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1st night camping with tarp, what did I do wrong?
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Jared Hendren
(jphendren) - F
1st night camping with tarp, what did I do wrong? on 08/23/2012 14:07:23 MDT Print View


I recently discovered ultra light backpacking, so am a newbie to this. I have been backpacking since 1983 however, just with heavy stuff LOL. On Tuesday I decided to do an overnight trip up our local mountain, Charleston Peak (11,918'). After an 8 mile hike I summited at 6:48 PM, and headed back down to find a suitable place to camp for the night. The North Ridge is very rocky, not much in the way of nice soft spots to lay. I found this spot on the crest of the ridge at 11,010', and pitched camp for the night.

Devil's Thumb camp.

This was only my third time pitching a tarp, I am still not able to get it nice and tight. Out of the 8 pegs, only 5 or so were all the way into the ground, the remaining pegs were only inserted 2-3 inches. The ground is very rocky. On those partially inserted pegs, I placed a large rock on the guy line to keep the line lower down on the peg to reduce leverage on the peg. Anyways I was awoke at around midnight to the sound of something hitting the tarp, and then felt something cold in my down sleeping bag. It was grape sized hail, it was bouncing off of the ground and ending up all over the ground under the tarp. Shortly after that the wind picked up big time and my tarp was snapping in the wind. Next it started to rain, really hard, like inches per hour hard. Water started coming under the tarp everywhere, pretty soon all of the ground under the tarp was saturated, and puddles started forming. Finally the wind ripped my tarp off of its moorings and into an adjacent tree. My sleeping back and Therm-A-Rest were quickly soaked. So I quickly packed up my wet belongings and hiked off into the night. What did I do wrong? Poor campsite choice?


Jason McSpadden
(JBMcSr1) - M

Locale: Rocky Mountains
What did I do wrong? on 08/23/2012 14:46:22 MDT Print View

Jared, Congratulations on using a tarp for the first time! There are always lessons to learn. What do you think you would do over again now that you've had this experience? Self-examination and evaluation is really important in the process.

For me, I think ridgelines are not a very protected place for any type of camping--especially at that altitude and if weather is coming in. Ridges by their very geography often catch a lot of weather and wind. If I was "caught" coming down from a summit and it was getting real dark I would've holed up off the crestline and down in the protection of the trees or rocks.

Now if you are expecting wind and weather you can pitch the tarp lower to the ground. Put the hem of the tarp right on the ground. It will be more aerodynamic that way. You can leave the ends up--but not much for ventilation.

As far a puddling is concerned--site location is again key for a tarp. The ground ideally should roll way--draining away from you. Did you have ground sheet? Also I find having a bivy nice when the weather is bad and you are using a smaller tarp.

I know others on this site will have additional help for you.

Keep at it! It's worth it.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
My thoughts on 08/23/2012 14:47:42 MDT Print View

Sounds like you got hit with the "perfect storm." Pretty much everythign that could have gone wrong to make tarp camping hard went wrong! So don't get discouraged, it can't get worse!

Let’s go through the problems you encountered one at a time.

Hail – I’ve been hailed on a few times too. It really seems like hail bounces a long way under a tarp. Normally though its not enough for me to worry about. A bivy helps a lot (not sure if you had one or not).

Tarp Blown Away – A couple things might have prevented this. First a more sheltered site obviously could have helped. When I expect a lot of wind I try to pitch the back end of the tarp into the wind so the wind blows through my tarp rather than into the side of it. Also if there are any bushes or rocks I may pitch the low end of my tarp right up against them. If I am not sure where the wind will be coming from I error on the side of caution and pitch my tarp as low as I comfortably can. Having the tarp staked out more securely might have helped too.

Water Running Under the Tarp – Theoretically site selection prevents this. It normaly works but occasionally it may rain so hard water goes place you would not expect. My dad’s solution to this is to hold the edge of his ground tarp up off the ground with a log or rocks. Basically it’s an improvised bathtub floor. If water runs under the tent it goes under the ground tarp. I like bivy sacks but I’m not sure how will my bivy would work if water ran under it. If I expected a lot of really hard rain I’d probably bring a ground tarp and use my dad’s trick.

Your experience sounds like a worst case scenario. If a few factors changed (less wind exposure, softer ground etc.) you might have been just fine. Keep trying!

Edited by Cameron on 08/23/2012 14:52:37 MDT.

Dena Kelley

Locale: Eagle River, Alaska
One thing I noticed right off... on 08/23/2012 15:30:39 MDT Print View

In your picture the trees all seem to be leaning is the same direction. In many cases, that indicates a "prevailing wind" direction. If you had been able to find a camp site lower down on the right hand (in the pic) side of that ridgeline (leeward) you might have been able to avoid the wind and even taken advantage of some of the trees for additional shelter/windbreak/guyline points. Of course I can't see the terrain and it may well be that wasn't an option for you.

