I came across words proclaiming the death of the tarp.
I beg to differ. Far from terminal, the state of tarp tenting is as robust as ever. The reason is simple: tarps deliver maximum utility, versatility and value while offering benefits no tent can offer. Not to slam tents-I use them-but more often than not, if I am heading into the wilds for the night, I usually stuff a tarp into my backpack.
Size-wise tarps run from bandana-sized solo models, ideal for the fanatical speed-commuting thru-hiker, to, say, the ginormous tarp that covers Denver International Airport’s cavernous main gallery (yes, that is in fact a tarp). Classic tarps, made from simple waterproof fabrics, range from basic rectangles to taut, contemporary versions featuring swooping, wind-shedding curvilinear lines. Pyramidal tarps-best characterized by Black Diamond’s archetypal single-pole MegaMid-first started to appear on winter Outward Bound courses several decades ago. Inspired by leftover Jerry Denali tent flies, these most-bomber tarp tents quickly became the OB instructor’s shelter of choice (myself included) before catching the fancy of the public at large.
While it was the combination of expansive living space and low weight that initially charmed me, the tarp’s versatility keeps me loyal. Think about it: One tarp can take you through the seasons-it serves as a primary shelter for hiking and backpacking, a quick shelter for an alpine bivi, a well-ventilated sunshade for desert or river trips, a car camping awning or as a social/cooking spot during inclement weather. Sans floor, you’re free to wheel your greasy bike in out of the rain.
Set atop snow walls and a sunken floor, single and double-peaked tarps provide exceptional weather protection on a spring ski tour or an expedition, while being immune to spilled food, crampon points and wee-hour pee breaks during those endless winter nights. And don’t forget, virtually every tarp can be supported with ski or trekking poles, thereby reducing your load.
Tarps are not without their shortcomings, most notably a dearth of privacy. They can drip condensation in high humidity conditions. They’re not as warm as tents. You need to anchor them well -a mighty mid-night Gore Range gust once completely lifted a MegaMid up, up and away leaving me instantly awake, blinking and befuddled under a starry night. And tarps certainly are not the best call in May and early July when the air’s abuzz with vampiric insects.
All told though, the tarp is the live-simple ethic incarnate-an ultra-basic, functional tool capable of many tasks. I just feel more a part of the land- and plant-scape when living under a tarp. Feeling sweet alpine air, sleeping among mountain grasses, watching the day quietly draw to a close all around you…. The tarp is far from dead-it’s the very definition of wilderness living.
Brian Litz is the author of Colorado Hut to Hut.