Tarps are useful for a ton of survival and prepping needs including making shelters and gurneys to get injured persons to safety. Every prepared person should have a few good tarps.
Over the years, my husband and I have found it is really handy to keep some extra brand-new tarps on hand. You don’t have to spend a lot to get a tarp that will take care of a lot of tasks that come up unexpectedly.
When buying tarps, it’s important to understand what you are getting for your money. Not all tarps are made the same.
There are different types of tarps, but poly and canvas tarps are the most commonly used.
Factors To Consider Before Purchase
Buying the right tarp is not rocket science but there are some things you need to be aware of.
Here are a few things to consider when buying a tarp.
The most common tarp color is blue, but you can get tarps in brown, camo, green, and silver. Other colors may be available, but they are less common. It’s nice to have at least a few colors on hand because sometimes, you might want to use a tarp to disguise something. Blue and silver tarps really stand out, and silver can be very reflective from a distance.
Remember that woodland camo is not always the best choice for disguising something. Match your tarp to your surroundings. This could mean using two different colors to break up the lines for better concealment.
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We’ve found that the 8’ x 10’ size is the best choice for stocking up. They’re large enough to cover a lot but small enough to fit in a backpack if needed. This size also tends to be a good value for money since it’s a common and easy to find size.
Some tarps list two measurements. This is particularly common with canvas tarps. For example, you might see a tarp with its measurements listed as follows: Cut Size: 6’ x 8′, Finished Size: 5’6” x 7’6”. It’s fairly common for dimensions to be 6” less than the cut size. That’s quite a bit if you’re trying to cover something a specific size. It’s a good idea to get a little larger tarp than you think you need. It’s not easy to get a tarp stretched out perfectly, especially if you’re in a hurry.
The price of a tarp reflects its thickness. A thicker tarp will last longer and be more resistant to tears and punctures. On the other hand, it’s also going to weigh more.
If you are going to use a tarp in high winds or a lot of sunlight, you need a heavy-duty tarp. When my husband and I were building our house in 2009, we lived in an old camper built in 1978. Anyone that knows much about campers knows that over time the roof will leak unless someone has taken really good care of it or stored it under a carport. We bought a tarp made for storing a vehicle or boat. It cost three times what a typical tarp costs, but it lasted several years while we were living rough and building our home.
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- Extra Rain Cover
Even if you have a good tent, it’s nice to have a tarp to stretch over it for added rain protection or for additional space to keep gear dry. A tarp can help protect from hail and ice damage during particularly bad weather. Hail can happen even when outside temperatures are on the warmer side.
- Emergency Shelter
A tarp can be made into a shelter. If you have a tarp, paracord, and an emergency blanket you have a much higher chance of survival if stuck out in the wilderness. Staying dry and warm can make all the difference.
- Ground Cover
Anything you can put between you and the ground will keep you warmer and dryer. A tarp can keep your tent from accumulating moisture on the bottom and protect the floor from sharp rocks or other debris.
- Makeshift Cart or Litter
Sure, dragging a tarp over an uneven surface with something heavy on it will cause a lot of abrasion, but it will allow you to move more weight than you could otherwise. If someone is injured, you can use a tarp to create a litter to get them to safety or to where they can get the help they need.
- Rainwater Catchment
Tarps can be used to catch water, especially with a supporting framework. The amount of water you can catch depends on the size of your tarp. In a real emergency, you could dig a hole and line it with a tarp to create a water catchment.
- Fire Windbreak
If you’re trying to build a fire in windy conditions, a tarp can be rigged to block the prevailing winds so you can get a nice fire going and stay warm.
If you don’t have adequate raingear, you can use a tarp as a poncho.
- Signal for help
Bright blue tarps really stand out. Silver tarps are also very reflective. If you’re in a remote area and need to get someone’s attention, a tarp can help.
Brown, green, and camo-colored tarps are excellent for making it hard to see or find gear or even your entire camp. It’s an excellent idea to keep some tarps on hand in colors that blend into the surroundings where you live.
- Temporary Window Cover
During an SHTF situation, a broken window may have to stay that way for a while. A tarp can be used to keep out drafts and cold. You could even double it over and stuff old clothes or leaves in it to make an insulated window covering in colder conditions.
- Additional Blanket
While a tarp is no emergency blanket, it could help with heat retention if you wrap it around yourself. If you layer it over an emergency blanket, it will keep your blanket from being exposed to sharp objects and ripping or tearing.
If you cut a tarp into strips, it can be braided or used as is for cordage. The strength will depend on the type of tarp used and whether you braid it.
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Types of Tarps
Canvas tarps are tough but heavy. They’re suitable when you have a way to carry your tarp, such as a vehicle. Canvas is treated with wax or other coatings to protect against water, oil, and other liquids. Sometimes, used canvas tarps in good condition are available at military surplus stores or online. Canvas tarps are rated by the ounce. For example, an 18-ounce tarp is heavier and thicker than a 12-ounce tarp.
Whiteduck is known for their high quality canvas tarps and tents. The 18-ounce tarp is made of loomstate heavy-duty 12-ounce numbered duck fabric. Whiteduck tarps use plied yarn that creates a tight weave for a tarp that’s stiffer and more durable than many canvas tarps. The canvas is treated with wax, so it’s 100% waterproof at purchase. The grommets are rust proof for use in harsh outdoor conditions.
