Should You Put a Tarp Over Your Tent? Pros & Cons

I am sitting here in front of my computer, trying to verdict whether or not should you put a tarp over your tent. My personal experience has taught me a few reasons why you should and shouldn’t – however that was probably not enough. For that reason, I began to search deeply across the internet so that I can provide you with the most honest and objective considerations.

You should put a tarp over your tent since it will allow you to improve the tent water resistance and wind durability. Besides, it may protect your tent from pine needles and acorns. It can also cover your gear when you leave it outside and in some cases may even be a replacement for tents to save weight. 

On the other hand, when placed wrong, tarps may increase condensation and damage your rainfly due to friction. Also, they may be challenging to hang when there are no trees and wouldn’t be practical when moisture is not due to rain.

PROS:

  • Could Even Improve Brand New Tents
  • Wind Protection
  • May Block Pine Needles
  • Protects The Rest of Your Gear
  • Could Replace Tents

CONS:

  • Moisture Might Not be Due to Rain
  • May Increase Condensation
  • Could be Difficult Without Trees
  • Adds Weight & Occupies Space

Could Even Improve Brand New Tents

If you’ve just bought a new tent, there is a good chance it features a waterproof rainfly and resists water pretty well.

Frankly, even old tents may endure storms if stored and packed right. Nevertheless, in harsh conditions, high-quality tents may leak. 

That is because each tent features its unique hydrostatic head value (which is, in short,  the height of the water column it could repel).

If it’s too rainy and water tends to accumulate fast on your tent – it could overcome that value, resulting in water penetration.

Tarps act like a second shield since they feature their own hydrostatic head so that the total resistance would be the sum of the two.

Hours of research have also brought up my article regarding six different reasons why your tent might leak. I’ve also discussed how to improve your tent’s water resistance once the coating had got ruined.

Wind Protection

Let’s face it – wind is a crucial, unpredictable factor that may compromise the tent’s stability. While wind usually comes from the sides, it’s hard to comprehend how a tarp, which is hung from above, could make any difference.

Have you ever seen in movies that terrifying disaster in which the airplane windows gets cracked and everything inside gets pumped out? 

That is due to the plane’s speed which creates vacuum (negative pressure) perpendicular to the air movement. Well, the same thing happens when you are camping, and there is a strong wind from the sides.

When the air above your tent gets cut, it will end up with negative pressure which would push air down your tent roof from above. 

That pressure could end up with bending the poles and perhaps collapse the entire tent. Tarps could help you with that since they absorb some of the force and act, again, like a shield.

May Block Pine Needles & Acorns

I remember that time I woke up in my tent and saw a pine needle stuck to my tent roof. That might sound odd to you; however, it made sense because I haven’t placed the rainfly beforehand – which is usually more durable.

Believe it or not, but that tiny hole made a huge difference because, on the following nights, little drops dripped in, so I ended up with a damp sleeping bag.

Well, the real problem starts when trees start to fall things which are more significant than a single needle – perhaps acorns or even a bunch of needles. 

I have learned my lessons since then and began to hang a tarp over my tent every time I went to sleep. Each time I took it off I’ve seen so many tree parts which could damage my tent – so I was thrilled that I did so.

I’ve mentioned that my sleeping bag got damp during those nights; however, a tiny hole in the roof wasn’t the only explanation for that. 

Frankly, I was waking up in a wet sleeping bag way too often. That was when I researched the issue and found up a few reasons which had never crossed my mind and improved the following trips dramatically.

Protects The Rest of Your Gear

When entering your tent, it’s essential that you keep your wet gear outside. Even if it features proper ventilation, condensation may still accumulate since water evaporates from your equipment.

However, here comes a second problem – if you keep it outside, it could get wet when it’s starting to rain. I can’t recall how many times I’ve been starting my hike in wet hiking boots which got me frustrated each time. 

When putting a tarp over your tent, you overcome that issue, although not completely. Raindrops don’t stay away entirely since they can come from the sides when it’s windy.

I’ve got the impression that the tarp may still reduce their damp significantly so I would again recommend that you hang one.

It’s hard to describe how often I suffered from raindrops when I had to set up my tent; that was when I realized how conveniently a tarp might help. In fact, I have spent eight hours writing an article on how to pitch a tent in the rain – you mustn’t skip that if you are facing some hard weather conditions.

Also, I suggest that you put your hiking footwear inside a sealed plastic bag – that would keep the rest of the water away and would prevent snakes or insects from surprising you in the morning.

Could Replace Tents

This one is more relevant to the experts among you. I have tried this in person only a few times and saw that in some cases, tarps could be the alternative for tents. 

When you put one correctly in the shape of a pyramid, all you need is a sleeping pad and a water-resistant sleeping bag to get a good night sleep.

Of course, it is better to implement that trick when the weather is quite gentle on you – on harsh conditions; there would be no escape from pitching a tent.

It had been a huge struggle when I first tried to camp with merely a tarp. That was when I’d learned some ties that have changed my experience dramatically. Following serious research and countless Youtube videos, I’ve finished writing my article describing profoundly 15 camping knots that actually make a difference.

I’ve made it easier for you by putting specific camping implementations and a video or a picture with instructions for each one.

Don’t be intimidated by knots and improvise clumsy ones instead; even by knowing just a few you can improve your campsite durability significantly.

Moisture Might Not be Due to Rain

The primary purpose for putting a tarp over your tent is to protect your tent and equipment from the pouring rain. I’ve already said that even high-quality, water-resistant tents could leak when it’s too rainy.

Nevertheless, a considerable part of moisture and condensation does not come from the rain itself; it could be from your body sweats and breath. Also, if you camp next to water sources, the humid air could condensate your tent’s fly and in severe cases even get inside. 

