I am very fortunate to have been able to successfully make the move from regular employment to self employment. One of the designed and positive outcomes of this change is a shorter working week yielding more time to enjoy family time & hobbies. Thus this little project, which seeks to address the questions:
Is tarp camping enjoyable or is it all just hype?
Can I find ways to make it comfortable and practical vs. my standards
Whilst I thought this could be a fun experiment (and it has very much been this thus far) until recently I was far from sure there really was any benefit to a tarp over a lightweight tent.
Tarp Benefits – Perceived or Real?
As with many niche hobbies, once people have invested their cash and reputation into them, they can often be far more evangelical about them than is actually justifiable. Cognitive dissonance? These are my thoughts thus far:
Perceived benefits – exploding the myths
Tarps are ultralight? This is a myth, at least today it is. Whilst the tarp itself may be very lightweight, to this you have to add a ground sheet, something to protect you from insects and often some secondary weather protection.
3 x 5m tarp (350 g) + ultralight bivvy (480 g) + groundsheet (200 g) + pegs (80 g) = 1110 g
Which compared to some of today’s solo tents isn’t at all impressive…
- Terra Nova – Laser 1 – 1050 g
- Lanshan 1 Pro – 690 g
- Nordisk – Lofoten 1 – 565 g
- Terra Nova – Laser Pulse 1 – 550 g
Even when compared to my robust and comfortable Hilleberg Enan (1200 g) the weight saving could be far more easily gained by a healthy diet than a tarp!
Tarps are quick and easy to pitch? From my own experience and from YouTube video’s I’ve seen, pitching a tarp normally involves pitching then fettling. Today’s single pole tunnel tents can be erected in around three minutes and don’t need any fettling because their design is fixed and not flexible like a tarp. The Enan goes up all in one too. My tarp, for example, has eight guys and then needs any inner shelter setting up afterwards – however fast I get, I don’t think I’ll ever get it down to three minutes. On the plus side however, though they do pitch ‘outer first’ which is great news in wet weather. They could also form a lunchtime shelter if required.
Tarps take up less space in your pack? In truth this depends on the tent you compare them against. My experimental set up is significantly lower in volume than my solo tent, but it is only about the same as one of the Terra Nova ‘Compact’ models or a Norkdisk Lofoten
Tarps can be pitched in a variety of ways / shapes? This is correct, but it’s a bit of a false positive. It is true that you can change the design of your pitch depending on the weather conditions, but this is because the different pitches are essential to make them work in that weather, it is not an added bonus. Whilst a tent usually has a preferred orientation vs. the wind direction, most will cope acceptably with a 90 degree swing in with direction. Should this happen with a tarp, you may need to re-pitch it in the night.
Real benefits – making the most of the upsides
Tarps can be pitched more easily in wooded areas / on a smaller footprint : Flexibility of pitching options does mean that you could string up some para-cord between two trees over root filled ground which is not happy to accept pegs. Also if you can only find just enough flat space to lie down, you can pitch a tarp over this and don’t have to worry about rocks or tree stumps also being under the flysheet. I can see how they could work very well on the wooded long distance trails of the USA.
And saving the best ’til last…
Tarps give you a better connection to the countryside around you : And here at last you find the reason why I plan to pursue tarp camping for a few test walks. If you are able to pitch your tarp ‘high’ you get open views all around you. You can stare up at the stars, or out at the views around you unhindered by where the tent door needs to be. The first night I spent under my pre-loved tarp was in our back garden during the UK’s July Heatwave. Having a roof over me made me feel secure, but feeling the breeze blow over me was invigorating. I could see the stars and watch the bats flitting overhead.
That first night told me that whilst a tarp is not a mountain shelter, in the right place and at the right time of year it opens you up to an outdoors experience quite different from a regular tent and one that, at least initially, has been refreshing and enjoyable.
My Tarp set-up
I shook Ebay and this is what fell out…
It is a Hilleberg Tarp 5, which weighs in at 320 g inc. guy lines but excluding pegs. It is made from their tough but lightweight SiNylon flysheet material and is an elongated pentagon shape. The extra triangular sections at the front and sides appear to have been added to allow for greater headroom at the entrance. As it is not rectangular, the number of pitching options is less numerous. Those I’ve found practical are in the slideshow below.
