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Tent Footprint vs. Tarp – What is the Best Option?

Tents are great for camping trips, but you need to know how to set them up properly. To keep your tent in good condition, you should consider using a tent footprint or a tarp to protect the bottom of your tent.

Both footprints and tarps help protect the bottom of your tent from dirt, moisture, rocks, and other sharp objects on the ground, but which one should you choose?

This article will shed light on using a tent footprint vs. a tarp, including the reasons to use each and the best option for you.

Why do you need to protect the floor of your tent?

Campsites are often filled with rocks, pine needles, pine cones, dirt, and all kinds of possible pokey things that can wreak havoc on the bottom of your tent. 

Unless you do an impeccable job of clearing the site before setting up your tent, there is always the chance of something poking through.

Chances are you may not even see a tree root or other stuff lying below the dirt. This is especially true if you set up your tent in the dark.

Both tent footprints and tarps help protect your tent from sharp objects. They also help reduce exposure to moisture and provide a little bit of extra insulation if the ground is especially cold.

That extra layer of protection can come in handy, especially if you’re camping in a wet and cold environment.

What is a tent footprint?

A tent footprint is essentially a piece of fabric designed to go under a tent. A footprint is cut to match the dimension of the floor of your tent, so it’s a customized groundcover.

The tent footprint is made from a lightweight material and gives you an abrasion-resistant moisture barrier. Moisture resistance is one of the most essential features of a tent footprint.

In addition to moisture, the footprint helps protect the bottom of your tent from dirt, rocks, and other sharp objects on the ground. It also provides an extra layer of insulation if the ground is cold.

Many tents are built with durable and lightweight material, so they are easy to carry and set up. But using lightweight materials can leave the tent open to damage.

A brown tent footprint on the grass

Using a footprint can help prevent some of that damage to your tent by providing an extra layer between the tent and the ground.

Frequently the bottom of the tent is the first to go. Unfortunately, the tent bottom can quickly deteriorate since it’s in direct contact with the dirty, rocky, wet ground.

In addition, people walk, toss and turn while sleeping on the floor, etc. With all of this friction, the bottom of your tent takes a beating.

Some tents come with a footprint included, but you can usually buy one separately if not. Yes, that is an added expense, but it’s better than replacing your worn-out tent.

Are footprints necessary for tents?

Footprints for tents are not a necessity, but they can help protect the tent from moisture and wear and tear. They also help keep the bottom of the tent clean, preventing it from getting muddy or wet.

If your tent has a thin floor, it’s a good idea to use a footprint. It will also help protect the floor from sharp objects that could puncture or wear a bottom hole, such as rocks or tree roots.

If you want to protect your investment, a footprint is a good idea.

How big should a tent footprint be?

The tent footprint should be a little bit smaller than the base of your tent. The fabric serves as a moisture barrier, keeping the rain, dew, or other moisture out.

If it’s raining and the footprint is larger than the tent base, water will collect on the footprint or tarp and pool under the tent, which kind of defeats the purpose.

What can I use instead of a tent footprint?

Some campers choose to use a tarp instead of a tent footprint. While footprints are cut to fit your tent, a tarp is not, and it can require some handiwork on your part.

A tarp is a less expensive option than a footprint in most cases. And if you already have a tarp, you don’t have to spend the extra money on a footprint.

However, there are some drawbacks to using a tarp as a footprint. For one, you have to make the tarp fit your tent base.

On that note, let’s talk about tarps next.

What is a tarp?

A tarp is a piece of material that can be used to protect the bottom of your tent from dirt and moisture on the ground. 

Instead of being designed specifically for one type of tent, like footprints, tarps are made with all kinds of shapes and sizes in mind. 

A gray tarp on the grass

Tarps have been around forever, and you probably have one sitting in your garage already. Camping and tarps are like eggs and bacon. They go so well together. 

A tarp is a highly versatile piece of camping gear that can be used for many things. For example, you can use a tarp as a rainfly, a shade structure, or to protect the bottom of your tent. You can even use a tarp AS a tent in a pinch.

You can also use a tarp to cover a woodpile when camping in the rain to keep your firewood dry. As I said, tarps can be used in many different ways when camping.

