The following document has appeared in print since 1999 and details plans for making your own tarptent. While neither is as easy to set up, nor is as storm and wind resistant as the next generation Tarptents, these tents are excellent do-it-yourself projects for even the first-time sewer. We will be happy to offer tips and suggestions should you decide to make one.
The Tarptent sleeps 1+ (me, gear, +)
and weighs 18 ounces complete with poles, stakes, tie lines
etc. The Tarptent-for-2 sleeps 2 (or huge for one), weighs 24 ounces complete including generous beak, and has some additional room for gear. Both tents are floor-less, completely screened with zipper opening
door and made from 1.1 oz silicone-coated nylon. Here's everything
you need to know to make your own.
A goal of every ultralight backpacker is to carry a comfortable shelter that offers maximum protection from wet weather and bugs, while minimizing weight, difficulty of setup, and cost. The Tarptent is my solution to the problem.
There are three traditional shelter types. Here is a summary of their relative performance. My rankings are subjective.
Each shelter type excels in certain categories. The tarp is at or near the top in all categories except bugs. My goal was to create a modified tarp that eliminated the bugs while maintaining excellence in all other categories. The Tarptent weighs about 18 ounces, sleeps one person plus gear, and costs about $60 to make. The Tarptent-for-2 costs costs a few dolllars more.
Disclaimer: Snowy, winter conditions create additional shelter needs. The Tarptent will be fine in light snowstorms but is NOT intended for winter use.
While researching tents for myPacific Crest Trail thru-hike, I found and subsequently purchased a tent from Stephenson (603-293-7016), a producer of very light, high quality, but expensive tents. This bug-tight, 4-season tent weighs just over 3 pounds (less if you don't get the extra window screening), sleeps 2 very comfortably, and offers easy setup. It would rate a "4" in nearly all categories except cost. At 1.5 lbs/person, it's hard to beat, except if you're hiking solo.
What really got me thinking about making my own tent was the Stephenson tent material. Stephenson tents are able to achieve their remarkable lightness because they use 1.4 oz./sq. yd. silicone coated ripstop nylon. Urethane coated nylons weigh well over 2 oz./sq. yd, some approaching 3 oz/sq. yd. While this may not sound like much of a savings, it really starts to add up when your tent contains 10+ sq. yds of material. The Stephenson catalog offers the 1.4 oz. fabric for sale. It also references the material that was used in previous model years but discontinued because of an apparent problem with the supplier's ability to meet demand. This material is 1.1-ounce silicone-coated nylon (silnylon). Silnylon is available now from several mail order suppliers, and it is the material I used to make my Tarptent. It is very strong, extremely lightweight and must, of course, be protected from abrasion to withstand extended use.
Update 9/5/01: "1.1-ounce" refers to the fabric weight before the coating is applied. Actual fabric weight is variable, depending on manufacturer, and can range from 1.3 to 1.5 ounces/ sq. yd. This variability will impact the final Tarptent weight by up to 1 ounce. Recently I have begun using a silicone-coated, "zero-porosity, high performance rip stop nylon fabric" from Aerodyne Research Corp that is used for parachutes. It's called Zero Porosity Fabric (ZPF) and the company claims that it weighs 1.3 ounces/ sq. yd. On my scale it weighed 1.5 ounces/sq yd. My last batch of "1.1-ounce" silnylon from Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics also weighed 1.5 ounces/sq yd. so either my scale is off or the variability is just to be expected. What's great about the ZPF fabric is that it has a smooth, rather than slippery, finish and is MUCH easier to sew than standard 1.1-ounce silnylon. Sort of like the difference between matte and glossy photographic paper. This fabric is extremely strong--you wouldn't want your parachute to be weak--but seems to have a bit more elasticity than standard silnylon. The 3-point rear pullout on the Tarptent-for-2 is designed to eliminate the small amount of extra sag caused by the increased elasticity. Your mileage will vary.
When I started working on this design, I began with an Integral Designs 8'x5' 1.1-ounce silicone coated tarp. It weighed about 6 oz, cost $50, and came with all the guyline pullouts already installed. I created a simple a-frame design, using 26" straight poles (I-poles) in the front and back. I sealed the triangular open ends with coated nylon doors, bounded at the apex by small mosquito netting vents for ventilation. I sewed one door edge to the tarp and used Velcro to attach the other edge for easy opening and closing . A groundcloth formed the floor of the enclosure. I attached guylines to the front and back and staked all 4 corners to the ground. There was just enough room to wriggle in and out of the tent and it kept the bugs out. Serviceable, cheap, lightweight, no view and no fun. It also suffered from condensation and showered on me when I brushed the material while exiting the tent. Next I decided to raise one long side of the tent and add mosquito netting along the entire length. This increased ventilation and provided a bit of a view. It also dramatically increased floor space while extending the drip line away from the interior.
