The Value of a Tarp in Your Day-Pack

by Paul Kirtley

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Tarp and Fire

With heavy rain being a fairly regular feature here in the UK – even during the summer – I rarely, if ever, go for a day hike without taking a waterproof jacket. This is hardly an earth-shattering revelation as I’m sure this preference is almost universal amongst those heading for the great British outdoors. What’s probably less common is packing a tarp.

Certainly many well-prepared hill walkers will take an orange plastic survival bag into the hills with them. Other hill goers will take a bothy-bag group shelter, particularly if they are in a group rather than solo. In reducing heat-loss and warding off hypothermia, survival bags and group shelters are potential life-savers on exposed hillsides.

While you can use survival bags to make a whole host of shelters in the woods too, this is not something you tend to do unless it’s an emergency. Certainly once you have removed a survival bag from its packaging and unfolded it, they are difficult to re-pack. Moreover, if you cut them down two sides to open them out as a tarp, they no longer function as a survival bag. So you would have to buy another before the next outing to the hills.

Hence, when I’m spending the day tramping around the woods rather than above the treeline, I pack a lightweight tarp. Similar to the use of a group shelter in the hills, carrying a tarp in the woods means I have a shelter that I can use on a day-to-day basis, not just in an emergency.

A tarp that packs small and is light in weight goes unnoticed in your day pack until you need it. One that is quickly and easily stung up is a boon on otherwise wet lunch stops. If you want to stop for longer, you have a dry space in the woods for as long as you need it.

Tarp set up

As the heavens opened I was able to pitch this tarp quickly between trees. Note one corner on the near side is pitched lower to help shed heavy rain. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

A lightweight tarp has a similar weight to a heavy-gauge polythene survival bag or a small-to medium sized group shelter. There are many good tarps on the market. The one I particularly like for my day-pack is a silicone-coated nylon ‘Scout Tarp’ I bought at MEC in Toronto. For CAD$60 this tarp represents really good value. It weighs only 450g (1lb) with guy lines attached and is very versatile in the ways it can be pitched. Covering an area of 2.1×2.9m, the Scout Tarp is big enough for two people to sleep under and at least a couple more to sit under. For a group, carrying a larger tarp is likely to reduce overall weight compared to everyone in the group carrying smaller, individual-sized tarps. A larger tarp also provides a communal space within which you can share stories, jokes, and talk over plans while waiting out the bad weather.

A lightweight tarp provides good ground coverage

A lightweight tarp can provide good ground coverage - enough to shelter several people. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Tarps are versatile in the way you set them up and you can quickly come up with a set-up that best deals with the conditions – maybe a lean-to for protection from the prevailing breeze, for example.

Making your day out in the woods more comfortable is, for some, a debatable luxury. But a tarp could also be a lifesaver in more difficult situations, reducing heat-loss and defending against hypothermia. In cold damp conditions, the tarp obviously provides a haven from the rain. What surprises some people is that, as long as you are reasonably careful, you can light a fire directly under even a small, lightweight tarp.

With a tarp pitched in a fairly standard fashion, open on all sides, this creates a warm air space under the tarp and you get much more benefit from a relatively small fire than you do with just a fire. In heavy rain, you would need a much bigger fire to create the same warmth as you get with a tarp-and-small-fire combination. Convection currents under the tarp carry warm air back down onto you as well as getting the benefit of direct radiant heat from the fire.

A tarp and a fire provide refuge in the woods.

A tarp and a fire provide near-instant refuge in the woods. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

The time you have to be most careful is when you first light the fire, when small fuel is burning. This can burn fast and quite high. Once the fire is established, you can slow it down, burning larger fuel. You might feel safer establishing a fire outside of the tarp then moving it underneath. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, a tarp will protect your tinder and/or kindling from rain as you ignite and establish your fire.

