Setting up a tarp

I love tarps, they’re my favourite way of camping out.  So here’s a post on how I put mine up.

setting up a tarp \ bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

Siting your tarp

When it comes to setting up your tarp for the night there are some things that you need to consider first (actually you’ll need to think about these things regardless of whether your under a tarp, in a tent or even a debris shelter).

Wind direction

I always try to position my tarp so that any wind hits the side instead of blowing straight through.  Sometimes the wind will change direction and I also don’t peg my tarp at ground level so there’s often at least some wind getting to me.  To reduce the effect, I’ll often sleep on one side of the tarp with my bag on the other, using my bag as a wind break.  With that said, for me the primary purpose of a tarp is to keep me dry.

selecting a tarp | bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

Also think about where you’re going to site your fire in relation to your tarp, you probably don’t want embers and sparks blowing onto your tarp and burning holes in it.

What’s above

Have a check in the canopy above and make sure there’s nothing that’s going to drop on you in the night, so standing dead wood.  Also check for signs of roosting above, because whilst it’s a wonderful thing to lay there listening to owls hooting, it can get tiresome having a pheasant screeching away over your head all night long.

Animal trails

A couple of friends of mine used to hammock over a badger set and watch the badgers at night, but in general you probably don’t want to set your tarp over an animal trail.

Cold traps

We all know that hot air rises, the converse is that cold air falls or settles in lower areas.  So I generally avoid hollows and ditches, although sometimes it’s a trade off between avoiding cold traps and getting out of the wind.


Beware of setting up in an area that is liable to flood, so generally low lying ground.  Avoid dried up river beds that might be subject to a flash flood from rain that’s fallen upstream.


And whilst I’ve put this last on my list of considerations, the availability of resources is going to be key.  So how close are you to materials for a fire, how close are you to water?

Setting up

Once you’ve selected your site it’s time to get your tarp set up.  One last check, make sure that the trees you’re going to use are alive, in good condition and that your tarp will fit between the them!

Just imagine that you’re losing the light or a heavy downpour has started; obviously you want to get your tarp set up as soon as possible.  So make sure that it’s easy to get to; I carry mine in a side pouch of my rucksack.  After that how easy it is to set up your tarp will be dictated by how you put it away.

To that end I leave all cords tied onto my tarp when it’s packed away so that they’re already in place when I come to use it next.  You’ll see in the photos of me setting up my tarp that the ridgeline is yellow, what you might not be able to see are the reflective strips which make it very easy to see at night.

First thing I do is unwrap one end of the main ridge line which I’d previously coiled around the tarp.  I then pop the tarp under my arm so that it doesn’t come into contact with the ground.

setting up a tarp \ bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

evenk knot | siberian hitch | bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

Then I’ll tie off one end using an evenk knot at about breast bone height, this means that my tarp shouldn’t touch the ground reducing the chances of it snagging on brambles or branches.

So far so good, that’s one end of my hammock tied off, now on to the other end, where I’m going to tie a taut line hitch.  The name is suggestive of function here, you need a taut line to hang your tarp; if the line is saggy, your tarp will be too!

I attach the ridge line on the outside of the tarp using the fixing points running down the centre.  This means that I can slide the tarp along the line to where I want it to go, particularly useful when using in combination with a hammock.

setting up a tarp | bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

To keep it in place I use a midshipmans hitch a great little knot.  Many people use a Prusik which does exactly the same job.

Then it’s simply a case of tying off the sides of the tarp and here I use the midshipman’s hitch again.   I have my lines already attached and hanked up using a figure 8, this means that I don’t have a spaghetti like mass to unravel.  I use 2mm multicord for these lines, again in yellow.

When it comes to corners, make sure that your cord comes out at 45°, this will enable you to stop any creases forming in your tarp.  

setting up a tarp \ bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

setting up a tarp \ bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

I take pegs with me instead of making new ones every time.  Whilst I fully accept that the more you know the less you have to carry, the flip side is that the less you carry the more you have to make, and certainly in the UK where woodlands are in short supply it seems somewhat wasteful to make new pegs each time I go into the woods.  When I first started my bushcraft I made a set of wooden pegs, took them home and then used then again and again.  But they were quite bulky and heavy and of course eventually deteriorated, so now I carry 6 aluminium pegs with me instead.

Another reason you might get creases in your tarp is because the corner lines aren’t tensioned equally.  In this photo you can see a crease running from top right corner to the centre.  This is because the line in the bottom right corner isn’t tight enough.

setting up a tarp \ bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

A quick tighten and the tarp is crease free.

setting up a tarp \ bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

A couple of other configurations

As I said at the start of this article, I like to feel connected to the woods and so whilst the classic ‘A’ shape tarp setup I’ve described doesn’t entirely enclose me, my preferred setup is to have an open sided  tarp.  It gives more room underneath but also gives a great view out into the woods.

setting up a tarp \ bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

Here I’ve used a couple of poles and simply wrapped the cord around once.  Make sure that the poles are in tight to the tarp so they don’t move too much if the wind picks up.

setting up a tarp \ bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

I also use this set up in conjunction with a hammock, just higher up.

setting up a tarp \ bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

I also sometimes use the tarp in a ‘lean to’ setup.  I did this for a good few years when I used to go to the woods with my friend Anthony and Rick the dog.  The photo here was taken about 14 years ago, so sorry for the poor quality but Rick died recently and the photo reminds me of the good times we all had together on our bushcraft adventures.

setting up a tarp | bushcraft | Kent | south east | London

Putting up tarps and hammocks is something we do on both our 2 Day Bushcraft Course and 5 Day Bushcraft Course.  It really is a fantastic way to camp out in the woods, really helps with ‘leave no trace’, is quick to put up and comfortable to boot.   You can see photos from those courses, as well as all of our others, on our Facebook page.

About Gary

Lead Instructor at Jack Raven Bushcraft, teaching bushcraft, wilderness and survival skills to groups and individuals.

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