DIY Tarp Camping

I’ve spent a lot of time camping over the years, starting out tenting it with my parents as kids, with my friends when we were younger, then 8 years starting when I was 17 (Yeah, had to get parents’ permission to join LOL) 4 active Army, 4 National Guard) in mostly canvas, with 6 to 9 month of the year in the field.  I did a little hammock setup with a cover about a half dozen times back in 93 to 95 or so, but me and hammocks just don’t get along, I’m a belly sleeper, never could sleep a whole night in one.

Basic Configuration.  4 poles 6 stakes  (Can add two more guys to the front poles if really windy).

Basic Configuration. 4 poles 6 stakes (Can add two more guys to the front poles if really windy).

My first tarp camping experience was a week in Italy at Camp Darby.  I didn’t want to spend 7 bucks a day renting a tent when I could rent a tarp for $1 a day.  So my buddy and I grabbed this huge 12 x 18 tarp and made a makeshift tent out of it.  We got lucky it never rained or stormed as the setup was really flimsy, but it worked perfectly.  See the pic.  The front and back were both open to allow the air through.  But the makeshift poles (Stick with a shirt on top so it wouldn’t poke a hole in the tarp) kept falling down.

My first ever Tarp setup.  Circa 1991 or so.  Not pretty but the money I saved on a tent bought me lots of beer.

My first ever Tarp setup. Circa 1991 or so. Not pretty but the money I saved on a tent bought me lots of beer.

After getting out of the Army I had mostly tent camped (Heck even had my first son out camping when he was only 4 months old LOL).  I have tossed out on the ground many times over the years next to a fire and watched the stars, then crawled into a tent if it rained, but about 6 years ago I decide to do some tarp camping and try to come up with something that worked better for me.    I wanted to be able to enjoy the night without a cover, but have it available if I needed to get under cover for the weather but keep it as simple as possible.

The first couple tarp setups I used I didn’t care for.  Just too claustrophobic and were too much like tents, took too much effort to get back into and out of it if it rained.

For hot weather to increase air flow front to back, I add a small post to the rear.

For hot weather to increase air flow front to back, I add a small post to the rear.

So I settled on the classic lean-to style.  Then it was just a roll in, roll out.  Best of both worlds.  Over the years I tweaked the lean-to.  I salvaged 4 aluminum poles form an old tent set that are just about the right high. (I’d like them about 6 inches taller but they work well).   If I need to save weight, I can just cut sticks in the field.

I used 2 trekking poles for this configuration.  This is my typical lightweight version.

I used 2 trekking poles for this configuration. This is my typical lightweight version.

I use a 4 pole lean too, to give myself a little more “Working” room.  The long slope in the back is perfect for storing gear and this 10 x 10 tarp gives plenty of room.   My 8 year old has been sleeping under this thing with me since he was 2 also, he’ll cry and get upset if you try to make him sleep in a tent most of the time.  (He does have his own tent, but only used it twice.)

Left side down to give better wind rain protection.

Left side down to give better wind rain protection.

Both sides down to give a more cave/tent like protection. (Note, you could hang another tarp off the two front poles and seal the whole thing up pretty well.)

Both sides down to give a more cave/tent like protection. (Note, you could hang another tarp off the two front poles and seal the whole thing up pretty well.)

One of the tweaks I like about this tarp setup is, if the weather does get really heavy or the wind switches directions, it can push rain right in under the tarp.  (This has happened 4 or 5 times in the last 6 years).  If it’s heavy enough, I can just pull the 2 side poles from one end and move one of them to the middle, then push the corner steak into the ground and presto, a full wall from one side.  I can also do the same on the other side and have a nearly enclosed lean-to.  I do have to admit I’m lazy and have only folded the side down once.  Mostly because I’ve worked out a ground cover “Burrito Roll” that works so well I don’t have to reconfigure the tarp, even in some spectacularly nasty weather.

On the ground cover, fold the corner of the base in.  This allows overlap of the upper cover to prevent funneling water into your gear.

On the ground cover, fold the corner of the base in. This allows overlap of the upper cover to prevent funneling water into your gear.

There are a couple of little tricks to this setup.  First.  You need to fold the inside corners of the ground cover tarp in (Up or under, doesn’t really matter).  What this does is prevent under-lap of the burrito role tarp.  If you pull the tarp over you during the rain, if there is under-lap, it will funnel water into the burrito.   I don’t normally stake the far corner down unless the wind is blowing in from the foot area.  If it is, then I just sit up and put a stake in the far corner.  (I’ve never had to do it, but if it blows hard enough directly at the foot, I have a couple extra grommets I can put extra stakes in to really seal the foot down.  By the time a cyclone force winds are pushing rain up that, it’s time to seek out a cave anyway LOL.

I accordion fold the leading edge, this keeps it dry and when the rain starts blowin, it is easy to pull over me.

I accordion fold the leading edge, this keeps it dry and when the rain starts blowin, it is easy to pull over me.