For those cases, putting a tarp over your tent would be impractical and a waste of time, especially when the weather is quite stable.

Instead, you should make sure that you don’t camp next to water streams and that you don’t sleep with too many layers. Actually, I’ve written a whole article on why you shouldn’t sleep naked either. Make sure you check it out so that you know how to balance temperature and dampness.

Also, if condensation is bothering you and you wish to improve your tent waterproofness, you could try spraying the outer part with Nikwax.

In Some Cases May Increase Condensation

Putting a tarp over your tent does feature its risks, especially if you are new to this. When you hang it too close to the rainfly, it may paradoxically increase condensation. 

When we breathe during night time, we exhale little water drops which usually get out through the vents which are at the bottom or the top of your tent. When the tarp is placed near – water would accumulate underneath and drip back on your tent roof.

Also, if you attach the tarp too close, it can rub against the outer layer. That, in turn, will shorten the tent lifetime and compromise its polyurethane coating layer over time. 

However, that isn’t an unambiguous con since you can put the tarp appropriately when you learn how to do so – that I will explain later on in this article.

Could be Difficult Without Trees

The conventional way for putting a tarp over your tent is by using tree trunks.

Usually what campers do is connecting the two corners at the top to distant trees (to gain height), and the four corners at the bottom to tent pegs (to gain traction).

When you don’t have trees nearby, gaining altitude it difficult and enforces you to improvise. One way to do so is by sticking a perpendicular branch to the ground and pushing it deeply, so it stays stable. 

Then, you can connect your tent to it and hope for the best – since it is far less stable than a tree.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to hang a tarp without trees, however, if you are facing some severe weather conditions it may limit you in choosing your campsite. 

Still, I do find it necessary that you learn how to hang one without trees and for that I’ve attached the following video.

Adds Weight & Occupies Space

These two are quite obvious, and for that reasons, I kept them for last. I’ve been discussing tarps weight in my article regarding using a tarp under your tent and said that tarps usually don’t weigh much.

Well, that is true; however, they can be a burden if your backpack is already on full capacity – yet, I believe that this should be your last concern if you hesitate on bringing a tarp. 

Although, if you plan on putting it above your tent and the forecast is quite friendly – you should take it under considerations.

To make sure you bring the right amount of gear which suits your physical capabilities, I highly recommend that you read my article which describes how much should your backpack weigh. I’ve attached to it 50 examples and presented the exact weight distribution, so you get a better understanding.

If you don’t have any room in your pack for a tarp, you could also use the same methods I’ve used to attach a sleeping bag to a backpack. It is quite similar since both feature a cylinder shape and a carrying sack.

What is The Right Way to Put it?

First, it’s crucial that you realize how NOT to put your tarp over your tent.

You most certainly should not drape it to your rainfly – that would end up with friction between the two and damage your tent. Second, you mustn’t hang it too close to your tent because this way it would increase condensation inside.

Instead, put the tarp at a distance of at least three feet from the top of your tent. Also, I suggest that you build it in in a concave way instead of a pyramid since water will be less likely to drip over your gear this way. 

To achieve that, I suggest that you use durable materials and tie the tarp tightly, so it doesn’t collapse under the water weight.

If you build it in a pyramid shape, please make sure it covers more than just your tent – it would be wise to use a large tarp in this case.

Should I Put my Tarp Over or Under my Tent?

There is the familiar, ongoing debate concerning where it is better to put your tarp – over or under your tent. Well, it mainly depends on weather and ground conditions.

If you anticipate hard rain – I suggest that you put the tarp over your tent, since water would most probably cause problems from above. Regarding reasonable weather, I’ve discussed profoundly why you should put the tarp under your tent and what would be the right way to do that. 

You should also realize that the primary mean of protection is your tent’s fly – a tarp is merely a nice, additional touch. In a case that you own a new one with a high hydrostatic head value – hanging a tarp would make a difference only in severe cases.

Other Means to Reduce Condensation?

In this article, I’ve already discussed three ways in which you can decrease condensation – putting a tarp quite far from your tent, spraying the outer layer with Nikwax and leaving wet gear outside.

Although, I do find it necessary to mention a few more that helped me a lot during my adventures.

The first would be to leave the door a little unzipped – this way you may increase air circulation even more than what the vents provide. 

The second one would be avoiding touching the tent from the insideI’ve discussed the phenomenon a lot in the linked article and described the physics behind it – frankly, it’s quite exciting, and I highly recommend that you read it. 

In short, when you stretch the tent walls, you break the surface tension of water drops outside your tent and allows water molecules to enter more easily.

What is a Reasonable Price For a Tarp?

Tarps are relatively cheap and if you ask me – that could be an advantage of its own.

The price mainly depends on the material it is made of and its size. In general, their cost should be around 10-20$, some of them even lower than that. 

In my opinion, their low price makes them worth it even for single use – which probably won’t be the case anyway.

Conclusions

There are many pros and cons regarding putting a tarp over your tent, and there is no doubt I wasn’t able to review them all. Still, I’ve tried to focus on those which seems most crucial and had the most significant impact during my adventures.

If I had to choose, I would have taken one just in case, since tarps are relatively cheap and lightweight. I suggest that you try to estimate the weather and prepare your tarp accordingly.

If you feel it is going to pour – hang the tarp over your tent and tighten it up appropriately. In nights when the weather improves, place the tarp under your tent to protect its floor.

Consider that tarps won’t make a huge difference and that the primary means of protection is your tent fly and walls – a tarp would be an added touch but wouldn’t replace any of those.

I hope that my article pointed you in the right direction and answered a few of your question. If it hasn’t, let me know all about them by leaving a comment below!

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