How to choose the best backpacking tarp for you
It’s easy to believe that all tarps are the same, and it’s just a matter of color and size. While that is also on the table, you need to consider lots of features before identifying the right one for you.
What type of tarp is best for you?
There are two major types of backpacking tarps, and four in total, they are:
- Flat/rectangular tarps like the Aqua Quest Guide
- Catenary/hexagonal tarps like the Rain Fly EVOLUTION
- Asymmetrical tarps like the Bearhead 3000mm
- And square tarps
Flat and catenary tarps are the most preferred for different use cases.
If you’re looking for more room to experiment with various pitches with your camping tarp, then the flat tarp gives you way more room to do so.
This type of shelter houses a 90-degree angle to its edges and flat sides. It’s heavier due to having more tarp setup options to give more protection and enhanced airflow.
For lesser flapping noise and weight, a catenary cut tarp is a great option.
This type of tarp shelter owns curved edges and ridgelines, which reduce the amount of material needed to provide complete protection.
What material should you pick for your tarp tent?
Tarps also come in various materials. Each material has its benefits and demerits it attributes to your tarp camping needs. Hence, you must understand what these are to know what works for you.
Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF)
Also called Cuben Fiber, this material is made from ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene. In case you aren’t familiar with this, this is similar to what your hardware store tarp is made from.
DCF has higher strength and low-weight performance material, meaning it’s exceptionally light and highly resilient. This makes Cuben Fiber the best viable option when you’re after a fully waterproof hammock tarp for your outdoor experience.
However, its nature limits it from allowing you to pitch it on uneven grounds or in various patterns. Cuben Fiber is also bulky and occupies more space in your backpack.
This backpacking tarp material is made of nylon and polyurethane coating. The extra layer helps improve the waterproofing quality of your tarp. Usually, the nylon is woven before being coated and seam-taped.
When looking for a perfect tarp tent for the ultralight backpacker, stretchy and cheaper than its alternatives, the PU Nylon material fits the bill.
It provides you with a commendable waterproof feature and the room to pitch your tarp in varying configurations.
Silinylon or Silipoly
As the name suggests, Silinylon or Silipoly is a fine combination between nylon or polyester strands and silicon. It comes in various thicknesses so that you can go for something thin or something thick.
Though Silinylon comes in various woven patterns, you will often find one with a ripstop design. This fabric is stretchy, waterproof, and seam coated after weaving. This makes it the top choice for flat tarps so that you can experiment with various pitching patterns.
Suppose you’re looking for a relatively durable flat tarp material that’s also lightweight and waterproof. In that case, Silinylon is worth your consideration.
What tarp size should you go for?
At this point, you’re already familiar with the idea that backpacking tarps come in various sizes. You can find those that are too small to be functional and too wide to be necessary.
You need to start by asking yourself how many people are camping together and how much space you need?
If you’re camping in a tent, then you should ensure the size you go for is bigger than the widest portion of your tent and at least 2 feet extended from your tent on all angles.
The same rule applies to your hammock.
When camping alone, a 9×9 foot tarp size is the most preferred. It gives you enough room for you and your gears and enough extension to dissuade the rain from coming in.
If you’re traveling with a partner, your preferred ultralight shelter should be up to 60 square feet or more, like the Aqua Quest Guide, to provide the complete protection you need.
As a rule of thumb, always go for a tarp that’s a bit larger than your actual need to cater to other necessities like your cooking area, gear, and even rear wall.
Is a backpacking tarp meant for you?
Ironically, tarps are not meant for you at all times. What does this mean? If you’re new to backpacking or hiking, then chances are you won’t be going deep into the wilderness or countryside.
A good tarp setup can give you all the weather protection you need.
Whether tarps are a necessity for you or not, rest on how far you will be going, what you’re sleeping in (a tent or bivy sack), the space you have, and the kind of feeling or view you want while in your shelter.
When it comes to functionality, tarps serve a lot of purposes in improving your convenience.
Placing them strategically across the top of your tent can limit the chances of inside condensation, improve protection from rain, UV light, and harsh winds, and carve out a sheltered region for your cooking area.
You can also cut it to size to form a tent footprint to keep your tent warm and your feet dry. To better preserve your tent’s lifespan, you can place a tarp like the Golden Armor rain fly as a ground cover before pitching your tent.
This should also work for your bivy sacks if you choose to lie on the woods floor.
However, it’s good to note that the terrain of your campsite will determine how you lay your backpacking tarp as your ground cover.
How waterproof should your tarp be?
Should your ultralight tarpaulin be water-resistant, lightweight waterproof, or heavy-duty? This is another thing to consider when picking out a tarp for your backpacking activities.
Just as tarps come in various sizes and shapes, they also come in varying waterproofing. Your kind of backpacking activity and the purpose of buying a tarp will determine which one is best for you.
Suppose you’re going for a brief wilderness trip in an area forecasted to have little or no rainfalls. In that case, a water-resistant backpacking tarp might be ideal for you.
