Tarp Camping Guide – 7 Tips For Setting Up A Camping Tarp

Last Updated on 09/11/2021

tarp camping guide

Tarp Camping Guide

The versatility of waterproof tarps makes them incredibly useful for camping trips and spending time outdoors. In this guide to tarp camping, you will learn everything you need to know about sleeping outside under a rain tarp. 

if you are looking to get outside and immerse yourself in the wilderness, you can’t get any closer to nature than by sleeping under a tarp. There are no walls to box you in and you feel totally at one with your environment.

Camping tarps are an excellent option for thru hikers and backpackers because they are so lightweight and packable compared to a tent.

Essential Tarp Camping Gear

You don’t really need much when it comes to tarp camping but there are some essential accessories you should always pack as well as some optional extras.


It goes without saying that you need a tarpaulin or rainfly sheet if you want to go tarp camping as this is what provides your shelter. We have more details on types or tarp further down the page or you can check out our guide to the 15 best camping tarps here.


Using a groundsheet will protect your sleeping system from dampness coming up through the ground or any wetness on the ground from rain and dew. You can just use another tarp laid flat on the ground or get something thicker and more durable to provide extra protection for a sleeping pad.

Tarp Poles

You can buy individual tarp poles to support your shelter or you can use something like your hiking poles if there are no trees to pitch from. We like using hiking poles because we typically already carry these on most hikes and it means you aren’t adding any extra weight to your pack.


One of the easiest ways to set up a tarp is between two trees using a rope to create the central line or pitch on your roof. You only need one piece of rope which doesn’t need to be thick but it does need to be at least twice as long as your tarp. It should be slightly thicker than your average paracord to support the weight of the tarp.


Thinner lengths of cord are used to tie down the corners when you have the tarp set up at head height so the sides don’t touch the ground. Paracord cut to 6 ft lengths is the best option and you should take a minimum of 4 lengths, especially if you are hammock camping with a tarp.


These are for the guy ropes and you can just use tent stakes if you already have a tent you can borrow from. Alternatively, we have a guide to both soft ground stakes and hard ground stakes if you want to treat yourself to something lightweight. You should take 6 stakes if you plan to make a pitched tent with hiking poles.

Sleeping Bag

This probably goes without saying for most people but a good sleeping bag is absolutely necessary for a good night’s sleep. If it is summer then get a lightweight sleeping bag but if it is expected to get cold then get a sleeping bag that is warmer than you think you will need.

Sleeping Pad

Even on the flattest ground, a sleeping pad is going to give you a much better night’s sleep. If it is cold out then be warned that you will lose up to 65% of your body heat through the ground without a mat.

Bug Netting

This is only necessary if you are in an area with a lot of biting insects but you can get one, two, three, or four-person mosquito nets to hang beneath your tarp. You can usually fasten it to the central ridgeline in the center so that it gives you the best coverage without touching you.

2 person camping tarp

Tarp Camping Tips for Setting Up

These are some of the guidelines for tarp camping that we have learned and use over the years. Hopefully, there is something you’ve never thought of before.

1. Test the Ground Properly

Most beginner tarp campers will find what looks like flat ground and begin to set it up without testing it. Before you decide where to set up a tarp shelter you should actually lie down and test the exact spot you plan to lay in your sleeping bag.

More often than not you can find yourself a nice groove for your hips and a flat area for your back by testing out different angles and locations. Tree roots and rocks are not always obvious if you are setting up in the dark and so testing the ground will.

As well as checking the ground for lumps and bumps you should also check for moisture. If you are camping on a mountain there are often wet patches of moss where surface water flows, you should avoid these.

2. Avoid Widowmakers

Widowmakers are dead tree branches that could potentially fall in the night and fatally injure you. Some species of tree are more prone to dropping their branches but you should always check above for hazardous branches before you think about setting up.