The quoted dimensions of this tarp are slightly misleading, and the effective protected length is really around 2.3 m (6’ 7”) rather than 3.15 m (10’ 4”). However the longest inner dimension of most modern lightweight tents is usually around 2.2 m. The received wisdom is that if you are new to tarp camping you are best to start with something larger, progressing to something smaller (and thus lighter) once you have gained some experience. I pitched mine in the back garden and assessed what area remained dry in the rain and then sought to apply some lateral thinking. For an excellent review of the Tarp 5 head over to sectionhiker.com.
This is the set up I plan to take away on my first two night wild walking test:
For me; for most people; protection from insects is essential. There is a Hilleberg mesh shelter designed to work with the Tarp 5, but even if I was willing to spend the £220 on one of these, there are none available at present. My solution has been to dig out an old tent footprint (2.2 x 1.2 m) and find, after a lot of searching, mosquito net – Sea To Summit Mosquito Pyramid Net – which is designed to be hung from 1/3 along it’s length, thus lending extra headroom and fitting with the sloping pitch of my tarp. By tying a length of 1 mm cord between the two walking poles I can can hang and peg the netting to this.
The end result is not so different from the Hilleberg version apart from it’s lack of a zipped entrance door – oh and the £200 difference in price tag. It is true that my groundsheet is not of a bath-tub design, but careful choice of site should mitigate against this limitation. By tying a generous loop of climbing cord to one of the front pegging points of the net I have an easy and visible handle to allow me to lift the front to get in and out.
I really like the Sea to Summit Netting, it being made of narrow threads and being black in colour renders it all but invisible from the inside and thus retains my connection to my surroundings – which for me is THE predominant benefit of tarp camping. Time will be the judge of it’s longevity, but at £20 it doesn’t need to last ten years.
The addition which I hope will make all the difference is this end panel
A friend of mine is skilled with a sewing machine made me a waterproof end panel to my own specification. When the bivvy is pitched in ‘storm mode’ this will fit the triangular gap at the foot end of the tarp. Not only will this reduce the amount of overhang I need to allow for rain protection at the foot end (meaning I can shift down and increase the overhang at the head end), it should also allow me to pitch the tarp like a tent, foot into the wind. The received wisdom is to pitch a tarp ‘side to the wind’ for rain protection, but this is far from ideal wrt to the wind itself. With the narrow low end of the tarp into the wind it will offer a much more streamlined profile to the elements. Also it will give me a sheltered cooking area at the head end. All this fine theory now needs to be tested out however, to check its validity.
When do I plan to use this new set up?
My view is that tarp camping is best done in moderate weather between late Spring and early Autumn. Whilst some people pitch tarps on fell tops, at least initially I plan to use mine at lower elevations and taking advantage of natural shelter where it is available.
My plan is to go away for a three day wild walk following a local section of the Lancashire Way. By staying local I can pick a good weather window. Given the low weight and volume of my tarp system I hope to be able to carry all my gear in a 35 L day pack and thus either cover greater distances or incorporate more pub stops into each day. I can actually walk from home to join a section of the Lancashire Way which also has its appeal.
Other set ups – trials and errors on the journey towards my ideal
My initial idea was that my tarp would be something I would use to add extra protection and comfort to the use of a lightweight bivvy bag. Because some kind of insect protection was essential for me this meant looking at the premium end of the bivvy range. A good shake of Ebay didn’t reveal anything at a good price so I did initially bite the bullet and buy a new Outdoor Research Helium Bivvy.
Half a night in this told me that I really didn’t like it, so this went back for a refund. Putting the lack of practicality of the confined space to one side, even with just the mesh door in place it significantly reduced my ‘connection experience’. My initial thoughts of the OR Helium were that it was very well made and just long enough for me at 5’ 11”. It is a very sexy toy, but not one for me.
I tried an evening without a bug net, but as soon as I turned my head-torch on my face was crawling with insects – I quickly concluded that some form of bug netting was essential! A further shake of the internet brought up a number of bug net options, but all of them had some kind of draw back. Many were too long for the Tarp 5 (and I do wonder if this is a cunning marketing ploy by Hilleberg to encourage you to buy their 210 cm long bug net?). Others were top entry, still others had solid ends – which is very practical, but once again breaks that visual connection to your surroundings. Had there been one with just a solid foot end that would have been ideal for my needs.
All this research led to my home made end panel, which also gained inspiration from the end removable end panels fitted to the mesh ends of my Hilleberg Enan which work really well despite not hermetically sealing the gap they cover either. I can always throw my jacket over my feet for extra protection, something I often do anyway to keep them warm.