Do I need a tent footprint?

Do I really need a tent footprint? I've used a piece of plastic in the past (actually a clear plastic tablecloth), which turned out to be really light and durable. Now I have a brand-new tent and have bought its footprint for $35, but I'm wondering if I should just go back to my $2.99 plastic tablecloth. What does the footprint do? Protect the bottom of the tent, keep moisture off the bottom? Jo-Jo Victoria, British Columbia

A: There's lots of confusion over the use of a tent footprint (does it keep out water? Is it for insulation?). But here at the Gear Brain Trust, we can clear this up. A tent footprint or ground cover simply helps protect the floor of the tent from abrasion. That's because when you pitch a tent and then get in, your bodyweight and tossing and turning during the night grind the fabric in the ground, wearing off the waterproof coating and in time perhaps even damaging the fabric. With a footprint down, it takes the abuse instead.

Big Agnes Madhouse 2 Footprint

How necessary this is, well, that's an open question. I mean, we used to pitch tents without footprints all the time, and I can't recall anything bad coming from it. Tents really are pretty fragile, and sun and UV exposure pose as much or greater risk to a tent than physical wear. Still, on rough, gritty ground, it's a way to protect your investment (as is pitching the tent in the shade and staking it out tightly so it can't thrash around).

But I don't think you need to buy a purpose-built footprint. A homemade one is fine. Your cheap tablecloth fits the bill nicely; I usually use polyethylene sheeting purchased from a hardware store. The trick is to make sure the footprint is cut so it's a little smaller than the tent floor. In other words, you don't want any of the footprint stuck out from under the tent. If it is, then any rain that falls will be trapped on the footprint and will roll under the tent.

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Filed To: Tents
Lead Photo: courtesy, REI
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