Do I Need a Tarp Under My Tent? Pros and Cons

Do I need a tarp under my tent?

This is one question that many campers ask themselves before heading out on a camping trip.

While it may seem like an easy answer, there are actually some pros and cons to this decision.

In this article, we will discuss the benefits of putting down a tarp as well as what could go wrong if you do (or don’t) use one.

Let’s dive in!

Do You Really Need a Tarp Under Your Tent?

Placing a tarp underneath your tent, which is called a tent footprint, actually has a lot of benefits.

But, it doesn’t always make sense to use one…

Before packing a tarp for your next camping trip, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of using a tarp under your tent to see if it makes sense for you and your camping needs.

Pros of Having a Tarp Under Your Tent

  • A tarpaulin placed underneath your tent will provide protection against branches, pebbles, and other abrasive objects on the ground that could potentially tear your tent.
  • Tent footprints can protect your tent investment by preventing tree sap, dirt, and mud stains from sticking to the bottom of your tent.
  • Water-repellent tarps can help keep your tent dry while camping in the rain by preventing water from pooling under the tent and seeping in through the floor, soaking your sleeping bag and other camping gear.
  • Even if it doesn’t rain, a waterproof tarp under the tent can prevent ground moisture from accumulating and soaking through the camping tent floor.
  • A groundsheet provides a layer of insulation and cushion between you and the cold ground, helping you to stay warm and more comfortable.

In other words, a tarp will help protect your tent and make camping more comfortable for you in many situations.

So, why wouldn’t you want to put a tarp under your tent?

Cons of Having a Tarp Under Your Tent

  • If you are planning a backpacking trip, it might be more beneficial to forego the tent footprint and bring more essential goods. Every little bit of weight matters when hiking long distances.
  • If you typically camp on level, dry ground free of rocks, branches, and other abrasive materials (i.e. on sand, grass, etc.), it might be a waste of money and time to invest in a tarp.
  • It’s just another piece of equipment you have to set up, take down, and carry around with you. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the extra hassle.

As you can see, putting a tarp under your tent isn’t always necessary. And in some cases, doesn’t even make sense.

So, do you need a tarp under your tent? Unless you only camp at one spot, in the same weather, and perform the same camping activities every time, this question should really be asked before each trip.

Will you be camping in inclement weather, or in rough terrain? Will you be carrying your camping gear for long distances?

Only you can answer these questions. And every camping trip might be a little different.

Tip: It’s a good idea to err on the side of caution and pack a tarp in case of emergencies. You can always leave it in the car if you don’t need it.

What Size Tarp Do I Need for My Tent?

The size of the tarp you’ll need underneath your tent will depend on how big the tent is.

Essentially, you will want a tarp that is slightly smaller than the base of your tent.

Why? If your tarp extends past the bottom of your tent, the rain will collect on top of the footprint and find its way between the two (the tarp and tent), defeating the tarp’s main purpose.

So, measure the dimensions of your tent and buy a tarp that is slightly smaller. Every tent is different, so I can’t recommend one certain size that will work for all tents.

If you cant find a footprint that fits the size of your tent, you can always make a DIY tent tarp to the exact dimensions you need. Here’s a quick tutorial on how to do just that:

Backpacker Magazine SkillsCast: Build A Tent Footprint

How Thick Should a Tarp Be Under a Tent?

A tarp or ground cloth that is too thin may not give you the protection needed for your tent, but one that is too thick will be cumbersome to store or carry along with you on a trip.

In my experience, the tarp under a tent should be a minimum of 6 millimeters thick to offer any sort of protection. The sweet spot is around 11-12 mils for excellent durability while not being too thick to fold and carry.

You can go thicker, but at the expense of added weight and decreased foldability/portability.

Again, it’s up to you to find the right tarp thickness for your camping needs. If you plan on carrying the tarp long distances, you may want to start small with thinner material and see how it works out for you. If you drive right up to your camping spot you can try a thicker material as portability is less of a concern.

In either case, you can go thicker or thinner depending on your needs.

How Do You Put a Tarp Under a Tent?

It’s extremely important to place the tarp under your tent correctly, or you risk doing more harm than good.

Here’s a good example of how NOT to put a tarp underneath a tent.

How not to put a tarp under a tent

You do not want the tarp, or any type of ground cover, to stick out past the base of the tent. If it does, then rainwater will collect on top of the footprint and make its way between the tent and the footprint, defeating the purpose of using a footprint.

Here’s how to properly place a tarp under your tent:

  1. Place the Tent Footprint on the Ground. First, clear the campsite of any debris (large sticks, rocks, etc) and decide where you want to set up your tent. Then place the footprint on the ground in your desired position. If you don’t know which side of the tent footprint goes up, simply look at the product label to see if it indicates the top.
  2. Set Up the Tent Over the Footprint. Pitch your camping tent over the footprint you just laid out. Connect your footprint to your tent by inserting your pole tips into the grommets (or straps) on the footprint, then into the tent.
  3. Make Sure the Footprint is Completely Covered. Double-check that the groundsheet is not sticking out around the tent. Again, that will just allow rainwater to pool up between the tent and the footprint, potentially causing bigger issues.
Tarp under tent tips

Check out our guide on how to use a tent footprint the right way for more information and important tips.

Should You Put a Tarp Over Your Tent?

Should you put a tarp over your tent

So, we’ve discussed whether you should put a tarp under your tent, but what about putting a tarp over your tent?

While it might seem tedious, especially if you have a waterproof tent, placing a tarp over your tent actually comes with some advantages, including:

  • A tarp allows you to keep your tent windows open reducing condensation that might form in a tent during humid nights.
  • Tarpaulins, in particular when used with a strong anchor, will help prevent your tent from being blown away or damaged in high winds.
  • Tarps are also good for protecting your tent from harmful elements (UV rays, snow, hail, etc.).
  • A tarp can also be used to create a tent vestibule, which is an area outside the tent where you store your wet or dirty gear.

Check out our guide on how to put a tarp over a tent for step-by-step instructions.

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