Backpacking? Try a Tarp for Shelter

Reader Contribution by Dan Klein
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For many people, the thought of backpacking conjures visions of physical hardship and heavy, cumbersome gear. It’s a grueling challenge of man vs. nature, a battle in which each contender fights to overcome the other.

It doesn’t have to be.

Imagine this scenario. Your total pack weight, with food and water, is well under twenty pounds, and you save money doing it. I typically carry just seven pounds of equipment. No longer are you competing with nature, but you’re traveling lightly and living in harmony with you environment.

Ultra-light and minimalist backpacking has taken off in recent years for a number of reasons. Most importantly, less gear and lighter weights means it’s easier than ever to skip out for a weekend in the woods. The first step in lightening your load is to consider your shelter.

A Tarp for Minimalist Backpacking

Using a tarp, instead of a conventional tent, will cut your pack weight considerably.

Tarps, when pitched properly, offer complete protection from the elements and will cut pounds from your pack weight. For most three-season (spring, summer, and fall) backpacking your shelter is meant to do one thing, and one thing only, keep you and your gear dry. With that in mind, there is therefore no reason to involve yourself with zippers, fancy poles, or multiple layers of fabric or netting of a brand-new feature packed free-standing tent.

Anything from a conventional “blue” tarp bought at the local hardware store, to a contoured sil-nylon tarp, to a high-end cuben fiber tarp will do. It may take a little more effort pitching your tarp, but consider the effort you have saved in carrying a lighter shelter.

Tips for Tarping

The following are a few tips for those hardy folks ready to consider tarping:

Location is crucial. Unlike a fully enclosed tent, tarps are more easily affected by the terrain they are pitched upon. Look for sheltered or protected areas to decrease the effects of wind and ensure your tarp will stay put throughout the night.

Assess the weather. Depending on your specific set up, it is likely that you will have a leading edge and an exposed opening to your tarp. Be certain to pitch your leading edge into the wind in order to block any precipitation. Having to re-pitch your tarp in the middle of the night is not fun.

Carry a ground cloth. Because a tarp does not have a floor built into it, you will want to carry a ground cloth to keep you and your gear out of the mud if it does rain. Thin plastic painters ground cloth is cheap and works great.

Tarps will not protect you from bugs. If it is mosquito season you may wish to consider another shelter. At the very least, bring a head net!

Practice makes perfect. It is highly recommended that you practice pitching your tarp before taking it on its maiden voyage. As with all outdoor gear, your tarp will only work if you know how to use it.

Still not sure if you’re ready to take the plunge into the world of tarping? You may be able to pitch your existing tent using only the rain-fly. This compromise will save you from carrying the physical tent body, but still allow you the comfort of a familiar pitch. Best of all, it won’t cost a dime!

With these tips in mind and a willingness to forgo the advice of the salesmen at your local outfitter, you’ll be well on your way to a lighter pack and hopefully a greater outdoor experience.

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