How do you sleep comfortably under a tarp?

Golite Shangri-La 2 Tarptent
Golite Shangri-La 2 Tarptent

I am entering my next phase of backpacking to learn to like to sleep in a floorless shelter so someday I might be ready to tarp.  I recently purchased the Shangri La 2 for this transition – I’m not using the inner part, just the fly.  It weighs more than a tarp, but for my first hiking pole and floorless shelter, it is a safe bet…Now that I have spent two nights ‘closer to nature’ I have so many newbie questions about how you guys sleep in tarps in the open.  Have you ever had creepies join you in the night?  I was so warm Saturday night, I kept thinking why wouldn’t a mouse or snake want to come in and join me!   How do you keep your stuff clean?  If you are only using a small ground cover under your pad – doesn’t your bag touch the ground when you toss and turn? How do you use the hiking poles if the ground is frozen

These are all great questions.

First off, shelters that have a removable inner tent are a great way to ease into tarp camping. A lot of tarp campers use an inner tent like this during bug season or in wet climates too. You also inner tents used by people who have shaped tarps like pyramids.

Tarp Sleep System: Bivy Sack, Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad and a Moose
Tarp Sleep System: Bivy Sack, Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad and a Moose

A Tarp Sleep System

Next, I’ve never had “a creepy”, like a mouse, spider, snake, or slug join me under a tarp at night. I don’t think they’re as interested in me as they are their normal food sources or my food bag.

I also decided fairly early on in my tarp career that I needed a sleeping bag cover/bivy sack  and a head net in addition to my sleeping bag or quilt as key elements of my sleep system.

Originally, this was to keep water from splashing back under a flat tarp and onto my sleeping bag when it rained. I added a head net to keep the bugs  off my face in spring and summer, and then I purchased a bivy sack that combined the two. I’ve been using that “system” – a Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight bivy sack, an inflatable sleeping pad and sleeping bag/quilt for over five years and it works great under all kinds of tarps.

In addition to protecting me from rain splash back, bugs and “creepies”, the bivy also keeps my sleeping bag or quilt on top of my sleeping pad at night because I put both of them inside the bivy sack.  The bivy also protects the inflatable pad from puncture, eliminates drafts and keeps me warmer at night.

What about that moose? I admit it. I often sleep with a stuffed animal when I camp. They make me feel safe and loved – it’s a comfort thing.

Lean-to Style Pitch where Tarp is used as its own Groundsheet
Lean-to Style Pitch where Tarp is used as its own Groundsheet

Keeping Clean under a Tarp

I usually carry some kind of ground cloth to lie on top of at night to help stay clean or dry if the ground is wet. This is often a piece of thin plastic like the kind used to shrink wrap house windows in winter. It can even be part of the tarp itself, as shown above, depending on the type of tarp you have and how you pitch it.

I also carry a small sit pad which does double duty as the removable back panel padding on my pack. I use the sit pad to sit or knee on under the tarp or in camp when I cook  for comfort, warmth, and to keep clean.

Campsite Selection: Sleeping on Forest Duff and Pine Needles
Campsite Selection: Sleeping on Forest Duff and Pine Needles

Another important factor in staying clean is campsite selection. For example, I like to camp on top of forest duff that’s composed of leaf litter and pine needles. Not only is it softer to lie on, but it doesn’t stick to you like dirt if you get it on your clothes or gear. Picking a good camp site like this is one of the skills you pick up when you camp under a tarp.

Frozen Ground

Pitching a tarp on frozen ground can be pretty frustrating if not downright comic. The problem isn’t with your hiking poles which don’t really have to penetrate the ground, but with the tent stakes you use to keep your guylines secure. I remember one trip where I had to secure five guylines in frozen ground and ended up anchoring them to exposed tree roots and even drilling holes in the ground with an ice axe pick.

Snow is a different story and much easier to use a tarp on. Instead of inserting stakes in the ground you anchor your tent using something called dead-men which you freeze into the snow. These can be special fabric or metal snow stakes, plastic shopping bags  filled with snow and buried, or even pieces of gear that you freeze in place.

If there’s snow on the ground, I usually just bring a freestanding tent instead. I’ve tried using a tarp in snow, but I’d rather use my Black Diamond Firstlight because it’s a lot more comfortable in cold weather. It also pitches in minutes, which means I can change into dry clothes faster, and doesn’t have to be staked down unless it’s quite windy. Just because you like tarps doesn’t mean you have to sleep in them all the time.

Tarp Pitches and Comfort

I get the sense that when you write about getting comfortable with tarping, you intend to use a square or rectangular flat tarp with 90 degree corners instead of a shaped one, like a pyramid or A-frame with catenary curves (here’s an article about the differences). Flat tarps can be set up in many more ways than shaped tarps, some of which are more comforting and feel safer than others. Here’s a video from that article that shows some common pitches, and here are still more flat tarp pitches.
For me, an important element of comfort is feeling safe under a tarp. The main way I get that is by pitching the edges of my tarp flush with the ground so that nothing can come at me un-announced. I can enhance this further by pitching my tarp so it encloses me on three sides, including my back, or even on all four sides, in a pyramid shape. I can also use campsite features, like a boulder or a tree to block off an entrance or make the tarp less drafty..


Thanks for asking these questions about tarp camping. If you have any more or feel like making a comment about how to get comfortable with tarp camping, chime in.

Read More:  The Top Seven Tips for Using Dry Ice for Camping

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button