If you are tarp camping with a hammock then you need to be especially careful that your body weight doesn’t shake any branches loose higher up. The tension can pull thinner trees inward and if the wind picks up this could cause a branch or even the trunk to fracture. This is why you should look for healthy trees with a substantial trunk and no dead branches overhead.

3. Don’t Pitch a Tarp Right Next to Water

One of the biggest drawbacks to tarp camping is the fact that you are not protected from bugs without using an additional mosquito net. The reason you should avoid that picturesque spot next to a slow-moving stream or lake is due to it literally being a breeding ground for biting insects.

Mosquitos lay their eggs in water and when the larvae spawn they are hungry and looking for blood. If you just so happen to be the first flesh they see then you better believe you are going to be harassed by them all night.

Depending on the location, tarp camping next to a stream or river can be dangerous if the area is prone to flash floods and a rising water level. The last thing you want after an evening of biting insects is to be woken up in the middle of the night by rising water levels.

4. Check for Wind Direction and Pitch Accordingly

Before even settling on a location to set up your tarp you should have a scout around to see if there is a spot that will naturally block the wind from your tarp. This could be behind some bushes or a mound of earth where the wind is deflected and allows you to get a more peaceful night’s sleep.

If you cannot find a place that is sheltered from the wind then be strategic in the direction you pitch your roof. Lean-to shelters are excellent for blocking wind blowing in one direction but they do make a bit of noise when they flap about.

Pitched roofs will provide protection from two sides but create a tunnel going lengthways that can funnel the wind through it for a cold night’s sleep. The best thing you can do when tarp camping in wind is to pitch low to the ground with an aerodynamic shape that is secured as taut as possible to prevent flapping.

5. Pitching in the Wind Can Help Reduce Biting Insects

One time you should consider pitching in an open location when it’s windy is if the biting insects are out in force. Even a mild breeze can be enough to stop bugs from swarming above your head because their tiny wings aren’t strong enough to compete with it.

One of the reasons so many people like to camp on top of mountain summits in summer is because it is too windy and too cold for the bugs to become a nuisance. We would still recommend pitching with your roof blocking the wind but the point is, the wind is sometimes an advantage.

6. Hiking Poles Come in Very Handy

Any time you can pack a piece of gear that has multiple uses and will most likely get used daily, you are winning. Hiking poles are not only a great walking aid for steep climbs, descents, and long distances, they also make great tarp poles.

If you don’t have any trees or anchor points to hang your tarp ridgeline then you are going to need some kind of rigid pole to prop the roof up with. Hiking poles are the perfect height and shape for this and even have a spike to stick in the ground for extra security.

To set up using hiking poles you will need guylines to provide the tension that will keep the pole in an upright position. You use the tension created by pegging the tarp out as well as the pressure from the guylines to pull the pole in opposite directions and create a sturdy pole that won’t blow over.

7. Sleep With Your Head Uphill

Finding the perfect place to pitch a tarp isn’t always easy, sometimes you have to get creative or make do with what you’ve got. If you are forced to sleep on a slant you should always try and sleep with your head facing uphill.

The main reason for camping with your head at a higher elevation than your feet is to avoid blood pressure building and causing a nasty headache. The other reason is for practicality because if you are going to slide anywhere in the night, it is better to slide towards your feet which will ultimately just take you deeper into your sleeping bag.

Sleeping with your feet downhill also helps people with poor blood circulation to keep their feet warmer at night by the same process that gives you a headache if you sleep with your head downhill. Another added benefit is that sleeping on an incline is better for your back.

tarp camping in national parks

Benefits of Tarp Camping

  • Lightweight
  • Packable (no tent poles)
  • Breathable/ventilation
  • Lots of space
  • Closer to nature

The most obvious benefits of a tarp for camping are that it is super lightweight and packable for anyone with limited pack space and weight budget. You don’t have any heavy poles or internal compartments, just a large piece of waterproof fabric that can be packed and used in many ways.

