Tent Footprint vs tarp
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Tent Footprint vs Tarp: How to Choose the Best Option

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​What is a tent footprint? 

A tent footprint is a specially designed moisture barrier that you put between the ground and the floor of 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. 

When it comes to tent footprint or tarp which is best? 

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. 

Tent fabric breaks down over time. Dampness, debris and rough terrain against the tent bottom add to the wear and tear. A tarp or tent footprint is an extra layer of protection between your expensive tent and the forest floor.

Using a 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 clean and hang a tarp to dry than a bulky tent. 

Tent Footprint

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. They’re designed to be a perfect fit for the base of your tent. Some brands sell tents with the footprint, others sell them separately. 

Tent footprint pros:

  • Custom-fit
  • Branded 
  • Lighter weight than tarps
  • Ideal for backpackers

Tent footprint cons: 

  • More expensive than tarps
  • Have to purchase from the tent manufacturer
  • Not all tents have pre-fabricated footprints available

If you’re going to get a lot of use out of your tent, or your tent has a unique shape (non rectangular) then I think a tent footprint is the best option.

Tarp

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 folded in precisely. Still, if you find a nice tarp that works well with your tent, you can save yourself some money. 

Tarp pros:

  • Affordable alternative to tent footprints
  • Can be found at any building supply store
  • Tarp can be used for other things in the off-season

Tarp cons: 

  • 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, then a tarp will be your only option. 

Tent Footprint vs. Tarp

Choosing between tent footprint vs tarp gets a little easier with experience. 

The main difference is that a tent footprint will be the right size for the floor of your tent. 

Price

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 I’ll 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. 

Packability 

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. 

Versatility

Sadly, tent footprints aren’t good for anything but 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, ground cover and more.

Tarps are extremely handy in the great outdoors or indoors. We used tarps recently to cover the floors while painting—highly convenient. 

Weight

Tent footprints win hands down in the weight department. If you’re an ultralight backpacker, this is one reason to want a tent foot print vs. a tarp. Tarps are multipurpose, and for this reason, tarps are often heavy-duty—and not everyone is prepared for the extra weight. You can get a lightweight tarp, but they’re often expensive.

Ease of Set Up

Tent footprints fit specific tent models. This means an exact fit to your tent size. 

I made the mistake of not fitting a tarp to my tent on one camping trip. 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 the size of your tent. Any tarp peeking out is just asking for water to pool under your tent or a strong wind to move and wrinkle the whole thing. 

Other Protective Layer Options

Tent footprints and tarps aren’t the only way to protect your tent from damp earth, sharp objects and debris. Alternative protective layers include:

Tyvek Sheeting

3 by 7 Foot Tyvek Camp Cover
$13.55
  • Stronger & more durable than 1443R
  • Ultralight, Waterproof, Compact & Re-usable
  • Comes with softening / washing Instruction Sheet
  • 36 X 84 inches ~ 4 ounces
Amazon
03/11/2024 08:27 pm GMT

Tyvek sheeting was originally designed for house wrap. Like your basic tarp, a tyvek is polyethylene. Polyethylene is durable and dense in comparison to a basic tarp. It blocks air and water from infiltrating your tent.

You can buy a sheet of Tyvek in various sizes. These 3′ x 7′ sheets are a good choice as a flooring protector. You can find tyvek at your local hardware store.

Plastic Sheeting

Clear Greenhouse Plastic Sheeting
$39.95 $37.95
  • Premium polyethylene, which is tear-resistant, UV protected, and tough.
  • 12 FT x 25 FT it can be cut to your preferred size.
  • Perfect protective barrier for Camping, construction, masonry, agriculture, landscaping projects.
Amazon
03/11/2024 08:32 pm GMT

Plastic sheeting helps in many activities, including paint drop cloth 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

PEVA Shower Curtain Liner
  • Ultra smooth specialty design created to resist water and to promote water bead formation so water swiftly rolls off the surface.
  • Measuring 72" x 72"
  • Made with 100% high quality and safe PEVA material. Contains no PVC & chlorine,


Walmart

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 a great choice. If you go on glamping trips or use car camping tents, a camping tarp is the best bet.

However you protect your tent, the important thing is your tent will last longer.

Happy Camping!

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