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10 Creative Ways to Use a Camping Tarp on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

When searching through comprehensive camping gear checklists or outdoor adventure must-haves, you’ve surely stumbled across repeated calls for a tarp. And for good reason!

A camping tarp is such a versatile piece of equipment that can provide shelter, protect you in survival situations, and add a little extra fun to your camping trip.

Keep reading to discover ten creative ways to use your camping tarp on your next outdoor expedition!

A blue camping tarp providing shade from sun or rain.

What You Need

There are tons of camping tarps out there in different sizes, shapes, and colors to suit your needs.

The kind of tarp you choose is up to you. Regardless of specifics, your camping tarp will certainly come in handy for both expected and unexpected reasons.

Though most camping tarp structures and creations are simple, you might need a few extra items to bring your ideas to life, including:

If you’re a frequent outdoor adventurer, it’s likely you already have all these items in your camping gear.

For Shelter and Safety

1. Lean-to Set-up

One simple but useful camping tarp setup is the lean-to.

It’s so effective and easy to set up that it’s often used as an emergency shelter. It can be constructed very quickly and virtually anywhere.

But even without an emergency, a lean-to is a great shelter for storing gear, protecting you from adverse weather, or even sleeping.

It makes for decent wind protection and is excellent at facilitating rainwater runoff.

And if you want to be particularly sun safe on your outdoor adventure, the angled tarp does wonders for blocking harmful afternoon rays.

Depending on your desired outcome, there are several different styles of lean-tos, but the most basic lean-to can be assembled from your camping tarp, some stakes, bungee cord, and trekking poles.

Tether one end of your camping tarp to the ground with your stakes, use your poles to hoist up the other end, and then secure it with the bungee cords.

2. Shade Sail

The next creative way to use your camping tarp is to create a shade sail.

Like the lean-to, a shade sail is a very basic, easy-to-construct shelter that keeps you safe from sun, wind, and rain.

However, this one is rigged a bit differently, and you’ll need some sturdy nearby trees to do it.

To set up your shade sail, you’ll take your camping tarp and some cord or rope and secure it tightly to a few trees, making sure to pull it taut.

How high off the ground you want to position your camping tarp depends on its purpose.

One popular, particularly creative use for the shade sail is to cover a hammock. This way, you have some extra protection from the elements while you lounge or nap!

3. Stretcher

Though, of course, no one wants to anticipate an accident or emergency when it comes to camping and outdoor activities, it’s always a possibility.

Nature, weather, and critters are unpredictable, which is part of their intrigue. However, this instability isn’t quite so enchanting when it comes to planning a camping trip.

Thankfully, a camping tarp can serve many purposes!

If you or someone in your party needs emergency medical attention, a camping tarp can substitute well for a stretcher.

With the sturdy camping tarp pulled taut and supported by some branches, poles, or durable cable, you can help the injured person stay safe off their feet.

4. Waterproof Layers

Speaking of fickle flora and fauna, even the best-laid weather-proof plans can go awry.

When it comes to waterproofing out in the wilderness, you can never do too much.

Luckily, camping tarps are notoriously waterproof and, in some cases, even water-repellant.

Not all waterproof layers are created equal. So if you find yourself in need of some extra armor against a random rainstorm, look no further than your camping tarp.

5. Body Bag Set-up

Don’t worry, this creative camping tarp setup isn’t nearly as morbid as it sounds.

When it comes to outdoor living, a body bag refers to a small, enclosed tent space that tightly surrounds a sleeping bag designed to keep in warmth and safety and keep out rain, wind, and critters.

In lieu of a tent, a camping tarp is a great alternative to set up a body bag shelter.

To do so, you’ll need your tarp, some sturdy rope or cord, a couple of stakes, and of course, your best sleeping bag.

String up your rope or cord taut between two trees and use your tarp and stakes to create an enclosed pyramid shape with a ground sheet.

Slide your sleeping bag in, and voila!

The body bag is particularly great for solo sleeping or staying safe from inclement weather.

6. Umbrella

Getting creative with your camping tarp doesn’t always have to happen in survival situations.

Maybe the sun is getting in your eyes while you’re trying to read outside at your campsite. There’s a camping tarp for that!

There’s no specific method or means to set up a camping tarp as an umbrella.

However, there’s a good chance you’ll need your tarp, some poles, and maybe some cord and rope to rig your tarp umbrella up as desired.

7. Collect Water

There are lots of different reasons why you might want to collect rainwater.

Reducing your ecological footprint, lowering your water bill, creating self-sufficiency, and establishing drought resilience are all great reasons to collect and store rainwater.

Regardless of your motive, a camping tarp can help you out.

Its waterproof, water-repellent qualities mean that a camping tarp can be used as either a holding pool or a conduit for rainwater.

If you’re interested in harvesting and reusing rainwater on the go, such as on a camping or RV trip, pairing your camping tarp with a collapsible rainwater collection barrel can produce some great results.

Rainwater itself is not potable, but it can be with a filtration system and appropriate treatment.

For Fun

8. Sails

With camping tarp sails, you can give your arms a break and let the wind do the work!

This particular creative camping tarp deployment is a bit more challenging than some of the other ideas in this list, but if done right, can make your dinghy voyage a bit more interesting.

Tarp sails will look a bit different depending on your boat type, what the weather is like, and what kind of body of water you’re cruising around.

But you’ll want your tarp sail to have some give to best harness the wind power and propel you along.

Though this may go without saying, camping tarp sails will not be effective or safe on a 60-foot charter boat or in a hurricane.

9. Raft

No boat? No problem!

With a camping tarp, some tree debris, a cord, and some chutzpah, you can build a tarp raft.

Weave some branches and leaves together to create a buoyant frame, secure the tarp around the frame with some cord, leave the steel-toed boots and barbecue grills on shore, and off you go.

As with the tarp sails, use your best judgment to determine if your circumstances are actually safe to lazy river away on a makeshift raft.

10. Observation Area

When it comes to camping and other outdoor adventures, some activities require stealth and others necessitate bright colors and heavy footsteps.

Observing wildlife typically falls under the former category, especially if you’re looking to photograph, record, or draw wildlife and want to witness them for an extended period of time.

As such, you’ll need some effective camouflage as well as a safeguard against potentially dangerous encounters.

A camping tarp can make a great camouflage structure from which to watch the wild world pass by.

Once you set up your body bag or A-frame style cover, use some leaves or light debris around you to blend your observation area into the surrounding wilderness.

Alternatively, you could also get your hands on a camouflage tarp or netting to do the assimilation job.

Either way, your structure is now part of the forest floor—slip on in and get observing!

Tying up the Tarp: Final Thoughts on Using Your Camping Tarp Creatively

A tarp set up to serve as a shelter in lieu of a tent.

The most important takeaway from this whole list is that camping tarps are an extremely useful piece of gear to have on your camping checklist.

Getting a little creative with your tarp and the other tools you have on hand can protect you from the weather, help ensure your safety, and add some extra fun to your outdoor adventure.

For more information on honing your survival skills, check out our guide to Camping In Uncharted Territory.