One of the best pieces of ultralight and extremely effective hiking equipment I’ve ever used is my sil-nylon tarp. Many years ago I decided to get the Mountain Equipment Co-op Silicone Scout Tarp for a backpacking trip, and since then it has come with me on nearly every backpacking trip I’ve been on. There are many reasons to use a tarp rather than a tent.
The reason I bought the tarp in the first place was the price. At $65 (Canadian, back when that meant an even better deal), the tarp was affordable even with my poor college student’s budget. Even cheap backpacking tents are usually at least twice as expensive. It’s possible to find tarps that are even cheaper than the Scout, and are still very well built.
The basic reason most hikers would go for a tarp is the weight. With lightweight guylines, the Scout weighs only twelve ounces. That’s nothing! Compare that to the multi-pound “lightweight” backpacking tents you’ll find at any outfitter, and the choice is obvious. Of course, you’ll need a ground cloth, but even that won’t break a pound.
Sleeping under a tarp instead of in a tent takes some getting used to. Common worries are bugs, wind, varmints, and ground water.
I tend to camp in the late summer and early fall in New England, which means bugs aren’t much of an issue. During bug season, I can always get a bug bivy of some sort or another.
For wind, I like to camp in sheltered areas which are easy to find in New England forests. With enough practice, I have slept through thunderstorms, snow, and torrential rains in my tarp without getting the least bit damp. I don’t like bivy sacks, but if you don’t trust sleeping without one, Mountain Laurel Designs, BackpackingLight, and Titanium Goat all make very nice ultralight bivies.
If you place your tarp in the right place, ground water won’t be an issue, either. My ground cloth takes care of whatever dampness already exists on the ground, but usually the ground under my tarp is dry in the morning, while the ground all around is soaked.
As for animals coming into the tent with you, that’s really nothing to worry about. I’ve had a fox and a raccoon walk through my tarp while I was in my sleeping bag, but neither wanted anything to do with me. I was just in their way while they were going somewhere else. Besides, having open sides for my shelter allows me to watch sunrise without getting out of bed.
Silnylon is exceptionally durable, and even after five years of use my tarp still works like a charm. Try out a tarp if you’re looking for a new tent this year. They’re cheap (depending on material used), light, and effective. You can find dozens of brands out there, including standouts from Integral Designs, Mountain Laurel Designs, Gossamer Gear, and BackpackingLight.