Fall Tarp Camping

by Kevin Estela October 16, 2019

Fall Tarp Camping

Originally posted on Oct 31, 2016

It’s that time of year again. That time when I tell people I’m going to the woods and plan on sleeping underneath a tarp. “A tarp? That’s it?!” is the usual reply. Camping with a tarp in the fall and winter is a different endeavor than camping with one in warmer weather. Come fall, those buzzing and biting pests are long gone and the outdoorsman can reap the benefits of packing less and lighter gear.Personally, I don’t think many experiences can rival waking up on a fall morning with the wind on your face, the fall foliage all around you and the sunlight unimpeded from making its way into your shelter. Without a floor, a tarp is an excellent shelter if you’re concerned about tracking dirt into your sleeping area. Tarps also cut down on unnecessary mosquito netting weight.  With these considerations in mind, the idea of sleeping under “just a tarp” isn’t so crazy afterall. Tarp camping really means more visibility and a more “intimate” experience with the outdoors with fewer walls separating you from the elements. Before you start thinking this blog entry is going down that spiritual “hug-a-tree” route, let’s refine the focus to cover the basics of what you should know before you pitch a tarp in the great outdoors. Sleeping under a tarp, more specifically how you set up your tarp camp, can say a lot about your outdoor skills. Here’s some information to make you look like a pro.

There are many configurations for tarp campers. The A-frame, the lean-to, the diamond, the 80/20, the tipi are just a handful of ways a basic tarp can be configured based on the needs of the outdoorsman. Unlike a tent that can be pitched as prescribed by the manufacturer, the shelters a tarp can provide are limited only by the imagination of the user.  Each of these configurations has its own tradeoffs. Some offer more visibility at the expense of less protection from the elements and mosquitos. Others provide less living space for the added benefit of trapping in the heat better. Some do-it-yourselfers have even sewn stove-pipe boots into their tarps to heat them with a small wood stove. Ultimately, the configuration you use is up to you, your circumstances and your level of skill. For now, let’s stick with the basics. Perhaps in a later Fiddleback Blog we’ll investigate all the possible options. For the purpose of this article, we’ll just create an entry-level tarp shelter that anyone can construct and is a good starting point. There is no point in attempting an advanced design if you can’t demonstrate the fundamentals first.

The Tarp: Ben's Backwoods

 Thanks to our friends at Ben’s Backwoods (www.bensbackwoods.com), we’ve been provided with a MSSTarp. “MSS” stands for Multipurpose Survival Shelter and it is pretty slick. Ben Piersma designed this tarp with the help of Lester River Bushcraft Owner, Jason Gustafson. Both of these guys are Fiddleback fans and each has spent countless nights under the stars in just a tarp. They know a thing or two about what works and what the bushcrafter can benefit from in a shelter. Their collaboration is clever and a great tarp for the beginner to consider. At only 1 pound 1 ounce, it’s light enough to pack anywhere. We used it in writing this blog and think it’s outstanding. While there are many tarps out there, the one from Ben’s Backwoods exemplifies what should be sought out. It features lightweight nylon construction (1.9 oz nylon), multiple lash tabs, is large enough  (5’x8’) for one or more people but not too large to be left home. Throw in some paracord or Dyneema cord for a ridgeline and some for tie downs and that’s all you’ll need to set this baby up for a night in the woods. Advanced tarp campers can add a 5’x7’ heavy duty space blanket and 9’x12’ clear sheet of plastic for a Mors Kochanski super shelter. If this tarp is out of your price range, a lesser quality tarp will work but it will probably not hold up to the elements. Even a budget blue tarp will work but it won’t win you any style points with the hardcore bushcrafters out there who need all their gear to be earthly toned. As with anything, you get what you pay for. Invest in quality and you’ll only cry once.


The Skills:

Use Your Knife:

I always carry lightweight tent/tarp stakes just in case resources are scarce. If they aren’t, I like to whittle my own out in the field. With my Fiddleback scandi knives, this is an easy task. If weather isn’t imminent, I like to take my time carving these stakes and it’s a zen moment for me. Carving tent stakes is a good transition from the fast-paced life I live to the slower and more deliberate way of the woods. I cut my stakes about 8-12” long and ¾” wide, chisel the point and make sure opposite end is beveled at the corners to prevent splitting when they are pounded in.

I also use my knife to cut saplings and trim branches from where I’m camping. For those of you who don’t like cutting living trees, sometimes you have to and as long as you aren’t reckless, trees are renewable resources. The easiest way to trim saplings is to flex it at the base and cut against the grain with a solid hammer grip on your blade. This puts the grain under tension and your blade will glide right through. Don’t leave sharp spikes sticking up from out of the ground and only trim what you need to that gets in the way of your tarp.



Setting up a tarp doesn’t require knowledge of too many knots. I tend to use a quick release bowline on one tree one tree and a rolling hitch and a couple half hitches on the other. If I really need to put some serious tension in the ridgeline, I use a trucker’s hitch on the second tree to pull my line taught. In terms of attaching my tarp to the ridge line, I use toggles whenever possible. This is an easy way to attach a tarp without having to worry about additional knots. I also use bowlines to tie lines to the corners of my tarps and use rolling hitches and half hitches on the stakes.

In general and whenever possible, always use a ridgeline that spreads out the weight of the tarp over the full-length of the body instead of suspending it from just the 2 grommets closest to the trees. You can still use grommets to tie your tarp to the tree but only after you hold it up in place with a good ridgeline. The fabric lash tabs of the MSS, make setup simple. Just run your cord through them.  Also, while I love 550 cord for general survival cordage, sometimes you don’t need 550 pounds of breaking strength and other times, you can make do with what you have like the flat webbing tie downs for canoes/kayaks. Above all else, make sure your knots are good. You’re sleeping under a tarp and your knots will either hold or fail making your night memorable or very relaxing.


Carry It All

By the way, if you’re looking for a great way to keep all your gear organized, you may want to try out the latest gear roll from Center Line Systems (www.center-line-systems.com). The G2 Gear Roll has two large pockets as well as two smaller pockets perfect for organizing all your tarp camping gear. The gear roll also has some webbing loops to hold all your metal hardware and the whole unit rolls up into a compact package. This gear roll helps make sure I always have what I need to set up a tarp in the woods. We carry our tent poles, pegs, rainfly and tent body in a single stuff sack, why can’t we do the same with our tarp gear?

Just do it!

When I started writing this installment of the Fiddleback blog, I wanted to explain the basics of tarp camping and I hope I’ve explained them. It’s not easy compressing a lot of information into a short article especially when something that seems as basic as sleeping under a tarp can actually be more complicated than expected. I found myself writing and I couldn’t stop because there are many lessons I’ve learned and wish to share. However, I should stop though and will simply say you can learn even more just by going out there and doing it without reading more from me at this point. Part of the fun of learning about the benefits of tarp camping is learning by doing and some lessons are best learned this way. Of course, you should always follow basic shelter rules such as identifying deadfalls, looking for areas where water will collect, avoiding insect nests, etc. So get off your couch, grab your tarp gear, and get out there already!

Kevin Estela
Kevin Estela


Kevin Estela is a Survival Instructor at Estela Wilderness Education. Kevin is a frequent contributing writer for publications such as RECOIL, Athlon Outdoors, and Beckett Media. He is a Sayoc Kali Associate Instructor Level 5, as well as a BJJ Purple Belt.

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