Tarps Under Tents – Do you need to use one?

Is a tarp under tent necessary? If you’ve seen someone putting a tarp under a tent you’ve probably wondered if it was something they needed to do.

A tent at a desert campsite

After all, the bottom of a tent should be designed well enough to withstand some ground and moisture, right?

Well, not necessarily. Most of the time, tents come with a similar tool called a footprint that’s entire purpose is to protect the bottom of the tent. As a result, if your tent did not come with a footprint, that’s where a tarp starts to make a lot of sense

Why use a ground cover at all?

If you’re newer to camping, you may not know the purpose of a tarp or footprint at all. They both serve to protect the tent from punctures and rips while keeping the moisture out. These are all critical for taking care of your equipment, but also having a good time in your tent.

While ground covers may not always be necessary, they’re a preparation thing in most cases. When camping, so much of a trip is decided by how well you prepared for the elements. Otherwise, things may get a little dicey! Planning for your camping trip is very important.

Use the right size tarp for the job

For something that seems trivial and simple, there are multiple reasons you’ll want to use the right size tarp. For starters, if the tarp extends past the edge of the tent, it will collect dew and water beneath you! This completely defeats the purpose of your ground layer and is a recipe for a soggy tent floor.

If your tarp is a little large for your tent, you can fold it underneath to deal with the excess. You’ll want to fold the excess tarpaulin facing downwards, not upwards. Otherwise, the folding will be for nothing and have the potential to still collect water!

You don’t need to stress about it and look for the perfect size or spend a ton of money on a footprint.

Tent on a ridge underneath a tree

Environmental factors to consider

Depending on where you’re camping, you may not need a tarp or a footprint underneath your tent. My general rule of thumb is that if I’m in the woods or a field, the tarp is going to be used. However, if I’m at a beach, I put the tarp inside the tent.

For sandy environments, if you were to put a tarp underneath the tent you would be collecting rain instead of letting it drain through the sand. By putting it inside the tent, you have a sand catcher instead that won’t keep moisture under the tent.

It’s also worth considering where the high ground is when you’re picking a campsite. By camping on the high ground, you’ll also avoid situations where you’ll be dealing with too much water and flooding.

Does the type of tarp make a difference?

When it comes to tarps or ground cloths as some people call them, not particularly in my experience. However, there are different materials to consider as they do differ a bit and can get expensive. There’s never a shortage of ways to spend money when it comes to hobbies!

Let’s get into the most common options:

Fitted footprints – these are available from places like REI, or the manufacturer of the tent itself. While I always have a tarp handy on my camping trips as a fallback, this would be my go-to choice, and here’s why: they fit the tent superbly and work simply. You don’t have to worry about folding or cutting the material to get the right fit, and that’s worth a lot to me personally. However, you may have to pay more for this option than the others, so that’s the obvious caveat.

Regular tarps – often seen at campsites and used for varying purposes outside them, the tarp is a classic for a reason. It’s cheap and versatile, but often a little bit much in terms of size for a camping trip. If you’re not looking to spend much money and still get something with some durability I would definitely recommend checking them out.

Drop cloths – a clear plastic sheet most commonly used by painters, this is probably your cheapest option. However, the durability factor is questionable so I would only recommend these if you’re going camping once a year. Otherwise, I think the other options are better choices.

There are a few more options, but for a beginner, I think anything more starts to become information overload. If you’re planning on being a regular camper, you won’t go wrong with a fitted footprint from a place like REI or the tent’s manufacturer.

However, if you plan on camping really infrequently, I would go with a regular tarp. You’ll save some cash and still get a ground cover that will last a long time. Drop cloths are also an option, but not my choice for a variety of reasons. Still, they have their times when they are solid – especially for backpackers looking to save on weight.

Tent with a man standing outside

Conclusion on putting tarps under tents

By now you’ve learned why putting tarps under tents is a good idea more often than not. It will protect your tent as well and make your tent camping more comfortable. There are several types to choose from, and only you can make that call on which one is right.

Don’t neglect to consider where you’re camping too, though. A ground cover may not even be necessary! Also considering the right spot to put your tent makes a world of difference. The high ground can prevent flooding situations that make camping difficult to enjoy.

It’s surprising how much knowledge can go into a simple thing like using a ground cover for your tent. That being said, once you have one and you know what to do with it, it’s totally second nature. You probably won’t even think about most of these things after you use one a couple of times!

I’m very curious if you guys have ever used any unconventional materials for tent tarps, so let me know in the comments.



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