Tent camping is one of my favorite pastimes. There’s nothing quite like spending a night in nature. One of the tools my family picked up when we realized we would be camping frequently is a tent footprint.
A tent footprint is a specially designed moisture barrier installed between the ground and your tent. The tent footprint protects the bottom of your tent from getting damp, dirty, or damaged. It’s also called a ground cloth or a ground sheet.
Some families prefer a tarp to a tent footprint. Here, I’ll be delving into the finer points of each.
When it comes to tent footprint or tarp which is best? Here are the facts so that you can decide for yourself.
Do I Need to Protect my Tent Floor?
Absolutely! Your tent’s floor is likely made of a durable waterproof material like nylon. While nylon is a suitable protector on a good-weather day, it won’t last through long-term use. It’s also thin and doesn’t add much insulation between the cold ground and your body.
Tent fabric breaks down over time. Dampness, debris and rough terrain against the tent bottom add to the wear and tear.
Choosing between tent footprint vs. tarp could be the difference between one or ten years with your tent.
I’ve used tents with and without a protective ground covering. I always notice a big difference in cleaning my tent afterward. It’s easier to hang a tarp to dry than a bulky tent.
The name might make you scratch your head but a tent footprint isn’t what it sounds like. It’s a barrier placed between a tent and the ground to protect the tent.
Tent footprints differ from tarps in shape, weight, and customization. These are products designed to fit around the bottom of your specific tent. Some brands sell tents with the footprint, others sell them separately.
Tent footprint pros:
- Branded (They often include a similar warranty to your tent)
- Lighter weight than tarps
- Ideal for backpackers
Tent footprint cons:
- More expensive than tarps
- Often only usable with certain tent models
- Not all tents have pre-fabricated footprints available
There are many different styles of tent footprints. Here are two options I recommend.
Alps Mountaineering Tent Footprint
- ALPS Mountaineering rectangle floor savers are a great addition to any tent purchase.
- Cut a little smaller than the dimension of the tent floor.
- Have a webbing loop on the corners, making it easy to pull and stake out with the tent stakes.
- Simple, fast and all at a great price.
The Alps Mountaineering Tent Footprint is a multi-size protector made of polyester. Webbing loop corner attachments help the footprint connect to any tent within its sizing specifications.
I like that this tent footprint comes in six sizes, including:
I’m also a fan of the carrying bag and dark color. Better for avoiding unremovable stains.
Pros: Several sizes to fit your tent model. Carrying bag included.
Cons: Slightly heavier than some tent footprints. Might not be ideal for backpacking.
(Measurements based on four-person occupancy. Sizes vary in measurements and weight.)
Footprint Measurements: 8’2 (249.9cm) x 7’2 (219.4cm)
Material: Polyester and webbing
Klymit Maxfield 4 Tent Footprint
- Extend the life of your Maxfield 4 Tent.
- Protect the floor from sharp rocks, abrasive surfaces, and other ground-level hazards.
- Made of 40-denier nylon ripstop with a 3,000mm polyurethane coating
- Minimalist option of setting the tent up in Fast Fly mode with the rainfly and poles.
The Klymit Maxfield 4 Tent Footprint is designed specifically for the Klymit Maxfield Four-Person Backpacking Tent. You can see by the unique shape of the tent footprint that it’s meant for a tent with a roomy vestibule. The tent and footprint are sold separately but fit together perfectly.
This is one of my favorite combinations because of the durable 40-denier nylon ripstop and polyurethane coating. It protects against cold, moisture, and abrasive campsite settings.
Pros: Perfect custom fit to Klymit Maxfield Four-Person Backpacking Tent. Offers Fasy Fly set up with poles and rainfly.
Cons: Not likely to fit other tent models because of its unique shape.
Footprint Measurements: 85” (215.9cm) x 95” (241.3cm)
Material: Nylon and Polyurethane
Tarps are what I like to refer to as, “old faithful”. These protective covers are convenient in so many situations. Our family often uses tarps for additional rain coverage, homemade awnings, and more. You can also use a tarp in place of a tent footprint.
Tarps are made of durable polyethylene or polypropylene. They’re designed to be waterproof and used to cover everything from BBQs to wood piles. I’ve used tarps as tent footprints in the past and they’ve worked great. The biggest difference is fit.
Where tent footprints are designed to fit snugly to the bottom of your tent, tarps need to be fiddled with. Still, if you find a nice tarp that works well with your tent, you can save yourself some money.
- Affordable alternative to tent footprints
- Can be found at any building supply store
- Tarp can be used for other things in the off-season
- Don’t fit snugly for good rain protection
- Must be cut to fit the bottom of the tent
- Heavier to carry than tent footprints
If you have a strangely proportioned tent, like a lot of pop-up tents are, then a tarp will be your only option.
Not sure which tarp is best to buy for car camping? Here are my two top choices for tarps to use below your tent.
Bass Pro Shops Heavy-Duty Tarp
Cabela’s has some amazing finds, and this is one of them. The Bass Pro Shops Heavy-Duty Tarp comes in two sizes. Every tarp includes rustproof grommets at each corner and along the edging at 2” intervals.
I love that the multitude of grommets makes it easy to use this tarp for more than a footprint if needed. It’s also a lightweight tarp compared to some other brands while retaining its tear-resistant promise.
Pros: Mildew and water resistant. Versatile and durable. Still flexible in below-freezing temperatures. UV resistant.
Cons: Only comes in one color. Even the smallest size will need to be folded or cut to fit under the tent properly.
