Tarp Pro Tips – How to Choose the Right Size Tarp for Camping
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A camping tarp is one of those things that you didn’t know you needed until you have one. They have multiple uses from ground cover to extra shelter. But you’ll notice they come in a huge variety of sizes. So you’re left wondering how to choose the right size tarp for camping.
Never fear, my camping friend. We got you covered! (Pun definitely intended.) Read on for some factors to consider when choosing how big of a tarp for camping. Or more importantly, what size tarp for camping.
Introduction: Do I need a tarp for camping?
You’ve already chosen the perfect tent. You have a great setup to stay warm, dry, and fed for any camp trip. But the question remains: Do you truly need a tarp for camping?
The straight answer is, no actually. Until you do.
You see, you can camp your whole life without a tarp. A minimal setup of car camping gear can provide you with the basic need for shelter. You just need somewhere to sleep and eat, and you can certainly do both without a tarp.
However, a tarp is more of a practical camping tool. It is an inexpensive and lightweight item that can make your camping experience more enjoyable. They can be used as a makeshift tent, a tarpaulin to protect from the sun, or to cover up items in an unexpected downpour.
Additionally, having a ground cover (or footprint) under your tent helps to protect your tent floor from tears and can improve moisture protection.
Besides the basic usage for a tarp, they make a great emergency shelter or rainfly. When we camped across Iceland a couple of years ago, our old tent decided to make peace with rain and just let it all in. We brought the old tent for our oldest nephew. Poor guy didn’t sleep a wink in 40 degree September rain.
Fortunately we had brought a tarp just in case. While it made for some ugly pictures, the rest of the trip kept the tent bone dry inside. And left us with a relatively in-tact nephew.
Then, last winter we set up a tarp for a place to hang out for 4 people. It covered our picnic table, firewood, and a seating area. It was a huge tarp, 20’x20′, but when we got 4” of fresh snow, we could sit comfortably near the fire but stayed completely dry.
To sum it up, you don’t need a tarp for camping. Until you need a tarp for camping.
Key Factors to Consider When Choosing a Tarp for Camping
- What is the purpose of the tarp?
As we mentioned, the purpose of the camping tarp is to provide ground cover, protection against rain like a rainfly, or a secondary shelter from the sun, like a dining area.
First, let’s go over some definitions in this article. There is a slight difference between a ground cover and a footprint. And between a rainfly and a secondary shelter.
Ground cover: The ground cover is designed to protect your sleeping area from moisture, insects, or other campground debris by forming an impermeable barrier.
Footprint: A footprint is generally smaller than a ground cover. In fact, they are usually custom made to fit under a given tent. Most tent manufacturers sell footprints with the tent or as an accessory. They are thinner and lighter than a tarp, although you can custom make a footprint from a tarp or other material like house wrap.
Rainfly: A lightweight, waterproof fabric that is attached to the tent poles. Some backpacking tents include a rainfy that can be used on its own or in conjunction with a footprint (a waterproof ground cloth) for protection against rain. Most tents come with some form of a rainfly.
Additionally, a tarp can make an excellent rainfly for hammock camping. Many backpackers and minimalists prefer to camp in a hammock instead of a tent.
Shelter: Not to be confused with a rainfly, a tarp can be used as a more robust shelter. Shelters can be used as a sun shade, a more robust rain cover for your tent, or added cover for separate areas of a campsite.
- How heavy is the camping tarp?
This is more of a concern when hiking or backpacking with a tarp. For car camping, the minor differences in weight aren’t really a game-changer.
Some ultralight backpackers will only bring a tarp to serve as their shelter. The main advantage over a tent is the weight savings.
- How big of an area will you need to cover?
There are a number of factors that we will cover to determine the size of tarp for camping. Based upon the purpose of the tarp, the number of people that it will be protecting, and how you set it up all determine the size.
- How durable is the tarp?
You can get a cheap blue tarp from just about anywhere and it will serve just fine a couple of times.
But if you plan on camping on a regular basis or are taking a longer trip, consider a better quality of material for your tarp.
What Size Tarp for Camping?
So now you want to know how big of a tarp for camping? In other words, what is the right size camping tarp for versatility without being too big?
Generally, get the biggest one you can. A tarp can be folded to fit your needs, but can’t be expanded. You can use tarp clips as tie down points for any tarp with or without grommets.
For most people, a 10’x12’ tarp will be a versatile size for a couple of people. It’s big enough for a basic shelter in a number of configurations, or can be folded into a ground cover.
If you are simply using a tarp for ground coverage under your tent, it shouldn’t be much bigger than the floor of the tent. In fact, if you do have a larger ground cover than the size of your tent it could cause rain to puddle underneath your tent floor.
So if you have a 6’x7’ tent, a 8’x8’ tarp would be big enough for a ground cover. Just be sure to fold it down to 6’x7’. Realistically, you can fold a bigger tarp to fit just fine.
But, if you are wanting the extra protection against the rain, you will want your tarp to be larger than your tent. You have to account for the extra material depending on how you set the tarp up, the amount of wind with the rain or snow, etc.
And if you have a bigger group, get a bigger tarp. I guess that should go without saying. Start with a 10’x12’ for two people and add an extra 9 square feet per person. Here is a simple chart:
Top 5 Tarps for Camping
Now that you know what size of tarp for camping, you may want a few suggestions for some quality tents that will fit your needs.
A camping tarp is a minimal investment for the considerable improvement in your camping experience. And these top 5 camping tarps won’t break the bank.
In fact, you’ll wonder why you didn’t buy one sooner.
2. Wise Owl Outfitters Rain Camping Tarp – 11 x 9 ft Lightweight & Waterproof Hammock Tarp – Best Hammock Tarp
Wrap Up – How Big of a Tarp for Camping?
These are just a few guidelines to keep in mind when choosing what size tarp to buy for camping.
You really can’t go wrong with a 10’x12’ for a great all around tarp. Especially for a couple of people car camping. Use our handy table to scale up or down based upon the size of your group and the usage of the tarp.
And if you are into Ultalight backpacking, a good quality tarp can be a replacement for your tent, in certain conditions.
More Camping Gear Guides
Don’t miss our other camping gear guides. We recently published our most essential camping gear guide.
And we went in-depth to find the perfect tent for less than $200, no matter how big of a group you have.
And we are always updating our Camping Gear Guides to bring you the best and most up-to-date articles to help you make an informed decision.