With all the adventures and memories that come with camping, there’s also plenty of rough terrain and harsh weather that can damage even your most durable gear. To help keep your gear in top condition, manufacturers have developed tent footprints to keep your tent’s base free from wear and tear.
But tent footprints can get expensive, so some DIY campers have built their own groundsheets with a tarp. In the battle between a tent footprint vs tarp, which one is right for you and your camping needs? One of the biggest victims to outdoor wear and tear is the base floor of your tent. You might not give much thought to it at first, but that base is protecting you from mud, snakes and everything in between.
When you notice the base of your tent is compromised it’s important to fix the problem ASAP, but at what cost? If you’re expected to buy a new tent every time you notice some damage, you could be out a few hundred bucks every couple of years.
See also: Best Ultralight Tent: The Top Lightweight Tents for All Your Outdoor Shelter Needs
Fortunately, if the base of your tent is damaged, you don’t have to throw it away and buy a new one. For a quick and cheap fix, the best option is a tent footprint.
What is a Tent Footprint?
A tent footprint is a single cloth that’s typically made of the same material as the base of your tent. You put the cloth on the ground, right under your tent to help protect any damage to the base. If you’re pitching your tent in sandy, rocky or any other type of rugged terrain, the footprint comes in real handy with keeping your tent in great condition throughout your trip.
If your tent’s base is already damaged, a tent footprint can help deter any more damage, but it’s ideally meant to stop damage from occurring in the first place. Even if you’re camping on relatively easy terrain, it’s still a good idea to pack a tent footprint. If weather turns bad during your trip, a footprint helps add another layer of protection for your tent against rain, dirt and sharp objects.
When Should I Get a Tent Footprint?
It’s a good idea to buy a footprint while you’re buying your next tent, or at least before your next camping adventure. Preparedness is key to a successful trip, and a footprint helps reduce some of the obstacles you might face while camping.
If you’re an avid camper and you’re expecting to take your tent out a couple of times every month for the foreseeable future, you should invest in a footprint right away. If you’re buying a secondhand tent, it might also be a good idea to buy a footprint, even if the tent doesn’t appear to have any noticeable wear and tear.
You never know what a secondhand tent has gone through before you owned it. It might look fine at first, but there might be a small tear on the corner of the base, and that tear could turn into a big hole on your first outing. If you only see yourself going camping once or twice every year, you might be fine without a footprint. A tent footprint isn’t essential gear for every camper, but it could make your trip easier.
How Much Does a Tent Footprint Cost?
Prices vary, especially if you’re buying a tent footprint that fits specifically to your tent. Footprint prices from REI are anywhere from $30 to $70. If that price seems to be a little steep for your wallet, there are alternatives.
Alternatives to a Tent Footprint
Like a pocket knife or duct tape, a tarp is a renaissance tool that has countless uses while camping. A tarp is an ideal choice to making your homemade groundsheet because it’s waterproof, tear-resistant, relatively light, and much cheaper. Tarps that are approximately the size of an average tent cost anywhere from $10 to $20.
Tarps are built to sustain anything you throw their way, so if you set up a tarp as your groundsheet you can rest easy knowing that your tent is as protected as it can be. However, that doesn’t mean a tarp is clearly better than a tent footprint. Tarps are bulky to carry even when they’re neatly folded. If you’re just driving to your campsite, this shouldn’t be much of a problem, but for people who hike into to their sites, a tarp can take up valuable real estate inside your hiking backpack.
There are more alternatives to a tarp for a groundsheet, but most other materials aren’t as easily accessible. For the quickest, easiest and most durable alternative to a tent footprint, your best bet is going to be a tarp.
How to Make A Tent Footprint
Whether you choose a tarp or some other fabric, you’ll want to make sure you customize the material to fit your tent. If your footprint is too small, it won’t fully serve its purpose as protection for your tent.
If it’s too big and it rains while you’re camping, the excess parts of the footprint will collect water and flow under your tent and potentially get the inside of your space wet.
It’s also a good idea to make a groundsheet that has sturdy holes that you can put stakes in. If you decide to not stake down your footprint, your run the risk of having your footprint move with the wind, which could potentially leave the base of your tent unprotected.
To some, it might seem a little daunting to construct your own footprint, but it’s as simple as making a few measurements and cutting a couple of corners (literally).
If you don’t know the dimensions to your tent, measure them out with a ruler or measuring tape. Make sure your measurements are perfect. Once you know how long and wide your tent is, you’ll want to buy a material that’s 3 inches wider and longer than your tent. So for example, if your tent is 10 x 10, you’ll want a fabric that’s 13 x 13.
Along with buying your preferred footprint material, buy a grommet kit. A grommet kit typically comes with metal or rubber pieces that help reinforce the holes you make in your fabric. If you don’t have it already, be sure to also purchase a sharp tool like a box cutter and a hammer.
Make the Holes
With your box cutter, cut holes in each corner of your fabric. The wholes need to be the same size as the grommets you’ve purchased, so trace the size of the grommet’s hole onto your material. Make sure the four holes are evenly placed within the three extra inches of your material.
The nice thing about tarps is that some already come with holes to put stakes in. If your tarp has this already, just make sure the tarp is the appropriate size for your tent. If the tarp is too big, try and salvage as many of the tarp’s holes you can so that you don’t have to spend extra time making holes in all four corners.
Once holes are made, insert the grommets. Some grommet kits might come with different instructions, so be sure to follow the manual that comes with your kit.
Customize the Footprint Even More
These are the bare instructions on how to make a functional tent footprint, but there are other add-ons you might want to consider doing for your own groundsheet.