In the summer, tents can feel hot and stuffy on humid nights whereas tarps always provide the ultimate airflow and don’t suffer from condensation build-up. If you set a tarp up off the ground then you benefit from every small breeze that blows through and in turn sleep better.

With a tarp shelter, you always have a communal area for group members to congregate and cook when it’s raining. It gives you a place to get out of your tent and stretch your legs as well as have a fire under on a night.

The benefits of camping with a tarp will appeal to some more than others however the usefulness of a tarp whilst camping should appeal to everyone. If you like feeling closer to nature and are a true minimalist then tarp camping is probably right up your alley.

Disadvantages of Tarps Vs Tents

  • Not freestanding
  • No protection against bugs and animals
  • Partial wind protection
  • Lacks privacy

Having discussed the benefits of rain tarp shelters, it is also important to consider the downsides or potential benefits of a tent vs a tarp. At Gear Assistant, we enjoy all types of camping which include using tents, tarps, hammocks, and bivvy bags for different types of camping all year round and so have a pretty balanced opinion.

Tents offer the best all-in-one protection that will cover you from rain, wind, bugs, and sun with a consistent setup process. Tarps can be set up to provide good wind protection but will never beat the contained system of a tent.

You can use bug netting to solve the issue of biting insects but this does kind of defeat the purpose of sleeping under a tarp. Without bug netting, it makes sleeping with an arm or leg sticking out of your sleeping bag much riskier.

Tents are best used in cold and wet weather or if the camping spot is in an area with biting insects. Tarps are more desirable on lightweight summer trips and often as an addition to the tent.

Waterproof Tarp Shapes and Design

Rain tarps and rain flys have seen a surge in innovation in the past 10 years and you can now get them in all different shapes and sizes.

Rectangle Tarps

Rectangle tarps are the best for one-person shelters because they are the easiest to set up alone. The smallest sized tarp we would recommend for a solo thru-hiker would be around 7 x 9 feet which gives you the space to put your bag and not get hit by rain on windy nights.

You can make an easy lean-to or a simple A-frame shelter with a low profile that will completely cover your entire body and backpack. The more attachment loops the better.

Square Tarps

Square tarps are by far the most versatile and can be set up in lots of different ways. A decent 3 x 3-meter tarp will sleep around 3 people comfortably and isn’t so big it can’t be used by one person.

Hammock campers especially like square tarps because they again provide a lot of coverage and they can be used in a diagonal position for the best off the ground protection under a tarp.

Hex Tarps

Hex rain tarps are hexagonal in shape and are well suited to both ground shelters and for use with a hammock. The two longest points provide excellent protection for your hammock and even stop the rain from soaking your hammock ropes.

You get a kind of porch area with the two ridgeline points that provides good rain protection for cooking or sitting up and makes getting in and out much easier too. There are even some tarps that have added an extra side to become a heptagon tarp but

Asym Tarps

Asymmetrical tarps are basically an off-center diamond shape that is designed for hammock campers who sleep on a diagonal. By sleeping with your head off one side of the hammock and your feet off the other, you create a flatter platform to sleep on. An asym tarp compliments this position but do you really want to limit yourself?

The tapered rectangle shape is lightweight and compact for one person to carry and easy to set up with a ridgeline and two guy lines only. The asymmetrical design is not well suited to ground tarp camping however it can be done if needed.

Cat Cut Tarps

What is a catenary cut tarp? The word catenary is a mathematical term for the curve a hanging chain or cord between two points. When talking about waterproof camping tarps the catenary cut refers to the curved edges between the tie-off points.

Cat cut rain tarps are designed to reduce any sag in the roof with every tie-off point pulling the fabric taut in unison. This gives you a very stable shelter every time however you are limited to the different ways you can set one up.

Curved tarps are great for setting up off the ground with a hammock and for summer tarp camping on the ground due to the extra ventilation the edges provide. You get superb protection in the middle of the tarp but you have to really tuck your gear in to stop it from getting wet in heavy rain.

communal camping tarp

Camping Tarp Size Guide

You can do a lot with a 3 x 3 meter waterproof tarp but do you really need something that big? Or should you be looking even bigger?

