It’s hard to believe that our ancestors slept under the stars. They faced the elements and lived out in the world that we currently shield ourselves from. Only the very rare understand how effective a simple tarp shelter can be.
The right tarp shelter for the right scenario can make a night out in the wild very enjoyable. You might assume you need a waterproofed Coleman with a rainfly to keep yourself comfortable while camping. If you know how to set up a tarp and make a fire then you can be cozy in the wild.
Just like tying knots, fishing, and using an ax, I think a person should be able to manipulate a tarp and some cordage to protect them from the elements. It’s the skill of making quick shelter and it can serve you even if you do not frequent the woods.
What Makes a Great Tarp
The market for tarps is massive. You can find tarps designed to do all kinds of things for you. While you might assume that you need a high-end backcountry tarp, you can get a lot done with a Hyper Tough heavy-duty tarp from Walmart.
However, there are features that a quality tarp offers that are worth more of an investment.
One of the most important factors is how the tarp packs down and carries. You want a nice lightweight tarp with an outer shell that it can be carried in.
Another important feature of any great tarp is the tie downs. High denier polyester design, which is pretty common in most tarps, and reinforced seams allow for high-performance tied downs. I like to have a minimum of 9 tie-down locations.
All 4 corners, 4 centered between all 4 corners, and a single tie-down at the middle of the tarp. With all of these tie-downs, you have the option of easily setting up a number of common shelter configurations.
Your tarp should also pack up with guy lines and with stakes. I like to know that I can pull out one bag and have cordage, stakes, and a tarp. I want every piece of my tarp shelter in one sleeve.
The good news is, most quality ultralight tarps are set up this way.
Cordage – A Necessity for Tarp Shelters
Setting up any kind of camping tarp shelter is going to require cordage. While you can pack up some cordage in your tarp bag, you still have to decide what kinds of cordage you would like to use to set up your tarp shelter.
There are two common forms of cordage that people pack for setting up camp. Paracord is one type and probably the most common. Bankline is another type of cordage.
Paracord or 550 cord was literally created for use on parachutes. It is a hollow nylon cord with 5 smaller cords within. These smaller cords help add more strength.
#36 bankline is a tacky nylon cord that has a 320lb test. The tacky texture of bankline is great for tying tight knots.
SurvivorCord is a type of paracord that is designed for wilderness survival. This stuff is pretty cool! It has the same design as a typical paracord except there are things hidden inside along with the five cords. There is a length of jute cord, there is a length of snare wire and there is a length of fishing line. This cordage checks a bunch of boxes in your kit.
Whichever cordage you choose just make sure that it can meet your needs. Personally, I prefer paracord over bankline. It just seems to be easier to use and I like how the innards work for other tasks, too.
Tarp Tent Configuartions
A-Frame Tarp Shelter
The A-Frame tarp shelter is a simple design that can be used as a standalone shelter or as a part of a more fortified shelter. It can also be a great answer for a small camping party that is caught in some driving rain.
This shelter is very easy to put up. I like this as a beginner tarp tent configuration because it depends on a ridgeline. The ridgeline is just a line of cordage between two trees that you drape the center of the tarp over to make your peak in the A-Frame.
Tie a nice tight ridgeline between two trees that are 7 feet apart. This is the ideal spacing for the average man to lay under the protection of the tarp.
Laying the tarp over the ridgeline evenly is the beginning of the shelter. Stake the tarp down at the four corners. If you want to reinforce this you could even use that final loop between the two corner loops on either side.
The Lean-to depends on something called a ridge pole which is the same idea as a ridgeline. In the A-Frame your ridgeline is what holds the burden of your shelter. However, a lean-to is a more hearty shelter that requires a ridge pole or a large branch to be lashed to two trees.
These trees should be around 7 feet apart, as well. When you lash the ridgepole to the trees be sure that you lash at least three times on each side of the branch and the tree. This pole has to be tight and it should not budge once you have it lashed to the tree.
You do not want your shelter to collapse in the middle of the night.
Take four thinner branches and lean them against the ridge pole. This is where the shelter gets its name. From here you are going to tie your tarp to the ridge pole, using the thin branches as ribs or supports for your tarp. Then you are going to stake down the other side of your tarp to the ground.
