Master The Art Of The Backcountry Tarp
If we could control the weather when we're planning our adventures ... well, NASA would hire us on the spot. But depending on the region and the time of the year, we often contend with an element we call rain. For some of us the mere mention of the word brings bad tempers, drama and impatience—even the idea of cancelling an entire trip.
Personally, I'd rather have a light rain than a whole day with the sun beating down on me. But of course it's never great to be out on a river or up in the mountains for days with it raining all the time. But it can happen. It’s a good reason to never leave home without ... no, not your credit card ... your tarp shelter of course!
In this age of minimalism, I know many outdoor types prefer not to bring one because of its weight. However, as far I'm concerned, the factors that make outdoor expeditions a success are good food and being comfortable. We're not in the middle of the last century, when the only tarps you could get were huge, heavy Army-style tarpaulins saturated with smelly linseed oil or the butt-ugly plastic they use for temporary winter garages. Today with ultra light tarps with silicone finishes, no one should be without this excellent shelter. Whether it's to stop for lunch, to cook in comfort or to spend the evening relaxed and dry, tarp shelters are a must and only take a few minutes to install.
Choice of tarp shelters
Today there are different sizes to fit your needs, from the simple "poncho" (ex: Integral Designs "Silponcho" tarp at 280 grams) that are good for one person to the super large shelter that’s good for 10 people or more (like the MECsupertarp at 3 kg).
Take into consideration the size of your group when choosing what size of tarp shelter is best for you. Also think about whether you'll be carrying the tarp on your back on a hiking trip or in a canoe or sea kayak if you’re on the water. This will help you determine how much weight you can work with. Your budget is also important. The lighter the tarp, the more expensive.
Readying your tarp
A neat little trick is to attach small cords (20 to 25 feet) to the four corners of the tarp before you leave on your trip and leave them there permanently. That way you can set up your tarp quickly if you get caught in a sudden downpour. And if you want to decrease the weight, you can buy very small diameter cords, but the problem is they get tangled very easily—you can't have everything.
You don't need 50 different knots
Every climber knows a good knot is one that is easy to make and strong, but comes apart easily even after being under extreme tension. For a tarp shelter we only need to learn two knots;
1. The bowline and
2. The improved trucker hitch, which I call the "Genny."
Both these knots can get you out of trouble in many situations. You can find how to make them on the web, youtube etc. but I'll add a few tricks especially with the trucker hitch that you won't find to help simplify the task.
- The Bowline Knot
This knot is used to attach your cords to the corners of the tarp.
- The Trucker Hitch (Genny's Hitch)
This knot is used to put tension at the anchor points like trees, rocks or stakes. This knot allows you to adjust the tension without having to take apart or remake the knot.
The two knots in a real situation:
How to do the Trucker Hitch (Genny's Hitch)
In order to take the knot apart more easily, make two twists at the start (Photo 1 & 2) then make two loops (Photos 3 & 4).
Before passing the cord through, letting you slide the two strands more easily and hence put less tension on the first loop.( Photo 5 ). Now your knot will be easy to take apart.
All that's left is to hold the cord (Photo 6) in order to keep the tension.
Then pass the cord in the loop in order to tighten it and lock it in place. (Photo 7 & 8 ) It's done!
To take it apart you only need to pull the loose strand. (Photo 9)
Installing the Tarp
When you arrive at your campsite, the first thing to do is locate the ideal spot for the tarp shelter by taking into consideration where the tents are located and where the campfire will be. Don't put the shelter too close to the campfire, as I've seen tarp shelters perforated with hundreds of small holes made by sparks from the fire when it’s windy.
In the woods, you'll always be able to find trees that can be used for anchor points. Just make sure the four corners stretch the tarp well. When I'm by myself, to do the setup I extend the tarp on the ground and then fix the anchor points high enough in the trees and then adjust the tension in each cord. (If there are no trees you can use stakes and/or small bushes and set up the tarp in the same fashion.)
More pro tips
Ensure the tarp has an angle so that the rain can run off easily and you don't get any pockets of water.
Use a branch that you can keep with you to lift the centre of the tarp. There are also adjustable poles you can purchase for the corners and centre post when you're in an area with no trees.
When you're in a group, make good use of the manpower by having each person take a corner so that the tarp doesn't touch the ground, which keeps it clean when you're in sandy or wet soil.
When you're anchoring the tarp corners to the trees, if your cords are long enough, make your knots back near the tarp so you can make adjustments for tension without going under the trees where it can be wet and awkward to work.
Attach a piece of wood to the anchor cord and throw it over a tree branch that is higher up, giving you a good anchor point and avoiding you climbing like a monkey up the tree.
If you have enough cords, you can also put one between two trees, which will give a center support and eliminate a centre post.
In high winds, be sure to lower the shelter on the side where the wind is or else you won't have much protection.
An upside-down canoe or two can be used for anchor points and additional protection, and the paddles can be used for posts.
When I'm with a big group canoeing, hiking or cycling, I always bring a large tarp for the evening and a smaller one for a quick setup for lunch. This allows you to have a setup at night with a corner area for a kitchen and another for an eating area—super fancy!
A large tarp shelter will also allow you to put up your tent in the dry when it's raining cats and dogs. If you've ever been on an expedition for four or five days in the rain, you know what I mean.
- Before you leave home, try putting up your tarp shelter a few different ways. You may learn a few tricks of your own.