Tent Footprint Vs Tarp (Which is Best?)

By: Derek Vitiello | Last Updated on December 22, 2023

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Greetings, fellow lovers of the great outdoors! Today, we dive into a topic that doesn’t always make the top of camping discussions but is absolutely vital for an enjoyable and hassle-free camping experience. The focus of our attention? Tent footprints and tarps – two essential pieces of gear that provide that all-important barrier between your […]

Greetings, fellow lovers of the great outdoors! Today, we dive into a topic that doesn’t always make the top of camping discussions but is absolutely vital for an enjoyable and hassle-free camping experience. The focus of our attention? Tent footprints and tarps – two essential pieces of gear that provide that all-important barrier between your tent and the ground beneath.

This might not seem like a thrilling topic at first glance, but anyone who’s ever camped in wet or uneven terrain can attest to the significant role these items play. By ensuring a dry, smooth base for your tent, they not only contribute to your comfort but also extend the lifespan of your shelter. But when should you choose one over the other? What are the pros and cons of each?

Drawing from a treasure trove of personal camping experiences in diverse settings, as well as professional insights gleaned over the years, this guide aims to break down these questions and more. It’s time to shed some light on the humble, yet crucial, world of ground protection. So, let’s delve in and arm you with the knowledge you need to make the right choice for your next camping adventure!

Tent Footprint vs Tarp: A Comparison

When it comes to choosing between a tent footprint and a tarp, the decision ultimately boils down to your specific needs, the nature of your camping trip, and personal preference. At their core, both serve the same fundamental purpose: to provide a protective barrier between your tent and the ground. However, their design, functionality, and use can significantly differ.

A tent footprint is a custom-cut piece that fits exactly under your tent, providing a protective layer against rough terrain, moisture, and cold. On the other hand, a tarp is a multipurpose, rectangular or square sheet that can be adapted for a variety of uses, including as a ground cover. But let’s delve deeper and break down these differences into specific aspects.

QualityTent FootprintTarp
CoverageSpecifically designed for each tent modelOffers general protection
PortabilityMore compact and lightweightHeavy and bulkier
Ease of UseEasy to setupRequires customizing and more work
Weather ResistanceSuperior waterproofingPretty waterproof
DurabilityThinner material and smallerThicker and longer lasting
AffordabilityMore expensiveMore affordable

Durability & Material

Tent footprints are typically made from sturdy, durable materials like denier polyester or nylon, and are designed to withstand rough ground conditions. However, the lifespan of a footprint usually aligns with that of your tent, and it may need replacement after extensive use.

Tarps are often more durable due to their thickness and robust materials such as polyethylene, canvas, or treated nylon. Their durability, combined with proper care, can see them last for many years.

Portability & Weight

Tent footprints are generally more compact and lighter than tarps, owing to their smaller size and thinner material. This makes them a favorite among backpackers and minimalists who aim to keep their pack weight down.

Tarps, although typically heavier and bulkier, can be packed relatively compactly, especially if they are made of lightweight materials like silnylon or polyethylene. Their multipurpose nature might justify the additional weight for some campers.


A tent footprint is designed to match the exact dimensions of your tent’s base. This specificity ensures that no part of your tent is left unprotected, shielding you from wet or abrasive ground conditions. It also prevents pooling of water between the footprint and the tent floor, which can occur if the ground cover extends beyond the tent edges.

A tarp, while it can serve a similar purpose, offers more extensive coverage due to its larger size. However, this can sometimes be a drawback as it could encourage water collection if not properly tucked under the tent. Additionally, a tarp can serve multiple purposes, like forming a sheltered area for cooking or relaxation, thanks to its generous dimensions.

Ease of Use

With a tent footprint, it’s straightforward: line it up with your tent base, stake it down, and pitch your tent on top. No fuss, no muss.

Tarps, on the other hand, require more skill to use effectively. You need to properly fold and align it under your tent, or rig it up as a shelter or windbreak. However, this versatility can be a significant advantage for more experienced campers.

Weather Resistance

Both tent footprints and tarps provide excellent protection from moisture seeping up from the ground. However, a high-quality tent footprint typically offers superior waterproofing as it is designed specifically for this purpose.

Tarps can also offer good weather resistance, but this can greatly depend on the material and quality. They also provide the added benefit of creating a makeshift shelter against rain or sun.


Tent footprints, especially those custom-designed for specific tent models, can be quite pricey. However, considering they extend the life of your tent, many see it as a worthy investment.

Tarps are generally cheaper and offer good value due to their versatility and durability. However, prices can vary greatly based on size, material, and quality. Always consider these factors in conjunction with your camping needs when making a decision.

Purpose of a Tent Footprint or Tarp

A tent footprint, often overlooked by novice campers, serves a fundamental role in enhancing your camping experience. Custom-designed to match the exact shape and size of your tent’s base, a tent footprint is essentially a protective layer that acts as a barrier between the harsh ground conditions and your tent.

