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I'd like to purchase a tarp as some point, both to put up over a small camp at some point, and to use over a hammock.

When I've camped with my uncle he's used a folded over builders tarp, which has worked so far but I have seen other that have leaked, either 'out of the box' or due to fire damage (hot sparks from a fire causing tiny holes).

What are the characteristics to look out for in a quality tarp, and how can I spot them before I buy them?

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3 Answers

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Most tarps have a coating applied to them. DWR should be avoided, it's only water resistant and will eventually drip. Silicone impregnated (aka silnylon or sil-nylon) is lighter than polyurethane-coated, and is supposed to be equally waterproof, but some people say silnylon can mist during heavy rains but it's more likely from condensation than permeability. A tarp that is polyurethane coated will usually have a flame retardant element added to it. Some tarps are coated with both in order to meet flame retardant standards. Polyurethane coatings are always on the underside, and may peel with time. Silnylon strengthens the fabric, while polyurethane weakens the fabric over time.

TLDR; If you have money and weight is of importance, go for silnylon, otherwise go for polyurethane.

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Pro-tip: pre-attach a minimum number of ropes or bungies to your tarp and you'll save time when you need it and not realize you forgot the rope or bungies. –  furtive Feb 5 '12 at 18:45
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First, you have to figure out the dimensions you're looking for. Too big is uselessly bulky to carry, but too small can prevent it from being useful. This will depend on the size of your tent/hammock or whatever else you're trying to protect.

Apart from that, things you can look for are:

  • Waterproof-ness: This should be indicated on the label, but looking at reviews may help in evaluating the durability of the waterproof coating.
  • Thickness: For keeping rain off your tent, you don't need anything thick. Something thin will be lighter to carry and take up less space in your bag.
  • Durability: Specifically, the holes where you put your ropes should look sturdy. Reading reviews is the best way to evaluate these I believe. Also, the very center should also be rugged, because you may want to place a stick there to keep the center high.
  • Colors: Colors should match the rest of your gear to make you feel smug. Or, you could choose bright colors which are more visible: Harder to lose and easier to spot if you're stuck in a bad situation and looking for rescuers to find you.
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How do manufacturers measure Waterproof-ness? How thick will I need to hammock underneath a tarp? –  Pureferret Jan 31 '12 at 21:33
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The big difference in price / quality is the weight. A builders tarp that would normally be transported on a truck does not need to be as light as one that you would carry on your back.

There are also some that have design details, like being able to combine 2 to make a tent.

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