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How to Set Up a Tarp

Knowing how to set up a tarp can make the difference between a great time and a miserable time. Each campsite you go to will be different and you have to know the different ways to set up a tarp. If you have trees available it makes it easier but sometimes you will not have any trees and you will need shade.

The different ways to put up tarps depend on what is available. That is why when I am camping I bring extra adjustable tent poles, plenty of rope, and carabiners ( biners ). The biners do not have to be the expensive kind used in climbing. They can be the type you find at a hardware store and cost 1 or 2 dollars.

Overhand knot with loop and biner You do not need biners. You can use "O" rings or "S" hooks. I use an overhand knot with a draw loop to tighten my ropes. If you pull a rope through a loop when the rope is under tension, friction can damage the rope and cause it to break. So I attach a biner or "O" ring to the loop and pass the end through that. "S" hooks are not as strong as biners or "O" rings.

1 / 2 inch double braided polyester rope To set up a tarp using a ridgeline I use a polyester double braided rope 1 / 2 inch in diameter. Again, it does not have to be a quality rope you use for climbing and you can find it at Home Depot and Lowes at about 10 $ for a 50 foot length.

50' x 1/2" Braided Poly Utility Rope

I use 2 50 footers with a 25 ft in the center joined by biners. I did this for two reasons. The first is to have a place to support my side extensions and the second is for a water break. When it rains the rope gets wet and the water will drip towards the center of the rope because it is the lowest point. To keep the water from dripping in the middle, I create a water break with the biners at the edges of the tarp.

I store the ropes in a stuff sack that I use for a throw bag. To tie off the corners of the tarps I use a 3 / 16 inch diameter polyester single braided line. To learn more about ropes go to our tarps and ropes page.

I use a 1 / 2 inch rope because sometimes I put up a 20 X 30 foot tarp with a 12 X 16 side extension. I discuss side extensions further down.

How to Set Up a Tarp Using Tent Poles

The method of using tent poles is ideal for campsites with limited trees and smaller tarps. The larger the tarp the more poles are required. For up to a 10 X 10 foot tarp you can get away with a pole for each corner. For larger tarps I recommend a pole every 6 feet on the sides.

Adjustable Camping Tent Pole

No matter how tight you pull the corner ties the center of the tarp is going to sag. If you are setting the tarp up as a sun screen the sag is not important unless the sag reduces the height enough so you have to duck under it. Then you have to either raise the side poles or use a center pole. If you have a picnic table under the tarp you can put the center pole on the table to increase the height.

If you expect rain you will have to have the tarp center higher than the edges so the water drains. The weight of water can quickly build up causing the poles to push the tarp grommets through the tarp material and the tarp to collapse. You can alleviate this two ways. Use a center pole or raise one end of the tarp high enough to allow the water to drain. Preferably it is recommended to have the water drain on the downhill side of your campsite. This way you do not have the runoff flow through your campsite.

  • First, lay out the tarp where you want to set it up.
  • From each corner go out diagonally 3 to 4 feet and drive a tent stake leaning out at around a 30 degree angle. Do not drive the stake in fully yet.
  • Put the pointed end of a tent pole through the corner grommets of the tarp from the bottom up.
  • Adjust the pole to the required height
  • Tie a loop at one end of a rope for each corner and wrap the loop twice around the protruding end of each pole.
  • Attach the other end of the rope to a stake and adjust the tension by driving the stake fully into the ground or adjusting the rope. The pole should be straight up and down.
  • If a center pole is required, place the fifth pole in the center of the tarp. To keep the pole from puncturing the tarp, use the pole upside down with the wide end of the pole against the tarp.

While this is a simple way to set up a tarp, in windy conditions, the wind can get under the tarp and lift the tarp so the center pole falls out. You can tighten the ropes to pull the tarp down more but you put more stress on the grommets and fabric.

How to Set Up a Tarp Without Tent Poles

A tarp set up without poles If you have a campsite with enough trees in the right spots ( you can always find a tree in the right spot if you have enough rope ) you do not have to use tent poles. Simply tie a rope to each corner and put the other end of the rope ever a branch and tie it to another tree. This way you can get your rope higher than you can reach.

