There are some things that I would call permanent fixtures in my backpack, prominent among them is a tarp (and all of the fixings to pitch them). Whether hiking in the mountains or the maritimes, weather can change quickly and leave one scrambling for shelter. Sure, we may have rain gear, but nothing beats the full coverage and comfort of a tarp when the weather turns really nasty, or when we plan to hunker down for longer periods of time.
Here are 5 reasons I always pack a tarp when I’m spending time outside
1) Tarps provide instant shelter
Perhaps the most important reason in terms of outdoor safety, a tarp that is well rigged with the appropriate lines and pegs can be set up by one person in less than 5 minutes, providing nearly instant full coverage protection from the elements when done properly. If you are far from shelters and get caught in a storm, pitching a tarp is a much better option than trying to piece together a natural shelter or race the storm back to the trail head, both of which can take a very long time depending on location!
When I guide trips, this often comes in handy when my clients and I are enjoying lunch and some heavy clouds suddenly roll in!
2) Tarps enable me to enjoy rainy days
Rainy days can be some of the most peaceful times to sit in nature, but to do it in rain gear alone can be quite limiting. There is only a limited time period for even the best rain gear before it starts to feel clammy inside, and besides that, if you want to sit and read, a waterproof coat won’t help you out! Tarps are like your outdoor living room-on-demand, enabling you to take your pastimes outside in a much wider range of weather conditions. There’s something incredibly zen about listening to the patter of rain on a tarp, laying back, and watching it bead up and roll off the edge.
*Pair with a hammock for extra relaxation success.
3) Tarps are multipurpose
The title says enough here, let me just brainstorm a quick list (add more in the comments below!)
- shelter (of course, and so many different kinds)
- signaling devices
- emergency human heat burrito, AKA thermal burrito (simulation pictured below)
- picnic blanket
- hull for a skin-on-frame boat
- firewood cover
- organization space
- emergency stretcher
- water catchment device
4) They bring peace of mind
Related to point number 1 and 3, this one plays on the safety aspect from another perspective. There have been times where I’ve wondered if I may have to spend an unexpected night in the woods (due to a mistakes, accidents, or underestimations). To know one has a ready-made tarp shelter (and the knowledge on how to set it up well) can really take the edge off of panic in a situation where they feel vulnerable to the elements. The ability to control panic can often be the skill that keeps a casual situation from becoming a survival situation.
But the peace of mind that comes with carrying a tarp is not specific to wilderness settings: even on a routine outings within an inner-city green spaces it’s nice to know that I can pop up the tarp and keep going about my plans, whether they are painting by a pond or picnicking with friends!
5) It’s my responsibility
It is up to me to ensure that I have the proper means of staying comfortable and safe in the outdoors, especially when other people would have to become involved in saving my butt if I something went wrong (potentially risking their own safety in the process).
A tarp won’t stop you from becoming lost, but when used properly they can (and do) save a lot of people from nasty situations, making it one of the essential items (and skillsets) you should always have with you when you are spending time afield in nature.
My Latest YouTube Video Features a 5×8′ tarp in use
Choosing your tarp
Tarps come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, materials, and price points. On the cheaper side they can cost as little as a few dollars, but on the high end they can be upwards of a few hundred. How do you know which is right for your activities?
The three factors that must be considered are: how many people will you need to fit underneath, what weather conditions do you expect, and how far are you travelling away from human structures? This will help determine the size, durability, and weight/packability of the tarp you should carry, and how much it may cost.
If you are just casually enjoying the outdoors, not going very far from vehicles or human contact, and don’t mind carrying a bit of extra weight, your typical blue tarp that you can get at most hardware stores for a few dollars can really do a lot! These are great for car camping, picnicking, etc. They are a bit heavy and not extremely durable, but for rains and light-medium winds, they typically hold up just fine! Especially when set well. Here a student uses a single tree to make a wedge shelter that can withstand strong winds and rain.
These blue tarps are simply woven polyethylene plastic with metal grommets and usually run anywhere between $5 and $50 dollars. This makes them great for doubling as ground sheets and other rough tasks that may lead to punctures (which can be easily patched with ductape). They are not very durable, especially the grommets, which are prone to tearing out in high winds. But by cupping the tarp around a rock and trying your guyline around it, you can fix a ripped corner very quickly and effectively.
