Ultralight Backpacking: Tarp or Tent?

Tarp or Tent: Two campers next to their ultralight MSR tent and tarp during the golden hour, looking at mountains

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

You reach into your backpack, and there it is — your shelter for the night. But the question remains: tarp or tent?

Choosing between a tarp and a tent is like selecting the perfect tool for a job. Each has its unique features and advantages, and the decision can greatly impact your backpacking experience.

Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker looking to shed some weight or a newbie eager to explore the great outdoors, this post will guide you through the exciting world of ultralight backpacking and help you decide whether a tarp or a tent is your ideal trailside home.

Tarp Shelters Explored

Tarp or Tent: Ultralight Hyperlite tarp on a grassy hill

Tarps offer a middle ground between the open-air freedom of camping under the stars and the protection of a traditional tent. Let’s delve into why tarp shelters might be your ticket to a lighter, more enjoyable experience.

Tarp Pros:

  • Connection with nature: A tarp shelter offers both protection from the elements and a close connection to nature, allowing you to enjoy the wilderness from your sleeping bag.
  • Incredibly versatile: Tarps are like backpacking’s blank canvas, offering room for creative setups with hiking poles, trees, or rocks to secure corners. Their adaptability allows customization for various environments and conditions.
  • Lightweight: For those aiming to shed pounds from their backpack, tarp shelters are a dream come true. They’re among the lightest shelter options available, making a significant difference on long treks.

While tarp shelters offer numerous benefits, they’re not without their challenges.

Tarp Cons:

  • Insects: Bugs and critters might be enticed by the open space, so you will need to take precautions.
  • Campsites: Finding the right spot to set up your tarp can be crucial to prevent water from encroaching on your sleeping area.
  • Cold weather: Finally, tarp camping isn’t recommended for winter expeditions, as they lack the insulation and protection you’d need in extreme cold.

Delving Into Tent Shelters

Tarp or Tent: Ultralight MSR tent in the mountains on a rocky ground

Tents, the quintessential symbol of camping and backpacking, have been providing shelter and comfort to outdoor enthusiasts for generations.

Tent Pros:

  • Good in extreme weather: Tents are renowned for their durability and ability to withstand various weather conditions.
  • Diverse range of designs: From sturdy four-season tents built to withstand harsh winter conditions to lightweight and easy-to-set-up options perfect for a quick overnight stop, there’s a tent for every situation.
  • Privacy: Tents provide a reliable barrier to keep bugs, insects, and other critters outside, so you can sleep without worrying about unwelcome guests.

While tents offer numerous advantages, they come with their own set of challenges.

Tent Cons:

  • Maintenance: Tents also require more maintenance, including cleaning and ensuring they are dry after use, to prolong their lifespan.
  • Condensation: Tents excel at trapping heat, which can lead to condensation inside the tent if you forget to leave proper ventilation before bedtime. This can be uncomfortable, especially in warm weather.
  • Weight: Finally, the weight of a tent, including poles, stakes, and the tent itself, can add a considerable load to your backpack.

Choosing – Tarp or Tent?

Tarp or Tent: Ultralight Hyperlite Mountain Gear tarp in a desert

Now that we’ve explored the world of tarp shelters and tents, you might be wondering, “Which one is right for me – tarp or tent?” Making this decision requires careful consideration.

Consider the following 4 key factors when choosing, but do not forget to take your personal preferences into account:

1. Your Backpacking Style

  • Ultralight Enthusiast: If shedding weight is your primary goal and you’re comfortable with a minimalist approach, a tarp might be your best friend.
  • Comfort-Seeker: If you appreciate a bit more comfort, the protection of a fully enclosed space, and some privacy, a tent is likely your top pick.

2. Weather and Seasons

  • Fair Weather Adventurer: If you mostly embark on trips during the warmer months and in mild, predictable climates, a tarp provides sufficient shelter while keeping your pack ultralight. It’s perfect for starry nights and easy breezes.
  • All-Season Explorer: For those who venture into diverse weather, including rain, snow, and wind, a tent is the safer choice. Tents offer better protection against the elements and keep you dry and warm when conditions turn rough.

3. Campsite Selection and Terrain

  • Versatile Camper: If you prefer the flexibility of setting up camp wherever you find a suitable spot, a tarp’s versatility shines. It can be pitched creatively to adapt to various terrains and campsite options.
  • Established Campgrounds: If you tend to stick to established campgrounds or sites with defined tent pads, a tent’s straightforward setup and structured design may be more convenient.

4. Experience Level

  • Seasoned Backpacker: Experienced backpackers often use tarps because they have the skills and knowledge to make the most of these minimalist shelters. They can handle the nuances of tarp setup and are comfortable with the open-air experience.
  • Novice: Beginners may find tents easier to work with, especially if they are less confident in their outdoor skills. Tents provide a sense of security and a straightforward setup process.


As you reach into your backpack, confronted with the decision of tarp or tent for the night, remember that your choice is akin to selecting the perfect tool for a job.

Each option boasts its unique features and advantages, and this choice can significantly impact your backpacking experience.

In the end, the shelter you choose should align with your backpacking style, weather expectations, campsite preferences, experience level, and, most importantly, your personal preferences.

If you’re still unsure which way to go, we recommend reading the experiences of real backpackers here.

Interested in a tarp or a tent? You can also check out our TOP 5 Guides for the lightest tarps and tents on the market.


Is a tarp as good as a tent?

While both tarps and tents have their advantages, whether a tarp is as good as a tent depends on your specific needs and preferences. Tarps are lightweight and versatile, providing a more open camping experience. On the other hand, tents offer better protection, privacy, and comfort. So, if you prioritize minimalism and weight savings, a tarp might be a great choice. But if you seek greater shelter and convenience, a tent could be the better option.

Is a tent or tarp better for winter camping?

A tent is generally better for winter camping. Tents provide better insulation and protection against cold and harsh weather conditions, making them a safer choice for winter adventures. Tarps may not offer the necessary warmth and wind protection needed in freezing temperatures.

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