Tarp Camping: Beginner’s Guide to Camping Without a Tent

Camping with a tent can be challenging at times. You might be camping with lots of people and not a lot of tents, so you could feel crowded. There’s an easy solution: tarp camping. It provides the same safety from the rain that tents do, and it gives you lots of room for lots of people. It’s also a convenient way for backpackers to camp!

What is Tarp Camping?

First things first, what is tarp camping? It’s really simple; it’s just regular camping, but with a tarp as your shelter instead of a tent. It’s incredibly versatile while on a backpacking trip through the backcountry. Tarp camping pairs very well with bivy sacks. 

For those who don’t know, bivy sack is short for bivouac sack, and a bivy is an ultralight single-person shelter that is basically a cover for your sleeping bag. Bivy sacks are good for minimalist hikers, but they don’t protect from heavy rainstorms. This is why the bivy sack and tarps are great for light backpacking.

Why Try Tarp Camping?

Tarp camping is great for a multitude of reasons. They’re very light because they have less material and equipment than regular tents; tarps cover lots of space, especially headroom. They’re a lot cheaper than tents, and they’re very versatile. 

Tarps are also very durable; their heavy-duty, but simple design makes breaks or rips much less likely. Tarps are also very adaptable, so you can configure them into any shape you want. Tarp camping is most popular among hikers. Backpacking tarp is more convenient because of the reasons above. 

a backpacker wearing a tarp

Tarps are very common among backpackers because of their lightweight and durable design.

What Kind of Tarp Works Best?

The type of tarp doesn’t matter when it comes to tarp camping. Regular blue tarps are just as easy to use as the tarps that are sold by outdoor brands. Tarps are sold anywhere from Lowe’s to REI, and they range from $5 to $60. Tarps also range in material, durability, and quality. No matter which tarp you decide to go with, the most expensive tarp will still be hundreds of dollars less than a high-quality tent. 

The type of tent you pick depends on what suits your lifestyle. If you’re an avid camper who wants to start tarp camping, for the time being, you might want to consider buying a heavy-duty tarp that will last you a long time. If you want to try tarp camping but you’re worried it might not be for you, you should consider getting a tarp that is cheaper.

If you’re the type of hiker who likes to go on long trips with lots of supplies, you should think about getting a tarp that is the lightest available. Whatever kind of tarp you want to buy, just make sure that it has grommets so you can set it up properly. 

What Kind of Designs Do Tarps Come In?

There are a few different tarp designs. One of them is an asymmetrical tarp, which is usually used with an asymmetrical hammock. These types of tarps aren’t typically seen on the ground because they have bad coverage for the regular sleeping positions. The most classic shape of tarp is the square shape. Most square tarps are generously sized so you can spread out with all your gear or have multiple people camp with you. 

Rectangular tarps are very similar to square tarps; however, they are more popular among solo campers than camping groups. One of the main problems with rectangular tarps is that the narrower they are, the less they protect you from the elements. So, be careful when trying to buy the lightest one because it might not be the best one for you.

Tapered tarps are just rectangular tarps that are narrower at the foot end than the head end. These tarps can be trickier to use and take longer to make, but they are good for ultralight backpackers. The final type of tarp design is the catenary cut or cat cut for short.

These kinds of tarps are made to spread the tension applied by the ropes and ridgeline so that there aren’t any floppy edges. They cost a lot, and you aren’t always able to set them up in a full pitch. Because of this, they aren’t always the best for what you’ll spend on them. 

What Are the Different Kinds of Tarp Material?

There are three main materials that are used in camping tarps. Silnylon is a manmade fiber that is basically nylon covered in silicone. It’s very affordable and durable, which makes it great for backpackers. Out of all the tarp materials, silnylon is the heaviest. 

Dyneema Composite used to be called Cuben Fiber, and it’s very light. The bad part about it is that it’s very expensive, so the cost doesn’t outweigh the advantages. Silpoly is a lot like silnylon; it’s polyester mixed with silicone. Out of the three materials, it has the best balance of durability and affordability. 

What Else Do You Need to Tarp Camp?

Tarp camping also requires ropes. While the type of rope also doesn’t particularly matter, a utility cord, paracord, or guyline would work best. These kinds of ropes can be found at any outdoor retailer. The type of rope you want also depends on how you want to set up your tarp shelter. If you want the widest choice of tarps and ropes, Amazon has a wide selection of everything you’ll need. 

You need to make sure that your ropes and guylines are very durable because they take the brunt of the weather you’ll experience outdoors. Dyneema core rope is the best out there because of its strength. If you want a lighter cord that is still as strong as Dyneema, DynaGlide is what you’ll want to use. Just make sure that you get the best rope for your needs.

How Do You Make a Tarp Into a Tent? 

There are a few ways to set up your tarp tent. However you want to sleep, tarp camping offers lots of versatility when it comes to this. How you set up your tarp also depends on what environment you’re in. Sometimes, the best way to set up your tarp is by simply laying it on the ground and putting your sleeping bag on top.

This way works best if you’re a hot sleeper. It provides some insulation from the ground and keeps you safe from bugs. However, be sure that inclement weather isn’t in the area unless you want to get soaked. You can also put a sleeping pad on top of the tarp if you want even more protection from the ground. 

Another way to set up your tarp is by making it into a lean-to. This is a great way to still be in nature without being fully exposed to the elements. This can be created by using a small tree, a stick, or a few ropes to tether the tarp down. One thing to make sure of is that the tarp is not uphill from you!