Since durability is low, I don’t rely on them if I am travelling far from human structures, and since they are so heavy and bulky I use them mainly when I am close to a vehicle or not travelling far.
Polyurethane (PU) Coated Tarps
If you are travelling into the backcountry, especially if you are going far from human contact and habitation, then you should consider a more durable and portable tarp like a PU tarp, which means Polurethane coated fabric tarp. This will give you more security in higher winds without having to worry about tearing, and enables you to carry it without weighing your pack down or taking up too much space.
These types of tarps are made of woven fabric, typically nylon or polyester material, which are then coated with a waterproofing on one side (polyurethane) and a water resistant coating on the other. The woven fabric is often stitched in a way to be rip-stopping, meaning that if you do get a cut in the tarp, it won’t keep tearing. Ripstop is a very durable, reliable fabric weave, look for that in the descriptions for the tarps you are looking to buy. Also, in the image below, the denier is indicating how thick, strong, and heavy a fabric is: super thin, lightweight tarps that aren’t as durable might have a denier of around 30, while heavier, more durable fabrics will be 50+. PU tarps are typically in the $70 – $150 range.
Sil-Nylon (Silicone Impregnated) Tarps
If you are planning on a lot of self-supported travel (EG: backpacking) or if space is very limited (EG: tiny daypack) then a sil-nylon tarp may be the way to go. These lightest and most packable tarps are woven fabric as well, but instead of being coated, the fabric is instead impregnated by silicon (hence the name sil-nylon). These are really nice to carry because they are so light, and can be crushed down to a tiny size for packing. They can be delicate, though, and shouldn’t be used on the ground unless it is an emergency. These types of tarps usually start around $100.
Tarps can be square, rectangle, hexagonal, asymmetrical.. there are all sorts. But most tarps you’ll find are rectangular shaped and these work well for most things. Square tarps are common too and can be pitched in many different neat configurations that are useful (tarp setting is really fun, by the way) so I like to play with and carry them. Specialty shaped tarps are usually for specific purposes, like this hexagon shaped tarp made to cover over camping hammocks.
Name your size, you can likely find a tarp to fit. To give an idea, I’ll share an example: I like to carry a 3×3 meter (10×10 foot) tarp with me most of the time, especially when I am hiking with a group. I have fit 17 teenagers and 4 adults under a tarp of that size in a torrential rain. We were like sardines, but it kept the rain off! Larger than 3×3 will accommodate more, but make it heavier and less portable of course.
For one person, a 1.5×2.5 m (5’x8′) is about the smallest that you’d want do use. Anything less, if you can find it, you won’t have much space to move around without feeling rain. This is me under a tarp of that size, I am 5’11”.
My 3×3 m tarp was made by Little Shop of Hammocks, it is sil-poly (silicone impregnated polyester), and weighs less than a pound, so I just carry that most of the time because I can set it up and wander around like I’m at a hotel. As you can see in the image above, a small tarp doesn’t give you a lot of coverage if a wind was to pick up, so I like to carry larger tarps whenever possible.
I recommend starting out with a poly tarp from the hardware store to practice setting them up. This way you can find the size that will be ideal for you down the road if you’d like to invest in more expensive equipment or adventure further afield. You’ll need some chord, around 3m in length per corner, a 15m chord for a ridge line, and 4-6 pegs to round out your tarp kit. These items are almost as essential as the tarp itself, otherwise you will be limited to ponchos, burritos, or caved in rooves
Save yourself the headache and avoid the yellow plastic rope whenever possible, it is very hard to tie knots in. Opt for some chord around 2 to 5 mm thickness that holds knots well. I love to use parachord, but it is way overkill in terms of strength. It is however highly multipurpose and the thickness (~4mm) makes it easy to use even when you have cold wet hands. Cotton rope like this is great, and affordable, and gear or guyline chord such as this works very well. Rope that is too thin can be hard to work with, as can rope that is too thick/stiff. Go have fun with it all!
Resource: my favourite knot tying resouce is Animated Knots. They also have an app that you can download to your phone for reference (for both android and iOS)!
There you have it, 5 reasons why I always carry a tarp when I’m spending time outside, plus a bit about choosing the right one for you. From peaceful relaxation to peace of mind, tarps are essential kit to carry and know how to utilize!