DIY Tarp Tent: How to Make a Survivalist Shelter on a Budget

Tarp tent
Written by Sean Nelson

Whether you’re a casual wilderness adventurer or an avid prepper getting out in the wilderness every chance you get, one of the top priorities for anyone in a survival situation is staying out of the wind and rain. Without a proper shelter keeping you out of the elements, such as a DIY tarp tent, a survivalist situation could not only be uncomfortable, but it could also become life-threatening.

There are many great wilderness shelter options available on the market today. Depending on your skill set and the climate, some situations may require nothing more than a good space blanket. In more extreme weather conditions, you have to rely on the hours of research and design that goes into a well-made brandname tent.

See also: Tarp Camping: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

However, for a minimalist setup that is packable, lightweight and easy on the wallet, a DIY tarp tent is the perfect wilderness shelter solution.

DIY tarp tents are barebones shelters that provide everything you need and nothing you don’t when you’re in a survivalist situation. Comprised of a large tarp, a long length of rope, tent stakes and optional accessories such as poles or tree branches, DIY tarp tents use very few materials and can be rigged in dozens of different configurations depending on the situation. For instructions on how to make your DIY walking sticks, see our article for more information.

From the basic A-frame shape to the more complex Bivy Bag Cornet, the DIY tarp tent is a shelter that is easily adaptable for anything that an emergency situation can throw your way.

Depending on your skill set, you may be wondering how to make a tarp tent, what materials will be required, and how much everything will cost. Lightweight brandname shelters, although expensive and at times problematic, have one advantage in that they leave the design and construction in the hands of industry experts.

On the flip side, with DIY tarp tents, the design and the material selection is entirely in your hands, which means you can tailor your shelter exactly to your needs, and maybe even learn a few things along the way.

There are many decisions to make about your DIY tarp tent which could influence how it performs when you are out in the field. From material selection to structure style to how you pack it all away, every factor could mean the difference between a cold, sleepless night and a warm, restful sleep that prepares you for the day ahead.

With the right mindset and a willingness to learn, anyone can build a DIY tarp tent that is affordable and, in some cases, superior to those expensive lightweight shelters seen in stores. For more tips on how to choose the best tarp for camping, see our earlier article on this topic.

Benefits of the DIY Tarp Tent

While collecting the materials for your tarp tent, you may be wondering why you wouldn’t just put yourself in the knowledgeable hands of the staff at your local outdoor store and buy a brand new tent that will suit your needs. The obvious answer comes down to finances.

Although the extensive research and design that goes into brand name wilderness shelters makes them extremely durable and lightweight, it also means that they are the most expensive option. Above all else, building a DIY tarp tent is the least expensive wilderness survival shelter available

Secondly, when designing your tarp tent, you need only to account for your own personal needs as a survivalist. Complete tent setups must account for the needs of tens of thousands of potential buyers, which might leave you carrying around extra weight for the sake of shelter features that you do not need.

Manufactured tents make up for this excess weight by constructing their tents out of rare materials that can at times be difficult or costly to repair. Furthermore, DIY tarp tents have fewer moving parts and pieces, which means fewer things to break or accidentally leave behind.

Finally, unlike your average store-bought tent, which is completely closed off to the elements, most DIY tarp tent structures are open on at least once side, which allows for a significant amount of airflow while still keeping your gear and your body dry and out of the elements.

In manufactured tents that are completely closed off, any moisture in the air from your breath or wet clothing can quickly form a layer of condensation on the inside, which leaves you sleeping in a cold and damp atmosphere. DIY tarp tents offer more airflow, which means that moist air is quickly cycled out of the shelter before it builds up or makes your surroundings damp.


Like any DIY project, the quality of the materials that you select for the length of rope, the tarp, and any other auxiliary accessories will determine the usability of your shelter as well as its longevity. The materials available fall somewhere on a spectrum ranging from cheap, heavy and flimsy to expensive, extremely lightweight and long-lasting.

