What Is A Tarp?

Tarps are very commonly seen in the field of outdoor pursuits, and you definitely need to know what they are. They have many different uses and can be made of different fabrics, depending on the thickness and other factors required.

A tarp is essentially a large piece of material that can be helpful for storage, weather protection, transportation and construction purposes. There are holes at the edges of tarps that allow them to be attached to other structures by a series of ropes.

What Is A Tarp?

What Are Tarps Made From?

The material a tarp is made from can vary widely – different materials have different properties that they bring to the table. You will probably purchase a specific type of tarp for the task that needs completing, so it is best to research your requirements beforehand. Some of the most common tarp materials are:

  • Canvas – canvas is durable and breathable, so you won’t get condensation building up on your tarp. Although it is resistant to water, it is not fully waterproof; it may yield if there are puddles of standing liquid on top of it.
  • Vinyl – heavy-duty tarps are likely to be coated vinyl at a density of 10 ounces per square yard. This material is not only waterproof, but also resistant to acid, grease, oil and mildew, making it suitable for industrial purposes. 
  • Polyethylene – polyethylene is a layered material, constructed from both woven and sheet layers. It is waterproof and does not stretch, which are ideal properties for resilient equipment to have. It should be UV treated so that it can retain its effectiveness for as long as possible.
  • Silnylon – as the name suggests, this fabric is a cross between silicone and  nylon, and is a lightweight but strong option for outdoor equipment. It is highly resistant to both water and tearing.
What Is A Tarp


Now you have some idea of what tarps are and what they look like, you may still be wondering what’s so special about them. Aren’t they just big squares of various durable materials? Well, yes, but their valuable properties mean that they come in useful for a whole range of applications that you haven’t thought about yet.

  • Camping – tarps are often used as ground sheets to line the bottom of a tent, keeping the inhabitants warm and dry, and protecting the tent from twigs or sharp stones that could cause rips. Alternatively, you can make an entire makeshift shelter out of a big tarp, by stringing it across two tree branches. Tarps are indispensable when it comes to camping, and are seen as one of the most basic elements for survival.
  • Wrapping your kit – if you’re on a hike and you need to carry your bedding between campsites, you can wrap it all up in a tarp to make a handy waterproof bedding roll. Tie it with string and you’re ready to go.
  • Transporting cargo – once loaded onto a trailer, goods can be covered with a tarp to keep them in place and protect them from any external conditions they may encounter on the journey. This stops them from being damaged even over long distances, so they reach their destination safely.
  • Static protection – if you gathered a pile of wood for fires, it will only work well if it stays dry. It’s not practical to bring it inside for this reason, though, so covering it with a big old tarpaulin works wonders. 
  • Construction – tarps are useful for protecting buildings while they are being built or repaired.  In some parts of the world, tarps are used to form permanent residences such as tipis, as well as temporary shelters. Tarps that fulfil this purpose are made of plastic, as it is essential they are waterproof.
  • Advertising – You may come across printed tarpaulins that advertise businesses, usually on billboards. They are excellent for creating large, eye-catching banners that can cover a large audience and will last for a long time.
  • Sails – tarps are a low-cost way to make sails for sailing boats, and they don’t require any sewing as you can fix them with sticky tape. Polyethylene is the most common material in this instance, as sails must be completely watertight to be effective.
What is a Tarp

Why Is It Called A Tarp?

The word ‘tarp’ is short for tarpaulin, which is made up of ‘tar’ and ‘palling’. A palling was a piece of strong fabric that was used in the 17th Century to be placed over objects on ships. Sailors would also sleep under these, and they would waterproof them with tar for extra protection from the elements.

Palling was used for various purposes even then, as it could be made into clothes or flags as well. Over the years, tar palling evolved into tarpaulin, which is often abbreviated to tarp because it’s quicker to say.

Tarp Color Scheme

Many manufacturers follow a standard color code for showing what grade their tarpaulins are. The scale ranges from light-duty blue tarps to super-heavy-duty brown tarps. This can be very useful to tell at a glance if a tarp will be suitable for your needs. However, not all manufacturers adhere to the system, so make sure you check before buying a new tarp.

Can I Use A Tarp Instead Of A Tent?

It is advisable to use both a tent and a tarp in conjunction when you go camping, as this is the best way to cover all bases and create a cosy shelter. But could you get rid of the tent altogether and just take a tarp with you? 

The answer is yes. Some people prefer a tarp as it is lighter and more convenient to carry, taking up less room in a car or camping bag. Even the lightest tents come with tent poles and other attachments that make them bulky.

Of course, you will need equipment that allows you to set up your tarp, such as rope, tent pegs and possibly a pole, but altogether these will still weigh less than a tent.

You can also get hold of a tarp very cheaply at a hardware store, whereas a decent tent offering similar durability and water resistance will set you back considerably more.

Tarps can adjust to variable terrain and weather more easily, since they don’t have a fixed shape and you can set them up however you want. You can just use the tarp on its own if the current conditions permit, or you can team it with additional equipment such as a bug net.

Tarps can be pitched wherever you find trees and soft ground, and are fully customizable in terms of height etc., while tents are much more rigid in where they will go and how they look.


Tarps are invaluable when it comes to outdoor survival, as they are durable, waterproof and can withstand adverse weather conditions. They can be made of different materials to suit your requirements, and they come in a variety of grades depending on how heavy-duty they are. Take a tarp camping with you and you’ll be amazed at how handy it is to have around – you’ll probably find uses for it that you never even thought of before!

Eric Willis
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