Tarps vs Footprints – The Ultimate Guide to Choosing One

By Emma
tarps vs footprints

Should you get a tarp or footprint? It’s a common dilemma faced by campers. But the answer is quite simple –

If you want a groundsheet that fits your tent like a glove and protects the bottom of your tent, a footprint is the best solution.

If you prefer a versatile, multi-purpose cloth that can protect your tent floor, a tarp is the best option.

Footprints may be more expensive, but they are super lightweight, compact, and tailored to fit specific models.

Tarps are jacks of all trades. While there are always pieces of equipment better suited for certain tasks, only the tarp can do it all. And do it well.

TarpFootprint
VersatilityWide range of uses: rainfly, tent groundsheet, sun protection, wind protection, storage cover, truckload cover…Specifically designed to protect the tent floor
Weight & portabilityLightweight and compact when packedUltra-lightweight and very compact when packed
DurabilityVery durableVery durable
Weather protectionWaterproof, UV-resistant, can protect from windMay be waterproof
Different terrain performanceWide range of uses but not the best on sandy groundsPerfect fit makes it work on any terrain
Ease of pitchingDoesn’t affect tent pitchingHelps with tent positioning and pitching
PriceCommonly very affordableA bit pricey
Fit and CoverageThe same tarp can be adjusted to fit many different tents decentlyPerfect match for a single tent or a couple of similar models
MaterialsPolyester, polyethylene, vinyl, Tyvec, polycro, sylnylon, and moreMainly polyester or polyethylene

What Is A Tarp?

A tarp or tarpaulin is basically a large sheath of fabric. Most commonly it is made of polyethylene. But, you’ll find tarps made of polyester, polyethylene, canvas, vinyl, silnylon, or other materials. Usually, they have grommets along the side or at the corners.

The tarp’s main role is to provide protection for your tent. But this simple piece of equipment is like the magician’s hat in the camping world. You may not be able to pull a rabbit out of it, but you can use it in many different ways. 

Check out the next section to find out tips and tricks about using tarps.

Besides camping, tarps are widely used by farmers, truckers, or anyone who needs a waterproof cover for gear or a pile of anything.

A polyethylene tarp is the most popular option because it is waterproof while being fairly lightweight. The grommets will allow you to spread it and set it up the way it suits your current needs.

And the best thing is, they are very affordable. That’s why a tarp is pretty much an irreplaceable piece of camping gear.

Tarp Pros:

  • They are waterproof. This is the basis for protection against the elements. True, canvas tarps are more water-resistant than waterproof, but, polyester, vinyl, and polyethylene tarps are fully waterproof.
  • You can create a makeshift shelter. Be it your cooking area, extra gear, or children’s playground, a large tarp will do the trick. Check out our article on tarp vs tent shelters to learn more!
  • Protective layer for your tent floor. A tarp is very durable and waterproof. So, it can protect the tent floor from moisture and ground debris. Check out our detailed article if you are still on the fence about “do I need to use a tarp under my tent?
  • Improvised rainfly for the tent. While many tents are more or less waterproof, the tarp provides additional and reliable protection against rain.
  • Wind protection. Taller or weaker tents may collapse in strong winds. You can use a tarp to create a protective barrier. It can block the wind and reduce the pressure on the tent wall.
  • Sunshade. If you’re camping in a hot environment, you can create a sunshade to protect you or your tent from the hot sun.
  • Gear cover. Some avid campers tend to go overboard with the amount of gear. And tents are often not large enough to store it all. Whether it’s the cooking equipment, lounge chairs, or any other gear, a tarp cover will keep it safe regardless of weather conditions.
  • Truck cover. From family pickup trucks to large, heavy-duty vehicles, you’ll see all kinds and sizes of tarps covering their loads. 
  • Improvised tent. Whether you like to tough it out, or in emergency situations, a tarp can be transformed into a tent. An A-frame tent is the simplest option, but with a large tarp, you can create an improvised teepee as well.
  • Outdoor emergency uses. Quick fix for leaky tent roof, rain-catchment system, impromptu stretcher, improvised backpack, emergency blanket, and the list goes on and on.

Tarp Cons

Since the tarp’s purpose is to be a jack of all trades, it doesn’t have any real downsides. In comparison to tent footprints, tarps do come short in several categories. Here they are:

  • They are heavier. While tarps are pretty lightweight, they are heavier than tent footprints. Roughly, an average 10 by 8 ft tarp will weigh between 1 and 2 pounds. Vinyl tarps are somewhat heavier though and can weigh up to 10 lbs.
  • They are bulkier. It is another pretty insignificant difference since tarps are pretty compact when packed as well. Still, they are bulkier than tent footprints.
  • Size may not match the tent. Tarps are not specifically made to match tent dimensions. So you’ll probably need to fold it slightly to match the tent floor. The grommets will become useless, and if you don’t fit the tarp well, water may creep in between the tarp and the floor.                                               

What Is A Tent Footprint?

