Making the switch to a tarp didn't happen quickly for me, the thought of creepy crawlies walking all over me while I slept wasn't exactly alluring. Over the years I've slowly reduced the weight of my shelters, mostly tents and hammocks, but eventually I reached the point where tents and hammocks were holding me back from going lighter. I had been wanting to try a tarp for a long time, but needed a way to feel a little more protected from the multi-legged elements.
Transitioning from a tent or a hammock to a tarp can be very liberating. When you take that final step of eliminating the tent and embrace the tarp you are going to end up much closer to your natural surroundings. You'll find that the sights, sounds, and smells of the night are no longer on the "outside", they are all around you and right there with you. This can be one of the most exciting things about sleeping under a tarp, it can also be quite frightening for some people.
To make the transition to a tarp a little easier for me, at least mentally, I chose to combine my tarp with a full bug bivy. Being ultralight and bug free was a lot more appealing than just being ultralight. After a lot of research and debate I chose the Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) bug bivy for its minimal weight 168g (5.93oz) and so that I could have a fully enclosed space underneath my tarp that would keep out the bugs yet still provide me with a sense of open tarpi'ness.
The Tarp If there was one thing I've learned about setting up a tarp it's that it takes practice. You definitely do not want to be figuring out how to set up your tarp for the first time in bad weather or as the sun is going down. Having a well rehearsed and familiar routine will make setting up and taking down your tarp quick and easy. I often find it hard to describe the sense of satisfaction and enjoyment a well practiced routine gives me. Try pitching your tarp in your backyard several times before taking it out on the trail.
I chose the Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn, which is a two person tarp weighing 253g (8.92oz). The SpinnTwinn is comfortably big enough for two people to lay side by side beneath it with room to spare. For me it is the perfect size to set up my bivy and have my trail buddy, Coco the chocolate lab, curl up and sleep by my side.
As part of my tarp practice I played with the length of the guylines so that I could determine how much cord was needed for the corners, sides, and ridgeline. Then I cut off the excess cord, leaving a few inches spare for adjustment. The four corners and sides of the SpinnTwinn have built in mini line tensioners, but the two end (ridgelines) do not. For these I use a simple taut-line hitch that adds no extra weight but can be used to tighten the guylines very quickly. I personally prefer to use knots rather than tensioners or other gadgets, not just because of the weight saving, but because a knot is much more reliable and far less likely to fail.
Another way I save time with my tarp pitching routine is with a little trick I have with my trekking poles. I use my trekking poles as the front and rear supports for my tarp, they're super lightweight and I have them with me on most trips. But the height I have them set at for walking and the height I need to have then set to for my tarp (45in for the front and 32in for the rear) are quite different.
To take the guess work out of making sure my poles are the right height, I have scored very feint lines around the shaft of the lower section of my poles that correspond exactly to the two lengths I need for my tarp - 45/32. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to see the lines in the photograph below, but trust me when I say they are very easy to see by the naked eye. I have a third marker on my poles to allow me to set them back to the perfect height for walking. It takes no effort at all and guarantees I'll have the right height set for whatever I need to use my poles for.
On a related note. In the photo above you will see the mysterious red rubber o-ring that each of the Gossamer Gear LT4s now come with. I'll admit that I had no idea what this was for and had to ask Grant to clarify. It's actually quite brilliant. Before the o-ring was added to the poles, customers had remarked how their poles would occasionally fill up with water over night because it would drip down the pole and into the tiny opening between the two shafts. The smart guys at GG added a small o-ring that could be rolled down the pole to cover the tiny opening and act as a water barrier - brilliant. Mystery solved!
The Bug Bivy On the underside of the SpinnTwinn's ridgeline, at either end, are two small loops that my MLD Bug Bivy can be attached to via lengths of shock cord. This holds the bivy's no-see-um netting up off of the sleeping bag and me. The base of the bivy is made of water proof silnylon that can be staked out at each corner for maximum space or left loose to lift up slightly and create a bathtub style floor in wet weather.
The Bivy Scoot Getting in and out of the bivy took some practice too, especially when it's slung tight up underneath my tarp. It isn't necessary to always use the tarp, in some instances when I know the weather is going to dry and relatively warm all night, I'll string a ridgeline between two trees and attach the shock cord of my bivy to that in order to lift up the netting. That's as close as I am currently willing to get to sleeping outside under the stars.
But when the bug bivy is under my tarp there is very little room left to maneuver in and out of the lengthways zipper. This is where you realize why shock cord was used instead of a lighter weight cord that doesn't stretch. So here is the method that I came up with and which works quickly and reasonably effortlessly for me, as they say - your mileage may vary.
I start by scooting under my tarp on all fours with my butt facing down and my front facing up until I am along side and parallel to the bivy. Then I unzip the full length bivy zipper, that is on the upper edge, and lift up my closest foot and put it inside the bivy while holding my butt up off the floor with my hands. I do the same thing with my other foot so that they are both inside the bivy and at the foot of my pad where they need to go. Then I do a quick butt lift and side scoot to land myself inside the bivy sitting down. I pull my arms in, lay down and zipper up the bug net!
It sounds weird and somewhat awkward, but it works great. Don't knock it until you've tried. Getting out of the bivy is pretty much the same things, just in reverse starting again with my feet. I think of it as a similar method of how medical patients are lifted sideways from a hospital bed and onto a gurney - if that makes any sense?
A Sub 1lb Shelter When you combine the weight of my tarp 253g (including the attached guylines) and my bug bivy 168g you get a total of 421g (14.85oz). I should add that the weights I list here differ from those stated on the manufacturer's sites. These are after I have significantly trimmed the guylines that the SpinnTwinn comes with and after removing some of the excess shock cord from the MLD bug bivy.
I'm glad that I have finally made the transition to a tarp. As I said, it wasn't easy and it took a couple of years to convince myself that it would be okay. Now, after quite a few nights out underneath it, I don't think I could go back to tent camping, at least if it's just me and Coco. When I take my kids, well that's a different story - for now!
I'll be going out to California in late August to climb Mt. Whitney with my friend Jason Klass. I'm planning on taking this shelter combo with me so I'll report back on how it works out for me there, that is if you don't see me in one of Jason's survivor stud videos first!
I know I'm not the only one who has gone through the tarp transition and wonder if any of you have had a similar experience? If you use the MLD bug bivy or other bivy, I'd be very interested to hear how you get into and out of your bivy and if it's the same scoot method that I use. If you have any questions of comments, please leave a response below.
Disclosure: The author owns the SpinnTwinn tarp and MLD bug bivy products and paid for them using their own funds. Gossamer Gear provided Brian's Backpacking Blog with a complementary set of LT4 trekking poles as part of their Trail Ambassador product testing program.