Tarp Measurements: 10’ (304.8cm) x 12’ (365.7cm) and 12’ (365.7cm) x 16’ (487.6cm)
Weight: Varies by size
White Duck Super Heavy Duty Poly Tarp
- High-density, tightly woven, made-to-last polyethylene fibers.
- Corners and edges are reinforced by hemming the edges with poly twine rope/ border piping, making it tear-resistant.
- Rustproof brass grommets spaced every 18 inches and at each corner.
- Extra UV protection against harmful sunrays and fading.
- Over 20 sizes ranging from 6x8, 10x12, 16x20, 8x10 to 40x60.
- Can be used outdoor for camping, hunting, turn it into a canopy or a tent fly
White Duck makes a 16mm thick tarp that promises 100% UV protection and a waterproof exterior. I like this tarp because it comes in 19 sizes and each tarp is laminated on both sides.
Rustproof brass grommets are spaced apart every 18” for easy use. The tarp is made from polyethylene and is both shrink-proof and tear resistant. This is a very sturdy and durable tarp, which makes it ideal for a tent footprint.
Pros: Heavy duty. Rust-proof grommets. 19 sizes to choose from. Two color options.
Cons: Still needs to be fitted to the tent in most cases. Much heavier than a tent footprint at 5.53lbs.
(Measurements based on 10×10 cut size. Sizes vary in measurements and weight.)
Tarp Measurements: 9’6 (292.6cm) x 9’6 (292.6cm)
Tent Footprint vs. Tarp
Choosing between tent footprint vs tarp gets a little easier with experience. Honestly, it took me trying a few of each to find the right fit for our tents. And, if I’m honest, every tent is different. Some tents do great with a tarp, but others need the footprint to stay in top shape.
There are a few variables to consider as you choose your camp gear. Here are some of the factors I think about when I buy a new tarp or tent footprint.
Camping is one of those things you need to be careful cutting corners with. I’ll cheap out on a marshmallow roasting stick, for example, but pay the sticker price for a good rainfly every time. In the case of tent footprint vs. tarp, it depends on the product.
Tarps are cheaper. You’ll almost always spend less on a tarp. But, on the reverse side of things you spend more time trying to make it properly fit your tent. You might even spend more buying additional connectors and fasteners to hold it in place.
Tarps aren’t complicated to fold, but are bulky. I choose a tent footprint over a tarp for foot trips and backpacking. Tarps are easier to pack or fasten to the outside of the pack. Many come with carrying bags.
That said, tarps are fine if you drive to a site. They lay flat and pack well among other bulky items.
Sadly, tent footprints aren’t good for much other than their intended use. The design of tent footprints help them fit around the bottom of a tent and block out water. Tarps win in versatility. As I briefly touched-on above, tarps are great for BBQ covers, rainflies, vehicle covers, and more.
Bushcraft campers use tarps and poles while building makeshift tents. Tarps are extremely handy in the great outdoors or indoors. We used tarps recently to cover the floors while painting—highly convenient.
Tent footprints win hands down in the weight department. If you backpack, this is one reason to want a tent footprint vs. a tarp. Tarps are multipurpose, and for this reason, tarps are often heavy-duty—and I mean heavy.
A prime example of the weight difference is a weight comparison in the White Duck tarp above and any footprint you consider. Again, if you drive to a site, this won’t matter much. But, even a walk-in site is less cumbersome with a tent footprint.
Ease of Set up
Tent footprints fit tents with precision. Many tent brands make footprints for individual tent designs. This means an exact fit to your tent size.
I made the mistake of not fitting a tarp to my tent once. The biggest problem is the elements. The wind gets under the tarp and lifts it, which puts pressure on the tent. Rain lands on the tarp, causing water to pool directly below the tent. All in all, not a fun experience.
So you need to fold your tarp so that it is smaller than your tent size. Any tarp peeking out is just asking for water to pool under your tent.
Tent footprints and tarps aren’t the only way to protect your tent from damp earth and debris. Alternative protective layers include:
Tyvek sheeting was originally designed for house wrap. It insulates homes beneath their final exterior. Like your basic tarp, Tyvek sheeting is usually polyethylene. Polyethylene is durable and dense in comparison to a basic tarp. It blocks air and water from infiltrating your tent.
Recently, Tyvek has become available in smaller portions for everything from envelopes to camp covers. You can buy a Tyvek footprint in an assortment of sizes. These 3′ x 7′ sheets are a good choice as a flooring protector.
Plastic sheeting helps in many activities, including painter drop cloths and greenhouse covers. The key to quality plastic sheeting is to look for heavy-duty plastic. I suggest a minimum of 6mm in thickness.
This plastic sheeting for greenhouse work is UV-resistant polyethylene. Finding plastic sheeting in small quantities is the main problem I encounter. Many rolls have too much for a tent base, leading campers to spend more than they would on a tarp.
Plastic Shower Curtain
Shower curtains are one of the most basic and inexpensive ways to protect your tent flooring. You can buy a plastic shower curtain at most home-renovation, department, and even dollar stores.
Plastic shower curtain liners are convenient because they’re usually about the size of the average 2-4 person tent. Shower curtains are also mildew resistant and affordable. This LiBa Frosted shower curtain liner from Walmart is a great pick.
Both tarps and tent footprints have their benefits. I suggest basing your decision on tent type and camping situation. For backpackers and walk-in sites, tent footprints are king. On a glamping trip with a parking space on-site a tarp is fine.
However you protect your tent, the important thing is your tent will last longer.
I’m Molly Foss, aka Momma Critter. I’ve been camping since I was 9 years old and I always wanted to be Robin Hood and live in the forest when I grew up. I’m excited to share my love of camping with my son as he grows up. My favorite thing to do while camping is roast marshmallows over the fire.