Tent Footprint 101: Why Your Tent Needs One

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If you are new to outdoor adventures, you are probably wondering; what is a tent footprint? Often referred to as a ground tarp, it adds a layer of protection to the bottom of your tent. Seasoned backpackers seldom forego the extra protection a tent footprint provides.

Within the hiking community, good backpacking gear is essential for every outdoor adventure. Backpacking shelters such as tarps, tents, or hammocks, are necessary 0n long multi-day trekking adventures. This is especially true during unpredictable weather conditions or insect prone areas to ensure a good night’s sleep.

people enjoying in the tent

When considering whether to add a tent footprint to your backpacking gear, there are several things to look at. How important is a tent footprint to pitching a tent? Is a tent footprint worth the extra cost, weight, and space required in your backpack? Is there a cheaper alternative if its price range is beyond your budget?

What Is a Tent Footprint?

A tent footprint is a lightweight but durable ground tarp spread out on the tent site before putting up the tent. It serves as both a moisture barrier and an extra layer of protection to prevent damage to the bottom of your tent from the rough ground.

Sharp sticks and stones left on the ground can puncture a tent’s floor cover if not removed before setting up the tent. Sure, clearing the tent site before putting up the tent helps. But removing all the debris is tedious work to make it safe for the tent. It is also frustrating to find leftover sharp sticks and stones puncturing the tent floor even after clearing.

For some people, tent footprints are just additional baggage. However, if you value your gear and do not want to damage the floor of your tent, tent footprints are worth the extra weight and space.

Benefits of Tent Footprints

Tent footprints may come with the tent when purchased. They also can be sold separately. Generally, tent footprints serve the following practical uses.

Extend the Life of the Tent

Tent floor groundsheet fabrics are seldom durable enough to withstand repeated adverse ground conditions. And since most tent floors are sewn-in, continual damage can render the entire tent unusable. Replacing a worn-out tent footprint is far easier and less costly than replacing the whole tent itself. To save more on your investment, you must invest in additional protection.

Extra Cushion

You can’t always be sure about the flooring conditions where you will set up your tent. For senior hikers, it can be a real pain in the back, literally. Having an additional ground layer means additional cushion from the hard ground. It may not be comfy, but a tent footprint helps keep your back off the hard ground covered in small rocks or forest debris. In addition, crawling in and out of the tent on your knees benefits from this added layer of protection.

Added Warmth

A tent footprint provides additional insulation from the damp and cold ground. It keeps the underside of the tent dry and reduces the amount of body heat lost by sleeping on the ground. In cold weather, heat loss makes the body more prone to hypothermia. Adding an extra layer between the ground and the tent makes you more comfortable by reducing this heat loss.

Waterproofing

Tent fabrics are generally waterproof. But they are usually made of thin materials and can wet through. When constantly exposed to wet and soaked conditions, the integrity of the fabric is compromised. It makes it more prone to punctures and to ripping. A tent footprint provides a waterproof barrier for the bottom of your tent. This prevents ground moisture and water from seeping under the tent floor.

Dirt Protection

Hiking gear can get really messy, smelly, and dirty. This is especially true for tents in contact with the ground. Soil, mud debris, sticky tree sap, and other grime on the tent floor can stain the tent. In addition, mold can grow on the tent floor if it constantly gets wet and doesn’t dry out completely.

Because of its size, it can be a pain to clean and scrub the dirt and debris attached to the tent floor. A tent footprint reduces the accumulation of dirt, mud, and the possibility of stains.

You can pack the tent footprint separately away from the body of the tent and clean it afterward. For example, I throw mine in the washing machine to clean it when it gets dirty. If tree sap sticks to the bottom of the footprint, I can clean it with solvent and not worry about compromising the integrity of my tent floor.

Positions Tent Perfectly

Sometimes, it is hard to estimate whether a certain spot will perfectly fit the tent or not. It is also likely you will find obstacles remaining on the ground after you have already staked and set up your tent. Tent footprints make it a little less daunting with the guesswork in planning.

You can lay the footprint on the ground before setting up your tent. This way you can make sure no debris is poking through. It is much easier to lift up the footprint to remove obstacles remaining on the ground before finishing your tent setup.

In group settings, footprints are especially useful when pitching multiple tents. They can be laid out and positioned at various angles no as not to crowd each other or compromise privacy.

Easier to Pack Up and Clean

Packing up can get messy when the campgrounds are wet. Packing a wet and muddy tent is the least favorite thing that hikers want. With tent footprints, packing is a breeze since the topside of the tent groundsheet is protected, clean, and dry. Items can be staged on the footprint prior to placing in the backpack.

It is also easier to deal with the mess of smaller and easy-to-handle tent footprints than actual tents. I fold the dirty side together so that the clean side remains clean. Then I can place in in the mesh compartment on the outside of my backpack along with my rain jacket.

Compact, lightweight tent footprints and ground tarps are often made of waterproof nylon fabric for easy cleaning. Many, like mine, can be thrown in the washing machine when I get home.

Versatile

The fast fly setup, a rainfly shelter without the inner tent body, is easier if a footprint is available. The footprint properly positions the tent poles for attaching the rain fly.  You can use this as a sunshade or shelter from light rain.

