How Does a Tent Footprint Work: A Quick Guide

Last Updated on 05/05/2023

How Does a Tent Footprint Work

How does a tent footprint work? A tent footprint works by adding an extra layer of waterproof material underneath your tent to act as a moisture barrier and an extra layer of protection for your tent and sleeping pad.

Tents are expensive, but you can pick up a general ground sheet for around $10. So it makes sense to protect your tent for such a small cost. But the benefits don’t stop there.

Tent footprints also work to keep the inside of your tent dry and clean. They block moisture on damp ground and turn a bare porch space into a more livable area to keep your backpack and other items off the dirt. Before we go further into how a tent footprint works, here is our description of what a tent footprint is.

What Is a Tent Footprint?

A tent footprint is a protective ground layer placed under your tent, designed to shield the tent floor from abrasive surfaces, moisture, and dirt. Acting as a barrier, tent footprints are essential for preserving the integrity and longevity of your tent floor as well as staying comfortable inside. They often come included with a tent or as an additional extra (which guarantees the correct shape and size) or you can use a standard groundsheet or even DIY one from a tarp.

How Does a Tent Footprint Work?

A tent footprint works by providing a durable and water-resistant layer between your tent floor and the ground, preventing damage from rocks, roots, and other sharp objects. It also helps to keep the tent floor dry, reducing condensation and dampness inside the tent. In my experience, camping tent footprint is much more comfortable and enjoyable than making do without one.

The best way to incorporate a tent footprint or groundsheet is to fold or size it just smaller than the outer shell of the tent. Use the tent stakes to create some tension so the footprint lays flat without any creases where you will be lying. By doing these two things, you will avoid rainwater finding its way onto the footprint and pooling inside the tent.

setting up a tent footprint

Proper Footprint Installation: 4 Easy Steps

Having a footprint that is correctly sized for the floor of your tent is a big advantage and makes setting up so much faster and easier. Here are the four steps to setting up a tent footprint:

1. Prepping the Campsite

Before setting up your tent and footprint, clear the campsite of any debris, rocks, or sharp objects that could damage the tent floor or footprint. Choose a level surface to ensure the best possible comfort and stability for your tent. Be aware that the harder the ground is, the more damage smaller rocks and even grit can do to the underside of your tent.

2. Aligning the Footprint

Lay the tent footprint on the cleared campsite, ensuring it aligns with the shape of your tent. The footprint should be slightly smaller than your tent floor, so no edges extend beyond the tent. This will prevent rain from running down your tent wall and collecting between the footprint and the tent like a gutter.

If it is raining, you want to do this step and the next two steps as fast as possible. Sometimes you might want to put the tent poles in last and then readjust where the pegs go just so that you don’t expose your tent floor to the rain for too long.

3. Securing the Footprint

Once the footprint is properly aligned, secure it to the ground using tent stakes or temporary weights like your backpack and tent bag. Many footprints come with grommets or attachment loops that can be easily staked down. Ensure the footprint remains taut and in place to provide the best protection for your tent floor.

Tent footprints that are designed for your specific tent will often have a hole for the tent poles to go through as well as for a stake to secure it down. Groundsheets and tent footprints that are secured by the tent poles have excellent tension and even help to strengthen the structure of a tent (especially true with geodesic dome tents.

4. Attaching the Tent

With the footprint secured, you can set up your tent on top of it. Align the tent’s poles or grommets with the corresponding attachment points on the footprint. If you are working with a new tent, then it’s best to practice this at home first so you know what you’re doing if you have to set up in less-than-ideal conditions.

Connect the tent to the footprint and secure the tent using stakes or guylines, ensuring a tight and stable setup. Double-check that no part of the footprint is exposed, reducing the risk of water pooling beneath your tent.

different types of groundsheets for tents

Different Types of Tent Footprints and How They Work

We have mentioned how a tent footprint works when it is designed for your specific tent as well as how to use a general groundsheet underneath any kind of tent. Here are some different types of tent footprints:

Custom Footprints Designed for Your Tent

Custom footprints are designed specifically for a particular tent model, ensuring a perfect fit and tailored sizing. These footprints are typically made from durable materials and come with attachment points that correspond to the tent’s poles and where the pegs go. They will often be included with a tent, or for higher-end tents; you will be able to order one as an additional extra.

CACKOK Bell Tent Footprint Mat Waterproof Groundsheet for Yurt Tent and Teepee Tent Portable Black Tarp for Picnic Camping

Universal Footprints / Groundsheets

Universal footprints, also known as groundsheets, are versatile footprints designed to work with any tent shape and size. These footprints usually come in standard sizes, like 3 x 3 meters, and can be trimmed to fit your tent. While they may not provide the same tailored fit as custom footprints, they are often more affordable and adaptable. These types of footprints can also be used as a tarp for shelter building and will always come in handy.

DIY Footprints

DIY footprints are made from materials like camping tarps, polycryo sheets, or Tyvek, cut to match the shape and size of your tent floor. These footprints can be an affordable and customizable option, allowing you to choose the material and size that best suits your needs. However, creating a DIY footprint requires more effort and may not be as durable as a purpose-designed footprint.

