Over the years of hauling around different shelter systems for camping- commercially made tents, tarps of varying quality, lean-tos made from branches and boughs, and sleeping under the stars; I’ve settled on a versatile shelter system that works well for me, my focus in the woods, and my environment. Below is a list of the most common components of my shelter kit. I linked each item to the brand I carry or similar (no affiliation with the stores- I used the first accurate link I could find).
Tarps allow for a variety of different pitches, depending on needs, conditions, and environment. I use a tarp in combination with trekking poles or sticks, paracord, stakes, and a small handful of knots to make a variety of shelters. Every item linked above has a far more inexpensive alternative- I’ve collected my kit over many years, slowly replacing lower quality kit for higher. It’s easy to build a very capable tarp shelter kit for far less. Several of the items in my shelter kit have multiple uses.
Silnylon is tough, waterproof, lightweight, and compact. It’s the best balance I’ve found between cost and performance. Other options include cuben fiber (expensive but high performance), canvas (heavy, less waterproof but traditional and robust), Tyvek (fragile but inexpensive), and common, woven plastic tarps (inexpensive, but heavy and low quality).
Tarp shapes and sizes vary quite a bit, and the individual will need to choose size, cut, and options based on their needs. My favorite shop is Simply Light Designs, as linked above. My favorite of theirs is my 10’x10′ square tarp with side-panel D rings and line locks on the nylon loops around the tarp perimeter. You may prefer a caternary cut if you prefer hammocks, but I like straight edges. When a lighter kit is needed, I switch that out with a 5’x9′ tarp of theirs, with similar options.
After the trip, make sure your tarp is fully dry before storing. I hang mine outside or stake it to the ground. Shake the dirt and twigs off too.
Cordage is, of course, a multi-purpose tool and should be in any kit. I prefer the item linked above for its ability to hold knots well, high tensile strength (700# vs common paracord at 550#), and reflective strands. It makes a huge difference not only finding your way back to camp at night, but avoiding tripping over lines as well. Of course, the internet holds tutorials for endless uses for paracord. The multiple inner fibers can be removed and used for smaller tasks.
Alternatives to paracord are too numerous to list. #36 tarred bank line is very popular, and I’ve used this extensively as well. I prefer it for a lot of tasks calling for a more inexpensive or one-time use option. Tarred bank line is pretty fidgety when it comes to holding and untying knots though, so for that purpose I’ve found paracord to be best.
I know, it would be far more crafty to carve them from old branches, and I often do. But, when you really don’t feel like carving and just want to get your shelter up, ready-made stakes are really nice to have. They weigh almost nothing and are easy to pack. I’m sure there are now several far cheaper options out there now than MSR’s offering. I usually pack 6-8, more if I’m bringing bug netting needing to be staked.
You can try wearing a baseball cap and headnet, but I found that approach too uncomfortable for sleep. The pyramid netting linked works pretty well, and is super lightweight and compact. It comes with when summer is heating up and the mosquitoes can’t be persuaded by smoke, picaridin, and permethrin. You’ll need a stake for each of the four corners, and somewhere above to tie the center cord.
Goose down is hard to beat for compactness and warmth. Unfortunately, down bags are expensive, and it doesn’t hold up well to moisture unless you spring for the newer water-repellent down that’s now available. Synthetic bags are much cheaper, but I haven’t seen any that really compare to down.
I use a 0F down bag for cooler fall and winter camp-outs. One of my favorite tricks for keeping comfortable in the cold is to boil my drinking water, pour it back into my water bottle, wrap in a cloth, and stick it in the sleeping bag.
A 45F goose down bag comes with me on warmer-weather trips. Synthetic bags, quilts, wool or fleece blankets could all be used.
This comes with always. It’s small and light enough, and worth having around for just a little extra warmth. It also helps keep dirt out of your main bag, and is a nice, light option for particularly warm nights. Reviews suggest the silk liners are strong enough to use as a sack for carrying loads as well, though I don’t feel like testing it.
Fleece and other bag liners are sold as well, and I think this item could be easily made on a sewing machine at home.
Even on warm nights, you’ll want something insulating you from the enormous heat sink that is the ground below you. I’m of the opinion that you should get the highest-quality, highest R-rating pad you can afford. A well performing pad on cold nights can mean the difference between a restful snooze outdoors and a miserable night to endure. It’s also a good idea to pack a patch kit. I like tenacious tape.
Closed cell foam pads are particularly nice for warm nights. They don’t insulate or cushion as well as a good inflatable pad, but are cheaper, much faster to set up and put away, and are not flattened by punctures. On the coldest nights, I combine it with my inflatable pad for extra warmth. Foam pads are bulky as well, and I strap mine to the bottom of my pack.
This is another item that comes with every time, one of my favorite pieces of gear. I use it as a ground cloth on top of which goes my pad. It makes a clean spot to sit down near camp, is reflective to help you keep warm. It’s also quite durable and has grommets on the perimeter, making it easy to set up as an additional shelter or reflecting wall if need be. If it rains during the day, it’s great to cover your firewood. A small, cheap plastic tarp would work just fine for this as well.
