A backpacking guide to tent footprints, groundsheets and groundcloths.
What they are, why they are important, and how to make your own ultralight DIY.
Also known as a ground cloth or a groundsheet, a tent footprint is a waterproof sheet that is placed in between the floor of your tent and the forest floor. They are designed to prevent wear and tear on the floor of the tent - a tent footprint will stop (or help) any scratching or punctures caused by sand, sticks or stones on rough gritty ground. They can also help with several other things like - prevent water from seeping into the tent, cushion the ground, insulate the floor, keep your tent clean, etc. It is the first thing you should put down, before you erect your tent. Let’s dig in.
Protect Lifetime of Tent. By far the biggest and main use of a footprint is to protect the floor of your tent. The floor of your tent sees a lot of abuse - think about your body weight tossing and turning during the night as you grind the floor of the tent into rocky ground. In the process you can quickly wear down and damage the fabric.
If not protected, the tent floor will deteriorate much faster than the rest of the tent. It is much cheaper to replace a ground cloth, than a new tent. Tent’s are expensive and I prefer to extend the life of mine as long as possible. Protect your floor = extend the life of the tent = save cash money honey.
Waterproofing. A heavy rain can drench the forest floor and act like a sponge, wetting your tent when you set up on top of it. The additional second layer of a footprint will blockade that rain from seeping upward into your tent, drenching your sleeping bag, clothes, etc.
Most morning you won’t have time to dry out the morning dew before packing up your tent. Your groundcloth will take on a lot of that mud and dampness, preventing potential mold and mildew buildup in your tent. It’s also much easier to clean and wipe down your footprint versus the entire tent body.
Cushion and Insulation. Your body won’t heat up or cool down the earth below you much at all. On the contrary, your body will take on and feel whatever temperature the ground is. This is why a thick sleeping pad with a high R-value is so important. However, especially if you are trying to keep it ultralight and minimize every ounce, a tent footprint can add a smidge of additional insulation from the ground as well as provide a smidge of extra cushion.
Easy Positioning. Finding a good tent site can be difficult. Even if the space looks great, you might find out it is too small to fit your tent, or too uneven, etc. Due to the minimalist size of a footprint, it is super easy to drape it on the ground and size out your site. I often lay down on top of the footprint as well before setting up just to make sure the ground is flat and level.
Painter's Tarp (left) and Tyvek (right)
The best tent footprints, especially for ultralight backpacking or hiking, are Do-It-Yourself. In my (humble) opinion, the factory options specifically designed for your tent are not good. They tend to be on the expensive side (some are over $50) and they come with clips and buckles to attach to your tent, making them unnecessarily heavy.
Back to the DIY options. Most ultralight backpackers use one of these. All are super cheap and ultralightweight.
Painter’s Tarp Sheet (or polycro). My favorite. I use a 2 mm thick sheet, which is a great alternative as it only weighs a few grams and will fit in my pocket. Just $2 at the hardware store.
"Tyvek". A brand of flashspun high-density polyethylene fibers often used to protect buildings during construction.
Other options include "shrink" plastics that are used to seal windows and doors in cold months.
Don’t worry about attachments - the weight of your body will keep it in place underneath. If you are in heavy winds and are worried it might get blow away if you are not inside the tent, then rest your gear (or a heavy rock) on top.
Materials Needed: Tent footprint material, sharpie marker, scissors.
Step 1: Source your chosen material at the hardware store or online. Just make sure it is larger than the dimensions of the floor your tent. Example: a 1 person tent might be 7 ft long by 3 ft wide.
Step 2: Lay the tarp out flat on the ground and set your tent up on top of it.
Step 3: Get a sharpie and trace the floor of your tent. If your tent has a rounded floor, try to keep it a flush as possible with ground in order to get a more accurate border. Be careful not to get any sharpie on the tent.
Step 4: Cut along about 2 inches inside the border of the traced line. The whole idea here is to make your tent footprint slightly smaller than the floor of your actual tent. Otherwise, it would capture any rain runoff and pool underneath.
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.
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