Lately, I’ve had a few requests to type a post about tarp shelter configurations, setups I like, etc. But before I begin let me state up front that there is no “ultimate” tarp shelter for all environments and seasons. Each setup will have its own advantages and disadvantages – some will be sufficient for general all-around use, whilst others may also hold up particularly well under certain conditions. Remember that the fundamental purpose of shelter is to create a comfortable living space. This means that consideration should be taken in regards to the environment you go out in, the season and weather conditions, as well as your own preferences.
Note that the size of your tarp and number and spacing of attachment points will affect what configurations you can and cannot construct. For this demonstration, I will be using my DD 3×3 meter tarp in coyote brown – the dimensions are just about right for my purposes, and the 19 attachment points offer great flexibility with the range of different setups I can make. Below is just a short list of configurations that can be made with a square tarp for 1 person.
This post is not going to include all the different sorts of knots one can use for setting up a tarp – there are hundreds of videos and articles already out there dedicated to useful knots. In the absence of convenient trees at your intended campsite, it may be necessary to improvise wooden poles (unless if you have trekking poles) for supports. These can be made from green or dead wood. The bottom end should be made narrow or pointed so that it does not slip on the ground, and the top end that is tied to your tarp should be rounded or chamfered so it won’t poke through. You can then attach guy-lines to the top of the pole for stability. During winter with deep snow cover on the ground, you may need to make these improvised poles a bit longer to accommodate the offset.
Now then, let’s get started:
This shelter is a popular old-standby because it’s relatively quick and easy to set up, offering decent protection from the elements whilst also providing good ventilation. It requires 4 stakes and a ridge-line (or two separate lines as seen in photo). Tie the ridge-line first, and then stake the 4 corners to the ground. You can change the angle of the “A” by adjusting the ridge-line lower or higher and staking the corners further out or closer in. For increased ventilation, tie the ridge-line higher up and attach guy-lines to the corners, tying them to stakes or convenient trees.
The Diamond is the preferred setup for hammock camping because the diagonal distance is longer than the length along the sides, allowing for more coverage above the hammock. This configuration provides excellent ventilation and a nice view of your surroundings, especially if you raise one of the staked corners and connect it to a tree with a guy-line. The downside to this is that heavy precipitation tends to pool on the open side because the angle is not as steep. An overall disadvantage to the Diamond structure is that, no matter how hard you try, it is nearly impossible to avoid the slight sag in the middle of the tarp, even with a very taught ridge-line. This will inevitably catch precipitation instead of shedding it.
The Plough-Point is named as such because the shape mimics a farmer’s traditional plough. Essentially, it’s the same structure as the Diamond, only with two sides touching the ground. It also shares the same problem of a slight sag down the centre, though this can be remedied by stretching the mid point with a guy-line or by pushing out the centre from the inside with a short stick or a trekking pole. Ventilation is also great, but the high point and concave design inhibits air flow, making it unsuitable in windy conditions. Setting up this shelter against a boulder will help with this problem. The Plough-Point requires 3 stakes.
The Improved Adirondack:
This is a modified version of the simple open-sided lean-to (ridge-line on one side of the tarp with the two corners on the opposite side pegged to the ground), based off of the Adirondack shelter portrayed in D.C. Beard’s book Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties. The name itself originates from the time the Adirondack mountains were first used as a luxury spring and summer retreat for the wealthy. An open-sided lean-to may be sufficient for fair weather days during the warmer months, but offers little protection from the wind and precipitation. This shelter is meant to be an improvement that offers more coverage from the sides and front.
To set up this shelter, start by laying out the tarp on the ground in a diagonal, or diamond, shape. From the back corner, peg the second tie-out on each side, creating a triangle flap which you can then tuck inside. Now pull the front side corner tie-outs to match in line with the two in the back, and peg them. Lift up the remaining bulk two tie-outs high on both sides, and string it up in place with a ridge-line…alternatively, you can use two 150 cm/5 ft poles with two guy lines each. The remaining triangular flap in the front can be flipped over and tied to another attachment point with a guy-line so that it’s out of the way. In the event of precipitation, untie it and reconnect it to the ground in the front for some added cover, as shown in the photo below.
The Improved Adirondack has excellent ventilation, but as with the Plough-Point, its concave structure catches wind very easily. I’m sure that I am not the first person to come up with this modified design, so I won’t take any credit for it.
Pup Tent A-Frame:
This configuration is based on the old US military pup tents used in WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam. Each soldier was issued a shelter half, two of which when buttoned together formed the tent. They were not very roomy, especially for two soldiers. With a tarp, the structure is made by tying a ridge-line fairly low to the ground, and pegging the next two tie-outs on each end to the ground. What you end up with are two flaps of excess tarp which can be tucked inside as a sort of groundsheet. While the Pup Tent is a bit cramped and not as luxurious with space as a Classic A-Frame, its low profile makes it an ideal stealth camp shelter.
The Summit/Enclosed Wedge:
The Summit, or Enclosed Wedge is something I’ve been fiddling around with for some time and have come to love. It has a similar shape to a Holden setup, but this configuration allows for the option of being fully enclosed.
To set up the Summit, lay the tarp out on the ground in a square. From the centre tie-out in the back, peg the first tie-outs on either side. Now pull the tie-outs on either side before the front corners to be in line with the back corners you’ve just created, and peg them in place. Tuck the excess side flaps inside. Now you will need a ridge-pole just over 168 cm/66 inches to erect the shelter… this will create the “summit”, pardon the pun :P. I use my hiking staff because the height is just right. Place the top of the pole just under the front centre tie-out of the tarp, stand it up, and secure it in place with a bit of cord tied around the outside of the tarp. Use a guy-line to connect the top of the pole to the ground for stability. The two triangular flaps in the front will act as doors. For ventilation, leave them open and fasten the corners down. If you want added protection from the elements, you can tie them closed from the inside. Be aware that leaving the shelter enclosed will inevitably cause condensation problems. With heavy precipitation (especially snow), it may be wise to prop up the centre line down the back under one of the tie-outs with a short stick or trekking pole, or to attach a guy-line to stretch it out.
Here’s an inside view of the setup. As with the Improved Adirondack, I do not think that I’m the first to come up with this design, so I won’t take credit for it. If this setup has a proper name, do let me know in the comments. “Summit” and “Enclosed Wedge” are just names I came up with based on its appearance.
Laavu tents and shelters have become quite popular as of late, and for good reason. The design has been tested through time by peoples worldwide such as the Plains tribal nations, the Saami, and Evenki. This particular setup uses only 5 pegs and a centre ridge-pole…it does not need additional support from guy-lines.
Begin by laying out the tarp on the ground in a square, with the centre line of tie-outs towards you. Peg the two tie-outs that are just before the back corners. Pull the front corners together so that they are about 61 cm/2 ft apart, and peg them. Now go to the back and pull the centre, middle tie-out, and peg it in place. Tuck in the remaining triangular flaps. To finish, you will need a ridge-pole around 132 cm/52 inches tall, an inch or two of which will be driven into the ground for extra stability. Take the second middle tie-out in the front, and hold it up. Jam the bottom of the ridge-pole into the ground, centred to the tie-out you are holding, and move the top of the pole under it. Secure the pole in place by tying some cord around it from the outside of the tarp. The flappy bit that remains can be attached to a guy-line on either side. The shelter should not have any sagging, but it can be a bit tricky to get this configuration right at first, so you may need to do some final adjustments.
This tarp configuration offers a spacious interior and great protection from the elements, but because ventilation is only allowed through the fairly small entrance, condensation can be a problem.
I hope this has given you some food for thought and possible ideas to experiment with on your own. 🙂