Tarp-campers intimately know not only wind and bugs but also sights of moonlit clouds and shooting stars and dawn, scents of pine needles and flowers and grasses and prowling skunks, sounds of little feet scurrying everywhere in the darkness over sleeping bags. They experience more of everything except claustrophobia, and in retrospect their wilderness nights are as memorable as their days. These are the free spirits, a select band, smaller and more select by the year, who ask protection only against downward rain, heat loss and dew accumulation through radiation, and the hot sun. The creepy-crawlies they accept, perhaps becoming inordinately          fond of beetles, and the buzzing wings they foil with a habitat of no-see-um netting. Mild breezes they welcome, and the gentle mists they may carry, bathing the brow. And as part of the bargain they accept the occasional Armageddon when forces of evil rage in the night, chewing up tarps and spitting them out, sending naked-to-the-sky refugees fleeing through the tempest, whimpering. Herein, then, is a treatise on tarps—to preserve for the discriminating few, the alternative.
    — Harvey Manning, One Step At A Time, 4th edition, pages 311-312]

Central Issues Addressed in This Article

What type of shelter best fits my values and philosophies of camping in the seasons and areas in which I backpack? Which of the claimed advantages for tent camping hold up under critical analysis? Which of the claimed advantages for tarp camping hold up under critical analysis? Am I practically and philosophically a tent, tarp, bivy sack or hammock person? If I decide to own several types of shelters, which will maximize my priorities and values?


One of the most difficult and interesting choices for the dedicated backpacker is that of shelters. There are many options with more coming on line each year. Part of the decision is practical and part philosophical. For many, the decision is based upon past experiences in the wilderness (sometimes going back to childhood). For some, the decision is based on lack of experience or lack of critical analysis (or both) of the various options. For many, it is going along with the crowd and the subtle influences of advertising. For others, it is based upon the climate. For still others the decision is primarily economic: what is affordable? No matter what your past experiences, economics or biases, consider reading through this article with an open mind; the result might surprise you.

Starting Assumptions

To receive maximum benefit from this article, please make the following assumptions.

  1. You will need some sort of shelter and a sleeping system that will keep you warm and comfortable enough to sleep well and be refreshed for the trail the next day.
  2. The choice of shelter is most critical in mountainous, alpine environments (the primary focus in this article).
  3. Even though winter-like conditions can occur anytime of the year in most mountainous regions, assume we are dealing only with three season environments; winter camping deserves separate treatment and is not dealt with in this article.
  4. There are many viable options and types of shelter available to the contemporary backpacker with many subtle variations of the main types. Instead of analyzing all of these options and variations, one at a time like most other backpacking manuals, it is most efficacious to narrow the focus to two popular and generalized options (tents vs. tarps) to illustrate the practical and philosophical differences between shelter choices. [Note: With this assumption in mind, the next sections are set up in the form of an in-depth analysis and debate (i.e., supporting argument and critique) of these two popular options. Put differently, the next sections are organized into a black/ white, either/or type of analysis fully realizing the issue is not this clear cut.]
  5. A simplistic working definition of a tarp is a sheet of fabric, without a floor or doors, suspended in such a way as to provide shelter. In direct contrast, a simplistic definition of a tent is a fabric shelter with walls, doors and a floor.
  6. Ignore the more emotional and non-rational attitudes about shelters. Following are some examples.

  • “I just like this type of camping.”
  • “I have always camped this way.”
  • “Shelter X is what most of my friends are using."
  • "I just love brand X's features and design.”

Tarp Camping: A Critical Analysis Of Claimed Advantages

1. Lighter Weight, Less Volume and Low Cost: An 8 x 8 or 8 x 10 foot ultralight silnylon tarp sheltering one or two people can be purchased for about $60-80 and weigh as little as one pound (15-16 ounces), if using hiking poles, ice axes, available sticks and trees, rocks, etc. for support. The cost will be $20-30 if you make your own. A hardware store plastic or reinforced polyester tarp can be purchased for $10 or less. When packed, the bulk of a tarp is much less than that for tents. With less bulk and weight one can gear down to a lighter pack. In essence, tarp camping can reduce your pack weight by pounds, not ounces. The on-trail comfort of less pack weight makes up for any lack of comfort in camp. The weight and volume saving is even more pronounced with larger groups. A 10 x 12 foot tarp will shelter up to five people. Lighter weight tents that handle this number will total at least 8-10 pounds. The larger the group, the greater the weight saving.

Critical Commentary: The weight, volume and cost advantage obviously goes to the tarp, but not by as much as is portrayed. The weight and bulk of ground cloths, bug netting, extra stakes and cord plus a heavier sleeping bag to stay warm in colder weather have to be factored in. Tarp campers often supplement their shelter with a bivy sack. Furthermore, ultralight, single walled, two person tents are available weighing two pounds or less. Chosen wisely, a tent will add only a modest amount of weight to your pack. In addition, it is often difficult to find enough flat ground for larger tarps to hold larger groups.

[Note: seven additional arguments in favor of Tarp Camping and nine arguments in favor of Tent Camping (plus critical commentaries for each) can be found in the much longer article available for downloading.]


 The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 22 pages) available as a free download.  Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.

Tarps, Tents or Bivy Sacks?—A Difference in Camping Philosophies – Word Format

Tarps, Tents or Bivy Sacks?—A Difference in Camping Philosophies – PDF Format

The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:

Starting Assumptions

Tarp Camping: A Critical Analysis of Claimed Advantages

Tent Camping: A Critical Analysis of Claimed Advantages

Reader Participation: Shelter Values and Priorities

Reader Participation: Tent, Tarp or Other Shelter?

Emergence of Hybrid and Convertible Designs

Author’s Experiences and Conclusions About Backcountry Shelters

Additional Issues for Reflection

Tarps, Tents or Bivy Sacks?—A Difference in Camping Philosophies and Priorities