Tent Vs. Tarp: What to Choose When

Do you feel suffocated in a tent? Have you ever gotten drenched while putting up a tarp? Your tent or tarp is not to blame, the poor choice of camping shelter is.

Confused between tent and tarp now? You’re not alone.

Most newbie campers, not yet exposed to the pros and cons of tent camping and tarp camping, often face this dilemma. It is a good sign, however. Thinking about your camping shelter beforehand is a mark of an organized camper.

But you want to resolve this dilemma before visiting the camping gear store, and certainly before actually going camping. Otherwise, you could either overspend, or be underprepared.

For the ideal camping expedition, familiarize yourself with the intricacies of the tent vs. the tarp.

This guide will lay bare all the pros and cons of tents and tarps. Then we’ll help you decide which option to go with depending on the scenario, and to top it off, we have included a bonus tip at the end.

Tent vs. Tarp: The 10 Ultimate Factors of Judgement

1. Setup

Setting up a tent is way faster and easier than tarps. A tent can be pitched within a few minutes. Whereas, you need both added gear (ropes, stakes, poles) and skill for setting up a tarp.

Figuring out the best pitch, adjusting the guylines, using correct knots, and finding a suitable campsite takes experience and expertise. This can be a drawback if you are in a hurry to pitch, for instance, when it has started to rain suddenly. Tents bypass all that hassle.

2. Temperature Control

This one is a tie. Tarps are better for summers, while tents are more suited for winters. Since tents are completely closed structures, it is easy to feel hot and suffocated inside them. There is minimum airflow, and once the sun shines, you’ll get baked like ham inside an oven.

Tarps, on the other hand, are open structures that allow airflow. So, they are your best bet in hot summers. However, since they offer no insulation, we don’t recommend them in harsh winters. Tarps aren’t equipped to handle the snow load that tents can.

3. Privacy

Using a tarp is like having a roof without any walls. It’s a given that tents can offer way more privacy, and you will be more at ease inside a tent, tucked away from prying eyes, free to do as you please. Tents are like a room of your own in the wild. Changing clothes, cleaning yourself, and sleeping comfortably are some obvious perks.

4. Weather Resistance

Tarps aren’t suitable for heavy rainfall and storms. Once the rain starts blowing in from the sides, you can get soaked in a matter of moments. Even with a water-resistant sleeping bag, sleeping on the drenched ground won’t be a delight.

This is not a problem with tents, since they are fully sealed. However, condensation might be an issue inside tents. Due to your breathing, environmental factors, and low airflow, tents get wet from the inside. In that case, you’ll wake up in a damp atmosphere.

5. Protection

Mosquitoes, ticks, slugs, spiders, ants, mice, snakes, and even bears—the variety of creatures that can disturb your sleep or attack you in the wild are endless. Tarps offer zero protection. Tents are more secure since they are completely enclosed.

But, animals are not the only nuisance. At a partially crowded campsite, theft is also possible. With tarps, you’re just leaving your gear out in the open for anyone to steal. Tents, however, add a layer of protection. The thief has to cut open your tent or unzip it (if it doesn’t have a lock) to steal your belongings, which is way more challenging.

6. Weight and Space

Compared to a tent, carrying a tarp is like bearing a cloud on your back. Even an ultralight tent weighs five times more than your average tarp. Tents also take up more space given the fabric, zippers, and long poles you have to carry. When you finally pitch the tent, you get limited space inside.

With tarps, you only need some rope and stakes. You can use your trekking poles to pitch a tarp, and if you are surrounded by trees, you don’t even need poles. When pitched, there is no risk of feeling suffocated.

7. Price

A watertight tarp camping setup can be arranged for under $20. Decent tents will set you back a good $200 or so. That’s 10 times the price of a nice tarp.

If you go the cheap route with tents, you will be heavily comprising on quality and longevity. Not to mention, cheap tents can break your back. They’re bulky and poorly made. Unless you’re planning to get a lot of use out of it, tents can be a bad investment for newbie campers.

8. Durability

A decent tarp will outlast an average tent, simply because of the lower scope of damage. Unlike a tent, tarps don’t have poles that can break, zippers that can catch, or a floor that can wear a hole. The worst that can happen is a rip, which is easily fixed by sewing a patch.

Tents, on the other hand, are fragile and need to be handled with care. So much as touch it the wrong way, and it’s broken. If you want more durability, you’ll have to bid adieu to an extra few hundred dollars.

9. Adaptability

A tarp is the epitome of flexibility. It adapts to your camping conditions. In harsh wind or sunlight, the tarp alone is enough. With pleasant weather and no rain, you can eliminate the tarp altogether.

There are various techniques of pitching a tarp to suit the weather conditions. You also need very little floor space to pitch. All you need is some surrounding trees to tie ropes to, or ground you can place stakes into, since tarps are not freestanding.

Tents require a minimum floor space equal to the tent footprint. This is the area of the tent floor. The scope of where you can camp is instantly reduced as a result.

If there isn’t enough ground space, or the ground isn’t flat enough, you can’t set up camp. Tents won’t accommodate your camping conditions. You have to accommodate your tent’s requirements.

10. Proximity to Nature

This is the reason you went camping in the first place. To take in the dewy breeze of the woods, doze off under the twinkling glory of the night sky, and wake up to breathtaking views of snow-covered mountain peaks.

You have 360° visibility under a tarp. It’s more thrilling than you can imagine. But with a tent, you are trapped in a small room. You will miss the real adventure of camping if you constantly stay inside a tent.

Ideal Scenarios for Using Tents and Tarps

The debate of tent vs. tarp cannot be settled. Each offers a set of unique advantages the other doesn’t. So what should you do?

We say choose according to the occasion. No need to pick favorites.

When To Use Tents?

  • In extremely cold weather when it is likely to snow
  • When there is a lot of open space and no trees nearby
  • The ground is considerably flat
  • When you are camping in insect-prone areas (like forests)
  • If there is a risk of harassment from wild animals
  • There are a lot of campers nearby and privacy is an issue
  • In case it’s rainy, stormy, or very windy

When To Use Tarps?

  • You have some experience with tarp camping
  • When it’s very hot and humid
  • You need to cook inside or light a fire to keep warm
  • If you are going on uneven terrain with lots of trees and bushes
  • In beautiful places with enthralling landscapes

Tip – If you are going to camp for a few days or weeks, and can’t predict the weather or terrain, we’d advise taking both tent and tarp. Use as required.

Final Word of Caution—Get Insured before You Go Camping

Tourists often go camping in foreign locations. Who doesn’t want to explore a new topography?

But, accidents and medical emergencies can befall you at any time. Nothing can be worse than getting bitten by a snake, or coming down with a fever in the middle of a camping trip.

Medical bills can rack up from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Are you prepared to spend that kind of cash? If not, we recommend getting insured before taking any trip. It is way less stressful than facing a financial setback in a foreign country.

Visit Insubuy, compare travel medical insurance or travel insurance plans, talk to trusted advisors for any questions, and purchase at the click of a button. Forests, mountains, beaches, or plains—camp as cool as a cucumber.

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