Why use tarp shelters? The biggest reason ultralight backpackers
use them is to reduce pack weight. The lightest tent you can
find will be close to three pounds. Some of the newest
ultralight tarps weigh just seven ounces.

Weight isn’t the only advantage of tarp shelters, though. They
also give you room to move, and you can easily look around. You
can quickly take them down when you’re ready to go. If it’s wet,
just shake it off and it will fit in an outside pocket of your
backpack. Even if they were the same weight, I’d still prefer a
tarp over a tent for most trips.

The lightest of my own tarp shelters weighs 16 ounces with all
the strings. That seems heavy now, when I look at the new
ultralight tarps out there. Integral Designs Sil Tarp 5′ x 8′,
for example, weighs just 7 ounces.

The Bozeman Mountain Works Stealth 0 Catenary Ridgeline
Ulralight Backpacking Tarp weighs an amazing 5.7 ounces. With a
name like that, you know it has to be expensive. Of course,
almost any backpacking tarp will be lighter – and cheaper – than
the lightest tents out there.

How To Use Tarp Shelters

You’ll probably need a bigger tarp than you think. A seven-foot
roof may seem like it will cover your six-foot body well enough,
until a blowing rain soaks your feet. Proper use is even more
important than size, though.

Pitch the low side into the wind. Keep all sides low if a storm
is coming. Evenly tighten guy lines. Use rocks, trees, trekking
poles and whatever else helps. Pitch the tarp tightly, to keep
it from flapping in the wind too much, which can loosen the
strings or cause the tarp to tear.

If you haven’t used tarp shelters before, experiment until you
can quickly set up in several different enviroments. Bring
lightweight stakes, until you learn how to use sticks and trees
and rocks. No stakes means less weight to carry. I’ve always
found something to use, even up high on the tundra.

You might have to treat the seams with a sealant occasionally,
or at least when you first buy your tarp. Buy seam-sealer
anyplace that sells tarps and tents. You’ll need string or cord
of some sort for tie-downs. I put varying lengths around the
tarp, so I can untie and use the long ones where I need them.
Sometimes that tree will be a little too far away.

I use 4′ by 7′ pieces of plastic for groundsheets. They’re
opened-up giant garbage bags that weigh 2 ounces. They’re
disposable, but I’ve used one for a week in the Rockies, and
they’re cheap and easy to replace. Whatever you use, lay your
bag on it, to be sure you’ll have room. You don’t want to be
touching the wet ground just because you moved a little. On the
other hand, if it’s too big it will catch rain out near the edge
of the tarp, and funnel it back to you.

Mosquitos keep a lot of ultralight backpackers from using tarp
shelters. Repellant is a partial solution, as is using the tarp
only when it isn’t too buggy. A headnet helps, but keeping the
rest of your body covered when it’s warm isn’t pleasant. Pitch
camp in a high, breezy place and you’ll have fewer bug problems.

There are also mesh shelters you can pitch under your tarp. The
lightest I’ve seen weighs 1 pound, 7 ounces. With a 7-ounce
tarp, you’d be under 2 pounds for a shelter, and it comes with a
floor, so you don’t have to bring a groundsheet. Ultralight
tarps and tarp shelters, by the way, weigh less than 20 ounces,
a standard I just invented, but it seems reasonable.

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