Monthly Archives: January 2013

Tech Tips: Tarp Shelters

Reaping the benefits of a tarp shelter in fickle weather at Mt Whitney basecamp, Guitar Lake, John Muir Trail. copyright Colby J Brokvist

Reaping the benefits of a tarp shelter in fickle weather at Mt Whitney basecamp, Guitar Lake, John Muir Trail. copyright Colby J Brokvist

Let’s take a moment to think out of the box, or tent as the case may be. Most SYMG guides don’t carry a tent, but a tarp shelter instead. Take, for instance the Black Diamond Betamid. These types of shelters take a bit more care to set up and live in, but there are some benefits also. Compared to most full tents, they are more lightweight, compressible, and don’t have extra poles (you use your trekking poles instead). Since there’s no floor, you can cook in them if the weather is poor, the major benefit for the guides who manage camp for larger groups. And when it’s time for bed, you just lay out a groundcloth underneath the shelter.

Tyvek is the best choice for a groundcloth. This is a product that is used as a “housewrap” for waterproofing and as an insulating barrier in newer homes. It is a siliconed paper that is extremely durable and tear-proof. It’s feels stiff and papery at first, but with a few uses becomes just like cloth. It is supremely lightweight, durable and completely waterproof. It’s sold in Home Depot-like stores in giant rolls, but is inexpensively available on ebay in small sheets. Tyvec can be custom cut to your own shelter or needs. We suggest a double-wide sheet that’s big enough to sleep on and keep your gear on, keeping you out of the dirt and rain.

The Tarp-Tyvek system is perfect for those who prefer to sleep under the stars and just use the shelter in the event of rain. Your Tyvek groundcloth may also be used as a rain awning for groups eating together, tied vertically for wind protection, or can be used for a hypothermia wrap.  Of course, just like any other system there are drawbacks too. Tarp shelters take more care to set up and are not freestanding (i.e. they need to be staked out). They also won’t do much to keep mosquitoes away. Finally, in very windy weather some do not perform well, although most just need to be oriented in a particular direction.

In all, the tarp shelter-Tyvek system offers backpackers a lot of flexibility in a very light-weight package if you’re willing to do without the convenience factor of a heavier fully enclosed tent.  Especially here in the sunny Sierra, they just might be the best choice for you.