Tent Footprints and Ground Cloths

Tent Footprints: Many Big Agnes Tents can be set up in Fast Fly mode using the tent footprint.
Using the Tent Footprint for Fast-Fly Mode

Tent Footprints and Ground Cloths are common add-ons to commercial tents.  Their intentions include protecting the bottom of your tent, keeping you dry, and providing insulation.  Depending on how they are used, they meet these goals with varying success. This post will try to correct some common misinformation about tent footprints and ground cloths.

Ground Cloths

Ground Cloths or Ground Sheets are pieces of material placed on the ground under a tent.  They are typically made from tarps, plastic sheets, or Tyvek.  Many notvce campers, having seen these in use, believe they are essential.  I have heard many explanations for their use. The most popular is that they keep you dry. I have also heard claims that they help to keep campers warm. While neither of these myths is 100% true, ground sheets can potentially extend the life of a tent by protecting its bottom.

The most common myth about ground cloths is that they keep water from coming in the bottom of your tent. In most cases, this not necessary.  The floor of most commercial tents is inherently waterproof. Well designed tents with adequately sized rain flies have a drip line that is several inches away from the floor of the tent.  When setting up a tent, a camper should always avoid low spots and gullies where water might pool.  Further, the rain fly should be properly staked out to shed water away from the tent and allow the inner-tent to breath. If a tent with a good waterproof floor and a wide enough rain fly is set up properly on good ground, no ground cloth should be needed to keep out water.

Tent Footprints and Ground Sheets; Properly Erected Tent on Sloping Ground
Properly erected tent on sloping ground

Another myth I’ve heard is that a ground cloth or sheet may help keep you warm.  While some small amount of insulation may be gained by carrying a thin ground sheet, a good sleeping pad will be far more effective. Ground sheets are usually made of materials that are good insulators, but they are very thin.  Insulation relies on the thickness of the insulator, so a thin material generally doesn’t help much.

Used properly, a ground cloth may help to prolong the life of a tent by protecting the bottom.  This is just as easily accomplished by taking care to set the tent up on a clean surface.  Take a few minutes and remove rocks, sticks, pine cones, and other debris on the ground. Never wear your shoes inside your tent. This will not only help keep it clean, but also prevent punctures. Take care to brush dirt and dust off the bottom of your tent while you’re packing it back up. This will keep tiny particles from wearing down the tent over time.

Tent Footprints

Many commercial tent manufacturers sell add-on fitted footprints.  These tent footprints are intended to protect the bottom of the tent from the ground.  They usually cost $40-$100 extra dollars and add up to a pound of weight to your load.  In my opinion, if you’re really concerned with protecting the bottom of your tent, you should make your own ground sheet from a lighter, less expensive material.  To do this, set the tent on your material of choice and then outline the tent with a marker. Then take the tent down and trace a new line 6-9″ inside of the tent’s outline.  Cut along that line. You always want your footprint to be smaller than the tent to avoid pooling water.

Tent Footprints or Ground Sheets should be smaller than the tent floor.
A proper ground cloth or tent footprint should be a little smaller than the tent foor

Tent Footprints for Fast Fly Setup

Some tent manufactures advertise the use of the footprint for “Fast Fly Setup.”  Fast Fly Setup uses the footprint as a template to set up the poles and fly of a tent without the interior.   This method saves weight and usually speeds up pitching time. I believe this may be a good way for tent uses to transition towards the use of lightweight tarp shelters, but it does make for a very inefficient use of an expensive tent.

Common Mistakes

I’ve seen beginner campers make many mistakes when pitching tents. These often lead to them getting wet:

  • Using a ground cloth that is too large: This leads to water pooling under the tent and eventually soaking through.
  • Setting up the tent in gully: Gullies quickly fill with water and soak tent bottoms during in-expected rain storms.
  • Not Staking Out the Fly:
    • This reduces the breathability of your tent’s interior by allowing the fly fabric to cover the breathable inner fabric.
    • This also brings the drip line closer to the tent, or often just leads water directly onto the walls of the inner tent
  • Wearing shoes in tents: This risks puncturing the floor and makes everything dirty
  • Not Cleaning Tents: tiny particles of dirt get into the fabric and cause it to break down over time
  • Buying Tents with Tiny Rain Flies: Some commercial tents come with a tiny rain fly that only covers the very top vent of the tent. These tents usually have fully waterproof walls that aren’t breathable. Further, the rain fly drips water directly onto these walls which lose even more breathability or soak through.
  • Buying Cheap Tents: You get what you pay for.  Cheap tents either compromise breathability or waterproofness (or both.)   Either of these compromises will get you wet
  • Zipping up all the windows: Many tents have windows meant to increase breathability.  Many campers keep these closed for privacy or because they want to keep warm. Unfortunately, this traps in moisture that will make them both wet and cold.

Additional Reading:

Essential Backpacking Skills

I Made My Own Backpacking Tarp

Start Camping Right