Essential Tarp Camping
/ November 01, 2016
Words & Photos by John Woodruff Fleck
Our friend and Global Sales Manager for Surly Bikes, John Woodruff Fleck, has a methodology towards overnights outside that comes from a blend of experiences and predispositions that make it nearly impossible to assign him a label. With equal parts appreciation for “old-timey ways” and technological magic and no one preference for modes of travel, his kit is pretty eclectic. One constant always remains, however–his affinity for tarps as shelter. So, when he got his hands on our Dyneema© Composite Fabrics Flat Tarp, we were curious to hear his observations. Here are his thoughts and a host of tips and tricks for pitching this 9.7 oz sheet with a bicycle.
I am not a minimalist. Nor am I a gram counter. Friends who venture into the woods with me know that I like gear. I like to be prepared. I'm also known to carry extra food, drink, and other stuff to share. Oh, and a fully stocked first aid kit. Seriously. I seem to share that a lot.
In other words, I'm a pretty good person to go camping with if you're one of those spartan types. Most folks don't seem to mind it when their campmate breaks out a spare meat snack or an extra six-pack. You're welcome.
It's not that I disagree with the ultralight ethos. Rather, I admire it. And, to a certain degree, I aspire to it. Maybe it's more of a hobby of mine. Is "armchair ultralight camper" a thing?
Regardless, I do take minimalism seriously. I once wrote an essay about an impromptu overnighter spent on a picnic table in a park. The focus was on how little gear one truly needs to spend a night outside comfortably.
Adaptability is key. I contemplated that when I got locked out of my countryside apartment while at a trade show in Germany several years ago. A little resourcefulness and an emergency bivy sack I happen to carry in my travel kit meant I got some quality sleep that night, unlike my co-worker who unfortunately shivered himself awake throughout the wee hours.
These days the majority of my excursions are solo overnight trips. These provide regular opportunities for me to tweak my kit. I draw on decades spent engaging various modes of self-propelled outdoor travel.
Backpacking was my gateway during a time that feels like a lifetime ago. The Smoky Mountains were in my proverbial backyard, and I spent two months on the Appalachian Trail. That was during the Blizzard of 1993 in Northern Georgia if anyone is following along at home. Gear was, ahem, heavier back then. But I was also much younger.
By the time mainstream backpacking gear was getting remarkably lighter, I had relocated to Minnesota and transitioned to canoe tripping. Gear weight is less of a concern when bearing it in a canoe since one carries it intermittently for short periods. Therefore, my legacy (read: heavy) gear was good to go.
I didn't pay much attention to the ultralight gear revolution until I began adapting my kit for bikepacking—the point where bike camping and ultralight gear meet. Because gear is carried within soft bags mounted in and on the bicycle frame, it pays to approach it with an ultralight, minimalist mindset.
I think of bikepacking as a middle ground between backpacking and solo canoe tripping. One is best served to make smart choices both in terms of what is packed and the weight and size of each piece of gear. However, because one's conveyance craft bears the weight and not the body, it isn't prohibitive to pack a few luxuries. (Yes, I intentionally misspelled beer in that last sentence.)
Regardless of how I get to a destination, my preference is to sleep on the ground. I've tried hammocks. I have some terrific friends whose opinions I sincerely respect who are diehard hammock campers. Give me a plot of flat ground, though. Like my free-hanging friends, I appreciate a couple of appropriately spaced trees, too. That's so I can string up a tarp.
The tarp is an amazingly versatile piece of kit. Its adaptability to various methods of pitching is unparalleled. Beyond its use as a primary shelter, a tarp can be a ground cloth, a sunshade, a windscreen, a blanket, a sail, rain gear, or function as a cargo duffel.
It can be pulled out and set up within minutes, making it a valuable thing to have for a rainy-day lunch stop. Finally, most tarps are relatively light and don't require poles. One can always fashion those on-the-fly if needed. Or the gear one has often will suffice. Trekking poles are obvious, but a bicycle presents some interesting options. More on that in a bit.
I truly had to improvise for this field pitch using a fence post, chunks of cut tree trunk, and my bike's handlebars. But I knew storms were headed in, so a low pitch kept me warm and dry throughout a night of frequent thunderstorms.