This is a quick and easy shelter to set up. If you have a fire that is set just outside of the shelter then you can be kept very warm in a simple tarp lean-to.
With a name like that you might not be so interested in climbing into this common tarp shelter configuration.
If you have an emergency kit of some kind then you might already have access to something like an emergency tube tent. This kind of tent is one that you simply climb into to get out of the elements. You can create a much better version with your own tarp.
This process starts with a very low-hanging ridgeline. The ridgeline should be tied just a foot and a half off the ground. At this point, you are going to open up your tarp and fold it into thirds. Lay the first third underneath the ridgeline and then bring the second third up over the ridgeline and the final third draped over the other side.
If you have a very large tarp you might have lots of excess tarp. You can raise the ridgeline higher or you can just fold the final third under the first and have a couple of layers between you and the ground.
Finally, I take things like rocks, things from my pack, my shoes at night and line both sides of the tent to push them out and hold them down. I prefer the rocks on the inside over the outside. I also like the ability to haul some gear in there, like a woodsman ax, and use that to hold the shelter taught by using the weight of the ax laying on the ground but pressed against the widest part of the tarp shelter.
This is truly a middy napping shelter or an emergency shelter. With both ends opened up all night, it can be a nightmare with bugs and may not offer good protection from rain or weather.
The square arch shelter is the perfect shelter for the camper who enjoys a shelter with lots of headroom. That is because this build uses two ridgelines to create plenty of space. The two ridgelines create a flat roof with sloping sides.
The toughest part about the square arch is finding the right set up of trees to tie your ridgelines. These ridgelines are the basis of this shelter and you will basically center your tarp between the two. Create the flat roof and then slope down on either side.
While you can stake both sides of the tarp down I would recommend using split wood, logs, or rocks to weigh down the sloping sides on the outside.
The square arch is a quick and spacious shelter to put up in a survival situation. It’s one of the most comfortable living spaces that you can make with a tarp shelter.
The forest tent is one of my favorites. It is a quick-up configuration that is fun to pop up in the middle of the day when you are ready for a break and a meal. I find that the kids get a real kick out of the forest tent set up.
This tent is going to require a nice high anchor point (at least 6 feet) and you will tie cordage to the anchor point and run it diagonally through one corner loop of the tarp and out the other sides loop. Stake the cordage so the tarp is spread out on a pretty severe angle.
From here you can anchor the other corners to the ground around you or to trees that could be adjacent to your shelter. Either way, you are looking to create a nice tight shelter with an exaggerated slant that can block wind or rain.
The fly is a very important type of shelter for you to learn. By creating a flat tarp that is spread out and hung you can seek refuge beneath it or you can create an entire sitting area beneath it.
Another great use for the fly is if you arrive at a campsite during the rain. You can tie a fly up above your campsite and it will keep your tent dry as you set it up. You could leave that fly up all night to keep the majority of the rain off your tent, too.
The fly can be tied up by using the guylines on the 4 corners of your tarp. Each corner line should be tied to a separate tree or branch and they should be tied at the same height. If you are dealing with rain you might want to add a little decline in one side to direct the rain.
If you need strength in your fly then use guylines through all 8 of your loops on the outside of your tarp.
This combo is technically just an A-Frame setup with your hammock inside of it but it is important to mention how effective a shelter it can be. In the spring and summer I take a hammock with a built-in bug net, my tarp, and cordage, shove them down in my pack and I have my entire sleep system on my back with room to spare.
If you have never slept in the hammock/tarp setup it can change your entire outlook on camping in general. If you are used to assembling poles and sleeping on the ground, this combo can freshen up the whole experience.
Build a Variety of Tarp Shelters
The camping industry makes some impressive tents. 4 person, 6 person 12 person outdoor mansions, and many campers assume they can only brave the wild with a completely enclosed tent.
With the right tarp, simple cordage, and a little knowledge you can build a variety of shelters. These might be for spending the night, blocking the rain, or just getting out of the sun for a little while. My family has sat under tarps on the tops of mountains and on the sidelines of summer football games.
Though I do not use trekking poles there is a collection of tarp shelters that you can create with them. These hiking pole tents can turn your tarp into a maximum protection shelter. Invest in a quality tarp for your kit.