A fast fly setup is a convenient option when inclement weather and insects are not a concern. DAKOUT Gear makes is a versatile tent footprint accessory you can use within the vestibule as a doormat and place to set your boots and backpack.

Considerations in Choosing a Tent Footprint

Knowing what a tent footprint is and how it makes backpacking a breeze makes you seriously consider investing in one. But tent footprints are not created equal and vary according to your needs. If you are using it for backpacking, lightweight fabrics are ideal. Thicker deniers are the best when you intend to use them for car camping.

The cost and fabric quality, the weight you are willing to carry, and other matters must also be taken into account. Before buying a tent footprint, understand the following considerations.

Size

A tent footprint is ideally 2 inches smaller than the outline of the tent. This will prevent the rain from collecting on the edges and pooling under the tent.

Like Big Agnes, most tent manufacturers have a footprint specifically designed to custom-fit each specific model. This means that current model year footprints may not fit older model tents. When buying a footprint, make sure to select the right size for the tent model. You can find many of these different brand footprints in REI with universal sizes to fit different-sized tents.

Fabric

Tent footprint fabrics vary, but polyethylene is the most common since they are durable and easy to clean. The fabric denier refers to the weight or density of the fabric fibers. A higher denier fabric increases its durability.

Footprints with higher denier numbers are thicker and more durable. Backpackers often prefer tent footprints that are 30-denier or higher for longer use and higher abrasion resistance.

Weight

The weight of tent footprints corresponds to the fabric denier. Thus, high-denier footprints are heavier. Therefore, this increases the overall weight of your backpacking tent. Depending on its construction and the fabric used. a footprint can increase your shelter system’s weight by up to 18%.

Ultralight backpackers who want to cut their base weight often resort to DIY tent footprints. They can be custom-made using Sil Nylon or Dyneema fabric, Tyvek home wrap, or Polycryo plastic cut to fit each individual tent.

Camping Terrain

Any tent or footprint fares well in a sandy or grassy campsites. But for a trekking adventure in wilderness settings, you will need a sturdy ground tarp or footprint. Rough terrain, adverse ground conditions, and forest debris may unfavorably impact your expensive tent. To keep its tent floor protected, a sturdy and weather-resistant tent footprint is a must.

Cost

The price range of tent footprints varies greatly among tent manufacturer brands and fabric deniers. A decent price could start from $20 to $80 and up to a hundred dollars, depending on the size. For example, the Red Camp Ultralight tarp starts at around $18 or $0.54/sq ft.

Red Camp features a variety of ultralight footprint options for your tent. If you are buying tent footprints, it is advisable to check the size of your tent and adjust for a 2-inch difference.

When using store-bought tent footprints, read the product manuals on how to use them properly. Some groundsheets feature grommets, buckles, and clips that easily connect to the tent. Clean and dry them well before storing them to make these groundsheets last a long time.

man pinning down a waterproof nylon blanket for resting on the grass

DIY Tent Footprint

Groundsheets or footprints are a necessity in extended backpacking adventures. But, high-quality ready-made footprints can be costly as well as heavy and bulky. If you want to lighten the base weight of your backpack, then make your own footprints with these reliable materials.

Tyvek footprint is one of the most foolproof and reliable materials for DIY footprints. It is made of high-density polyethylene fiber that is lightweight, durable, and water-resistant. Tyvek is often used for wrapping a building during construction. However, it works well as ground cover for backpacking.

Polycryo is another cost-effective substitute for tent groundsheet. It is lighter than Tyvek and good for long-distance hiking, especially for senior backpackers. Gossamer Gear polycryo sheets may be light, but it is tough for its weight to resist micro-tears and abrasions.

Tarp is the cheapest yet bulkiest among Tyvek and polycryo. But it is still thinner than standard tent footprints. It is the most durable and tear-resistant groundsheet that can withstand weather and camp conditions. Since it is thinner than footprints, it may not offer the same comfort, but it protects the expensive tent well.

Takeaway

When heading for an outdoor adventure, basic skills, safety awareness, and emergency techniques are important. The right gear is also necessary. Proper backpacking equipment is essential for both enjoyment and even survival.  Weather can change in an instant. Your shelter system ensures you will not succumb to the elements.

For senior hikers planning backpacking adventures, tent footprints are gear you should not leave behind. More than tent protection, one should not underestimate the comfort the right footprint can provide.

What Is a Tent Footprint: FAQ

Do you have to purchase the footprint sold by the tent manufacturer?

Most tents have their own footprint designed to pair with them. Often they connect with clips or buckles directly to the tent body or rainfly. However, many tent manufacturers don’t include them with the original purchase. They must be purchased separately as an add-on.

Why is it important for the tent footprint to match the size of the tent?

Most footprints are designed to match the dimensions of a specific tent’s floor. When you use a footprint, you don’t want it to be too big and extend past the rainfly, or rain can accumulate and puddle along the edges of your tent. So, finding the right size is important for keeping your tent clean and dry.

What is the difference between a tent footprint and a tarp?

A tent footprint and tarp both protect the bottom of your tent. They also provide insulation from moisture and cold weather. Tent footprints are more expensive, cut and shaped for the tent, and are lighter than tarps. Tarps will require a certain degree of customization for them to fit properly. They also offer great protection and are durable but much heavier.

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