The tarpaulin or tarp is the modern version of the animal skin. Just like its ancestor it is a versatile piece of kit that shouldn’t miss from your survival bag. There are many ways in which a tarp can be used. You should at least learn about the top ten ways to use a tarp in the wilderness.
The tarp is my most versatile piece of gear I can think of. It turned out to be my best friend in the backcountry due to its many uses. It is truly a multi-tasker when it comes to emergency or survival uses and this is probably why you can find it in most survival kits
Before we look at the top 10 ways to use a tarp, there are three main characteristics one should consider before choosing the right tarp for his or her survival bag: fabric, size and shape options.
Of course that the type of tarp you pick should be based on how you plan to use it. Also, the way you plan to use it leads to the kind of material you should pick. Here are the main types of fabrics available:
- Coarse Woven Nylon, or the big blue tarp as some people call it. It is a waterproof material and it is rugged for rough use. You can find it in a variety of sized and the price ranges anywhere from $15 to $45.
- Ripstop Nylon is the material used for your old Army poncho and it is a lightweight material. Since the material has heavy nylon threads woven into the nylon fabric, it can hold up well to abuse. The average price is around $45 in most online stores.
- Cuben Fabric is a synthetic fabric that is usually used for making ultra-light gear. This is an ultra-lightweight fabric made of flexible non-woven composite laminates which are reinforced with Dyneema fibers. These are the best tarps money can buy and the prices vary greatly.
Now when it comes to size and shape options, once again these choices will be influenced by the way you want to use it. If you want to use a tarp for making shelters, you should know that most tarps used for this purpose are normally around 100 – 150 square feet in area. I have a 10’ X 10’ square tarp because it gives me much more flexibility in the ways it can be pitched. Regardless the size or shape you chose, make sure that your tarp have grommets or tabs around its edges for pegs and ropes.
Top 10 ways to use a tarp:
This is the most obvious use that comes to mind when looking at a tarp. It can help you cover anything that needs to be protected from the elements or that needs to be camouflaged. You can put it over your bug out vehicle, packs or other outdoor equipment if you want to protect it from prying eyes. Use a rope or paracord in order to keep it in place in case of wind or heavy rains.
I’ve used my tarp as a ground cloth on many occasions. It helped me and my equipment stay dry in damp or rainy weather. You can also use a tarp as a ground cloth to protect your sleeping bag from rocks and branches that are hidden under your shelter. You won’t believe how easy it is to poke or tear your gear when camping in the wilderness.
If you want to use a tarp to make a shelter, there are literally dozens of ways that you can pitch a square or rectangular tarp to make a sturdy shelter. All you need is some paracrod for guy lines and a sharp knife to cut staves for poles and turn sticks into stakes to secure the corners.
I’ve written in a previous article about the type of shelters I’ve made using a tarp. If you want a more simple design you can try the lean-to shelter. It’s the quickest and easiest shelter you can build out in the field. For a more sophisticated shelter you can build the A-frame shelter. It will protect you from the elements coming from both sides.
Recommended reading: How to make a tarp shelter- 15 designed explained
If you don’t have anything to sleep in you can make yourself a makeshift bedroll. Lay the tarp out as a square or rectangle and lay down on it. Next, fold the bottom edge up over your feet. Then fold the left and right edges over you. If you hold the edges in place and roll onto your stomach you will now have a shelter against the wind and elements. It will not come undone if you are the type of sleeper that moves around during the night. There are various ways you can use a tarp to make a sleeping bag. You can also use it in conjunction with your sleeping bag for added insulation.
Cloak or poncho
During my hiking trips rain was often my companion. More than once I’ve used my tarp as a cloak like outer garment to stay dry. Many survivalists keep a rain poncho in their survival bag, but you can use a cloak for the same purpose. Used as a poncho, a tarp is great for keeping off the rain, but also the wind. This means you can keep your body heat even in colder climates. In the old days, everyone wore a hooded cloak because it provided them with protection from head to feet. It was an efficient way to stay warm since it provided more protection than the average clothes.
You can can use a tarp to make a reliable container and there are three ways you can do it. The easiest method would be to dig a hole based on the size you need and line it with the tarp. You can use it to catch rainwater or to cache your supplies. The second method would require building a box like frame from different sticks and lay the tarp on it to provide the walls of the box. Is just like putting a trash bag in a trash can, and in fact, I’ve seen this design used for composting bins in order to collect the compost juice.
And finally, you can turn a tarp into a container by using the grommets around its edge and run a paracord through them and then use the paracord to cinch the sides together to make a bag. This method is used by many campers. They bundle up their gear and hang it in a tree away from curious animals.
The Native Americans used to make boats by using animal skins stretched across basked shaped frameworks of sticks. It was one of the ways of the early man to cross large bodies of water. They used improvised boats to get to the best fishing spots in the deeper part of lakes. You’ve probably seen on the ‘Alone’ TV show how one of the contestants managed to make a boat out of a tarp and some branches.
Here is a video teaching you how to make a tarp canoe. Try it out if you want to test your buschraft and building skills.
If you need to make a raised bed to keep you safe from the ground crawlers or just to stay dry in a damp environment, you can use a tarp to make a sturdy hammock. You will need to run a rope through the grommets on one edge of the tarp then pull them together to bring the edge of the tarp to a point. Tie the rope off to keep it tight, and then tie the rope to a tree about shoulder height. Do the same for the other side of the tarp and attach it to another tree or anchor point.
Here’s another trick I’ve learned that will help you get in and out of your hammock more easily. You can run a rope between the two trees and above the hammock and use it to gain more stability when getting in or out of your improvised hammock.
Suggested article: Planning a shelter in the wild
This is a trick I’ve learned in the army, but I’ve also seen it taught at a few survival schools. You will need a tarp or a poncho and two poles (at least eight feet in length) and two sticks (about two feet in length). Once you’ve gathered your materials you should make a rectangular frame using the poles and sticks.
If you plan to use a tarp as a stretcher, the general recommendation is to make it about ten inches wider than the patient’s body. Tie one edge of the tarp to one of the long poles. Then wrap the tarp around both poles making a stretcher. When you run out of tarp you have to tie it to the opposite pole to keep it tight.
Although the original name is travois and has Canadian French origins, the travoy is a triangular frame used by the Plains Indians of North America to help them carry heavy loads over long distances. The basic construction consists of a platform or netting mounted on two long poles, lashed in the shape of an elongated isosceles triangle; the frame was dragged with the sharply pointed end forward. Sometimes the blunt end of the frame was stabilized by a third pole bound across the two poles.
The travoy was usually dragged by hands, and the pioneers learned to improvise shoulder harness from ropes. This made the dragging effort more efficient. It still remains one of the the lost ways of carrying heavy loads without the help of domestic animals. It helped the pioneers transport more weight on a travois that can be carried on the back.
Now that you see how you can use a tarp in the wilderness and how versatile this piece of gear is, you should consider one as part of your survival bag or everyday emergency kit. Figure out which material and size would work best for you as listed at the beginning of the article and go get one. If you are the handyman type, you can also make on of your own design by using heavy gauge plastic sheeting. When you are looking to buy a tarp designed specifically for the backcountry I recommend going with the Sanctuary SilTarp or Aqua Quest Safari models.
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