While tarps don't have a floor, there are ways to work around that. In fact, it can be an advantage. And while they don't have a screened body like a tent, there are ways to adapt to that as well. For much of the year, one simply doesn't need a tent body's added weight anyway.
These cardboard cartons were repurposed from our ride organizer's mess tent and used to cover thorny roots. A tent floor would have been shredded had it been pitched in this spot. Those cardboard boxes were bound for the recycling anyway.
Aside from getting outside and doing, the bulk of what I know about camping has come from reading books. Many decades ago, I discovered author Cliff Jacobson who has written tomes like "Canoeing and Camping: Beyond the Basics." During a work stint with a canoe manufacturer, I had the good fortune to paddle and camp with Cliff. To say he's one of my outdoor-skills mentors is a fair assessment.
Through his writing, Cliff introduced me to tarps and led me down the path of how to use them effectively. He most certainly provided the seminal moment when I decided I wanted to get good at integrating tarps into my regular camping routine.
I was part of a large group of paddlers camped along the Namekagon River in Northern Wisconsin. It was steadily raining, so a couple of folks had pitched a large tarp over our dining area. The pitch was subpar. When the storm intensified, the large square of fabric alternately sagged and billowed, dousing us with rainwater droplets. Being Summer, it wasn't cold. We had rain gear and plenty of beverages, so the crowd was somewhat oblivious. We were having fun.
Cliff wasn't having it with the tarp. He charged into the crowd and got to work. He moved and re-tensioned anchor lines. He pulled additional lines vertically over tree branches to create a peak in the tarp. Within 15 minutes, he had transformed a 20x20 feet piece of nylon from a wet flap into a taut canopy. Rather than getting wetter by the minute, we began to dry out beneath the shelter.
Now, I had spent plenty of nights in the woods by that point. Some of those were wet and occasionally bordered on mildly miserable. I had done a lot of backpacking in the Appalachian Mountains in all seasons. I had built up considerable fortitude in the rain, consigning myself to either being tent bound or splashing around in soaked rain gear. I hadn't yet been availed of the tarp. I had so much to learn.
Humans are resilient animals for sure. But why endure discomfort when a simple piece of gear can provide not only primary but additional shelter for cooking and eating, packing gear, or simply hanging out?
I've owned a handful of tarps over the years. The ones I hang onto have some key features such as a variety of reinforced lash-out points not only on the perimeter but in the middle of the tarp for overhead suspension. Again, it's about options when it comes to the pitch.
My 8' x 10' Flat Tarp is certainly the lightest tarp I have owned. It also might be the most adaptable for a couple of specific and very important reasons. Before I dive in, I want to pause and say this tarp is my first piece of Hyperlite gear and my first experience using equipment made with Dyneema fabric. It might sound odd to even say this to the Hyperlite audience, but here goes – my mind is blown.
It isn't that I haven't used other lightweight fabrics. I have a beloved tarp made from silnylon that works great. But like all coated nylon gear, I tend to handle it with appropriate care and some caution depending on conditions. Dyneema, however? Well, it doesn't seem to mind the ham fist. Which isn't how I typically treat my gear, but it's good to know it can take it.
I've been putting this tarp through the paces on some recent bike outings. It has expanded my options in terms of how I create shelters that integrate the bike itself.
One thing that keeps me on my toes with tarping is that every pitch is different. Trekking poles grant an easily repeatable pitch. However, I'm not carrying those when traveling by bike. Instead, I utilize cordage and stakes. Occasionally I'll incorporate a found branch or limb for height if needed. But one thing I've avoided with other tarps is pitching them over my bike.
That's because bicycles have pokey bits that can damage most light fabrics. Many fabrics also don't respond well to being tensioned over small radiuses like handlebar ends or rack tubes. I've created deformations or worn small holes in gear by doing that in the past. Hence the reason I've typically pitched the tarp apart from my bike.
When you think about it, however, a bicycle makes a fantastic structural frame for a shelter. While this particular campsite offered an abundance of well-spaced trees, incorporating my bike into the pitch allowed me to create a streamlined windbreak.
To accomplish that, I paced off equal distances between two trees, removed my bike's front wheel, and rested the fork tips on the ground. This created a tripod base, which enabled me to tension the lower corners of the tarp symmetrically. That afforded exceptional stability in the windward direction. Had weather rolled in, this tarp wasn't going anywhere.