Lifespan of a tent footprint and a tarp
Depending on how much you go camping, a tent footprint could last you anywhere from a couple of years to a decade. What’s important to remember about tent footprints is that they’re primarily made of the same material as the base of your tent, which means it’s prone to the same types of damages you’re trying to avoid in the first place.
But it’s not like your tent will be facing extreme terrain or harsh weather every time you go camping. The majority of campers stay at well kept parks that are diligent with keeping sharp rocks, sticks or other harmful objects out of their sites. The likelihood of a casual camper experiencing any significant wear and tear on their tent footprint is highly unlikely, but the same could be said if they chose to use a tarp.
The lifespan of a tarp being used as a groundsheet can last for decades. One of the biggest ways you can hinder the lifespan of a groundsheet tarp is if you use it for other tasks when it’s not being used for camping. If it’s being used for other outdoor activities, your tarp will be constantly exposed to sun, rain, snow and everything in between. The more often your tarp is being used and is left outside, the more likely the fibers within the material will start to weaken.
Just because tarps are traditionally known for being highly versatile and durable, a tarp groundsheet has a slight advantage over the lifespan of a tent footprint. The biggest factor for making sure your tent footprint or tarp groundsheet lasts as long as it can is by properly storing it during the offseason.
How to Properly Store Your Tarp or Tent Footprint
If your groundsheet is wet, then dry it out
Be sure to air dry your groundsheet somewhere in your house if it becomes wet after a camping trip. Drying it outside leaves your groundsheet prone to harsh weather conditions.
If your garage is well insulated, it might be safe to dry it out there. If your garage isn’t well insulated, you run the risk of causing mildew.
Sweep off debris
Both tarps and tent footprints are virtually impenetrable to tears, but once they slightly rip, it’s only a matter time before the entire sheet is torn and ruined. It’s unlikely that a twig or stick is going to cut your sheet, but stranger things have happened. Before you fold your sheet up, make sure that there’s zero chance that a piece of debris could puncture through.
Outside of price, the biggest factor in choosing a tent footprint or a tarp is compatibility. Tent footprints are more expensive than tarps, but that extra expense comes with some perks. Since tent footprints are typically thinner than tarps, they’re much easier to pack. The best trick to packing your tent footprint is to just roll it into your tent so it doesn’t take up any more space.
It’s also lighter than tarp, which is nice for campers who might hiking into their site. After a few miles, every ounce resting on your shoulders starts to feel heavier with every step. To help keep your muscles free from soreness, a tent footprint is easily the better choice.
This isn’t to say that a tarp is the heaviest thing you’ll ever have to carry. The weight of a tarp isn’t the issue, it’s its folding capabilities that are the primary concern. If your tarp is a groundsheet for a small, one person tent then your folding issues won’t be too cumbersome.
If you’re using your tarp as a groundsheet for a family tent, or even a two person tent, you run the risk of having storage issues. But if you’re really wanting to use a tarp groundsheet for your next hiking trip, then you might want to reconsider how you fold a tarp.
How to Properly Fold a Tarp
- Lay your tarp flat – This is a good time to also make sure that your tent doesn’t have any dirt, grime or water on it.
- Fold the edges – When you lay out your tarp flat, you should notice that two sides are shorter than the other two. Grab those two short edges and fold them inward until they reach the center of the tarp. Your tarp should look roughly half the size of what it was.
- Fold the Same Edges Again – Repeat step 2. Grab the ends of the short edges and fold them once again until they reach the center of the tarp. By now, the tarp should roughly look a quarter of the original size.
- Fold One Half of the Tarp Over the Other Half – At this point, take a look at your tarp and make sure it’s all neatly folded. You don’t want to have any corners popping out of your tarp.
- Fold Toward the Middle – Every step has required you to fold vertically, but now you’re going to fold horizontally. Grab the two short edges and fold them to the middle.
- Fold Toward the Middle Again – Just like before, fold the two short edges towards the middle until they meet in the center.
- Fold the Two Halves Over Each Other – Grab your two halves and fold them just like you’d fold a sandwich. The tarp is still clearly going to be bulkier than a tent footprint, but it is compact, and it can easily fit into a backpack.
The Bottom Line
If you don’t camp too often, or you stay within regulated sites, you’re better off saving money and modifying your tarp as a groundsheet. Even if you’re not comfortable with your DIY skills, turning your tarp into a groundsheet is really simple, and if you get lost there are countless YouTube videos and articles dedicated to this topic.
If you’re a frequent camper or someone who enjoys hiking into their sites, it’d be smart to invest in a tent footprint that’s customized to your personal tent. It’s a little pricier, but you’re saving time on your trip and space in your backpack, which you can’t put a price on. For more tips on how to make your DIY tarp tent, see our earlier article on this topic.
If you’re undecided on what type of camper you are, then we suggest getting a tarp and turning it into a groundsheet. It’s affordable, and you’re not gambling on making in investment in something that you might not be using after a few months. All of the pitfalls or extra work you have to do with a DIY groundsheet amount to nothing at the end of the day, so don’t let the DIY aspect deter you.
Whether you go the route of a groundsheet or tent footprint is entirely up to you, but we still suggest that you have something protecting the base of your tent during your camping trips. Your tent is one of your most expensive camping investments, and if you treat it properly, it could be the last tent you ever need to buy.
Spending some money on a tarp or a few extra bucks on a footprint might seem annoying or useless at first, but in the long run, you’re saving yourself hundreds of dollars. For tips on how to make your own DIY tent footprint, see our earlier piece.
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