If you are like me you don’t mind a little rain when you are camping. What I do mind is sitting in a damp tent for hours with no view fretting about getting my stuff even more wet if I have to crawl out to go to the bathroom. I also don’t enjoy the sun trying to poach my brain in cranial fluid. The answer for me is an 8’x10’ nylon tarp and 100’ of parachute cord. I love tarps. My tarp comes with me on every trip. It doesn’t get set up every time but it is always there like an old friend, willing to help when I need it.
Many years ago when I first began attending backpacking’s school of hard knocks I bought a tarp. It was a blue poly tarp, either 7’x9’ or 8”x10’. I tried setting it up on several occasions. Every time there was a moderate breeze or more than a passing rain, the bell rang and school was in session. I was always adjusting the thing; too much flapping, pushing gallons of water out of the catchment that my shelter had become. Luckily on a trip through the Wet Beaver Creek Wilderness my friend KF, an Eagle Scout, set up the finest lean to shelter I have ever seen. It was a beauty; maroon nylon 8’x10’, 100’ of paracord(single strand), one tree, one stick, and several heavy rocks. It was clear to me that I had much to learn. Thankfully KF was a willing teacher
Knowing how to tie some useful knots is the most important step in setting up a tarp. There are four knots I use frequently in the backcountry: the bowline, the midshipman’s hitch, the double fisherman’s, and the half hitch. Each of them is used on the tarp. One way to learn these knots is to obtain a piece of cord in the 5mm to 9mm range at least 6 feet long, a knowledgeable friend or clear simple diagrams, and practice. Confidence in your knots when conditions are unpleasant is a great feeling. Your knots must be able to withstand severe stress, if not it is more than likely that your tarp will fail at precisely the time you wish it would not.
Finding a place to set a tarp is a part of campsite management that is both an art and a science. Usually I am camping where there are some trees to anchor from, which is nice. I look for a spot that has ground that will be comfortable to sit or lay on and two trees 10 to 20 feet apart that can take a very strong tug and not bend much if at all. Those are my main anchor points. My tarp has cord pre-attached with a bowline to the grommets on the corners and in the middle of each of the long sides. The cords attached to the middle of the long sides will be attached to the main anchor points up high, the corners angled down towards the ground to form an A frame.
The height of the anchors depends on your situation. Do you and friend(s) need a place to hang out and cook or must you sleep there in a driving rain? I’ll leave it to you to determine how close to the ground it needs to be. The first thing I do is wrap the cord around the tree and tie a bowline. It is a non adjustable knot but is very secure and easy to untie when it is time to go. Since most of the time I need a hangout tarp this anchor is about head high. The opposite cord is then attached to the other main anchor point as close to level with the first anchor. For this I use a midshipman’s hitch with an extra locking loop. This knot allows me to create lots of tension and lock it in place, it is adjustable and releases easily. If your midshipman’s is a little shaky, simply wrapping the cord around the trunk or branch a couple of times and securing with whatever granny-spaghetti monstrosity you can come up with will do.
Anchoring the corners of the tarp is what separates the engineers from the uncomfortable. The corner cords have a limited effective angle. If you have a bad angle on any of your cords there will be a slack spot in the tarp that will be a source of continual annoyance. Rarely can I find a spot that provides perfect low anchors. If I can’t use things already in place I look for big rocks with flat sides. (*CYA Alert* Always pay attention for critters when moving rocks or digging your hands into bushes.) The bigger the rock the better the anchor; besides, huffing around camp like the World’s Strongest Man loser really impresses the ladies. I use a couple half hitches to connect to the rock; they are easy to tie and slip securely against the rock. For low branches a midshipman’s is usually the ticket. Voila, extreme picnic engaged!
Never do I have enough cord attached to the grommets when I start my project; there is inevitably an anchor that is a little too far away. To attach a piece of extra cord I use the double fisherman’s knot, its easy and strong. If you are planning on setting up a tarp with any regularity bring lots of paracord, its cheap, has many uses and expands the possibilities for your tarp and food hang. Trekking poles come in pretty handy too.
The tarp set up I have described is very basic. You may find yourself in conditions that pose challenges not covered here. Creativity and trial and error will usually allow something to work. Remember school is always in session out there and the grading is pass/fail with extra credit for bomber knots.