Tent? No Thanks. I Prefer Tarps.

I design hardgoods for MSR (stoves, snowshoes, water filters), so I’m no expert in shelter design. But I do have personal experience and probably a fairly unique opinion on what makes the perfect outdoor home. Tent? No thanks–too confining, too hot in the summer, too hard to get in and out of, not enough fresh air, and usually no view. I like tarps.

camping with tarp

Why Choose Tarps?

In my experience, they don’t tend to build up condensation like tents. You can tie them to trees (no poles needed), and set them up in so many ways depending on the situation. In fact, they’re easy and fun to set up. My advice: Don’t be afraid of tarps. I almost always use a tarp and I’ve only woken up wet twice. Once because of limited site selection in very heavy rain (small stream going through the shelter). Another time we tried using a ground cloth and it ended up sticking out from the perimeter of the tarp—funneling water inside. I only recall a couple of bad bug situations that I wish I had some sort of mesh insert. I don’t have a favorite MSR tarp, so here’s a bit about each one I’ve used:

MSR Rendezvous camping tarp

The MSR Rendezvous Sun Shield

The MSR Rendezvous™ Sun Shield was my favorite for most trips–usually remote car camping/basecamp-style camping. It’s big (17’ 7” x 16’ 6”), yielding 200 sq ft of protection and you can walk under it. This is key for hanging out and drinking beersd or when it’s nasty out. When it’s sunny, it’s great shade. When it’s windy you can fasten one side down to the ground with the other side open and still feel like you’re outside. I lived under it one whole summer at a pond by my house. One time we set it up vertically to block the wind from the fire pit. One lesson learned: dead head your stakes when in sand, in windy conditions.

MSR Twin Sisters

The Front Range and Twin Sisters Tarp Shelters

The Front Range and Twin Sisters are my lightweight favorites for backpacking or shelter. Both are super lightweight, can be used with trekking poles, and pack small. Depending on the weather you can fasten the edges to the ground (or snow) or set it up a little taller for better ventilation. I spent a week living under the Front Range along the Lost Coast in northern California. The temps were hot, there was hardly any shade—but I never woke up sweating or gasping for fresh air. Although I didn’t need it on the coast, you can also get the Bug Insert to give you protection from bugs  or just the wet ground.

Another time, when lighter weight was a priority, I slept under a Twin Sisters tarp at Camp Muir up on Mt. Rainier where it was windy and  cold. If it hadn’t been for a little altitude sickness and forgetting to put snow on the bottom of the sides to block the wind, I would have slept pretty well.

minimalist camping tarp
The Rendezvous™ Sun Shield

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Story and photos by MSR Engineer Earl Sherrard – Originally published May 6, 2015

Earl once spent an entire summer living out of an MSR tarp by a pond near his house—just to live outside. He’s mastered the craft of margarita blending at the top of mountains and can build a fire in any weather, including in the snow at -14 F. In 1999, Earl joined MSR as a mechanical engineer for the Marathon Ceramics project. He’s hiked the 75-mile Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass section of the PCT in Washington, and loves to deep-sea fish when he can.