Tarp camping isn’t for everyone, but then again, neither is winter camping.
Both have their pros and cons, and those who choose to combine them are typically the ones who are the most adventurous and resilient in the outdoors.
If you’ve ever thought about trying to winter camp with no tent under a tarp, you’re one ambitious camper!
Choosing the right tarp
When it comes to winter tarp camping, you need a tarp that can brave the elements.
Look for a tarp crafted from waterproof fabrics like coated nylon, silnylon, ripstop nylon, or even Cuben fibre.
Reinforced attachment points and tie-down points are a must, ensuring your tarp can withstand the weight of snow and wind.
And don’t forget about size!
Your tarp should be large enough to provide ample coverage for both you and your gear, keeping you protected from the winter chill.
Get ready to embrace the great outdoors in style!
Tarps vs. traditional tents
Tarp tents are a favored choice for winter tarp camping due to their lightweight, compact design, and versatility.
They offer overhead shelter and can be configured in different ways based on weather conditions.
In contrast, traditional tents provide greater insulation and protection from the elements, but they are heavier and more cumbersome to carry.
Be sure to read our comparison guide on tarps vs. tents for winter camping if you’re on the fence about choosing one over the other.
Winter camping under a tarp presents unique challenges, but with the right gear and techniques, it can be a rewarding experience.
Here are some tarp-specific tips for winter camping:
Setting up your tarp shelter
When setting up your tarp shelter, finding the right spot is extremely important.
You want to choose a spot that’s relatively sheltered, such as near trees or a natural windbreak.
You may need to use a shovel to dig out an area of snow where you plan to set up your tarp.
Or alternatively, you could stomp the snow down to flatten it, which is especially easy to do if you have snowshoes.
Tarp setup techniques
There are several tarp setup techniques to consider when setting up your tarp shelter.
Some popular techniques include the A-frame, lean-to, and pyramid.
Each technique has its pros and cons, and some are more beginner-friendly than others.
|Tarp setup||Pros||Cons||Skill level|
|A-frame||Provides good weather protection and ventilation||Limited space and headroom||Beginner|
|Lean-to||Provides ample space and headroom||Limited weather protection||Intermediate|
|Pyramid||Provides excellent weather protection||Limited ventilation||Advanced|
Here are some other setup tips for your tarp:
Orient the tarp appropriately: Set up the tarp in a way that minimizes exposure to prevailing winds.
Consider the direction of the wind and angle the tarp to provide maximum protection.
Use winter-specific guylines: Replace regular guy lines with reflective or high-visibility lines that are easier to see in snowy conditions.
Also, use tensioners that can be adjusted with gloves.
Create a low and tight pitch: Pitch the tarp low to the ground to create a barrier against wind and blowing snow.
A tight pitch will also help shed snow and prevent it from accumulating on the tarp.
Use snow skirts: A snow skirt is a strip of fabric that hangs down from the edges of your tarp, acting as a barrier to prevent snow and wind from entering your shelter.
They’re easy to make using spare tarp material or by purchasing them pre-made.
Attach snow skirts to the sides of the tarp to prevent blowing snow from entering your shelter. This is especially important in windy conditions.
Use snow anchors: Regular tent stakes may not be effective in snow, so use snow anchors or anchors designed for winter conditions.
You can bury items like snowshoes or skis as anchors, or use snow stakes and anchors specifically designed for snow camping.
Use a bivy sack: Consider using a bivy inside your tarp shelter for added protection against drafts and to create a microclimate that’s warmer than the outside air.
Insulate from the ground: Use a ground tarp or insulating layer between your sleeping system and the snow to prevent heat loss to the ground.
Pack snow around the edges: Pack snow around the edges of the tarp to create a barrier against drafts and further insulate the shelter.
Keep gear inside: Store gear inside your tarp to prevent it from accumulating snow or ice.
This will also keep your gear from freezing overnight.
Regularly check for snow accumulation: Periodically check and shake off any snow accumulation on your tarp to prevent excess weight and potential collapse.
Setting up your sleep system
Your sleep system is basically the same under a tarp as it is in a tent.
Choose a winter sleeping bag with a temperature rating that is appropriate for the expected weather conditions.
You can also use a sleeping bag liner for added insulation.
As mentioned in the last section, a bivy sack can also go a long way to provide extra protection from the elements, however using one isn’t necessary.
To insulate your sleep gear from the cold ground, be sure to use an air mattress or a sleeping bad with a winter-rated R-value of five or higher.
You can also stack mattresses and pads to increase this number.
Building a campfire beside your tarp shelter
One of the benefits of using a tarp instead of a tent is that you can stay sheltered by sitting by the campfire and enjoy its warmth.
You can also cook right from under your tarp.
When building a campfire by your tarp shelter, it is important to follow these best practices to ensure safety and minimize the risk of starting a forest fire:
- Choose a spot that’s a few feet away from your tarp setup as well as your gear to prevent the flames and sparks from burning them.
- Clear the area around the fire pit of any flammable materials, such as leaves, branches, and dry grass.
- Create a fire ring using rocks to contain the fire.
- Always have a bucket of water or sand nearby in case of emergency.
- Monitor the size of the fire and the direction of the wind to prevent it from getting out of control.
- Completely extinguish the fire before leaving your campsite, making sure to douse it with water and mix the ashes until they are cold to the touch.
Dealing with unpredictable conditions
In some cases, the direction of the wind may change and the snow or sleet may start falling directly inside your tarp shelter.
In this situation, your only option is to adjust the orientation of your tarp by moving the ropes and stakes.
This is also a scenario where a tent performs better than tarp—because it’s completely closed in.
Consider this carefully before deciding to go tarp camping, even if you ‘re sure there won’t be any precipitation.
More about winter camping:
- How to keep yourself warm while winter camping
- How to keep your face warm while winter camping
- Your winter camping checklist (essential gear for the backcountry)
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).