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Tarps are one of the simplest and oldest shelter types. In their simplest form they are nothing more than a weatherproof sheet of material. More sophisticated tarps are specially shaped and have a variety of tie off options. There are also hybrid tarps that are shaped like a tent like the Sil-Shelter made by Integral Designs, but that pitch more like a tarp.
Tarps provide good rain protection except in strong wind, the most room under shelter by weight, and the most flexibility. They can provide adequate wind protection and some privacy, but they provide no insect protection unless additional netting is carried.
Pros: Cost, covered space, ventilation, contact with surroundings, visibility, protection from moisture, flexibility.
One big advantage is that during rainy weather muddy boots and wet gear can be stored under shelter without getting everything else dirty and wet. You can also easily cook under shelter. And tarps have the least problems with condensation of any shelter type.
Cons: Exposure, lack of insect protection, difficulty in setting up, more pegs and line required, cooler, susceptibility to wind and ground water.
Size: Protection for one person requires a tarp with a minimum size of about 5 x 8 feet, 7 x 9 feet is a little more comfortable. For two people 8 x 10 or a little larger is a good size.
Materials: Plastic, reinforced plastic, silicon coated nylon, polyurethane coated nylon
Pitching: The most common way to pitch a tarp is in an "A" frame. Pitched low to the ground on each side this provides good protection except for the open ends. Using a short length of shock cord or line that will allow the tarp edge to be pitched off the ground anywhere from 6 to 12 inches will provide more headroom without sacrificing much protection from rain. This also makes it possible to pitch the tarp tighter so that it is less likely to flap when the wind blows, and makes it possible to see a little of what may be taking place beyond the boundaries of the shelter. Pitched in an "A" frame configuration requires a minimum of 2 poles or trees and 8 pegs or tie points for a tight pitch – 3 along each side and 1 on each end to hold the poles upright.
An alternative pitch that requires only one tree or pole and 6 pegs that works for some tarp shapes and conditions is to place the pole in the center of one long side and then anchor each of the 4 corners close to the ground. One more peg is used to anchor the middle of the long side opposite the long side where the pole is located, and the last peg to anchor the pole.
Insects: This is the perhaps the single weakest point of tarps as shelters. By themselves they provide essentially no insect protection. Several companies make a variety of bug nets - some of them are suitable for hanging underneath a tarp. A floored bug bivy or tent used under a tarp provides the most insect protection. A good head net used to protect the face while the rest of the body is protected by clothes or a sleeping bag is the lightest weight alternative.
An alternative to a flat tarp is the tarp tent.
Sources for Tarps:
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