To tarp or not to tarp.....

A confession, I’m about to post a review of a tarp. Now I know that the use of tarps in UK climates has its critics. In fact I’ve seen the subject discussed from both points of view quite passionately, so I guess I should state my opinion up front. Saying that tarps are not suitable for the UK is like saying convertibles have no place on British roads. Yes we have a wet and often cold climate, and yes on most days of the year driving with the top down wouldn’t be much fun but then there are those days when driving with the wind in your hair and the sun on your face is a shear joy. Some of the finest roadsters of all time were, after all, produced in Britain!

Although I wouldn’t advocate their use under all circumstances tarps have their place. When conditions are right they are a joy (and I mean a JOY) to use. I have so few days on the hill that I try to squeeze as much out of each trip as possible. Bivvying and tarping helps me do that. It’s stated with monotonous repetition by pro-tarpers I know, but I get such a heightened sense of being outside (“immersion in the environment” I believe its called) when bivvying and tarping that they’re my first preference. I would now only resort to a tent when I’m forced to; when temperatures are going to be too low, when I’m using official campsites, when I’m going to be so far from civilization that easy bail outs are not readily available or when I’m with my wife and a greater level of luxury is required (she’s come a long way but I still have to pay for every night under canvas with a night in a four star hotel!).

“What about the wet and the insects?” I hear people shout. Well, in all honesty, I’ve been dealt some really nastily wet nights and managed to stay dry as a bone under a tarp. That said, I confess I still mostly use one in combination with a bivvy bag. As for midges and mosquito’s, I’ve seriousy never had an issue with them. I put that down to pitching high enough, but perhaps I’ve just been lucky. Ronald Turnbull wrote about being attacked by midges on the summit of Breariach. Admittedly, on such nights there could surely be no UK pitch safe from the misery of the midge, but I’m yet to experience such a night.

“Surely they’re not stable enough in a wind” I hear people retort. I would say it has a lot to do with the pitch. A good tarp well sighted will take a lot of punishment. Likewise a bad tent pitched badly on an exposed site will give the occupants a rough night. Tarps need to be pitched with care and taking prevailing weather into consideration. The same could be said about tents however. Tarps and tents are after all branches of the same technology, they’re both cloth, sticks and string. One major advantage of tarps in my opinion is that they have little by way of a footprint. As long as there’s room for the occupant to lie down and tarp can usually be configured to provide cover. This allows for optimum use of whatever shelter the lie of the land offers.

“What about comfort I hear people ask”. Well that’s where tents win hands down. A dry groundsheet to sit on, an inner tent to deal with condensation and catch drips, an awning to keep wet gear under and cook under etc. Correct, tarps don’t have those things but comfort is relative. It’s all about the expectations of the user. Comfort is no reason to condemn tarp use. Each draws his or her own line. Mine can be measured in the number of nights out. More than three or four nights and I would be inclined to use a tent. Less than that and I can take the hand I’m dealt with a smile and a philosophical nod of the head.

Finally, I might be wrong about this, but I expect the most vociferous opponents of tarps are those who haven’t used them. To those people I would say try it. You never know you might just like it.


  1. I intend to very soon...the map has been studied and I'm just waiting for a weather window now.

  2. Your points of:

    "I would now only resort to a tent when I’m forced to; when temperatures are going to be too low, when I’m using official campsites, when I’m going to be so far from civilization that easy bail outs are not readily available"

    "More than three or four nights and I would be inclined to use a tent"

    Those describe a week in Scotland or TGO Challenge to me. Yes I am one of those who has said why I don't use tarps. Personal choice. I don't see they save massive amounts of weight vs a light tent. Once you add the bivy bag etc it is not far from a Laser Competition weight. But for a few nights in a good weather window I am sure they offer a different experience.

