When it comes to camping, one of the most important pieces of equipment is your tent. But there is one vital element of your tent that many campers don’t consider – a footprint. When you’ve already dropped a few hundred dollars on a new tent, do you really want to spend more on purchasing the matching footprint?
The short answer is yes, you really do need a footprint. While you don’t technically have to have one, we highly recommend it. It increases your tent’s longevity, so why not take the proper steps to protect your purchase?
Let’s discuss do you need a tent footprint, what a footprint does, what to consider before you buy one, and even how to make your own tent footprint. But first, what is a tent footprint?
What is a Tent Footprint?
A tent footprint is a lightweight ground sheet that lays on the terrain underneath your tent floor. It creates a barrier and protects the floor fabric from dirt, debris, and moisture by providing a layer of protection. Most tent manufacturers don’t include a footprint in the tent purchase, but some do. That’s something to look for in the product description before purchasing.
Most tent footprints have a higher denier fabric that’s abrasion resistant, puncture resistant, and water resistant. Tent specific footprints are the easiest since they already match your tent’s floor dimensions, but they are also the more expensive option. If you want, you can make your own, which we will cover below.
What Does a Footprint Do?
A tent footprint acts a ground cloth that is placed underneath a tent before you pitch it. It provides an extra layer of protection between the tent and the ground, and helps extend the life of your tent floor by protecting it from abrasive surfaces and dirt. It can also help with campsite selection, but at its most basic description, a tent footprint extends the life of your tent by protecting the floor.
The tent floor will have a waterproof rating that’s measured in millimeters and it will usually be around 1200mm or more – this is a sign of waterproof tent material. On higher quality tents, you may even see a rating higher than the tent’s rainfly, sometimes upwards of 1500mm+.
This makes the tent floor relatively waterproof, but a tent footprint can increase that waterproofing even more. A footprint should have a high waterhead rating so it can provide additional protection from the wet ground, especially after heavy rain.
Abrasive surfaces, such as small rocks and twigs, can cause tears and holes (worst case scenario) in the tent floor if they are left underneath the tent. Best case scenario, the durable camping surfaces where we set up our tents will wear down the tent floor over time, making it weaker and more prone to holes. This is especially true for gravel campsites, which have been becoming more and more common. Even wilder campsites will have rocks and sticks that can hurt your tent. A footprint will help protect the floor from abrasive stuff and keep your tent in good shape for a longer period of time.
Dirt & Debris
Even at established campsites, the ground is full of all kinds of dirt and debris like mud, leaves, tree sap, and dirt. A footprint can help keep your tent clean and extend the life of your tent floor by keeping it from getting dirty. Plus, it will make it easier to clean up after your camping trip since you’re just cleaning one piece of fabric instead of your working with your entire tent.
Whether you’re selecting a campsite or the specific spot to setup your tent within a site, a footprint can be a handy tool in picking a good spot. Since the footprint is the same dimensions as your tent, you can lay it out before pitching your tent to get a visual of the best spot. It will also show you if you will have trouble avoiding a certain tree root that’s sticking out or if there’s a different spot you should try.
Things To Consider Before You Buy
When buying a tent footprint, there are a few things you should consider.
Fabric denier is a measure of the thickness of the fabric and is commonly seen as a number followed by a capital D (e.g., 65D). A higher denier means a thicker fabric, which is more durable and provides better protection for your tent. Look for footprints with a denier of at least 65-70+ for optimal protection, but the higher the number the better.
If your tent floor fabric already has a really high denier, then it may not require a footprint, but we would personally still get one so we can extend the life of our tent purchase. If your tent floor as a low denier, like in backpacking tents and cheap tents, if would definitely be worth getting the footprint, especially if weight isn’t a concern.
If you are car camping, then weight isn’t as much of a concern. However, if you are using a lightweight backpacking tent, you may or may not want the extra weight of a footprint. A lighter tent will have a significantly thinner denier floor, leaving it susceptible to abrasion and holes. You can either save weight and set up your tent only on ideal surfaces, or you can take the weight penalty and carry the tent footprint for added protection.