One thing that can help keep your shelter area from flooding out is to dig a small trench around the edge (where the water will drain off the tarp) and then dig a small trench to a drainage area so it will run away from you.

kevin timm
(ktimm) - MLife

Locale: Colorado (SeekOutside)
You survived on 08/23/2012 15:37:23 MDT Print View

It could have been worse, and likely a lightweight free standing tent would have encountered some issues there as well since it was not staked down well, and water very likely would come through the floor fabric and pool.

I would have searched for a more sheltered spot on different ground. On rocky terrain, nothing is absorbed by the ground so water will pool a lot.

You could have tied of to the log behind your tarp, to minimize the chance of loosing your tarp, likewise you could have used 25 -30 lb rocks around your tie outs in place of the stake outs.

When using a tarp I prefer a more sheltered location, and I prefer 3 sided protection if possible. Logs , or even small trenches dug around your tarp could have helped the run off.

Franco Darioli
(Franco) - M

Locale: @Tarptent
1st night camping with tarp, what did I do wrong? on 08/23/2012 17:50:38 MDT Print View

file that under "good experience"
nothing wrong with the way you set up the tarp but as pointed out the location was not right that night.
As pointed out look around for signs of prevailing wind direction and avoid camping on the trail or areas where water will flow into.
But now you know that you can survive and so you will be much better prepared for the next trip.
Have fun.

Mike D.
(mpd1690) - F
Re: 1st night camping with tarp, what did I do wrong? on 08/23/2012 18:10:29 MDT Print View

From the picture, it looks like you could slide your trekking pole handle toward the tarp and tighten then middle. That seems to be the loose part.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
Skill on 08/23/2012 18:32:54 MDT Print View

Some of these uL products simply means u need more skill to do it right ... And may well mean that less things can go wrong ... Thats the price you pay

Ridgelines, altitude, wind, hail, etc ... It all adds up

What does concern me somewhat is a certain perception that all you need to do is buy the latest ul gear and yr all set ...

You survived ... Live an learn ;)

Justin Baker
(justin_baker) - M

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
Re: 1st night camping with tarp, what did I do wrong? on 08/23/2012 19:17:54 MDT Print View

You should tie the tarp off to some trees, not your trekking poles. I'm not sure why people even bother with trekking pole setups unless trees aren't around. If you wanted to be even more serious about it, you could find a long pole on the ground, lash it to a couple trees, and then drape your tarp over it. The wind wouldn't do much to that and the branches above you would shield a lot of rain.

Of course, sometimes you can't predict weather like that. You just got unlucky. And sometimes perfect campsites are hard to find! At that point I would have gone into burrito mode and just rolled up in the tarp.

Jared Hendren
(jphendren) - F
Thanks for your comments. on 08/23/2012 19:27:39 MDT Print View

Thanks for all of the helpful responses guys, they really do help. Temps were in the low 50's, upper 40's that night, not too bad really. Oh, and yes, I was using a medium polycro ground cloth under my Therm-A-Rest, it's barely wider than my 20" wide pad, but keeps it clean as long as my campsite does not become submerged LOL. I never though about building a wind break out of rocks, plenty of them around, or digging a moat to keep the water from getting under my tarp. I can see that using a tarp takes much more skill to implement well than a tent, if done wrong, can be a trip destroyer, or deadly. The trail follows this ridge for 6 miles, and I was at the beginning of it. On the right side of the image there is a 45 degree slope down to a 1,500' drop into Kyle Canyon. The image below demonstrates the typical exposure present along this trail.

North Ridge Charleston Peak

The trail sticks to the top of the ridge, or drop down slightly below it in several spots. Decent spots big enough to camp on few and far between.


Edited by jphendren on 08/23/2012 19:30:18 MDT.

Paul McLaughlin
(paul) - MLife
Re: 1st night camping with tarp, what did I do wrong? on 08/23/2012 19:57:07 MDT Print View

It's like real estate - location, location, location. As others have mentioned. Not just an exposed location, but one with poor stake-holding ground. Once in that spot you were going to have a rough night no matter how well you pitched your tarp.

On the other hand, a couple ideas you might find useful, although they would hav made little difference in that particular situation; one is that the angle of your poles makes a difference. If you move the bottom of the pole in toward the interior, it's easier to get the ridgeline tight. Another is to get the sides down tight to the ground for weather resistance. On a better site, that would keep the worst of the hail out.

