Guide to Tent Footprints

A backpacking guide to tent footprints, groundsheets and groundcloths. What they are, why they are important, and how to make your own ultralight DIY.

Updated on March 28th, 2022

What is a Tent Footprint?

A tent footprint is a protective waterproof sheet that is placed between the floor of your tent and the forest floor to prevent wear and tear on the floor of the tent. Also known as a ground cloth or a groundsheet, 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.

illustration showing a tent footprint


Tent Footprint vs Tarp (Store Bought vs DIY)

The best tent footprints, especially for ultralight backpacking, are often Do-It-Yourself. The most common materials are Tyvek, a high-density polyethylene fiber, and Polypro, a lightweight plastic found in painter’s tarps and thin window plastic.

hiker using tent footprint

There are also factory-made options that are designed for specific tent models. These options are costlier, heavier, and bulkier than DIY options. But if you don’t trust your DIY skills, or are short on time, factory options are a foolproof way to have a perfectly fitting tent footprint.

Tent models can change slightly from year to year. If you are buying a factory-made option, it's best to buy it when you buy your tent to ensure it fits correctly.

tent footprint ultralight myoutdoorslife.com


Do I Need a Tent Footprint?

Do I need a tent footprint? Yes, there are many reasons to own a tent footprint and there are no reasons not to own one. Tent footprints protect the lifetime of the tent, add waterproofing to the bottom of your tent, provide cushioning and insulation, and can assist you in the positioning of your tent.

Protect Lifetime of The 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.

setting up tent footprint

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.

tyvek tent footprint

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.

polycro into pack

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.

tyvek polycro painters tarp material for DIY tent footprint

Painter's Tarp (left) and Tyvek (right)


DIY Tent Footprint

Making your own footprint is an easy project that can be done in less than an hour. Below we will go over a step-by-step guide to help you create your own footprint and the common materials used.

How to Make a Tent Footprint

Image showing how to make a tent footprint

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.

setting up tent footprint

Step 2: Lay the tarp out flat on the ground and set your tent up on top of it.

setting up tent footprint

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.

cutting through the tent footprint

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.

Done! Enjoy.

tent footprint layer

Painter's Tarp (left), Tyvek (middle), and Store-bought (right) Tent Footprints.

Types:

POLYCRO

Polycro (aka painter’s tarp, shrink window plastic) is our favorite ultralight option due to its excellent durability, low cost, and minimal weight. Polycro comes in different thicknesses. Typically, indoor window plastic is .7 mm and painter’s tarps are 2 mm. Thicker sheets are more durable but weigh more. All options can be found for under $10.

Best for: Ultralight hikers and thru-hikers who want a lightweight, dependable option.

polycro

TYVEK

Tyvek is a brand of high-density polyethylene fibers used to protect buildings during construction. This thick material is virtually puncture-proof, waterproof, and lasts forever. It excels in rugged terrain when sharp sticks, rocks, and thorns are an issue. It is heavier than Polycro but still lighter than most store-bought options.

Best for: Camping on rugged terrain when weight is not a primary concern.

tyvek

OTHER

Dyneema is a super-durable, ultralight, waterproof synthetic fiber used for backpacking tents and packs. Due to the high price, Dyneema is not commonly used for footprints. However, some high-end companies offer Dyneema options. Space blankets are lightweight and reflect heat, but due to durability and noise issues, we don’t recommend them.

Best for: Ultralight hikers with no budget constraints.

hiker laying out painter's tarp


How to use a tent footprint

  1. Choose your spot - Remove any large rocks, sticks, or other items that may poke through your footprint and lay your footprint flat on the ground. If you have a store-bought footprint there may be a right side up to properly attach the clips to your tent.
  2. Set up your tent - Pitch your tent over the footprint.
  3. Fine adjustments - Ensure the footprint is laying flat and centered under your tent. Double-check the footprint is completely covered by your tent. This prevents water from collecting on your footprint (and therefore pooling under your tent).

In windy conditions, it may be difficult to lay your footprint out without it blowing away. One trick is to place stones on the corners of the footprint to weigh them down while you pitch your tent. Don’t forget to remove the stones after! Another trick on windy days is to pitch your tent first and slide your footprint under after.

setting up tent footprint


Other Uses for a Tent Footprint

Tent footprints are surprisingly versatile pieces of equipment. Use as a picnic blanket during a lunch break or for sleeping on when cowboy camping. Especially if the ground is wet or dusty. Similarly, you can use a footprint as a groundsheet to protect gear from the dirty ground while organizing or airing out.

tyvek into pack

In an emergency situation, your footprint can be an extra layer of protection against the elements to keep you warm and dry. If you get desperate, you can cannibalize your groundsheet to fix a hole in your tent or pack.

📷 Some of the photos in this post were taken by Trent McConville (@tr3ntmcconvi11e)

Justin Sprecher photo

About Justin Sprecher

By Justin Sprecher (aka "Semisweet"): Semisweet is a Wisconsin-based thru-hiker, adventurer and digital storyteller. You can find him exploring the upper midwest on foot, in a canoe and on a bike.

About Greenbelly

After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

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