First and foremost, a tent footprint protects your tent floor from the abrasive elements of the camping terrain. Whether it’s rough gravel, sharp twigs, or small stones, these natural elements can cause wear and tear on your tent floor over time. By taking the brunt of this abrasion, a tent footprint extends the lifespan of your tent, saving you from early replacements.

Secondly, a tent footprint provides a crucial line of defense against ground moisture. In wet or dewy conditions, moisture can seep upwards through the floor of your tent, creating an uncomfortably damp environment inside. This moisture can also potentially damage your tent material over time. By creating a waterproof barrier, a tent footprint keeps your tent interior dry and comfortable.

Finally, a tent footprint can add an extra layer of insulation from the cold ground, especially in cooler climates or during shoulder seasons. This additional layer can make a significant difference in maintaining the warmth inside your tent, contributing to a more comfortable night’s sleep in the great outdoors.

Do You Need to Use a Footprint or Tarp?

It’s really up to you whether or not you use a footprint or a tarp, but we highly recommend using at least something. It will greatly increase the longevity of your tent floor so it’s well worth the initial investment. If you want to learn more about if you need one or not, continue reading Do You Need a Tent Footprint?.


Deciding between a tent footprint and a tarp hinges on your specific needs, the nature of your trip, and personal preference. A tent footprint offers precise coverage, portability, and great protection, enhancing the lifespan of your tent. A tarp, while bulkier, scores high on versatility and durability, and can serve multiple uses at your campsite.

In essence, both tent footprints and tarps play a vital role in making your camping experience more comfortable and enjoyable. Armed with this knowledge, you’re now well-equipped to make a decision that best suits your camping needs. Here’s to many more memorable adventures in the great outdoors!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a tent footprint and a tarp?

A tent footprint is specifically designed to fit under the tent and protect it from rough surfaces, moisture, and other elements. It is usually made of lightweight and durable materials. On the other hand, a tarp is a versatile piece of fabric that can be used for various purposes, including as a ground cover for camping. While both provide some protection, a tent footprint is custom-made for tents, whereas a tarp is a more multipurpose tool.

Which one is better for protecting the tent floor: a tent footprint or a tarp?

A tent footprint is generally better for protecting the tent floor. It is designed to perfectly match the dimensions of the tent and provide an extra layer of protection against punctures, moisture, and dirt. The materials used in tent footprints are often stronger and more resistant to wear and tear, ensuring longevity. While a tarp can offer some protection, it may not fit the tent as well and may not provide the same level of durability.

Can a tarp be a cost-effective alternative to a tent footprint?

Yes, a tarp can be a cost-effective alternative to a tent footprint. If you’re on a tight budget or don’t want to invest in a specific footprint, a tarp can serve the purpose. However, keep in mind that a tarp may not provide the same level of protection and durability as a tent footprint. It may require more effort to properly fit the tarp to the tent dimensions and secure it in place.

Are tent footprints and tarps interchangeable?

While tent footprints and tarps can offer some overlapping benefits, they are not completely interchangeable. Tent footprints are designed to perfectly fit the dimensions of a specific tent, providing the best protection and durability. Tarps, on the other hand, are not tailor-made for tents and may not fit as snugly or offer the same level of protection. If you have a tent footprint, it’s generally recommended to use it for optimal performance.

Why Trust Know Nothing Nomads?

Since 2017, Know Nothing Nomads has cemented itself as the “approachable experts” in everything camping, hiking, climbing, and adventuring in the Great Outdoors.

With over 60 years of experience in the outdoors, we don’t just talk about outdoor gear or recommend a good hiking trail.

We USE the gear we talk about. We’ve hiked 1000’s of miles. We have camped 1000’s of nights in the wilderness. We have sent hundreds of boulders and projects.

We don’t just know a few things about the outdoors — WE EAT, SLEEP, AND BREATHE IT.

We are not journalists from a magazine telling someone else’s stories from behind a computer. We are the ACTUAL outdoorsmen that those people write about. 

We are not a “gear lab” that runs tests on gear in life-like conditions. We are the seasoned, “trial-by-fire” experts who have taken the gear into the wilderness and USED IT. Read about our gear testing process here

We started Know Nothing Nomads to share our passion and expertise with our readers to inspire, educate, and enable you to explore the outdoors in the way that we have. And you will be more equipped and capable than ever before with the knowledge you gain here guiding you along the way.

And the best part? We are real people that LOVE our readers and this community. If you need anything or have a question about any of the things we have to write about, just reach out. Normally, one of us can respond within 24 hours, sometimes within minutes. THAT is the approachable expert.

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About The Author

Derek, Co-Founder at Know Nothing Nomads

My goal with my writing and Know Nothing Nomads as a whole is to share my passions of hiking, camping, and a love of the outdoors with our readers.

Making the difficult and uncertain feel more approachable to people that might not know enough to feel comfortable taking their first steps into the wilderness is a driving factor for me.

When I'm not writing you can find me on a trail, in a forest, or next to a river with hiking shoes on my feet and a fly rod somewhere close by.

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