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Tarp or Tent or Neither?

The Tarp‑Tent Comes Into Its Own Evening in Camp

By Tamia Nelson

June 11, 2013

Simple. Good. Simple and good. Those two words are the touchstones against which I measure all my gear. To earn a place in my pack — or my life, for that matter — something has to (1) embody a minimum of unnecessary complexity and (2) do the job it was designed to do. Versatility, efficiency, and elegance enter into the equation, to be sure, but simplicity and utility are the decisive factors. Many common items easily satisfy both tests. Chef's knives. Magnetic compasses. Canoes. Kayaks. Even bicycles. Are you surprised at the last? Don't be. While a bicycle is mechanically complex when compared to a canoe, it's the epitome of reliable, easy‑to‑maintain road transport, a smoothly functioning, well‑engineered, time‑tested whole that will take you just about anywhere you need to go in all weathers, swiftly and with style, if not always in comfort. The bicycle's complexity is more apparent than real, in other words. And if it ever should fail, absolutely and completely, you can always pick it up and carry it. Try doing that with a car!

I could add many other items to my short list of things that are both simple and good, of course. In fact, I will add one: the humble tarp. No shelter is simpler, and none is better. This blanket assertion probably requires some justification. Tarps do have their limitations. A tarp alone won't stop biting flies from feasting on your blood. Nor will a tarp keep you alive in a monsoon storm in a high camp on Kangchenjunga. But blackflies and mosquitos can be held at bay by other means, and few paddlers will find themselves bivouacking high in the Himalayas. For the day‑to‑day needs of most canoeists and kayakers, it would be hard to find anything better than a tarp to keep off a driving rain or blunt the wind's cutting edge. And those are the primary jobs of any backcountry shelter.

That being said, getting the most out of a tarp demands ingenuity and a certain amount of practice, along with some cooperation from the landscape. And there are times when it's comforting to have a preformed shelter. A tarp is protean. It can take on many shapes. This is often a strong point, but when a storm is imminent and seconds count, it's heartening to have a shelter with a predetermined configuration. Choice is good, in other words, but too much choice can bog you down. This no doubt helps explain the popularity of tents. Not only do they provide protection from flying insects and creepy‑crawlies, along with a modicum of privacy — something of real importance on heavily traveled routes, where campsites are frequently crowded — but they go up quickly and easily. (They do if you read the instructions first, that is. And if you haven't forgotten to bring the poles.)

But tents have their downsides, too. They're often stuffy, especially on sultry summer nights, and no matter how big they are, they never seem to have quite enough room. (The smallest tents resemble nothing so much as gossamer coffins.) They're also bulky and heavy, at least when matched against a tarp of comparable or greater size. And the larger the tent, the bulkier and heavier it will be.

OK. Tarps are simple, versatile shelters, though somewhat lacking in creature comforts. Tents are cozy wombs that fill your pack and strain your back. Is there no middle ground? I think there is. And it warrants thoughtful consideration by all weekenders and amphibious trekkers, not to mention day‑trippers. (It's nice to have a refuge when you're lunching in the rain.)

What is this happy medium among shelters? That's easy:

The Tarp‑Tent

It's a name you don't see much nowadays. The makers mostly call them "tents" and leave it at that. They look like tents, after all, and this is a label people understand. No matter what you choose to call them, however, you won't find many of them on outfitters' shelves. The marketing and the money both gravitate toward "proper" tents, with their elaborate suspension systems and their defenses in depth — bathtub floors, separate flies, multiple screened vents — against every imaginable extreme of weather short of a Noachian Flood. Tarp‑tents are simpler, as the name suggests. They usually don't have a sewn‑in floor, and they don't have separate flies, either. The vents, if there are any, aren't often screened, and the support system is most likely limited to one or two interior poles and half a dozen guylines. Some make use of a trekking pole as their principal prop.

In brief, a tarp‑tent is a shaped shelter, constructed of carefully cut panels of waterproof fabric and designed to be pitched in a single configuration. It is a tent, in other words. But it's a minimalist tent — a sort of Platonic ideal of Tent, a tent reduced to its essence, an enclosed space defined by fabric walls. Its many virtues are grounded in all the things it lacks: floor, fly, screened windows, and the spiderweb‑like network of prestressed, jointed supports that is the hallmark of the Thoroughly Modern wilderness shelter. But two other things loom large in the tarp‑tent's inventory of absences. Or rather they loom small. And those two things are weight and bulk.

A case in point: One maker advertises a "five‑man" shelter that weighs less than two pounds (around two and one‑half pounds with poles, guys, and stakes). Even if we accept that the "five‑man" tag is a hopeful fiction, based on nothing more than an imagined party of undernourished, preadolescent contortionists, this is an impressive claim. And the tarp‑tent in question, the Appy Trails Mark V, looks to offer plenty of room for a canoeing couple. Or even a pair of "amphibious" adventurers and their bikes — though this last would entail a certain amount of mutual accommodation (and a high probability that chain lube would end up on a least one person's sleeping bag).

