Ultralight tarps are at the pinnacle of minimalist backpacking. They are simple in design and only require a handful of gear to get set up. Tarps also are among the lightest shelters you can stuff into your pack. However, they can be challenging to pitch correctly. We've put together this guide to help you understand the different tarp tent configurations and find the one that's right for you.
There are four shelter scenarios that people typically use tarp shelters:
1. Ultralight: some ultralight hikers ditch their tent and replace it with a tarp. This helps long-distance hikers considerably reduce their pack weight.
2. Plan B: some backpackers carry a tarp as a Plan B emergency shelter and only use it when they can’t reach a shelter or conditions are terrible for cowboy camping.
3. Hammocks: in order to protect themselves from the wind and rain, people sleeping in hammocks may hang a tarp above their hammock. Several hammock tent manufacturers include tarps in their design.
4. Survival: some survivalists and preppers like to understand bushcraft fundamentals and tarp designs in the case of a doomsday scenario.
SETTING UP A TARP SHELTER
Before you hit the trail with an ultralight tarp, you should spend some time learning how to set it up. Pitching an ultralight tarp is not as easy as a tent - you have to get all the lines tensioned correctly or the tarp will collapse. You also have to angle the tarp correctly so it protects you from the driving rain or a stiff breeze. It takes practice, more practice, and some more practice.
WHAT YOU NEED TO SETUP: Make sure you have the necessary supplies before you pitch your tarp. At the bare minimum, you’ll need -
1. Trees. Ideally two trees for support. Hiking poles or paddles (if packrafting) work as well.
2. Paracord. For the ridgeline(s).
3. Anchors. A rock or stakes to secure the guylines to the ground.
ALSO, KNOW YOUR KNOTS: To secure the tarp, you'll need to brush up on your knot tying. The knots you use should be easy to tie, easy to untie, and strong enough not to slip under tension.
a. Bowline: (for anchors) hands down the most useful knot. Provides a fixed loop at the end of your rope.
b. Trucker's hitch: (for tension) allows you to add or release tension while you secure a ridgeline or a guyline.
c. Adjustable Prusik knot: (for trees) lets you attach your tent to the ridgeline.
d. Taut-line hitch: (for any tieout) ideal for guylines. It’s adjustable and won’t slip when it is under tension.
All these knots are explained and illustrated in the following post - How to Tie Knots: 11 Essential Knots for the Outdoors.
The Bowline Knot | © Centre for Life, Newcastle
PROS AND CONS OF TARPS
Ultralight tarps are not for everyone. Before you ditch your tent and jump on the ultralight tarp bandwagon, you should consider the pros and cons of this shelter system.
- Cheaper than a tent
- The open design makes you feel closer to nature
- Allows fresh air to circulate and reduce condensation
- Some configurations will enable you to cook/make a fire while still protected
- Customizable with many sizes, shapes, and ways to pitch a tarp
- No protection from bugs unless you carry an inner mesh tent
- Exposure to rain and wind if not pitched properly
- Less stable than a similar freestanding tent
- Can be difficult and time consuming to pitch properly
© Mitch Barrie (CC BY-SA 2.0)
There are a wide variety of tarps ranging from the cheap square tarps you can buy at Walmart to super-ultralight backpacking tarps that are cut to save weight and maximize protection from the elements. When shopping for tarps, you'll want to consider the dimension, weight, material, and shape of the tarp to ensure you get the best taro to suit your needs. We break down each of those criteria below.
DIMENSIONS: what size should my tarp be?
Ideally, you want an 8-by-10 tarp for two people and a 6-by-8 for one. You really want to ensure that you leave adequate surface area to cover your person. This is especially important in harsh weather conditions, where you might need to allocate more material to walls.
TIE-OUTS: how many tie-out points do I need?
Ensure the tarp includes tie-out points on the edges for guylines and trekking pole tips. There should be a minimum of four tie-out points, one for each corner (the more the better). The best tarps will have tie-points on the corners, along the edge, and even in the middle The more tie-out points, the more options you will have for pitching.
WEIGHT: how much does an ultralight tarp tent weigh?
Tarps are meant to be ultralight so look for ones that are under 1 lb. Compare this to the average 2 lb one man ultralight tents. Obviously you are leaving out the inner body and, therefore, cutting a pound.
MATERIAL: what is the difference between Nylon and Dyneema?
Dyneema: Formerly Cuben Fiber, Dyneema is a lightweight and waterproof material that is extremely strong and durable for its weight. It doesn't stretch or sag though (good and bad), so getting the perfect pitch is difficult. You can't 'cheat' by stretching the fabric to compensate for a ridgeline that is a bit too slack. Dyneema shelters are generally double the price.
Silnylon: another common fabric used to make tarps. It is a rugged fabric often used on the floor and rainfly of a tent. It is cheaper than Dyneema which makes it attractive to those on a budget. Unlike Dyneema which is a stiff fabric, Silnylon is flexible and compresses down to fit into the small nooks and crannies in a pack. Its Achilles heel is water - the material absorbs water when it rains and can sag.
SHAPES: Rectangle, diamond and hexagonal tarps - what's the difference?