For for the main ingredient, the tarp material, there are two main options. The first, and least expensive, is the standard blue polypropylene tarp that most survivalists already have in their garage. Although this material is waterproof, it stretches easily over time and may leak as the fibres grow further apart.

Another major pitfall is the use tie-off loops, which are usually just light metal grommets embedded in the tarp. This are prone to breakage and can easily tear a hole in your tarp even in light winds. In general, polypropylene tarps are only good solutions in the short run.

A more long-lasting material for your tarp would be Silnylon, which is nylon embedded with silicon for improved waterproofness. Silnylon tarps are much higher-quality, longer lasting and more waterproof. Best of all, the tie-off loops are sewn directly into the fabric, which protects them from ripping even under extremely high winds and tension.

Finally, Silnylon tarps are extremely light and can pack down into a very small stuff sack, which makes them the ideal addition to any bug-out bag worth its salt.

For the cordage, you will have similar decisions to make about the weight, thickness, and material of the rope that you wish to ruse. These will vary greatly in terms of price, availability, and durability. No matter what you choose in the end, it is important to make sure that the rope is at least eight feet in length, otherwise you will difficulty erecting most of the tarp tent structures described below.

When it comes to rope material, chances are you already have some old rope in your garage that would be suitable for your first couple of outings. But eventually, you will want to make the move to more durable nylon rope that is tightly wound and about 4 to 5 millimetres in thickness. Any kind of tightly-wound nylon rope found in most outdoor stores is fairly easy on the wallet but performs extremely well in terms of weight and durability.

As for the stakes, poles, and other optional materials, using what is already in your garage is best. If not, generally inexpensive plastic tent stakes and poles fashioned out of fallen sapling branches, hiking poles or even canoe paddles will work great for your DIY tarp tent.

Deciding on DIY Tarp Tent Structure

Deciding on a DIY tarp tent structure will vary widely depending on whether you’re a solo survivalist or with a partner, whether you need a ground sheet to separate you from the cold ground, and how stormy the weather is on any given night. With DIY tarp tents, there are infinitely many tarp structures that you could set up depending on the conditions. Here we will outline just a few of the most important tarp tent structures to get you started.

Simple A-Frame

The simple A-Frame setup is the easiest tarp tent structure to set up and requires the least amount of materials. It offers excellent protection from wind, rain and snow, and it’s angular structure prevents any precipitation from accumulating on the tarp and causing it to sag.

The only downside is that it doesn’t have a floor, so you’ll have to have a quality sleeping pad to insulate your body from the ground. For the minimalist prepper, this is the best starting point for tarp tent structures.

To erect the A-Frame tarp tent, you’ll need your large tarp, at least eight feet of quality cordage, four tent stakes and two trees around ten feet apart. Tie your rope securely around each tree about four feet off the ground so that the line is as taught as possible. If the line is not tight enough, the tent could sag over the course of the night.

Next, drape the tarp over the line so that it meets with the middle of the tarp, allowing equal amounts of tarp to drape over both sides. Finally, pull the tarp taught at each corner and stake it to the ground by hammering in one of your four tent stakes. If the tarp is not taught all the way around, you can adjust your line or your stakes until you have a completely weather-proof structure.

Ridge Line Lean-to

The Ridge Line Lean-to is very similar to the A-Frame, but offers slightly more room inside. This structure is also halfway open to the elements on one side, allowing for better airflow. This shelter style is a great option for two people in milder weather. In order to construct it, you need your tarp, eight feet of rope, two guy lines each around 4 feet in length, and four tent stakes.

As with the A-Frame shelter, tie your eight foot rope around two trees ten feet apart and about four feet off the ground so it’s nice and taught. Drape the tarp over the line, but this time don’t align it with the very middle of the tarp. Instead, drape about two thirds of the tarp over one side and stake out the two corners on this side using two of your four tent stakes.

Next, move to the other side of the line, where the remaining one third of the tarp is draped over. Stake out the two corners on this side using the two four-foot guy lines and the two remaining tent stakes. This way, you’re left with a shelter that is open on the bottom half of one side, and completely closed off on the other side.

