The Ultimate Guide to Tarps

The Ultimate Guide to Tarps

Extra tarp

Our mission is to get people outdoors, not sell gear. That's why our guide starts with the core function that needs to be addressed, then helps you evaluate your options holistically, since sometimes you may not need any gear & can use what you have at home. We want you to think critically about what you need, which is personal to you with no right answer (some people go venture outside naked without any gear, survive & have a great time).

Core function: There's not a core function for tarps, because they are one of the most versatile pieces of gear, check the Usage section for ideas. Note, when we say tarp, we do not mean tarp tents (click link for more info on those). We mean the standard, woven, plastic-looking, blue/green/black colored tarps you've probably seen used in any number of ways.

Is either the core function or the outdoor-specific gear made for it an essential?

No .

For rationale, read our 'what you really need' protip

What we carry

For rent only: Standard tarps (not for use as a tarp tent) with the following standard dimensions:

  • 6X8ft (1.8X2.4m)
  • 8X10ft (2.4X3.0m)
  • 10X12ft (3.0X3.7m)

Most people are indifferent to exact dimensions, since even the smallest is quite large. If you have a preference, when renting online, you can write-in on the Options page.

What to use & how to choose

Key factors

Cool zippers, new waterproofing, etc... sometimes it's easy to get lost in all the hype (over-spending happens on features). Our guide focuses on the fundamental factors you should always keep in mind (thus, this short list is similar across all items). Then only at the end do we have some questions to get you thinking about other minor features.

Capacity (size)

Make sure your tarp is large enough for whatever purpose you will use it for. When using a tarp as a footprint, make sure it is folded to be roughly 2in (5cm) smaller on all sides compared to the tent body's floor side, in other words, the tarp should not poke out beyond the tent floor. If it pokes out or is too large, it can collect water, that then pools underneath the tent. Of course if you fold it too small, it won't protect enough of the floor.

Minor features that may be important

Here, we give you a list of questions to start thinking about minor features. We hope our approach of savings these features for last gets you to more critically think about what you need & not get caught up in the hype of what's cool and over-spend your budget.

  • How many grommets does it have & where are they placed?

Usage tips

Tarps are so versatile, here are some ideas!

  • As a footprint or ground cloth for your tent: (note if you rent from us, a footprint or tarp will always be included). When using a tarp as a footprint, make sure it is folded to be roughly 2in (5cm) smaller on all sides compared to the tent body's floor side, in other words, the tarp should not poke out beyond the tent floor. If it pokes out or is too large, it can collect water, that then pools underneath the tent. Of course if you fold it too small, it won't protect enough of the floor.
  • Spread on the ground for a clean, dry surface: picnic-style to replace a chair or table. For even more comfort, put a blanket over the tarp!
  • String from vertical poles or trees as a makeshift shade structure: bring enough cord so you can accommodate any tree layout
  • Use as a water protection: drape over your stuff to keep it dry. Tarps are inherently water resistant or fully waterproof, depending on the model. When you use it as water protection, make sure it has not been used previously as a ground cover, since that could create lots of small holes that compromise water resistance (for this reason, our rental tarps shouldn't be used as water protection, since we can't guarantee that people have not used them on the ground). If you're using a tarp as rain protection for a tent it's best to string it up over the tent using nearby trees or vertical poles, like an umbrella. It's not as good of an idea to drape the tarp over your tent like a rainfly, because it's not cut to the shape & contours of your tent, so draping could leave lots of unprotected areas. Not to mention without the right structural support, a tarp could trap condensation or allow water transference from the exterior. See tent usage for more info.
  • As a tablecloth: alas sometimes picnic tables are well-decorated with lots of... bird droppings

Maintenance tips


The info below is for a standard tarp that we carry. For tarp tents, check the page on tents

Grommets: These are metal O-ring that you'll find at the corners, where the pole notches into. If they fall out, you can pretty easily repair this yourself with a grommet repair kit that costs <$10. If they fall out on trail, but there is still a hole, that's fine to use with a pole, it's just less ideal since it won't 'notch' on the metal

Rips, tears, holes: For small ones, you can stick on a patch of Tenacious Tape yourself. For larger ones, you may need to sew on a replacement fabric patch; most tailors can help with this (if you're doing it yourself, most technical fabrics are rip-stop nylon and this is sold by many fabric stores; most meshes used in outdoor gear however is not widely sold). Remember, sewing compromises waterproofing, since it adds punctures. Ultralight gear with thinner fabrics may require specialists. Two repair specialists are Narain's & Rainy Pass Repair; both accept gear shipped in, expect to spend $30-100

Waterproofing: There are 3 components to waterproofing. It is entirely possible to buy these items & repair yourself, however unless you're treating a spot (in which case Tenacious Tape can work just as well), it can be difficult to get a large piece of fabric back to original performance integrity. (Honestly, this is true even for most manufacturers, who will often ask you to replace the piece that's no longer waterproof.) Rainy Pass Repair can help re-waterproof. As a benchmark, tent-sized fabrics may cost up to $100

  • Seam sealant: The seams where the fabric has been sewed together are water-proofed either by a seam tape, or a liquid seam sealant that's applied. With a tape, you may be able to visibly see it peeling away. While you can buy either to do at home, liquid seam sealant is more readily available & easier to use. Seam tape, which is more prevalent in clothing, requires you to match the exact fabric you're repairing, and each fabric has different application settings (e.g., appropriate temperatures to help the tape stick)
  • Waterproof coating: Sometimes, the seams are fine, but the fabric fundamentally is losing its resistance to water (you can tell if it's shedding or flaking out white stuff), which is derived from a polyurethane or silicon based coating treatment (different from the coating treatment below)
  • Water repellant coating: Called DWR (durable water repellancy), this is a coating treatment (different from the treatment above) that causes water to bead up & roll off the fabric. It can often be applied either as a spray or a detergent that is washed-in (we like products by NikWax or Granger's)

Cleaning & Storing

Gear not in use should be cleaned & dried and then stored loose & in a dark environment, check out our entire protip on the topic here.

We have a general protip on how to store & maintain gear that we highly recommend reviewing as well. If you send us video or a good photo series, we may be able to help you evaluate your repair needs.

The exact numbers (e.g., weights, dimensions, prices, etc.) used were updated as of September 2019 . That said, there usually isn't dramatic change; we update & review the market roughly biennially.

Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, the only outdoor gear shop where you can buy, rent, or borrow gear!