When Elise and I were just starting out, we had no idea how to set up a tarp for camping in the backcountry. Our tarp set-ups would always end up lopsided, with at least one loose side that we could never figure out how to keep taut.
The set-up process was always such a headache. We’d start tying one corner to one tree, then the next, then the next… and then we’d realize that the tarp was too low to the ground, or that it wasn’t positioned properly to drain the water off the top if it rained.
It’s not that setting up a tarp is hard—it’s just that we never really learned how to do it properly, and we thought it was simple enough to wing it. But trust us, if you want to save yourself a lot of headache (and wasted time), it’s worth learning how to do it right.
What’s the best way to set up a tarp for camping?
There are a few different ways that you can set up your tarp, depending on what the purpose of you shelter is and how many people you’re trying to accommodate. Three of most popular tarp configurations include the A-frame, the diamond, and the lean-to.
The A-frame is probably the most classic tarp set-up, and you can use it for just about any type of camping shelter. For instance, if you’re sleeping on the floor under it, you can set it up so it’s lower to the ground. If you plan to sleep in a hammock under it, set it up over your tent as an extra layer of rain protection, or use it as a daytime shelter, you can set it up higher.
We like the A-frame tarp configuration because it’s:
- Easy to set up (and therefore great for beginners)
- Versatile enough to use for different shelter purposes
- Strong and effective at protecting against the elements
What you’ll need to set up your A-frame tarp
To set up an A-frame tarp, you’ll need a few things:
Tarp with grommets on all corners. We have the Guide Lightweight Tarp 10X10 from AquaQuest Waterproof, which we love because it packs really small and is extremely light—without sacrificing durability.
Cordage (lots of it). We recommend using either paracord or dyneema cord, both of which are strong and lightweight. You’ll want as much as 25 feet of cord for each of the four anchor points plus the cord that will hold up the peak of the A-frame (so that’s five pieces of 25-foot cordage).
Stakes to anchor the four corners. If you’re setting up your tarp on soft ground like dirt or sand, you can use tent pegs or stakes. But if you’re setting up your tarp on hard ground, your best bet is to use either heavy rocks or logs.
How to set up your A-frame tarp
Now that you know what you need, let’s walk through the step-by-step process of setting up an A-frame tarp.
1. Choose your location
First things first: you need to pick a spot for your campsite. When selecting a location, there are a few things to keep in mind that will make setting up your tarp much easier.
First, try to find a level spot that’s large enough to accommodate your tarp. You don’t want to be pitching your tarp on a slope because it will make it harder to get the tarp nice and tight, which is key to keeping your shelter sturdy and effective.
Second, try to find two trees that are roughly the same height and distance apart from each other. This will make setting up your A-frame much easier because you won’t have to adjust the height of your tarp once it’s up.
2. Create the peak for your tarp
Now it’s time to start setting up your A-frame. Throw your tarp over the cordage so that it’s runs along the center of the tarp. You wan’t both sides to be equal.
The tarp should now be hanging off your cordage for the peak, as if it’s been folded in half.
4. Anchor your corners
Once you have your A-frame set up, it’s time to start anchoring the corners. Take a piece of cordage and tie it around one of the grommets on the corner of your tarp to create guy lines that you can use to anchor the corners of your tarp.
Then, run the cordage to the ground and tie it off to a stake (or heavy rock/log). You want this cordage to be nice and tight so that your tarp doesn’t flap around in the wind.
Repeat this process for all four corners of your tarp.
5. Adjust your tarp
Once you have all four corners of your tarp anchored, take a step back and make any adjustments that are necessary. You might find that you need to take out one of the stakes and re-stake it slightly farther away to tighten the tarp.
Extra tip: Use prusik knots to add adjustable tension
One thing you might notice while trying to adjust your tarp is that you have to keep untying and retying knots to get the tension just right. This can be a bit of a pain, but there’s an easy way to make it much simpler.
Instead of tying a knot at the anchor point, tie a prusik knot. This type of knot is designed to be adjustable, so you can easily loosen or tighten the cordage without having to untie and retie knots.
Here’s how to tie a prusik knot:
- Take your cordage and make a loop about six inches from the end.
- Run the end of the cordage through the loop to create a second loop.
- Wrap the end of the cordage around both loops a few times.
- Pull on the standing part of the cordage to tighten the wraps around the loops.
- You’ve now created a slip knot that you can easily adjust by pulling on either loop.
Tying prusik knots at your anchor points will make it much easier to fine-tune the tension of your tarp so that it’s just right. You can adjust the prusik knot by simply pulling on the standing end of the cordage (the part that’s not attached to your tarp). And even if it gets wet, the knot won’t slip.
If you have additional grommets that run along the sides of your tarp, you’ll probably notice two on each side of your A-frame peak—where it’s being held up by the cordage you tied to the two trees. You can thread an additional, smaller piece of cordage through each grommet here and tie a Prusik knot here to prevent the peak of the tarp from sliding down and to keep it taut.
Now you know how to set up a tarp for camping
There you have it! The A-frame is just one way you can set up a tarp while camping, but we encourage you to start with it. With a little practice, you’ll be able to set up your tarp in no time at all. And, more importantly, you’ll know how to do it so that your shelter is sturdy and effective.
Happy camping, and stay dry!
Ross is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. He loves looking at maps, planning new routes, sport fishing, and developing his nature photography skills. He’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).