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When to urge to go ultralight took hold, I started looking for lighter alternative to pieces of gear I previously hadn’t thought twice about.
Last week I turned my critical gaze to groundsheets (AKA ground cloths). To learn more about them, I hunkered down in my room and spent hours researching the available options.
I learned that buying a good, lightweight groundsheet doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor. In fact, most groundsheets cost very little.
Here are 5 of the most popular lightweight options in use today.
Note: hikers and brands use the names “groundsheets”, “ground cloths”, “tent floors”, and “tent footprints” to refer to this type of product. You’ll see these variations throughout the article.
1. Polycro Ground Cloths: A Popular Lightweight Option
One look at the specs and it’s easy to see why:
Specs – Solo Size
- Weight: 1.2 – 1.6 oz
- Dimensions: 30″ – 40″ wide, 96″ long
Specs – Duo Size
- Weight: 2.4 – 3.65 oz
- Dimensions: 60″ – 72″ wide, 96″ long
Polycro is one of the cheapest and lightest ground cloths available. Buy yours from a cottage gear maker and the dimensions will be appropriate for using it as a ground cloth. But if they aren’t to your liking you can always trim your sheet to size with scissors.
While not the toughest ground cloth out there, Polycro is respectably tough — especially for the price and weight. According to MLD it is also more waterproof than Silnylon and Tyvek. Unlike Tyvek, it is not particularly crinkly or noisy.
There are a couple minor downsides to Polycro:
First, it doesn’t breathe so you can expect it to collect condensation overnight. To dry it you can hang it while you’re eating breakfast or lay it out in a sunny patch of grass during a snack break.
Second, because these sheets are made from the same material as window shrink film they can shrink slightly when exposed to high heat — up to 2 inches in width and 5 inches in length. Hikers who have tested it out report this happens at temperatures over 110° F.
Overall Polycro offers great bang for your buck. Treat it well and clean your campsite properly and it will last you a while.
2. Window Shrink Film: The Same Thing as Polycro, But Cheaper?
While doing research for this article, multiple times I came across the claim that Polycro is actually the exact same thing as window shrink film (AKA window shrink wrap or window insulation film).
At first I was skeptical. Then, I read on Gossamer Gear’s product page for their Polycro ground cloths that “these sheets are made from shrink film”.
Shrink films popular among backpackers — like those from Duck Brand and Frost King — are actually cheaper than Polycro groundsheets from cottage gear companies. If you aren’t against trimming the film to size, I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t want to go with this option.
Just make sure the film is long enough for you (the Extra Large Window and Patio Door options are longer, or pick up a multi-window sheet that you can trim). Also look for around 0.75 mm thickness — the same thickness as Gossamer Gear’s Polycro.
Duck Brand sells a 5-window sheet which is 0.7 mm thick, and you can also find the stuff at most hardware stores. It will make 2-3 groundsheets depending on your height.
3. Tyvek: Durable & Affordable
Tyvek (AKA house wrap) is a classic ground cloth material for a few reasons:
- It’s durable. In fact Tyvek is one of the most durable options on this list, maybe the most durable.
- It’s affordable. A number of hikers reported picking theirs up for free at a home construction site. You can also buy it online.
- It’s water-resistant yet breathable.
Tyvek’s main downside is its weight. It’s roughly 4x heavier than the more ‘ultralight’ options listed above. For that reason, many hikers have replaced their Tyvek ground cloths with Polycro or window shrink film.
(It’s also noisy, but you can reduce the noise easily.)
If you buy online, the challenge is usually finding the right size. A brand called Campcovers currently sells a 3 foot by 7 foot sheet on Amazon sized for backpacking.
Also, know that there are multiple types of Tyvek: a “construction grade” version and “cloth grade” version. The cloth version is thinner and thus not as durable or water-resistant.
It can be hard to distinguish between the two online. A tip: the cloth version is sometimes marketed as kite-making material. The construction version is also called home wrap or house wrap.
4. Mylar Emergency Thermal Blankets: Cheap, Light, & Warm
Emergency thermal blankets (AKA emergency space blankets) first came across my radar when I saw Andrew Skurka recommending them as an ultralight groundsheet.
He explains his choice by saying that a Mylar blanket is “comparable in expense, weight, and durability as Polycryo, but it is warmer because the Mylar reflects radiant heat.”
Digging deeper, I ran across many hikers that disagreed with Skurka on the durability point — saying that Mylar brand blankets actually tear easier than Polycro.
