Tent Footprint vs Tarp: Which Is Best for Camping?

Placing a tent footprint or a tarp under your tent is a great way to help protect it from dirt, moisture, abrasive objects, and more.

But, which option is better – a tent footprint or a tarp?

Follow along as we take an investigative look a the tent footprint vs. tarp debate and find which option is best for you!

But, before we jump in and compare the two, let’s quickly make sure we have a firm understanding of what a tent footprint and tent tarp really are.

What Is a Tent Footprint?

A tent footprint, sometimes referred to as a groundsheet or ground cloth, is a protective cover for the bottom of your camping tent. Essentially, you lay the footprint down and pitch your tent over the top of it.

Waterproof Camping Tent Footprint

Waterproof Camping Tent Footprint

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A tent footprint is designed to protect the floor of your tent from the elements (like dirt, sap, abrasive objects, etc.), add a layer of insulation and padding between you and the ground, and improve the waterproofing of your tent by preventing moisture from seeping in through the tent floor.

Related: What Is a Tent Footprint? (And Why You Need One)

Tent footprints oftentimes will come with a new tent, but they can also be purchased separately. Some campers even make their own DIY tent footprint out of a tarp, which brings us to…

What Is a Tent Tarp?

The tarpaulin, tarp for short, is a very versatile piece of camping equipment that has many uses, including:

  • A layer of protection between the bottom of your tent and the earth, similar to a tent footprint.
  • Place a tarp over your tent to help protect it from the elements including rain, direct sunlight, hail, snow, wind, etc.
  • A standalone shelter from shade and sun.
  • A cover from the elements when hammock camping.

Tarps are typically made from various materials, including plastic, vinyl, and my personal favorite, Tyvek, which is a water-resistant and synthetic material made from high-density polyethylene fibers.

Ultralight Tyvek Tent Footprint

Ultralight Tyvek Tent Footprint

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In many ways, tarps offer the same functions as tent footprints. You can even use a camping tarp as a tent footprint by simply cutting it to your tent’s dimensions and placing it under the tent to protect it from dirt, tears, and moisture.

Important: When cutting a tarp down to make a DIY tent footprint, be sure to make the footprint size a few inches smaller than the tent. If your footprint sticks out past the bottom of your tent, it will catch rainwater, which in turn will pool between your footprint and tent, thus defeating the main purpose of the tarp.

Unlike tent footprints, tarps are not designed for use under a tent. So, again, you will have to make the necessary modifications to the tarp to protect the bottom of your tent effectively.

Tent Footprint vs Tarp

Now that we fully understand what a tent footprint and a tarp are let’s compare the two.

I created this handy comparison chart to help visualize the strengths and weaknesses of using a tent footprint vs. a tarp.

Tent footprint vs tarp comparison

As you can see, a tent footprint and a tarp are very similar. In fact, for the most part, they can be used interchangeably. You could use a tent footprint as a tarp and a tarp as a tent footprint.

The main differences between a tent footprint and a tarp are:

  • You may have to cut down a tarp to fit properly under your tent.
  • A footprint will typically come with grommets and straps on the outer edge to easily attach it to your tent. Whereas, a tarp typically doesn’t come with this feature. These are not necessary, but help to better secure the footprint to your tent.
  • A tent footprint will often come with a carrying bag, which comes in handy when on a hiking or backpacking trip.
  • Tarps come in almost an unlimited amount of sizes, thicknesses, and materials, while tent footprints are limited.
  • A tarp will typically be more cost-effective.
  • A tarp may be more versatile (though one could argue a footprint of the same size could perform the exact same function).

So, is a Tent Footprint Better Than a Tarp? Or Vice Versa?

What’s best for you and your camping style will depend on what you plan on using the tarp or footprint for, if you have the skills or desire to modify a tarp to your needs, and your budget.

And depending on your camping style, you might not need either. I encourage campers to read the section titled Is a Tent Footprint Worth It to decide if they even need to invest in this piece of camping gear in the first place.

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