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Tarps Are Worthless

Posted: Sun Jun 29, 2014 11:08 pm
by balance
That's a bit provocative, so let's clarify the statement: In the Sierra Nevada, tarps are Worse Than Worthless. This might make for interesting conversation.

Have you ever been hiking solo above treeline in a landscape like the moon, when a storm blows in? That rain and hail comes at you from every direction! Oh, but you'll stake the tarp down low. Except you can't get a stake in the rocky ground, and by the time you find eight or ten rocks just the right shape and size, you're shivering too hard to tie knots in the guylines. As desperation creeps in and hypothermia clouds your mind, you remember: Hike high, camp low. Ah, your saving mantra. Rather than carry proper gear and first aid, sacrificing dry feet and self-reliance, you solve every mountain contingency with: Your car keys.

Who wants to bug out and run for the trees whenever nature gets feisty? And what happens when you get to the trees? Our buzzing little buddies are there inviting you to stop by for dinner; except you're on the menu. What are you going to do, wave your tarp at them? Okay, you can bring mosquito netting, and a floor so you don't have to grovel in the dirt. Then what have you got? A tent in separate pieces.

John Muir said: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” I love being able to ride out the storm.

I've done some mountaineering, and once enjoyed a solo snowshoe trip in the Sierra to celebrate New Year's. The Megamid is okay on snow, as long as it's not too windy. Then, once again, alpine conditions call for a tent.

I love reading the adventures of Ray and Jenny Jardine. But he uses a tent, for example in the Himalaya and Alaska. Why bother going to the Sierra if you're not ready to accept nature on its own terms, and make yourself at home in the high country? If you're using a tarp, that tells me you're looking for a safe little "weather window", or just not ready to leave the shelter of the pine trees.

That's why tarps are Worse Than Worthless. I could be wrong. But I'm not.


Re: Tarps Are Worthless

Posted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 6:34 am
by Fly Guy Dave
OK... is this a rant from a recent bitter experience?

I've used tarps a few times, even during some Sierra thunderstorms, plus one time in the Gallatin Range in Montana, and they worked just fine. As far a netting goes, I have a small mosquito netting tent that covers your head and most of your torso, so the little vampires aren't an issue. I usually just carry a regular three season tent, though. Winter? A tent or a snow cave. Sleeping out in winter? Crazy!

Re: Tarps Are Worthless

Posted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 6:40 am
by oldranger
Yeah you are. I use a tent. But to stay bug free. It isn't that hard to set up a tarp with hiking poles and rocks. Sometimes you have to use rocks for a tent, done so many times. If tarps are worthless how could outward bound continue to use them for its students. It would face serious liability issues if tarps were worthless. As Dave said there are ways to deal with skeeters when using a tarp.
Tarps may not be your or my cup of tea but worthless they are not.


Re: Tarps Are Worthless

Posted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 6:53 am
by sparky
The trick is to set it up before a storm!

Re: Tarps Are Worthless

Posted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 6:56 am
by AlmostThere
Like backpacking, tarps are not for everyone. Like alcohol stoves, canister stoves, UL packs, hammocks, bivies, floorless shelters, nine person tipi tents, drinking water untreated, eating cold food for two weeks, carrying deck chairs, going 35 miles per day over 2-3 passes, hiking at night on the JMT so you don't have to pack a sleeping bag, carrying a four person tent for one person and a chihuahua.... tarps aren't for everyone. I have never been more miserable than I was in... a double wall tent.

Your Shelter May Vary.

Tarps Are Worthless

Posted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 7:11 am
by Hobbes
It sounds more like a comment on free standing vs non-free standing. There is no question that free standing is easier & quicker to set up, hence the (apparent) advantage in stormy and/or in rocky conditions above treeline.

OTOH, you still need to tie-down guys with a free-standing tent in windy/stormy conditions, so the advantage may be lost. If you are going to be tying down a free-standing tent anyway, then why not make it non-free standing tarp, which, once it's set up, is going to be lower profile and sturdier (if using trekking poles for support)?

If you are above tree-line, then that typically suggest talus in the vicinity. It's a trivial process to use shepherd hooks to first loop through tie-outs, then weight the stakes' "legs" with rocks in the 5-10lb range. So, in the end, it basically becomes a wash, with the tarp winning out for lighter weight & sturdier construction.

Rain protection falls into two categories: size/construction & single vs double wall. If a tarp is made to the appropriate size, as opposed to attempting to squeeze out weight reductions, there is no reason why anyone should get wet. This leaves single vs double walls, with a clear advantage to double-walled, even for tent vs tent. But, the catch is the weight; if you need 3-4 weather tent, then you're going to have to pay the price of carrying it with you.

Last, tarps can be made with both floors & netting for bug protection, but in the end, they simply end up becoming in effect a non-free standing tent.

Ultimately, we pack our fears. Personally, I like to sleep outside (cowboy camping), and only put up my tarp if there's an obvious storm and/or the dew point looks like there is going to be a lot of condensation that night.

