And now, a camping disaster story:
Or, if you’d prefer not to feel better about your camping skills by poking fun at mine, use the QUICK LINKS to jump ahead.
- Type 1: Traditional A-Frame
- Type 2: Ridgeline A-Frame
- Type 3: Wind-and-Rain Bivvy
- Type 4: Soggy Bottom Sheddy
- Type 5: Fair Weather Sheddy
- 1. Waterproof Tarpaulin
- Outdoor Products All Purpose Tarp
- REI Co-Op Quarter Dome SL Tarp
- 2. Lightweight Stakes
- Wise Owl Outfitters Tent Stakes
- 3. Guy Lines and CamJams
- PMI 3mm Utility Cord (50 ft.)
- Nite Ize CamJam Carabiner Clips
- 4. Trekking Poles or Tarp Poles
- TrailBuddy Trekking Poles
- REI Co-Op Trailbreaking Trekking Poles
It was October in South Texas the first time I wished I knew how to make a camping tent from scratch.
The temps had finally begun to cool off and there was a slight chance of drizzling rain. Not perfect weather; but, I take what I can get. I jumped in the Wrangler and headed off for Colorado Bend State Park.
Three hours later, I pulled off the road by the trailhead that led to my campsite. The wind had picked up considerably. Cell service is nonexistent in this stretch of hill country meaning I couldn’t get a weather update.
Still, one look at the darkening sky gave me the impression that I was in for wetter weather than the forecast had predicted that morning.
After hiking the 3 miles to the campsite, I dropped my pack and began to unroll my ultralight BIG Agnes Fly Creek 2-person tent.
I love this tent. It’s been a faithful companion now for over 10 years of camping and countless miles. Never once had I had a single problem with it.
That’s a foreshadow, folks.
As the looming clouds began to spit a drizzle, I laid out my footprint, unfurled the tent, and began to piece together the only two tent poles required to support my shelter.
And, pop! The elastic shock cord running through the pole segments snapped, leaving me with a randomized scatter of loose, non-uniform segments.
I managed to piece these back together as the drizzle became a respectable rain. Feeding the poles through the sleeves and into the anchor eyelets of the tent, I was seconds from having a roof over my head when … RIP!
The metal eyelet that holds the tip of the first pole in place tore from the rear of the tent fabric!
Seriously? And, the rain became a downpour.
Ultimately, I had to resort to supporting the tent from the inside with a single trekking pole positioned as a center post. The sad result was a miniature dilapidated, sagging teepee hardly big enough for me to sit Indian-style in.
Wet and slightly perturbed, I was still determined to enjoy myself.
I shimmied under the loose fabric and fumbled for the zipper. One tug and the zipper tape came completely free of its stitching … and the tent.
You’ve got to be kidding. Wind gusts and thunder joined the onslaught.
How to Make a Camping Tent From Scratch
Now, it’s time to get down to business and make that tent!
Following these simple steps, you’ll discover three variations of the basic A-frame tarp shelter and two based on an open-air method for fair-weather conditions.
Let’s get to it!
Type 1: Traditional A-Frame
It’s a backyard classic! The A-Frame tent is arguably the most useful DIY camping tent because it can be adapted to any number of weather and terrain conditions. In fact, with a few modifications, it can become a tarp shelter suitable for just about anything except high winds.
Oh, and it makes for a great indoor tent for those family living room camp-ins.
To make an A-Frame tarp shelter:
- Secure one edge of the tarp by staking down the two corners.
- Position your trekking poles vertically grip-to-the-ground with the tip through the center eyelet of what will be the front and rear edges of your shelter.
- Using 2 lengths of paracord and two more stakes, create tight guy lines from the poles’ tips to the stakes in the ground.
- Secure the remaining 2 corners of the tarp on the other side. Then, use the guy lines to tighten trekking poles.
- To keep the tent sides from sagging, drive additional stakes through any available eyelets.
- Lay out your floor tarp inside the shelter (optional).
Wilderness Tip: If the top of your tent sags, tighten the guy lines on your poles.
Type 2: Ridgeline A-Frame
If you’re pitching camp near trees and decided not (or forgot) to pack your trekking poles, then this is the tarp shelter for you.
Wilderness Tip: The Nite Ize CamJams are super useful for tightening the ridgeline in this configuration.