I also have a “Boat Bag” I picked up brand spankin new at Goodwill for $3.88 a couple years ago. (One of the best buys of my life).    It’s my favorite camping bag, even more so than my backpacks.  I mostly use it when car camping, but even for short hikes under full gear, I can sling it and carry it if I need to.  But this bag acts like a barrier at the head of the burrito roll.  Then I can throw the top of the burrito roll over the bag and tuck it under to create a perfect water tight seal from the top.  Thus leaving the entire side facing the back of the lean-to open to breath.  I’ve been through 1 particularly nasty windy storm (not including the one I dropped the side for) but it lasted no more than an hour) and I stayed perfectly dry.

Yes poly is a bit noisier than other materials.  (I still love canvas. My absolute favorite sound in the world is the rain on canvas) Polly is 100% water proof and can be used for things like a water basin to hold water, it can even be used to make

When I'm not at the camp site, I can cover all my gear and stake the burrito down.  I know it will all be dry when I return later.

When I’m not at the camp site, I can cover all my gear and stake the burrito down. I know it will all be dry when I return later.

a boat so it has some really great side functions.   For me, the poly works wonders.  Properly tensioned it can take quite a bit of abuse.  I’ve taken good care of my cover tarp and its lasted 6 years, through a roughly estimated 200 days of camping including 4 or 5 good storms.  It is wearing out though, I’ve lost 3 grommet holes and it’s faded to a color of nearly robin egg blue from the original dark blue, but it’s still going.   I am going to retire it and replace it for this year’s Scout Summer camp in 2 months.   Not bad for an $8 tarp.

I've lost 3 grommets in 6 years so I'll be retiring it soon.

I’ve lost 3 grommets in 6 years so I’ll be retiring it soon.

My two older boys have been tarp camping about as long as I have now, and they still like the simplicity of the single pole design, but my oldest boy just tosses out on the ground his military sleep system most of the time.  Gortex cover keeps him dry.

It's getting a little thin from use and UV damage.

It’s getting a little thin from use and UV damage.

If you want an inexpensive way to test the waters of tarp camping, you can’t go wrong with a poly tarp.  $8 per tarp, $3 for a set of stakes, and a $3 roll of cordage and you’re in.  Hope you enjoy your experimenting as much as I have.  But above all else, get out there and camp and have fun.

Here are a bunch of pics from other styles we’ve used and the styles my boys still use over the years.

The quick and easy single pole.  This works very well in heavy weather.  Both boys have slept through storms in this configuration

The quick and easy single pole. This works very well in heavy weather. Both boys have slept through storms in this configuration

My oldest boy and one of his setups.  This was great util it stormed,  the rain shifted and came straight under the opening.

My oldest boy and one of his setups. This was great util it stormed, the rain shifted and came straight under the opening.

This was at -19.  I hung a sweater over the top end to help seal it up.  Got a good night sleep.

This was at -19. I hung a sweater over the top end to help seal it up. Got a good night sleep.

Scout camp a couple years ago.  The tent was just to store gear and change clothes.  All the scouts slept under tarps.

Scout camp a couple years ago. The tent was just to store gear and change clothes. All the scouts slept under tarps.

Middle boy used this pole-less configuration.  Worked great.  The ground cloth was pulled under when he was done setting up.

Middle boy used this pole-less configuration. Worked great. The ground cloth was pulled under when he was done setting up.

This is why I like this configuration.  My youngest boy and I can watch the starts, and if it rains.  I just climb under the lean-too and pull the whole kit under, kid and all. LOL

This is why I like this configuration. My youngest boy and I can watch the stars, and if it rains. I just climb under the lean-to and pull the whole kit under, kid and all. LOL

You can see the burrito roll.  When I'm not at camp this keeps the gear dry.  (There was no rain so I didn't pin the ends down.  Middle boy did a tie off to a tree again.

You can see the burrito roll. When I’m not at camp this keeps the gear dry. (There was no rain so I didn’t pin the ends down. Middle boy did a tie off to a tree again.

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About Docwatmo

Just an average guy reviewing equipment for the average guy (or gal). View all posts by Docwatmo

3 responses to “DIY Tarp Camping

  • Jane Fox

    Wow, you make camping with a tarp look great! I’ve been trying out hammock camping, but like you said, it just doesn’t work so well for me. I’m investigating other things I can try, and this looks like it might be a great idea. I’ll probably take your advice and get a poly tarp and see how that goes. Thanks for the helpful tips!

    • Docwatmo

      It’s a cheap way to find out if you like it! Hope you have fun! I’m not a hammock guy either. I’ve tried it, (Years ago when I was much younger), but I’m a belly sleeper, always have been always will be and sleeping on your stomach in a hammock is a sure fire way to turn your spine inside out. LOL But most of all, I like to be under the stars, and if it rains, I just slide under it. Best of both worlds. In a hammock, if you tarp it, your stuck, can’t sleep under the stars unless you take the tarp down. ~Doc

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