The leeward end of the tarp was anchored higher for easy entry and exit. There is a ton of room under there! It's part tent and part vestibule with a mudroom and carport all in one.
By having my bike anchored under the tarp, I gained two additional benefits at no extra charge:
I structured a follow-up foray around my local urban setting. The test scenario was highly practical and easily replicable – a bicycle beer run to my favorite taproom. It required timing the weather just right, though. In this case, I was waiting for it to rain. Preferably a thunderstorm, but any precipitation would do.
A previous attempt had not been so well timed. While I successfully secured the vessels of elixir, I had to take shelter posthaste under a bridge before the sky opened. Come to think of it, bridges make good tarps too. That's a universal truism. Also, the second time's a charm! Said no one. Ever. But it works in this case, so we'll go with it.
At this point, the wind had picked up, and the rain was beginning to signal intent. I continued to adjust the tension on individual lines, but the shelter was viable in well under 10 minutes. That's not bad. I used only one tree, my cargo bike, two lengths of paracord, and a handful of stakes. It helped that this bike has a kickstand, the tip of which I blocked with a chunk of tree bark to keep it from sinking into the turf.
I could have used one more stake, but I was too lazy to go cut a green stick. It was raining after all! Instead, I tethered the flap to the front rack of my bike.
From a distance, this pitch looked suspiciously like a stranded spacecraft. I observed two intrepid rain walkers who kept a safe distance.
This view from the windward side shows a modestly low pitch. That meant ample protection from the rain with no loss of airflow.
This view of the leeward side reveals room to spare. The cargo-bike-plus-tarp combination is a pedal-powered base camp ready to pop up anywhere.
With the rain picking up, there was nothing left to do but kick back and enjoy the fruits of my labor. I sipped my grog and made some notes. Highly scientific stuff to be sure. Don't worry. The recipe is shared below.
While I reclined beneath the tarp, I thought about something I've believed for a great many years now: This is so much better than being in a tent. Specifically, the attributes of tarping that I appreciate the most are visibility and ventilation. Unless my tarp is staked at ground level, I have a 360-degree view of my surroundings. And because of that gap, as well as the lack of a secondary wall created by a tent body, airflow is unrestricted.
I sleep exceptionally well beneath a tarp, particularly in three-season conditions. And especially when it's raining. There is just something inherently soothing about the timbre and cadence of raindrops on a taut canopy.
Those are the actual notes I wrote during that rainy beer run. Maybe you'll find them useful. I find it embarrassing that now I have a forever reminder that I've misspelled the word 'perpendicular' all my life. Apologies to my algebra teacher, Mrs. Dean. All I can say is I'll try to right my ways.
With this Flat Tarp, I might alter two small things: 1) A couple more exterior lash points along the center ridge seam, and 2) An inboard shift in the placement of the underside D-ring lash points.
The former addition would increase ridgeline suspension options. Stringing a ridgeline and affixing the tarp to that is one quick way to deploy a shelter. The ridgeline method also offers advantages when pitching in windy conditions.
The latter change would integrate better with various bug net options. I know these D-rings allow the Echo 2 Insert to be clipped in, which is slick. But considering that most of my trips are solo, that insert is overkill for me. These are minor quibbles.
A thousand words and a dozen photos ago, I promised to highlight two reasons why this is the most adaptable tarp I've used. I might ought to get to that, eh.
First off, Dyneema's resilience means I can pitch this tarp over my bikes with confidence that I won't wreck it. The fibers exhibit amazing tenacity. There is no topical waterproof coating to damage. Unlike even a brand-new, coated-nylon tarp, Dyneema doesn't absorb water. That is a primary concern when one stresses other shelter fabrics.
Secondly, this tarp's ultralight weight means I can carry a larger tarp than I normally would. (Hey, recall my first admission – I like to be prepared!) Practically speaking, that translates into more covered space with no additional weight penalty. That means options. That means the ability to cover my complete bikepacking kit – including the bike – while providing extra room for gear storage and other camp activities too.
Thank you for reading, folks, and happy tarping!
YOUR CART IS EMPTY
Let’s find you the right gear for
your next adventure.