A tarp tent keeps you safe from moisture and condensation. But in the off chance of a heavy downpour, it won’t be able to protect you and your backpacking gear.
Like Pys Rain Fly, lightweight waterproof tarps are a better option to go for when you want to take a longer and lighter trip into the countryside.
It weighs between few ounces to a pound and provides you with enough space to pack the equipment you need for your journey and the required protection from harsh weather,
However, being lightweight, it doesn’t come with the toughness and thickness of heavy-duty waterproof tarps like the Aqua Quest Defender.
The latter is heavier and bulkier, weighing a few pounds up and able to withstand the harshest weather and keep you safe in the remote possibility you get stranded in the wild.
A good heavy-duty and lightweight backpacking tarp is made from quality materials like nylon, Dyneema, or polyester and is coated with either polyurethane or silicone for added durability and waterproofing. Some might come with double coatings, as seen in MIER Outdoor and Aqua Quest Guide.
What is the recommended waterproofing rating for tarps?
Whereas you should expect different water-resisting performance from a water-resistant tarp to a heavy-duty waterproof tarp, how effective each tarp is in repelling water is equally tied to their rating.
Before we jump into the recommended mm rating for your tarp, it’s good to understand what a waterproofing rating means. Mm(millimeter of water) symbolizes the amount of pressure your tarp has to go through to allow three drops of water to slip through.
In reality, it means if you see a tarp with a 1500 mm rating, that tarp will withstand 1500 mm of water pressure.
The higher the number, the harder it takes for water to slip through. However, you don’t need a significantly higher waterproofing number to get protection from the harshest weather.
This is more accurate for backpacking tarps. This is because these tarps are usually hung over your tent or bivy sack without touching the ground. They are not exposed to the same amount of pressure a rigid shelter like your tent would.
You should also note that the higher the mm rating of your tarp, the heavier it becomes, the more rigid it becomes, and the more susceptible it’s to wear and tear.
This is why a higher mm rating starting from 10,000 to 20,000 mm is best for static shelters like your tent. These shelters see more pressure from the rain.
Hence, when picking out a shelter tarp, you don’t plan on using it as a tent footprint or shade. Settle for a rating around 1000 mm to 5000 mm like the Aqua Quest Guide.
Other things to watch out for?
Depending on the design type of your preferred tarp, you might need a lot of tie-out loops for varied pitching positions, like in the case of the Gold Armor rain fly, WildVenture rain fly, and Aqua Quest tarps.
Always look out for tarps with at least nine tie-out loops, or loops at each corner, very center of the tarp, and one at each side’s center edge.
Ripstop patterns, mostly when weaved by nylon or its quality alternative, provides you with a tarp of higher durability and waterproofing performance. An excellent example of such tarps is the Aqua Quest Defender.
While quality tarp fabrics provide good water-repelling ability, a more desirable tarp would pair its material with a durable waterproofing coating.
Silicon and polyurethane (PU) are great coats you should watch out for during your buying decision.
A more advanced coating found on fewer tarps like the Aqua Quest Defender is the TPU (Thermoplastic polyurethane), which provides even more robust protection and durability.
It’s easy to visualize tarps with metal loops as a superior alternative to one with different loop material. However, in reality, backpacking tarps with webbing tie-out loops, like that of the Aqua Quest Guide and Defender tarps, provide superior performance and durability.
This alternative doesn’t rust with time, add significant weight to your tarp tent’s overall weight, or encourage onward damage.
The weight of your backpacking tarp is also essential to you if you’re someone who always packs heavy and can’t handle the extra weight.
Tarps weight vary from few ounces to pounds depending on the use-case – resistant, lightweight, or heavy-duty. So, go for what works best for you. Just ensure you’re buying quality.
If you’re purchasing your tarp from a physical store, you should take time to examine your item.
- Does it look like quality?
- Are the seams adequately sealed?
- Are the loops smoothly and firmly attached?
- Are there any loose strands to worry about?
The reason you’re purchasing a tarp shelter isn’t just to keep you safe from UV rays but also to resist harsh weather.
Your tarp is likely to get damaged when met with weather stronger than its impregnable force.
For this reason, it’s good to know your camping tarp is covered.
Some companies will provide as little as 90 days returns to lifetime warranty like the Bearhead 3000mm.
Conclusion: What is the best backpacking tarp for your needs?
Figuring out which camping tarp evenly balances the essential features a backpacking tarp is supposed to own hasn’t been easy.
Many strong competitors like the MIER outdoors rain fly and the Aqua Quest Defender tarps, which also sit as the first and second runner up, respectively.
However, the Aqua Quest Guide tarp proved to be the right man for the title. It brought together the merits of both runner-up tarps, providing key features like lifetime warranty, superior material, superior coating, lightweight-ness, and compactness.
It also gives you room to make lots of choices and comes in a flexible fabric.
In a nutshell, it ticks all the right boxes as a backpacking tarp to provide you with an excellent camping experience.