Budget Tarp Tents:
A Guide For 2020
Tarp tents are a wonderful ultralight and compact alternative to traditional tents for both hikers and backpackers. Sadly, most models cost a small fortune. But not all.
With these 3 budget models you can get away with less than 1 kg / 4.5 lbs. And with a price tag between 100 and 265$. Combine them with a budget quilt and sleeping pad for a sub 2 kg / 4.5 lbs sleeping system that will accompany you anywhere.
Why A Budget Traveler Should Always Carry A Lightweight Tarp Or Tent
If you do any trekking or overnight hikes carrying a tarp or tent is almost essential. But its uses don’t stop there. As a budget traveler or backpacker roaming around the world, you are far too regularly confronted with overpriced accommodation.
Free camping. There are many opportunities. From National Forests in the USA to high pastures in Pakistan. But also in more unusual places like city parks in Iran. Plus many people will let you camp on their land if you ask nicely.
Cheap camping. Campgrounds are regularly the cheapest accommodation option. All over Europe there are cheap budget friendly sites that charge a few bucks instead of 50+ euros dorm beds.
Freedom. Being forced into a tourist trap can be extremely frustrating. Want to hike in the Everest region but you are not keen on noisy crowds and overpriced dal bhat? With your own tent you can again travel on your own terms.
Tent, Tarp Tent Or Tarp?
You essentially have these 3 choices when it comes to lightweight camping shelters. Each has its fans and detractors. But which one should you choose?
Tents. If a freestanding design and ease of use is your priority, tents are still the way to go. Using lightweight materials and reducing the number of poles comes at a price. You end up sacrificing storm worthiness and durability. And there is next to nothing under 300$. An exception is the Naturehike Cloud Up 2 at around 150$. But it still weighs 1.55 kg / 3.4 lbs.
Tarps. Rectangular tarps are light, usually around 0.5 kg / 1.1 lbs. The price tags too are reasonable, with a decent choice in the 50-150$ range. With good rigging skills it’s possible create a number of shapes to suit conditions. Although there isn’t much you can do against high winds and bugs. This makes it more suited for forests and sheltered campsites.
Tarp Tents follow a middle path. Getting rid of poles sheds a lot of weight and bulk. But with a design closer to a normal tent it can better deal with the elements, while retaining some of the versatility of a regular tarp. It’s arguably the best of two words.
Lightweight. Tarp tents are some of the lightest available camping shelters. Two out of the three models below weigh less than 550 g / 20 oz in their minimal configuration. Split it between two and it’s barely noticeable. Only some ultralight regular tarps are even lighter.
Compact. Simpler designs and lightweight materials mean less bulk. Tarp tents rarely take more space than a water bottle.
Versatile with many different pitching options. A high pitch favors ventilation. A low pitch increases resistance to wind, rain and insects. Models with a separate inner can be stripped down for ultralight missions. Or the mesh inner can be used on its own for bug-proof star gazing. And double as mosquito nets in African hotel rooms.
Field Maintainable. Poles are the main weakness of tents. Good luck finding a spare in developing countries. Tarp tents rely on trekking poles instead. They are sturdy and easier to fix. And you can always find a wooden stick or metal rod to improvise a replacement. Or just pitch it between trees.
Weather Protection. Tarp tents look fragile. Indeed, they are certainly not as resistant as heavy duty four season tents. But they easily beat most ultralight tent and regular tarp designs. In Patagonia I saw tarp tents regularly being the last ones standing during storms.
Complex Pitching. Tarp tents are not freestanding, with the notable exception of the Tarptent Double Rainbow if used with trekking poles. Instead, they normally rely on stakes. In hard, sandy or rocky ground, that’s an issue. By learning how to rig guy lines on rocks and trees that problem is easily solved. But it requires some extra time and skills.
Reliance On Poles. Most tarp tent setups require a trekking pole or two. That’s significant extra weight. If you do some hiking and trekking you will probably already own a pair. But if you are just interested in the occasional camping opportunity trekking poles are overkill. Nevertheless, the main alternative is a tent with standard poles. They are not exactly useful either when stored in your backpack.
Bugs. Tarp tents on their own offer little protection against biting creatures and creepy crawlies. You can pitch the tarp tent low enough that most critters stay outside. Or add a DIY small band of mosquito netting around the base. Alternatively, take a net inner tent with you. It adds around 500 g /18 oz.
Splashback. In heavy rain water drops tend to hit the ground and splash back at you. As for bugs, lower the setup or select a model with an inner tent.
Price. Most models cost between 300$ and 750$. That puts them far beyond the reach of most budget travelers and trekkers. But fortunately there are a few good cheap budget options. You only have to compromise slightly on weight.
Top Budget Tarp Tent #1:
3F UL Lanshan 2
This Chinese tarp tent is hard to beat on value. The design uses a pole on each side to accommodate dual vestibules. It includes a mesh inner to protect from bugs, splash back and condensation. If you are alone and only want to carry a single pole, there is a one person version, the Lanshan 1. For an in-depth long-term review click here.
Price. Around 100$ on Aliexpress for both the tarp tent and net inner. Don’t be put off by the suspiciously cheap price tag, the quality is surprisingly decent. If you travel to China, you can order it for even less on Tao Bao with some local help.
