Gear Guy

Should I get a tent or a tarp?

Tent versus tarp? Scott Gillette San Jose, California

A: You're a man of few words, Scott. But they're profound words. Why, the Greeks wrote entire volumes-now lost in the mists of antiquity, of course-on this very topic. The Romans roamed throughout their vast empire in the hope of finding someone who could unravel this conundrum. They even coined a motto that has passed down to this day: "Tentum, tarpum, tormentum," or, "We tented, we tarped, we got confused." Later, mystics wandering the wilderness of the Dark Ages asked of passersby, "Tent...or tarp? Tent...or tarp?" But it was the Dark Ages, of course, so they were promptly killed with sharp sticks. And then came the Age of Enlightenment, when great philosophers such as Rene Descartes turned their powerful brains toward this dilemma. "Campito ergo tent," was his famous line-"I camp, therefore I tent." And that seemed to settle things for a number of years.

Today, of course, technology has allows us to have it both ways-to tent, OR to tarp. But the way remains unclear at times. Myself, I'm a tent person. If I'm going to pack a shelter, I want it to be effective and reliable in all sorts of weather conditions. Tents have the advantage of a guaranteed dry floor, and walls that keep blowing rain out if the wind picks up. And a tent need not weigh a great deal-I often recommend the Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight ($189), a two-person tent (although better for one) that weighs under four pounds. GoLite's Den 2 ($199), which sleeps two and weighs just three pounds, eight ounces, is a real lightweight option.

On the other hand, tarps weight even less. Moss's Heptawing ($159) can cover up to three people yet weighs under two pounds. But then tarps only keep the rain off you when it's falling from above. You'll probably need a ground cover of some sort, in addition to the tarp. And tarps can be a little tricky to set up, though that also means they're open to creative interpretations. And you can fit tarps into places were you can't fit a tent.

So, for absolute minimum weight on a trip where rough, wet weather is apt to be the exception: Tarp. When reliable shelter is worth the extra two pounds: Tent. Thousands of years of debate are settled with these simple words.

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