Saturday 1 November 2014

Tarps & Shelters: My Award-Winning Feature

Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar in the Cairngorms on this year's TGO Challenge

Last week I was given an OWPG Award for Excellence for the following feature, which appeared in the June 2013 issue of The Great Outdoors. Thanks to James Reader at The Great Outdoors for sending me the file which I couldn't find on my PC (probably buried in a backup somewhere). As it appeared over a year ago prices may have changed. My opinions haven't.


Chris Townsend spends some time under the lightest shelters for backpacking
Tents are the standard shelters for most backpackers. They provide protection and a feeling of security. So much so that many tent campers regard tarps and tarp-like shelters with horror. I take the opposite view. I much prefer a tarp shelter to a tent and have spent hundreds of nights using them. The reason is because tarps are so much more versatile. I like as little between myself and the outdoors as possible (my ideal night out is under the stars with no shelter at all other than a sleeping bag). With a tarp I can open it out for good views and more space when the weather permits and close it down to keep the weather out when the wind and rain picks up. Tarp shelters also have better ventilation and so less condensation than tents and are roomier for the weight.
There is actually no clear dividing line between a tarp, a tarp-like shelter and a tent. I reckon that if a shelter can only be pitched one way it’s a tent. If it’s a flat or shaped sheet with no zips or door then it’s a tarp, and if it’s shaped and has zips or a door but can be pitched in different ways then it’s a tarp-tent or tarp shelter. Here I’ve looked at ten tarps and tarp-tents.
A big objection to tarps for summer use is that they’re not insect proof. However there are insect netting inners that can be attached inside a tarp to overcome this problem. This is my preference. Some people like bivi bags with mesh hood.
Bivi bags are also popular for use with small tarps as they protect your sleeping bag from rain that enters at the side or entrance. I prefer a larger tarp that can be pitched down to the ground with a low door and still leave enough room to live comfortable inside. Shaped tarps are best for this and my choice for British hill conditions where horizontal wind-driven rain is not uncommon. Flat tarps are fine in forests though, where the rain is generally vertical. There they can be tied to trees too.
Modifications & additions
No tarp or shelter should be considered as a finished item. All benefit from modifications and additions. They may need seam sealing, groundsheets, insect netting, extra/replacement pegs, trekking poles, extra guylines. In the reviews I’ve listed the extras I think each one needs. If seam sealing is required, the sealant needed depends on the fabric. Silicone nylon can only be sealed with silicone sealant like McNett Silnet. Extra guyline attachment points on large panels of fabric can greatly increase stability in the wind. There are various ways of doing this, including bunching fabric round a smooth pebble and tying on a guyline. I like Shelter System Grip Clips ( which are easy to use and don’t damage the fabric.
Pitching practice
There is no right way to pitch a tarp or shelter. It all depends on the weather conditions. Pitch high for space and ventilation, pitch low for stability and weather protection. Even shaped tarps and ridge type shelters can be pitched in a number of ways. It’s sewn-in groundsheets and fixed-length curved poles that mean a tent can only be pitched one way. This versatility does mean that tarp shelters are not quite as easy to pitch as tents, at least until you’ve had a little practice. A little imagination is required too. There are many possibilities. A few hours spent trying out different shapes will be very valuable out in the wilds.
The correct size is one that will provide adequate protection for the number of people who will sleep under it. I reckon 1.8 x 3 metres is the minimum for a solo tarp that will be used without a bivi bag.
Flat tarps are the most versatile but require the most skill to pitch in a weather-shedding configuration. Shaped tarps are easier to pitch in tent-like shapes with low or small entrances to keep the weather out.
Unless they are taped, seams need sealing to prevent leakage, which can be more noticeable when there is no inner tent to repel drips. Pitch the tarp and apply the sealant to the outside of the seams.
Pegging/guyline points
Plenty of pegging points and guylines are needed for stability with most tarps – large sheets of nylon can catch the wind easily. Adding extra ones is a good idea with many tarps.
Pegs are under more strain with tarps than on many tent designs and so need to be secure. Tubular, V-shape and Y-shape pegs hold best, with a minimum length of 16cms.
Tarps are mostly quite light but remember you have to add the weight of any extras – groundsheet, bug netting, pegs. Even then a tarp shelter will weigh less than a tent of comparable size.

Mountain Laurel Designs
Trailstar Silnylon    Best Buy   ***** 
$210  (c.£137)

Likes                 storm resistance, ultralight, roomy, versatile, cost
Dislikes             only available from the USA and there is a waiting time, seams need       

The Trailstar is a simple-looking five-sided shaped tarp. The design is less basic than it appears however as the curved shape of the Trailstar means it’s amazingly wind resistant – far better than most lightweight tents – when pitched with a low profile and the sides down to the ground. Last year it stood up to the big winds and torrential rain on the TGO Challenge better than, I think, any backpacking tent would have done. If the wind isn’t very strong it can be pitched with a higher profile for more headroom and a bigger door that gives better views of the outside world. And if the wind picks up the profile can be lowered from inside. For maximum ventilation and views it can be pitched with the edges well above the ground and two sides raised to form a huge entrance.

With only a little practice it can be pitched quickly too. It does cover a large area but this doesn’t matter as there’s no fixed shape. I’ve pitched it with one side halfway up a high bank and over mounds and logs. Using a trekking pole as the centre pole I’ve found 120cms one about right for a high profile pitch and 100cms for a low profile one. A second pole is needed to hold up one side for a doorway. Even with a high pitch the door can kept low to keep any rain out. A low door also gives privacy if you’re using the Trailstar on a campsite.

Whether pitched high or low there’s plenty of room inside for gear storage and cooking for two people. Used solo there’s enough space to spread out all your gear and still have bare ground.

In my opinion the Trailstar is close to perfect. There are just two drawbacks. Firstly it’s only available from the manufacturer in the USA and there’s a waiting time. Secondly you have to seal the seams yourself (a tube of silicone sealer is provided). The last didn’t take me very long though.

Style                shaped tarp
Fabric              silnylon
Size                 4.6+ sq.metres
Poles               trekking
Pegs                    optional 5x 23cm Easton tubular, 5x 16.5cm titanium skewers or own
Makers Weight   482g without guylines or pegs      
TGO Weight        485g without guylines or pegs, 770g with guylines & pegs
Modifications/Additions seam sealing, trekking poles, pegs


Alpkit Rig  7   Best Buy   *****


Likes                   size, light weight, guyline points
Dislikes              nothing

Of the flat tarps tested this is by far the best because it’s big enough to provide enough space when pitched in a storm-resistant configuration and has masses of reinforced guyline attachment points – eight on the body of the tarp and 16 round the edges. It can be pitched as a ridge, a wedge, a pyramid, a lean-to and with the edges down to the ground or raised high for ventilation and airiness. As a solo tarp, it’s roomy and there is ample space for two under it. The main seam is taped so there’s no need to spend time sealing it. The Rig 7 is lightweight too and compact when packed, though it is hard to squeeze it back into the provided stuffsack. The price is low. If you want to try a tarp this is the one to go for. And if you’re already a fan of tarps this is the best flat one I’ve come across.

Style                     flat tarp
Fabric                   30D silicone nylon
Size                      2.8 x 2.4m
Poles                    no
Pegs                     no
Makers Weight    514g
TGO Weight     507g
Modifications/Additions   trekking poles, pegs, guylines

Rab Element 2   Recommended ****


Likes                lightweight, roomy, two doors
Dislikes            no guylines

Rab’s new tarp shelters are in fact rebadged Integral Designs ones (both companies are owned by Equip). The Element 2 is a simple ridge design that pitches with trekking poles. There’s a zipped door with small mesh-covered protected vents at each end. The Element 2 is quick and easy to pitch and for maximum protection it can be pitched down to the ground. Pitching it higher, so there is a gap between it and the ground, gives better ventilation and more headroom. In really fine weather both doors can be opened for airflow through the shelter. One side can also be fully opened as well and raised up to make a lean-to type shelter if you have four poles. The Element 2 is roomy for one and adequate for two. Stability is quite good, though the big unsupported sides do billow in and out in strong winds and the ridge line can sag a little. To counter this I suggest adding guylines at each end and on the sides.

The Element 2 comes with a tube of seam sealant. I haven’t used this and the shelter has kept out heavy rain. However, seams can open slightly so it would be wise to seal them for long-term use.

The Element 2 is a versatile shelter that could also be used in place of a bothy bag as it’s so easy to pitch. Rab suggests that it’s ideal for digging into the snow in winter. For midge season there is an Element 2 Bug Net that can be pitched inside the Element 2 (or similar shelter). This costs £90 and weighs 880 grams.

Style                           ridge tent
Fabric                         30D silicone Cordura
Size                            3.8 x 1.4 metres, max. height 1.1 metres
Poles                          no
Pegs                           6 x 17cm V angle
Makers Weight          632 grams
TGO Weight             613 grams
Modifications/Additions: end and side guylines plus pegs, trekking poles, seam sealing

Rab  Silwing  ***1/2


Likes                        very light
Dislikes                    no reinforcements in centre

The Silwing is a catenary cut, seven-sided tarp with eight reinforced pegging points at the corners and edges. It can be pitched with one pole but I think is best used with two – a long and a short one – and pitched as a sloping ridge. Unfortunately there are no reinforced patches on the main body of the tarp so it can’t easily be pitched with a pole at the centre or anywhere inside. I tried but the slick fabric just slides off the pole. It could be tied in place but this bunches up the fabric. The cut of the Silwing means it’s pretty wind resistant. However, to keep out rain it needs to be pitched fairly low to the ground or, if it’s not very windy, as an asymmetric lean-to. The seams aren’t sealed and whilst they have repelled heavy rain so far I would seal them for long term use.
Overall this is a good tarp for solo use, though I would use a bivy bag as well to ensure my sleeping bag stayed dry.

Style                         shaped tarp
Fabric                       30D silicone Cordura
Size                          2.4 x 2.13 metres
Poles                        no
Pegs                         no
Makers Weight       355 grams
TGO Weight     321 grams
Modifications/Additions    trekking poles, pegs, seam sealing

Luxe Sil-Rocket   Recommended   ****


Likes                      lightweight
Dislikes                 short pegs

The Sil-Rocket is a versatile tarp-tent that can be pitched as ridge-tent style shelter or opened out to make a much roomier, better-ventilated tarp. Luxe suggests pitching it with just one pole at the door end but I agree with UK distributors Backpacking Light that it’s much better to use a short pole at the foot end as well. Otherwise it’s hard to avoid pushing your sleeping bag against the fabric. There’s ample room for one and when opened out two could sleep under it. In the latter configuration you can’t close the door zip. If necessary the pitch can be changed from inside the shelter though it’s easier to do it from outside. The Sil-Rocket comes with fairly short pegs. I’d replace at least some of these with longer ones for added security. Wind resistance is quite good but the sides do move a great deal in strong winds. Adding guylines to these would reduce this.

The Sil-Rocket is good value as it comes with an inner nest that can be pitched inside whether in ridge-tent or tarp configuration. This nest can be pitched on its own in dry buggy weather.

Style                      ridge tent/shaped tarp
Fabric                    40D silicone ripstop nylon
Size                       inner 2 x 1.2 metres, tapering to 80cm at foot
Poles                     no
Pegs                      11 x 13cm V-angle
Makers Weight     1152g – tarp 540g, nest 478g, pegs 104g, stuffsacks 30g
TGO Weight        1150g – tarp  546g, nest 478g, pegs 99g, stuffsacks 27g
Modifications/Additions   trekking poles, longer pegs, side guylines

Luxe Sil-Shelter  ***1/2


Likes                    very roomy
Dislikes                not that stable

Style                        tarp-tent
Fabric                     40D silicone ripstop nylon
Size                        2.75m x 1.75m tapering to 1.44m, 1.2m at high point
Poles                      one curved hoop, trekking pole also needed
Pegs                       9 x 13cm V-angle
Makers Weight      1008g
TGO Weight    1044g
Modifications/Additions   longer pegs, side guylines

The Sil-Shelter really is half-tent, half-tarp. It comes with one curved pole so the back looks like a tunnel tent. However a trekking pole is needed for the front end, as with a tarp. Some variation in the pitch at the door is possible with two trekking poles – open up the door and use a pole to support each side – but not overall. The inside is cavernous with easily enough room for two people plus all their gear. There’s good headroom too. The Sil-Shelter is easy to pitch, though I did find the curved pole had to be bent so much to clip it in place that I was worried it might crack. The pegs supplied are on the short side and I suggest replacing some with longer ones.

The big unsupported sides and the single guyline at the front mean that stability in the wind isn’t that good. Adding a second guyline at the front plus side guylines would improve stability but I don’t think a shelter this shape could ever be really wind resistant so it’s best used on sheltered sites.

Terra Nova Competition Tarp 1     ***1/2


Likes                       very light
Dislikes                   not very big

The Competition Tarp is as basic as a shelter can be, just a flat sheet with eight attachment points on the sides. It can be pitched as a lean-to or a ridge tent. In either configuration it can be pitched high for good ventilation and headroom or low for better weather protection. The small size means it’s hard to get full protection though, unless you pitch it so low you have to crawl underneath it, which isn’t very comfortable and means you’re in contact with the fabric. I’d rather use it with a bivi bag and just have it covering the head end so there was space for cooking, sitting and gear storage.

The very low weight of this tarp means it could be carried to extend the porch of a tent or as a separate cooking shelter. I’ve carried a similar tarp on walks in grizzly bear country where it’s unwise to cook in or near your tent. This is not something likely to bother backpackers in Britain though!

Style                      flat tarp     
Fabric                    silnylon
Size                       1.4 x 2.4 metres
Poles                     no
Pegs                      no
Makers Weight     290g
TGO Weight    261g
Modifications/Additions      trekking poles, pegs, guylines

MSR Twin Sisters Recommended  ****


Likes                   size, stability, two doors
Dislikes              no guylines

The Twin Sisters is closer to a tent than a tarp but does fit in this review as it can be pitched in different ways – either as a ridge tent or with one side raised as a lean-to tarp, though this does require four poles. It comes with two tent poles but trekking poles can easily be used instead to save weight. MSR describes it as an ‘all season mountain shelter’ and to that end it has snow valances for winter use. It’s also designed so the two poles are relatively close together and the side panels form triangles not rectangles. This means these panels are smaller than on many tents and less prone to deforming in strong winds. Overall stability is good but it can be improved by adding guylines to each end.

The Twin Sisters is easy to pitch. There are doors and covered vents at each end so through-ventilation is possible. The valances do restrict ventilation though so condensation is more likely than in airier shelters. Protection from the weather is excellent.

The Twin Sisters has ample room for two people but is light enough to be carried for solo use. I think it’s an excellent shelter for use in the snow but I’d prefer not to have the valances for summer use.