There are three common shapes used by tarp manufacturers - rectangular, diamond-shaped and hexagonal. There is no right or wrong shape; the style you choose depends on your individual needs.
Rectangle: The rectangular tarp is your standard Walmart tarp usually with three or so tie-outs per side. This style of tarp tends to be bulkier than other style tarps, but it is very versatile and can be pitched in a variety of different configurations.
Diamond: A diamond tarp is a square tarp that is designed to be hung diagonally on a ridgeline with one tie-out per side. It is limited in how it can be pitched and provides less overall coverage than a rectangle tarp. It is ideal for summer backpacking where you want maximum ventilation. It also works very well over a hammock.
Hexagonal: Last but not least is the hexagonal tarp which falls in between the diagonal and the rectangular tarp. The hexagonal shape offers less protection than a rectangular tarp but more protection than a diamond. It is lighter than a rectangular tarp because the hexagonal cut saves on fabric. It requires two tie-outs per side.
10 POPULAR TARP SHELTER CONFIGURATIONS
There are many different ways to pitch a tarp. We chose ten of the most common tarp shelter configurations and provided an overview of each one below.
1. THE STEALTH
As its name implies, the stealth tarp is a low-profile setup ideal for stealth camping. It is moderately difficult to pitch because it requires a ridgeline, three paracord prusik loops and a rectangle tarp with lots of tie-out points. Once pitched, it holds up well against the elements thanks to the groundsheet. Don't expect luxury accommodation though, as it can be cramped inside the shelter.
2. THE TIPI
The Tipi tarp is a cross between the stealth setup and the typical A-frame configuration. It has a bit more headroom than a stealth setup, but you lose some legroom. There is ample airflow in a tipi tarp so you will have few issues with condensation. This openness also means you won't have as much protection from the elements. The tipi design is easy to set up, requiring just a ridgeline that attaches to one tie-out point on the tarp and a few stakes to secure the sides and back.
3. THE A-FRAME
The classic A-frame is one of the quickest and easiest ways to configure a tarp. It uses a ridgeline to support the center of the tarp, and stakes on the side to create the triangular shape of a letter A. The A-frame extends the tarp to its maximum width allowing you to fit two or more people and their gear. Because of its steep-pitched sides, it does provide ample protection against the wind and rain.
4. THE LEAN-TO
The lean-to tarp takes the basic design of the A-frame and cuts it in half. Instead of staking out both sides, the lean-to only secures one side of the tarp to the ground. The other side of the tarp folds over the ridgeline and is held taut using guylines. Like the A-frame, the lean-to is easy to pitch, but it is very open. You can fit a lot of people underneath the tarp and can cook or use a fire, but you are very exposed to the elements. Use this configuration only when the conditions are favorable.
5. THE TARP TENT
The tarp tent is ideal when you can't set up a ridgeline but still need a secure shelter. The shelter uses a center pole for support which is convenient but reduces the interior space. It is great in inclement weather, but it is difficult and time-consuming to pitch so you'll need to practice this one at home.
6. THE HEADSPACE (AKA "PLOUGH POINT")
The headspace configuration provides plenty of space for a small group. You can even cook underneath it or have a small fire. It is super fast to setup requiring just a tree as an attachment point and a few guyline or stakes to secure the corners. The headspace is very open to the elements, but the quick setup means you can adjust the angle and direction of the pitch with ease.
7. THE BUNKER (AKA "HALF CONE FLY")
The bunker is a low shelter that wraps you in your tarp along three sides. It uses a tree-to-tree ridgeline or a pole to pitch the front of the tarp off the ground and a stake to secure the back of the tarp to the ground. A handful of guylines around the sides stretch the tarp out, and several stakes fasten it down to the ground. It provides plenty of protection from the elements but can be short on space. It is moderately challenging to pitch as well.
8. THE DIAMOND
The diamond tarp setup is a popular shelter style for hammocks. You can use a dedicated diamond tarp or a rectangular tarp that is folded into a square. This configuration uses a ridgeline and two guylines on each side to hang the tarp securely over the hammock. It provides ample protection from the wind and rain and is relatively easy to pitch.
9. THE C-FLY WEDGE
When pitched, the C Fly wedge looks like - you guessed it - the letter C! The tarp shelter resembles the basic lean-to shelter with an extra fold at the bottom to provide a ground cloth. It's not a complicated shelter to build, but it requires a lot of hardware including a tree-to-tree ridgeline, up to six stakes and two additional guylines. It protects from the wind and rain on one side while remaining open on the other.
10. THE MINI-MID
There are a wide variety of pyramid shelters available today and for a good reason - their design makes them extremely wind and water resistant. They are outstanding shelters in exposed areas where there is little to no vegetation. A mini-mid is a small version of a traditional pyramid which can stand up to five feet high. All pyramid shelters use a single trekking pole in the middle to create headroom space and four solid sidewalls that extend to the ground. They require a fair amount of room to set up because of their broad base, but the extra protection they provide is worth their larger footprint. They are roomy on the inside, but the single door construction found on most pyramid tarps makes it challenging when you have more than one person.