1 Person Tarps – 7 x 9 ft

The smallest size tarp for 1 person camping we recommend is 7 x 9 ft minimum, regardless of your height. This is so you can stay sheltered when it is raining sideways and also so you have space fr your boots and backpack. You can get away with a much smaller tarp for a lean-to shelter but to make an A-frame shelter you will need at least a 7-foot width.

1 person camping tarps are often rectangular in shape and are the most lightweight shelter you can carry on a thru-hiking trip. You will also see some asym tarps that are for 1 person and some cat cut tarps.

2 Person Tarps – 9 x 9 ft

2 person camping tarps are often squares or rectangles and need to be at least an extra 2 feet wider than a 1 person tarp (enough space for 1 extra sleeping pad). A 3 x 3-meter tarp will provide plenty of space for two people and offer the most freedom to build custom tarp shelters. The more attachment points the tarp has the easier it is to adapt to what you are working with.

3 Person Tarps – 12 x 12 ft

For three people we like a large rain tarp that is about 12 x 12 ft or 4 x 4 meters because it gives you more options in terms of setup style and more space to move about underneath. Three is the maximum number of people we would recommend sleeping under a single camping tarp. Anything more and you are better off splitting into groups of 3 people per camping tarp. This will also make it easier to find flat and level camping spots.

Communal Tarps – 15 x 15 ft

If you do decide to sleep more than 4 people under a tarp then you should go for a large tarp for camping to make sure everyone gets equal coverage and plenty of space. 8+ person camping tarps are mostly used for communal areas or camp kitchens but we are sure you could make some amazing shelters with a 15 x 15 ft tarpaulin.

Hammock Camping With a Tarp

Do you need a tarp for hammock camping? Hammock camping in the rain is only possible with the addition of a waterproof tarp which will conveniently hang from the same trees you attach your hammock to.

What is the Best Size Tarp for Hammock Camping?

If you want to set up your camping tarp in a standard A-frame then the minimum sized tarp you should use is 3 x 3 meters. However, if you set up your flysheet diagonally you can get away with a bit smaller dimensions of 10 ft x 10 ft as the corner to corner distance would still be 14 ft.

The average-sized tarp for hammock camping is probably 12 x 12 ft because this allows you to set up parallel or diagonally depending upon the conditions.

What is the Easiest Way to Rig a Tarp for Hammock Camping?

The easiest way to set up a tarp over your hammock is to tie a rope about 2-3 feet above where you have attached your hammock ropes. You then drape half of your tarp over the ridgeline, either diagonally or straight on, and peg down the guy lines.

It is good practice to put the tarp up first so that if you ever have to set up your hammock in the rain you can get the roof on quickly and then set up your hammock under shelter.

Diagonal Vs Parallel Tarp Setup for Hammock Camping

Using your tarp diagonally like a diamond has two significant benefits over a parallel setup which are better rain protection for your hammock and better wind protection. You also don’t need to use as many ground stakes and guylines which saves some weight when using a lightweight tarp.

Setting your hammock camping tarp up in an A-frame or even as an elevated lean-to gives you more space to walk around and spend time under. So, if you plan to spend the evening and morning hanging out under the tarp then a parallel setup will be the most practical but if you just plan to sleep and get off early in the morning then a diagonal style makes more sense.

hammock and tarp vs camping tent

Tarp Materials

Tarps have been around in some form for hundreds of years as a portable roof to take refuge under on a night. These may have started out as animal skins until innovations in maritime canvas became more popular. Fast forward to the 21st century and we have all kinds of incredibly lightweight and durable materials readily available.

Sil Nylon

Siliconized nylon or silnylon is a super thin and durable ripstop nylon that has been impregnated with silicon to create a waterproof material. You will often see this used in lightweight dry sacks, tents, and tarps because it is extremely well suited to waterproof outdoor gear.