You've spotted the gap in my narrative by now, no doubt. I say "looks to offer" because my only contact with the Appy Trails Mark V has come from looking at the maker's website. I do own another tarp‑tent, but it's a very different beast: a cotton Whelen "lean‑to tent." And while it makes a smaller, lighter burden than a pair of military surplus shelter halves, it couldn't be describes as either light or compact. But on frosty, late autumn nights, with a small wood fire blazing before it and a hunter's moon rising high above (and a hint of snow in the air), this canvas lean‑to has no equal.

The Whelen tent belongs to another age, however. Our concerns lie elsewhere, with the here‑and‑now needs of weekending paddlers and amphibious trekkers. So let's try weighing the pros and cons of tarp‑tents like the Appy Trails, in a thought experiment that I'll call …

Striking the Balance

Of course, list‑making is a delightful exercise in its own right. And I'll begin by accentuating the positive and enumerating …

The Many Virtues of Tarp‑Tents

  • They're lighter than "proper" tents of comparable size, and they're …
  • Less bulky, too.
  • They're easier to pitch than a tarp, and the bigger tarp‑tents …
  • Can accommodate large, awkward items like folding boats or touring bikes, with a minimum of extra pack weight.
  • There's no floor to collect dirt or trap puddles, so you can …
  • Spill a bowl of stew, a mug of coffee, or an overflowing Little John without any need for recriminations. (Do I have to add that eating in your tent is a bad idea in bear country? I didn't think so.)
  • You're not completely enfolded by a multi‑layered fabric womb. In fact, when viewed from an open‑fronted tarp‑tent like the Whelen, the distinction between outside and inside is wonderfully fluid and delightfully imprecise.

Sounds good, doesn't it? But our job isn't done till we've looked at the reverse of the medal. So let's enumerate …

Tarp‑Tents' Shortcomings

  • Lacking a separate fly and sewn‑in floor, tarp‑tents aren't proof against every vagary of weather. You can't get away with pitching them on muddy ground, and when the door(s) and vent(s) are open for ventilation (or the view), they'll often let the rain pour in. If you batten down the hatches against a howling gale or windblown snow, however, you'll find that your haven is now airless and oppressive. And if you and your companion(s) had chili for dinner…
  • Pitching a tarp‑tent will take more time and care than setting up a tent with a self‑supporting framework — and you'll need to work with the landscape, too. If you ever have to bed down on granite (a not uncommon occurrence on the Canadian Shield), you'll be compelled to exercise considerable ingenuity.
  • Moreover, the external frameworks of "proper" tents have something else going for them: They don't impinge on your personal space. By contrast, the simple interior poles supplied with most tarp‑tents will almost always get in your way.
  • High winds (or heavy snow) invariably pose problems. You might even waken to discover that your shelter has collapsed around you in the night. In other words, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom from excessive weight and bulk. A tarp‑tent is not a set‑it‑and‑forget‑it proposition.
  • Privacy? Only if you're willing to swelter on hot, still nights. And if your tarp‑tent is one of the open‑fronted ones like the Whelen, privacy can't be had at any price. But at least you'll have as good a view of your neighbors as they have of you.
  • The line between outside and inside is blurred in tarp‑tents. This is great when it comes to watching sunsets, birds, and butterflies, but you'd probably be happy if you could keep blackflies, ticks, copperheads, and skunks at a distance. (There are good reasons why none of us wanted to leave the womb. We felt safe there.) A separate mosquito net will help the fretful tarp‑tenter keep the bugs at bay, but it won't do much to stop an inquisitive skunk from paying a call on her in the night.


There you have it: I've anatomized the virtues and vices of the tarp‑tent for your consideration. Is it the shelter for you? That will depend entirely on the uses to which you'll put it. If you're traveling to the treeless tundra of the High Arctic (or heading south to the tropics), you'll probably want a "proper" tent, if only for the bombproof insect protection. And if you're planning on fitting a little mountaineering into your summer schedule, you'll be glad of a tent with a rigid, self‑supporting external frame. But for weekends near home, when your biggest worry is the possibility of an afternoon shower, or for day trips, when there's a remote chance you'll be caught out and have to bivouac overnight, a tarp‑tent (augmented by a bug‑net in fly season) may represent the perfect compromise. Ditto for amphibious trekkers, who are forced to make every ounce count twice, and who will be delighted by any item of gear that can be pressed into service for multiple tasks. The tarp‑tent certainly fits the bill here. It does, after all, embody many of the virtues of both tarp and tent. In that alone, it's close to the amphibious paddler's heart.

And I rather think a tarp‑tent is going to be close to mine, too.

Day's End


Tents have come a long way from the stiff, heavy, smelly ragbags that made campers' lives a misery for much of the last century. Modern tents are as light as they are strong, and they'll easily weather storms that would bring the old canvas wall tents down in minutes, leaving only a chaotic heap of guys, poles, and sodden fabric. But there are still times when paddlers will want something lighter and more versatile than the many cleverly engineered, fully accessorized cocoons that grace outfitters' shelves. And that's where the tarp‑tent comes into its own.



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