Do You Need a Tent Footprint?

Tent Footprints: Ultralight backpacker laying down a tent footprint in a mountain range on a cloudy day

In this post, we'll take a look at:

As daylight fades into dusk and the wilderness whispers its secrets, our shelter – the tent – becomes our haven. But amidst this narrative of outdoor exploration, a less-discussed companion emerges – the tent footprint.

The pivotal question arises – do you need a tent footprint? Is it one of those camping essentials?

Tent Footprints Explained

Tent footprints are like shields for your tent’s floor. They’re made from materials, such as thick nylon or polyester, and they sit between the ground and your tent.

Their job? To keep your tent safe from all things that might try to harm it.

Imagine the ground is a bit rough with rocks, sticks, or even damp earth. If your tent’s floor directly touches these, it can get scratched, torn, or damp. That’s where the tent footprint steps in. It takes the hits, so your tent doesn’t have to.

Benefits of Using Tent Footprints

Now, let’s uncover why tent footprints are more than just fabric. They offer real advantages for your camping experience:

  • Protection from Wear: Without a footprint, the nylon floor of your tent will rub directly against sticks, rocks, and other abrasive surfaces on the ground as you set up and take down. This repeated friction can cause snags, punctures, and premature wear over time.
  • Moisture Isolation: When set up directly on damp soil or vegetation, moisture can wick up into the tent floor through capillary action. A footprint creates a barrier, preventing this transfer.
  • Cleaner Camping: Mud, wet leaves, and dirt have a way of finding their way into your tent. However, with a footprint, these intruders are stopped at the door.
  • Easier Setup: Fly-first tents rely on the footprint for protection while the rain fly is initially installed. It also provides a comfortable surface to kneel or sit on during setup and takedown.

But remember, while footprints provide valuable shelter floor protection benefits, their role is not intended to provide insulation.

What to Look for in a Tent Footprint?

When shopping for a tent footprint, consider the following key attributes:

  • Material: Look for water-resistant fabrics like polyester or nylon. Remember that these materials are not 100% waterproof. Thicker materials around 10oz hold up better than thinner 6oz options.
  • Seams: Seams should be fully taped or seam-sealed to prevent leaks. Pay attention to corners and edges.
  • Fit: The footprint should match your tent dimensions exactly or be slightly smaller to avoid moisture/debris collection.
  • Brand: Reputable brands include Zpacks, Gossamer Gear, Six Moon Designs, Hyperlite Mountain Gear.

Some excellent footprint options are the Zpacks Flat Groundsheet and Gossamer Gear Polycryo (Tent Footprint) Ground Cloths.

Why Not Use a Footprint

Tent Footprints: An ultralight backpacker sitting beside his tent, contemplating his gear choices

For those of us who enjoy exploring the wilderness with a lightweight backpack, every ounce becomes significant. This leads us to a dilemma: Should you concern yourself with a tent footprint?

  • Weight: Tent footprints can add around 2-8oz (57-227g) to your backpack. When you factor in that a loaded ultralight backpack typically weighs around 10 lb (4.5 kg), that’s approximately 1.2-5% of your pack weight.

Let’s look at typical weight ranges for some common footprint materials:

Tyvek Footprints:

  • Weight range: 2 ounces.
  • Pros: Inexpensive and durable. Very lightweight option.
  • Cons: Less water resistant than other materials.

Polycryo Footprints:

  • Weight range: 3-4 ounces.
  • Pros: More water resistant than Tyvek. Good durability.
  • Cons: Slightly heavier than Tyvek.

Silicone-treated Polyester (SilPoly) or Custom Footprints:

  • Weight range: 5-8 ounces.
  • Pros: Most durable material option for ultimate protection.
  • Cons: Heaviest footprint option.

Do You Need a Tent Footprint?

A tent with a footprint pitched in picturesque mountain scenery on rocks

First and foremost, you should consider your hiking and camping environment. If you frequently camp on soft sand or grassy meadows, footprints may not be essential.

