I was introduced to tarp camping on my first survival course in 2001. It’s somewhat primitive, but compared to a tent, a tarp is lightweight, cheap, and keeps you more in contact with your surroundings because of its open nature.
A tarp does come with a few requirements: you need two elevated points to tie to (e.g. trees, sticks, hiking poles), some protection against wet ground (e.g. bivy bag = a waterproof and breathable shell for your sleeping bag), a campsite protected from strong winds, a mosquito net if there are bugs around and some tarp-pitching skills.
For camping in the woods, it has been my favourite type of shelter for many years. In exposed areas like the mountains, I prefer a tent for more protection.
Buying or making
You can buy a camping tarp ready to go, or make your own. The one I’ve used the most over the years is a ridiculously expensive (€190) tarp from the Dutch company Erdmann Schmidt (now out of business). It’s on the small side (2.5 x 2.5 m), weighs 750 g (including nylon cords) and is made from ripstop nylon. Its quality is excellent because after 15 years of use, it’s still going strong. (The only damage are a few small holes from camp fire sparks that I was able to repair with Seam Grip glue).
Nowadays you can find much cheaper tarps on the market like the 3 x 3 m tarp from DD Hammocks (about €50).
Or you can go even cheaper by making one yourself. Get a simple tarp at a hardware store (typical dimensions are 3 x 2 m) with metal rings along the edges. (Get a green or brown one if you don’t want to stand out in the woods). Also get some nylon cord: about 9 m cord of 5 mm thickness for the ridge line, about 16 m cord of 3 mm thickness for the four guy lines (4 m each), and about 0.4 m cord of 2 mm thickness for tying the tarp to the ridge line. Total costs for a selfmade tarp is about €25.
My basic setup
Since I camp a lot in the woods, often there are enough trees around to tie the tarp to. Below you see my basic setup and the knots I use.
I prefer knots that are strong, easy to remember and quick to release. There are many alternatives to the ones described above. For instance, sometimes I use the Siberian hitch instead of the Timber hitch, the Trucker’s hitch instead of the Backhanded hitch, and the McCarthy hitch in stead of the Taut-line hitch.
Normally I pitch my tarp at about breast-height and in bad weather somewhat lower. For anchoring the guy lines, I use sticks, rocks, logs, plants or other things lying around. (Only when camping around little vegetation, like in the mountains, I bring tent pegs).
With wind and fire
If there’s clearly wind coming from one side, I pitch the windward side of the tarp to the ground. And when next to a campfire, I pitch the fire side up by tying the guy lines to trees, or over a long stick, back to the ground.
If there are stinging bugs around, I put up a mosquito net. (If the bugs are really small – like midges – make sure the holes in the net are small enough).
Alternatively you can sleep wearing a head net or some bivy bags have an integrated mosquito net, but these options are less comfortable.
With a hammock
When sleeping in a hammock, I use the same basic tarp setup, just pitched a bit higher.
You can even have a campfire under your tarp as long as the distance between the tarp and the flames is big enough.
If there are no trees around, like in the mountains, you have to improvise with sticks or hiking poles. But be careful: this only works when there is not to much wind!
To get more wind protection you can pitch 3 sides to the ground (with the opening away from the wind).
You may feel unprotected when camping under a tarp for the first time, but give it a try. You’ll notice your surroundings much more than with a tent.