The history of tarps is one of ups and downs (double meaning intended). Plastic tarps were a popular backpacking shelter (up) during the 2nd half of the 20th century, mainly because canvas tents were heavy and awkward. Only late in this time period were nylon and aluminum materials produced in forms that could easily be integrated into recreational equipment.
One hybrid tarp is the so-called “tube tent”(up). [Note: I acknowledge that this piece of equipment is technically both a tent (has a floor) and a tarp (the ends are open).] Tube tents used to be carried for emergency bivouacs. They are essentially a very light piece of plastic configured into a tube shape and rigged with a line through the center to assist in tie-down. Some tube-tents came with grommets at the ends to both tie them down a bit more and to cinch up the ends in heavy weather with a threaded cord.
When lightweight nylon, polyester and aluminum materials became readily available the recreational industry began pushing their high- and low-tech designs shelter designs. Since then, tarps have mostly gone by the wayside (down), especially for camping in the mountainous terrain. One exception has been the lightweight and ultralight hiking community. The resulting movement (fad?) towards everything lightweight has created renewed interest in tarps (up). Silnylon, spinnaker nylon and Cuben Fiber woven materials have meant even lighter tarp shelters. For example, an 8 x 10 silnylon tarp, large enough for three, can weigh less than a pound (including stakes and guys). A Cuben Fiber tarp for one person can weigh as little as 3-4 ounces (with guys but no stakes or poles). A half-tarp made of lightweight materials covering only the head end of a waterproof bivy sack can weigh as little as two ounces.
The resurgence in tarps has seen a number of hybrid “tarp-tent” designs appear on the market (up). Most of the hybrids are tarps in the true sense (single wall construction without floors or doors). Tarp-tents are also “tents” in the sense that they can be pitched close to the ground and often come with bug netting in the entrance and along the bottom edges. At least one hybrid design involves a shock-corded hoop installed at the back of the shelter to provide more interior volume and additional stability in a blow. The most popular tarp-tents are designed to use trekking poles for support. One-person tarp-tents are available weighing about a pound. Tarp-tent hybrids are especially popular in milder and dryer climates.
The appearance of lightweight materials and hybrid tarp-tents has resulted in a renewed interest in making traditional tents lighter and more functional (down).
What will be the next evolution in this up and down history of tarps?
I believe tarps and tarp-tents have an important place in my stable of wilderness shelters. What about you?