Fire under a tarp

Sitting by the fire under a tarp - a comfortable warm space. You benefit from the warm air trapped under the tarp in addition to direct, radiant heat from the fire. Using a metal mug, you can also heat water for a warming drink. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Including a tarp in your day-pack isn’t limited to the UK. I think it makes sense anywhere you might have damp or cold-damp weather and you can string up a tarp and have a fire – for comfort or in an emergency.

Do you carry a tarp when you head to the woods for the day? Or do you think it’s just more unnecessary gear to carry. Let us know your opinion in the comments section.

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

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{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris

Great article, as per usual. I split the difference between carrying rain gear and a tarp by carrying a surplus poncho. I can comfortably fit two people under it and I can set it up in tree-less areas using p-chord lines and my Blue beech walking stick. In cooler weather I take along a poncho liner which converts the poncho into a serviceable bivy bag.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Chris

Thanks for your comment and some practical tips there. Quite a few readers have commented that they like to use ponchos. It seems there are models of poncho out there to suit everyone’s budget and weight preferences. I like the flexibility of your simple set-up.

All the best

Paul

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Jeff

Good article! I use a military poncho-tarp, which is brilliant; they’re about £20 if you shop around.

I also use a larger military-surplus tarp, which can be found cheap on eBay – as long as you don’t mind desert DPM.

Equally, Dutch or Belgian Army (breathable) bivvy bags can also be had very cheap – search for them on eBay.

Good gear needn’t be expensive.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Jeff

Welcome and thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right – good gear need not be expensive. Some of my most long-serving equipment was inexpensive yet has proven to be very durable. Good to see another advocate of the military poncho.

All the best

Paul

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Barry

Hi Paul,

Another interesting read. I’ve just started carrying a lightweight camo poncho in my day bag. Its tiny and has many uses: Ground sheet, tarp, waterproof outer layer and good for making camps with the kids. I usually avoid camo but went against my usual preference as I thought it would be better for wildlife observation if I blended in even more whilst doing sit spots.

All the best.

Barry

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Barry

Thanks for your comment. I particularly like the idea of using a poncho for camouflage when watching wildlife – a lightweight and portable means of blending into the environment that takes seconds to deploy.

All the best

Paul

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Duncan

Another good article Paul and very atmospheric pictures too.
I regularly take a tarp out with me, usually my larger one (I have one or two others!). You can always make a larger one smaller!
For a day out with the children it’s great. It makes a sheltered lunch spot, a ‘come-back-to’ spot and can be used with or without a fire to keep the wind and/or rain off you.
In foreign climates I’ve also used it to provide much needed shelter from the sun (note: I haven’t had to use it for that in the UK!). Here extra guylines and inventive anchor points are often essential!
Keep ‘em coming Paul.
Duncan

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Duncan

Good to hear from you. You make some very good points. I like the ‘come-back-to’ spot idea, particularly when you have kids. In fact they generally make good indoors-outdoors spaces for kids and it seems the bigger the better in this respect. Good point regarding sun shade. And yes, plenty of cordage, a creative mind and being well-versed in knots all come in handy!

All the best

Paul

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Cate

Paul – another good article. Interesting.
How light is ‘light’?
And how do you deploy a tarp when there are no trees?

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Cate, good to see you here. Thanks for your comment. ‘Light’ is certainly relative – one person’s light is another person’s heavy. I would say a two-person tarp under 500g is reasonably light, although you can buy them about half that weight (and much more than twice the price!). For me, tarps are best in the woods but there are ways of using them when there are no trees. An easy way for those who use walking poles is to utilise these, one at each end. Others carry special ultralight tarp poles. There are also multiple ways of making bivouac shelters out of tarps, depending on terrain and other materials to hand (another article at some point I think….)

All the best

Paul

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Southey

Good read again matey, Just started to look at making my own tarp, but not really sure weather the cost of material, threads, needles and seem sealer really works out cheaper than a well made sil-nylon? I think sometimes it’s better to buy something that has been through R&D and works out slightly more expensive? mind you, I have found some day glow pink material :D!

