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I know that this has been debated for some time (whether it is better to sleep in a tent or a tarp) but recently this debate came up between my friends and me, and I am just feeling out this possible discussion to get more exposure from people who are in the know.

I assume that people who go backpacking because they want to “be one with nature” and escape life. So why do so many backpackers use enclosed tents instead of open tarp systems (which I use and favor). Is it because tents are easier to feel that you are more protected from weather, insects and even wildlife (at least, that is what my friends’ claim, which I don’t buy)?

In all fairness, I grew-up using a tarp system since I was around 5 years old because my Dad was an ultralight backpacker; that is, I had no choice. That being said, I’ve used tarps in rain, snow and insects, and I have always felt protected enough because I have the experience behind me. Now that I am 20 years old, I feel that a “walled tent” keeps me away from raw nature.

I am curious to see what other opinions think otherwise and are concise and clear about their choice of a tent.

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9 out of 10 times I camp there's nothing to attach a tarp to. –  gerrit Dec 4 '13 at 22:01
@gerrit: If the weather is good, I do not use a tarp. However, if I am going to use a tarp, I start about an hour or so before I plan to stop hiking, looking for a good tarp place to setup. So most of the times I do not have trouble finding places to do this. I have had times where I had to quite resourceful in setting it up though. –  Carlos Dec 5 '13 at 1:15
Camp with just a tarp in northern Minnesota or southern Florida and you'll understand. –  whatsisname Dec 5 '13 at 3:32
Also low down in Scotland in the Summer - the midges (little flies with itching bites leaving red marks) are murder. –  nsandersen Dec 14 '13 at 12:44
Because I don't want insects, bugs, small furry animals touching me or getting inside my sleeping bag. –  Michael Martinez Dec 16 '14 at 22:57

6 Answers 6

up vote 20 down vote accepted

I think you pretty much covered it.

Advantages of a tent:

  • Keeps more rain/snow out (particularly if you have little skill in tent/tarp setup)
  • Keeps out insects. For me, this is the big one - in spring time when the mosquitoes are fierce, being confined to your sleeping bag with a net over your face is not nearly as pleasant as lounging in your enclosed tents.
  • Warmer (this one is somewhat debatable, but on a a windy cold day, perhaps less. I know that square tarps let you pitch them to the wind... but winds shift)
  • Usually easier to setup, especially for novices
  • Privacy. Tents are usually very enclosed, so in a busy area, you can change without needing to bury yourself in your sleeping bag.

Advantages of a tarp:

  • closer to nature, as you said
  • lighter (I can't stress this one enough!)

I think though, you're forgetting that for lots of people, it's the hiking that's the pleasure, not necessarily the tenting. So the "being close to nature" happens all day and into the evening by a fire. Not necessarily while sleeping. I agree that it is nice to be in nature (especially when you can just cowboy camp).

I also like a tarp with bug netting around the fringes, as it covers off the bugs issue.

I agree with you that a tent keeping you safe from wildlife is just wishful thinking :) Perhaps for some people this is the equivalent for "putting their head in the sand"... and if that's what it takes to get them out into nature, power to them!

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@Ryley: Great answer and exactly what I expected someone with experience to say. By the way, I usually use bug netting around my head if I plan to go to sleep right away. If not, I will use a larger bug netting that surrounds the fringes of the tarp as you suggested. –  Carlos Dec 5 '13 at 1:18
One more advantage of a tent: if you hike with a dog, it keeps the critter from running off chasing things in the night. –  jamesqf May 30 at 5:21
@jamesqf: The time I tried that, it was not very comfortable. The dogs kept fidgeting, wanting to go out and pee, etc. –  Ben Crowell Sep 22 at 14:18
"a tent keeping you safe from wildlife is just wishful thinking..." Ya no... I've spent the night playing whack-a-mole batting off critters trying to get into my tent, there are plenty of creepy-crawlies and scuttley critters that are effectively kept at bay by tent walls so they can't get inside and crawl all over your face or into your ears, or suck your blood. I wonder how many people dare to tarp it in places like Australia? Probably the only place in the world where you can be killed by things like snails. –  ShemSeger Sep 23 at 5:55

