This past work trip into the mountains of Tennessee finally brought me to the end of my 5 month run with a tarp shelter. I have faithfully proclaimed the good news of tarps since I disavowed my 1-person bivy tent. They’re lightweight, versatile, as configurable, and all around one of the best shelter types I’ve used. I’ve enjoyed lean-tos, tee-pees, A-frames, and some variations an all 3 above with the same tarp that has yet to let me down all season.
To make this work all you need is a good 60 ft ridge line and some fore-arm lengths of cord. You can carry some aluminum stakes to save you time out in the field. Once if the field a tree is necessary to rig this up, but otherwise its up to your ingenuity to make it work. If done properly the shelter will only let in what breezes you want and shed precipitation well. I’d like to say that I’ve never had a tarp shelter leak or result in a night too chilly a little bundling couldn’t counter.
In fact here is a good point to jump into why the tarp shelter isn’t an ideal solution. It is, at best, a lightweight and low budget alternative to a good tent.
First off, as water and windproof a tarp is, that goes both ways. Any and all heat and moisture is trapped within the tarp with you, if you fully close the tarp. The lean-to set up avoids this somewhat, but no matter what I’ve always woken to see the inside of the tarp coated with a layer of water. The air, after a few days, becomes rather stuffy if the tarp is kept closed during the day as well, and at night it can become stifling, as a closed tarp shelter will have nearly 10 degrees to the outside world. Now obviously this is easy to counter act by simply leaving the shelter open, such as a traditional A-frame or lean-to.
Secondly there is the above solution. To keep the interior dry and breathable, the shelter must only be allowed to protect from things falling from above. Now in early spring and late fall when insects are all died or hibernating, snakes are under rock, and bears are in their dens this isn’t that big of an issue. After all, the fear of humans and a small fire is your best protection against the more unsavory wildlife. The issue becomes more apparent in the summer, late spring, and early fall. Anything can and will try to share your shelter with you. I have had more ant bites around my feet while sleeping than my time working, always at the top of my socks, and there’s nothing more I can do about this unless I want to burn the whole space I’ll be setting up on. That too is a temporary measure, and a destructive one at that.
Now this all was made very aware to me thanks to a close encounter with a copperhead this past trip. I’ve endured the dampness in the morning, ant bites, and alternating chilly and stifling nights. I’ve put up with waking up to see something moving in the shadows of the camp, or hearing rats and mice darting tent to tent all night. This last week though was a first for me. I’ve never before had a snake slither up next to my pillow before. Let alone a copperhead. It was enough for me to decide to close in my A-Frame and deal with the stifling heat another few nights. I’ve decided the extra security of a sewn in floor is worth the money.
All the above boils down to this: Tarp shelters are an excellent lightweight, temporary shelter for a moving camp or to keep you dry while building a better shelter. As for a fixed camp, they are a sub-par option compared to a tent with a properly sealed floor. They are also incapable of freestanding in areas without trees or tent poles. Tarp shelters are water and windproof to a fault, they remain wet and stale inside if the tarp is sealed up, or open to ground drafts and wildlife if left open to prevent that. I will still carry a tarp and a poncho as an emergency shelter. They’re indispensable for that. I will, too, move to a proper tent (which I’ll review after the next 9 day trip) for the remainder of my employment and future camping trips.