Should I Use a Tarp Under My Tent? My Answer – Yes

Hesitations regarding equipment regularly pop-up while planning a camping adventure. If you are planning on staying a few days in the wild, you’ve probably already got yourself a proper tent, which is perhaps water resistant. That automatically brings up the question – should I use a tarp under my tent?

In this article, I will explain why I think you should bring a tarp along the way and use it underneath your tent.

You should place a tarp under your tent because it will allow you to work more comfortably on the wet ground, provide additional protection from punctures, and increase the floor water resistance. 

Moreover, tarps usually occupy little space and feature various usages – providing shade and wrapping your gear, for example. Besides, they are relatively cheap and cannot harm your experience – it is better to be safe than sorry.

Comfortable to Work on Wet Ground

I recall so many times when I’ve just arrived at my campsite, and the ground underneath was damp. Usually, what I do is trying to ignore it and starting to set up my tent.

Once it’s ready, I take out my sleeping bag and place it inside – planning to go to sleep right away. Then I have to face the constant dilemma – should I put my backpack inside or outside the tent?

My intuition usually tells me to put it inside, to avoid condensation.

However, each time I do so – I regret it since I bring all the damp that got stuck to my hiking backpack. That might not sound that much, but believe me – when camping – every little detail matters.

When I began using a tarp under my tent, that problem was finally solved. The tarp acts as a working platform and ensures that dirt and condensation stay away from the inside.

Occupies Little Space & Relatively Lightweight

When I was still new to the whole camping thing, I’ve made some terrible mistakes that dramatically affected my experience. One of them was packing too many things.

In fact, I’ve dedicated a whole article where I described 15 mistakes that I did during my first hike. I highly recommend that you read it, though, I’ve gathered there five years of knowledge and lessons that I learned from bad decisions.

Well, that incident taught me quite a lot about how a backpack shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, on the following hikes, I still kept my tarp with me, since it never really interrupted nor occupied too much space. 

Keep in mind that weight is another crucial factor. If you are planning on hiking, please do yourself a favor and take a look on another article I’ve written regarding how much should your backpack weigh.

I’ve gathered there 50 examples and estimated the desired weight of your pack.

In general, a tarp not like a sleeping bag or pad which are usually large – when packed appropriately, it should be more than 15x10x1 inches.

Extra Protection From Tears

The hike in Switzerland alps is something I will take with me for the rest of my life. There are two main reasons for this. First, the views were outstanding, perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Second, I had a tear in my tent floor.

You probably ask now – how can he possibly compare the two? Well, when your tent’s floor gets ripped, unless you are prepared, the rest of your journey is going to change. 

Actually, I’ve previously discussed six essential reasons why your tent might leak, and tears were part of them. Even if you don’t suffer from the problem, I highly suggest that you read it so that you know what things to avoid.

Water gets in no matter how hard you try – one time I even spread my clothing on the tear and slept on the top of it. The tarp protects you from that scenario in two ways.

First, it serves as a padding layer that sharp rocks and broken branches have to penetrate first before they get to your floor. Second, it reduces friction when you move inside the tent. 

When the canvas is placed directly on the ground, it sticks to the dirt and grass beneath it, so each movement you take increases its tension and may tear it apart.

Additional Water Resistance

In a previous article, regarding tents tendency to leak when touched from the inside, I was talking about hydrostatic head value. If you are familiar with the phenomenon, you could learn how to avoid it through the linked article.

In short, that is a number which represents how water resistant your tent is. The higher the number, the more water it will be able to repel. Most of the times the tent’s floor feature a better hydrostatic head than the tent walls since that is where you apply most of the pressure.

When you move inside your tent, you break the surface tension of the water outside, allowing it to get in. Modern tents do feature the technology to deal with the problem, yet, sometimes it is not enough. 

It is also possible that your tent is too old and lost its water resistance – tarps would be on your favor in this case. Nevertheless, there are a few techniques by which you can restore its previous state. I’ve elaborated on these in the article titled why is my tent sticky and how to solve the issue.

I’m not saying that water will stay out wholly – if your tent is in bad condition, there is no better choice than getting a new one. However, placing a tarp underneath it is an excellent way to start when purchasing a brand new tent is far from doing.

More Than One Usage

What I like about camping is how every single thing suddenly got a wide range of usage. A tree branch, for example, all of a sudden turns into a shelf for hanging your backpack, right before it gets into your campfire and warms you up a little bit.

Your toothbrush is great for hygiene. However, it might as well act as a spoon to mix your cookings. Well, I’ve found tarps to be useful for other purposes as well. 

For example, you may hang it on the trees so it would provide shade in the morning, allowing you to sleep a little longer pass sunrise. 

In fact, putting a tarp over my tent was one of my favorites techniques which allowed me to make my tent darker. In the linked article I’ve discussed a few more, including dying the inner walls on specific types of fabric.