To make a Ridgeline A-Frame:
- Select two trees that are spaced an appropriate distance apart to accommodate the length of your tarp. Using a Cam Jam or a bowline knot tie one end of the cord around one tree and run the cord along the ground to the second tree.
- Center the tarp over the paracord on the ground.
- Using a CamJam or a trucker’s hitch (or another easily adjustable knot), tie the rope to the second tree. Adjust the height of the paracord so that the tarp hangs centered and the sides can be staked to the ground at a 45° angle.
- Tension the ridgeline between the trees so that the top of the tent is as ridged as possible.
- Stake the corners of your tarp so that the sides slant at 45°.
- If needed, cut two short lengths of paracord and secure the apex of the shelter to the ridgeline with prusik knots (or those darn-handy CamJams) to prevent it from sliding inward (see illustration).
- Lay out your floor tarp (optional).
Type 3: Wind-and-Rain Bivvy
A gentle shower with no wind is one thing. Thirty-mile-an-hour gusts driving it sideways into your tent is another.
For those times when the weatherman got it wrong (again) or you just neglected to check the forecast (again), you’ll need a little more protection from the wind and rain. That’s where the Wind-and-Rain Bivvy comes in.
It looks like you commanded your A-Frame to “Sit, boy!”
To make a Wind-and-Rain Bivvy:
- Spread your tarp on the ground and stake the center of what will be the rear of your tent firmly to the ground (you’ll stake the corners later).
- Position one trekking pole so that it supports the center of the front of the tarp creating the opening (facing away from the wind, right?)
- Secure the front two corners with stakes.
- Secure the rear two corners with stakes.
- Secure other eyelets with additional stakes to provide more wind resistance.
- Spread your floor tarp out inside (optional)
Wilderness Tip: If the wind shifts directions you can adjust the height of your trekking pole to lower the opening. You’ll need to adjust your stakes on the front corners to keep it taut.
Type 4: Soggy Bottom Sheddy
Have you ever arrived at your campsite just after a drenching downpour? The warm sun glints through the breaking clouds, the birds resume their cheerful chirping, and you’ve got nothing but fair weather ahead.
One problem: the ground is a muddy mess.
Nope, two problems: you forgot your floor tarp.
Fret not! The Soggy Bottom Sheddy utilizes part of your handy camping tarp as a ground sheet providing a nice dry place to plant your buttocks and spread your sleeping bag.
To make the Soggy Bottom Sheddy:
- Determine which end of the tarp will serve as your ground sheet. Use 4 stakes to anchor a rectangle of the material just big enough to sleep on (about 1/4 of the tarp).
- Position a trekking pole vertically so that the tip supports what will become the ridgeline of the shelter and so that at least 1/4 of the material is left hanging.
- Run a guy line from the corner eyelet of the remaining portion of the tarp to a stake in the ground perpendicular to the ridgeline.
- Repeat this process with the other pole on the opposite side.
- If additional support for the poles is needed, it’s a good idea to run a guy line from the tip of each pole to the back of the shelter and stake them down.
Enjoy the benefits of an open-air shelter and dry booty.
Type 5: Fair Weather Sheddy
My personal favorite in balmy weather and when there is a view that would be a shame to block with a tarp, the Fair Weather Sheddy is perfect for near-perfect weather.
It’s also handy for blocking that stiff breeze that keeps snuffing your kindling or providing just enough cover to keep off dripping sap or bird bombs in wooded areas.
To make a Fair Weather Sheddy:
- Stake down the corners of one edge of the tarp (away from the pristine view or against an annoying wind or camper).
- Position a trekking pole with a guy line in the center eyelet of an adjacent edge. Stake it down and tension the pole’s guy line at a right angle to the tarp’s edge to hold it in place.
- Now move to the opposite edge of the tarp. Position your second trekking pole in its center eyelet. Run the pole’s guy line perpendicular to the first guy line you set and stake it down.
- Stake down the remaining corner and edges as needed or until stakes run out.
- By now, there should be one corner of the tarp hanging loosely at the front. Use a length of paracord as a guy line and stake it to the ground or tie it to a tree.
Now, kick back and take in that view.
DIY Lightweight Camping Tent Materials
Technically speaking, we’re going to discuss several different types of tarp shelters.
A tarp shelter is an easy way to pack light, avoid spending hundreds on a technical hyper-light tent, and still stay dry and comfortable in bad weather.