My DIY tarp is around 15-20% oversized + has a rain beak. This added a few ounces in weight, but I gained a bomber shelter that can withstand the strongest storms. I was just in one 3 weeks ago - the full Monty - and was snug as a bug all night long.

Re: Tarps Are Worthless

Posted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 7:22 am
by AlmostThere
I would question that non freestanding is harder or slower to set up - I use a Lightheart Solo in the alpine, and am the first one done, while others are setting up Big Agnes or Sierra Designs or other "freestanding" tents. I also note that they needed just as many rocks as I did - to avoid box kite syndrome, as the gusts of wind threatened to steal their tents gear and all. I also enjoy the ability to set my tent up without getting the inner parts all wet. There aren't a lot of truly freestanding tents as many designs do not shape properly without stakes - I had a Sierra Designs a while back that would not shed rain, collected it in a huge puddle on the fly, if you did not think to bring a seventh stake for the back loop on the fly - they only included enough for the four corners and the two loops on the vestibule. (Thus the wisdom of a sprinkler test at home becomes apparent.)

When I am hammocking through mixed terrain - half alpine, half below treeline - I use a tarp and do ground pitches in the alpine when needed. A single trekking pole and setting up against a large boulder to partially shelter the open end helps. The tarp is actually big enough for three people - in a ground pitch that becomes an advantage, as there's enough space with some pitch configurations to let a little airflow in without compromising dry gear.

Tarps require a lot of consideration to site selection, need more anchor points, and have no instructions - unless you are handy with google. Here is a graphic that has traveled the world." onclick=";return false;

My favorite is the diamond fly, either against a large tree or rock.

Tarps Are Still Worthless

Posted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 12:17 pm
by balance
Thanks for the intelligent replies to my somewhat exaggerated statement.

For the sake of conversation, I'm going to stick by my guns and note that tarps can be part of this whole syndrome of going up high not fully prepared, then running for the trees when nature throws you a curve. Your trip becomes dictated by where you can set up the tarp, rather than being able to go where you want to go.

I've done 4-5 day hikes with a Gore-Tex bivy sack for shelter. That's quick, light weight, and no restrictions on where you go. If worse come to worse, you deal with a little less comfort, but are able to stay up high and be where you want to be.

I actually did try a sil tarp 12 years ago. It looked good on paper, but just didn't seem optimal for the varied conditions of the Sierra and the alpine environment.

Oops, that sounds too reasonable. Where's the fun in that?

Re: Tarps Are Worthless

Posted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 12:29 pm
by rlown
I was doing mostly tarp based on weather. Yes I swap out for tent if i think the weather will be bad. cowboy camped with tarp for 10 years at least, mostly in September.

This was Trinity September 2009. It was called to be clear for the 15 days we were there. Snowed a couple inches that night.

Anyway, This is my Burrito tarp setup. It sleeps two, and was comfortable. With my billed fishing hat on, it kept the tarp up off my face for breathing. It was a different experience feeling the snow hit you as it fell. zip ties came in handy again.

Re: Tarps Are Worthless

Posted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 1:55 pm
by Wandering Daisy
I was a NOLS instructor from 1969 to 1975. During that time period the organization transitioned from tarps to tents. (Now they use the Black Diamond Mega-Mid with insect screen insert when bug season). I spent 35 days using only a tarp, below and above timber, 28 days straight snowing before the weather finally cleared. We did fine. This was in the Wind River Mountains, which are much stormier than the Sierra. We never felt confined to below timber because we used tarps. We set them up using ice-axes and the old external frame packs. Tarps, when trained to use properly, and if large enough, provide a safe haven during storms. Today, I think the tarps sold are really too small and do not have enough tie points for more complex set-ups.

Then came the tents. Much heavier! But easier to use. Idiot proof. The first 2-man tents we used were 8 pounds! Gradually got down to 6-7 pounds. Our tents were not free-standing. Never felt that was a problem.

Later, in the 1990's I bought a free standing tent. Easier still. And with new fabrics, lighter. Now I was at about 5 pounds.

Moved to sunny California. Switched to a 1pound 4 oz. bivy sack. In most Sierra conditions I did just fine with the bonus of star gazing at night and being able to set up on the smallest piece of flat ground.

About five years later the ultra light tents arrive. For 2 pounds I now can have the comfort of a tent with a weight not much more than a bivy. Not free-standing, but that is fine with me. I do miss star gazing at night. And I am a bit frustrated with the size of the tent location that I need.

The purpose of a shelter is to protect you from weather. Tarps, tents (free standing or not) and bivy sacks all do that if used properly (in the Sierra and most continental USA locations). It is only our perception of what we think we need for "comfort" that makes one seem better than the other. All are pretty light weight nowadays due to the new fabrics that are used. All can be used above timber, if you are a skilled outdoorsman. All can fail if you do not understand how to use them (I am assuming high quality versions - not the cheap stuff).