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

Posted by Gav Grayston.
First Published Sept 2011; updated Apr 2023.

Learning how to build a tarp shelter will help keep most British weather from ruining your camping trip.

Tarps are an inexpensive way to make camping in the British climate easier. You should take at least one tarp when camping.

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

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 raining, and bad weather is forecast.  A belt and braces approach, but it does stop the bottom of the tent from sitting directly on the wet ground.

Practical uses of a 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 extra groundsheet (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 from the rain. Remember you should cook 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.

You can find more about creating a camp kitchen under a tarp by clicking on the picture below.

Creating a Camp Kitchen

Building a Simple Shelter with a Tarp

There are a few different ways to set up a tarp. Wind direction, the 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 must run a line between the two poles. The excess line is taken and pegged into the ground to help hold the poles. This is known as the ridgeline.
  • Run another line from each pole and peg it 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 tarp's corners and peg them 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 the 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 the shelter for added protection, and if you don't have chairs, put a tarp on the ground to sit on.

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

 Long poles and short poles make a different shape shelter

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

Bungee cords act as shock absorbers

The bungee cords act as shock absorbers for wind gusts, reducing the risk of tearing tarps yet keeping 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.

 Using bungees protects the tarp from wind gusts

CAUTION: Take Care with Bungees

I like the fact that the bungees stretch, but what is not so good are the hooks.

Bungees can be extremely dangerous. You have two hooks, which if under tension, could be lethal. People do lose eyes.

I now have some bungee cords that don't have metal hooks.

Tarps as Groundsheets

Tarp under the tent

You mustn'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. 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 good tent footprint groundsheets for various models of tents. These enable you to protect the underside of your tent and can help pitch your tent as you place the footprint where you want the tent before 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 in shape. 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 not to have 'spare' bits of tarp sticking out from under your tent, as these can collect water and run it under your tent.

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

How to keep dry when Pitching or Packing Up in the Rain

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

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

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

My emergency tarp kit

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

Keeping dry when packing up camp

Another important tip for pitching in the rain is always to take the inner tents out. I know this is an extra 'hassle', and many 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 a chance to dry out).

Pitch your tent, then put up your inner tents if it is raining - don't do it all in one unless you can guarantee your inner tents will stay dry

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), and get the tent set up in the dry.

Emergency Protection for Your Tent

Sometimes the weather can be bad, with horizontal rain lashing into your tent.

When the rain comes from the side, or even underneath, if you are on a hill (yes, it can happen!), your tent might let in some water since the water is not coming from the normal direction.

A tarp in your kit can save the day by covering weak points like doors.

Tarps can add aditional weather protection

What you need to get to create your tarp shelter

A lot of the pictures in this post use a DIY approach.

I bought some cheap tarps, tarp poles, guy lines, paracord, and bungees.

I've been using a cheap tarp, like a building tarp or an old groundsheet tarp. This is great for shoving under the tent or emergencies, but you can get a better-looking and easier-to-transport tarp made from the same material as your tent.

You can get these better tarps and everything you need in a tarp kit.

The video below shows you how to set up your tarp with a tarp kit.

YouTube Video Thumbnail

Want to learn more?

  • Step-by-step instructions on setting up a tarp kit. Read more.
  • How to put a tarp up on your own. Read more.
  • What to do with your tarp if it gets windy. Read more.
A quick tarp shelter to keep dry
Read the next article: How to keep the rain off with a camping tarp kit >>