Do I Need a Tarp Under My Tent? A More Nuanced Answer

By Emma
do i need a tarp under my tent

Tent walls are protected by a sturdy rainfly, but not all tents have something that protects the bottom of the tent, too.

Because of that, you might be wondering if you need a tarp under your tent to increase durability and protection against moisture.

While you do not need a tarp under your tent, placing one is highly beneficial for your tent’s warmth, dryness, and durability. However, be careful with how you place your tarp. A tarp that’s too large will lead to pooling, and that will render your tarp’s moisture-blocking abilities useless.

Why You Need a Tarp Under Your Tent — 4 Benefits

You need a tarp under your tent if you want your tent to last as long as possible. However, using a tarp isn’t 100% necessary.

Even though it’s not entirely necessary, numerous benefits come with placing a tarp under your tent. Tarps keep you warmer, drier, and they save you money, too.

Let’s go over them in greater detail now.

#1. Protection From Punctures

Using a tarp will always make your tent last longer. It’s a barrier between the tent and the rough ground. It stops the rough debris underfoot from touching your tent.

As I said above, you’ll save money from this in the long run. You’ll be less likely to need to replace your tent since the bottom will wear away slower. And buying a new tarp at $20 a piece is a lot cheaper than buying a new tent and less time-consuming than trying to patch a slit. 

Using a tarp also ensures that your tent’s bottom won’t suddenly develop a puncture halfway through a camping trip, leaving you exposed to the elements. If anything gets damaged, then it will be your tarp, and you’ll still have the bottom of your tent to keep you safe.

This camper always uses a tent tarp under the tent to protect the floor, so it’s not an uncommon practice.

#2. Helps Keep Moisture Out

Lots of people use a tarp on top of their tent to help keep moisture out, but others use a tarp under their tent to do the same job. In fact, this is a common inquiry on camping forum boards.

Having a tarp under your tent stops moisture from the ground from soaking through the floor of your tent. Although tent groundsheets are waterproof, aging and budget tents aren’t always as effective at moisture blocking as newer, more expensive tents.

The tarp also ensures that the bottom of your tent will be dry when you disassemble your tent. This will keep your storage bag free of the damp, dark environment where mold and mildew grows.

However, if you ever do end up with a mold or mildew problem one day, then we have a comprehensive article on how to clean a tent with mold and mildew for you.

#3. Helps Keep You Warm

Placing a tarp under your tent creates an additional barrier between you and the freezing cold ground. It also stops heat from escaping through the floor of your tent. You lose more body heat to the ground than the air around you, too, so the extra barrier helps prevent that.

Tarps under your tent are particularly useful when camping in cold weather.

You shouldn’t expect a drastic increase in the heat inside your tent, but every little helps when it’s bitterly cold outside.

#4. Ensures the Bottom of Your Tent Stays Clean

The bottom of your tent can easily get muddy when it’s raining. You’ll end up getting your entire tent covered in mud when taking the tent down and packing it away. You’ll need to wash your tent after every camping trip.

You’ll also have to spend a lot of money on tent cleaning products if you need to clean your tent that often.

It’s much better to get a tarp muddy. Tarps are easier to clean; just hose them down, scrub off the mud, and they’re fine.

Remember that you still need to clean your tent at least once per season, and we have a full guide on how to clean a tent.

When Don’t You Need a Tarp Under My Tent?

Although a tarp is highly recommended for regular camping, you don’t need a tarp in all situations. Here are a few situations:

  • At the beach: Sand absorbs moisture by itself, so you won’t need a tarp to keep moisture away from your tent
  • While backpacking: Tent footprints are lighter and easier to carry, so they’re a better alternative than tarps 
  • Soft ground: If you know the ground is soft and will have no sharp objects, then you don’t need the additional protection that a tarp brings
  • Condensation isn’t a problem in your climate: If your ground isn’t going to be wet with condensation or rain, then you don’t need the additional moisture barrier

What Size Tarp Should I Use?

Tarp sizes vary, so you need to find one that’s in line with the size of your tent. The table below has tarp-size recommendations based on the sizes of basic dome tents.

However, brands and types of tents differ, so always check what size your tent is before you purchase a tarp.

