cordage at the bottom of the first loop.
4. Pass the free end of your line around the second tree. Pull the free end of the rope so that the line is taut. If it isn’t taut enough, there could be sagging in your tarp when you finish with the tarp setup. One loop should close up at this point.
5. Pass the free end of the cordage through the remaining loop until there is no slack left in the remaining part of your cordage.
6. The cordage after the loop on the free side should be in two strands at this point. Take the free end around both strands loosely so that a loop is formed. Pull the free end through that loop and pull it tight, then slide it to the base of the main knot.
7. Tie another knot as you did in the last step in the remaining cordage and this time pull the tail end through the loop so the free end protrudes. Pull it tight and you have a completed trucker’s hitch knot.
This is the big one. It’s one of the handiest knots possible and has many applications in bushcraft. It’s the best method of securing a loop to a line or other tight line, although it could be used to tie a loop to a tree branch or similarly shaped object.
Climbers and hikers often use the Prusik knot to craft a foothold while bouldering or traversing a hiking trail. When you use it to erect a tarp shelter, it won’t tie with as much tension as other knots and it’s a simple way to create your own anchor points in cordage that you’ll use as a ridgeline. Here’s how to tie a Prusik knot:
1. Make a sling in the cordage. A sling is just a loop that you can make with any other knot, even a simple double knot.
2. Tie a girth hitch around the ridgeline by pulling your cordage loop at either end and wrapping it around the ridgeline. After you have it kind of folded over the ridgeline, pass one semicircle of the loop through the other around the cordage of your ridgeline.
3. Before you pull it tight, pass the loop that came through the center around the ridgeline and the loop three or four more times. Add weight and then pull it completely tight.
A-frame tarp shelter how-to
Now that you know about the materials you’re going to use and how you’re going to secure all your anchor points, let’s look at the most popular shape of a tarp shelter. It’s really simple, offers tons of headroom, and you very likely already know what it is. The A-frame is a classic shape and anyone who has ever hung a towel or blanket out to dry on a clothesline has already almost made one.
You can make it with trekking poles as tent poles or you can make a ridgeline between two trees and toss the tarp over it. If you are using trekking poles, you would add them later to pitch the tarp shelter. Don’t worry about them at the beginning. If you are using a ridgeline, you need to do that first.
To make an A-frame tarp shelter with trekking poles, follow these steps:
1. Secure the corners of the tarp on one side first. Tent stakes or staking them through the grommets in the corners of the tarp are likely the best ways to do this.
2. Put your trekking poles in the middle of either side of the tarp where the openings will be. One should be midway between the two anchor points you’ve already secured and the other trekking pole should be directly opposite.
3. Stake down the opposite corners of the tarp just like you did in step 1.
4. Stake down as many of the other anchor points as needed. There’s no determination for how many you need for sure. Tie down more if you’re in windy conditions, don’t if it’s fairly calm. It’s up to you in the end, as with most bushcraft.
If you’re making an A-frame shelter with a ridgeline, you need to make the ridgeline by running some cordage between two trees and tying it tight so that the line is completely taut. Toss a tarp over the ridgeline and then secure the corners of the tarp and anchor points as you would in the trekking pole example above. For a more secure A-frame, secure the tarp to the ridgeline with Prusik knots. If there are additional anchor points down the middle of your tarp, so much the better. That’s really all there is to it.
Other shapes for a tarp shelter
There are a few other forms that campers can try out to see which you prefer and which you might need in a given scenario. One is the same as the A-frame, but you make it with only one trekking pole. You can probably make it with a ridgeline if you secure the corners of the tarp to the ridgeline and to the ground without tossing the whole tarp over the cordage of the ridgeline. One end should be completely secured to the ground and the other left open. This is called a closed-end A-frame and it’s great to know because it’s faster and closes backpackers off much better.
If you want optimal wind protection, try a wind wall setup. Here’s how:
1. Stake down one end of the tarp.
2. Put a trekking pole in one side of the tarp next to the one you just secured to the ground.
3. Put another trekking pole in the side that’s opposite the side of the tarp that’s secured to the ground. Angle this second trekking pole forward slightly.
4. Stake down the corner near the second trekking pole and the whole rest of that side of the tarp.
5. There should be a corner hanging between the two trekking poles. Pull some cordage through the corner grommet and then use it and some additional cordage that’s secured to the ground a small distance away to make a tension line that will keep the spare corner in one place. You can use it to make additional living space or you can make a rain spout with it, it’s up to you which angle you want to secure this spare corner at.
A third shape that’s really great because part of your tarp will become a groundsheet to protect you from already wet ground and the elements, in general, is called the C-fly. To do this, set up a ridgeline. Then, secure the tarp to the ground at every available anchor point on one side almost directly under the ridgeline. At the next grommet on either side of the tarp, secure it again. This will be your groundsheet.
The rest of the tarp can go over the ridgeline. Secure the tarp to the ridgeline at either end. Use tension lines as you did with the spare corner in the wind wall setup at either corner of the tarp that’s hanging over the ridgeline. Your tarp shelter is complete at that point.
There are many ways to make a square tarp shelter and many materials to make them out of. If you know the right type of knot, you can make a secure shelter that will keep you and your campfire from the wind and the rain whether you’re in a sudden downpour or you want to go tentless as a way of accomplishing ultralight backpacking. It’s a great skill to have and it will save lots of trouble on any adventure in the backcountry.
This guide has only been an introduction; there are many more methods of constructing a tarp shelter, but these should get you started. Some campers bring two tarps and use one as a groundsheet and the other at the shelter over a ridgeline or trekking poles. If you’re going ultralight, consider the C-fly tarp shelter configuration so you won’t need to bring a separate groundsheet. If the ground isn’t wet yet and there’s enough tree cover, consider going without a groundsheet.
Your next outdoor adventure will be a lot more rustic and the next time you get caught in sudden heavy rain, you won’t have to worry now that you know how to make a rain shelter with a tarp.
Bonus tip: Check out this video to see two different ways to tie a Prusik knot for tarp shelters!