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Randy's Choice: FAVORITE Camping and Hammock Tarp

Updated: 4 days ago

Choosing the BEST tarp to make all your camping adventures more comfortable!

Hammock camping is increasing in popularity. This is drawing a large number of novice hammock owners - and novice campers - into The Great Out There. Unfortunately, this also means thousands of dissatisfied campers.

In a previous article, we discussed the best practices for protecting yourself from the elements while hammock camping. Using only a tarp for shelter is a new concept for most campers with experience only in tents. In this article we will more thoroughly discuss the advantages of a larger, more versatile tarp.

For the most protection in cold and damp weather, I choose the 12' x 10' tarp shelter shown below. (Actually, since Be Prepared is my motto, I use this tarp 99% of the time!) In my opinion, this tarp has the best protection and offers the most configuration possibilities.

As shown, this tarp has stake loops along the side. In severe weather, only the two center loops will be staked to the ground and the ends folded in to form doors at both ends of the hammock. In warmer conditions, the "doors" can be folded back (inside or outside) for better air flow. The doors can be closed temporarily for privacy. Or the tarp can be staked out in a rectangle with four stakes per side.

The right hand images in the photo above shows the "doors" folded back on the outside of the tarp. My preference is to fold the doors back on the inside, as shown in the lower left image. Then - if wind or rain interrupts my sleep - I can close the doors from under the tarp.

Like all tarps, you also have dozens of options if you choose to pitch this as a ground shelter. With 8 stake loops around the perimeter, 3 loops across the center ridgeline, and 4 more loops positioned in the center of the tarp you have DOZENS of options for pitching and lofting the tarp. The reality of hammock camping is that sooner or later, you WILL need to sleep on the ground when trees aren't available!

Having a tarp with "doors" is important in the wind as well as the rain. When hammock camping, you are at the mercy of the available trees. Ideally, you would want to erect your tarp with the prevailing wind quartering into one corner of the tarp. In reality, perfect positioning is seldom possible. As a result, the wind may be blowing directly down the length of your tarp, creating a chilling tunnel. In this case, simply close the windward end of the tarp. The angled doors will deflect the wind under your hammock. You may still be able to leave the downwind doors open for a view.

On the other hand, if the wind is hitting your tarp broadside, the tarp has 2 reinforced tie outs per side to pull the fabric out and away from your hammock.

Compare the large 12' x 10' tarp above with the 8' x 8' tarp below. Many hammock campers start with a tarp that is TOO SMALL! When hung from opposite corners, or in a diamond shape, the ridgeline measures about 10-feet and barely extends past the ends of the hammock. In theory, when lying diagonally in your hammock, this is plenty of coverage. The diamond angles conveniently match the open areas above the hammock. In truth, this small tarp is mostly decoration and will not protect you from more than a light mist of rain.

At best, these small tarps are only wind breaks for light breezes. If rain isn't in the forecast, mounting a small tarp high above your hammock really serves no purpose. Why not save the effort and sleep under the stars?

If you want to get by with the absolute minimum weight, this basic tarp might be sufficient. Your pack, shoes, and other gear will be largely exposed underneath. The hammock itself is not waterproof material so any exposed surfaces will get wet in anything but a light drizzle. Your only option is to mount a small tarp as low as possible. In a heavy rain you can pull the side guy ropes and let the tarp hang down tight to the sides of the hammock.

For a penalty of only a few ounces (and a few more dollars), I prefer a tarp that is one size larger, like the one above. This is a rectangular tarp that measures 11-feet at the top ridgeline. You have the option of mounting the tarp high or low, depending on the forecast. In fair weather, the tarp can be hung higher above the hammock with one side extended like an awning – or simply unstaked and flopped back over the ridgeline. Like the smallest tarp, you still have the option of erecting the tarp in a diamond layout for the mildest conditions.

A slightly larger tarp also provides better coverage if you are ground camping. I have used this tarp on hot summer nights when NO trees were available! (#RAGBRAI 475 miles of bike touring across HOT, and HUMID Iowa!)

Most tarps are usually supplied with thin guy ropes that are shown attached to the tabs or grommets. These short, thin lines are fine for the corner guy lines. But my preference is a continuous rope ridgeline. My FAVORITE tarp is supplied with 4 guy lines for the sides, plus 4 stakes. There are 4 more shock cord lines with carabiners to stake out the corners, which also serve to close the doors.

You can build your own ridgeline with paracord, then tie on Prusik loops to connect to the tarp.

Although I am a rope and knot fan, I choose the ready-made option that includes a reel to keep everything tangle-free!

By first erecting the continuous ridgeline, you create a much stronger support for the tarp. This is important as your tarp gets larger. The ridgeline can be much tighter than separate guy lines off the loops or grommets, removing the stress from the tarp fabric. The ridgeline bears the strain if storm winds get the trees swaying - not the tarp fabric. But the main benefit is being able to slide the tarp back and forth until positioned exactly where desired.

Check out the video below for a visual demonstration:

Finally, for the most versatility, you will need to carry a few extra stakes. I would carry at least 6 or 8 stakes. You can always scrounge a rock or sharpen a stick to add more as needed - or when one "goes missing"!

Like me, you may wind up with multiple tarps for varying conditions and group sizes. It has always been my practice to erect the tarp first upon getting to the campsite. If it starts to rain, all the gear can be sheltered. If necessary, several people can spend hours under the protective tarp before needing to assemble your hammocks. In a group, you may have a variety of tarps, but it is handy to carry one larger tarp where everyone can huddle for meals. Even out of the rain, it is often helpful to have the windbreak of a tarp when cooking.

Some campers will obsess over the weight of the 12' tarp that I favor. Actually, the weight difference between all three of the versions depicted here is miniscule. I can GUARANTEE that in the middle of a thunderstorm on a windswept island, you will give ANYTHING for the larger, more secure tarp. I can also guarantee that I can find plenty of unnecessary and duplicate items in your pack that exceed this tiny weight difference!

Has this report only fueled your interest in hammock camping? Are you ready to make hammock camping a lifestyle? Hungry for MORE information? Then I recommend the “encyclopedia” of hammocks, The Ultimate Hang 2, by Derek Hansen. The NEW, completely re-written second edition includes hammock FAQs and basics for new hangers and an expanded advanced section for veterans. There is a DIY section to get you started making your own hammock gear. The Ultimate Hang 2 covers everything from suspension systems, hammock stands, staying dry, warm, and bug free, along with setting up hammocks indoors.

Visit The Great Out There for continued gear reviews and how-to articles on camping. Please also follow The Great Out There on Facebook and Instagram.

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