Tent Footprint vs Tarp – Learn The Differences

Tent Footprint vs Tarp

Credit: Flickr (Joseph)

Last Updated on July 27, 2021

When you’re out camping, the tent protects you from the elements and gives you some sense of security. It is only fair then that you must also protect your tent and ensure that it serves you a long time. Giving you value for your money. The tent footprint and tarp are designed to give you and your tent that protection.

Tent Footprint vs Tarp

A tent footprint is that sheet that you place on the ground under your tent. It protects the tent floor against friction with the ground which will eventually lead to wear and tear and hence destroy your tent in the long run. The tent footprint is often made from polyethylene or some form of polyester. It is laid first before the tent is pitched. It comes in different sizes depending on what size tent you have. It should be slightly smaller or the same size as your tent to prevent water collecting between the tent and your footprint.

A tarp (tarpaulin) is a big strong sheet made of canvas, polyester that is coated with polyurethane or made of plastics for example polyethylene. It is waterproof and often flexible. They also have reinforced grommets along the corners and the ends to provide attachment points so that they can be suspended or tied down. They are often referred to as hootch in Australia or in Military slang.

The tarp is used as shelter from the elements such as rain, wind, snow and sunshine. When used over a tent, it gives the camper extra protection from these elements.

Campers have often used a tarp and footprint without the tent. The tarp is used as a covering and may be tied down to form a makeshift tent while the camper sleeps on the footprint, a hammock or a cot. But this is limited as the tarp alone will not protect you from rain blown by the wind or from the breeze that would be present at night.

When Is It Best to Use The Tarp and Its Advantages

The tent footprint is normally ideal for the bottom of the tent. But a tarp covers your tent at the top, like a roof. Therefore to ensure that the tent is covered, the tarp should be bigger than the tent. It works by protecting your tent from the rain, wind, snow and even the sun. It gives the tent a nice shade and you can therefore stay in the tent even when the sun is out. When it snows, the tarp will keep off the weight of the snow from the tent. The snow would most likely collapse the tent but does nothing to the tarp as it is made of heavier fabric.

The tarp has several advantages including:

  • It will stretch to cover the tent. The tarp is made of stretchable fabric and will therefore be compact when not in use. You then pull it and attach it to cover the desired area.
  • It covers the whole tent from the elements; a tarp covers your tent like an umbrella. That way, the tent is protected from even the sun. This means then that the sun will not make your tent colors fade. Even in the snow, campers will still use their tarp to protect the tent from the snow, its weight and the extra cold that comes with it.
  • The tarp will give your tent a nice shade and protects you from the rain. It will however not be much use if the rain is blown by the wind.
  • It is made of strong fabric and it is therefore durable; the tarp is often stronger than the tent. This means then that it will possibly outlive your tent and you can use it if u decide to replace the tent
  • The tarp is multipurpose; it can be used as a footprint. When using it as a footprint, you only need to fold the extra fabric so that it only extends to the end of the tent. The tarp can also provide a place to cook. This is because you cannot cook inside the tent. It could even be used for a picnic out in the sun. It will give a nice shade while letting the breeze in.
  • It is easy to set up. It has reinforced grommets at the corners where the ropes go in. You only need to pull at them and attach them where you need them. It follows that taking the tarp down is just as easy.
  • The tarp is easy to clean. It is made of synthetic fabric and it therefore does not easily stain. To clean it, one only needs to use a hosepipe and air it out in the sun for a few minutes to dry.
  • It is cost effective. If you compare the cost of buying a new tent every time your old tent loses its color, you will find that buying a tarp that will last through several tents and serve you for many other uses an investment. The tarp is made of really durable material and it will protect your tent for a long time. Further, most brands are pretty inexpensive

When Is It Best to Use The Tent Footprint and Its Advantages

The footprint is made to be the same size as your tent. You first lay it down and it gives you an idea of where the tent will go. This will make pitching easier as you already have the outline.

It has several advantages including:

  • It is friction resistant. When you turn in your tent, this would lead to friction between the tent floor and the ground. The footprint is designed to be friction resistant and will therefore not tear your tent.
  • It provides for easier cleaning of the tent. The groundsheet of your floor may easily get wet or muddy. By adding a footprint, you make sure that the tent floor does not come in to contact with the dirt or mud from the ground. That way, you will pack up a clean tent and only have to wash the footprint which is fairly easy to clean.
  • It aids in drainage by keeping the water underneath the tent at bay. The footprint is waterproof and will protect your tent floor from moisture from the ground.
  • The footprint is lightweight and hence ideal for the backpacker. When you’re backpacking, you hope to have a light load. But you also hope to keep your tent protected. The footprint is then your best friend as it will help you keep the tent dry and protected while giving you only the smallest, almost negligible extra load.
  • A footprint will add extra warmth. It will raise you further from the ground and give you an extra layer to keep the warmth in as you lose a lot of heat while camping.

While it has all these advantages, some may consider it an extra burden as carrying the footprint will give you an extra load which you would not have had. It also comes with the extra cost of buying it. But considering the advantages it provides, the little extra burden and cost are well covered.

There's another alternative that doesn't require a footprint because it can go directly on the ground: a tent cot, basically a cot with a tent attached. To see if one of these would be a good alternative to a tent and a footprint, check our Best Tent Cots and Best Backpacking Tent Cots articles.

Can Both of Them Serve The Same Purpose?

A tarp can sometimes be used as a footprint. However, when using it as a footprint, you should ensure that the tarp is nicely tucked under at the borders or where the tent ends. It is a popular saying in the camping world that you should never let the rain see your ground cloth. This is to avoid pooling of water at the tent as this will increase the chance of that water seeping through. If well set up, the tarp can definitely be used as a footprint.

When backpacking however, you will find that using the tarp as a footprint will only give you extra load as the tarp is heavier and a bit bulkier than the footprint.

A footprint cannot be used as a tarp, to cover the top of the tent, because it is designed to be the same size as the tent. It cannot be set up in the same way as a tarp as it does not have the grommets.

Wrapping it Up

Both the tent footprint and tarp are used to protect your tent against damage.

The tent footprint protects the ends of the tent where it meets the ground while the tarp can be used to protect the whole tent.

The choice between a tarp and tent footprint will be informed on what sort of camping you intend to do. If you’re backpacking, a tarp will be too bulky and heavy to carry and hence the footprint is your best bet. But if you’re car packing, the tarp will not be extra hassle and you can definitely carry both.

In conclusion, if you can afford to have both, your tent would thank you. However, if you’re only looking to buy one, I would go for the tarp as it can be used for both. We’ve already seen that the tarp can be used as a footprint and it offers better protection as it shelters the tent from both elements on the ground and those above it.

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