How to Set Up A Tarp Over A Tent

Tarps are one of the most helpful and versatile items you should have with you on your next camping trip. They are inexpensive, easy to pack and have a variety of different uses. For example, they can be used to make your tent a drier and more comfortable place to stay by being suspended directly over your tent.

How do I set up a tarp over a tent? The simplest tarp shelter, called the A-frame shelter, is created by creating a taut guyline between objects over your tent. Guyline tension, tarp height and properly placed driplines are essential for a successful tarp shelter.

Using a tarp in harsh weather is a wonderful way to buy you and your fellow campers some relief from the elements. Tarps can be hung up over your tent in a number of different ways, depending on your needs, your abilities, and the resources available to you. There is no real reason that you shouldn’t consider buying a tarp and learning about all the ways you can use it to your benefit. 

By the way, as an Amazon Associate, I earn when buying qualified products through links on my site.

Why You Need a Tarp 

The great philosopher Swanson, when asked about sheets of tarp given to a group of Boy Scouts, once said: “That is a canvas sheet. The most versatile object known to man. It can be used to make tents, backpacks, shoes, stretchers, sails, tarpaulins and I suppose in the most dire of circumstances it can be a surface on which to make ‘art’.” If we are to learn anything from this great man it is this: tarps are an amazing tool, and like any good tool we need to learn how to use it effectively. 

You Need a Tarp Because: 

  • If you, heaven forbid, forget the tent, then you have an extra option for an impressive impromptu shelter to protect you from the rain and wind. 
  • You need a dry place to sleep, eat, cook food, and create a fire. 
  • You can pitch your tent on top of a tarp as an extra layer of protection between you and the ground. This is will make it even easier to pack away your nice, dry tent. Packing away a dirty, wet tent into an already smelly and damp car is easily my least favorite part of camping. Here is another article we have written about why this is helpful.
  • I already mentioned you need a tarp for sleeping but I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. Sleeping in a dry, warm, well-ventilated tent will make all the difference. 

Shelter Terminology

This quick list of words related to shelter building will be found to be helpful when you do more research on how to improve your shelter.

Ridgeline: This is the line created when you stake in your tent poles, and it is where you will be putting your tent. 

Widowmakers: Dead trees that have not fallen down all the way yet. Avoid building your shelter below these.

A-Frame: This is one of the most popular forms of a tarp shelter. It is created by laying the tarp on the ridgeline and then staking down the tarp on either side to create an A-looking frame. 

Apex: The highest part of the shelter you are building 

Windbreaker: Another way to protect yourself from the wind is to create a Windbreaker. This is simply any structure that is set up to block incoming wind from a specific direction. 

Guyline: A cord used to secure a tarp to the ground. 

Taut: To make tight, stretched out. 

How to Make a Simple A-Frame Tarp Shelter

This a-frame tarp shelter is being used without a tent, but this versatile shelter can be set up anywhere

Before you start: 

  • Make sure you pick a spot that has some good trees that are far enough away from each other so you can create your ridgeline on them. 
  • Check up above to make sure there are no widowmakers above you and all dead branches have fallen. 
  • Choose a flat location that has a slight slope so the water that collects on the ground will flow away from your site.
  • Clear any extra debris so you can set up your tent comfortably. 

A-Frame Shelter Building

  1. Wrap your cordage around a nearby tree, pole, or any other structure that is securely staked down. Find another nearby structure to tie the other end in order to create your ridgeline. Try to tie the cordage higher than you think it needs to be; you can adjust this as needed later. 
  2. Lay your tarp on top and spread it out as much as you can. 
  3. Stake down the 4 corners of the tarp through the holes provided with your guylines. Make sure to do this fairly taut so that rain can flow away from the tent effectively. 

Important Note

Make sure to think about how rain will fall from the tarp you just constructed. I used this technique to keep water away from me in my hammock, but I misjudged the tautness of my guylines. Because of this, the pocket that I was keeping my phone in overnight was acting like a strainer for water, my phone was the spaghetti, and the water collecting from the tarp was pouring directly over my iPhone 5. Needless to say, keep your lines tight. 

Consider throwing some water from a bucket over the tarp beforehand to test the durability of the tarp line. 

After you Set-up

Create a “dripline” on your ridgeline. This is simply a piece of rope on the outside of the tarp on the ridgeline that diverts the water that collects on the ridgeline from the lowest part of the ridgeline, which is of course where the tarp is weighing down the cordage. Tie this dripline on both sides of the ridgeline a few inches from the tarp. The simplest knot to use here is a Prusik knot.  

Knot Terminology 

For your own benefit, I have also included various terminology of making knots that will come in handy as you continue learning about the following knots listed as well as other knots you decide to learn in the future. Also, it’s always nice to sound like you know what you are doing! 

Working End: This is the part of a rope that is used to make a knot, as in the part of your laces that you hold with your thumbs when you tie your shoes. 

Standing End: Part of the rope not being used to tie a knot.

Tail: This is basically the part of the rope that isn’t the working end. This is usually the part that is connected to something else, such as the ground or a tent. 

Loop: Exactly what it sounds like. This is created when you cross a rope around itself or cross two ropes over each other, such as in a sheet bend knot or a taut-line hitch. 

Bight: This is like a loop, but this is created when the rope is folded itself and not adjacent to each other. This will be important when you start to tie your own knots. 

Hitch: As a knot is used to join two ropes or a rope to itself, a hitch is used to attach a rope to a different object, such as a tree, a truck, a pole, etc. 

Elbow: This is formed by making an extra twist in a loop

Knots to Know

Bowline Knot

This knot can be found in every culture around the world that has a history of relying on the sea for food and transportation. This knot is used for securing a rope to some sort of cylinders, such as a tree or tent poles. You can use this knot to secure a bear bag to a tree, hang up a hammock, and for creating a ridgeline for your tarp shelter. 

How to Tie a Bowline Knot
Here is a Youtube video on how to tie this knot
  1. Make a “Q” shape with the rope, crossing one end of the rope over the top of the other portion of the rope. 
  2. Pass the working end of the rope through the loop that you just created from behind along the remaining rope. This should create a new and larger loop next to your “Q”. 
  3. You will then pass the short part of the end rope around the back of the leftover rope and then do this again, passing through the small loop of the “Q” from the front this time. 
  4. Pull the knot closed and the created larger loop will be wrapped around the cylinder you want to secure the rope to. 


This is a very easy knot to learn and is found in many other knots, so learning this is very helpful for readers who want to learn more knots. Usually, this is not extremely secure, so consider doubling-up to feel more stable when using this for your rain-fly or tarp. This is a very simple and quick knot to learn how to tie, so be sure to practice this one! 

How to Tie a Half Hitch Knot
Here is a Youtube video for how to tie this knot
  1. Run a loop around the object you are attaching the rope to.
  2. Pass the working end of the rope around the standing end of the rope and through the loop you created. 

Prusik Knot

This knot can be used to create the dripline.

  1. Take a small length of rope (can be a foot long or so)
  2. Fold your length of rope in half
  3. Put the loop end directly above the guyline
  4. Put the working ends (since it’s folded) through the loop around the guyline
  5. Tighten the knot with the working ends facing the ground so water will drip there


You truly cannot go wrong with bringing a nice tarp with you on your next camping trip. It can be used as a supplement for the shelter you already have as well as be used as a shelter itself. They are relatively easy to find at the store, they are cheap, and they can be stored in your car or backpack without making you have concern for the extra weight or space used. If you need more reasons to understand the many uses of tarps when going camping, we have written another article on their usefulness that can be found here.  


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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