I modified the door and added guylines along the edge of the raised side at the corners and in the middle. While testing this tent I discovered that the netting actually blocks most of the driven rain. Small spray that gets through the netting will not reach more than a foot or so into the interior so as long as you keep the groundcloth/sleeping bag away from the netting you will stay dry. Subsequently I changed the front and back doors to all netting to increase ventilation and views with minimal increase to rain exposure. The original 8' x 5' tarp was then transformed into something like this:
I field tested this tent on a '98 JMT hike and it performed quite well. I still got a few drips of condensation when exiting the tent and I couldn't sit up to move around, eat, or put on a shirt. I yearned for more freedom of movement.
This time I needed my calculator and a little help from simple trigonometry. I wanted to maintain the floor space but increase the headroom without adding much to the overall weight. By raising the front and lowering the rear I added less than 7 sq. ft. (less than 1 ounce) but increased headroom by 1 foot. I'm 5'11" and can just sit up in the Tarptent. So without further ado, here's how to make your very own 18-ounce Tarptent.
A good place to order materials is Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics (1-800-693-7467). Poles can be assembled from sections available at REI and other sources. My local REI did not have the grommet tips when I inquired so I had my poles custom made by TA Enterprises (1-800-266-9527) for about $10.
Pole Notes: Adjustable Trekking poles can also be used. If you turn the poles over you should be able to insert the pole tips into the existing grommets. Adjust the poles to match the specs for the front and rear heights (though most trekking poles will not collapse down to 20" and you'll have to get creative to use one for the rear).
For those using Glen Van Peski's G4 pack, the 18" or 20" Easton poles will double as excellent pack stays. Simply shove them down between the folds in the Z-Rest frame sheet. Using the Tarptent poles, I find the G4 comfort and load carrying capacity to be greatly improved
The following designs are intended for
1 person and gear (Tarptent) or 2 people and some gear (Tarptent-for-2). The Tarptent can sleep two in a pinch but the Tarptent-for-2 is intended for extended 2-person use or as a more luxurious shelter for one.
Cut 2 identical pieces of silnylon. Click here for printable pattern.
Cut 4 pieces of no-see-um netting. Click here for printable pattern.
Cut 8 identical pieces of nylon tape or webbing for pullouts.
Cut 1 piece of Velcro tape (both sides) for netting tie or 2 pieces if you're adding a beak.
Place the two identical pieces of silicone-coated nylon together and stitch along the long horizontal side. Use a 0.5" inch seam allowance. The Tarptent should now look like this:
Now fold over each edge 3/4" and stitch to form a border. The Tarptent should now look like this:
Pullouts are used to attach the Tarptent to the ground, via a stake or guyline.
The areas around the pullouts will be subject to stress and it is imperative that these areas be reinforced to spread the load. Cut scrap nylon and reinforce as shown :
You will need to cut scrap nylon to fit each corner and the midway point of each parallel side (the ridgeline pullouts). You can also add reinforcing patches along the midway point of each long side though those points do not experience much stress. Make each piece several inches wide/long and stitch along the direction of stress.
Front and Rear Pullouts
The front and pullouts are grommeted to support the Tarptent poles. Adjustable Trekking poles can also be used but be sure the grommet and associated webbing is large enough or just affix the trekking pole to the webbing loop and leave out the grommet.
Make two identical grommet loops as follows:
Fold a piece of nylon tape in half. Insert a #1 grommet near the end of the loop, through both pieces of tape, and spread the free ends as shown:
Repeat with a second piece of tape. Now, attach the grommet loops to the middle of the front and rear parallel sides. Be sure to spread out the tape so that there is more surface area to sew.
Now attach the remaining webbing strips to the 4 corners and the two remaining midpoints. Fold each piece in half, turn it so it faces you edge on and then open it like a book to form a loop that looks like this:
Attach the loops to the remaining areas in the same manner as the grommet loops. Your Tarptent should now look like this:
Blessed be the ones inside the netting for they shall remain sane...
Before you attach the netting you should determine which long side of your Tarptent you want to raise up. If you sleep on your left side as I do you will want to raise up the left side (as viewed from the front) of the Tarptent so you can see out the side of the tent while lying down. Reverse the instructions for a "right-sided" design.
A Velcro closure is nice so that you can prop open the door when the bugs are low. Peel apart the two halves of the Velcro and stick them together again so that they form one long piece with about 1/2" overlap.
Sew the overlap area to the edge of the tarp, about 1/3 of the way up the fabric, so that it forms a right angle to the tarp.