Weight. The tarp tent itself checks in at around 600 g / 1.3 lbs. With the mesh inner, guy lines and stakes but without poles it adds up to 1.2 kg / 2.6 lbs. It’s possible to get rid of some plastic bits and straps. This brings it back down to just over 1 kg / 2.2 lbs.
Storm Worthiness. The Lanshan 2 uses 15D Silnylon for the tarp and 20D for the mesh inner floor. The actual tarp material is much more durable than you would expect from 15D fabric, perhaps because of the reinforced ripstop pattern. It’s fully waterproof in heavy rains. If pitched correctly it can withstand winds of at least 60 kmh / 40 mph.
The inner tent however is relatively fragile. You might want to use a ground sheet to boost durability, or even better go light and leave it at home.
Comfort. Enough space for two, especially without the mesh inner. The separate entrances and vestibules make it very livable and improve cross-ventilation when needed. There is enough height to sit up comfortably in the middle. The inner can be suspended above a bed as a fully enclosed mosquito net.
Pitching. Correctly setting it up takes some practice, but is overall straightforward. The tension between the two poles is crucial in high winds.
Top Budget Tarp Tent #2:
Black Diamond Beta Light
The Beta Light has been around for a while. It’s twice as expensive as the Lanshan 2. And that’s without a mesh inner. But with two poles positioned in the middle and lots of attachments it’s bombproof. Much more than the newer (and pricey) Distance Tent by the same manufacturer.
If you fear stormy conditions in Patagonia or the Himalayas, this is your most reliable budget option.
Weight. The tarp tent weighs approximately 500 g / 1.1 lbs. With the optional mesh inner, guy lines and stakes but without poles it’s 1.3 kg / 2.9 lbs.
Storm Worthiness. The Beta Light is made out of durable 30D Silnylon, able to withstand a lot of abuse. It’s fully waterproof and more importantly, the pyramidal shape is very aerodynamic. If pitched low and using all the guy-out lines it can withstands gusts of over 100 kmh / 60 mph, regardless of wind direction. My friend’s Beta Light perform admirably in full-blown Patagonian storms, which is the ultimate test for any tent.
Comfort. Plenty of space for two without the mesh inner. But the poles in the middle encroach on living space. It’s difficult to snuggle or sit up straight. To keep out bugs without an inner it’s possible to add a small strip of mosquito net around the base. This DIY solution doesn’t add much weight.
Pitching. Straight-forward and fast if stakes can be used. The guy-out lines are only required in windy weather.
Top Budget Tarp Tent #3:
The Motrail is also more than twice as expensive as the Lanshan 2. But it’s a well-designed quality all-in-one solution with integrated bathtub floor and mosquito netting. It can also be pitched with a single trekking pole, making it an excellent choice for the solo traveler wishing to have room for the occasional visitor. The slightly lighter and cheaper ProTrail sleeps one.
Price. Starting at 265$ on the Tarptent website. Again, not super cheap, but very reasonable considering the quality.
Weight. The tarp tent weights a total of 960 g / 2.1 lbs, including stakes and guy lines. Because of its all-in-one design it can’t be stripped down.
Storm Worthiness. The MoTrail is made out of durable 30D Silnylon. It’s waterproof but with the pole in front the resulting shape catches the wind easily. In stormy weather it is essential to look for sheltered sites.
Comfort. Comfortable for two with lots of space lengthwise. And the big single vestibule swallows a lot of gear. It’s possible for one person to sit up straight in the front. Ventilation is good for a single walled shelter, particularly when the rear flap is open.
Pitching. Takes some practice. In high winds it requires careful rigging of the guy-out lines.
Choosing Trekking Poles For Tarp Tents
Most tarp tents require trekking poles. But what should you look for?
Aluminium Vs Carbon. It’s tempting to shed 20-30% by going for carbon fiber models. But it’s worth knowing that it’s a more brittle material, especially in cold temperatures. Moreover, aluminium tends to bend while carbon fiber just breaks. Finally, most carbon fiber designs are aimed at customers favoring lightweight over durability. Bottom line: stick to cheaper aluminium, sacrifice a few grams / ounces elsewhere instead.
Flip Lock Vs Twist Lock Vs Z-Style. Twist lock mechanisms are not particularly reliable, and most models now use the flip lock and/or Z-style instead. Z-style systems are becoming increasingly durable, but the flip lock is still the winner here as it can usually be field repaired.
Adjustable Vs Non Adjustable. Most tarp tents are tailored for 130 cm poles. But to fine tune the height of the setup and regulate ventilation, adjustable poles are essential
Budget Trekking Poles
You don’t have an old pair of trekking poles lying around? But you don’t want to fork over another 200 bucks?
Pioneer Telescopic Aluminium. Around 20-25$ for a pair on Aliexpress. For a long-term review click here. These 3 section poles are sturdy, durable and still relatively light at 260 g / 9 oz each. The flip lock mechanism can easily be adjusted on the go without tools.
Cascade Mountain Tech Aluminium. Around 23$ on Amazon. Similar design and quality. Slightly heavier at 300 g / 10.5 oz each.
Wood. Old school, I know. But if you go through a forest, you will find a suitable stick. Free, biodegradable and easily replaced.