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I'm looking to get a tarp, and considering when I want to go out with it. My three season tent with the rain fly has pretty good heat retention, and while it doesn't get toasty, it does stay warmer than the surrounding outdoors. Tarps from my current experience have to be pitched with quite a bit of angle and venting to prevent excess condensation, leading me to believe they will be much colder.

Is there a rule of thumb for when it's cold enough to pull out the tent and not use the tarp?

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I'm not sure there is, but would be interested to know. Generally I would gauge it on temp, wind speed and humidity/precipitation. –  Rory Alsop Dec 4 '12 at 21:49
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I think of tarping mainly as a technique for ultralight summer backpacking. If you're in snow, a tent lets you keep everything dry. A tent will also keep the wind off your face while you sleep. –  Ben Crowell Dec 16 at 16:22
    
I would say that it won't ever be too cold, but it could actually be too WINDY. –  Dakatine 1 hour ago

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

I would say... never.

What is a tarp but something that keeps precipitation off of you. In humid summer months, sure, condensation can cause precipitation under the tarp, but in winter, this is not so much a concern, and you can pitch it lower to the ground. You might get frost inside - but just shake it off when you pack up.

Tents provide a few degrees of warmth by trapping a bit of your body heat - but that thin layer of nylon (or two) can only do so much. (And not near as much as, say, a snow cave.)

I have slept in the winter without any shelter in a -40 degree bag, and woke up with 4 inches of snow on me. I was soaked but tolerably comfortable. Had I had a tarp, it would have shed the snow off me, and I would have been perfectly fine in my 15 degree down bag (and, in point of fact, I have done this on several occasions.)

So, what is the take home message?

  • If your bag is warm enough, a tarp is just the light-weight ticket to keep you dry.
  • If your bag is not warm enough, then consider a full tent to trap those critical few degrees.

Bonus Protip: When snow camping, a tarp makes an excellent roof to a dug-out, high walled snow-fortress. Less work than a full-on snow cave.

Bonus (slightly related) Protip: A candle lantern in your tent can add a noticeable amount of warmth, and help keep things ever so slightly drier.

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Isn't there a CO2 risk with lanterns? We've had hunters die down here from using lanterns in tents. –  Russell Steen Dec 5 '12 at 12:52
    
I've read that human breath creates more CO2 per hour than a single candle. People who have died were probably using propane lanterns with much higher combustion rates. If in doubt, crack your zipper an inch. –  LBell Dec 5 '12 at 14:11
    
They were definitely using propane lanterns. I misunderstood you, due to assuming candle was slang for something besides an actual candle. doh! –  Russell Steen Dec 5 '12 at 14:13
    
Candle lanterns are an "essential" on my winter trips: rei.com/product/838881/original-candle-lantern-value-pack –  LBell Dec 5 '12 at 14:18
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@LBell - Unsubstantiated? I beg to differ - I read it on StackExchange. ;) –  Don Branson Dec 18 '12 at 1:52

I would say it's not a question of too cold, tents don't add that much warmth. Tarps and a shovel can make some very nice shelters in the snow. The real limitation is blowing snow/rain and the wind speed you expect to stand.

If the wind is shifting at all, or is much above 20 mph, a tarp is going to be fairly miserable. ( I'm not including floorless tents like the megamid, but a plain old tarp ). The big advantage of a tent over a tarp in the cold is that it provides an omni-directional wind shelter.

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consider it the way you consider your clothing: Layering is the key. You can pitch a tarp higher off the ground or closer to the ground, givin more or less ventilation. You can ad an inner tent, be it a mere net tent, be it an inner tent sewn from nylon taffeta. You will be able to adjust your ground insulation with stacking two mats or combining a mat with a lightweight air-mattress or whatever. Check http://www.rayjardine.com/ray-way/OrderForm.php for real versatile tarp designs and net-tents!

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I can't see how a net tent be of any use in Winter. –  Dakatine Dec 17 at 22:13

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