We also got both (in various sizes for each), I think it make no sense to get into manichean fight tarpVStent as i've often seen in many places on the net... it just depends on the personnal/punctual aim of the trip, trying to keep a certain gear consistency

  • if i go in woods/hills with 6years old son: 100% tarp (3*3m, diamond pitch for nice weather or 1/2 pyramid if rain and wind) the goal here is to spend time together watching the fire, playing, listen to animals and look for flying stars... tent just makes no sense, and he doesn't want it anyway :)

  • if I tour with the whole familly (wife+3yo daugther+6yo son+2dogs): 3*3m tarp+3places tent is the best combination, as it make a small ''village-like'' arround the fire... first ones to be tired (usually ladies) can go in the tent while the others (usually son&I) can keep playing cards and shadow plays. tent is for sleeping, tarp is more of a ''common room'' so to say

we've tried once to take only the 4 places tent, but is far less fun/zen for everybody!

  • if I go for some solo ''nature hicking/canoe'' trip: 2*3 tarp+bivy (will get a poncho tarp soon), goal is not performance but enjoying the environnement, taking time to set up the camp, cooking, playing some music in the evening... weight also somehow comes into consideration

  • if I go for a sporty trip (climbing, mountain bike, kayak or so): i'd consider taking the 1place tent, as i'd need to sleep longer than dawn

for the rest:

  • rain: tarp is great (remember it's made for it) as you can continue to play/cook/Watch the rain falling... in the 1place tent, rain usually means the end of the evening.

  • bugs: cream+2 candles+fire in front of the tarp has always been enough so far (i'm located in the North-East part of France, near by switzerland, lot of woods, hills, lakes, waterfalls) I would not consider overnighting in any ''exotic'' over-bugged environnement anyway... staying the whole evening closed in a tent... no way

  • dogs: no smell/wet paws for us, and free going in/out for them... (i know this is a bit controversial)

  • kids: they LOVE it, pitching is fun and educational, knots, environnemental consideration, etc...

  • Atmosphere: tarp is a place to play, to talk, a place to stay together... tent is a place to sleep (or... to... well... you've understood)

  • comfort: i've seen once that tarp was for masochist... well... come with us once, you'll see how hedonist and nesty it can be :)

well, that was my 2cents on the original question...

have fun in nature ;)

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Short answer: I use both. But then, I don't have particularly light weight gear.

  • For weekend hikes (my home is in Germany with hills and abundant forest) usually the tarp or nothing at all (or maybe a cave).

  • Moskitos drive me into the tent. In fact, I once returned to get the tent because moskitos were so bad.

  • Short tours (weekend, prolonged weekend): usually tarp, depending on the weather also the tent.

  • For longer tours, the tent. Where I usually am, you cannot rely on getting a chance to dry a moist or wet sleeping bag (unless, of course, you go for a hostel/hut/B&B).
    Note that because of this abundant moisture I found winter camping in Manitoba (tent, quincy) easier than camping here at temperatures around 0 °C.

  • Lots of the rain we get in summer comes as thunderstorm, which means that gusts will come from all directions.

  • (On some bike longer bike tours we brought both: normally use the tarp which is also more comfortable in terms of space, but use the tent when it is raining or when in moskito land. But then with a bike, weight dowaesn't matter that much.)

  • I've once combined both on a backcountry ski tour: set up the tarp at steep angle over a geodetic tent because we expected (and got) large amounts of snow.

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As others have already noted, keeping out mosquitos can be a big deal in some locations at some times of the year. However, when I go camping around Arizona in the summer that's not the reason that I use a small tent instead of a tarp.

The biggest reason in this case is larger critters that can hurt you, like rattlesnakes, scorpions, and the like. Some of these can sense radiated heat and home in on it. You really don't want to wake up with a rattlesnake in your sleeping bag.