I once used a thick binliner as a small tent footprint, and it did the job just fine for a weekend, but it was a faff to set up and keep flat – it just wanted to stretch and wrinkle up. Better still is the large sheets of plastic you can get for pond liners or garage roofs. You can get creative, and there are lots of things you could use to DIY a tent footprint.

Sewn-in Tent Floors

Sewn-in footprints are integrated directly into the tent’s floor during manufacturing. These bathtub floors provide a higher degree of protection and convenience, as they are specifically designed for the tent and require no additional setup. However, they may not be as durable or easily replaceable as separate footprints, which is why you should still use an additional footprint underneath the sewn-in floor.

Partial Footprints

Partial footprints only cover a portion of the tent’s floor, typically in high-wear areas or where campers sleep. These footprints offer some protection and insulation without the added weight of a full footprint. You might want a patch of grass in the porch area to do your cooking and leave your boots. Alternatively, you might want it completely covered so that you can walk about in your tent in your socks.

how to install a tent footprint

Benefits of Using a Tent Footprint

There are lots of benefits to using a footprint under your tent, and only one real downside. The downside is that a ground sheet adds extra weight and increases your pack size. Here are the most important advantages you gain from learning how does a tent footprint work:

Tent Floor Protection

Tent footprints protect your tent floor from abrasions, punctures, and tears caused by rocks, roots, and other sharp objects. This added protection can significantly extend the lifespan of your tent, especially if you frequently camp on rough terrain. If your tent features a sewn-in footprint, as we explained above, then replacing it is almost impossible, which leaves making repairs your only option.

Moisture Barrier

A tent footprint acts as a moisture barrier, preventing water and dampness from seeping through the tent floor. This keeps the inside of your tent dry and comfortable, even in wet or damp conditions. If you set up in the rain, camping on boggy or mossy ground (super comfy), or your tent suffers from condensation, then this extra layer of waterproof protection makes a big difference.

Insulation and Comfort

By providing an extra layer between the ground and the tent floor, a footprint can offer additional insulation, keeping you slightly warmer on cold nights. Don’t expect a groundsheet to add too much insulation on its own, but once a footprint has been laid, you can then put things like your towel or a blanket on top for added insulation. The footprint also adds a layer of cushioning, making the tent floor more comfortable to sleep on.

Keeping Your Tent Clean

A tent footprint makes it easier to keep your tent clean, as it prevents dirt and debris from coming into direct contact with the tent floor. After your camping trip, you can simply clean or replace the footprint rather than trying to clean the tent floor itself. If you are hiking in wet weather, then you will be well aware of how muddy a tent can get inside if you aren’t careful.

tent footprint protection from the ground

FAQs About How a Tent Footprint Works

Here are some of the common questions I found in the Facebook group as well as questions I saw in the forums like Reddit and Quora:

Do I Really Need a Tent Footprint?

While a tent footprint is not always strictly necessary, it is highly recommended for several reasons. A footprint offers increased protection to your tent floor, prevents moisture from seeping through, provides comfort, and ultimately prolongs the lifespan of your tent. Tent footprints don’t cost much, are multi-purpose, and offer way more benefits than downsides.

Can I Use a Tarp as A Tent Footprint?

Yes, you can use a tarp as a tent footprint, provided that it’s cut to the appropriate size and shape. When using a tarp as a footprint, ensure it is slightly smaller than your tent’s floor dimensions, preventing water from pooling between the tarp and the tent floor. You may have to fold or even cut the tarp to shape, but it does the job.

How Do I Attach a Tent Footprint to My Tent?

Attaching a tent footprint to your tent usually involves securing it to the tent’s pole structure or its corner grommets. Many tent footprints come with attachment points or loops that correspond to the tent’s grommets, poles, or where the tent stakes go. Simply align the footprint with the tent, attach the footprint’s loops to the tent’s poles or stake points, and then secure the tent in place as you typically would. Hey presto!

What if My Tent Footprint Is Slightly Larger than My Tent?

If your tent footprint is slightly larger than your tent, it’s essential to trim or fold it to fit your tent’s dimensions properly. A larger footprint can lead to water pooling between the tent floor and the footprint, leading to your gear getting drenched or, worse, waking up to a soaking sleeping bag that is partially submerged.

Can I Use a Tent Footprint with Any Type of Tent?

Tent footprints can be used with any type of tent, including dome, tunnel, and cabin tents. The key is to find or create a footprint that matches the shape and dimensions of your tent’s floor. There are custom footprints specifically designed for particular tent models, universal footprints that can be adapted to various tent shapes, and DIY options using materials like tarps or groundsheets.

How does a tent footprint work? Hopefully, after reading this article, you will have a comprehensive understanding.

Gear Assistant
Gear Assistant

This article has been written and/or edited by Andrew N. 20+ years of hiking, mountaineering, and camping experience, with access to all the latest outdoor gear.

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