Do I Need to Put a Tarp Under My Tent?


Sometimes you bring gear with you to the campground simply because your parents or your friends always did it that way. This is how I felt about why to bring a tarp on a camping trip! I decided to compile a few reasons why you should consider bringing one–some of which I’ve learned from personal experience, and some from research, so you can see it all in one place.

Do I need a tarp underneath my tent? Although a tarp isn’t necessarily the best available ground cloth option for all circumstances, it is sufficient for most car campers. A tarp under your tent protects the underside of the tent from wear and tear, nominally insulates, as well as prevents water from entering by acting as a moisture barrier.

Although it seems simple enough to just put a tarp under your tent, there are some gotchas and even some differing opinions of whether it’s a good idea in the first place. Here are some reasons to consider toting a tarp along with your tent, as well as some guidelines of how to prevent water buildup.

Reasons to Put a Tarp Under Your Tent

Protect Your Tent

Sometimes your campground is going to have tent sites with a nice patches of green grass on gentle slope, with bugs that mind their own business. I’m slightly exaggerating when I say sometimes.

Every other time, you’ll be on gravel, roots, dirt, or even plain rock (in some Texas parks, you’ll be sleeping on limestone!) It’s not atypical for car campgrounds to only allow you to put up a tent on a pad, or in some other designated area–so you don’t always get to choose the perfect spot to set up your tent.

When you’re camping, your tent is your castle, and it becomes massively important to keep bugs and water out. Thus, any holes can have unpleasant consequences, such as unplanned roommates of the 6 to 8-legged variety.

Because you are moving around (even slightly) while you are sleeping/packing/changing/chilling inside your tent, you are effectively rubbing the underside of your tent against rocks, twigs, and roots. That friction can tear up your tent.

Keeping a tarp underneath your tent is an extra layer of protection that will extend the longevity of your tent.

Keep Out Moisture

Water, water, everywhere, but please, not inside my tent.

Water condenses from the air when the air loses the energy that keeps water molecules apart. So when warm air cools down, water droplets will form. A glass of ice water on a hot day demonstrates this nicely.

The earth retains heat from the sun during the night, and when the temperature is the coldest (right before dawn) is when dew will form, because the warm earth is cooling off and is losing the energy to keep water molecules together.

Your tarp helps out in a few ways in this regard.

  1. Your tarp keeps your tent away from touching the dew covered ground. Yay!
  2. The tent can act as a vapor barrier between your tent and the ground, which can help prevent in-tent condensation.
  3. Your tarp can protect you from running water while it’s raining (it’s best to avoid pitching your tent where the land dips and water collects), and also from an already soaked ground

Keep your tent clean

Sometimes, your campground doesn’t have a lot of options, and the ground can be muddy.

Obviously, there isn’t a contest after your camping trip to see how clean your tent is, but keeping the exterior of your tent clean is important, as it makes it easier to deal with–especially if you are going to be moving from place to place.

Mud and sticky pine needles can be a pain to take care of, and getting your tarp dirty is preferable because it is easier to wash.

Reasons Not to Bring a Tarp

A tarp or a ground cloth is probably in the unessential item category, because it’s VERY helpful only in some situations, while in others it’s only a nice to have. If you want to save space in your car camping kit, here are some reasons why you might be okay without one:

  • If you know your campsite is a soft bed and isn’t likely to have unmovable, pokey, objects, then you will be fine without a ground cloth
  • If condensation is not a problem in your climate, or in other words, you are camping somewhere it doesn’t get too cold and it’s not humid, then you may not need any moisture control
  • Another item to bring is another item to fold and stow away
  • Camping in the sand. Sand will wick away any moisture and is soft enough that it won’t cause problems to the underside to your tent. Since sand is sand, after all, you are going to need to clean our your tent after your trip no matter what you do (unless you are a post-campout-tent-shaking master). That being said, if you have unpatched holes in the bottom-side of your tent, then maybe putting a tarp underneath will prevent that dreaded sand from getting all over the inside of your tent faster than it inevitably will. Sand still is sand, after all

Why you Might Want to Bring One Anyway

If you aren’t planning on using your tarp as a ground cloth, make sure and bring some rope and your tarp can help out in a couple of other awesome ways:

  • If you are going to try sleeping in a hammock, then a tarp can be your only hope of staying dry. Using your tarp and some rope, you can suspend the tarp in an A shape to protect you from the rain. I had a great experience camping one night after setting up a tarp over my hammock, and it rained several times that night. I did an okay job, considering I was by myself and wasn’t as good at knots back then. Only one edge of my hammock got wet 🙂
  • Tarps can be excellent wind shelters.
  • Parachut… just kidding… don’t try that.

Summary from Personal Experience

The campgrounds I’ve been to have had all sorts of terrain, and I’ve managed to stay dry (at least that I can remember) with my cheap blue tarp and my tent’s rain fly. I’ve been using the same tent for the past 5 years (less than $60), and I think I can attribute some of that success to my good ol’ tarp.

Sometimes having another piece of gear to clean and maintain and fold is a bit of a hassle but it’s been worth it so far. I’ve learned also from researching for this post there’s a lot of other methods out there, some ranging from no ground cloth at all, to using trash bags! Don’t think too hard about the perfect ground cloth treatment, since obviously many people find success with varying methods. Keep adventure simple!

Related Questions

How big of a ground cloth should I get?

To keep things simple, you can get a ground cloth that is slightly larger than footprint of your tent.

Note! Since your tarp is larger than the size of the tent and if you do not fold it properly, then you have created a little pond! Make sure and fold the tarp properly to ensure the water runs off.

Make sure to tuck the tarp inwards, with the edges folded underneath the tent so that the tarp matches the size of your tent (we’re trying to get water to run from your tent and not to it).

Tarp correctly tucked downwards
Tarp incorrectly tucked upwards

Does it Matter Which Type of Tarp/Ground Cloth I Use?

There are several options for “ground cloths”. After researching this topic it I learned out there are dozens of materials that you can use! Ultimately, your climate is what dictates how a particular ground cloth will perform. If you’re a beginner, I recommend going with a simple, cheap tarp so you can get camping.

Listed below are some common options for ground cloths:

Tent Footprints

Tent manufacturers will often make a “footprint” which is designed specifically to fit the dimensions of a particular tent. From my research, people have varying degrees of success with their footprint for moisture control and protection. It’s likely they vary in quality along with the tent. This is generally the most expensive option, and it’s likely you can get some of the same benefits without the price using other options.

Tyvek

Tyvek is used as a moisture barrier for houses. You’ve seen it before when a building is under construction before they put the siding on. Some campers use this as a barrier for their tents. This requires a little DIY since the material doesn’t come in convenient rectangles handy for tents.

Painter’s Drop Cloth

You can buy plastic painter’s drop cloth, used to collect paint, dust, and drywall debris when painting. Since it’s essentially a sheet of impervious plastic, it will also work great for a waterproof barrier.

Tarpaulin (Tarp)

Ahh, the good ol’ tarp. Tarps can be purchased from your local hardware store with varying thickness and weight. For occasional car camping, a tarp that’s in the medium thickness range will work fine. There’s no need to get the thickest tarp available unless you will be camping on extremely rough surfaces regularly.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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