11 BEST ULTRALIGHT TARP MODELS
SEA TO SUMMIT: Escapist Tarp Shelter
Weight: 9.52 ounces
Material: Waterproof 15-denier silicone/polyurethane-coated Ultra-Sil® Nano fabric
Size: 102 x 78 inches (55.25 square feet)
Sea to Summit's Escapist Tarp Shelter is one the lightest silnylon tarps on our list thanks to its ultralightweight 15D fabric. It has eight tie-out points, cord adjusters and reflective guylines that allow for a wide variety of configurations.
MSR: Thru-hiker 70 Wing
Weight: 12 ounces
Material: 20-denier ripstop nylon/1,200mm Xtreme Shield
Size: 114 x 114 inches square
$180 for 2-person
The MSR thru-hiker 70 works alone as a fast pitch tent that'll protect you from the wind, rain and other inclement weather. It pairs well with the Thru-Hiker Mesh house which provides a ground cloth and mesh to protect you from bugs.
REI: Quarter Dome
Weight: 12 ounces
Material: Polyurethane-coated ripstop nylon
Size: 115 x 115 inches square
$150 for 2-person
REI's newest tarp has a square, symmetric cut that makes it easy to pitch it in an A-Frame, C-Fly or similar configuration. It's a versatile tarp with loop lash points along the edges, reinforced corner grommets and quick-attach guylines that make it easy to get a tight pitch.
Z PACKS: 8.5' x 10' Flat Tarp
Weight: 7.5 oz
Material: 0 .51 oz/sqyd Dyneema Composite Fabric
Size: 8.5' x 10' rectangle
$275 for two-person
The Zpacks Dyneema tarp is an ultralight backpacker's dream. It is waterproof, weighs less than 8 ounces and is plenty big enough to keep you covered when the weather turns rough. It has 16 different tie-outs - four on the corner, two for the ridgeline, three on each long side and two on each wall.
HYPERLITE MOUNTAIN GEAR: Flat Tarp
Weight: 9.74 ounces
Material: DCF8 Dyneema® Composite Fabrics
Size: 8 x 10" rectangle
$355 for 2-person
If you want a tarp that is waterproof and durable, then look no further than the Hyperlite Mountain Gear flat tarp. The tarp has a rectangular cut and 16 tie-outs for maximum versatility. You also can add an Echo mesh insert for added protection from rain and pesky bugs. If the rectangular is too big, you can dial it down with the square version.
MOUNTAIN LAUREL DESIGNS: Monk Flat Tarp
Weight: 9 ounces
Material: Pro SilNylon
Size: 5′ x 9′ rectangle
$110 for 1-person
The Mountain Laurel Designs Monk Flat Tarp is a seamless, rectangular-shaped flat tarp with 14 tie-outs. Twelve of those are on the perimeter and include LineLocks to make it easy to put tension on the lines. It's a small tarp that is easy to pitch when space is at a premium. The tarp is available in either a less expensive silynylon version or a Dyneema version that costs $50 more but cuts the weight in half. MLD also makes the 1-person Solomid and the two-person Duomid, two pyramid style tarp tents that are lightweight like a tarp but as easy to set up as a tent.
SIX MOON DESIGNS: Gatewood Cape
Weight: 10 ounces
Size: 35 square feet
$135 for 1-person
The Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape is a pyramid tarp that you can wear as a rain jacket when it is not being used as a shelter. It's not the roomiest shelter, but what you lose in comfort you gain in weight savings. As a rain jacket, the cape provides a great balance between protection from the rain and ventilation.
Weight: 8 ounces
Material: Ultralight silicone Sil-Coat impregnated 30d ripstop Cordura
Size: 5’x 8’
The Siltarp is your standard rectangular tarp with reinforced corner and center guyline points. It's a small tarp suitable for one person and weighs next to nothing.
Weight: 13 ounces
Material: Ultralight silicone Sil-Coat impregnated 30d ripstop Cordura
Size: 56 square feet
$125 for 1-person
The Silwing is a 6-sided tarp with a catenary cut that protects you from the elements. It's a versatile tarp that can be set up with trekking poles or trees using the lightweight webbing loops and reinforced corner guyline points. Its generous sizing provides 56 square feet of protected living space.
BIG AGNES: Onyx UL Tarp
Weight: 10 ounces
Material: Silicone-treated nylon rip-stop with 1200mm waterproof polyurethane coating
Size: 102 x 102 inches (72 square feet)
$280 for 2-person
The Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp offers an outstanding size to weight ratio. At only ten ounces, the tarp covers an impressive 72 square feet which is plenty of room for two people to sleep comfortably.
The package includes a Dac featherlight strut pole and aluminum I-style stakes for easy setup.
OUTDOOR VITALS: 6-Sided Ultralight Tarp
Weight: 16 ounces
Material: 20D Silpoly
Size: 11' x 6'6"
$75 for 1-person
The Outdoor Vitals 6-Sided Ultralight Tarp has a catenary cut and length (11’) that is ideal for hammock sleeping. It's not the lightest tarp on our list, but it is the least expensive. The tarp comes as a complete package with adjustable tie-outs and stakes.