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?

  • 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, 2012 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.
    – user2169
    Dec 16, 2014 at 16:22
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    I would say that it won't ever be too cold, but it could actually be too WINDY.
    – Dakatine
    Dec 20, 2014 at 21:19

2 Answers 2


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.

  • Isn't there a CO2 risk with lanterns? We've had hunters die down here from using lanterns in tents. Dec 5, 2012 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.
    – Lost
    Dec 5, 2012 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! Dec 5, 2012 at 14:13
  • Candle lanterns are an "essential" on my winter trips: rei.com/product/838881/original-candle-lantern-value-pack
    – Lost
    Dec 5, 2012 at 14:18
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    @LBell - Unsubstantiated? I beg to differ - I read it on StackExchange. ;) Dec 18, 2012 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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