The Tarp and Your Tent – How to Keep Dry When Camping

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Tarp Tent
Tarps are an inexpensive way to make camping in the British climate that bit easier.  In fact, you should take at least one tarp when you go camping.

On a recent camping trip we had a lot of rain.  A lot of rain.  Fortunately we had erected a large tarp shelter, and with a few wind breaks, we had somewhere dry to cook and sit by the fire.   Other campers could only stay in their zipped up tents.

We also take a large tarp to place on the ground, especially when it has been wet and bad weather is forecast.  A belt and braces approach, but it does stop the bottom of the tent sitting directly on wet ground.

Update: you can find this picture in the April 12 issue of the Outdoor Adventure Guide. :)

Practical uses of tarp when camping

A tarp shelter for eating and cooking under
So why do you need a tarp?

  • If the ground is wet and muddy, you can pitch your tent on top of a tarp as an extra ground sheet (just make sure all the tarp is tucked under the tent).  When you come to take your tent down, the bottom of your tent should be nice and dry.
  • Somewhere to cook, eat, and shelter under the rain.  Remember you should cooking outside, not in your tent.  A tarp lets you eat even when wet!
  • An impromptu shelter when pitching in the rain, enabling you to get your gear into your tent but stay nice and dry.
  • Enjoy a campfire when it’s wet.  Use tarps and windbreaks to trap more of the heat.
  • Create a play tent for your kids.

Building a Simple Shelter

There are a few different ways to set-up a tarp.  Wind direction, location of trees or other supports, and what it will be used for, all influence the choice of shape.

You can build a basic shelter using two straight tent poles, rope, pegs, and of course a tarp.

  • With some little helpers holding the poles, you need to run a line between the two poles.  Excess line is taken and pegged into the ground to help hold the poles in place.
  • Run another line from each pole and peg into the ground.  You should now have what might look like a washing line.  The poles are freely supported by two lines plus the line connecting the two poles.
  • Pull the tarp over the line.
  • Run lines from the corners of the tarp and peg into the ground.

You can move the tarp to change the apex of the shelter.  For example, you may want more tarp on the back of the shelter and less at the front.  The front can be positioned near the fire, letting smoke out (and reducing the risk of accidents), yet leaving enough tarp for comfortable shelter.

An apex helps with rain run-off.

Even if not raining, this setup is good at trapping some of the heat from the fire.

Guide to putting up a simple tarp shelter

You may want to place windbreaks around some of the shelter for added protection, and if you don’t have chairs, put a tarp on the ground.

Think also of what will happen if it does rain heavy.  You want to avoid areas in the tarp where the rain builds up.  Keep the tarp tight to avoid bulges.

This is a quick shelter with long poles towards the centre, and shorter ones at one end so that you can walk under it. The other side of the tarp is secured nearer the ground.

I also use bungee cords in the line from the tarp.

The bungee cords act as shock absorbers for gusts of wind and reduce the risk of tarps tearing, and yet keeps the tarp tight.

Of course if it’s blowing a strong gale, you’ll need to get the tarp down, but depending on wind conditions you may be able to leave your frame in place, making it quick and easy to get the tarp back up when the wind eases.

A quick way to secure a tarp shelter with a bungee, which keeps the tension on but provides some give in the wind.

Tarps as Groundsheets

It is important that you don’t pack your tent away wet.  If you do, you must dry it out once you get home.  That’s easier said than done – if not for the lack of drying space, it’s also the time it takes when you have a busy household.

However, if you can let your tent dry out in the air before taking it down, you’ll be saved from that problem….except for under the tent where the air can’t dry it out.  This is where using a tarp or other groundsheet can save you a headache, as only that will need drying when you get home.

You can buy some really good tent footprint groundsheets for various models of tents.  These enable you to protect the underside of your tent, and can help with pitching your tent as you place the footprint where you want the tent prior to pitching, which helps get the location right.

Tent footprints are particularly useful for tents that are irregular shapes

Tent footprints are particularly useful for tents that are irregular shapes.  Our tent is a simple rectangle and we have a relatively cheap tarp that’s lasted many years as an extra groundsheet that fits the dimensions of our tent with only a little folding.

If it is raining when you are pitching and you lay down an extra tarp or groundsheet, it is important to avoid allowing a lot of rainwater to pool the tarp before you pitch your tent, as you don’t want to pitch on a pool of water. Wait until it eases, or put up a large tarp overhead and pitch under that! (Yes, we’ve had to do that before now!)

don’t have ‘spare’ bits of tarp sticking out from under your tent

Equally important is to not have ‘spare’ bits of tarp sticking out from under your tent as these can collect water and run it under your tent.

As when pitching a tent, always check for stones, thorns, lumps, and depressions when laying your tarp groundsheet.

Tarps when Pitching in the Rain

Our camping gear (and the rest of the stuff the family needs to take) got to the point where we had to get a trailer.

When packing the trailer a tarp or two are the last things to go on top, with polls, lines, and pegs underneath.

The tarp not only provides some extra protection to the trailer contents, it’s my ’emergency tarp’ kit.

my ’emergency tarp’ kit

If it’s raining I can quickly put up a tarp over the trailer and the car doors/boot.  We can then get things out without them getting soaked, ideally waiting for the rain to ease, get the tent up, and then ferry stuff inside in the dry.

Another important tip for pitching in the rain is to always take the inner tents out.  I know this is extra ‘hassle’, and a lot of tents now say you can leave in and pitch in one, but we’ve found that the two-step approach is best in the British climate.

If you don’t take the inner tents out when you take the tent down you run the risk of these getting wet if pitching in the rain (and getting wet if you have to take your tent down in the rain, or you are at a campsite when they insist ‘departure time’ is well before any tent has had chance to dry out).

pitch your tent then put up your inner tents – don’t do it all in one

By taking the two-step approach you can get the tent up quickly.  Any rain that does come in the tent is easily wiped up.

You can then ferry your inner tents into the tent (from under your tarp tunnel of course), and get the tent setup in the dry.

Your Tarp Construction Kit Bag

Here are some items for this DIY tarp approach, which you can adapt to the needs of your camp and layout of the site.

Tarp Shelters to Buy

Coleman Tarp Shelter
Alternatively, you can buy complete tarp shelter packages with poles, lines, and tarps.

You can read more about tarp kits here.

We’ve been using the High Peak tarp this season, and have been very pleased with it.

Creating a Camp Kitchen
Click here to read about creating a camp kitchen using a tarp shelter.

Tarps for everything, including the Kitchen Sink

Finally, one more tarp use.    You can buy seat and BBQ tarp covers to protect garden items from the elements.  If you have a camp kitchen that you leave outside in the shelter you may find that a seat or BBQ tarp will completely cover it.   We have one that’s a perfect fit for ours, leaving us with peace of mind that it will stay dry.


Gav Grayston
Father to 3 kids, who loves getting out and about (hiking, running, camping, cycling, canoeing...) ....but unfortunately spends too much time behind a computer keyboard than he would like! Co-founded Get Out With The Kids to help other parents enjoy the outdoors with their family.
Gav Grayston


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