They also pointed out that Mylar blankets are noisy and crinkly. Unlike Tyvek, there is no way to quiet them down.
There are more durable emergency thermal blankets, such as SOL Emergency Blankets, which are also supposed to be quieter. They’re heavier and pricier than Mylar blankets.
5. Dyneema (Cuben Fiber) Ground Cloths: The Insanely Expensive Option
Have you ever felt compelled to drop a ton of money on a Dyneema (Cuben Fiber) ground cloth?
Yeah, me neither.
If you only go for the primo gear though, this is the one for you.
A few ultralight backpacking gear companies sell these, either fitted to their tents or at common groundsheet and tent footprint dimensions.
So what do you get for the super premium price?
Well, you’d think they’d be lighter than popular budget options like Polycro…but you’d be wrong. They’re heavier. Durability-wise, it’s unclear that you’re getting anything more tear- or puncture-resistant than Tyvek. Dyneema is waterproof…but so is Polycro.
So for much more money you get something with no clear advantages to the cheaper options.
In my opinion (and I’m not alone), this is going too far. There are better things to spend your money on.
Here is who offers them:
- Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben DCF Ground Cloth
- Zpacks Bathtub Groundsheet
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ground Cloth
How to Choose the Right Groundsheet for Your Needs
Beyond weight and your budget, here are the important things to consider when selecting your groundsheet.
If you’re using your groundsheet as a tent footprint, most hikers advocate that it be a few inches smaller than your tent floor so that it doesn’t catch rainwater and channel it underneath your tent.
If you’re using your groundsheet with your backpacking tarp, first you’ll need to consider whether one or two people will be using the tarp.
For one person, ground cloths from cottage gear companies range from 25″-40″ wide to 84″-96″ long.
For two people, ground cloths range from 50″-72″ wide with the same lengths as one-person ground cloths.
Remember that if your ground cloth is too big, unless it’s fitted to your tarp you can always trim it to size with scissors.
Durability: Tear-, Puncture-, & Abrasion-Resistance
The easiest way to make your ground cloth last longer is to always pick a good site to pitch your tent or tarp and to clear the ground of anything that could damage it — sticks, stones, pinecones…the usual suspects.
If you still need an extra durable ground cloth, generally more durable ground cloths are heavier ground cloths.
On the lesser end of the durability spectrum you have Mylar space blankets, window shrink film, and Polycro. They’re all comparable in weight.
On the greater end of the durability spectrum lie Tyvek and Dyneema which are heavier.
Based on my research Tyvek seems to be the most durable option. Dyneema is also known for its durability but there weren’t enough reviews by hikers who owned Dyneema ground cloths to get a sense for how long they lasted.
Noisiness & Crinkliness
Anyone who’s used a crinkly backpacking pillow will know that a piece of gear made of noisy material can make a good night’s sleep in the backcountry that much more difficult. Ground cloths are no exception.
Tyvek also crinkles loudly, but if you wash it in the washing machine without any detergent a number of times it will get softer and less noisy. It will also soften with use.
As for the other options — Polycro, window shrink film, and Dyneema — I didn’t run across any hikers complaining about them being noisy. Mountain Laurel Designs even goes so far as to say on their site that Polycro “is fairly quiet and is NOT crinkly or noisy.”
Bathtub vs. Flat (Traditional) Groundsheets
Up to now I’ve been talking about flat groundsheets. A couple cottage gear companies make bathtub groundsheets for their tents, and a couple offer custom shapes.
What is a bathtub groundsheet? As Zpacks puts it:
“[Bathtub groundsheets] have a wall folded up around the perimeter to protect you from ground water and rain spray. Loops at the corners clip to the corners of your shelter to hold the walls up.”
Bathtub groundsheets are pricier and heavier. But if you’re worried about getting wet at night they might be worth considering.
Here are the companies that sell them:
- Zpacks — sized to fit Zpacks Hexamid Tents
- Trekkertent — sized to fit the Trekkertent Stealth Tarp and “most other tarps”
- Bear Paw Wilderness Designs — many sizes & custom shapes available
- OookWorks — many sizes & custom shapes available
I imagine this isn’t a huge concern for most people. I’m throwing this out there just in case.
A final minor spec to consider is the color of your ground cloth. I ran across comments from a few hikers saying they appreciated how Tyvek made it easier to spot small pieces of gear.
Alternatively, other hikers liked that Polycro is clear because it allowed them to see any sticks or stones they might have missed when clearing their campsite.