For example, the North Face Stormbreak 2 (best tent under $200) weighs five pounds five ounces or less than four pounds for a past pitch trail weight. The footprint is sold separately for an extra 25% of the cost and adds 8.2 ounces. While that may not seem like much, that’s an extra 1/2 pound that could be spared if you want to carry less weight. After all, ounces make pounds and pounds make misery.
The terrain where you plan to pitch your tent should also be taken into account. For example, if you plan to pitch your tent on rocky or mountainous terrain (especially in forests), you should buy a thicker footprint to provide extra protection. If you regularly camp on soft, grassy areas or sand, then you may not need a tent footprint.
Finally, cost should be taken into consideration when buying a footprint. For budget-conscious campers, there are plenty of affordable footprints on the market. However, if you are willing to spend a bit more, you can get a more durable and higher quality footprint. If you don’t want to spend the extra money, there are some affordable ways to make your own (see below).
On the other hand, if you have already spend hundreds on a high quality and/or expensive tent, why wouldn’t you take the steps to extend its life and protect it from the abrasive ground? Your tent will last longer and your wallet will thank you in the long run.
DIY or Tent Specific
If you’ve decided you want a footprint but can’t decide if you want to purchase the tent specific footprint or do-it-yourself, here’s the pros and cons of each.
DIY tent footprints can be a great option if you want to save some money in exchange for the time it takes to measure and cut the right material. You can usually also save some weight by purchasing materials that are affordable yet lightweight. If you frequently have DIY projects, you may be more prepared than someone who doesn’t normally DIY.
On the other hand, it’s worth giving credit where it’s due when it comes to tent specific footprints. Since the tent and footprint are precisely measured together, there’s no work when it comes to getting it just right. Plus, these tent footprints have metal grommets on the corners so you can pitch it using your tent poles instead of it just being free flowing underneath. While this isn’t a requirement, it does come in handy during adverse conditions like strong winds and heavy rain.
DIY Tent Footprints
If you don’t want to buy a one and your tent doesn’t come with one, you can always make your own footprint. You can use a tarp from your local hardware store, Tyvek, or plastic sheeting to make a DIY footprint. This is a great way to save money and still get the protection you need. A lot of ultralight campers also really lie Polycryo, which is a 0.7mm thick ground cloth substitute.
Just make sure you cut the fabric so that it’s about one inch smaller than you tent’s floor. If it sticks out at all, it can catch rainwater and let it pool between your tent floor and footprint. At that point, the water can start to seep through the tent floor and get your sleeping pad and equipment wet.
Can I use a tent without a footprint?
Yes, it is possible to use a tent without a footprint, especially if your tent floor has a thicker denier. However, it’s not recommended as it can lead to damage to the tent floor. A footprint will provide an extra layer of protection and help your tent last longer.
How important is a footprint for a tent?
A footprint is an important element of a tent. It provides a layer of protection between the tent and the ground and can help prevent any damage to the tent floor caused by abrasive surfaces, dirt and debris, and water.
What can I use instead of a tent footprint?
If you don’t want to buy a tent footprint, you can make your own using a tarp or plastic sheeting for just a few dollars. This is a great way to save money and still get the protection you need. You just need to cut the piece of material to be slightly smaller (approximately one inch smaller) than the dimensions of your tent floor.
Why do you need a footprint under your tent?
Tent footprints provide a protective barrier between the ground and your tent floor fabric, which helps the floor resist damage from abrasion and moisture while extending its lifespan.
Why put a tarp under your tent?
A tarp under your tent acts as a footprint or ground sheet, and it’s meant to increase the life of your tent. One of the first things to wear out on a tent is the floor, so it’s important to take care of by using some kind of barrier between the ground and your tent.
A footprint is an important element of a tent, but it’s not 100% necessary. It provides a layer of protection between the tent and the ground, and can help prevent damage to the tent floor in the long term. While footprints made by tent manufacturers may be heavier and more expensive, they are arguably more durable and easier to use. If you don’t mind the slightly heavier weight, then this would be our top choice. If you are concerned about weight or price but still want to protect your tent bottom, then you could consider a DIY option listed above.