Tarp Shelters

Posted: 24th January 2010 by admin in Survival Kits & Bug Out Bags
Comments Off on Tarp Shelters


Plan, Improvise to Make Effective Tarp Shelters


Posted on March 2nd, 2010 by Leon in Emergency Shelter


In most cases, a properly-pitched and sited tarp shelter  works very well. The advantages of a tarp over a tent are primarily in the weight-savings category.  But in some instances and situations, a tarp may be the most effective shelter you can carry.

This basic A-Frame tarp shelter is a good design to improvise from. Make this the planned shelter and modify it to fit the terrain and your needs.

For years, I have included a tarp (along with some sort of survival knife) as part of my survival kit and  for shelter on backpacking and hunting trips. If I ever got wet or uncomfortable during the night on these excursions, it was because I either didn’t pitch a tarp at all, or was sloppy about securing it.

Most of my early backpacking was done with my college friend, John Nerness. An avid backpacker, John was also a design engineer for Lockheed Aircraft in Mountainview, CA. Subsequently, he brought his engineering expertise into making our shelter every night. We enjoyed the challenge of adapting to the environment through a tarp shelter!

When there was time, we came up with elaborately-tied and secured tent-like structures. In other instances,  we made do with whatever the terrain allowed. John sometimes used a “taco” design, which is a hasty shelter that isn’t  pitched or secured at all. To use a taco, all you do is find a sheltered, well-drained area, lay the tarp on the ground, and fold it up over you.

John commented via email about using a taco shelter:

“The taco is generally doable anywhere in an emergency. Condensation onto the bag might be of some concern, but if you lie in it so you are breathing to the open side, there will be less of that,” John wrote. “Also, at that point, you probably don’t have a lot of choices (and hopefully, don’t have a down bag!)”

We frequently used John’s backpack as one shelter support, since it had a free-standing frame. When the edges of the tarp were secured, the pack made a great support.

Obviously, a taco design isn’t the best choice for open spaces where there is the potential of high winds. But again, you have to have a basic plan for a tarp shelter and improvise from there.

There are lessons to be learned from any experience, so just for fun, here’s some tarp-shelter excerpts from my early trail journals:

The Cloud Peak Primitive Area, Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming: I graduated from Iowa State University in 1976, and went west for the summer. The first real backpacking trip I ever took was with college buddies Mike Leininger and John Nerness. The weather got really bad about three days into the wilderness area.

John took along a piece of visqueen to use as a tarp, and Mike and I had a backpacking tent. John’s tarp shelters proved to work better than our tent!

June 26, 1976: Mike and I woke about dawn when the tent fell in because

Sometimes, you don’t need to pitch a tarp to make a shelter. The tarp, left, was used in a taco pattern – it was doubled over, then the “filling” – our equipment – was folded into the center. John slept in that setup in some really nasty weather in complete comfort.

of all the snow. It was a rude awakening, all the sudden being hit by a cold, soggy tent in the face.

We hollered and woke up John, and he put on his clothes and came and rescued us. I got outside and didn’t want to believe my eyes.

There was about three inches of snow all over everything and the sky looked quite threatening. Looking up to the mountains I could see they were completely snow-covered. They looked like the Himalayas. In the valley, the snow was hip-deep. We all looked at each other with the same thought: Where can we go from here?

If we stayed, we might get snowed on more and end up snowbound. While John cooked and Mike packed up the tent, I climbed up on a high rock and looked over the situation. The tops of the mountains looked clear but here was a lot of snow between us and them. Some of the drifts were eight feet deep.

While we discussed our options, a thick fog settled over the camp. We had taken several compass readings while we could still see landmarks. We took off, deciding to go over the peaks, because they were the only part of the landscape that wasn’t under snow.

Granite Peak, Beartooth Mountains, Montana

Wednesday, Aug. 3, 1977

(We were in the middle of an 11-day hike, cross-country, through the  Beartooths. On Aug. 3, we approached Granite Peak, with the idea of climbing it. As it turns out, common sense prevailed  and we didn’t attempt the summit!)
A much younger Leon outside a silver mine in the Beartooths that provided shelter one night

Hiked all day, trying to get to Granite Peak and had a few problems. The elevation was about 11,000 feet most of the time, and we’d walk about 10 feet, then have to stop and catch our breaths.

All day we were on the rock slides, so we had to hop from rock to rock to go anywhere. Usually the rocks were solid, but when we hit the glaciers, they were loose.

We reached the pass in front of Granite Peak and decided not to try it. It was very steep to the summit, and we would have needed technical equipment and skill . I was somewhat disappointed, because we were within 1,000 feet of the top. But it would have been really foolhardy to try climbing and I didn’t want to get stuck up there.

The trip down the pass was the most dangerous scrambling/climbing I’ve ever done. There was a glacier going all the way down the pass, and it was slippery and steep. We stayed off the ice as much as possible, because a slip could have been fatal.

This tarp shelter was made in the dark after descending from the pass near Granite Peak. The tarp was pitched using a boulder and John’s pack (see above) for supports. It sheltered us from the all-night rain very well.

The rocks were loose, and about halfway down the slope, it started to rain. We couldn’t use our ponchos, because we couldn’t see our feet with them on. We both got soggy.

The last segment was really bad and dangerous. It was a sheer cliff and we had to descend it, clinging to the rocks with our fingertips and boot tips. Meanwhile, darkness was falling very rapidly. I picked my way along a rock slide, just barely able to see, but managed to get to the level ground just before dark.

The rain increased, and we barely got the tarp up in time. The ground was rocky, but I could have slept on a bed of nails. I fell asleep, too tired to even eat. I was really, really glad we didn’t attempt the summit!

Thursday, August 4

Rained all night, but the tarp kept us dry.  The condensation of our breathing and the humidity made the inside a little moist. (It rained steadily or was foggy for the next three days. But we slept comfortably at night and stayed dry under our various tarp shelters!)

December 24, 1977, Sheep Canyon, Death Valley National Monument

Got on the trail before 9 A.M. The hiking was fairly easy, but uphill all the way. The canyon had all the contours of an old river bed, and in places was lousy walking. The path was all loose rock, so the footing was unsure most of the time.

Leon, left, and John (taking photo) pitched their tarp in this Death Valley “forest” during Christmas of 1977.

We plodded along steadily. About 4 P.M., we stopped for supper and continued on. We were at the end of Sheep Canyon, so we climbed up the ridges until we finally decided to stop and camp.

Climbed to the top of one ridge and could see Mount Whitney and Funeral Peak. We’re in the Black Mountains and can see snow-covered mountains across the valley floor.

The only fairly level spot was in a creek bed. There were a few bushes around, but nothing to tie the tarp to. We used John’s pack at one end, and a tall rock for the other end of the shelter. It was quite comfortable.

On Christmas Day, my usual luck with weather manifested itself. It started to rain about 5 a.m.

As soon as we heard raindrops on the tarp, we packed up and hurried to higher ground to avoid any potential flash floods.  The rain didn’t last long. It was ridiculous – and funny – getting soaked in heavy rain in a place that averages 1.94 inches of precipitation annually. Some years, that area doesn’t get any rain.

(The most remote spot in Death Valley is the Ubehebe Crater, where John and I camped on Dec. 22, 1977. The GPS coordinates are: 11S 0460029E: 4095647N)

John was playing engineer when he rigged this shelter in the Beartooths. Leon is apparently cooking on the backpacking stove or contemplating something.

Leon under a hasty tarp shelter at Lassen National Forest in Northern California. The two trees at the head provided the main support, and a center line rope held up the middle.

Comments are closed.