Comparing Tarp, Tent, and Natural Shelters – How to Choose

With a compass in hand and the whispers of the wild guiding me, I’ve carved a path as a wilderness survival instructor for over a …

With a compass in hand and the whispers of the wild guiding me, I’ve carved a path as a wilderness survival instructor for over a decade.  The crux of survival often boils down to how well you can shield yourself from the elements.

Whether it’s a tarp, tent, or a shelter sculpted by nature itself, your choice can make the difference between a rejuvenating night’s rest or a wakeful struggle until dawn. In my time traversing and teaching in the outdoors, I’ve seen how a shelter can either be a safe haven or a survival challenge.

Let’s explore together the strengths and considerations of each shelter type, so you can rest easy under the stars.

Tarp Shelters

The tarp is a favored choice for many outdoor enthusiasts due to its simplicity and flexibility. Its minimal design and adaptability make it a staple for those who prioritize weight and space in their packs.

Versatility and Ease of Use

Tarps can be manipulated into various shapes and configurations, making them suitable for a multitude of landscapes and weather conditions. The setup typically involves a rope and anchor points, such as trees or poles, allowing for quick assembly and disassembly.

Their open design promotes airflow, diminishing moisture buildup inside the sleeping area, a significant advantage in humid environments.

Protection and Exposure

Tarps are adept at shielding against rain and sun, particularly when pitched at the correct angle and tension. However, they offer limited protection against high winds, severe storms, or snow, which can be a serious concern in unpredictable climates.

The absence of sidewalls means that tarps provide no barrier to ground moisture, insects, or small animals.

Suitability and Limitations

  • Ultralight backpackers and survival experts often favor tarps for their barebones approach to shelter.
  • Their lightweight and compact size is ideal for long-distance trips where every ounce matters.
  • The trade-offs include vulnerability to insects and a lack of privacy, which might be unacceptable for some campers, particularly in dense bug populations or crowded campsites.

Tent Shelters: The Classic Choice

Tents are synonymous with camping and come in a vast array of styles and designs. They are a go-to for outdoor shelter, providing a reliable and comfortable home away from home.

Comfort and Privacy

Tents offer an enclosed space, which not only provides privacy but also serves as a barrier against insects and wildlife. Advanced designs include features for comfort such as built-in pockets, vestibules for gear storage, and room dividers in larger models.

The sense of personal space and the ability to create a controlled environment within a tent is a key factor in their popularity.

Weather Resistance and Seasonality

Modern tents are engineered to endure a wide range of weather conditions, utilizing materials and designs that can withstand everything from light summer rain to heavy snow.

The differentiation between three-season and four-season tents allows campers to choose a shelter based on the specific climate conditions they expect to encounter.

Although heavier than tarps, four-season tents with their robust construction can be indispensable in alpine environments where weather conditions can be harsh and unpredictable.

Portability and Assembly

The primary disadvantage of tents in comparison to tarps is their bulk and weight, which can be significant factors for backpackers or those with limited carrying capacity. Tent setup, although more involved than tarp pitching, has been greatly simplified with innovations such as color-coded poles and clip-on designs.

The convenience of a freestanding structure, capable of being moved even after assembly, adds to the practicality of tents in certain situations, such as established campgrounds or basecamps.

Natural Shelters

For those with bushcraft skills or in survival situations, natural shelters offer an environmentally integrated and potentially lifesaving option.

Harmony with the Environment

Creating a shelter from natural materials means a negligible carry weight and a low environmental footprint, as these structures blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.

Such shelters can range from simple debris huts to more complex wickiups, depending on the available resources and the builder’s skill level.

The satisfaction of constructing a functional living space from the land can enhance the wilderness experience and provide invaluable survival skills.

Skill Requirements and Practical Considerations

Building a reliable natural shelter is time-consuming and labor-intensive, demanding a good understanding of local materials and weather patterns. The comfort and effectiveness of these shelters are directly related to the builder’s knowledge and effort, which can vary greatly.