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Southey

If anyone was going to DIY a tarp, I think you are probably the man for the job. People like Ray Jardine have made their own lightweight kit for years.

I reckon you might suit a day-glo tarp. If you managed to make a poncho, you’d look like some sort of woodland super-hero :)

Cheers

Paul

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William Lammers

I have used a military poncho for decades, here in the Pacific N.W.. It is always with me, in my small day pack, which I take everywhere with me. In the early 1980′s, I had the good fortune of attending a few survival courses in Central America, where I learned just how important one simple shelter can be. Not only this, but also used it as a sleeping “bag”, and a makeshift liter for the injured.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi William

Thanks for your comment. It seems from the comments and emails I’ve received that military ponchos are a popular and reliable choice. It’s good to hear yours has been serving you well for many years.

All the best

Paul

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ST

Fully agree on carrying a tarp.
But it’s not just limited to the wetter months. I find that having one in Summer provides a good shade from the sun (as the recent hot weather proves) as well.
For Winter I tend to carry a rubberised German army poncho shelter. It’s a good size for one, but weight and pack size is actually bigger than my normal basha, which is shower proof but probably not as ‘torrential downpour’ proof as the poncho; so I take my regular basha with me during warmer weather.

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Paul Kirtley

Weclome ST, good to hear about your various set-ups. I think it makes good sense to take account of the varying seasons and adjust your kit as appropriate. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – very good point about a tarp providing sun shade too.

All the best

Paul

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Rody Klop

I have one in my bag all the time, into the woods I use a fairly packed 35ltr pack, with food, drinks, a alcohol stove and a stainless mug, knife etc etc. Recently I added a hammock. Not light but a way to do some training.

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Paul Kirtley

Hey Rody, good to see you back again. Your 35litre day-pack sounds pretty similar to mine – keeps you in shape! :o) I think the only difference is the stove.

All the best

Paul

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Dave Smith

Great artical Paul.
I always carry a tarp in my day pack. The one i used to carry was just a 6×8, fine for 1 person.
And living here on the west coast of British Columbia they say you dont tan, you rust, lol.
But i just picked up another one a Camo 8×10. I think you seen it in my facebook page.
Its great, now theres plenty of room for 2. And picked up some more PARA cord.
Thats great to see you picked up your tarp at MEC, awesome outdoor store.

Cheers Paul.

Dave.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Dave, good to hear from you. Yes, the west coast of Canada is similar to the west coast of Britain in that respect – plenty of precipitation! A tarp always comes in handy. Plenty of cord is a good tip too, particularly if you want to practise the art of ‘Tarpology’ as Mark H neatly calls it :)

Cheers

Paul

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Mark H

Hi Paul,

Another great article, thank you.

I carry a Tatonka 3m x3m which sorts me out just fine . I have gathered a few sizes over the years , but his size suits me best. I find the ‘traditional’ rectangular basha doesn’t afford me and my kit quite enough shelter. The larger size also allows me to practice some simple forms of ‘Tarpology’.

I visited that store , on the outskirts of Toronto last year , having visited some relations in Calabogie , London, Toronto and Kingston. Lots of Canoes , paddles and outdoor goodies we never see in our out of town superstores..

Go well
Mark

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Mark

‘Tarpology’ – a very neat term…I like it! :)

All the best

Paul

Reply

Lee

I have a dd 4.5m x 3m tarp that goes with me. I like the versatility of them but for some reason my wife can’t see the versatility though, she just moans that there aren’t any poles.

I also carry a long length of paracord (I think it’s 15 metres) which I dont cut, this also acts as my ridge line. Plus, being so long has come in useful for other uses too.
I daren’t light a fire under it because if it does go up, it will cost me quite a lot to get one shipped over here again. Outdoor stuff is well expensive here in Japan.

Great article.