And, if this is for the kids in the backyard, you don’t have to worry about having the right tools. None needed!
There are several common types of tarp shelters and most of the needed materials are already common camping/backpacking take-alongs. The best type is ultimately determined by the circumstances you find yourself in when it’s time to pitch camp.
The more familiar you are with all 5, the more awe-inspiring you’ll be to you’re camping buddies … and, less importantly, capable of quickly deploying an emergency shelter in desperate times.
All 5 of the following tarp shelters use the same materials … or less.
Tarp Shelter Materials:
- 8′ x 6′ tarpaulin (or larger, preferably) with eyelets (small holes) or loops at the centers and corners (the more the better)
- Floor tarp or ground sheet (optional … and handy if camping on wet ground)
- 8 tent stakes (minimum)
- 2 trekking poles
- Paracord or guy rope
First thing first: If you don’t have these materials on hand already, they can be acquired for far less moolah than buying a quality manufactured tent. Here are the materials we recommend.
1. Waterproof Tarpaulin
The first step is to make sure you have a good tarpaulin for the tent body.
For camping or backpacking, the best tarps walk a fine line between being lightweight and light-on-your-wallet. A good, waterproof tarp serves as the tent walls and ceiling and needs to be able to stand up to the elements.
Here are two we recommend:
Outdoor Products All Purpose Tarp
If saving money is higher on your priority list than saving ounces, the Outdoor Products All Purpose Tarp will serve you well. It’s a few ounces heavier than technical backpacking tarps of the same size, but it doesn’t cost a lot of money and is still plenty tough.
This tarp is available in 3 different sizes (depending on how much space you need), has plenty of eyelets for anchoring with stakes and guy lines, and sports a bright blue color, making a bit of a mar on the natural landscape but an eye-catching signal in an emergency.
Because it’s dirt cheap, you can grab a second tarp to use as a ground sheet.
REI Co-Op Quarter Dome SL Tarp
If you’re walking that thin line between saving dollars and shaving ounces, we recommend the Quarter Dome tarpaulin from REI.
This 9.5′ x 9.5′ waterproof, 12-ounce, ripstop nylon tarp is not only generously endowed with anchor points, but it also comes complete with stakes and reflective guy lines (and a thrown-in Nalgene bottle to sweeten the deal) for less than half the price of other technical, ultralight tarps its size.
You’ll just need to compliment it with a ground sheet or tent footprint.
2. Lightweight Stakes
A lot of times, outdoor tents come with stakes. So, if you already have one, we recommend re-purposing those for your homemade tent.
Otherwise, virtually indestructible, lightweight stakes are easy (and cheap) to come by. Such as:
Wise Owl Outfitters Tent Stakes
Wise Owl’s heavy-duty aluminum stakes are made of the same tough stuff Big Agnes’ $300 tents come with, and for a micro-fraction of the cost.
Wilderness Tip: I once had a friend who claimed he “didn’t need no stinkin’ stakes” and could hold down the edges of his tarp with heavy rocks or sticks, being the puritan survivalist he was.
During the windy night, he woke up to a sleeping bag covered with grit and leaves and a tarp that was … gone.
3. Guy Lines and CamJams
If you like to bring joy and laughter to the lives of others, let them watch you try to set up a tarp shelter without guy lines.
You’ll have them in stitches.
At a bare minimum, it’s recommended to pack along 50 feet of cord. Depending on the type of shelter you plan to deploy and the environment you’ll be in, up to 80 feet is a better guarantee against coming up short.
While 550 paracord is a standard among outdoor enthusiasts, a lighter-weight utility cord can be a more practical option, such as …
PMI 3mm Utility Cord (50 ft.)
While not as robust as 550 cordages, this thin nylon rope still sports a cord strength of 400 lbs., making it more-than-capable of serving as guy lines, clotheslines, or for hanging food away from woodland critters.
Shoot, unless you’re a human behemoth, you could theoretically repel yourself down a cliff face with it.
Wilderness Tip: Don’t do that. Just don’t. And if you do, don’t come back saying we told you to.
Nite Ize CamJam Carabiner Clips
I received a set of these for Christmas 3 years ago and thought, “I will never use these.”
I have never been so wrong.
Seriously. With these, you can run, secure, and tighten a guy line with super human finesse and speed.
