Hiking and sleeping: Tent or tarp?

Tent Beach

There are two main options to sleeping while hiking – bringing a tent or a tarp.

One option is not better than the other. It’s important that you know the main differences between them.

If I would buy only one, then I would probably buy a tarp – it’s more lightweight, it’s more versatile and offers better ventilation then a tent.

Protection from the wind and the rain

Sleeping bag and hiking gear under tarp

It may seem that a tent offers much better protection from the rain and the wind but actually if you set your tarp up in the right way it offers the same protection from the elements as a tent would.

But you need to learn some common tarp setups and maybe mess around more in the beginning to get it right.

Protection from insects, such as mosquitos and ticks

A-frame tarp with hiking poles and mosquito net

Tents offer better protection against insects, such as mosquitos and ticks.

With a tarp you either need to bring a separate mosquito net or sleep wearing your head net. 

Weight

Backpack weight on scale

Tarps usually weigh less than a tent does. This is why so many hikers prefer tarps.

They are lighter and take up less room in your pack.

If you don’t mind the trade-offs, a tarp is a great way to cut the weight of your backpack. If you’re looking for other ways to make your backpack lighter then I have a blogpost about how to solve common hiking problems, such as a heavy backpack and mosquitos.

Setting up your tent or tarp

Tarp

Most tents are pretty easy to set up, setting up your tarp requires a little more practice.

Reliability

Beach Brittany

I wouldn’t say that one is more reliable than the other. If you choose your campsite well and set up your tent or your tarp in the right way you should be fine in most situations.

Extreme weather conditions, very heavy rain or strong winds can be problematic with both tents and tarps.

Ventilation

Female Hiker Sleeping Bag Sleeping in a Tent

One of the main reasons that I prefer tarps is ventilation. Tents can get a bit hot and clammy in the summer.

You’re basically sleeping outside in the fresh air in a tarp.

Of course, in the winter or in cold or windy conditions you will need to use a tarp setup that offers more protection from the elements.

Privacy

Tarp Mosquito Net Book Kindle

You could argue that tents provide more privacy in a crowded campsite such as a music festival or popular trails.

It will be easier to change your clothes and more comfortable to sleep knowing that no-one can look at you.

Price

Female hiker wearing fleece insulating layer with tent

Tarps can be pretty expensive too. The one I use, costs as much as a small tent. But usually they cost less than tents and use less materials.

Versatility

Tarp Hiking Stove Bog
This is an example of a tarp that was set up for a rainy lunch break in the tundra. Notice that I used my trekking poles to set it up. To find out more about trekking poles, I have a blog post about them here.

The main thing I like about tarps is that you can use them in so many ways.

A tarp can be used as a temporary shelter when it’s raining and you need to rest or cook your food. Or you can set it down to lay on when you’re resting.

This means that tarps can even be useful on a day hike when you’re not planning to stay for the night (for instance a tarp is listed as an optional item in my blogpost about all the clothes and gear you will ever need on a day hike).

You can of course set up your tent for the same reason but tents are made and designed for sleeping and can’t be so easily converted or used for other purposes.

“Bushcraft”: building your own shelter?

There are a lot of videos and blogs out there that preach “Bushcraft” and teach people how to build your own shelter.

Of course, if you happen to be in the woods by accident or you get lost and can’t find your way back and need to spend the night – then it’s perfectly sensible to build a shelter and a fire if you can do that.

But if you are not lost and just want to spend time in the outdoors, you should of course stay in a tent or use a tarp that you bring with you.

It would destroy our national parks if most of their visitors started chopping down small trees and branches to create temporary shelters. That’s just silly.

I have a separate post where I explain why you actually don’t need any “bushcraft” to enjoy hiking and another post where I explain why it’s much better to be a responsible hiker and “leave no trace”.

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