A Quick Guide to Using and Choosing Hammock Tarps | Outdoorser.com
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A Quick Guide to Using and Choosing Hammock Tarps

You picked out your hammock and understand your suspension system.

Great.

There’s just one more thing you need to know to get the most out of your hammock camping adventure:

Tarps.

Tarps are the key to a good night’s camp. In this post, we’ll show you:

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    A little background on tarps
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    The different sizes, shapes and materials available
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    How to choose the right one
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    How to pitch a tarp
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    Safety tips

Read on to learn all you need to know a crucial piece of the camping hammock puzzle.

A Brief History Of The Mighty Tarp

Short for tarpaulin, tarps, just like hammocks, originally came to fame on ships.

They began  as canvas sheets covered in tar that sailors pulled over cargo they didn’t want to get wet.

Tarp in the woods.

Today’s tarps are far more effective and, thankfully, much less tar-covered.  

You'll also hear tarps called “rain flys” when they relate to hammocks and tents. We’ll use the two terms interchangeably in this post.

Whatever you like to call them, hammock tarps provide 4 basic functions. 

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    Protection from rain and snow
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    Protection from wind
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    Shade
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    Privacy

Nobody want’s to sleep in the rain or be baked by the sun. And having a covert place to change your clothes will up your sense of ease.  

Think of a hammock tarp as the roof on your house.

You’re a lot less protected without it. (But unlike a house roof, you can always remove your tarp when the weather’s good.)   

The Exact Size Of A Tarp

Of course, there’s no such thing.

Tarps come in just about every size. From too-small-to-be-effective, to way too big.

There are many tarps made just for hammock camping, and we’ll talk about the different types in a minute.

But honestly you could use a tarp from a hardware store as long as it is large enough to cover the length and width of your hammock, plus a little.

Here’s a handy tutorial from The Ultimate Hang.

Generally, you want a tarp that will extend at least 2 feet longer than the length of your hammock when it’s hung.

Remember, the length of your hammock when it’s hung will often be shorter that the actual length of your hammock because of the slack.

Slack is what gives hammocks that nice banana shape.

Learn more about slack when hanging hammocks in our guide to hammock suspension.

It’s All About The Diagonal

Setting up the tarp diagonally.

To get more coverage out of your tarp, hang it over your hammock diagonally and center it so the overhang is equal on all sides.

By hanging it diagonally, you can choose a smaller tarp since the diagonal line of a square is longer than its length or width.   

If you only need to protect yourself from the sun or add little wind break, you can get away with a tarp that has a diagonal length that just extends to the ends of your hammock.

Tarps Made For Hammocks

A tarp from the hardware store will work, and they’re certainly economical, but we think you’ll appreciate the customization and materials available with tarps made specially for hammock camping.

Here are some of the different options you’ll run into when buying your hammock tarp:

How to choose the best rain tarp for your hammock

Rectangular

This is the shape you think of when you think of tarps.

Like a square, but longer on two sides. The most basic hammock tarps are rectangular.

Think of a sheet of printer paper folded in half long ways. It forms a little tent. Your hammock goes underneath that. The peak of the tent hangs over your hammock’s ridgeline (a guy line that goes between the two ends of your hammock) and the four corners on the bottom get staked to the ground.

Rectangles provide good coverage but they can be heavier and it is a little more involved to get all the sides nice and taut.

Asymmetrical

These are shaped like a narrow, slanted rectangle.

These are meant to hang on the diagonal and are often used with asymmetrical hammocks.

If you’re using a symmetrical  hammock (which most hammocks are), then these will work best as shade providers, but generally aren’t shaped correctly to give you good rain coverage.

Catenary/Hexagon

Rectangular tarps will develop wrinkles near the corners when pulled taut. And these wrinkles can channel rainwater to places you don’t want it to go.

Inside your hammock, for instance.

Catenary tarp.

Catenary rain flys solve this by curving in on the sides. These are often 6-sided (hexagonal) and are sometimes called hex-cut tarps.

When you pull the corners of a catenary tarp tight, it becomes completely smooth. Rain rolls off the tarp and away from you.

The curved in sides also help keep the tarp from flapping in the wind.

Diamond/square

These are very similar to rectangular tarps except instead of your ridgeline running down the midline of the tarp, it runs down the diagonal.

One corner is near the head of the hammock, one at the foot and the two other corners are staked to the ground or tied to other trees.

These are simple to set up, provide good rain coverage and are usually lighter than rectangular.

Because they hang on the diagonal, they don’t have to be as long as rectangular tarps.

What’s A Good Material For Hammock Tarps?

