In the first installment of this series, I discussed the events that led me to ditch my tent in favor of sleeping under a backpacking tarp. In Part 2 I talked about buying that first tarp, what it was like to sleep under it, and some of the advantages it had over a tent. Now its time to talk about how and why I made my custom backpacking tarp.
Why did I make my own backpacking tarp?
I don’t really have a great reason: I was bored. As I’ve explained before, I’m a gear junkie. My favorite activities, camping and hiking, are mostly limited to the weekends. Aside from work and going to the gym, I don’t have a lot to do during the week. That leaves me with a lot of time to browse the internet looking at all the exciting new camping equipment on the market. Unfortunately, that leads to buying it. I realized this was a problem, so I resolved myself to making my gear. After trying a few simple projects, like stuff sacks, I decided to tackle something bigger: a backpacking tarp.
Humans have been sleeping under sheets of fabric for thousands of years, so the concept of a backpacking tarp is nothing new. It wasn’t until the last few decades that manufacturers began adding bug netting and all kinds of other contraptions to form the modern “tent.” As described before, the modern backpacking tent is a heavy little jail cell that traps in moisture and is good for little other than sleeping in.
Any story about a backpacking tarp must begin with Ray Jardine (see Ray Jardine’s Adventure Page,) the father of lightweight backpacking. Over the course of a several long distance through hikes in the 1990’s, Ray developed a number of lightweight backpacking tools and techniques, including the Ray Way Tarp. This tarp is a simple 106″ x 106″ sheet of silicone coated nylon with a small awning on each end. Ray, his wife, and countless others have slept comfortably under such tarps for countless nights on countless trails.
Designing my Backpacking Tarp
Having recently finished reading Ray’s Book, “A Trail Life,” it was obvious where my tarp’s design would have its origin. My backpacking tarp is basically a Ray Way Tarp with just a few changes. The most notable change is that my tarp is asymmetric. By reducing the length of the back edge by 3 feet, I decreased the surface area of the two side panels. My smaller side panels are lighter and produce less wind loading than larger rectangular panels. Reducing the length of the back edge also lowers the rear apex closer to the ground, eliminating the need for an awning at that end. The trade-off is significantly less head-room at one end of the tarp.
My next departure from the classic design replaces Jardine’s simple webbing loop tie-out points with Lineloc tensioners. While Ray advises against backpacking in the winter, I make a habit of venturing out when it is very cold. These tiny devices cut the need to remove my mittens by taking the place of taught-line-hitches. They present a weight penalty, but prevent frostbite.
Another modification I made was to add a large patch of 330D Cordura fabric to the underside of the front apex. This patch reinforces the apex so that it can be supported by a trekking pole. The classic Ray Way tarp has each end lifted by a guy-line. This change adds a small amount of weight and places a support pole in my living area, but it gives me many more pitching options.
Finally, Jardine’s instructions call for a tarp constructed from 6 pieces of fabric: two rectangular side panels and 4 triangles to make the awnings. I was able to cut each of the side panels so that it included a piece of the awning. Sewing it all together only required a single long seam.
Color and Materials
I do like the color orange, but I would not have chosen such a bright color without a good reason. Normally, I prefer a shelter that blends in with my surroundings rather than creating a visual impact. I selected orange because I already had a green tarp and I needed something to use during hunting season. I normally camp and hike in areas that do not allow hunting, but there are no visual boundaries out there and I’d rather been seen. Safety First!
My backpacking tarp is made from 30D 1.3 ounce/sqyd silicone coated nylon from Quest Outfitters. Silnylon has been the gold standard for both weight and weather resistance for many years, until it was recently surpassed by Cuben Fiber. Designed for America’s Cup sails, Cuben Fiber is stronger, lighter, and more waterproof than silnylon. Cuben fiber is also three times the price per yard and challenging to sew. And it doesn’t come in orange!
My orange guy-lines are reflective glowire from DIW Gear Supply. The front and rear apex guys are 12 feet long. The awning “pull down” is 6 feet. The corner guys are each 3.5 feet.
Testing, Seam-Sealing, and Future Modifications
Since completing the tarp, I have had two opportunities for testing. Testing has brought about the need for a few simple modifications. I will discuss my test runs, modification ideas, and a few other topics in Part 4.
To be continued…