Knowing how to set up a tarp can make the difference between a great time and a miserable time. Each campsite you go to will be different and you have to know the different ways to set up a tarp. If you have trees available it makes it easier but sometimes you will not have any trees and you will need shade.
The different ways to put up tarps depend on what is available. That is why when I am camping I bring extra adjustable tent poles, plenty of rope, and carabiners ( biners ). The biners do not have to be the expensive kind used in climbing. They can be the type you find at a hardware store and cost 1 or 2 dollars.
You do not need biners. You can use "O" rings or "S" hooks. I use an overhand knot with a draw loop to tighten my ropes. If you pull a rope through a loop when the rope is under tension, friction can damage the rope and cause it to break. So I attach a biner or "O" ring to the loop and pass the end through that. "S" hooks are not as strong as biners or "O" rings.
To set up a tarp using a ridgeline I use a polyester double braided rope 1 / 2 inch in diameter. Again, it does not have to be a quality rope you use for climbing and you can find it at Home Depot and Lowes at about 10 $ for a 50 foot length.
I use 2 50 footers with a 25 ft in the center joined by biners. I did this for two reasons. The first is to have a place to support my side extensions and the second is for a water break. When it rains the rope gets wet and the water will drip towards the center of the rope because it is the lowest point. To keep the water from dripping in the middle, I create a water break with the biners at the edges of the tarp.
I store the ropes in a stuff sack that I use for a throw bag. To tie off the corners of the tarps I use a 3 / 16 inch diameter polyester single braided line. To learn more about ropes go to our tarps and ropes page.
I use a 1 / 2 inch rope because sometimes I put up a 20 X 30 foot tarp with a 12 X 16 side extension. I discuss side extensions further down.
The method of using tent poles is ideal for campsites with limited trees and smaller tarps. The larger the tarp the more poles are required. For up to a 10 X 10 foot tarp you can get away with a pole for each corner. For larger tarps I recommend a pole every 6 feet on the sides.
No matter how tight you pull the corner ties the center of the tarp is going to sag. If you are setting the tarp up as a sun screen the sag is not important unless the sag reduces the height enough so you have to duck under it. Then you have to either raise the side poles or use a center pole. If you have a picnic table under the tarp you can put the center pole on the table to increase the height.
If you expect rain you will have to have the tarp center higher than the edges so the water drains. The weight of water can quickly build up causing the poles to push the tarp grommets through the tarp material and the tarp to collapse. You can alleviate this two ways. Use a center pole or raise one end of the tarp high enough to allow the water to drain. Preferably it is recommended to have the water drain on the downhill side of your campsite. This way you do not have the runoff flow through your campsite.
While this is a simple way to set up a tarp, in windy conditions, the wind can get under the tarp and lift the tarp so the center pole falls out. You can tighten the ropes to pull the tarp down more but you put more stress on the grommets and fabric.
If you have a campsite with enough trees in the right spots ( you can always find a tree in the right spot if you have enough rope ) you do not have to use tent poles. Simply tie a rope to each corner and put the other end of the rope ever a branch and tie it to another tree. This way you can get your rope higher than you can reach.
To get the ropes over high branches I attach biners and weights to the end of the rope and throw them over the wanted branch. Sometimes it takes more than one shot to get it where I want but it works. It is easier if you use a light rope and pull the heavier rope over the branch.
To help from tearing out the grommets I use a cow hitch. Put an end of the rope through the grommet then wrap the rope around the fabric and grommet passing through the grommet so the rope is going in the same direction as when starting. I finish the loop with a bowline knot. When tension is put on the rope it tightens around the grommet and fabric pulling on both at the same time not just the grommet.
After you get the tarp suspended you can adjust the location of the tarp by lengthening one rope and shortening the opposing rope. You can use a center pole if you want but if you put the ropes of one end of the tarp high enough in the trees you can lift the tarp to the desired angle for drainage.
A ridgeline is the same as the peak of a roof. To form the peak on a tarp you suspend a rope high in a tree. The tree only has to be strong enough to hold the vertical weight of the tarp and accessories. The tree does not have to hold tension on the rope because the rope is going to be tied off where you can reach it on a different tree.
This is my favorite method because you can use enormous tarps and it is the strongest of the three methods used to put up tarps.
Once you get your main tarp set up on a ridgeline, if you remembered to put the additional corner ropes through the ridgeline biners you can put up an additional tarp. You can use the additional tarp to cover more ground on your campsite or to collect heat from the fireplace on those cold rainy days.
The extension tarp should be under the main tarp to aid in water runoff. To bring in heat from the fireplace position the extension tarp close to but not over your fire. The closer the tarp is to the fire the more heat the tarp will draw in. But also, the closer your tarp is to the fire the better the chances of your tarp getting ember holes from sparks, melting or catching on fire.
You can raise the temperature under the tarp by 10 to 20 degrees but you also collect smoke under the tarp. It is a give and take situation. If you have a good burning fire without a lot of smoke the additional heat is worth it.
As with anything to do with camping, there is no set way to do anything. You have to decide what method to use after you survey the situation. That is why I include extra adjustable tent poles and plenty of rope when I go to the woods. You can bring extra equipment but you have to know how to set up a tarp for the different conditions you will run into.