If you’ve ever hiked any distance with a pack on your back, sooner or later, you’ve wondered whether you need all that backpacking equipment that has been weighing you down. And if the weather has been hot and dry, one of the first things you might consider cutting is your rain gear and your tent.

But experienced outdoors people know that weather protection is almost always necessary, even if the chance of rain is low. Some of us have learned this lesson through cold and damp experiences.

In my case, it was a snowfall that woke me up when I was sleeping without a tent on Memorial Day in New Mexico.

But while some kind of weather protection is necessary, if you are hiking in a reliably mild or arid climate, you can consider taking the lightest possible items.

And for sleeping protection, the lightest possible item is a tarp, a simple square or rectangular sheet of coated nylon that can be used to provide protection against the elements.

When to Use a Tarp; When Not to Use a Tarp

Tarps are usually used by backpackers. (Anyone else, such as bikers or paddlers, can usually afford the weight of a full-fledged tent.) But not every backpacking trip is a candidate for using a tarp.

  • Do use a tarp when you expect hot dry weather. You probably won’t need it, and if you do, it will protect you from the rain while still allowing good airflow, which is much more comfortable in hot weather.
  • Don’t use a tarp when you expect lots of rain and snow. it doesn’t offer as much rain protection as a tent, and snow can easily drift inside.
  • Don’t use a tarp when you expect to camp in exposed areas of high winds or when you expect to have to camp on surfaces where it is hard to drive in a secure stake.
  • Do use a tarp when you expect to be mostly staying in shelters and only need an emergency shelter for nights when shelters are full in bad weather.
  • Don’t use a tarp in mosquito season. Black flies are not so much a problem, as they aren’t active at night, but tarps offer scant protection against mosquitoes unless you also carry (and affix) a net – in which case you may as well carry a lightweight tent.

Tips for Choosing and Pitching Tarps

  • Two people can squeeze into a 64-square foot tarp, but it’s a tight fit. The 72-square feet size is more comfortable for two.
  • You need enough parachute cord to tie guylines to all the grommets and a stake for each grommet.
  • You need two poles to hold up the tarp. (Basically, you are making a triangular tent, like a typical old-fashioned A-frame tent). You can use walking sticks as tent poles.
  • You need a long line of cord to pull out and stake the tarp where the walking sticks hold it up.
  • You can pitch the tent asymmetrically if necessary. The tarp should be side to the wind so that the wind doesn’t whip through it. You can bring down the fabric lower on the side that faces the wind to create a nylon “wall” and leave the lee side more open.
  • Be sure your guylines are pulled tight, and your stakes are securely in the ground.
  • Using a ground cloth keeps your gear clean and dry.

Tarps are not good choices for all backpacking situations, but they work well in mild climates where you don’t expect to need a lot of weather protection. And they might just help save your trip when unexpected weather rolls in.