As an experienced backpacker, I’ve felt the weight of an overstuffed pack too many times to count. You inevitably start to question the necessity of each item, particularly if you’re trekking through the hot, dry weather.

Do you really need all that rain gear and your tent? However, let me tell you from my own chilly encounters with unexpected snowfall: weather protection is crucial. But, there’s a lightweight solution, ideal for those milder or arid climates. Meet your new best friend – the camping tarp.

Choosing the Ideal Lightweight Shelter: The Tarp

A camping tarp, a simple square or rectangular sheet of coated nylon, is your no-frills answer to weather protection. It is the featherweight champion of the backpacking world, perfect for sleep protection while keeping your pack light.

When to Employ a Tarp and When to Leave it at Home

But how do you determine if a tarp is right for your adventure? Backpackers predominantly use tarps, as that biking or paddling can generally handle carrying a full-sized tent. Yet, not all backpacking trips are suitable for tarp usage.

Do bring a tarp when you’re anticipating hot, dry weather. Chances are, you won’t need it. If you do, it offers rain protection whilst maintaining optimal airflow – a blessing in hotter climates.

Don’t rely on a tarp if heavy rain or snow is forecasted. A tarp can’t compete with a tent’s comprehensive rain protection, and snow will find its way in easily.

Don’t opt for a tarp when camping in windy, exposed locations, or on surfaces where securing a stake poses a challenge.

Do utilize a tarp when you’re planning on using established shelters, and only need a backup for emergencies or overcrowded shelters.

Don’t bring a tarp during mosquito season. Whilst black flies retire at night, mosquitoes do not. Unless you’re also carrying and willing to install a net, it might be best to stick with a lightweight tent for insect protection.

Tips for Selecting and Setting Up Your Tarp

Once you’ve decided a tarp is right for your trip, here are some insider tips to help you choose and set up your tarp effectively:

  • A 64-square-foot tarp can fit two people, but it’s a squeeze. For more comfortable accommodation, a 72-square-foot tarp is advisable.
  • Paracord is essential for securing guylines to all the tarp grommets, with a stake needed for each grommet.
  • You’ll require two poles to support the tarp, much like a classic A-frame tent. Walking sticks can double as tent poles.
  • A long line of cord is needed to pull out and stake the tarp where the walking sticks to prop it up.
  • If necessary, you can set up the tarp asymmetrically. The tarp should face the wind to prevent it from blowing through. Lower the fabric on the windward side to create a nylon “wall” and leave the leeward side more open.
  • Ensure your guylines are taut and stakes securely in the ground.
  • A ground cloth is beneficial to keep your gear clean and dry.


Though not suitable for all backpacking scenarios, tarps shine in milder climates where substantial weather protection isn’t expected. They’re light, simple to set up, and can save your trip when the weather takes an unexpected turn. Just remember my experience waking up to a surprise snowfall – you can’t predict the weather, but you can be prepared for it.