How to Set up a Tarp Under Your Tent

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Waking up in a soaking wet tent is every camper’s worst nightmare. Unfortunately,  getting absolutely drenched overnight is way too common, and one of the biggest causes of this is water from the ground seeping up into your camp.

You could try to avoid flooding by buying a super expensive waterproof tent or trying some extreme hiker hammock techniques, but there’s an easier way. Taking a tarp with you is a lifesaver.

A tarp is a sheet of material, usually plastic, which can be used for a variety of different purposes. Today we’ll show you how to properly set up a tarp under your tent in a way which is quick and effective.

Do I Need a Tarp Under My Tent?

Tarp Under Tent

If you’ve ever done any backyard or festival camping, you probably skipped tarping and set up a tent directly on the grass. However, outdoor camping is a whole different game. The undergrowth of a forest is a lot damper and looser than on a lawn or field. 

When you set up on damp terrain, the moisture will flood your tent and make everything wet. On a single day camp this can be annoying, but if you’re going for a multiday hike it can be downright dangerous (trench foot is no joke!). A tarp will protect your tent from becoming wet, as well as insulating you from the cold ground.

Another factor you need to consider is keeping creepy crawlies away from your stuff. Even casual campers know how scary it is to wake up with a spider in their tent!

Most importantly though, is that if the tent floor becomes damaged, you’ll need to deal with it, and a tarp is a fairly low-risk investment. There are plenty of sharp objects in the outdoors, and punctures can make your whole trip very uncomfortable. In addition, tent repair can be costly, and replacing a $30 tarp is way cheaper.

There are also plenty of other things you can do with a tarp. You can use it as cover for your tent in a rainstorm or you can put it over your body when you’re hiking for extra protection. If you get lost, you can even use it to signal for help!

There are a few instances where you won’t want a tarp though. Those who travel ultra-light and can live with a bit of moisture may see tarps as a luxury. If you’re camping on sand you might want to skip using a tarp. Sand covers everything anyway, and a tarp is pretty ineffective in stopping it — a tarp will just be another thing to clean.

More: How to Waterpoof A Tent

What You Will Need to Set up a Tarp Under Your Tent

You’ll need four things: your tarp, your tent, tent pegs, and a mallet (a rock works too!). Any cheap metal pegs and mallet will do, but you may want to think about which tarp to choose.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Tarp

Size

Your ground tarp should be a little bigger than your 4 person tent. Going too big means you’ll have to deal with extra weight and bulk when carrying it all day, and too small won’t protect your tent. That being said, it’s always better to have too much than too little, as you can always fold it over if necessary.

A lot of tent providers will also sell a “footprint” tarp which exactly matches the size and shape of your tent. This will cost a little more but can save you the hassle of sizing out a tarp exactly.

Material

Plastic is extremely water resistant, but it can also be noisy if you’re camping with others or on a hunting trip. Sometimes they can be sold as “poly” tarps (short for polyethylene).

Cheap poly tarps are mostly waterproof, but not 100%, and they can tear often. Although they are cheap, you may find yourself needing to replace them regularly if you camp a lot. You don’t need to buy a tarp which is specifically for camping — those used for DIY can work just as well.

More upmarket options might boast breathability or being lightweight, but generally speaking a tarp is a tarp. That being said, these materials will weigh less. If lightweight is something that’s important, you should definitely consider paying a bit extra for your tarp.

Appearance

Okay, this one is a bit shallower, but sometimes an ugly blue tarp isn’t what you want. You can find lots of different designs on the market, including camo patterns.

On the other hand, a big blue tarp can work as a signal if you’re hiking far enough off-trail and you become lost. As always, you should always assume that anything can happen on a hike.

Setting up a Tarp Under Your Tent

The first thing to do is clear the space you want to camp on. You don’t need to go crazy, just get rid of anything which may puncture your tarp once you put any weight on it – objects such as cones, needles, sticks, or anything with a point or edge. This will also make your tent more comfortable to sit in.

Next, you’ll need to open your tarp on the ground. If your tarp comes in a fabric case, make sure you don’t fling it on the ground — a sudden wind can easily blow it away. If conditions are windy, you can put your bags on opposite corners to keep the tarp in place before you peg it down.

You should position it so that all four corners are roughly where you want them to be. If the tarp is way too big for your tent, you can fold it in half at this stage.

Once you have the tarp opened where you want it, you can start to peg in the corners. Usually the soil is soft enough that you can just push them in, but sometimes the ground will be a little hard and you’ll need to use a mallet.

When you’re happy with the placement of your tarp, you can move on to the tent. Unpack your tent so it’s in line with the “footprint” of the tarp. The key is to have the tarp roughly in line with the edges of the tent — it doesn’t need to be exact, but the closer it is the better. Peg in your tent and check that it’s stable.

Make sure none of the edges peek out from beneath the tent. One of the biggest risks of using a ground tarp is that it can pool water underneath your tent. This is not good! If your tarp is bigger than your tent, you can fold the edges underneath.

It’s extremely important that you roll the edges downwards. You will want any water to drain away from the tarp, not inwards. If you don’t do this, you’ll risk creating a puddle on the tarp. 

Once you’re happy that the tent is set up properly and the tarp is secure, you’re done! 

When it’s time to move out, just pack your tent away as usual. Drain any moisture off the tarp and give the underside a brush in order to get rid of any loose soil or leaves. Roll it up, put it back in its bag, and you’re ready to go!

Conclusion to Setting up a Tarp Under Your Tent

Using a ground tarp takes a little longer, but when you don’t have to deal with a flooded tent you will find it’s well worth the effort.

As long as you’re careful when setting it up, your tarp should protect you and your belongings from getting soaked by the elements. Remember that your tarp can also be used as a cover during rain, or for a variety of other problems which you might encounter in the wild.

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Tim Fox

Tim Fox

Since the age of 10, Tim, a writer at Outdoor With J, has enjoyed camping in the great outdoors. Although he loves the peace and quiet of the outdoors, he also likes his creature comforts. Tim’s mission is to make camping a fun and comfortable experience for all. You can find more about him here

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