However, in rocky or rugged areas, a footprint can be a tent-saver, as a single sharp rock could cause serious damage to your tent’s floor, and a footprint should be on your camping checklist.

Ask yourself these questions; if you answer “NO” to any of them, bring a footprint:

  1. Will I be able to find a soft piece of land to camp on every night?
  2. Do I trust my tent and its waterproofing capabilities?
  3. Am I willing to make any repairs to my fancy tent if the worst happens?
  4. Are you trying to shave ounces on a through-hike? Every bit counts, so footprints may need to be sacrificed for hardcore ultralight goals.

If you answered “YES” to these questions, a footprint may not be a must amongst your camping equipment.

Footprint Care and Maintenance

It’s important to properly care for your tent footprint so it continues protecting your flooring for many trips:

Cleaning:

  • After each use, wipe down the footprint with a damp cloth to remove any dirt or debris.
  • For stuck on mud or residues, use a soft bristle brush.
  • Be sure to allow the footprint to fully air dry before storage.

Repairs:

  • For small punctures or seam separations, apply a dab of seam sealer.
  • Use a splint of tent pole and seal tape on both sides for bigger repairs.
  • Reapply sealer to all seams annually for prevention.

Prolonging Material Life:

  • Limit direct sun exposure to prevent UV degradation over time.
  • When packing up, store loosely folded rather than crunched tightly.
  • Periodically treat the footprint with a waterproofing spray.

Storage:

  • Store in a breathable storage sack or folded loosely to allow airflow.
  • Ensure rodents cannot access the stored footprint.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, tent footprints are crucial camping accessories and not just pieces of plastic for added camping convenience. Despite adding some weight to your pack, footprints protect your tent from damage and act as a shield against wet conditions.

With proper care, footprints can last through numerous camping trips, extending your tent floor’s lifespan and saving you money. Consider the trade-off of a few extra ounces for added protection, based on the earlier questions, and make the right choice for yourself.

Happy camping!


Interested in an ultralight tent that might already have a footprint? Check out our TOP 5 guides that cover the lightest tents on the planet.

If you want to make your own DIY footprint, check this nifty guide here. For other camping tips check out our insights section.

FAQ

What can I use instead of a footprint for a tent?

Apart from a traditional tent footprint, you can consider using materials like Polycryo or Tyvek, as well as a tarp as alternatives. This falls into the category of good camping hacks as they protect your tent’s floor while being lightweight and convenient to carry.

Should footprint be bigger than tent?

It’s generally recommended that a tent footprint should be slightly smaller than the tent’s dimensions. This prevents water from collecting between the footprint and the tent’s floor, helping to maintain a dry and comfortable interior. It’s a good camping safety measure for added camping comfort.

Should I use a tent footprint for any camping adventure?

A tent footprint provides protection, but isn’t always a must have camping . For softer surfaces like grass or sand, the risk of floor damage is low. However, in areas with rocks, sticks or rugged terrain, a footprint can prevent punctures and extend your tent’s life. Consider the trip location and whether occasional wear is a concern to decide if a footprint makes sense for that particular outing.

How do I properly attach and secure a tent footprint?

Most tent footprints are constructed to exactly match your tent’s dimensions. Position it under the tent floor so that the perimeter edges align. Some have loops, ties or stake points to secure it in place to prevent shifting. These attachment points should be engaged around the entire footprint perimeter. A bit of good camping advice is that you can also use loose stakes or trekking poles through hemmed edges as anchors during setup for additional security.

How much does a tent footprint cost?

Footprint prices vary depending on material, thickness, size and brand. Expect to spend $20-60 for most standard-sized footprint options. DIY Tyvek or Polycryo prints can be made for around $10-20. Higher-end specialty footprints using durable fabrics like SilPoly may range from $60-100. As with any camping gear purchase, consider how often you camp and your tent’s value when determining if an investment in a quality footprint makes financial sense for protecting a floor over years of use.

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