A tent protecting you from large preditors is overrated. First, it wouldn't really protect you if the predator was determined. But the real issue is that such things just aren't a credible threat in most places. What exactly are you afraid of? The most common animal large enough to damage a human in places I've camped is a black bear. Except for a few very very rare isolated cases, these just don't attack humans. I have encountered black bears in the wild on several occasions, and they have bolted each time they saw me. Most likely I have encountered them many more times, except that they saw me first so that I was never aware of them.

In some parts of the world, predators are a issue, but not where most people camp. I hear polar bears in the arctic can be a real danger, and so can some of the predators of central Africa. But here in the lower 48 US states with very few exceptions there is nothing out there that will try to eat you in the night. Grizzly bears can be dangerous, but not because they want to eat you. People have gotten mauled because they camped right in the middle of one of their paths, thereby making it a territorial issue. A thin layer of nylon isn't going to make any difference in that case.

I have camped with a tarp in the White Mountains of NH, and not even a tarp a few times around New England. Safety was never a issue. One time I did wish I had a tent with me in summer on Cape Cod due to lots of mosquitos. I tried to cover myself including my face as best as possible, but this was difficult because I still had to breath and because it was quite warm. I'm sure I got bitten numerous times in the night. There was one upside of that though. The next morning when I woke up enough to think about the mosquitos I realized to my astonishment that I couldn't find a single bite on me anywhere. I found out later that extensive exposure to mosquito bites can actually lead to some immunity. Now when a mosquito bites me, it will itch for a little while, then in 20 minutes it's completely gone and I can't even tell anymore where the bite was.

I wouldn't recommend deliberately going out and getting bit by lots of mosquitos to get this immunity. They can carry disease, and I was lucky that I wasn't infected with anything bad. But, it has been nice to not be bothered by the little buggers that much.

Another point is that the right kind of tent will give you protection from rain, bugs, and creapy crawlies, but doesn't have to be any heavier than a tarp. The one I have is just big enough for me to lie down in, and I think weighs less than tarps I have used. It is less than 8 feet long:

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The one I have is just big enough for me to lie down in, and I think weighs less than tarps I have used. My tarp weighs 6.5 oz. How much does your tent weigh? –  Ben Crowell Dec 7 '13 at 2:05
@Olin: please see my remarks below. –  Carlos Dec 8 '13 at 23:08

Why I use a tent in three easy-to-understand bullets

  1. Mosquitoes
  2. Ticks
  3. Mosquitoes

Yes, I could carry netting, but at that point the tarp + netting would be both more hassle and more weight than my tent.

(Which is where Ryley is 100% wrong about a tent not protecting me from nature. I've never had mosquitoes in my tent)

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Concise and thorough. Brilliant! Also snakes. –  Vorac Dec 13 '13 at 9:43
You should also mention mosquitoes. –  Michael Hampton May 10 '14 at 17:49
Also netting which just loosely hangs to the ground just won't do for some kinds of insects. Scandinavian 'knott' (a sort of big midges) are infamously aggravating in their habit to crawl just about everywhere to get to you (including eventually your eyes/nose/mouth). On occasion we had to tape shut the air conditioning ducts on our car to keep them out... –  fgysin Sep 22 at 6:43

I sometimes bring a tarp and sometimes a tent. Most of my backpacking is in the summer in the Sierra Nevada, which means most of the time there's no threat of rain and I don't take my tarp or tent out of the backpack. When there are bugs, I typically sleep with a mosquito head net over my face.

If it's windy, I kind of like a tent, because it keeps the wind off my face and doesn't flap and make noise in the wind. If conditions are cold (high altitude or fall/winter/spring camping), a tent is a little warmer.

I don't use trekking poles, so I can't use the tarping techniques where you use your poles as part of the tarp system. I typically use a tree or boulder to support my tarp. If I'm going to be camping above tree line, a tarp creates additional challenges. Sometimes if I know I'm going to be camping above tree line and am bringing a tarp, I bring a lightweight folding fiberglass rod.

For me, setting up a tent is faster and easier than setting up a tarp.

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