In another article, I’ve discussed the pros and cons of hanging a tarp over your tent. Make sure that you read it so that you avoid a few possible mistakes and get the most out of it. You could also find my 15 essential camping knots guide useful if you are not familiar with the tying technique.

Also, you may use it for wrapping your gear. Let’s say you’ve done camping with your family and ready to go home. Before you can take off, you have to get your stuff on the truck first – to protect it from getting wet. Well, all you have to do is to wrap it tightly with your tarp.

Better Safe Than Sorry

When things are packed small and are relatively cheap – it is better to be safe than sorry. 

I will say now that it is a slippery slope – you shouldn’t pack too many things as I mentioned at the beginning of this article – that would burden your back and ruin your experience.

I believe that this rule doesn’t apply to things that don’t make much difference regarding volume and weight.

It is okay to pack up a tarp and still not to use it since its tiny and shouldn’t weigh more than one pound. If you happened to use it for a just a single day out of the entire hike – in my opinion – still worth it.

Wheather is Unpredictable

Another thing campings had taught me is that you should never count on the forecast.

It doesn’t matter in which country or continent I’ve been – temperatures kept surprising me – for better and for worse. 

In some nights you are going to take off layer after layer since you are always sweating. On the other hands, temperatures might also suddenly drop. That was one of the reasons why I’ve recommended that you bring a sleeping bag liner along with you.

Well, rain is also unpredictable, so if you are counting on dry weather and compromising on the tent ability to repel water – it’s a mistake. Please take my advice and bring a tarp with you – as I’ve just said, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Under The Tent vs. On Tent’s Bottom

Let’s say I’ve convinced you and you decided to get yourself a tarp towards your next adventure. Also, you chose to use it under the tent (as I’ve mentioned, you may also use it above it for shade).

Now comes the big question – should you place in under the tent, or otherwise, on the tent’s bottom (from the inside)?

My answer is – it is better to put it inside the tent, strange as it might sound. This method is meant to prevent water leakage from the floor – however, it doesn’t avoid tears. 

When placed inside, water which still somehow got through the floor gets blocked by the tarp. In opposed to that, when set underneath the tent – there is still a gap between the two so water that accumulates on the tarp can get in.

When it comes to protecting your tent floor from tears – I will say the opposite – it is better to place the tarp outside the tent, so broken branches and rocks encounters it first.

What is The Right Way to Place The Tarp?

When you place the tarp outside or inside your tent, you should still make sure you do it in the right way.

When put outside, please make sure you fold its four corners towards the ground, away from your tent. The idea behind this is that condensation tends to accumulate upon the tarp overnight. 

When the edges are folded, you avoid these little pools so that water can pour away from you – to the ground. If you’ve chosen to place the tarp inside your tent – you should make sure you leave a gap between its edges and the inner walls.

If it is continuously touching the walls from the inside – as I’ve mentioned above – condensation my get in, even when the tent is water resistant.

How do Modern Tents Deal With Tearing?

Like I mentioned – nowadays tents deal better with tears than old ones. One good example is the COLEMAN® WEATHERTEC™ SYSTEM.

Regarding making the floor more durable, this technology implemented the welding making process. In general, it’s a fabrication procedure which joins materials together by using heat to melt the parts together. 

A lot of energy and effort is invested in ensuring that the material maintains unified. This way, several different components, which your tent floor is made of – act like one.

Remember when I was talking about friction and how it increases tension and might cause tears? Well, modern tents feature inverted seams that hide needle holes inside the tent. 

Stitched areas are the most vulnerable parts when pressure is applied – those seams protect precisely that.

What Kind of Tarp Should I Have Under My Tent?

Choosing the right tarp is essential and depends on what you are mainly trying to avoid. The hesitations are usually between Polycro and Tyvek. If those terms are unfamiliar to you – that is okay, keep reading and decide based on their features.

If you are trying to avoid punctures within your tent floor, in my opinion, Tyvek is a better choice. It is more stiff, cheap, and lighter than comparable plastic. 

However, Polycro weighs less and relatively more packable. It is a better choice if you already have a heavy backpack or trying to pack small. 

In general, both are durable and provide excellent insulation.

Conclusions

To sum up, I believe a tarp is a nice touch that would only do good in your future to come journey. First, it packs small (especially the Polycro type), so adding one shouldn’t scare you, even when you’ve already packed quite some gear.

Also, it serves as an easy platform to work on, so your gear doesn’t get wet when arriving on damp ground at your campsite. Even though modern tents usually protect from punctures, I still find tarps necessary since they pad the bottom and decrease friction.

If you don’t find tarps useful in the field of flood protection, you should also consider that they might be helpful by providing shade and wrapping up your gear.

In a case you’ve already decided on getting one, you should also pay attention to placing it in the right way. Make sure you fold its edges towards the ground, so condensation doesn’t accumulate.

If you are planning on putting it inside – leave gaps between its borders and the inner parts of your tent – pressure from the inside might end up with water penetration and your sleeping bag getting damp.

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