Silnylon is not breathable which is the sacrifice you make for the waterproofing however this doesn’t matter too much with a tarp as you will never be totally enclosed like you would a tent.

Sil Polyester

Siliconized polyester or silpolyester is nowhere near as common as silnylon but it is out there. You don’t often find a tarp made of silpolyester because there isn’t really a need for one. Polyester has a weaker tear strength than nylon and the only know benefits are a slightly higher UV rating and less sagging when wet.

Cuben Fiber

Dyneema composite fabric or cuben fiber is commonly known as a high-performance material that is both lightweight and strong. It is used for thru-hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts who require the most lightweight gear possible.

Cuben fiber is expensive but if saving the most weight possible is important to you then it is a small price to pay. Although it has a high strength to weight ratio, it is is still incredibly thin and if you aren’t careful you could easily rip a cuben fiber tarp.


Canvas is a more old-school material that is heavy in comparison to modern man-made fabrics used today but it is an incredibly durable option that is ideal for long-term tarp camping. Canvas tarps are heavy and bulky and so not suited to the lightweight hiker or backpacker short on space but if you can transport it in a car then a good canvas tarp will last a lifetime.

Lightweight Vs Heavyweight Tarps

Lightweight tarps have the massive advantage of being extremely compact and portable for thru-hikers and backpackers. Heavyweight tarps have durability and strength on their side which makes them more reliable and long-lasting.


Being able to transport your shelter system easily and effortlessly is a big advantage of tarps vs tents on a camping trip. This is why there are so many lightweight camping tarps out there and so few heavyweight tarps.

Lightweight rainfly sheets can be easily folded and stuffed into a stuff sack or into a corner of your backpack without taking up hardly any space or weight. You can then pack your stakes, guy lines, and rope separately in the same way and if you choose to take hiking poles then you can either use them as you walk or strap them to the outside of your pack.


Thicker more heavyweight tarps for camping are great for having small campfires under, occasionally using as a groundsheet, and strapping to the outside of your pack. They are just tougher and less prone to damage because they are designed to last instead of being the most lightweight. Canvas is a popular material and wax is often applied to increase the waterproofing.

tarp camping in winter

Tarp Camping Without Trees

One of the biggest reservations tent campers have about tarps is reliance upon trees from which to hang your tarp. While it is always convenient to set your tarp up between two trees you don’t need them and in fact, there are lots of things you can use.

Hiking Poles

Hiking poles and tarps go hand in hand for long-distance hikers because they can be used all through the day to help you walk and then all through the night to pitch your tarp. You can normally adjust the height of the hiking poles to accommodate you sitting up in your shelter.

You can either use the hiking pole with the grip on the floor and the pointy tip slotted through one of your attachment loops and kept in place with guy lines. Or you can place the spike in the ground and use the smooth end of the handle against the bare material of your tarp as well as through the attachment loops.

Tarp Poles

Tarp poles can be collapsable like tent poles or extendable like hiking poles but they are almost always more rigid than flexible. This is because they are designed to stand straight up and support the structure rather than be formed into a curve that meets the ground at both ends.

There is a good range of tarp camping poles to choose from but we feel like the collapsable poles with rubber endings are some of the best and easiest to use.


If you are tarp camping on a mountain above the treeline or there are no trees in sight then you will need to start looking for any kind of solid anchor point that is over 1 meter off the ground. Without hiking poles or tarp poles you can use natural features of the landscape like rocks or boulders to tie off your tarp. This can also be done with hammocks in most cases.

Fences and Walls

Fences running through the countryside make the ideal ridgeline for your tarp and often have fairly flat ground all the way along. A-frames and lean-to shelters both work well against a fence or wall and take no time at all to set up. The benefit of using a wall to set up your camping tarp is that it also provides a solid windblock.


We hope this guide to tarp camping covers everything you need to know and more. Leave a comment below to let us know what you think.

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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