Since you’re not a sailor with the Dutch East India company, you don’t have to use tar slicked canvas any more.

They don’t fit very well in backpacks anyway.

Here are a few of the much more modern materials you’ll find in hammock tarps nowadays.  

Polyethylene

This what those hardware store tarps are made from. I

t’s a woven polyethylene plastic which is reasonably durable and, as we mentioned, pretty inexpensive.

The main drawback here is they are heavy. And when the wind blows, they make quite the racket.

Crinkling tarp is probably not one of the nature sounds were hoping for on your camping trip. Also, if it isn’t UV treated, polyethylene gets brittle over time.

Another thing you might factor in is aesthetics.

You probably go camping to marvel at the beauty of trees and sky. A big blue crinkly tarp hanging in the trees might spoil the mood a bit. You may be happier with something that integrates itself a little better with nature.

Silnylon

Silnylon tarp.

Just like you might guess, silnylon is a combination of silicon and nylon.

Nylon threads are coated in silicon before being woven together, usually in a rip-stop pattern. It’s lightweight and relatively durable. Most importantly for a tarp, it’s waterproof.

You can find silnylon in different thicknesses.

Some can be so thin they let light through, so if you’re hoping for shade, go for a thicker silnylon tarp.

PU coated nylon

This is kind of like silnylon.

Both are coated nylon, but where silnylon strands are coated before they are woven, PU nylon is coated after it’s made.

The coating is different too. This one uses polyurethane instead of silicon. Both are waterproof but PU nylon is less expensive than silnylon.

Cuben Fiber

This is a brand name fabric that’s not woven at all.

It’s made in solid sheets from polyethylene (yup, that’s the stuff your hardware store tarp is made out of but this is Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene. Much fancier.)

This material is extremely light, very hard to rip and is fully waterproof.

Cuben Fiber can cost almost 4 times as much as other tarps. When you consider this is the stuff they use to make sails and blimps, you start to understand why.

How To Choose A Tarp For Your Hammock

First let us ask you a question:

What kind of hang are hoping for?

Just relaxing here...

Maybe you’re setting up your hammock as a fun place to relax during your camping trip.

In that case, a simple, lightweight sunshade is probably all you’ll need. 

Diamond shaped tarp.

A diamond shape or even an asymmetric style tarp will work great. Since you’re not worried about keeping the weather out, a thinner tarp will do. 

Are you sleeping in your hammock?

There’s just nothing better than sleeping out in the open. And there’s just nothing worse than being woken up by rain in your face.

Unless you’re pretty sure there’s zero chance of rain, best to go for a good rainfly if you’re sleeping in your hammock.

The rectangular shape will serve you well. For a little more protection, opt for a hex-cut or catenary style tarp.

For extreme weather

If you’re looking for something 4-season that can endure the most intense weather situations, look for a specialized expedition style hammock tarp.

These are usually rectangular and the sides come down almost to the ground, like an entire tent is pitched over your hammock.

Packing it all on your back?

If you’re backpacking, every ounce counts.

More room in your pack means more snacks and more snacks are always a good thing.

When weight is an issue, you’d be smart to go with either silnylon or Cuben Fiber.

They will cost a bit more, but the weight reduction will be worth it. And when you’re miles from your car — or anything else for that matter — it’s a good idea to have a tarp you can rely on.  

Car camping with a good hang

Camping with a car and using a tarp.

Car camping usually means weight is not as much of an issue.

So you can generally get away with spending less on a heavier tarp.

PU nylon or silnylon are both good choices. And a rectangular shaped tarp is a good pick to keep you dry and cozy while you hang.

One Thing All Tarps Must Have

No matter what your camping goal, getting a tarp with pre-attached rings and/or grommets is pretty important.

This means you can actually hang them up. Unless you’re adept at fancy fabric/rope knotting techniques, rings and grommet holes will make everything much easier.

Feel Free To Experiment

Don’t feel like you need to get just one tarp.

You might like having a few different options for different types of camping.

How To Use A Hammock Tarp

Now you know the types and materials most hammock tarps use. You might be wondering:

How do I use them?

Basically, a hammock tarp goes over the ridgeline of your hammock and hangs on it, like an open tent.

Once the tarp is slung over the ridgeline, you attach two of the sides (near the head and foot) to the ridgeline itself or strap them to the same trees as your hammock.

The remaining corners of the tarp (and sometimes more points along the bottom edge) are then either staked to the ground or attached to nearby trees.

Sometimes people have even attached their tarps to sticks or held the sides down with rocks.

