11 Camping Tarp Hacks

If you click and purchase with one of our links, we earn a commission. Thanks.

make images vertical Photograph of Northern California river with pine trees

The top uses of a tarp in camping and emergency situations include creating a protective footprint under tents, serving as rain covers and shade, building various emergency shelters like A-Frames and lean-tos, acting as windscreens and privacy shields, keeping firewood and gear dry, collecting water for survival, carrying materials and constructing improvised stretchers, fashioning into hammocks or rainflies, aiding in camouflage and flotation, signaling for rescue with brightly colored tarps, and joining multiple tarps for larger structures. Their lightweight and compact nature also makes tarps a favorite among backpackers for minimalistic shelter.

Key Takeaways:

  • Tarps provide essential protection for tents as a footprint, preventing moisture and damage from rough terrain.
  • They serve as effective rain covers, shade providers, and can be used for heat reflection with additional materials.
  • In emergencies, tarps can be transformed into shelters like A-Frames, lean-tos, or even teepees, offering versatile protection.
  • Tarps act as windscreens and privacy shields, useful in creating windbreaks or private areas in campsites.
  • They are crucial for keeping firewood and gear dry, preventing rot and deterring wildlife.
  • Tarps can be used for water collection, an essential survival technique in outdoor settings.
  • Their utility extends to carrying materials, including the construction of improvised stretchers.
  • Tarps can be fashioned into hammocks or used as rainflies for existing hammocks.
  • They assist in camouflage and concealment during hunting or discreet camping.
  • Tarps can be innovatively used for flotation aids or makeshift kayaks in water crossings.
  • Brightly colored tarps, like orange, are vital for rescue and visibility in emergencies.
  • Joining multiple tarps together can create larger structures, offering more extensive coverage and shelter.
  • Lightweight and compact, tarps are ideal for backpackers, providing basic shelter without much weight.
  • Always pack extra tarps for their multifunctionality and potential in various camping and emergency scenarios.

I put together my first home emergency kit when we moved in December 1999. While Y2K was definitely on our mind, we’re also in tornado ally.

One of the items I made sure to put in my box of supplies was a tarp. This is because a tarp is very useful.

Tarps are cheap and easy to pack. Which is why you should bring several if possible.

In this article, I’m going to share 11 ways you can use a camping tarp.


The very first use case is to protect the bottom of your tent. And that is to use a tarp as a footprint.

This is simple to do. All you need to do is to find the area you want to place your tent. And then lay the tarp down. Then put your tent on top of the tarp.

Having the tarp will prevent moisture from seeping in from the ground into the tent. And it will also prevent rocks and twigs from ripping holes in the bottom of your tent.

Make sure that the tarp does not extend past your tent floor. Otherwise, if it rains, you will end up building a moat around your tent. A moat is a great feature for a castle. It’s a wet mess for tent campers.

Rain Cover And Shade

Most likely your tent will come with a rainfly. So you won’t need to use a tarp for a rainfly unless the rainfly goes missing.

However, you might need the tarp for cover over your cooking area if it starts to rain. Or you can set up an extra tarp for the kids to sit under and play if it’s raining. And they get sick of being stuck in the tent.

If it’s hot and sunny, you can also use a tarp for shade. An additional hack for this is to either attach Reflectrix or an emergency blanket shiny side up - on top of the tarp. This should reflect most of the heat of the sun back into the sky.

And result in a much cooler shady spot.

You can in the winter reverse this and it will help trap the warm air.

Emergency Tent

If you spend 5 minutes looking for “survival uses for a tarp” online, the most popular item will be emergency shelter.

This is something I learned in Boy Scouts. And it’s why when I first put together my home emergency kit, I put in a tarp. Even though at the time I knew it would require an extremely dire situation to persuade my wife to sleep on the ground.

Meanwhile, there are several versions of a shelter you can make with a tarp. Including an A-Frame and a lean-to. If you had a few tarps, you could even form a teepee.

You will maximize your options by brining along trekker poles and cordage and bug netting.

If the weather is clear and you have the bug netting, a simple option would be to do cowboy camping. Where you sleep on the ground without a tent.


This is a variation on your rain cover and emergency shelter. And that’s to use it as a windscreen.

For example, if you are trying to light a fire in a windy area, setting up a windbreak will make it easier to light and keep it lit.

It will also trap heat and make for a warmer space if positioned properly.

And a variety on this is to use it as a privacy shield. If you are doing primitive camping and need to set up a ditch toilet, you could set up a tarp as a type of outhouse. That way campers don’t have to watch each other in the loo.

Or you could position it to provide cover while taking a camp shower using a portable solar shower kit.

Cover Firewood and Gear

This is a simple to implement but important use case.

Nobody wants to try and light a fire with wet firewood. It’s messy and of course much more difficult. And if the firewood is allowed to sit in wet conditions for a long time, it will also start to rot.

And that’s going to ruin the wood.