A tent footprint is basically a piece of fabric designed to protect the tent floor. It is tailored to match the tent floor dimensions perfectly. 

Sometimes, they are slightly shorter, but never longer than the tent bottom. This design prevents water from pooling between the tent floor and the footprint. Nevertheless, the main function of the footprint is to protect the floor from wear and tear.

Tent footprints can be made of polyester, polyethylene, and different types of synthetic such as Tyvek, polycro, and silnylon.

They are specifically designed to match individual tent models or a couple of models with the same dimensions.

Tent footprints may or may not be waterproof, depending on the manufacturer.  

Footprint Pros:

  • Ultra-lightweight and compact. They pack up super-small and commonly weigh between 5 ounces and 1.5 pounds.
  • Anti-abrasive properties. In order to protect the tent floor, footprints need to be tough to withstand regular wear and tear. Specially designed materials and weaving techniques provide sturdiness to keep your tent floor intact.
  • Perfect match. The tent floor-matching design makes the tent setup easier. More importantly, it prevents water and moisture from seeping in between the footprint and the tent floor.
  • It keeps the tent floor clean. Cleaning the muddy tent floor isn’t much fun. It’s an awkward task. With a footprint, your tent floor will stay clean. And the footprint is much simpler and easier to clean.

Footprint Cons:

  • They are expensive. Footprints excel at protecting the tent floor, but they are pretty pricey in comparison to tarps. 
  • Limited to one or a couple of models. Footprints are ready-sized for the specific tent or maybe a few more models of the same size. While it helps with the protection, you’re limited to using them with matching tents.
  • Not all of them are waterproof. This depends strictly on the model. Some footprints are waterproof, while others will protect the tent flooring from abrasion only.
  • Not versatile. Footprints are designed to protect the tent floor and that’s their sole purpose.

Tarps vs Footprints Versatility

Winner: Tarp

This one is easy. Tarps can be used in as many plots as you can think of.

Tarps are made to be versatile and handy in myriads of situations like duct tape or Swiss knives. Tarps can be adjusted to suit different tents. They can serve many purposes from protecting the tent floor to covering your tent, gear, or truckload.

Quite the opposite, footprints are specifically designed with one role in mind – to protect the tent flooring. Some of them are thicker or stronger to suit colder weather or rough terrain respectively. But, it’s still all about bottom protection.

Tarps vs Footprints Weight and Portability

Winner: Footprint

Tarps and footprints are made of similar materials, but usually, footprints are lighter and more compact.

Tarps are generally larger, therefore weighing a bit more. It is not a substantial difference and tarps are commonly very light as well. We are talking about a 1-2 pounds range, so the tarp won’t slow you down significantly.

Besides being lightweight, footprints are usually easier to pack to a small size. Tarps may be a bit bulkier.

So, while both products are lightweight and portable, footprints come out on top in this segment.

Generally speaking, if you are a backpacker, you’ll want to shed every ounce. Therefore, a footprint will be a better option to protect your tent floor.

For car camping, tarp’s versatility is more important than a few ounces of added weight.

Tarps vs Footprints Durability 

Winner: Tarp

Both tarps and tent footprints are made to last, so this was a tough one to call. The quality and durability of both products rise along with the price. So, the top class of each product will outlast the middle or bottom-end products.

But, if you’re looking for the most durable type, it would be a vinyl tarp. These types are usually made for industrial use, but some of them are suitable for camping as well. They are a bit heavier but will withstand almost anything you throw at them.

Footprints are also very durable. Manufacturers use special weaving techniques to make them sturdy and tear-resistant.

So, durability shouldn’t be an issue whatever you choose, but the most durable products will be on the tarp side.

Performance on Different Terrains

Winner: Footprint

Camping on grassland is a perfect scenario for your tent floor. Unfortunately, you’re more likely to pitch a tent on more abrasive surfaces like dirt, sand, or rocky grounds. 

The rougher the terrain, the more important your groundsheet becomes. While both tarps and footprints will protect the tent’s flooring, footprints are probably slightly better.

The reason is that they match the tent perfectly. Yes, you can and should adjust the tarp to fit the tent floor.

But, if you camp on sandy ground, for example, it is more likely that some sand will seep in between the tarp and the tent floor. And any movement inside the tent will cause abrasion and ultimately some damage.

It can happen with a footprint as well, but it is less likely. 

In this category, we have only analyzed tent floor protection. The margin is small, but a perfect fit and anti-abrasive properties make the footprint a winner in this segment.

Tarps vs Footprints Weather Resistance

Winner: Tarp

Footprints aren’t created to protect the tent from the elements, but they are helpful. Ground-level water may find a way to enter the tent if the bottom is not highly waterproof. An additional layer offers more protection, especially if the footprint is waterproof, too.

