It's one of the most indispensable pieces of gear I own
I got my start in the outdoor writing world as an annoyingly eager intern at the now-defunct Paddler Magazine (may it rest in peace) a little over ten years ago. The mag was based out of Kirkland, Washington, and the gig involved a lot of rafting and kayaking in the notoriously damp Pacific Northwest. In addition to the tiny budget and savage hangovers that go hand-in-hand with partying at whitewater festivals, I had to deal with camping in an cheap tent that kept getting its ass kicked in rainstorms. I regularly woke up with wet everything. That is, until I made the $12 investment in a 10-by-12-foot Stansport reinforced multipurpose tarp.
Regardless of how solid your tent is, stringing up a slanted tarp as an extra roof is a good idea in wet places. In addition to creating a spot where you can set up your tent out of the rain, a tarp affords you some dry space to hang up funky shoes and soggy gear.
Really, though, I can use my tarp for just about anything. I’ll pack one for a 21-day self-supported raft trip through the Grand Canyon, then turn around and use it to line the trunk of my Honda Element to protect the interior when hauling yard debris. No other piece of gear fits so perfectly within my most core activities and my most mundane.
On top of being extremely useful, tarps are ubiquitous. You can find a big, cheap plastic tarp just about anywhere. Professional alpinist Graham Zimmerman once told me that even though he uses a tarp on pretty much every expedition, he rarely travels with one, knowing he can find one in just about any market or gas station in the world.
There’s also the fact that setting up a tarp is just plain fun—like creating a pillow fort in your living room, only with waterproof, indestructible pillows and with the whole backcountry as your playground. During my days as a raft guide, we would set up a tarp even if there was zero percent chance of rain (I have it on good authority that the likelihood of rain drops 30 percent after you prepare for it) just to hedge our bets, as well as to provide some shade and sun protection.
So which tarp should you buy? I’ve never been let down by Stansport. There are, of course, fancy featherweight pre-preg sil-nylon tarps, which are amazing for making an ultralight shelter while on climbing routes, but for most uses, a cheap tarp is best. Treat it nicely and it’ll last for years. And if it doesn’t, a replacement isn’t hard to find.