Backpacking Tarps and Their Importance

Backpacking gear these days can certainly be very innovative and modern when compared to much of the gear from years past.

Despite years of innovation and improvements with backpacking gear, the backpacking tarp remains as not only one of the most beloved and essential gear items but also the most primitive in a sense.

While a backpacking tarp is indeed simple, it comes with endless possibilities and uses.

Seasoned pros and beginners alike can appreciate the many uses a tarp has, regardless of the season.

Are you out of the loop with backpacking tarps, or wonder why you might even need one in the first place? We’ve got answers.

What Is A Backpacking Tarp?

a tent with a vestibule

At its core, a backpacking tarp is a more streamlined and durable version of your standard camping tarp. These tarps are available in a variety of materials, with polyester and nylon being among the most popular.

Backpacking tarps usually have a square or rectangular shape, with grommets throughout for poles, stakes, rope, or whatever else you can use to hold them down and set them up. They can be used for shelter, extra padding, as a rainfly, and lots of other things (more on that later.)

So, to sum it up, a backpacking tarp is basically a giant, flat piece of tent-like material that you can fashion into whatever you’d like. This is a great thing to have on a backpacking trip.

Backpacking Tarp Vs. Tent

There are plenty that feels that they have to make a choice between bringing either a tent or tarp along on a backpacking trip.

While that may be true if you are going the ultralight backpacking route, it’s not necessarily true on a standard trip.

We aren’t going to debate all the ins and outs of why a tent or tarp may be better, but we will touch on some distinct advantages that a tarp can offer over a tent.


Since tarps are very simple in their design, they are almost always cheaper than a quality backpacking tent. If you’re on a budget, but still want to have quality gear on your trips, a tarp is a way to go.

You can usually get a very well-made tarp for the price of a mediocre tent.


If your backpack is capacity-challenged, or if you are wanting to lighten the load, a backpacking tarp will help you on all accounts.

They rarely weigh over 3 lbs, and they don’t require poles, so you’re saving space and weight all around.


Tents don’t offer much in the way of versatility. You pitch them on (hopefully) flat ground, and that’s about it.

Backpacking tarps can be used as a tent, with a tent, or any number of other applications. In fact, it’s because of this that we recommend bringing a tarp along on your trip even if you have a tent.

Yes, you add a few pounds to your load, but the potential uses far outweigh (literally) the very small inconvenience.

Ultralight Backpacking Tarp

Ultralight backpacking tarps are a lighter and sometimes smaller version of a standard backpacking tent. They are made from much thinner and less dense material but are often just as durable.

If you’re a pro at using tarps, and the climate of your next trip is mild, an ultralight tarp can substantially trim your load down.

a makeshift sleeping bag cover made from a tarp

Backpacking Tarp Uses

Like we already said, backpacking tarps are one of the most versatile pieces of gear you can ever bring on your trip.

Here are some of the more common uses you can utilize, but there are plenty more.

Makeshift Shelter – Using a tarp as a shelter can be as simple as suspending it flat overhead, or twisting it a few different ways to make a tent. It’s all up to you. As long as you figure out a way to cover you in some sort of way, you’ve made a shelter. Whatever works!

Tent Cover – Sometimes inclement weather can present some challenges for your tent. High winds, rain, and snow can take their toll on your tent, and rob you of your heat. Pitching a tarp over your tent gives you an extra layer of protection and insulation.

Gear Cover – Setting up camp often involves making a pile for your gear somewhere nearby. Rain and sunlight can have various effects on what you’re carrying, but a quick tarp setup will give your gear a helpful covering.

Cooking Shelter – Having the ability to create a cooking shelter overhead while using open heat and flames can be more than a convenience during inclement weather. The tarp can be suspended on nearby trees, or using branches or trekking poles,

Wind Blocker – Strong winds can be dangerous in cold weather, and annoying in mild weather. Setting up a backpacking tarp sideways and spread out near your encampment can help block wind gusts and/or create a warmer temperature.

Breaktime Shelter – Breaks are taken frequently during hikes on a backpacking trip to rest and restore energy, and that includes breaks such as lunchtime. A backpacking tarp gives you the ability to create a very quick shelter that you and your party can seek refuge in, avoiding elements such as rain or blazing sunshine.

Pet Shelter – Bringing your dog along for the trip? You probably won’t be bringing an extra tent with you, or even a miniature version for your dog. A backpacking tarp can easily be set up to give your furry pal their very own shelter.

Bathroom – Hey, we all gotta go at some point. While trees, cliffs, and shrubs can often provide you and your party a little privacy, you aren’t always guaranteed that luxury. Setting up a tarp on the trail or at your encampment can give you a quick and reliable way to get some privacy.

Woodpile Cover – If you’re foraging for firewood each night for your camp, you know the importance of keeping your wood as dry as possible. Even a light mist can have hindered your wood’s ability to catch fire easier. Throw a tarp over your woodpile to keep it dry.

What Is The Best Backpacking Tarp Available?

a tarp strung up between two poles to create a shelter

There is certainly no shortage of choices when it comes to backpacking tarps, and many have their own preferences and needs.

If you’re looking for a great general use tarp that is perfect for backpacking, we recommend Noah’s Tarp Shelter made by Kelty.

This tarp weighs under 3 lbs, is made from sturdy polyester, and has taped edges to prevent water runoff, which is a big help on the trail.

The tarps adjustable guylines and reinforced guy out points make it easy to use, and versatile enough to bring along for anything from a backpacking trip to an outdoor concert. It’s also very fairly priced.

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