Lee

Reply

Marcus

Paul

Great Article mate, I have a few tarps but the one that stays in my daysack for summer trips is a Tarp made from Parachute Silk… ULTRA LIGHTWEIGHT… NOt to clever if you have a really heavy down pour, but ok for a shower. in the winter i use a hootchie or a Brit Mil issue tarp. thanks

Reply

Danny

Hi Paul.Great article.Cant beat a tarp .Used them alot in the military in French Guyanne rainforest. We,d sleep in hammocks with tarps above us and besides protecting us from the weather you,d sleep sounder knowing your protected from weird fellas falling from the canopy overhead onto you during the night.We used to leave a blob of shaving foam on the para cord for both tarp and hammock to dscourage ants and spiders from travelling down the cord and onto you and your kit.Also found it invaluable for collecting fresh rainwater which is like nectar compared to the brackish water with purification tablets we normally had.Invaluable also for having a clean surface when cleaning kit and weapons and help from losing anything.Makes an excellant stretcher also in minutes with two strong staves.If there wasnt suitable trees around to tie the guylines off we would cut branches about 6 ft to span the end eye holes and simply tie this at the centre off the support trees.Thanks again Paul for this and all the othes articles.Danny

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Danny

Hi Paul.Great article.Cant beat a tarp .Used them alot in the military in French Guyanne rainforest. We,d sleep in hammocks with tarps above us and besides protecting us from the weather you,d sleep sounder knowing your protected from weird fellas falling from the canopy overhead onto you during the night.We used to leave a blob of shaving foam on the para cord for both tarp and hammock to dscourage ants and spiders from travelling down the cord and onto you and your kit.Also found it invaluable for collecting fresh rainwater which is like nectar compared to the brackish water with purification tablets we normally had.Invaluable also for having a clean surface when cleaning kit and weapons and help from losing anything.Makes an excellant stretcher also in minutes with two strong staves.If there wasnt suitable trees around to tie the guylines off we would cut branches about 6 ft to span the end eye holes and simply tie this at the centre off the support trees.Thanks again Paul for this and all the othes articles.Danny

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Chris

i havent used a tent for years, the low weight and massive versatility of the tarp/poncho/basha make it invaluable. some great stories and ideas up in the comments.
when im staying under the tarp in open country i peg all 4 corners down then prop one edge up with my daysack its enough to keeps it off my face and body and water runs away in all but the worst of down pours. it would be interesting to hear if anyone else has any ideas on setting up in this scenario.

cheers guys,
chris

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Robert Campbell

I’m shopping for a new tarp and I’m trying to decide between the Integral Siltarp3 10x12ft in Olive http://www.georgefisher.co.uk/bivis-shelters/pid22602/cid1515/integral-designs-siltarp-3-tarp-olive.asp or the Hilleberg XP10 as mentioned in the article: http://paulkirtley.co.uk/2011/bushcraft-camping-equipment/

Anyone have any preference between these two? They aren’t cheap but they are the same price and more or less same size.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Robert

I can’t give an apples-to-apples comparison/recommendation. I’ve used the Hilleberg XP10 heavily for several years and it has proved durable and reliable. I’ve not used the Siltarp3 but I have used other Integral kit, mainly the poncho-tarp and liked that a lot. Very light. Their kit is very well constructed too.

Maybe someone else reading this has used the Integral Siltarp 3?

Let us know what you finally decide.

All the best

Paul

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Robert Maley

On a recent night hike our Scouts used a Tarp as a shelter at around 5am in atrocious weather to have a rest, warm up, have a brew and something to eat. It really raised morale. We will probably carry at least one on all our hikes now as it really is much more verstile than a conventional group shelter.

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Christopher Watson

Hi Paul –

Ditto to all those who love their military ponchos!

In your last pic it looks like the fire is directly beneath the poncho; how high should a tarp/poncho be placed to make sure you don’t melt it with the fire?

