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Using Ultralight Tarps

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I have two ultralight tarps, but with the strings, the lightest weighs 16 ounces, which seems heavy now, when I look at the new tarps out there. The Integral Designs Sil Tarp 5' x 8', for example, weighs only 7 ounces. Then there is the Bozeman Mountain Works Stealth 0 Catenary Ridgeline Ultralight Backpacking Tarp. With a name like that, you know it has to be expensive, but it weighs an amazing 5.7 ounces. In any case, almost any backpacking tarp you can buy will be lighter (and cheaper) than the lightest tents out there.

Weight is not the only advantage of ultralight tarps, though. They give you room to move, and you can look around. You can also quickly take down a tarp when you are ready to go. If it is wet, you can shake it off and it will fit in an outside pocket of your backpack. Even if they were the same weight, I would prefer using a tarp over a tent now. At least most of the time.

Tips for Using Ultralight Tarps

Tarps work well if you use them correctly. Remember to pitch the low side towards the wind. Keep all the sides low if a storm is coming. Evenly tighten the guy lines. Use rocks, trees, hiking poles and whatever else helps. Always pitch your tarp tightly. This keeps it from flapping around in the wind too much, which can loosen the strings or even cause the tarp to tear.

If you haven't backpacked with ultralight tarps before, experiment until you know how to quickly set up in several different environments. You can bring lightweight stakes, but I prefer to use sticks and trees and rocks. Less to carry, and I've always found something to use, even up high on the tundra.

You may need to treat the seams with a sealant occasionally, or at least when you first buy your tarp. You can buy seam-sealer anyplace that sells tarps and tents. You will have to buy string or cord of some sort, also, for tie-downs. I put varying lengths on the tarp, so I can untie them and use the long ones where I need them. Sometimes that one tree will be a little too far away.

I use a 2-ounce piece of plastic (4'x7') for a groundsheet. It is really just an opened-up giant garbage bag. I have used it for a week straight in the Rockies. It is cheap and easy to replace. Whatever you use, just be sure you lay out your bag on it, to be sure you'll have room. You don't want to be touching the wet ground in the middle of the night. Also, be sure it isn't too big, or it will catch rain out near the edge of the tarp, and funnel it back to you.

Ultralight Tarps and Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes probably keep a lot of ultralight backpackers from using a tarp. Repellent is a partial solution. So is using the tarp only in areas that aren't too buggy, and bringing a tent otherwise. You can bring a 1-ounce head net, but this solution still requires that you keep the rest of your body covered, which isn't pleasant when it's warm. Pitching camp in a high place that gets a breeze (and therefore less mosquitoes) has worked well for me.

There is another alternative. The Black Diamond Beta Bug Mesh Shelter is basically a mesh tent you can pitch under your tarp , and it weighs only 1 pound 7 ounces. If you are using it with a 7-ounce tarp, you are still under 2 pounds for your shelter, and you don't have to bring a head net or groundsheet. You can also just bring the tarp if there are no bugs.

Ultralight tarps, by the way, weigh less than 20 ounces. I just made up that standard, but it seems reasonable.



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