Tarps definitely require more careful site selection than tents - although some of the lighter tents come close to tarps in that regard. There's a definite learning curve. If I travel with a tarp, I like to have a piece of fabric or plastic that is large enough to cover one open end, so that I can keep out wind-blown rain at that end.

Pete Staehling
(staehpj1) - F
Bivy? on 08/24/2012 05:50:45 MDT Print View

I try to avoid camping that high or exposed. If I know I would have to, I'd also take a bivy.

Hikin' Jim
(hikin_jim) - MLife

Locale: Orange County, CA, USA
Re: Bivy? on 08/24/2012 10:23:14 MDT Print View

+1 on the bivy.

I evaluate my trips. If there's very low risk of precip and good camp sites are available, I will take a set up similar to your (tarp, ground sheet, trekking poles)

If it looks like we might really get some rain, then I add a bivy. Just my tarp alone also has a bit more coverage than some set ups.

When camping high, it's a lot harder to find decent campsites. Sometimes I have to carry a bit "more" shelter.


Kevin Burton
(burtonator) - F

Locale: norcal
feedback on 08/24/2012 18:04:04 MDT Print View

LOT's of food feedback here.

This is what I would have done differently.

- if this was a ridge you were exposed. Try to find some place lower and protected by the hills and trees but still with a bit of wind and preferably away from large amounts water if at all possible. This will prevent you from being destroyed by wind at night and will help prevent mist in the morning (it won't form due to lack of water and the mild amount of wind will blow it off)

- if you can't get a stake in the ground hitch directly to a HEAVY rock. Usually like 10-15 lbs. You can adjust the rocks easily by just lifting them and it's must better than a stake which is only 2-3" in the ground.

I use a hammock which DOES add weight but it's worth it in my opinion. I can also get the tarp at a 45 degree angle and really tighten things down if I am expecting stormy weather.

Great writeup though... these stories are important to keep one paranoid no the trail.

This could have been fatal BTW. If you didn't have rain gear and lost your tarp without the ability to make a fire you could have been nailed with hypothermia. Which would have sucked.

Kevin Burton
(burtonator) - F

Locale: norcal
tarp blown away on 08/24/2012 18:06:31 MDT Print View

Also, to prevent my tarp from NEVER blowing away I use a carabiner to firmly attach it to my hammock.

It would need to lift ME off the ground which would be a pretty insane storm.

I try to make sure all my gear is solidly attached via carabiners or in a stuff sack. This way I don't have accidents on the trail and lose something.

Jared Hendren
(jphendren) - F
Good rain jacket saved my hide. on 08/24/2012 18:28:30 MDT Print View

"If you didn't have rain gear and lost your tarp without the ability to make a fire you could have been nailed with hypothermia."

I had my REI eVent parka inside my sleeping bag stuff sack, using it as a pillow. After the tarp blew off, I quickly pulled it out to protect the clothing on my upper body from getting wet. I figured that as long as I had dry clothes on my core, I could prevent hypothermia long enough to hike off of the mountain. My nylon pants got soaked, but dried quickly once the rain stopped.

Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
Re: Thanks for your comments. on 08/24/2012 19:40:49 MDT Print View

Your comments about the ridge being 6 miles long highlights the importance of pre trip planning from the standpoint of looking at Topos before hand to have a good idea of your likely camp spots as well as decision points.

Elliott Wolin
(ewolin) - MLife

Locale: Hampton Roads, Virginia
RE: 1st night camping with tarp, what did I do wrong on 08/24/2012 20:46:38 MDT Print View

I use larger, beaked tarps. When using smaller non-beaked tarps everything mentioned above becomes more important (site selection, setup, weather forecasting, etc). I'll exaggerate a bit and say you used an "expert" tarp in difficult conditions, but you didn't have the experience to match. You eventually will.

Better might be to start with a heavier but larger tarp that is more forgiving in such conditions.

I plan to start carrying a 1 1/2 ounce door that can close off one end of my tarp. With two you almost have a tarp-tent, but you don't have to use the doors if you want better ventilation. You might consider carrying one or two doors for a while.

Note: I made all my own tarps and doors, you can buy kits a number of places. My favorite place is

Guy Sanders
(coloradowalt) - F

Locale: Southeast
A lot for one night on 08/24/2012 21:00:37 MDT Print View

Jared, that's a lot for one night. What tarp/size is that in your picture?

Jared Hendren
(jphendren) - F
SpinnTwinn on 08/24/2012 21:46:57 MDT Print View

The tarp in question is a Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn. I'm not sure of the dimensions off hand, but believe its equivalent to an 8x10 flat tarp. I definitely am not an experienced tarp camper. I sure wish I had my Bilbler Fitzroy during that storm LOL.