At 23 mil thick this is a decent budget-priced canvas tarp. It’s available in two sizes. The 6’ x 8’ is ideal for a ground cloth under a small tent or for hanging over a bivvy for additional rain protection. The 8’ x 10’ is large enough to cover an ATV or a decent amount of firewood. The larger size is big enough to construct an emergency shelter for 1–2 people if you have paracord on hand. Heavy-duty rust-resistant grommets are placed every 24 inches, so you have plenty of points to tie down or stretch out your tarp.
Poly tarps are the most common. They have a tight weave pattern that makes them 100% waterproof, and their thickness varies. If you want a general-use tarp or to put back a lot of tarps for survival use, the vast majority of them will likely be poly. Although they’re inexpensive, poly tarps may not be as tough as canvas or some vinyl tarps, but they are light and easy to pack.
This is the tarp that we keep around for general purpose use. At $8 or less for the 8’ x 10’ size, they’re a bargain for adding to your survival stash. Grizzly Tarps are available in a range of sizes to meet your needs, with the largest being 20’ x 30’ and costing just $35. The weave on these tarps is really tight, and they are highly puncture resistant. We’ve used them to cover loads of garbage and junk on the way to the dump, and they hold up to the wind well!
At 16 mil thick, this brown tarp is a great choice for heavy-duty applications. This is similar to the tarp we used to protect the roof of our travel trailer when we were living in it. At $80, this tarp is a good deal for its size and thickness. The metal grommets are placed every 18” so you have a lot of points to tie down for a tight fit. These tarps are true to size, so the size you order is the finished size you get. When buying larger tarps to cover big objects, remember to consider how much length you need to drape over the sides. For example, if you’re covering something that’s 10’ x 8’ you’ll need a 10’ x 12’ tarp to have a 1’ drop on each side.
Vinyl tarps are very durable. You can buy heavy-duty vinyl tarps that are as much as 30 mil thick. Keep in mind that many of the inexpensive blue poly tarps are 5-mil thick. Vinyl tarps are suitable for high stress applications. They’re commonly used in the trucking or oil rig industries, for example. You can even get them sprayed with a special coating to make them fire retardant.
8′ x 10′ Clear Vinyl Tarp
While clear may not be the best for hiding something, a clear tarp can be useful when you want to allow some light to shine through. This 20 mil tarp is made to last even when exposed to a lot of UV light. Clear vinyl is an excellent choice for temporarily fixing a large window or doorway without darkening a room.
These tarps are unique because they come in a wide range of colors you won’t find with tarps made of other materials. These tarps are smaller than their listed size. Make sure to check the finished size to ensure you get a tarp large enough to meet your needs.
Mesh tarps are suitable when you want light, breathable coverage. These are ideal for providing shade. They’re not designed to be waterproof. The open weave design makes them decent at blocking wind and protecting against large debris. You may have seen mesh tarps used on dump trucks hauling gravel or other aggregates.
These tarps block 70% of light to create a shady spot or keep loads covered. They’re made of heavy-duty poly mesh with brass grommets spaced every 18 inches. The hems are reinforced with 2-inch webbing. If you need shade, these are really nice to have because they hold up to a lot of abuse. The black mesh is easy to see through and an excellent alternative to flimsy screen material.
A lot of mesh tarps are gray or black, so this one stands out because it is a light color that can blend in to desert environments. It’s available in many sizes and features heavy-duty grommets. I could see using this for shade and concealment in scrub or arid areas. Some people may simply prefer the lighter color.
Good tarps are not cheap, so maintaining your investment pays off. You’ll get a lot more use out of them if you take the time to store and maintain them properly. Here are some pretty easy to follow guidelines.
- Keep tarps out of direct sunlight when not in use. Vinyl tarps have the greatest resistance to UV light.
- Buy repair supplies and patch bad spots before using a tarp again.
- Take the time to eliminate sharp objects from where you will use your tarp. For example, taking a few minutes at your camp site to remove anything particularly sharp before you lay down your tarp will help prevent tears and punctures.
- Re-coat canvas tarps periodically to prevent mold and mildew. Remember that canvas tarps are best used at a slope so water runs off. If water is allowed to puddle for a long time, you may find yourself dealing with mold and mildew.
- Dry thoroughly, preferably in the sun, before storing. Never fold and store a tarp with moisture on it, especially a canvas tarp.
Even the best tarp will start to deteriorate over time. How long a tarp lasts depends on the precise weather conditions it is exposed to. Direct sunlight and exposure to wind will cause tarps to deteriorate faster. On the other hand a tarp that is in the shade and not exposed to wind may last for many years even if it is just a basic inexpensive blue poly tarp.
Any tarp can be used to make a shelter but typically people use poly or canvas tarps. Poly tarps are lightweight so they are easier to pack into a remote location,
Tarps can be inexpensive and extremely useful items that should be included in any camping or survival kit. The choice of tarp depends on the durability and size needed for the job. While two tarps can be overlapped to cover something larger, you have to be careful or water will get trapped where they overlap. If possible, it’s always better to have a single tarp of the appropriate size.
If you want to practice using a tarp for various survival tasks, I recommend getting a four pack of 8’ x 10’ tarps and practicing with them. Even if you destroy them in the process, you’ll have spent less than $36 and gained a lot of skill. Practicing also allows you to figure out what uses are realistic for your size, skill level, and strength. Survival experts can make it look easy when showing you how to build a shelter or drag someone out of the woods to get help.