Essential Gear: the underappreciated big blue tarp

Inside and out, blue tarps will protect your tent

Inside and out, blue tarps will protect your tent

The outdoor retail market thrives on convincing us that we need new gear to get the most out of our outdoor adventures. This is actually a good thing, since the industry keeps coming out with better gear, each and every year. It can also go a bit overboard, though, with superfluous gadgets and fluffery that is just a waste of your hard-earned money. One way to save money on camping gear is to look for similar products outside the industry that can serve the same purpose. The big blue tarp is one of those items.

These tarps make great footprints for your tent because they are very tough and will keep sharp objects from poking a hole through your floor. The polyethylene material is also non-abrasive to your tent’s waterproof coating, so it helps extend the life of your tent. Best of all, these tarps work with just about any tent (square and rectangular shapes are best) so you don’t have to buy a new footprint every time you purchase a new tent. We use a 12-foot x 16-foot size and simply fold it to fit the dimensions of whatever tent we are using at the time.

blue-tarpThese tarps are available at nearly every home improvement and big-box discount retail store. The most common type is 5mm thick, 2.9-ounce material with a 10×8 weave. There are also heavier-duty versions that are 10mm thick, 5.5-ounce material with a 14×14 weave. We have had two of the 5mm tarps for at least ten years and they are both holding-up just fine.

In addition to their use as a tent footprint, tarps have nearly as many uses as duct tape, which is why we pack two of these.  We typically use the second tarp to line the inside of the tent, which protects the waterproof coating from shoes (despite constant reminding, our kids have trouble remembering the ‘no shoes in the tent’ rule) and air mattresses. If we ever needed additional rain protection or a dry place to sit, the second tarp is always available.

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15 thoughts on “Essential Gear: the underappreciated big blue tarp

  1. Pingback: “Camping Blogger: Essential Gear: The Underappreciated Big Blue Tarp” | Picture Camping...

  2. Pingback: Camping Blogger Talks About the Ubiquitous Blue Tarp | - News, Opinion, Advice

  3. I absolutely agree! I have one Big Blue (under the tent), a Small Green (usually goes on the ground in front of the tent door, and a Medium Brown (goes on the ground outside to stage things as I am setting up and packing down. Stays in the car in between to use as needed. Somehow I acquired 2 blue Movers packing quilts and I use them on the floor of the tent beside my airmattress/cot. Its like having a rug and I can pick them up and shake them out as needed. Then I don’t worry too much about shoes on and off in the tent. I try to be careful about this but sometimes just don’t do that. I only have myself to yell at so I can do what I want!

    • Jenn – those packing quilts are awesome, those would be great for a tent since they would provide some nice insulation against the cold ground. I wonder how one comes to acquire those… 🙂

  4. Eric – using a tarp inside might be overkill, but I figure it helps protect the waterproof coating.

    Beth – you can never have too many tarps! 🙂

  5. Pingback: The Great Skirt Hike » Blog Archive » Know your tarp.

  6. Great headline – I always felt the same way – completely under appreciated! The big blue tarp is the first thing that gets packed and pitched as a group shelter somewhere on the site when we camp.

  7. It’s money well spent. Your tent floor will last longer. I have never used a tarp inside the tent but I sometime use one to cover the top of the tent to provide extra protective from the rain and from tree sap.

  8. Shawna – thanks, I had thoughts of the Wiggles when I wrote that 🙂

    Kim – I love being able to use things for multiple purposes and these tarps definitely earn their keep!

  9. Blue tarps are a necessity! We got a footprint for our tent, but quit using it because it never stayed in place under the tent. The blue tarps have grommets which allow for staking down.

    They are also great for hanging up for sun or wind protection. You just need some rope and some trees and you’re set. We actually bought a canopy for our next trip, but I think I’m going to miss that subtle blue glow you get while sitting under a big blue tarp.

  10. Hahahaha…I’m loving the title of this post! I totally agree with you on this one. Can’t go wrong and it’s definitely a staple in our outdoor gear.

  11. Deb – I have used thick clear plastic, but never thought about Tyvek (which must fold-up to almost nothing). Let’s turn my kids loose on the Clip – I’ll get you a hole 🙂

  12. So true about the gadgets and fluffery … but it sure is tempting sometimes! As far as a tent footprint, the blue tarps are great for car camping. For backpacking, if I use a footprint at all–and, to be honest, I didn’t use one for 5 of the 6 months I was on the Appalachian Trail and never got a hole in my Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight tent–I use either an All-Weather blanket, which is also a great space blanket, or a piece of Tyvek. The Tyvek can be a little noisy, especially when you’re putting it down and moving around on it, but it’s cheap, tough and lightweight. Only thing is, it can sometimes be a challenge to find it in small quantities.