Tarp Shelters: Versatile and Lightweight Outdoor Options

by Shawn O'Neal

Backpacking means self-sufficiency. For a one-night getaway in a state park or a week of navigating across alpine ridges and meadows, what you need you have to carry. A backpacker’s bed, kitchen, and home are on his or her back. Anything that makes that load a bit lighter is a worthy consideration. Ultralight backpacking gear is impressive, with an equally impressive price tag. But one of the most versatile pieces of camping gear can be found at the local hardware store for a few bucks. After I experienced backcountry nights under tarp shelters, I often chose to leave the bulkier, heavier tent behind when headed down the trail.  

The beauty of a tarp shelter is its simplicity. There are no poles to work through sleeves like on a conventional tent. It can also be incredibly versatile. Pitch it high and open for shade and ventilation. Make it low and steep-sided to shed intense rainfall. There are various ways to design your shelter, too. A shed-roof style with a single angle gives plenty of room for a camp kitchen. The diamond fly orientation (a low, diagonal design with three corners grounded) is more secure against the elements. It’s the classic A-frame configuration that I find most useful, though. A-frames are adaptable and easy to construct, especially if there are a couple of trees around. 

Set Up Tarp Shelters for Success

After locating a suitable campsite, find a level spot between two trees to call home for the night. The trees must be far enough apart to accommodate the size of your tarp (6’x8’ or 8’x10′ for a solo camper). Too far apart, however, and you might not have enough rope to support the shelter. For a one-person design, start by tying one end of your cordage to a study tree. Run the free end of the line to the second tree and then tension it with a trucker’s hitch. This is the backbone of a tarp shelter- you need it to be strong. So, pull this cord as tight as a drum.  

Next drape your tarp over the secured rope. Center it lengthwise and adjust it to your desired position between the supporting trees. Use shorter lengths of cord to secure the tarp’s corners. Run these guylines from the grommets along the edge to other nearby anchors, such as roots or small saplings. No ideally placed anchors nearby? No problem. Tie the lines to short, sturdy sticks with clove hitches. Then weight these down with scavenged rocks from around your campsite. This type of anchor can be easily repositioned as needed, giving it another advantage over traditional tent stakes. 

Fine-tuning, Tips, and Tricks

 For most outings, this is a finished shelter. In more severe, windy conditions, add additional guylines to all the available grommets along the tarp edge. For an extra measure of insurance, attach the center-line grommets of the tarp to the supporting line with adjustable midshipman’s hitches. Get creative if you need to. I’ve used belts, bandanas, and shoestrings to help secure shelters when required. In the absence of trees, a tarp shelter can be erected using trekking poles or downed tree limbs as the vertical supports.  

This system has drawbacks. It’s not great on buggy nights, though a mosquito net can be added to the design fairly easily. A sturdy tent will still be superior for four-season excursions with intense weather. In many conditions, however, a tarp, or even an over-sized poncho, is a great option. It also makes a great emergency shelter to keep in a vehicle, just in case.  

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