By also keeping the firewood dry with a tarp, you also reduce the risk of critters finding a home in the firewood. Such as mice and rats.

Mice and rats will also attract snakes.

I remember as a boy, how I loved to hunt through old fence posts looking for snakes.

We didn’t have anything poisonous crawling through it, just your average garden snake. Which I loved to capture.

Which is where I should state the obvious. Don’t handle snakes you find in nature. It’s dumb and can hurt the snake. Or you.

While many people are afraid of snakes, snakes play an essential role in keeping our environment healthy.

Water Collection

On your average weekend getaway, you shouldn’t need to use this hack but it’s good to know about it.

I am sure you were are well aware of the importance of water for camping.

Survival expert Dave Canterbury says water is in many cases more important than shelter in the early moments of a survival situation. That’s because you’re unlikely to be in urgent need of shelter. You will have time.

However, most of us operate in a condition of mild dehydration. We simply do not drink enough water. And if you are outdoors, you are likely making this worse through exertion.

Thus getting a drink of clean and safe water is a high priority. We won’t cover how to boil or filter water here. We have a separate guide on that which you can read.

But if you found yourself in need, you could use a tarp to collect water for camp use.

There are several ways to do this.

If you have access to a stream, you create a funnel with your tarp to collect the water into easier to use containers.

Or you could collect the water into the tarp and fashion a carrier.

You could use a tarp to collect rainwater as well. This could be fashioned as a secondary benefit of using your tarp as a shelter.

You could use a tarp to collect the morning dew as well. Its large surface area should collect a lot of dew.

Carrying Stuff

Whether it’s collecting firewood, or branches to fashion a hut or to carry an injured comrade to safety, a tarp can be used to help you carry materials.

One important use that you should be aware of is to build an improvised stretcher. You can learn how to do this using this article at one of my favorite sites “The Art Of Manliness” here.


More people need to start bringing hammocks camping as well. While, I know in certain parts of the country, they frown upon using hammocks in trees, properly hung hammocks will not damage trees.

And in an emergency situation, a hammock is better than sleeping on the ground. It’s more comfortable and possibly safer. Because you are avoiding the snakes and other wildlife crawling around.

If you are sleeping in a hammock, then you can use your tarp as a rainfly.

Or you can even fashion a hammock out of a tarp itself is needed.


If you’re out hunting, you need to disguise your position and gear. Tarps can help you by covering things and providing a base to attach additional items to improve your camouflage.


While backpacking you may encounter a stream that you need to cross. And you improve your safety with some flotation assistance. You can form an air pocket with your tarp and use some clips to keep it together.

You can also create your own kayak out of found wood and a tarp.

Watch this video to see how (though remember to wear a life jacket):


If you’re car camping, please throw an orange emergency tarp into the truck. I know it’s fun to go out into the woods and pretend you’re Rambo for the weekend.

But Mother Nature doesn’t play around. If something goes wrong and you need help, you need to be found.

Orange stands out because it’s not commonly found in nature. Thus the eye detects it very easily when looking through a forest.

They’re cheap and small. And could possibly save your life.

How To Tie Two Tarps Together

Tieing multiple tarps together gives you more flexibility in the types of structures you could build.

For example, you could build a large cooking tent to provide maximum wind protection. Just make sure to have plenty of ventilation.

Or I have seen multiple flattened tarps to form a type of ceiling cover among a set of trees. Use trees or tall poles to support the top of structure you want to make from the tarps.

Then use paracord or rope to create ridgelines. The ridgeline help reduce the amount of weight the tarp must hold.

Unless all of the tarps are the same length, you are unlikely to be able to align the eyelets up together to attach. So you will need to be creative in getting the tarps attached. Cordage, Gorilla tape, and binder clips will all be used to help tie the tarps together.

A final recommendation I read was to use toggles to tie your tarps down. This is also useful for tents. It helps to protect your grommets from being ripped out.

Tarps Are Lightweight

Backpackers enjoy using tarps because of their weight. Which is that they don’t weigh very much. And they can be packed up small.

And thanks to modern chemistry, they make tarps specifically for backpacking. They roll up into packages that are about the size of my hand. And weigh only a couple of ounces.

A tarp like this, some paracord, your trekker poles, and some knowledge you have your shelter for your backpacking trip.

However, these types of shelters are for the most hardcore backpackers. They will keep you covered from the rain. But that’s about it.

You won’t have any room for your gear. And even for a tent, this is not going to provide any level of comfort.

Take Many Tarps

Tarps don’t cost much. And they do not weigh very much. And pack up small.

As you can read in the rest of this article, you can see that there are many important roles that they can play on a fun and successful camping trip.

This is why I always make sure there’s a tarp in my emergency kit. And hope, I never ever need it.

But on your next camping trip, make sure to pack a couple of extra ones. And if you’re bored try out some bushcraft and see if you can build your own improvised shelter.

Or even be adventurous and try making the kayak.