Another favorite bit of kit with a thousand and one uses, my shemagh also serves as my pillow. I lay it out flat, pile my spare clothing in the middle, and tie the opposite diagonal corners together.
Of course, you could use any large bandanna or square of cloth, or just pile your clothes under your head, without the shemagh.
Another item I bring on every trip, usually carrying one and strapping the other to the outside of my pack. They’re just too handy. I can walk farther, longer, more comfortably, and be less tired when I arrive at camp. They’re always finding uses reaching for things, checking depths, and as an integral part of my shelter setup as support poles in tarp pitches.
Of course, many manufacturers offer many styles of poles, and they can always be improvised with sticks.
This is a heavy, durable camouflage sack made with Gore-Tex, a waterproof and breathable fabric. This bulky piece of kit comes with when I expect heavy rain, or sometimes by itself for an ultra-minimal pack in warm weather.
Following is a list of the most common knots I use for building tarp shelters. I recommend practicing them until they’re burned into your memory. I’ll offer a name, photo, and description of the knots, but won’t give a detailed tutorial on tying them. I highly recommend Animated Knots by Grog. It is probably the last knot reference you’ll ever need. An app is available for most devices and I think it’s worth the $4.95. Each knot is presented in excruciating detail, and the apps work offline. I’ll include a link to Grog’s site for each knot.
The Lark’s Head knot is great for a quick to tie, quick to tear down, static attachment point to a tarp. Pass your cord through the tarp grommet or loop, and tie a Lark’s Head around the middle of a short twig on the other side. The twig distributes stress across your grommet or loop as well, reducing wear. The knot can also be used to add a twig toggle in the middle of a line, to hook another loop or hang gear.
The Prusik Knot is very handy for the property of gripping another line tight when under load, and being easily movable when the load is released. It’s a good idea to prepare ahead and make loops for applying the Prusik. Cut 4-6 sections of cord, 12-16 inches long. Use a Double Fisherman’s bend to form each piece into a loop.
The loop can now be tied into a Prusik around a taut ridge line. The other end of the loop can be passed through a tarp grommet or loop and held on the other side with a Lark’s Head and a twig. A Prusik loop on each side of your tarp allows you to move it back and forth over your ridge line, and tighten it down easily when situated.
Use a bowline any time you need a non-moving loop. The bowline holds tight when under load from any direction, and unties easily. I usually use a bowline on one end of my guylines, since my tarp has line locks and I don’t need to tie an adjustable loop. Unless I do, in which case I use a…
The Midshipman’s Hitch is similar to the popular Taut-Line Hitch, except a subtle difference in the order of steps to tie makes for a more secure knot, less prone to slipping. This would be the knot to use, in conjunction with a Lark’s Head on the other end, if your tarp doesn’t have cord locking devices built-in. It creates a loop of cord that holds tight under load, and is easy to slide up and down when the load is removed. Another very popular knot for this purpose is the Trucker’s Hitch. I find this knot too coarse for this application and better suited for securing heavy loads with thick rope. Once you’re familiar with the Midshipman’s Hitch, you’ll find it easy to tie another useful knot with similar application as a Prusik Loop…
A Rolling Hitch is basically a Midshipman’s Hitch, except tied to a standing line instead of as a loop. It will function similarly to a Prusik, with a single free end instead of a loop, should the situation call for it. Tie a load to the other end, and it will hold tight. Lift the load, and slide the knot up or down the standing line.
These are basically the only knots I use for rigging any tarp pitch or fly.
Les Stroud of “Survivorman” fame had a rule that I liked for choosing a good campsite, he called the “5 W’s”. These are Widowmakers, Water, Wood, Weather, and Willies.
Widowmakers are dead trees and branches nearby that may fall or be blown over in a storm, and land on you. When you arrive on site, look up and around. Remove dangerous, dead branches if possible, or keep looking.
Depending on several factors, it may be a good idea to keep in mind the closest source of water. Here in Iowa, it’s tough to find a camping spot that isn’t within a hundred yards of a stream. This means I can carry in less water, and treat more as needed.
If you plan on having a campfire, have an idea of how much fuel you’ll need and consider your closest source. Searching for, cutting up, and hauling back wood is tiring.
I learned a harsh lesson a few summers ago while camping on a tract of private woodland near Dubuque, Iowa. I’d pitched my tarp in a high plow-point, and, knowing rain was forecast, hadn’t considered the direction of prevailing winds. It was a silly mistake I won’t make again.
(Side note- I think this is the only photo I have of the bug netting up) I had pitched my tarp facing west, directly into the storm. As you can tell from the photo, I hadn’t done much to reinforce the tarp, didn’t even use the D rings in the side panels. It rained lightly from midnight until 3 am, and I thought I’d be fine. Then, on came the storm. My tarp ripped up all three pegs, and it flapped angrily from the lone guyline. I spent the next 90 minutes with my fists full of tarp, holding it down over my gear, waiting the storm out. The rain finally settled and I laid back down and slept fitfully.
