Tarps are often the lightest shelter to provide protection from the environment, provides more space / weight than other options, and let you stay connected to your environment when pitched open. Tarps can often be set up in a number of ways so they can provide protection for a group of people cooking and eating and then can be pitched for maximum protection for sleeping. Tarps are particularly nice in extreme raining locations with low winds because you can create a larger space to dry out. Using a tarp can provide a sense of joy not just from having shelter, but perfecting the art of the perfect pitch.
In extremely windy conditions tarps (except shaped tarps pitched to the ground) aren’t as protective as high quality tents. Tarps also have no protection from bugs. Tarps can require more skill and time to set-up than traditional tents. In some environments such alpine destination with nothing but rocks below you, it can be difficult to find tie downs or staking points… a free standing tent or bivy might be preferable.
Some people considering using a tarp for the first time are often concerned about protection from animals: bugs, snakes, bear, etc. In the USA, most of these fear are driven by fear rather than any real danger. One way to compensate for the lack of bug & snakes protect is to use a bivy sack or bug shelter. The nice thing about a bivy is when there is little likelihood of rain it’s possible to sleep under the stars while still being protected from from the bugs.
I recommend tarps which uses sewn tie loops rather than grommets because ties are more durable. It’s best to have multiple tie loops so you can use the tarp in multiple configurations. It’s possible to add additional points to attach guy lines using gripclips or you can improvise something similar using a smooth stone which you cover with the tarp and tie off using guylines.
Flat tarps are typically rectangular in shape. They can be pitched in a variety of ways. For ideas about pitching tarps check out SGT Rock’s Tarps page and BPL’s Tarps in Inclement Conditions. If this isn’t a large enough options check out David Macpherson’s tarp structures that has a large number of designs, many of which are more complex than what would be used in the field.
Flat tarps come in a variety of sizes: 5×7 or 5×8 “solo” tarps, 8×10 or 10×10 “couples”, and even larger. I like 8×10 for solo, and 10×10 for two people. With a larger tarp you have more room to move and manage camp life, more pitching options, and the weight can often be as light, or lighter than the total weight of a small tarp + bivy that is often required.
Ponchos can provide triple duty: rain protection, pack cover, and shelter. Some light weight backpackers uses poncho/tarps in the hope of saving weight. The down side of the classic poncho / tarp is that in a serious storm there is little protection from blowing rain which leads many poncho/tarp users to bring an ultra light bivy which raises the weight of the system. The MLD Pro Poncho is one of the nicest poncho/tarps on the market with a correspondingly high price tag. There are numerous other companies that make good quality poncho/tarps listed in the section “Manufacturers” found below.
An issue when using a poncho as both rain gear and shelter is how to leave your shelter for chores or “the call of nature” when it’s raining. Options are go naked and dry off when you get back, use a DWR windshirt which can provide adequate protection for a short time, or bring a second rain item like those $1 plastic emergency poncho.
My experience using a poncho for triple duty was that it took practice and a willingness to suffer when the weather was bad. There is a good articles by AYCE about the realities of Poncho Tarping and a good article about techniques when using ponchos in incidental conditions. People wanting a poncho / tarp which offers more protection should check out the Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape.
Catenary Cuts and Beaks
Catenary cuts make it easier to get a taut pitch. If the ridgeline is catenary, you will be limited to a single optimal pitch. If the catenary curves are on the edges of the tarp, you will have more pitching options, but the tarp will have less coverage than a similar flat tarp.
Ray Jardine popularized adding an overhang, or beak, to increase the storm worthiness while being easy to pitch. An extreme variant of this is adding “doors” to the ends of the tarp.
My primary solo shelter between 2004-2008 was a Gossamer Gear Spinnshelter (my review). The Spinnshelter was a 9oz tarp using a catenary cut for a taut pitch with doors which can be shut when facing severe conditions. Unfortunately this shelter is no longer made, but Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo and Echo II, MLD Patrol Tarp, and several tarps from Yama Mountain Gear provide similar protection.
Often bug protection is needed when using a tarp. One common method is to use some sort of bivy which I discuss in my Bivy post. The other approach is to use a bug shelter, sometimes call a nest, net-tent, or bug bivy which is pitched under the tarp. Many of these shelters can be used stand-alone in good weather. Many of the tarp manufacturers listed below make matching bug shelters.
High quality tarps are made by Gossamer Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs, Outdoor Equipment Supplier (MacCat), Oware, Rab (acquired Integral Designs), Sea to Summit, Yama Mountain Gear, and Zpacks. All of these manufacturers make excellent products. Slightly less expensive are the Campmor / Equinox tarps and Bearpaw Gear. You will find prices will vary greatly depending on the materials used.
If you don’t use a bivy or bug tent, you will need a ground cloth to protect your gear and sleeping system. I am very fond the the Gossamer Gear Polycro ground cloths because they are light, surprisingly durable, water proof, and very compact. I believe the material used in these is very similar (the same?) to what used in the 3M door or window insulation kits.
Many people like Tyvek because it is light, durable, highly water resistant, slightly breathable, and cheap. You can often find it for free at construction sites. Since Tyvek is vapor permeable, you are less lightly to end up with condensation under your ground cloth, so it will tend to pick up less particulate matter then something that is damp in the morning, The downside of Tyvek is that it’s a little bit bulky and not completely waterproof, so if you kneel down on very wet ground you might get damp.
I tried the “emergency space blankets” but found that they would last one trip before the were ripped up beyond use. I found the 2 mil plastic drop cloths sold at hardware stores worn out pretty quickly.
Finally there are light weight nylon or polyester ground clothings. They are the most expensive, heavier, but often the most durable.