A tent is like a doghouse: it should only be used for sleeping. If you try to weather out a storm, curled up inside the flimsy nylon shelter, you’ll go bonkers. Your body odour and dirty socks will stink up the place, your air mat will eventually spring a leak and your tent partner will soon grow tired of you.
A tarp is a far better place to be; with you cuddled underneath, a warm fire blazing and a cup of tea brewing. Under a tarp, you’re immersing yourself in the elements rather than trying to escape from them.
Of course, you need to know how to properly put a tarp up first.
There’s no specific trick to putting up a tarp. Some campsites have a better arrangement of trees than others, making it easier. The perfect scenario is a tree for each of the four corners of the tarp. More often, you’ll have to unpack an extra length of rope and extend one or two corners to a nearby exposed root or a bush.
The most common shape the tarp should be set up in is a “lean-to” style. This consists of two ends placed up high, preferably attached to a rope strung between two trees, and the other two placed low to the ground, towards the prevailing winds. Make sure it’s snug or the tarp will flap in the wind and irritate you to no end throughout the night. I attach small bungee cords on each corner grommet to help keep the ropes tight. A centre pole also helps keep the tarp taut. Rather than searching all over for a tree limb to place in the centre of the tarp, purchase a paddle strap—this is a device that allows two paddles to be attached together and used as such. Or better yet, throw a centreline over a high branch and “pull” the centre up from the top rather than prop it up from the bottom.
An alternative set-up is to simply tie a length of rope between two available trees as high as you possibly can, and then hang the tarp over this rope. It’s called a “ridge tarp.” The advantage of this technique is that you can either divide the tarp evenly over the rope or allow for extra on the windward side if needed. Then tie down the tarp all around with some old tent stakes.
On a big trip, it’s okay to throw good money at a tarp. Those inexpensive, big blue nylon-reinforced plastic tarps you get at the hardware store should never be packed on an interior trip. The material is extremely stiff and bulky and the cheap corner grommets have a tendency to snap in heavy winds.
I just got Dan Cooke’s Custom Sewing new ridge tarp. It’s amazing. It’s silicone coated rather than the common urethane coated nylon, making it extremely, strong, flexible and light.
The silicone coating does not wet out like urethane coated nylons. It also has loops (not grommets) every 20 to 24 inches around the edges and around along the internal seams. The seams are hand sewn with nylon thread, single needle lock-stitched with double stitched lapped seams.
I got the custom-made four coloured panels (red, blue, yellow and white). I got teased a bit from my campmates about the elaborate colour pattern, and the white quickly changed to a light beige from the campfire smoke. However, I guarantee a rescue helicopter won’t have an issue spotting my campsite.