Attaching the tarp to sticks and held by rocks.

In camping, it’s always a good idea to be ready to use whatever works.

How To Pitch A Tarp

There are 3 main options for pitching a hammock tarp.

Option 1 - attach to the ends of the hammock

For small tarps acting as sunshades and windbreaks, this works well. 

  • If your hammock doesn't have an integrated (pre-attached) ridgeline, attach a ridgeline to your hammock suspension using a strap, rope or cord.
  • Secure the ridgeline with a carabiner, or tie the strap with an overhand knot.
  • Throw your tarp over the ridgeline.
  • Secure the corners of your tarp to either the ground using rope or cord tied to a stake or attach the corners to nearby trees.
  • To get the tarp taut, you may need to tie all the corners, then re-tie one or more of corners, pulling the tarp tightly against the already staked corners.
  • Depending on how far out you put your steaks, or how high up on the tree you tie your cord, you can get a flatter, more open tarp, sometimes easier to duck under to get to your hammock.

Option 2 - attach to the trees supporting the hammock

  • Instead of attaching the ridgeline to the hammock, tie your rope, cord or strap to the same two trees you used to suspend your hammock.
  • DON'T attach your tarp to the same straps used to hang the hammock.
  • Attach the ridgeline to the tree BELOW the straps that hang the hammock and run the line tight over the top of the hammock.
  • Pitch your tarp over the ridgeline, centering it so both ends of your hammock are completely covered.
  • At the points where the tarp makes contact with your ridgeline, use carabiners or short straps to attach the tarp to the straps. Pull the ends taut.
  • Anchor the remaining corners of your tarp to the ground or to other trees, like we described in Option 1.

Option 3 - no ridgeline

Some hammock tarps are designed to suspend over a hammock without resting on a ridgeline.

These come in many different styles and shapes.

But most have straps already attached to the corners that simply attach directly to your support trees and other anchor points (ground stakes, trees or shrubs).

Some hammocks come with tarps integrated into the hammock. In this case, follow the instructions for your particular hammock.

Other Stuff You’ll Need

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    Webbing straps are perfect for creating a ridgeline.
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    Extra carabiners will simplify the process of setting up your tarp.
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    Paracord is great for tying the corners of your tarp to ground stakes or trees as well as many, many other things.
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    Ground stakes will secure your tarp to the ground.
Equipment needed for setting up the tarp.

How To Stay Safe When Using Tarps

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    Be very careful in high wind conditions. Make sure you have a good hold of the tarp when you’re setting up. A good gust plus a tarp makes a wind sail.

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    Just like when setting up your hammock, always check the trees above you. There can be dead branches in the tree and even a slight breeze can send it toppling down on top of you. A tarp won’t deter large branches from falling on you. Campers have been seriously injured this way.

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    Make sure all corners of the tarp are secured tightly so it does not come loose. Also make sure your tarp is taut so it doesn’t hit you when if flaps.

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    When setting up your ridgeline, make sure it allows for enough room when you are inside the hammock. You don’t want to get tangled up in your ridgeline when  getting in or out of your hammock.

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    When you secure your tarp to the ground and trees, there are going to be a lot of ropes and cords running in many directions. Be extremely aware of them at all times. Advise other people who are camping with you to watch for the cords. They can easily trip or knock over an unsuspecting camper. Using high colored, reflective webbing or cording can help make tie lines more visible.

Last Minute Tips

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    If you are setting up a tarp using a separate ridgeline (Option 2) and the weather is bad, set your tarp up first, then enjoy setting up the hammock underneath it.

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    With a large enough tarp, you can raise one side high enough to stand up and walk under. Attach that side of the tarp higher up on nearby trees to create a sort of porch roof on one side of your hammock. Just don’t make any fires under the tarp!

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    By tying a short length of rope or cord to your tarp’s ridgeline straps outside of the tarp, any rain water dripping down the ridgeline will get directed to the ground before it finds its way into your hammock.

Your Turn...

We hope this guide will help you navigate the world of hammock tarps a little better.

If there’s anything you think we missed or anything that wasn’t clear, let us know.

We really like hearing from campers. 

About the Author

After spending 5 years testing gear, meeting people and exploring his home state of Colorado with his wife, Andrej realized something about the outdoor industry. Mostly, that it was complicated. Andrej set out to create no-nonsense gear that was just as easy to use as it was reliable. He recruited a team of wilderness professionals and educators and hit the drawing board. The result was simple gear that you could trust, with specs you understood. Now he’s inspiring others to get out there and explore, by giving them the confidence to trust both themselves and the gear they use.

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