So, lesson learned. Keep the weather in mind. Know your winds and directions, and use terrain to your advantage to help you battle the elements.
Willies are the creepy crawlies you don’t want investigating various entrances while you slumber. The occasional mouse snooping around or spider walking across my bedding doesn’t bother me. Though, I was once given a bright reminder of this rule on a camping trip in southern Mississippi. I knelt down to place a stake in soft ground, and immediately noticed my hand was on fire. I looked down and it was crawling with fire ants. Pay attention.
Besides those, you’ll want to consider what type of pitch you plan on using, and what structures, if any, you’ll need to do that. One or two trees is generally all you need. You’ll want flat, level ground of course, if you’re like me and don’t enjoy hammocks.
The pitch you use will depend on your equipment, environment, expected weather, camping style, and other factors. It’s a very good idea to practice several different pitches in your back yard before choosing your favorites.
For hammocking, tarps are usually flown (no part touching the ground) directly overhead. Larger tarps can be pitched or flown as a modified A-frame, giving a covered area on the ground next to the hammock. Caternary cut tarps are often preferred for hammocking. A ridge line is tied taut between two trees, using a bowline on one end and a midshipman’s hitch on the other. The tarp is laid across the top of the ridge line, and prusik loops used to keep it taut. The other two corners of the tarp are anchored to the ground with guylines and stakes. In the photo above, I’ve also pulled the sides of the tarp away from the hammock, using the built-in D rings.
The plow point tarp pitch is my favorite for ease of pitching and support against inclement weather. You’ll need one tree, to which a guyline is tied high, and the other end to one corner of your tarp. The other three corners are staked down, and additional stakes used along the two low sides as needed. The low point of the plow should face into prevailing winds, not away, as I learned through carelessness. A low A-frame pitch is another good option when heavy rain is expected. A trekking pole can be fully extended and used to support the tarp from underneath, giving a bit more headroom. If winds and rain pick up, the pitch can be lowered by first lowering where the guyline ties to the tree, then adjusting the stake on each side to keep the tarp taut.
The arrow point tarp pitch is similar to the plow point, but can be set up using two trekking poles or sticks instead of a tree. Three corners of the tarp are anchored to the ground, and the fourth raised. The ends of the support sticks are attached to the tarp 1/3 the way down from the corner, and reinforced with two guylines. The fourth corner of the tarp is anchored to the ground with a guyline and stake. This pitch can be tricky to get set up right, but it holds up well against rain, and the down-turned corner offers a bit more dampening of the wind.
I use this fly when long, steady, calm rains are expected. This arrangement maximizes living space but offers little protection from side-blown rain. A long stick supporting the tarp from underneath prevents water from pooling in the middle. Make sure you take some time using your knife to round off and smooth the end of the stick against the tarp, to avoid tears.
I use this pitch on occasion with my small, 5’x9′ tarp. It works just the same as a plow point with a square tarp, and seems a bit easier to adjust lower to the ground for high winds. This is definitely my lightest & fastest tarp setup- one small tarp, one guyline, and three stakes is the minimum needed.
The lean-to pitch is fairly simple, and can help reflect and retain warmth from a nearby fire. If no trees are available, two trekking poles or sticks can serve as supports. Reinforce each with two guylines, to keep the support vertical when under load in any direction. For particularly cold nights, the underside of the tarp could be lined with a mylar blanket, and the entire pitch covered with transparent plastic sheeting, using long, thin logs to hold it to the ground. A long fire outside the shelter (not so close to melt the plastic) in combination with this setup creates the “Super Shelter” developed by Mors Kochanski. The mylar reflects heat from the fire, which is trapped inside the sheeting. This shelter can get uncomfortably warm even on sub-zero nights, and ventilation is recommended.
I used this pitch with my 5’x9′ tarp in conjunction with my milsurp bivy to maximize living space while still affording good weather protection, even allowing room for a wood shed. This pitch requires four support sticks. Two corners of the tarp are staked, and two sticks support the rear corners. These need only one guyline each. The end corners are supported by two more sticks, each steadied by two guylines. Side panel D rings are really nice to have for this pitch, and significantly increase the space inside.
I still have a tent, and use it when I’m with groups and want privacy. But, more often than not, I’m packing a tarp. They’re more versatile, more fun to set up, and I enjoy the open-air designs versus being fully enclosed. I use different combinations of tarps, sleeping pads, netting, and bags depending on season, conditions, and needs. I don’t think there’s an Iowa winter cold enough that I still wouldn’t stay comfortable with two pads, two bags, or a long fire with a super-shelter setup. On warm, dry summer nights, I can pack light and hike far with just a small tarp, foam pad, and silk liner.
It’s fun to put knot skills to use, come up with variations on different pitches, and develop a skill set allowing you to improvise functional shelters from less-than-optimal materials.
Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed.