Introduction: 1-2-3 Tarp Tent

This little bit of gear easily converts to this spacious and weather-tight tarp tent in a matter of minutes and weighs in at less than two pounds.

Step 1: Gear Set

The biggest reason that campers don't use tarp tents is that they are intimidated about how to produce a self-standing weather-tight shelter from just a collection of cords and hiking sticks. This instructable takes the mystery out of tarp set-up and has some nifty shortcuts that make construction a snap.

First let's look at the gear required; from left to right.

1) 25' paracord for the ridge line with two 1" diameter rings securely attached 13" apart for a 10 foot tarp.

2) Next, six to eight foot lengths of paracord with a loop secured at one end and a small (2") aluminum carabiner installed in the loop.

3) Hiking sticks. You can use branches if you prefer, though hiking sticks are a lot more consistent and reliable.

4) One 8 ' X 10 ' siltarp that has been seam-sealed.

5) A Minimum of six snow anchors (also know as rock anchors). These are basically rugged nylon squares with attachment loops across two sides. Connect the two sides together for each anchor using small aluminum carabiners.

The trick here, that makes this simple, is that all the cordage that you will need has already been prepared to the correct lengths and with attachment points. That's the key to why this system works so well.

Step 2: The Three Basic Steps

Setting up the Ridge Line.

Just spool out all of the ridgeline paracord in a more-or-less straight line which is aimed in the direction you want the tarp to eventually end up. Usually with a slight downward slope, for comfort. Tie a small loop at either end of the ridgeline, and attach a rock anchor to each of those loops with the carabiner that is already attached to each of the rock anchors. Pull the ridgeline tight so that it is straight on the ground. You can see examples of how to use and attach the anchors in the illustrations. (I've substituted bricks for the rocks - but the principle is the same)

Attaching the Tarp

Unfold the tarp and lay it down on top of the ridgeline (with the ridgeline running down the middle of the tarp.) An 8' X 10' SilTarp has a number of cloth loop anchor points around the periphery including right in the middle of each edge and at each corner. With the tarp laying flat against the ridge-line, on the ground, attach one of the six foot lengths of paracord to each cloth loop in the middle of the 8' edge and loosely secure it to the 1" diameter ridge-line ring. You can tighten this up later. Attach a rock anchor to each of the four corners of the tarp using the carabiners on the rock anchors to snap them on to the corner loops. The whole rig is still lying flat on the ground.

Erecting the Tarp

This last step can be done by yourself, but is a little easier with a buddy. With both of your hiking sticks set to the same height (usually around 140 cm) insert the hiking stick point into the 1" diameter ring and slowly raise the ridgeline until the handle of the hiking stick is resting securely on the ground. The rock anchors will slide as you raise the roof, but you can secure them later.

Step 3: Trim and Tighten

At this point you have a viable shelter that looks a lot like the one on the left. If weather is coming in, throw your backpack inside and your shelter will keep things dry while you trim the tarp.


Trimming is an old sailing term, which means essentially to adjust the sails so they are most efficient. So we're going to do the same with your tarp shelter. First of all, remember those paracords that we tied loosely to the 1" diameter rings? You and your buddy will want to tighten those up so the ridgeline is nice and taught.

This next step is for you to each get on opposite corners of the tarp and pull on the rock anchors to take any slack out of the sides. You'll need to do this for both sets of corners. You may also need to put additional rocks in the anchors to make sure they can keep the tension, especially if it is a breezy night.

If you are camping in the snow, it's a little easier to set the anchors, since you just dig a hole, pack the anchor full of snow and bury the whole thing. Of course, just make sure you brought a shovel or ice axe to dig up the anchor, later, since it will likely freeze solid.

Alternative Set-up Using a Single Pole

The second picture shows a slightly simpler set-up which only uses a single pole. Set-up is identical except that only a single pole is inserted. This is most effective as a wind shelter with the lower side angled into the wind.

Step 4: Final Thoughts

I've used this tarp arrangement in rain, snow and hail, mostly throughout the Sierra's in California, and a bit through the Southwest as well. For winter camping you want to stomp down a flat area (snowshoes are great for this) before you begin tarp construction. If you are expecting snow, then be sure to keep the sides steep and use a snow shovel to create a trench on either side so snow doesn't build up on the sides in the night. You can also close off the ends with a poncho to keep the snow from blowing in.

For wet weather, it's better to leave a larger gap from the edge of the tarp to the ground and to set up the head a little higher than your feet. Watch as the drip line forms and use a sturdy short stick to trench according to the natural flow. Keep your ground cover and sleeping bags toward the middle of the tarp. I used this arrangement for three days of rain in the Arizona desert and everything stayed bone dry.

Remember those extra snow/rock anchors and paracord loops? You can use those to guy out the sides in wet weather and expand the dry area under the tarp.

This tarp arrangement promotes airflow so condensation is not an issue either in wet weather or freezing weather. It makes for a very comfortable sleeping arrangement indeed.