Biner with weights To get the ropes over high branches I attach biners and weights to the end of the rope and throw them over the wanted branch. Sometimes it takes more than one shot to get it where I want but it works. It is easier if you use a light rope and pull the heavier rope over the branch.

Grizzly Grip Utility CarabinersUtility Carabiners

Cow hitch with bowline To help from tearing out the grommets I use a cow hitch. Put an end of the rope through the grommet then wrap the rope around the fabric and grommet passing through the grommet so the rope is going in the same direction as when starting. I finish the loop with a bowline knot. When tension is put on the rope it tightens around the grommet and fabric pulling on both at the same time not just the grommet.

After you get the tarp suspended you can adjust the location of the tarp by lengthening one rope and shortening the opposing rope. You can use a center pole if you want but if you put the ropes of one end of the tarp high enough in the trees you can lift the tarp to the desired angle for drainage.

How to Set Up a Tarp Using a Ridgeline

TRidgeline Tarp A ridgeline is the same as the peak of a roof. To form the peak on a tarp you suspend a rope high in a tree. The tree only has to be strong enough to hold the vertical weight of the tarp and accessories. The tree does not have to hold tension on the rope because the rope is going to be tied off where you can reach it on a different tree.

  • To start you have to find two trees at opposite sides of the campsite. The trees should form a line going over the part of the site you want to cover.
  • Throw you ridgeline rope ( the larger diameter rope ) over a branch close to the trunk of the trees you selected. When the rope is close to the trunk the branch will hold more weight than at the end of the branch.
  • Raise the rope by pulling the ends to find where you want the tarp to be suspended. As stated previously I have two biners that fall towards the edge of the tarp, so I just slide the rope to position the biners. It is easier than trying to support the weight of the tarp while doing this.
  • After you have positioned the ridgeline, tie off one end to a tree in such a way that the rope is pulled into the trunk.
  • Let the rope down by releasing the unsecured end.
  • If you plan on using an extension pass a lighter rope through each of the center biners.
  • Spread out and position your tarp over the rope while it is on the ground.
  • Pull on the end of your ridge line to raise the tarp. When I tie off the adjustable end of the ridgeline I pull the rope and while holding it I tie an overhand knot with a draw loop. Attach the biner to the loop and pass the end of the rope around another tree and then through the biner. This way I can pull the ridgeline extremely tight.
  • After you get the tarp and ridgeline suspended you can attach the corner ropes using a cow hitch and bowline knots. The other end is fastened to a tree using the same adjustable method as the ridgeline.
  • After the tarp is opened and the corners are pulled out you can adjust the pitch and angle of the tarp by varying the tension on the corner ropes.

This is my favorite method because you can use enormous tarps and it is the strongest of the three methods used to put up tarps.

Putting up an Extension Tarp

Tarp with extension Once you get your main tarp set up on a ridgeline, if you remembered to put the additional corner ropes through the ridgeline biners you can put up an additional tarp. You can use the additional tarp to cover more ground on your campsite or to collect heat from the fireplace on those cold rainy days.

  • If you remembered to add the extra line to the ridge line you can tie the ends to the corners of the additional tarp and raise the tarp. If you did not add the extra lines you will have to get extra lines over the ridgeline somehow.
  • Once the top lines are tied to the tarp and the tarp is lifted, tie off the other end of the ropes to an anchor ( a tree or bush ).
  • Attach two more lines to the lower corners of the tarp and secure the loose ends of the ropes to other anchors so the tarp is spread out and suspended.

Tarp Extension for heat The extension tarp should be under the main tarp to aid in water runoff. To bring in heat from the fireplace position the extension tarp close to but not over your fire. The closer the tarp is to the fire the more heat the tarp will draw in. But also, the closer your tarp is to the fire the better the chances of your tarp getting ember holes from sparks, melting or catching on fire.

Large Selection of Tarps

You can raise the temperature under the tarp by 10 to 20 degrees but you also collect smoke under the tarp. It is a give and take situation. If you have a good burning fire without a lot of smoke the additional heat is worth it.

As with anything to do with camping, there is no set way to do anything. You have to decide what method to use after you survey the situation. That is why I include extra adjustable tent poles and plenty of rope when I go to the woods. You can bring extra equipment but you have to know how to set up a tarp for the different conditions you will run into.

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