Tarps can be made from all kinds of different materials, including canvas and polyethylene, to name a few. Tarps have some water-resistant properties and are great for camping because they are versatile.

We have often set up a tarp over the picnic table at our campsite to provide shade or shelter in case it rains. Tarps can also be used to keep snow off your tent.

Tent footprint vs. tarp – what’s the difference?

A tent is an expensive piece of equipment that you will use often. Therefore, it makes sense to take care of your investment using a tent footprint or tarp for protection.

But, of course, it depends on how much money you want to spend and which one offers the best solution for your needs.

At this point, you might be wondering which option is best for your needs. First, let’s touch on the differences between a tent footprint and a tarp.

Custom fit

A tent footprint is made to fit your specific tent, while tarps are not. Having a footprint that fits your tent can save you a lot of time, especially during setup.

A tent footprint is easy-peasy. You lay it down, anchor it, and set your tent up on top of the footprint. Then, you can set up the rest of your camp or kick back and relax.

When using a tarp as a footprint, you have to make sure it is the right size for your tent and then figure out how to secure it.

This can be done in many ways, but it will take more time than using a footprint explicitly designed for your tent. You will need to fold the tarp or cut it to fit your tent base.

Make sure the tarp is not extending out beyond the tent’s base, or you run the risk of moisture running underneath your tent. Even if it’s not raining, heavy dew can pool and get under there.

A tent footprint is kind of a one-trick pony. It does one job but does it very well.

Cost

While footprints can cost more money than tarps, they offer excellent protection for the bottom of your tent from moisture or dirt.

It also helps protect against sharp objects like rocks or tree roots that could puncture through the floor of your tent.

Generally, tarps are thinner and won’t offer as much protection as a footprint at the bottom of your tent.

Tarps are less expensive because you have to make them fit your base yourself.

When using either tarps or footprints, you have to ask yourself how much money you want to spend. If you are looking for versatility in terms of use, then go with a tarp. 

If protection is more important than price and you don’t mind spending a bit more money, then a footprint might be the right choice for you. 

Versatility

Hands down, tarps are more versatile than a tent footprint for other uses.

Tarps give you a lot of flexibility for camping. You can use a tarp as a rain fly, shade structures, etc., which makes it an excellent piece of gear to own if you go camping often.

Granted, you buy a footprint to serve a single purpose, but if you want something you can use for other things when you go camping, using a tarp is the way to go.

Of course, there are times when it can be helpful to have both.

Size

As you can see in the image below the footprint for my 4-person tent is about the size of a notepad. This smaller size makes a footprint much easier to take with you vs a tarp if you are backpacking or even just frees up space if you are car camping.

A tent footprint next to a notepad to show how small it is

The size of the footprint will depend on how big the tent is, so keep that in mind. If you have a large 10-person tent, the footprint will be a lot bigger, but still might not be as bulky as a tarp.

FAQs

Can I just use a tarp for a tent footprint?

Many campers use a tarp as a tent footprint instead of a dedicated footprint designed for their tent. A tarp is less expensive than a footprint and can offer some versatility in other uses while camping.

However, a few things to keep in mind when using a tarp as a footprint. First, make sure the tarp is the right size for your tent and that it does not extend out beyond the base of the tent.

You also need to figure out how to secure the tarp, so it does not move around.

Is a tent footprint better than a tarp?

The decision between a tent footprint and a tarp depends on your priorities. If you want something more versatile, go with the tarp.

If protection for the bottom of your tent is most important to you and you don’t mind spending a bit more money, a tent footprint might be the right choice for you.

It really comes down to what matters most to you as an individual camper or backpacker.

Conclusion

So, which is the better option for you – a tent footprint or tarp? It really depends on your needs and what you are looking for.

If you want something specifically designed to fit your tent and protect it from moisture and sharp objects, go with a tent footprint.

If you want something that is more versatile and can be used for various purposes, go with a tarp. It’s also worth noting that you don’t need to choose just one – using both a tent footprint and tarp gives you the best of both worlds.

Let us know if you have any questions or leave a comment below.

Happy camping!

Steve and Kris
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Steve and Kris are avid campers, outdoor lovers, and founders of Camp S'more Worry Less. When they are not camping, they enjoy other outdoor activities, including fishing, kayaking, and hiking with their family. Read more.

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