Three Easy Tarp Setups

flat tarp setup in a modified pyramid

An easy way to drop weight out of your boat is to switch from a tent to a tarp. Even using a tarp with a bug bivy will save over 2 pounds for the lightest tents and over 4 pounds for average weight tents. Besides saving weight, tarps provide more usable space, less parts to break, they’re easier to pack up, keep your sleeping area drier both in the morning when packing up and during the night with less condensation, and they take up considerably less space in your portage pack or hatches.

With a little practice, tarps are easy and quick to set up, and depending on the setup, they can be roomy, weatherproof, or anything in-between. Tarps offer a variability that tents can’t match. The following examples use a 14-ounce Integral Designs 8’x10′ Sil Tarp, which is one of the best tarps on the market. Each of these examples offer a slightly different pitch allowing the tarp’s features to best take advantage of the conditions.

Pre-Trip setup

Before heading out on any trip with a tarp, there are a few steps that need to be completed. First, is sealing the seam of the tarp. Follow the directions that came with the tarp.

Second is tying guy lines to the tarp. Guy lines are the lines that secure the tarp to the ground, paddles, or trees. Along the perimeter of the tarp, there will be a number of loops of fabric. These are designed to hold guy lines. There are many different thoughts about lengths of the guy lines, but a good all-around setup uses a 10′ piece of line at each of the center ridgeline points (center of the short side), 5′ lines on each of the corner points, and 3.5 on the rest of the loops. These lines can be attached using a simple knot like an overhand on a bight or a bowline.

Kelty Triptease Guyline is a highly reflective cord that weighs only 1 ounce for 50 feet. It holds up well and has a breaking strength of 188 pounds, and it’s tight weave is resistant to tangles, but holds knots tightly. For the price, it’s the best on the market for making tarp guy lines.

Preventing Bug Attacks

Some of these setups work better than others for different types of bug bivies. If you’re expecting bugs, the most versatile bivy is an Outdoor Research Bug Bivy. The Granite Gear Haven Tarp is a great option for two using a standard A-frame tarp pitch.

Increasing Space by Using Lifter lines or Extra Guy Lines

A lifter line is simply a guy line that pulls upward to create headroom under the tarp. It’s easy to add extra guy points to any tarp. Find a small round rock about the size of a quarter. Hold the rock on the inside of the tarp and from the outside pinch the rock, wrap a line around the tarp, so the rock is secured into the tarp and tie a clove hitch to hold the rock. This creates an extra lifter line or guy line.

To use a lifter line, attach the new guy line to a stick or paddle about a foot or two above the height of the new line, then run the extra line out and stake to the ground. This can make any tarp more comfortable and more secure in wind.

Three Tarp setups

These are three tarp setups that provide a good cross-section of features, weatherproofness. Some of these setups have many variations.

Note: I used trekking poles for demonstration purposes, but paddles and sticks work just as well.

hansel_bryan_090706-99Name: Cornet
Three stakes, one pole, and a very quick setup gets the sleeping space out of the wind and is great for a solo camper. Instead of tucking the extra fabric inside, the fabric can be staked out and the pole pitched higher for more room on calmer nights or in protected areas.

To setup: Stake out the back center point, then stake out the front corner on one side. Wrap the center ridgeline around your paddle with a clove hitch or a simple wrap and stake out the line which will hold the paddle up and provide tension to all the points that have been staked out. Stake out the other front corner and tuck any loose fabric under the tarp to use as a ground cloth.

  • Advantages: Very windproof, semi-built-in ground cloth, easy to set up, only three stakes required.
  • Disadvantages: Tight for two, must setup into the wind and rain or against a tree to stay rainproof.

hansel_bryan_090706-96Name: A frame
When the trees are spaces at the right distance, this setup goes up quickly. One side can also be lifted for camping near a fire to radiate heat into the living space.

To setup: You can use paddles at each side for this setup or run the ridgelines to trees. For paddles, stake out the corners of one 8′ side of the tarp leaving enough slack in the fabric to allow a paddle to be used to support the ridgeline. Wrap the ridgeline around the paddle and then stake out. Do the same on the other side and once finished come back to the first side to tighten the pitch. Stake out the sides. This setup becomes more weatherproof by lowering the pitch.

  • Advantages: Roomy, easy to use with bug tents, variable pitch based on the weather, easy for two to set up, condensation free.
  • Disadvantages: Without a special tarp with beaks can get head or foot splash during bad storms, feels very open, harder for one person to set up.

hansel_bryan_090706-102Name: Modified Pyramid
The is the hardest to set up, but one of the best. Originally, I saw this gem of a tarp in the The Advanced Backpacker: A Handbook of Year Round, Long-Distance Hiking. I use this set-up most often when camping.

To setup: Stake out the back short side of the tarp and one corner of the front side. Wrap the ridgeline around a paddle using a clove hitch or simple wrap and stake out. Stake the other front corner, then insert a stick around 130cm high into the center of the tarp. An alternative is to run a line from the tarp’s center guy line out back to a paddle and down to the ground. Then restake out the back to provide even tension, and, finally, stake out the sides.

  • Advantages: Solid in storms, roomy for two, easy to raise or lower the height of the door, feels secure and tent-like.
  • Disadvantages: Tricky setup (practice at home!), requires a shorter pole or stick in the center, over kill on calm nights.

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  • Great post.
    I was in the process of posting some of my experiences with kayak trip shelters.
    For a bombproof, reliable tarp design. check out the Mountain Laurel – TrailStar.

    I like the versatility and reliability of this design.

    They have other nice shelters, including a few bug tents.

  • Thanks, Stevie. The TrailStar tarp looks great. I’d love to try one sometime and review it.

  • I can recommend tarps as a good choice for lightweight BWCA tripping.
    My wife and I have used a Ray-Way tarp I made for our past three trips. We’ve enjoyed the spaciousness and light weight of it.
    There was only one night out of 13 when it was pouring rain and all the tent spots were packed dirt puddles- we had to head a little into the woods for a suitable spot to pitch.
    I made a second tarp for a campfire/cooking tarp. Easy to take at only 13 oz.

  • By using an improvised grommet of debris to form a button in the tarp, with which to tie your line around… you can create “beaks” in a standard tarp, though your usable space will be reduced. Also just a good technique to create extra tie down points where and as needed.

  • […] must decide how to cut-up the supplied cord. I’m a big fan of using tarps to camp under, and my typical system is to use two 10-foot lengths for the ridge line, four 5-foot lengths for the corners, and 3.5-foot […]

  • […] everything that I carried, except the camera and 10HD bag it was carried in. The picture below is a tarp set-up that I’ve been using lately. It’s easy to set-up, weather proof, and only requires 4 […]

  • […] pitched the tarp poorly and didn’t account for how rain would enter the tarp. I learned new tarp setups, erected my tarp on slightly raised ground, protected the windward side and the problem went away. […]

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