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Daniel Marsh

I have had a British army poncho for over 25 years (purchased as an army cadet) and its still going strong and gets regular use as as shelter. If I’m climbing or on the hill in cold wet conditions I wear a Paramo Aspira jacket and carry a Rab bivi bag in case on getting caught out overnight or an emergency. This is a lightweight option that doesn’t need anchors but of course won’t work as as group shelter. Ultimately you need different kit to give options that fit the environment you are in but a tarp is hard to beat for a walkabout.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for your comment.

“Ultimately you need different kit to give options that fit the environment you are in but a tarp is hard to beat for a walkabout.” – I couldn’t agree more!

All the best,

Paul

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Mike

Hi Paul,

Having used a British army basha tarp for many years in the forces and now as a civilian i can honestly say there is no finer shelter for being at one with the wild, i would use and carry this fine piece of equipment over an over priced tent any day. and I personally find that although a little heavier in some cases ex military kit is some of the most robust and hard wearing kit you can buy. And as its surplus it comes at a great price if you shop around. Nearly all my kit is ex mil from my gore-tex to my bivi bag and bergan, just can’t beat it and ideal for all bushcraft applications.

Another great article, many thanks

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your comment. It’s good to read about what you use and why you value it.

Thanks also for your feedback – it’s much appreciated.

Warm regards,

Paul

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danny

always carry a light weight shelter of some sort with me.also a small gas stove with a pot and water.my day sack has made my days out and about a lot more easier.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Danny,

It’s good to hear from you. Thanks for your comment.

Yes, a few well chosen items such as the ones you mention, added to your daysack will make all the difference, particularly when your day doesn’t quite go as expected.

All the best,

Paul

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Tom Gold

Great article, particularly liked ‘under tarp’ firelighting techniques. Always assumed the heat bloom would melt a hole in the tarp or worse, set fire to it! Cheers, mate!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, the fire-under-a-tarp surprises a lot of people.

What’s also surprising is how small a fire you need to generate a nice warm atmosphere. The tarp creates a re-circulation of warm air back down to you.

It’s sparks you need to keep an eye on…

All the best,

Paul

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Lennard Donkers

I have purchased the same tarp as you mentioned from MEC. It has saved many trips from becoming miserable. It’s a must have on my checklist. I have never tried a fire under the tarp. Most times we have the fire off to one side and sit under the tarp. We have the fire on the high side so we don’t worry to much about the fire size. We like to have a white man fire. (White men build big fire and sit far away. Indians build small fire and sit close)

I have also used this tarp in the winter. When you have a fire going and it’s snowing heavy the snow melts on your clothes. The tarp sheds snow pretty also.

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Lennard Donkers

I have purchased the same tarp as you mentioned from MEC. It has saved many trips from becoming miserable. It’s a must have on my checklist. I have never tried a fire under the tarp. Most times we have the fire off to one side and sit under the tarp. We have the fire on the high side so we don’t worry to much about the fire size. We like to have a white man fire. (White men build big fire and sit far away. Indians build small fire and sit close)

I have also used this tarp in the winter. When you have a fire going and it’s snowing heavy the snow melts on your clothes. The tarp sheds snow pretty good also.

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Paul Kirtley

Hey Lennard,

Nice to hear from you and thanks for your comment.

Yes, it’s a nice tarp. Light and tough. I used it on my Swedish hike last September. We had some snow on the last night of the trip and it slithered off the silicone nylon quite nicely.

You should try a small fire underneath the tarp – the recirculation of warm air even from a small fire is surprising if you’ve not experienced it before.

Warm regards,

Paul

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danny

very nice! I wanna get out and do some nights under a tarp this year,thinking ill use one instead of a bivvy next time im night fishing.

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Paul Kirtley

Thanks Danny,

It’s a great way to spend the night Danny. We’ll show you all the knots on the Bushcraft Essentials course too! ;)

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

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