Style                         ridge tent
Fabric                      30D ripstop silicone/polyurethane nylon
Size                         4.1 sq.metres, 2.9m long, 1.8-1.5m wide, 1.1m high
Poles                        2 DAC
Pegs                         8 x 16cm V-angle
Makers Weight        n/a
TGO Weight    1443g complete, 1103g without poles
Modifications/Additions   guylines

vauDe Wing Tarp UL   ***1/2


Likes                       lightweight
Dislikes                   quite expensive

The Wing Tarp is an asymmetric, seven-sided, shaped tarp that can be pitched in a number of ways. The instructions suggest pitching it as a wedge-shaped tent with one trekking pole. I found it difficult to follow these instructions though I eventually managed to follow them. Pitching like this involves clipping sections of the fabric together so the tarp forms a rectangle. This seems a waste of the available room so I wouldn’t choose to pitch it like this. The resulting wedge-shaped shelter has no door or ventilation either – good for protection but rather negating the whole point of a tarp. I’d rather have a short pole at the rear and a long one at the front and plenty of space. The Wing Tarp is big enough to pitch like this with good headroom, the edges down to the ground and a small door to keep out the weather. It can of course be pitched in other configurations.

There’s nothing wrong with the Wing Tarp but it is expensive compared with alternatives.

Style                        shaped tarp
Fabric                      40D ripstop silicone/polyurethane nylon
Size                         4m x 3.4m, variable
Poles                       no
Pegs                        8 x 15.8cm square
Makers Weight       659g
TGO Weight    650g
Modifications/Additions  trekking poles

Vango Adventure Tarp        ***1/2


Likes                    low cost
Dislikes               heavy pole & pegs

Vango’s Adventure Tarp is designed mainly to be used as an extension to a tent, which it does very well. Used on its own the unusual shape means thought is required to pitch it so it provides good protection. I found a tapered ridge the most effective shape. That this tarp isn’t really aimed at backpackers is shown by the heavy steel pole and pegs. The pole is fixed-length too, which isn’t very versatile. The Adventure Tarp does have taped seams and attached guylines and is easy to pitch. The tarp alone is relatively heavy but the price is low, making this a reasonable choice for experimentation or for extending the door of a tent for base camp or car camping use.

Style                     shaped tarp
Fabric                   70D polyester
Size                      2m x 3m on one side & 3.75m on the other
Poles                    1 steel
Pegs                     6 x 19.5cm steel pins
Makers Weight   1.32kg
TGO Weight       1.24kg   tarp 733g
Modifications/Additions   trekking poles, light pegs


  1. Chris,

    I noticed that in the very first picture of a Trailstar there seems to be some kind of smaller tarp in the doorway. Something designed to protect from wind or rain? Or is it simply a ground cloth? Please explain.

    1. Bill, it's a cuben fibre door specially made for the Trailstar by Oookworks. I don't use it often but on this occasion there was a swirling wind and heavy showers and some rain was blowing in the front of the Trailstar.

  2. Hey Chris,

    Great read.
    How would you rate a cat cut tarp like the MLD grace duo either with or without a bivy for trips like the Cape Wrath Trail, the north coast and the Cairngorms?


  3. Thanks Bas. A tarp like the MLD Grace wouldn't be my choice for those areas except for trips in good weather. If you're really skilled with it and can erect it to cope with 50-60mph winds and torrential rain then it would be okay but I'd rather have the Trailstar.

  4. Thanks for this, very informative. We're working on putting our own list together of the best tarps on the market, so this post gives us a great jumping off point.

  5. Good point about not getting your sealants mixed up .. I used a army basher when I started tarp camping and used seamseal to proof it , I moved onto silnylon 8x10 tarp and natural assumed sealant is sealant .spent ages wondering if had applied it wrong. I read the labels on things now ..haha

  6. Hi.
    I used to enjoy reading your articles in Footloose magazine. Glad to see you are still writing and testing.
    I found this article, as I am searching for information, regarding the use of tarps for hill walking/camping.
    Are tarps when pitched low, in storm profiles, strong enough to use in the hills?

    1. Hi Ken, glad you remember Footloose. Tarps are definitely strong enough for use in the hills. I use the Trailstar regularly and took it on my Scottish Watershed walk when it stood up to many stormy nights.