If you don’t want to take the time to tie bowline, trucker, and prusik knots, get some CamJams. And, then, get some for a friend’s stocking.
4. Trekking Poles or Tarp Poles
If you’re already into hiking and backpacking, chances are you have yourself a faithful set of “second legs.”
If not, and you want to be a big, bad backwoodsmen-slash-woman, you can go twig-hunting or denude dead trees when you arrive at your chosen campsite. With luck, you’ll find two relatively uniform sticks with which to support your tarp.
Great idea! You go, boy-slash-girl.
As for the rest of us, a good set of poles is a must.
TrailBuddy Trekking Poles
For an inexpensive get-the-job-done set of trekking poles, TrailBuddy has received a lot of praise for its poles.
While not as lightweight (1.5 lbs./pair) as technical poles by better-known backpacking brands, they’ll suffice for the casual backpacker or camper.
REI Co-Op Trailbreaking Trekking Poles
At a smidge over a pound, this pair of poles sport a decent balance between weight and cost. Plus, you can be sure that REI will stand behind everything they sell.
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Waterproofing the Inside of The Tent
Actually, it’s impossible. But, there are preventative steps you can take to keep that water from completely infiltrating you and your gear.
If heavy, prolonged rain is in the forecast and you are still determined to commune with nature in your tarp shelter, the new challenge you will have to come to terms with is runoff or the build-up of unabsorbed water on the ground that will eventually seep under the bottom edges of your tent.
- Select a flat surface on high ground (NOT at the base of a hill).
- Lay out your ground sheet and deploy the Wind-and-Rain A-Frame over it.
- Inside your shelter, turn the edges of your groundsheet upwards so that they lay against the inside bottom edges of your tarp, creating “tub walls” against any groundwater outside.
- Use items from your pack or stones to anchor the corners, preventing your groundsheet from shifting.
- If rain is coming in the opening of your shelter, adjust the height of your pole lower and/or, create an “awning” with a rain jacket (you packed one, right?) by draping it over the guyline and the front of the tent.
- Secure the little loop inside the neckline of the jacket to your pole tip and the sleeves to the tarp’s base using cordage. Pull it semi-taut (Don’t rip your jacket. That’s the important thing.)
Why Make a Camping Tent From Scratch?
As the weight of the rain pressed the nylon ripstop of my sagging teepee down around me, it dawned on my brain that I probably should have given my camping gear a once-over before I left home.
It also occurred to me that one would be wise to pack the simple makings of a DIY backup shelter in case one’s primary decides to commit hara-kiri in the middle of a rainstorm.
Whether you have searched up how to make your own tent out of emergency, necessity, or simply because you’re craving that Look-What-I-Did sense of accomplishment, this guide will show you how to make a basic but functional tent.
And all you need are materials you probably already have in your stash of camping and hiking gear.
It’s cheaper. It lightens your load when backpacking. It enhances your camping experience by compelling you to be more resourceful. It impresses friends at parties.
You bushcraft freebird, you.
Maybe, like me, your old tent just bought the farm and you’re not quite ready to shell out for a new tent for the upcoming trip.
Or, parents, say your kids are asking you to set up a quick tent in the backyard (or living room) to play in. Forget measuring, cutting, and piecing together a bunch of PVC pipes all afternoon … completely unnecessary!
Now, you may not want to depend on the following DIY tent designs during monsoon season or an Arizona-style ha-boob; but in a pinch, it will do the job and keep you (relatively) dry.
And, who knows, you may even be able to give it that magic tweak to make it your primary!
You Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Tent
There you have it! Five different ways to rig up a camping tent from scratch with little more than some cordage, some poles, and … a tarp.
And, if you’re that parent, you didn’t have to spend all afternoon piecing together pipe or arguing with your sewing machine.
With a little practice (and dry weather), you’ll have these down before your next camping trip, backpacking excursion, or backyard campout …
… and, the best part: you didn’t have to siphon off the beer budget shelling out for a store-bought.
As for mine, I sent my dilapidated teepee off to Big Agnes for repairs. It’s good as new and still my favorite.
Now, get out there!
Joshua DavisBeing outdoors is freedom! Being outdoors with my wife and two boys is LIVING! Whether in my backyard or getting lost in a National Park, there’s nothing I’d rather do than explore, discover, and experience the paradise that surrounds us. Give me my family, a backpack, and a trail and my life is full!
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