Be sure to attach the Velcro to the left side of the Tarptent before you sew the netting. When the netting is held open by the Velcro it will look like this:
Now, sew each of the long pieces of netting to the edges of the Tarptent roof as shown below. Be sure to center each piece of netting so that there is enough material on both ends to overlap with the adjoining netting. For now, do not sew past the center of each corner.
Tip: The netting/nylon interface is slippery. You will want to use a short stitch length to prevent seam puckering. Practice with scrap before you proceed or you will have to rip out your first attempts. I also recommend cutting each long side netting in half and sewing each half separately. Once the tent is set up, pin and re-sew the break in the vertical wall. This will help eliminate the stretch in the netting.
You are now ready to set up the Tarptent and adjust the netting for good fit and finish. Be sure the Tarptent is taut before proceeding. Walk to the back of the Tarptent and pull the back window netting flap across until it's taut.
Pin the netting to the edge of the roof
Specificationsline. Now go the front of the Tarptent and repeat the sequence with the front door flap but leave a little slack to compensate for the zipper. Draw a line along the netting corresponding to the pins. This is the zipper line and you will need to trim the netting back to this line. Take down the Tarptent and sew the zipper to the right side of the Tarptent You will need to sew one side to the right edge of the roof and the other side to the edge of the netting.
Be sure to block the top of the zipper to prevent complete separation by sewing an extra piece of nylon tape across the zipper. Stitch over the area a few times. Do the same thing to the bottom of the zipper by separately taping each bottom edge and stitch to prevent unraveling.
Finish sewing the rear window along the pin line.
Set up the tent again and pin the corners of the netting so that they hang straight and slightly inward. Each corner should form a pocket (for placing rocks/shoes/etc. to hold the netting) and the netting should fold to the inside. There should be about 7 inches of netting to the inside of the tent. Trim the netting as desired. In the field, place objects along the netting border, as needed, to complete the bug seal.
When you have finished pinning the material, take the Tarptent down and sew the netting along the pin lines.
Adding a Beak
A beak is an awning that partially covers the front of the tent. I have made it a standard part of the Tarptent-for-2 and consider it optional for the original Tarptent. It adds about 1 ounce to the overall weight of the finished product. In either case, it will not be needed except when the tent front is aimed into the blowing rain. A beak will, however, allow the front netting to be left open during most storms--a benefit for increasing airflow in wet weather--and allow you to scootch up toward the front. Like the door netting, the beak is designed to be rolled up and stored with velcro when not needed.
The Tarptent is designed to have an open floor with netting border. Typically a groundcloth forms the interior. I always carry a groundcloth made of Tyvek Housewrap--a very tough and highly water resistant fabric used in building construction--and center it inside the Tarptent. My groundcloth measures 3 x 6 1/2 feet and weighs about 5 ounces.
Another option is to fill the space with a full netting, Tyvek, Silnylon, or combination floor.
A removable floor is the best of all worlds because it gives you flexibility to sleep out or in without having to carry an extra groundcloth. Here's how to make one.
Determine the dimensions of your groundcloth. Now cut or piece together a netting floor insert to match the interior dimensions of the "hole" in the Tarptent or Tarptent-for-2 (see above) and create a another hole in the middle of the netting insert that is an inch or two smaller than your groundcloth. Sew velcro to the corners and middle of the long sides as shown.
Sew corresponding velcro patches to your groundcloth as shown.
Sew the netting insert to the netting flaps on the tarptent (except the front door) and press the groundcloth velcro patches onto the netting insert. Your completed floor should now look like this,
A combination netting/removable floor should add 1-1.5 ounces to the overall Tarptent weight (not including the weight of the groundcloth). A full netting floor would add about 4 ounces.
Set up the Tarptent again and seam seal the main ridge seam and, if you wish, the seams around the pullouts. You may also wish to sew small loops at the front of ridgeline and about 1 foot toward the rear for use as a small clothesline or flashlight holder. An additional benefit of these two loops is that they double as a ridgeline tightener.
Since I first published this document, many people have asked me if I have any original Tarptents to sell. The answer is no because the new, next generation Tarptents are so much better. If you'd still like an original Tarptent, I've authorized Moonbowgear to produce them.
I put the Tarptent through an extensive field test during my hike. For nearly 5 months on the trail, the Tarptent was truly my home. Overall, it performed like a champ and I stayed exceptionally dry and warm during my walk. I do, however, have a few comments and suggestions for future Tarptent users.
The Tarptent will be forever linked with the most incredible journey of my life.
That's it! I hope you enjoy your original Tarptent or Tarptent-for-2 and please feel free to contact me with comments or suggestions.
Tarptent is a trademark of Henry Shires. I assume no responsibility with regard to the Tarptent's performance or use.
© 1999-2016 by Henry Shires. All rights reserved.