I kid you not–right before I left for my trip to South America, my Pops handed me a red 6’x8’ tarp.
What? Why would I need this thing?
Well, when it comes to survival equipment, dads tend to have a kind of sixth sense for what you’re going to need on the trail.
And as it turns out, this tarp quickly became my best friend. For four months, I traveled through Buenos Aires, Patagonia, Santiago, the Atacama Desert, La Paz and everywhere in between. The whole time, my tarp and I were inseparable. Why? Because with my tarp, I didn’t need a tent.
Here’s why a tarp is the only tent you’ll ever need.
1. It does all the things tents are known for.
Does it provide a barrier between the earth and your sleeping bag? Check. Since the tarp is 8 feet wide, you can fold it in half, and use it as a taco shell under and over you and your sleeping bag.
Most tarps are made out of Polyethylene material, which insulates well and keeps water away, so you get a good night’s sleep instead of a cold soggy mess. The tarp also protects against prickly thorns and weeds—good news for backpackers trying to rest up for their upcoming adventures.
Does it keep you warm? Double check. Throughout the trip, I slept in my Wal-Mart sleeping bag, wrapped in my tarp, at temperatures at or below 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) multiple times. And with a beanie, I was warm and snuggly, even with my head poking out.
2. It’s cheap and light.
Most tents are bulky and cumbersome–like trekking up a mountain with a cannon ball on your back. Even the lightest tents on the market are a little cost-prohibitive, ranging around $200.
Tarps, on the other hand, will run you about $5-$15, and take up absolutely zero space. I frequently rolled up my tarp in the middle of my sleeping bag, and barely noticed it was there.
3. It’s wind- and rain-resistant.
This is where the tarp becomes a true warrior. Yes, it’s wind- and rain-resistant, too!
My tarp had four eyelets, one at each corner, and they turned out to be invaluable. With some shoelaces (or really any kind of string), you can create a “tarp roof.” Here’s how.
Step 1: Tie one side of the tarp to the closest tree (or bush branches, if you’re in a more barren landscape). Step 2: Take the other corners of the tent and extend the string at an angle to an anchor in the ground. This anchor can be anything from stick hammered in the ground to a tree root. Your options are as endless as your creativity.
Now, your bushes or tree will be your walls, and the tarp’s a nice roof. Anchoring the strings to the ground will give your tarp a good angle so the water drips away from your “tarp room”.
I did this in Patagonia multiple times, where the weather is extremely unpredictable, and a downpour of rain can come the morning after a 90 degree (F) day. I also took refuge under my “tarp roof” for 2 days, deep in Los Glaciares Parque Nacional (close to Piedra del Fraille), and another time on a 3-Day-Trek from Ranquilco to Caviahue.
4. It saves you money at hostels.
Hostels and their 12-person dorm rooms are famously cheap—but did you know that most hostels also offer an even cheaper camping option? It’s usually between $5-10 cheaper.
How did I find this out? Because hostels would see my tarp, think it was a tent, and offer me a camping spot.
If you’re camping at a hostel, you still have access to all of the hostel services like common areas, showers, bathrooms, kitchens, and most importantly WiFi. The only difference is that you’re sleeping outside! (This is also great insurance for sold-out hostels. Even the most packed hostel usually has room in the yard.)
5. It’s your ultimate tool in the quest for pure freedom.
What’s the biggest draw of backpacking? Freedom. What’s one of the biggest stresses of backpacking? Wondering where you’re going to sleep that night. But with a tarp, that question is answered forever, leaving you free to change your plans on a whim without paying consequences.
For example, when I wanted to add traveling to Pucon days after the monstrous Volcano Villarrica exploded, I was able to do so without sacrificing any of my other plans—and easily weathered two GIANT problems that came up.
Problem 1: My location had no overnight buses to Pucon.
Solution: Catch an overnight bus traveling to Santiago, and ask the bus driver to stop at the junction of the highway where the road led to Pucon. From there I could try my hand at hitchhiking to Pucon, which was 50 miles (80km) away.
Problem 2: I would reach this junction at 3:00am. At this hour, hitchhiking would be impossible.
The Solution: The tarp! With my tarp, I slept comfortably off the side of the highway until sunrise. In the morning, I flagged a local commuter bus, and arrived in Pucon for breakfast.
Four days later, I was in Santiago attending the Lollapalooza Music Festival, which was one of my original plans. But in the meantime, I had added “white water rafting under an active volcano” and “bathing in natural volcano-heated hot springs” to the long list of incredible things I had done on my trip.
So if you are reading this and leaving to backpack anywhere in the world, grab yourself a handy tarp before you take off. It’s versatility, lightweight, and wind and water resistance will come in clutch for you time after time.
To see what else I put in my 50L carry on backpack for 4 months that afforded me the ability to go Clubbing in Buenos Aires, Work as a Horse Outfitter in Patagonia, attend a Music Festival in Santiago and trek up to the Fitz Roy and across the Andes Mountains click here.
Sonny Hughey – Energetic, living in new experiences, attracting others and sharing success. Sonny holds a degree in Physics, captained his collegiate baseball team to a Conference Championship, has touched down in 3 continents, 11 countries, and 40 of the 50 states. He owns his own business ShoobyUSA and works as a Test Engineer for MTS Systems. Sonny is 25 years old.