How to set up a tarp

How to set up a tarp for camping. Under a tarp, with a warm fire going and a cup of tea brewing, things don’t seem so bad. Here’s what you need to know:

Credit: Carl Wiens

A good tarp is just as essential as a good tent. Why? During foul weather, the worst thing is to be crammed tight inside a small tent. It won’t take long before even the best of friends begin to irritate one another. But under a tarp, with a warm fire going and a cup of tea brewing, things don’t seem so bad. Here’s what you need to know:

  • A cheap tarp—like one of those big blue nylon-reinforced plastic jobs—will do okay in a pinch, but they’re stiff, bulky, and the corner grommets have a tendency to snap in heavy winds. If you have the money, upgrade to a lightweight, polyurethane-coated, ripstop polyester tarp, or an even lighter nylon model. Common size for a group is 10 feet by 12 feet.

  • It’s usually best to set the tarp up in the lean-to style. This consists of having two ends placed up high, and the other two placed low to the ground, toward the prevailing wind. Ideally, there’s a tree for each of the four corners. More than likely, however, you’ll have to unpack an extra length of rope and extend one or two corners to a nearby exposed root, rock or bush. Make sure it’s snug or the tarp will flop around in the wind and bug you to no end throughout the night. Use a slip knot to attach each rope to its anchor and use a trucker’s hitch knot along each rope to loosen and tighten as the wind increases and/or changes direction.

  • Now for the important point—make sure the centre of the tarp is higher than the rest. Most campers do this by placing a ridgepole underneath in the centre. A far better technique, however, is to throw a centre line up over a high branch and “pull” the centre up from the top (most good tarps have a loop or grommet there). The tarp will stay more taut and there’s no ridgepole in the way.

  • 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. 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.