Natural shelters are often seen as a last resort or as part of a learning experience rather than a practical choice for recreational campers due to the effort and skills required.

Considerations for Shelter Selection

When selecting a shelter, several key factors must be taken into account to ensure a safe and enjoyable outdoor experience:

1. Environmental Impact and Ethical Considerations

The principle of ‘Leave No Trace’ encourages outdoor enthusiasts to minimize their impact on the environment, which can be achieved through the careful use of tarps and tents.

Natural shelters, while seemingly low-impact, can disturb local ecosystems if not constructed with care and consideration.

2. Safety Concerns and Protection Levels

Your shelter is your primary defense against the elements and wildlife. A fully enclosed tent may be necessary in regions with dangerous animals, while a tarp might suffice in milder conditions.

Weather forecasts, terrain, and the presence of biting insects or venomous creatures are all crucial considerations when choosing a shelter.

3. Personal Preference and Experience Level

An individual’s comfort with outdoor living, experience in shelter construction, and personal preferences will significantly influence their shelter choice.

Those with more wilderness experience might feel comfortable with the minimalist protection of a tarp, while beginners may appreciate the full enclosure and amenities of a tent.


Can a tarp shelter be made winter-proof for cold-weather camping?

While tarps can be configured to block wind and precipitation, they lack the insulation needed for winter conditions. For cold weather, additional gear such as a bivy sack, insulated sleeping pad, and a cold-weather-rated sleeping bag are necessary to retain warmth.

A four-season tent is usually recommended for winter camping due to its designed insulation and ability to withstand snow loads.

Are there any tents that combine the lightweight aspect of a tarp with the protection of a traditional tent?

Yes, there are hybrid designs known as ultralight tents or tarp tents that incorporate the lightweight, simple design of a tarp with partial enclosures for added protection. These often include a floor and mesh panels for insect protection while maintaining a lower weight than traditional tents.

How do the environmental impacts of using a tent compare to those of building a natural shelter?

Tents, when used with a footprint, can minimize disturbance to the ground and vegetation, and are easily removed without leaving a trace.

Natural shelters, on the other hand, can cause more significant environmental impact due to the gathering of materials and potential damage to living vegetation, although they don’t introduce non-biodegradable materials into the environment.

In terms of durability, how often would I need to replace a tarp compared to a tent?

The durability of a tarp or tent depends on the material quality and the conditions they’re exposed to. Tarps made of high-quality, ripstop fabric can last several years with proper care.

Tents have more components (e.g., zippers, poles, fabric) that can fail, but high-quality tents can also last for many years if maintained well. However, tents might need more frequent replacement or repair of specific parts like poles or the rainfly.

What is the learning curve like for someone who wants to start using a tarp shelter instead of a tent?

Transitioning to a tarp requires learning various pitching techniques and understanding how to optimize configurations for different conditions. It can take several practice sessions to become proficient in setting up a tarp quickly and effectively, especially in challenging weather.

The learning curve can be steep for those used to the straightforward setup of a modern tent.

For areas with high mosquito and tick populations, are there tarp setups that provide similar protection to a tent?

To achieve protection from mosquitoes and ticks under a tarp, one can use a mesh bivy or bug net underneath the tarp setup. Some tarp systems are designed with an integrated mesh enclosure that hangs beneath the tarp, providing similar protection to a tent’s inner mesh layer.

This allows for a lightweight setup while still offering a safeguard against insects.


The decision to use a tarp, tent, or natural shelter should be guided by a clear assessment of your needs, skill level, and the environment you’ll be entering. Each option has its merits and limitations, and the right choice varies from one adventurer to another.

Whether seeking the lightest possible pack, the most comfortable camp, or the deepest connection with nature, your shelter is a personal haven that should be chosen with care.

Let your experiences, the terrain, and the weather guide your choice, blending the art of survival with the wisdom of the wild. Until we meet again on the trail, may your journeys be safe, and your shelters sound.