Tarps versus tents

Not that many years ago abackpacker who aspired to be ultralight (or even lightweight) had to use a tarp as tents were much heavier. Silnylon has made the choice a littler harder as tents have become much lighter and a decent tent weighing just over a kilo (2.2lbs) can be purchased for not much over £100. Pay more and it’s quite possible to get 700-800g tent which is hardly backbreaking.  Cuben fibre is lighter still but excruciatingly expensive. I will stick to comparing Silnylon shelters here but the argument is the same for Cuben shelters although the numbers will be different.

So, does a tarp still make sense for UL backpackers? As my other blog posts reveal I’m a great fan of the Gatewood Cape which is an enclosed tarp that offers great protection and doubles as rain gear too. It weighs about 700g with the bugproof inner. It’s my shelter of choice for three season backpacking but there is a hidden weight penalty. Once pitched, you can’t use the Cape as raingear so it is necessary to carry some sort of water-repellent jacket for pottering about camp, etc. Another shelter I’m very fond of is the TarpTent Contrail by Henry Shires. Weighing in at a tad under 800g, it is more spacious than the Gatewood and very spacious as far as one man tents go. But sometimes it’s nice to have a lot more room; waiting out a storm in an one-man tent isn’t the most rewarding of pastimes!

Turning to tarps that offer generous living spaces, I have two favourites: the Golite Cave 1 and the Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn. Although neither are no longer made the Cave is closely modelled on the Ray Jardine “Ray Way” tarp which is still available and Gossamer Gear have relaunched the SpinnTwinn with different material but is essentially the same and weighs about the same too.

The Golite Cave 1 has two “beaks” which help signicantly in keeping rain away, a plethora of tie outs and weighs 402g including the stuffsack. It offers a huge amount of space (easily enough for two hikers) and when fully pegged out offers great storm worthiness. The SpinnTwinn is a more simple, caternary-cut tarp and is cavernous while only weighing 288g including the stuffsack but it doesn’t have beaks. Both tarps will need a groundsheet and a polycro sheet of sufficient size will weigh about 50g. The Cave1 requires a maximum of 12 stakes to achieve a bomber pitch while the SpinnTwinn requires 10 stakes. I’ve not include the weight of stakes in my figures because each backpacker will use the pegs that they prefer. Provided either tarp is pitched properly on sheltered, raised ground they offer great protection for three season use.

However, no tarp is bugproof so it is necessary to carry a bugnet of some sort during the season’s when insect bites are a problem. I have a Gossamer Gear bugnet designed for the SpinnTwinn that weighs 88g and I will use that when I’m confident the weather will be reasonably fine. But tarps are inherently draughty and it’s possible to get backsplash from rain so bad weather requires some further protection. I have an Oookworks inner nest weighing 386g and a MLD Superlight Bivi weighing 224g. The Oookworks inner offers considerably more living space and is less claustrophobic than the bivi but both do the job of keeping bugs and backsplash away very well. The various combinations weigh as follows:

  • SpinnTwinn, bugnet and groundsheet = 455g
  • SpinnTwinn, MLD Bivy and Groundsheet = 564g
  • SpinnTwinn and Oookworks inner = 674g
  • Golite Cave, bugnet and groundsheet = 567g
  • Golite Cave, MLD bivvy and groundsheet = 669g
  • Golite Cave and Oookworks inner = 788g

All of these weights are pretty good but at least three combinations come within touching distance of the latest tents. It’s worth noting that, as a general rule, site selection is more critical factor for tarps than for tents. Clearly weight isn’t the factor it once was when choosing between a tarp or a tent for shelter. Yes, there may be some grams/ounces saved by using a tarp but it’s no longer a huge difference. So why do many backpackers still use tarps?

I’d like to offer the following reasons why. Firstly, the weight to liveable space ratio is far superior which makes for a more comfortable camp. Secondly, a tent is enclosed while a tarp offers the chance of great views. Thirdly, a tarp provides a camping experience more in tune with the natural surroundings. Fourthly, it is enjoyable to practice the skills of site selection, knot-tying and configuring a tarp to give optimum shelter in different conditions and sites. Fifth, and finally, it’s fun.

Here’s some pics of the Cave and SpinnTwinn taken in my back garden to show the size of the Cave and SpinnTwinn.

Golite Cave with MLD Bivvy

Underneath the Golite Cave showing the MLD Bivvy and its bathtub floor.

Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn pitched in good weather mode. The rear can be lowered in foul weather.


About ReidIvinsMedia

After working for many years in Higher Education I've decided to drop out and join the real world. Here I blog about my interests which include education, politics, backpacking, poker, photography and real ale.
This entry was posted in Backpacking, Hiking, Ultralight, Ultralite and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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