Ideally, you’ll set this up so that the side that is fully closed off is facing into the wind. As with the A-Frame, this tarp tent setup has no floor, so you’ll need a good sleeping pad to insulate your body from the ground. Adjust the guy lines and the tent stakes until the structure is completely taught and weatherproof.

The Body Bag

The Body Bag structure is again similar to the A-frame structure, but offers a ground cover and sits lower to the ground. This shelter is ideal for extreme weather in which pouring rain or snow has already begun to accumulate on the ground. Just like the A-Frame structure, you need your tarp, eight feet of rope, four tent stakes, and two trees separated by about ten feet.

Tie the eight foot rope tightly around the two trees about two feet off the ground. Next, drape the tarp over the line so that both ends of the tarp meet. Pull the joined ends off to one side of the line, and stake them into the ground together using two of your four tent stakes.

Next, fold the part of the tarp that sits underneath the guy line to create the space inside the tarp, and stake this folded side down using the remaining two stakes. What you’re left with is a one-person shelter that offers just enough space for you to slide your body into this weatherproof shelter. This shelter is ideal for keeping you out of harms way in severe emergency conditions.

Choosing a Spot to Pitch Your Tarp Tent

Now that we have a few tarp tent structures in mind, it’s time to choose a spot to set up your tarp tent. Choosing the perfect spot to set up your tarp tent can be one of the most challenging parts of this entire endeavour. From ant’s nests to pooling water, there are many hazards to consider before settling down for the night.

The first question that should pop into your mind is whether the area you’re considering is flat or drastically sloped. Less experienced survivalists may not take this question seriously enough. However, once you’ve spent just one night sleeping on a rakish angle with all of the blood rushing to your head, you’ll never take this factor lightly again.

The best way to test whether an area is flat is to simply lay down on it. You can spread your tarp out first or lay down on your jacket, but as soon as you lie down you’ll know whether you’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep there.

Once you’ve determined that your spot is level, you want to consider where water will flow if there is a heavy rain through the night. Ideally you want to get to slightly higher ground so that water is less likely to pool where you sleep.

However, in extremely flat terrain, getting to higher ground is not always possible and sometimes it can be difficult to determine where rain water will flow. If this is the case, it’s always best to play it safe and dig shallow trenches around your sleeping area so that any running water will be collected and carried away form your sleeping area.

Depending on your geographic location, a heavy rain storm could be accompanied by lightning. Many of the DIY tarp tent setups discussed above make use of a tree, or several trees, to rig the ridgeline. Trees can provide great shelter from the elements, especially if there is a lush canopy covering you above.

However, using a lone tree in the middle of a large open field is extremely dangerous, as this would be the perfect setting for lightning to strike during a storm. When using trees to rig your tarp tent, always make sure you’re among many large trees and well out of danger of lightning strike.

Finally, when in a survivalist situation, it is important to consider the creatures that may already be living in the place you’ve chosen to bed down for the night. The ground can play host to many kinds of nests or food caches for insects, snakes, squirrels or rodents.

Even large trees can play host to larger, more dangerous mammals. Before setting up your tarp tent, be sure to perform a thorough search for any signs that other animals visit the area often, otherwise you may receive an unexpected visit during the night.

Final Thoughts

Although there are many great wilderness shelter options available on the market today, many of them are overpriced, offer features that you may not need, and can be difficult or costly to repair.

A DIY tarp tent provides a simple alternative for a survivalist shelter that is much easier to repair and much easier on the wallet. We’ve been through many of the different materials and setups that can be used to make your own DIY tarp tent. For simple guidelines on how to pitch a tent, see our article for more details.

However, the beauty of this simple survivalist structure is that the possibilities of materials and setups are endless.

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Sean Nelson

Sean was backpacking since he was 7. He was born close to the RMNP and his father was a ranger, so life surrounded by mountains and wildlife is a norm for Colorado. He likes to explore, but prefers to stay in USA. In his opinion, there are too many trails and options in US to go abroad.