    Still reckon a good pitched tent will stand up better in a storm than a tarp. That and the fact in bad weather I can sit up in a tent and make a drink unlike having to pitch a tarp low to be able to withstand the wind. Tents have doors which open up allowing you to be in contact with the views and surroundings as well.Either way have fun tarping :)

  3. Bigbananfeet: Enjoy!

    Martin: I agree. I'm not anti tent and there are a lot of reasons to choose one over a tarp under many circumstances. For the TGO or suchlike I think I would want a tent. It's the same choice I have made for several back country trips in North America. You're also right (more or less) about the weight issue. A conventional tarp and bivvy can take you well over a kilo. It's possible however to find a set-up much lighter than that. With my MLD Grace Duo and alpine bivvy I achieve an all-up weight with string, pegs and poles of around 900g. With Micro tarp and bivvy I pack around 600g (MLD Monk tarp and MLD Alpine bivvy). The latter is a significant weight saving w.r.t. any tent but again theres a significant trade-off in terms of comfort. The lightest route would be Bivvy alone but I rarely go there prefering some additional shelter. The weight of full tarp and bivvy is around the weight of the lightest one man tents. That just means that weight doesn't form part of the equation for me, I'm free to choose on some other grounds. That I choose to tarp is purely and simply based on the fact that it's fun and that I do get a clearer sense of being outside.

  4. Well put Dave. I was out on Chinthurst Hill with my tarp trying out different configurations yesterday afternoon to refresh my skills.

    One point though, I think using the argument of weight and using the laser comp as the benchmark is always a bit of a red herring. Why? Well ask the person puting forward that point what tent they use and it's weight... And that's their argument blown in most cases.

  5. Here's my shelter calculus:

    I view a tarp as a good companion in wooded, relatively un-rocky terrain, particularly in warm or hot humid weather. You can pitch it with poles, but trees are so much easier. You can easily overcome all of the bug and footprint issues with the MLD bug bivy. All in, the bug bivy, grace duo tarp (cuben fiber), pegs, and guy lines weigh in at a 16.1 oz, which beats all tents hands down in weight. Makes a difference to me on high mileage walks where I need a lot of food and pack space is at a premium.

    On tougher terrain and colder temps (4 season), I prefer a full-up tent and have my eye on the Tarptent Scarp 1 which I hope to use on the TGO next year if I can get in. My current palace is a BD Firstlight made from Epic, but it doesn't have a vestibule, which will be key in Scottish weather.

    However, for very steep wooded walking, like we have in New England (USA), I prefer a hammock in temps above 50F+ because it is easy to find a stealth (wild) site below treeline, even if its on a steep slope. there are a lot of camping restrictions up in the White Mountains, but they overlook the use of a shelter strung between trees on a mountain, 200 feet from a trail, making it easy to find legal, pristine camping spots.

  6. Philip, missed this comment, sorry. Yes, bug bivvy is an option that potentialy extends the usefulness of a tarp. If I'm right the total weight of your shelter, without poles is around 450g, thats impressive, even when put up against the TN laser comp which, as Baz said, is the tent usualy sited in any tent/tarp discussion. Adding the bug net to my spintex set-up would take me up to about 730g without Bivvy bag and around a kilo with bivvy bag. In my case there is indeed little to no weight saving w.r.t. the laser comp (850-950g min max weight). As Baz also intimated though, some would argue about the suitabilty of the Laser for UK conditions. Put my set-up next to an Akto and the numbers look better.

    That said though, I'm unlikely to invest in the bug bivvy. I choose to use a tarp as extra security when bivvying high and my trips are generaly short (3-4 nights max) so I have less of an issue with bugs. For something like the TGO, where bad weather days and low camps are almost inevitable I would air on the side of an enclosed shelter. Right now my only servicable two skin tent is a 2 man Exped Orion and thats a monster at 3.3-3.8kg depending on what you leave behind. I use it only when car camping or canoe camping where weight is less of an issue. If I ever feel the need to purchase another backpacking shelter (and, judging by past performance, the urge could come over me at any moment) I would look seriously at the MLD mids. The trick will be to get my wife to pay for one!

  7. That's easy -- buy her a rolex! (xx major birthday.) I expect to elicit guilt from her for years to come. Cheers.



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