Tent SizeTarp Size in Feet
2-Person7 x 5
3-Person7 x 7
4 to 5-Person6 x 8
6-Person10 x 10

If you can’t find a tarp that fits your tent’s size, then purchase the next largest tarp you can find and fold it down to size.

Try to fold each side of your tarp the same amount. If different sizes are folded to different amounts, then you’ll end up with an uneven surface under your tent.

Always ensure your tent is folded down to size, as you never want to have a tarp that extends beyond the edges of your tent. Although it seems like it would offer more protection, it can pose one major danger: pooling.

What Is Pooling?

If you use a tarp that’s too big for your tent, then the rain will run off your rain fly and land on the tarp. The moisture has nothing to soak into and drain away, so it builds up and forms a pool around your tent.

This pool can work its way under your tent, and it can end up coming through any poorly sealed seams, too. 

This can saturate your tent and make camping an incredibly uncomfortable experience for you. Plus, it will make getting out of your tent after the rainstorm a complete nightmare.

Luckily, choosing the right top size from the table above will help you avoid this issue. Setting your tent up correctly is also essential.

How to Set Up Your Tarp Under Your Tent

Setting up your tent on top of your tarp isn’t difficult, but you want to ensure that your tarp is set up as efficiently as possible first.

#1. Size It Correctly

As I said above, ensure your tarp is the right size for your tent. Try laying your tent out flat on top of it and measuring them up to size. Then you can fold each edge of your tarp until the edges are tucked away neatly under your tent.

You can cut your tarp down to size to avoid having to fold it if you wish. Make sure you seal the edge of your tarp so that it doesn’t fray.

#2. Clean The Area

Remove any large debris and rocks from your camping spot, and pull any lumpy weeds that might create a raised section under the tarp.

#3. Lay Your Tarp and Assemble Your Tent

Once your tarp is laid out, then you can start assembling your tent on top of it. Ensure its edges are lined up with the edges of the tent as closely as possible.

#4. Secure Your Tarp

You need to find a way to secure the corners of your tarp to your tent to ensure the tarp doesn’t flap around or move around by itself.

However, you should be aware that securing your tarp might be difficult, and premanufactured tent footprints are much easier to attach to your tent. They come with grommets, perfect for making your tent secure.

You can purchase a grommet kit to alter your tarp so it’s easier to secure your tent. Feed some straps through the grommets and attach them to your tent poles.

Alternatives to Tarps

Tarps aren’t the only item you can place under your tent for the same benefits listed above. There are a few alternatives that you could use, and some are better than others.

#1. Tent Footprint

Tent footprints are great for backpackers, as they’re light. But they’re pricier than tarps, so that’s something to keep in mind.

As mentioned above, footprints are easier to secure your tent, and they’re made specifically for use with tents. Frequent campers may wish to use a tent footprint instead of a tarp.

#2. Plastic Sheet/Painter’s Drop Cloth

Plastic sheets and painters drop cloths work just as well as tarps. Like tarps, they may be difficult to secure to your tent, but it’s not impossible.

If you already have an appropriately sized plastic sheet or painter’s drop cloth, then feel free to use it instead of buying yourself a tarp or tent footprint.

#3. Spare Rainfly

Do you own more than one tent, or do you have an extra rain fly for your current one? That can work as a tarp.  Rain flies usually have components that can be attached to your tent poles, too, so securing them is easy.

#4. Tyvek

Tyveks are used in construction. They’re placed as a moisture barrier when building houses, in place of siding that hasn’t been built yet. If you have easy access to Tyveks, then you could certainly use one instead of a tarp.

However, be aware that you’ll need to do some DIY to get this to fit. Tyveks don’t come in ready-made rectangles that match the shape of your tent.

Conclusion

Tarps are highly beneficial for most camping scenarios. However, you should always use your best judgment on whether or not you need a tarp for your camping trip. 

As you gain experience while camping on different grounds and in different climates, you’ll come to learn when you can go without a tarp. You’ll also come to find whether you prefer tarps or one of the alternatives.

A tent footprint is the best alternative to using a tarp, and it’s the most convenient. But you really can’t go wrong with a good old-fashioned tarpaulin.

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AUTHOR

My name is Emma, and I’m a city dweller who jumps on every opportunity to get out and enjoy nature! I’ve gone on a number of car camping and backpacking trips over the past few years. I created this site to inspire others to get outside and to make the process easier for you.