To use a tarp or a tent? That is the question.
Various outdoor enthusiasts from hikers, backpackers, mountaineers, and even survivalists have been debating this issue for years. Which is the better shelter? Is it the fully customizable tarp with its wide array of configurations? Or is it the ever-reliable tent?
If you’re on the fence about which shelter to pack, or are considering a switch from one type of shelter to another, you’re at the right place. We’ll help you make a well-informed decision by breaking down the pros and cons of a tarp shelter and a tent.
Is one type of shelter really better than the other? Read on to find out!
Tents: Easy But Bulky Camping Staples
Tents are usually the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions camping. They’re so popular that you’ve probably been camping out in them since you were a kid!
Old-school tents were usually made from canvas, but modern ones now utilize synthetic material like polyester, nylon or even cuben fiber to keep them water-resistant and relatively lightweight.
Here are some reasons why tents are the undisputed classic when it comes to camping:
They're easier and faster to set up. Like what we mentioned earlier, tents are what people usually bring on camping trips. Most people know how they work. Tents don't have varied configurations nor need special skills to set up. As long as the person knows how to work the poles and pegs, they'll have shelter.
- Tents offer more protection against the environment. They have a more defined structure, which means you’ll have your own little-walled shelter complete with a floor and a roof. This is especially useful if you’re camping out in wet or cold climates, or during bug season. Tents, in general, will keep you relatively dry and bug-free.
- That being said, staying inside a tent keeps you warmer. Tents keep the heat in better because of their structure. This is crucial especially when camping out during the winter, where you’ll need to preserve your body heat to avoid hypothermia.
- You don’t need to have trees to put up a tent. All you’ll need, for starters, is a nice even ground and you’ll be set. In comparison, most tarp configurations need trees or poles to tie your guy lines to.
- Some tents are capable of accommodating more people. If you’re camping with family, tents are a better option since they can fit more than one person.
- Tents provide a “psychological barrier” against outside threats. If you’re not keen on being so exposed to the environment or to animals like bears, snakes, and rodents, tents are the better option.
Despite their clear advantages, tents are not the end all, be all of shelters. In fact, there’s a significant number of outdoor enthusiasts who’ve ditched their tents in favor of other camping options. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Tents are heavier and bulkier compared to tarps. They also come with other parts like poles, pegs, and sometimes accessories like rain flies. This can seriously kill your weight savings, especially if you’re trying to go ultralight.
- They're not customizable. While they're pretty simple to use, tents can be pretty limited in their functionality. You can't do much to tweak their configuration to suit your needs, nor can you use them for other purposes aside from shelter.
- Tents tend to have higher condensation. Because they’re better at trapping heat, you can also collect moisture inside your tent. They’re also pretty stuffy if you’re camping during the summer.
- Lighter, higher quality tents can be pricey. If you want to shed weight from your pack, you will have to invest in ultralight tents that are usually made from cuben fiber, which can cost a lot.
- You don’t get to see the stars...or other things for that matter. While being inside a tent offers adequate cover and protection, it also means you really can’t enjoy much of the scenery.
Tarps: Not Your Ordinary Shelter
On the other side of the coin is the tarp. No one really knows who first started using tarpaulins for shelter but whoever they were, they did the right thing. Tarps of old were often used by sailors to protect goods and wares from water. Today, tarps can be used to cover just about anything.
Modern camping tarps are outfitted with grommets so they can be tied down or suspended using ropes and other cordage. They’re usually made from tough but flexible synthetic materials like polyethylene or vinyl.
Aside from shelter, tarps are known to be hardy multipurpose items that can be used for a wide range of things. They can be used to gather water or as a first aid tool. For this reason, many survivalists and hardcore outdoorsmen prefer tarps over tents.
Here are a few other reasons why people love their tarps:
- They’re lightweight and compact. This is extremely helpful if you’re trying to shed some weight or are going ultralight. Unlike tents, tarps don’t need tent poles to set up. You’ll just need some cordage (preferably some paracord that you carry in your pack anyway) and pegs for most configurations. Other tarp shelter configurations don’t need any trees or guy lines at all; you can simply use your pegs and trekking poles to put them up.
- You don’t need to spend top dollar to buy a good, reliable tarp; they’re generally cheap and are available anywhere.
- They’re customizable. If you know what you’re doing, the possibilities are endless. You can assemble dozens of configurations with a single tarp. These configurations can be used to adapt to the environment and can be further tweaked to fit your needs. Some tarp configurations can be fully-enclosed, which is great for rainy weather. Others are open and even allow you to build fires nearby. Check out this post on how to build different tarp configurations.
- That being said, most open tarp configurations have great ventilation. You can enjoy the amazing views and experience the outdoors from the comfort of your shelter.
- Tarps are not just for shelter, either. Aside from giving you a roof over your head, they’re good for other purposes like water collection and first aid. This makes them great for bug out bags as they can be used for emergencies or survival situations. We listed all the cool things a tarp can do in this article.
Having a fully customizable, multipurpose sheet at your disposal has its disadvantages, too. Here are a few of them:
- The biggest disadvantage of a fully customizable item like a tarp is that they require a considerable amount of know-how and skill to set up. It’s a pretty steep learning curve, too. These configurations can take a lot of time to learn. You have to know your knots, for one thing. You also have to remember which configuration works well with your environment.
- A fast set-up requires both experience and consistent practice. There are quite a lot of dos and don’ts involved in building tarp shelters, and you might have to look at a diagram or two when you’re starting out. If you’re a casual camper and are not willing to invest the needed time and energy, tarps may not be the best type of shelter for you.
- Most tarp configurations are open to the environment. While this is great if you really want to experience the outdoors, this also exposes you to things like bugs, low temperatures, and inclement weather.
- That being said, they’re not the warmest shelters around. Most tarp configurations don’t come with a ground sheet or are not very effective in trapping heat in. Tarp camping during the winter is still possible, but tents are relatively more comfortable.
- The common 9x9 tarp can usually accommodate just one person.
The Final Verdict
Choosing between a tarp shelter and a tent is no easy task. They both have their strengths and weaknesses--- weigh these qualities out to see which one is the best for you.
Generally, tents are great for beginners and casual campers. If you don't mind the extra weight, hate bugs, are camping during the winter or simply don't want to bother with a complicated set-up, tents are the preferable option.
Tarps, on the other hand, are great for seasoned outdoorsmen who really want to experience nature to the fullest. They're the shelter of choice if you're keen on shedding some weight from your pack. You also can't discount a tarp's multiple functions. Keep one in your bug out bag in case SHTF.
So, should you pack a tarp or a tent?
The answer to this age-old question will ultimately depend on you. We hope you found this article useful in making the right decision that best fits your needs. Whichever shelter you choose, make sure to soak in the experience and enjoy your time outdoors!