However, some footprints are solely designed to prevent mechanical damage. Yes, they will slow down the water, but eventually, it will reach the tent floor from the outside. It depends on the tent floor if it will get through.

On the other hand, all tarps, apart from canvas-made ones, are waterproof. So, you just need to make sure to set it properly to prevent water from getting in between the tent floor and the tarp.

Besides keeping the tent floor dry, tarps can offer protection from above or from the sides as well. The tarp is a perfect, waterproof cover for the roof. It can also block wind or the sun. Most tarps are UV resistant as well.

Ease of Pitching Over Tarp or Footprint

Winner: Footprint

Some campers find pitching a tent a cumbersome task. Yes, there are instant and pop up tents to save you the trouble. But, a tent footprint is also helpful to set up the tent quicker.

With matching webbings and grommets, once you lay your footprint on the ground, it will be easy to set corner pegs properly and erect the tent.

Tarps have grommets as well, but since they are not designed to match a tent, they won’t be helpful when pitching a tent.

Tarps vs Footprints Price

Winner: Tarp

Let’s face it, price always matters. Even if we can afford more expensive options we want to get value for our money.

Tarps are generally very affordable. Polyester and polyethylene tarps can cost as low as a couple of bucks. Nylon tarps can cost from $20 up to $100, while heavy-duty vinyl tarps can be even more expensive.

But, for camping, you won’t need anything that costs more than $20-$30.

Footprints are specifically designed to fit a certain tent model(s) and it makes them more expensive. Usually, they cost between $30 and $100 and the price pretty much reflects the price of the respective tent.

Overall, with poly tarps, you’ll get great value at a very low price while footprints will cost you more, but they’ll fit the tent perfectly.

Tarps vs Footprints Coverage and Fit

Winner: A footprint if you use one tent and a tarp if you switch between different tents. .

A tent footprint is designed to match a particular tent, so it will fit the tent perfectly. On the other hand, you are limited to using the footprint with a single tent model. 

Also, if you want to replace your old tent, you’ll have to choose exactly the same size or even the same model to be able to use your old footprint.

Most tarps will provide enough coverage for any tent. That’s what tarps are all about – versatility. 

But your tarp won’t be a perfect fit. If the tarp is larger than the tent floor area, water and dew will easily accumulate between the tarp and the tent floor. Instead of protecting, it will increase the chance for water to enter the tent.

So, make sure to fold and adjust your tarp to make it fit

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I Really Need A Footprint or Tarp for The Tent?

It depends on the campsite selection and your preferences.

Rough and abrasive surfaces such as sandy soil or rocky ground can deteriorate the tent floor. Any floor tear will allow water, dirt, or creepy crawlies to get into the tent.

Grasslands and mossy forest floors are not that hard on the tent bottom. So, as long as you make sure to remove sticks, branches, and rocks, you can use your tent without a footprint or tarp.

If you want to extend the lifespan of your tent, a footprint or tarp will help a lot. The tarp can come in handy for several other tasks as we have discussed above.

But, if you prefer to go ultra-lightweight, you can do without a groundsheet. The tent floor is usually tougher and more waterproof than the rest of the tent. If you choose softer and clean camping spots, the tent floor can last even without the use of the groundsheet.

Can I DIY a Tarp or Footprint?

Making a DIY footprint is simple and it can save you a couple of dollars. You need fabric, a grommet kit, and scissors.

You can use polyester or polyethylene fabric, although they require edge-sealing to avoid fraying. You can fuse or singe the edges with weak flame or heat.

Tyvec and polycro are also often used as they are affordable and easily cut down to desired dimensions. Tyvec is more durable and also cheaper while polycro is lighter.

With a hammer and grommet kit, it is very easy to attach grommets

Many campers prefer the DIY option as it allows them to choose every aspect of the tarp – size, material, features, and price.

What Is The Perfect Size of A Footprint?

A footprint should be a perfect match or slightly shorter than your tent base. Most experts will recommend a few inches shorter dimensions.

The golden rule is it should never be larger than the tent floor. It’s the only way to prevent water from pooling between the footprints and the tent bottom.

What Is The Perfect Size of The Tarp?

It depends what you want to use it for. If you want to use it as a tent footprint, the same rules apply to tarps. 

For other uses, it depends on the size of whatever you want to cover with a tarp. The most common size is probably 10 by 10 ft, but the size range is huge, starting with 5’ by 7’ with basically no upper limit.

Conclusion

Footprints will extend the life of your tent immensely. Also, they fit respective tents perfectly and provide help with positioning and pitching a tent. 

Tarps may not fit your tent perfectly, but they can easily be adjusted. Unmatched versatility and many uses in all weather conditions make the tarp one of the best pieces of camping gear.

While we have discussed many reasons to choose one or another, avid campers often have both. Now you know what they do and how effective these products are. The rest is up to you.

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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.