One way to set up your tarp is a classic: the a-frame. This setup is great because it fits into tight spaces that other tents won’t fit in. To form the frame, use hiking poles as you would use tent stakes and put them at opposite ends of your shelter. Then, throw your tarp over the poles and climb right in! The a-frame is great for bad weather conditions because the heavy rain will fall right off the side of the tarp. 

You can also make your tarp into a hammock! Tie your rope to the tarp, and then, tie it to two trees like you would a regular hammock. Once it feels secure, climb on in! Hammock tarps are good for when the ground is too wet or cold to lay on. 

hammock attached to trees

Hammocks are a great way to camp, and they pair with tarps very well.

Are There Any Downsides to Tarp Camping?

One of the cons of tarp camping is no protection from nature. Most campers like tents because they offer a great way to shield yourself from the outside world while being outside. Tarps can give campers protection from the weather, but they can’t give any protection from bugs or animals. If you want to camp with a tarp, you should consider getting a bug net, especially if you don’t like bugs. 

Another con of tarp camping is weather-related. Freezing temperatures can make tarp camping very dangerous. When the temperatures get too low, you might want to try a tent that is well insulated. 

Where’s The Best Area to Try Tarp Camping?

Some places are not that great for tarp camping. They could have a lot of bugs or the ground could be wet. If the area you’re hiking in is very buggy, you should try to find a campsite that has a good breeze and isn’t close to a water source because bugs tend to stay in humid areas near water. Unless you choose to have a flat tarp setup or you don’t have a groundsheet, you shouldn’t camp in a place that has bad drainage.

Dished campsites, gullies, and depressions should all be avoided when tarp camping. If you’re hiking high elevations, your campsite options might be limited if you’re not using trekking poles. You should try to get below the tree line if you’re up high and bad weather is coming. Also, if you don’t have trekking poles, try finding a few large sticks to support your shelter. 

Which States are Best for Tarp Camping?

While you can tarp camp just about anywhere, some states in the US provide optimum sites to tarp camp. The best states for tarp camping have multiple national parks or seaside campsites. From sea to summit, tarp camping is easier in certain states. 

California has lots of places to try tarp camping. Between Yosemite National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and the beaches of Malibu, California offers so many places to pitch your tarp like a tent. In Yosemite, there are lots of trees to try any of the setups. There are also so many things to do, like bird watching, rock climbing, and hiking. 

In Joshua Tree National Park, there are miles of desert land to explore. The main thing to do in this park is to visit the oldest trees in the world. Malibu has two campgrounds: Malibu Creek State Park and Leo Carrillo State Park. Leo Carrillo State Park is beachfront, and it has campsites that are perfect for tarp camping. Malibu Creek State Park has lots of access to California’s wildlife. 

Utah has three state parks: East Canyon State Park, Red Fleet State Park, and Antelope Island State Park. East Canyon is most popular for fishing and boating in the reservoir on its grounds. Red Fleet State Park is home to the region where many dinosaur fossils were found, so you can sleep right where dinosaurs roamed the earth. Antelope Island has so much wildlife that you might see an antelope, a bighorn sheep, or a bison walk by!

The state of Tennessee has two national parks and one state park that are great for tarp camping. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has lots of campsites that range along the east side of the state, and the campsites range from frontcountry to backcountry.

The Cherokee National Forest is beautiful in autumn because all 650,000 acres change colors, and you can set up just about anywhere in the forest without a permit. Fall Creek State Park is home to one of the largest waterfalls in the eastern US, Fall Creek Falls. However, the park also has gorges, rivers, and lakes for everyone to explore. 

Washington state is home to Olympic National Park and Skyline Lake. Inside Olympic National Park is the Lake of the Angels, which is a beautiful body of water named for its seclusion and scenery. However, you will need a permit for backcountry camping. Skyline Lake is perfect for snow sport enthusiasts who want to spend the night next to the lake. Make sure you know the dangers of tarp camping before you try it in freezing temperatures. 

Maine has two parks: Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park. Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the east coast, sits in Acadia National Park. While backcountry camping isn’t allowed here, the beautiful wildlife makes up for it. Baxter State Park is the place to go if you want a backcountry experience. It has one of the country’s most extensive forest management systems, so it’s great for hanging a hammock.

The state of Wyoming has Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, so it has lots of areas to camp. Grand Teton is perfect for campers who like everything because you can visit swampy wetlands and ice glaciers during the same trip.

Grand Teton is also home to Jackson Hole, which is known worldwide for its natural beauty. Yellowstone is one of the most well-known national parks because of its commitment to rehabilitating the local wolf population. Make sure to keep that fact in mind while tarp camping in the backcountry!

Teton National Park

These rapids run along the road that separates Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park.

Final Verdict

Florida has three state parks and one national park. Blue Springs State Park holds a large population of manatees, so it’s great for people who love to view wildlife while camping. You can also go scuba diving and snorkeling off the shore. Ichetucknee Springs State Park is most well known for snorkeling in the clear water of Blue Hole and tubing in the springs. Don’t forget to look out for gopher tortoises and Sherman’s fox squirrels!

Little Talbot Island State Park’s website says that setting up a hammock and tarp is one of the best ways to camp there. There are ancient sand dunes, natural coastline beaches, and great off-shore paddling. Lastly, Ocala National Forest is 387,000 acres of protected sand pine scrub forest. Camping is available year-round here, which makes it a great place to try tarp camping any time of the year.

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Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.