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|Top Pick: Underground Quilts SilPoly Hanger Tarp|
|Budget Pick: YUEDGE Waterproof Rain Tarp|
|Ultralight Pick: Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp|
|Runner-up: Aqua Quest Guide Tarp|
|Upgrade Pick: Zpacks Flat Tarp|
When we set out on a new backpacking or hiking adventure, it’s critical to decide on what type of shelter makes the most sense. Tents have long been the baseline standard for backpacking shelter. Many different types of shelter exist, however, and they’ve been used in various fashions over the years.
Tents, as we’ve said, are the most common. They’re easy to use, lightweight, and nearly foolproof. Other options include the camping hammock. This more recent phenomenon includes a hammock outfitted for sleeping comfortably and covered by a rainproof tarp and bug net.
Another option is the backpacking tarp. Made from waterproof and lightweight fabrics, these are some of the lightest available shelters for backpacking today. They’re simple, versatile, and can be purchased in sizes from solo to group use. Let’s find out what the best options are on the market today and how to choose the best backpacking tarp for your next adventure.
Top Pick: Underground Quilts SilPoly Hanger Tarp
Since I discovered Underground Quilts, I’ve been using them for the majority of my backpacking gear.
Because their gear is lightweight, thoughtfully designed, and reasonably priced. I personally use this tarp from UGQ.
If you’ve read my reviews before, you’ll know that I look for products that I feel are the best balance of lightness and cost. It can cost hundreds of dollars in backpacking gear just to save a few ounces. That’s not the case with the Hanger Tarp, however.
Made from SilPoly (silicone impregnated polyester), this tarp is lightweight, durable, and cost-effective when compared to many other options.
You’ll need to seam seal this tarp yourself after receiving it or pay a little extra to have UGQ do it for you. If you go the DIY route be sure to check out our guide to the best seam sealers so you can find the right sealer for your needs.
Budget Pick: YUEDGE Waterproof Rain Tarp
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This backpacking tarp is for those on a tight budget only.
With just four tie-outs, one at each corner, and no reinforcement, there’s a good chance it won’t last as long as more robust tarps. Having so few tie-outs on a nearly 10’ x 10’ tarp means you’ll be hard pressed to get a good pitch on the tarp and you may even experience some serious slack problems in your tarp pitch.
However, at an undeniably low price, it’s a good option for those that just can’t justify more pricey options. With a little DIY sewing (r/MYOG is a good resource for beginners), you could easily reinforce the corner tie-outs and add in several more along the length of the tarp.
Thus, with a little ingenuity, you might just have yourself a ridiculously affordable tarp to get started backpacking. At just over 2 pounds, though, it certainly leaves room to upgrade in the future when your budget can afford a higher quality tarp or when this one no longer meets your needs.
Ultralight Pick: Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Cuben Fiber
Cuben Fiber is an incredible material which has allowed backpacking gear manufacturers to create some of the lightest backpacking gear ever. This Cuben Fiber tarp from MLD weighs in at just 5.5 ounces. It measures 7′ x 9′ and is made from some of the most advanced Mylar and Dyneema composites on the market today.
Of course, these lightweight materials come with a few drawbacks. The tapered design means you won’t have much room to get out of the rain so you’ll need to be perfect at pitching your tarp. Cuben Fiber is also notoriously vulnerable to puncture damage, particularly when under tension. So, you’ll want to be particularly careful about what’s around your tarp when you pitch it. You might also need to carry some extra duct tape to patch up any holes.
Drawbacks aside, if you’re willing to spend top dollar and fully understand the limitations of Cuben Fiber, the MLD Grace Tarp is a top ultralight option.
Runner-up: Aqua Quest Guide Tarp
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When it comes to finding tarps readily available from major retailers either online or at your local store, we’re usually left with zero good options.
Fortunately, many manufacturers of lightweight and simple Silnylon backpacking tarps are beginning to get their products in the right places! With Prime shipping, you can have this lightweight Silnylon tarp at your door in two days.
At just 17.6oz, this backpacking tarp is a similar weight to some of the (more expensive) cottage industry tarps. It’s made from two pieces of Silnylon with five tie-outs along each side. You’ll save money compared to high-end tarps, and you’ll get a product that’ll work for a majority of hikers in most situations.
Of course, it’s lacking some advanced features like cat-cut ergonomics, but that’s not a big deal in my opinion. I like the low price, easy availability, and versatility offered by this tarp. That’s why I named it our Runner-up.
Upgrade Pick: Zpacks Flat Tarp
If you’re prepared to splurge and on a quest for an ultralight, high-quality backpacking tarp, then the Zpacks Flat Tarp is for you. There are lighter options — such as the MLD Grace Tarp mentioned above — but this is a great upgrade for weight savings and size luxury.
This tarp can be bought in several sizes, but I recommend the 8.5’ x 10’ model as it’s the best balance of size to weight for most applications. If you go much smaller, most hikers will find it difficult to stay out of inclement weather. Any bigger, however, just isn’t necessary unless you’re looking for a two-person tarp.
At just 7.7 ounces, this tarp is lighter than most other options we’ve reviewed while still being luxuriously large. With 12 perimeter tie-outs, you’ll be able to pitch in any configuration without difficulty. This offers great flexibility when conditions or location force you to pitch your tarp unconventionally. Watch out though, because this high-tech tarp costs quite a bit.
How to Choose the Best Backpacking Tarp for Your Needs
Choosing the right backpacking tarp is a balance of understanding your needs, limitations, preferences, and budget. Today’s backpacking tarps can be made from what seems to be an endless list of complicated materials and designs. Let’s talk a little more about how to pick out a tarp with the best features for you.
Of course, the most obvious factor is weight. The lighter your tarp, generally, the more you’re going to pay for it. Be prepared to shell out big bucks for top ultralight tarps. If you’re willing to carry a tarp in the range of 16oz or more, then you can probably find a pretty cheap option for your needs.
Backpacking tarps are most often made of three main materials:
- Cuben Fiber (or Dyneema composite)
Of these materials, Silpoly is the cheapest though not always the heaviest. Silnylon is a little stronger and more expensive, it can range from lightweight to heavyweight. Cuben Fiber is the most expensive, by far, but also the lightest.
Cuben Fiber has the advantage of being totally waterproof and can be fused by heat welding. This means it can, potentially, have a totally waterproof center seam with no stitching required. Many manufacturers use stitching anyway to help ensure the highest quality seam possible by physically joining all the Cuben Fiber layers.
Silnylon and Silpoly tarps are durable and waterproof and can last for many seasons. They’re probably the best balance of price, weight, and versatility for the majority of hikers.
One thing to think about when picking out your tarp is the tie-outs. Tarps with more perimeter tie outs provide more options for versatile pitching. They can be pitched in many shapes and configurations by the crafty hiker.
Another popular upgrade feature is catenary cut tarps. These tarps use an engineering concept called a catenary curve to remove any slack from the pitch of the tarp. This is both good and bad. It means the tarp can only be pitched in the position for which it is engineered. However, when the tarp is pitched this way it can achieve a nearly flawlessly taught pitch.
You’ll want to consider how many people and how much gear you’ll need to store under your tarp. For a solo hiker with an ultralight gear load, it’s possible to get away with a tarp as small as 7’ x 9’ — even less in some situations. However, this often leaves inexperienced hikers exposed to rain and wind.
A more reasonable starting size is 8’ x 10’ for most applications. For two hikers, a 10’ x 10’ shelter is more than reasonable and will still be quite lightweight. Don’t go larger than 10’ x 10’ unless you have a specific reason. Often it can be hard to find room to pitch a tarp larger than that, and they’re usually just not needed.